About Mark Stelzner
With over 25 years of HR transformation experience, Mark has worked for organizations of every size and vertical. He has spent his career fostering relationships through attention to detail, natural curiosity and a self-deprecating sense of humor. Mark's superpower is distilling large amounts of information into the key points that matter. He is also the founder and the managing principal at IA. A highly sought after voice in the industry, Mark has been featured by the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Forbes, CNN among others.
We have the pleasure of welcoming Mark Stelzner today to our interview series. I'm Aishwarya Jain from the peopleHum team. Before we begin just a quick introduction of peopleHum - peopleHum is an end to end one view integrated Human Capital Management Automation Platform. The Winner of 2019 Global Codie Award for HCM that is specifically built for crafted employee experiences and the future of work. We run the peopleHum blog and the video channel which receives upwards of 200,000 visitors every year and publishes around two interviews with well known names globally every month.
Welcome Mark, we are thrilled to have you.
Oh, thank you for having me, thrilled to be here looking forward to the conversation.
Our pleasure Mark.
So I'm gonna begin with asking you a little bit about your interesting work at IA.
Sure, of course. So we were an HR Transformation Consultancy. I founded the firm 14 years ago, and honestly, I just have the great pleasure of working with some of the world's most complex and diverse organizations. Our media and client is the 75,000 person enterprise.
Our largest client has 500,000 employees. But regardless of size or complexity or geography, one thing that is unifying all of our clients around the world is just the appetite for change, whether changes being imposed externally or internally.
What we do is we offer a variety of services to meet these organizations exactly where they are. From a strategic standpoint, many of our clients are looking to design their HR operating models to determine their prioritization.
What are their key careabouts in a given year? And to justify and substantiate a business case for some material change or modification to HR generally. Others are looking for our assistance as an independent agnostic advisor to help them select the best fit providers among the tens of thousands of storied, incapable service providers that can activate their vision for change, including contract negotiations, relationship management, and the like.
Yet others are looking for us to assist them with continuous improvement to help foster change management to help think about project execution, to think about anything associated with process improvement. And really, what's unique about us is we're fiercely independent firms.
We derive no revenue directly or indirectly from the HR service provider community. We closely partner of course with all the service providers that our clients might entertain. But we truly are an independent, trusted voice to really accelerate the opportunities that each of our clients have identified.
That is wonderful work and I'm sure you're kind of revolutionizing the entire, you know, sector out there. And, you know, with your experience you really must've kind of brought in a lot of insights and then applied them and seeing your visions, you know, come to reality, which is just so amazing if you think about it and you know...
What's the most transformational thing you've seen occurring in the HR space today. Is it driven by tech or just a renewed focus and human resource as a function?
Yeah, it's a little bit of both. I'll give you maybe two examples that I think your audience might appreciate. One is certainly tech-enabled and tech-related, which is the unification of the employee experience. And, you know, the employee experience has been bandied about for some time. I think if you have a buzzword bingo card, you can definitely stamp it now on today's call. But really, we say that every experience is an employee experience.
And when we talked to large, complex organizations, they've spent years and decades really trying to create differentiated value propositions across talent acquisition, talent management, their core HR services, shared service delivery, total rewards, payroll, any combination therein and the challenge they're now finding is how did they unify all of that content into a context that's really relevant to the individual?
It's recognizing that every person that works for an organization is unique as a snowflake if you will, so how do we take all of these, content into context, put it into moments that matter that relate to not only personal but also professional development and create an experience that unifies that so that you, as an employee, don't have to have 30 different apps across your HR value chain on your phone.
You don’t have to remember how to log in and everything and in what context do I seek which environment, there really is a rush now to bring ‘using tech’, of course, Hi-tech and Hi-touch all of these experiences together into one common front door, leveraging every possible medium.
The other thing we're seeing, which is much more transformative across HR, is a migration from the age-old war for talent, which we've been talking about for quite some time. You know, how do you find the best talent to now something that's really quite different, which is the war for skills? And at IA We've been performing a lot of research this year, focusing on really the move from talent to skills. Now they're inextricably linked and they're connected.
But when we talk about the war for skills, how do we identify in a common language that we can apply globally the exact skills that we're attempting to assemble to effectuate work and if you think about it, if I talk about, let's say the notion of python, right? If you work for a zoo, that's very different than if you're a programmer, right?
How do we use the right language for the right individuals? And there are a lot of bodies around the world that are trying to break down the barriers between talent acquisition and talent management and HCM today to say, listen, when we move someone through their journey, we started with a candidate. They're gonna self attest. They're gonna use their own language for skills.
When you enter an organization, the organization's gonna have their own taxonomy. We then create a talent profile where you're allowed to talk about all the wonderful things that the organization didn't ask you about, that's back to your own language.
So because of this, it's really both the technology opportunity, but it's literally more so how do we have to find a common language of what we actually care about? And this organization starts to project forward for the next 3 to 5 years.
How did they deconstruct and identify what technology really has skills through artificial intelligence and machine learning and the place of the human and how humans are assembled in a skill centric organization. So those are a couple of the initiatives that we're working on right now.
Wow! that's really amazing and a lot of things integrated into one. And, you know, when you talk about tech being sort of an enabler in this entire process, and I was also talking to Frida Polli from Pymetrics. Uh, and you know, what she was trying to say is that...
We're trying to eliminate bias, using AI & ML. I think a lot of people are very afraid or reticent to use such technology because they think that you just cannot remove bias, you know, from technology because they are essentially mimicking human behavior. What is your take on this?
Yeah. I mean, I tend to agree if we think about it. You know, those that develop these programs, we all come with our unique perspectives and inherent biases, whether we like to admit it or not. So part of it is what is your point of entry. And when we look at machine learning, how is the algorithm written, what do we reward, what guide passer processes, are building upon one another.
So if we don't understand the foundation that these systems are using, and we don't understand how bias could potentially accelerate or be exacerbated through exponential growth through the notion of machine learning.
When I think about what I mentioned in this notion of the war for skills, let's go back to the candidate experience just by virtue of example, if I know that the talent acquisition module or system its first task is to filter and to prioritize the candidate based on the information that's input.
I don't think candidates are really situationally aware of how much their language really matters, that if they chose the wrong word, the word that is not rewarded, not recognized, not prioritized, trying to map to the qualifications and desired skillsets within a requisition or a job posting, that the algorithm may actually push them down, right, may either eliminate them and disposition as nonviable or may push them down relative to other candidates who happen to choose the right language.
So as much as yes, there's a lot of Tech here. We also think about education and information to put everyone in a position of strength, to be able to use this as a guided, enabling process, not one that exacerbates issues that I think we've been worried about for years and years and years.
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. So you can use tech, you can use algorithms, but you need to keep other things in perspective as well and not lose the human touch out there because you might be handling some bias in that situation.
And, you know, there are so many HCM and platforms out there. You have the legacy ones, which are a little more complex to use and takes a lot of training to kind of understand, And you have the newer generation HCM platforms that are trying to build a faster and more intuitive UI or UX.
What is your take on new generational HCM platforms that are coming up? Do you think they’re really helping the recruitment and the HR industry?
Yeah. I mean, I think there's so much research and development, so much innovation and the pace of actionable information, release management, you know, we tell our clients if you're coming from a legacy, on-premise solution and you're moving into the cloud for the very first time or moving into the cloud holistically. Yes, there will be a high five moment where you go alive and you're excited in your configuration is in production.
But you have to remember that the implementation is never over and we can get justice behind in the cloud as we could on-premise, with the great releases and innovation and capabilities across the entire employee life cycle that HCM providers are investing in. In fact, it's like you're leasing a car, but you never take the car back to the shop to get the new feature installed. That's what we’re at risk of happening in the HCM world.
We have to spend a lot of time in organizations talking about readiness for continuous improvement; how we're going to adopt and absorb the great innovations and changes, what is important, and what's the prioritization? How are we going to decide when new features are released by these HCM providers?
What we want to activate in what context and when? And how do we ensure that we don't get 18 months behind? Yes, it's a single code base, but we also know that a lot of the futures are turned off. And so if you're not taking advantage of that lease, you're spending money, real capital, real operating expenses, and something that you're not creating value from, that really turns your return on investment on its head.
Certainly, there's a lot of wonderful things that tech’s doing, but if you're not ready internally, you're gonna miss the opportunity to really thrive.
Yeah, that is true.
And when we talk about all these things that are so Tech related or so HR-related, um, we have seen that over years, there has been a lot of adoption of technology, but in your career lifetime have you seen a drastic shift from being very people-centric to being Tech centric to actually being people plus tech centric? Have you seen that shift?
Absolutely. I mean, I've been around a long time. That's why I look like I look. But, you know, at the end of the day, I've seen various levels of tech advancement and retraction and one of the things that I think is fascinating about this unfortunate moment that we find ourselves in under the global pandemic, is people are centering back to what's important to them.
And certainly, we've talked about work-life balance. But this has forced most of the globe to rapidly break down all of the barriers between work and life. Right?
We understand our children's education perhaps more than we ever have before as we're homeschooling, right, with help and guidance from our wonderful schools and universities. We're understanding exactly what it means to have to activate and be intentional about reaching out to others through platforms such as what we're on today.
We understand what it means to be quiet, right? To take time, to be quiet and to think and to prepare our thoughts, many of which are kind of antithetical to the notion of our work environment. Right? We go into a work environment, it can be noisy, you can find a quiet spot to hide, you're in high demand. You're constantly working with people and organizations that never thought that they could support remote work. Well, look where we are today, right out of necessity versus design, in many cases, we're all sitting from our homes and able to collaborate today.
So the question that I have now is certainly technology has been part of this new journey, but so has everything else. We found our hobbies again. We maybe found our love for cooking or love for reading or our love for writing, right? Again, maybe out of necessity, more so than design.
So we come back into the work environment. Tech is always part of everything that we use. It's part of enabling the kind of communications and connectivity that we expect as modern humans. But the real question I have for employers is how will work work, right? Will we be able to draw boundaries as we've tried to between work life and home life? Because now they're connected. They're connected in a way that I think most people are struggling to turn work off, just like we can never turn our home life off.
So what I'll be fascinated to watch is how do organizations not only respond to this new environment but what position do they take from both a policy perspective and from a permissioning perspective to embrace much more flexible work environments and "How technology can be used to constantly connect with your employees but perhaps connect in a different way and with different expectations. "
So I think it's gonna be a really, really interesting time. We're in an unprecedented time in many respects. But as we start to return to work, hopefully in the next several months, um, you know how organizations behave and how they set expectations I think will be quite different.
Absolutely. We just have to wait and watch and see how this unfurls. You will get to see a lot of different kinds of dynamic around the entire workplace situation. There is a lot of anticipation of things are changing around so many verticals and so many areas that consists in the workplace itself, right?
And with respect to leaders, let's say in specific HR leaders, o you think that there is something that they should be following right now to have their teams, have the workplace engaged as such at this moment?
Yeah. I mean, I think it starts with empathy and understanding and modified expectations and what's been fascinating, having been in HR for my entire career is watching how HR leaders have really stepped into the spotlight at this moment.
Those that have really differentiated themselves have not only focused on the grace and care that's necessary to support those that were unfortunately displaced, be it temporary through furloughing or perhaps permanent displacement.
As organizations naturally are having to retract in most cases certainly there are exceptions to this and focus on their essential means of surviving, right, and thriving again in the future, bringing those employees back. And as I talked to those that have been unfortunately displaced, temporarily or permanently, they're never gonna forget how they were treated, right?
They're never gonna forget for good or for bad, how they were treated at this moment by their managers, by senior leadership, by HR and where choices existed, where HR could actually work with leadership and think about how to help these people through a glide path to safely thrive again, perhaps in another work environment, and to get the cure they needed from, you know, their governmental support programs that are available and statutory programs that are offered.
Those have been very emotional moments I think for all employees and regardless of whether employees were displaced or not, I think HR is really stepping into the spotlight and owning this moment. I think what's really critical now, as we move forward, is that we don't lose this focus of this human connection.
Um, you know, this has been the great connector and the great stabilizer, regardless of your income, your occupation, where you are frankly in the globe, no one's immune to what has touched us, so it is actually an opportunity to bring us all together. But we also have to recognize the inequity that exists in our population and what we're going to do to really care for all people, regardless of where they were relative to our employment.
So HR has this unique moment now and HR Leaders and CHROs, and people leaders have a great opportunity to really convey a change in environmental expectations and a change in engagement. It kind of relates to our prior conversation on the question we just discussed, which is, what does engagement really mean now? When we think about this notion of engagement and culture, you know. Culture, you can't just declare that we are like this, right? Every employer will roll their eyes. They'll know the reality that if you declare something that's purely false, it's not something that's really gonna be defensible. It's demonstrated.
Organizations, they're super complex organisms. And in fact, if you were to break down any large company, there's micro-cultures and microorganisms that make up the entire body of these global organizations all the way down to individual co-worker relationships and individual managerial relationships, departments, facilities, you name it. And so if we correlate engagement to the discretionary effort, meaning we want, we want employees to give more of themselves to our organization and be able to not only demonstrate value to us but for them to feel fulfillment. What are we going to do about this moment now to really lead from the front and talk about engagement at the individual level, not at the organizational level.
The organization can establish guideposts of what we expect and what we allow and how we intend to behave. We have to hold the organization accountable to those attested expectations as individual employees. But what latitude do we create to recognize the very individual humans that comprise each of these micro-entities and microorganisms that are part of these micro-cultures?
So there is no one answer, and I think at times our temptation as people professionals is to try to paint the world with one too many message that we think is going to apply to everybody.
And what I'm finding now, is this need for micro-targeting, to really try to think about the unique attributes of you as an individual, you know? Where are you in your career? What are your aspirations? What are the opportunities in front of you and how do I create a unique means of engagement that is purely and solely defined by one person? I don't think we're there yet, right?
And part of this is tech and the tools that can certainly give us the information that we need. But if we want true engagement, let's focus on the person. Let's not focus on the organization. I think that's the great challenge and a great opportunity in front of us.
Absolutely, workplaces are living, creating ecosystems, and when you think of it, it's really your people that matter ultimately those that create and comprise your ecosystem. And this also is complex, HR transformational lifecycle, kind of a very different situation. And, you know, as you said that HR is kind of front people, they’re the ones who are guarding the gates of organizations.
Do you think that they should also portray an image of the organization out to the world, project what the organization is doing at this point in time to the other people who are looking at organizations and questioning what is it that these organizations are doing at this point in time? Um, that HR would take up the function of also portraying that image outside?
Yeah, I mean, I think that's the burden and function of all leaders, right? So HR doesn't carry that mantle uniquely or solely, as you know, sort of the culture police or the cultural culture presenter. And I think that's where HR potentially gets in trouble, right? That if HR is the only leader and the only portion of the culture that actually can demonstrate a clear and concise and viable and consumable message, then it's not a real representation of who the organization is.
I think employees are smarter at times than maybe what their employers give them credit for. People pay attention to details. I mean, words really matter. There is a big difference between surviving in an organization and thriving.
There is a really big difference between what people say and what people do and what's really sustainable, in my opinion, is if you have aspirational goals as an organization, one of the most human things that you can acknowledge is that your imperfections and where you have opportunities for improvement.
Think about people you've developed a meaningful relationship with. Part of that is showing vulnerability and focusing on transparency, right? When you really feel like you get to know someone is when they say something that surprises you, something that exposes their imperfections, that exposes their self-awareness and is really connecting with you on a human level, no one's perfect, no company’s perfect, it doesn't exist.
So what if instead, we were more transparent about the fact that aspirationally this is who we aspired to? Here's where we think we're doing fairly well, but we've got work to do.
And if you think about the organizations right now, they're being held, as is really wonderful examples, these organizations that have a sense of community, these organizations that have a sense of purpose, they may have foundations or causes that they're asking their employees to donate their discretionary extra time, they may be taking their financials and taking a percentage of that and putting them in the movements that matter, that really can change the world. Those are important considerations.
As individuals, we're trying to choose where they spend their time in their careers. All we have is our time, and we spend more of our work time, more of our life at work than in any other activity, more so at home. Except for now, of course, when it's all one. But, you know, in a more typical environment that's in fact actually true. So as leaders, right?
We're all communicators, we're all responsible through verbal and nonverbal communications of carrying that mantle and speaking that truth. So HR can certainly be one of the messengers. But HR actually has to also be the chief listener, right? So as much as the temptation is for us to be the talking head. It's our job to also listen and listen to what's unsaid. Sometimes what's unsaid is louder, much, much louder and needs to be amplified more so than what we actually hear.
And to the extent that part of our task is to capture the information and to encourage a means of capturing feedback in the space that has psychological safety. I mean, this notion of psychological safety is so fascinating, where there will not be retribution.
You say you really want to hear what I have to say, but do you really want to hear what I have to say, right? Or is this gonna come back in my performance review or some feedback or hit me or limit my ability to certainly grow in this organization.
Those are things we can help with and when there isn't a space in the C suite for others to listen, then it's time for us to raise our voices and be that advocate for those who are voiceless and do not have that audience with those that are making those decisions in shaping the future of these organizations. So I know I've said a lot in there. There's a lot to unpack and a lot to focus on. But there still is a continuous opportunity for us to really reshape and reestablish our role throughout the enterprise.
Absolutely. And that's beautifully said, sometimes you really have to read between the sheets rather than listen to whatever's being told to you and maybe once you process it, you'll realize that there are just so many things that you missed out on and you could improve that, which makes absolute sense to me.
And, you know, in the future, do you see this whole concept of the gig economy, the millennial workforce? Do you see that still going to prevail? Is that still going to be on the rise? What's your take on that?
Absolutely. I mean, if we think about the last recession, which, we didn't think we'd be here this quickly. We'll call it a recession now, I'm not an economist, but I think that's where we are. But during the last recession, you know, prior to that, organizations beyond their FTE's or full-time equivalents, employees, they typically had maybe a 20% uplift in gig or contract or contingent workers.
So if you had a 100,000 employees, you might have upwards of 20,000 gig or contingent workers. In today's environment because of what happened right, lot of people got fired, lot of people got pushed out, organizations got small, got really small.
The work didn't change, but the workload did. Organizations tried to establish a different, more fluid workforce where they would dynamically assemble workers through the use of the gig economy. And these might be large assemblies of gig workers through contract organizations. Or it might be recognizing the unique individual. Organizations said,
'Listen, I don't have to go through what we went through last time. I don't have to eliminate 30% or 40% or 80% of my full time employees. What if, instead, we created an environment where we can assemble skilled individuals through the gig economy. We can bring them in, they can support a project. And then, of course, we can cast them free, and maybe we reassemble them again, cast them free.'
The gig worker, of course, can potentially support a multitude of projects and employers without necessarily having to declare fidelity to just one organization. And that's where we found ourselves now. So where is, let's say, in 2008-09 you might have seen a 20%, we’re now seen anywhere between 50 and a 150% of the total employee's population represented through the contingent population.
And if you think about what I talked about earlier on this notion of the war for skills, the organization of the future may have this notion of what we call a fluid workforce. So if you break down, forget the supervisory hierarchy that we're stuck with today, right, where it's the pyramid and everyone reports to everybody that's not really reflective of how work gets done. So if organizations know that they're individuals, individuals have various levels of attested or verified skills.
Those individuals need to be assembled in teams. Teams need to effectuate work. Work needs to be deployed and then the teams scatter. We re-skill, we rest, we reassemble, we deploy, we-re skill, we rest…And that’s how the cycle is representative of how work is actually done today and how work will be done in the future.
Our technology systems are not quite there yet to be able to support the assembly and the notion of you sitting side by side as a gig worker with a full-time equivalent for the sake of a project and lending yourself 10% here, 8% there, 4% there, 20% there….this notion of the gig economy, I think, is coming into organizations now for their actual employees which is, how do I break down my work product?
No one really works; very few people work a 100% in one task reporting to one individual. And that's how their workday works. We all part of a much more dynamic organizational structure. So what's coming, in my opinion now, is this dynamic fluid workforce, whether it be gig workers, contract laborers, part-time employees, full-time employees, retirees, alumni it doesn't matter what we call them.
But the idea is that we will need skilled individuals to be brought together to effectuate work, some of whom will have to go re-skill because the skills requirements will change and they will come back in a different form and so on and so forth.
And it's quite possible that the only supervisory relationships that exist in the future work are at the C suite. They're the only employees. Maybe everyone is a gig worker in the future of state, and we're not too far away from that in certain industries or in an organization.
So I think that's around the corner. So no, the gig economy is not going anywhere, and I think these elastic work environments are going to start to become much more prevalent.
That's really interesting the way you put it, you know? And if you go to think about it, every employee in the organization is kind of like a gig worker because they are definitely spread across various projects, and they're just not doing one thing.
It's just so dynamic. And I think the lines are really getting blurred in newer organizations where you can do sales but you can also do marketing. You know you have the freedom to really experiment and that that itself could be a definition of gig as such. Yeah, that's very thought-provoking. Actually, that's food for thought, and that could be a reality.
Well, and in certain industries, for example, so you know, you talk about this notion of the future of work, right? Well, it's kind of like, the employee experience, like employee engagement like whatever we want it to be. But because of the fluidity of work and the future of work is gonna be very different for very different organizations.
So let's say, for example, you're a long haul trucking company. You package your goods, you put them in big trucks and you move them across the geographic surface. Well, autonomous driving is coming, so certainly the regulatory bodies have to approve it.
But technologically, we're getting very close to autonomous driving. And if you picture the back of a truck, the payload of a truck, it's perfect for solar panels. Right? So you could have solar panels on the actual payload. You could have autonomous driving. They wouldn't need gasoline or fuel. They could basically move across the country. But now there's a moment where I need a skilled worker. That might be a gig worker.
What's that moment? Well, I've reached a mountain pass, and it could be that the signal, the triangulation for autonomous vehicles, it gets the autonomous vehicle drives up. These are very, very specific examples of what the future of work might mean to the trucking industry. How gig workers, in the mountains jump out, jack in and go back over the mountain the other way. right?
So what the future of work means for trucking is very different from what the future of work means for health care, which is very different from retail and financial services and what we have. That's why I think context matters. And this notion of gig working skills, economy and engagement is gonna be quite buried around the world.
Absolutely. That is really, really insightful. And I think a lot of people are not aware or do not think in this direction but after listening to you they will.
Just to wrap up the conversation is there any advice or important sound bites that you'd like to leave our viewers with?
Yeah. Uh, I think it goes back to this notion of intention and this goes for everyone so as employees, we're even employed by ourselves as employees, being really intentional about owning our own career, right? Using your voice and using your choice to decide who you want to work for, in what context, to the extent that you have that freedom.
Not everyone has that freedom but when you have that freedom how do you exercise your rights as an individual and take advantage of these reflective moments that we find ourselves in, to be very intentional and very narrow and specific about what you want from your career and raise your hand early and often.
I think as people leaders, right? We need to recognize the fact that the work environment has changed completely and will change completely and again be very intentional about how we treat the individual with kindness, with grace, with care and what we bring back to this notion of going back to normal in what order to effectuate what outcome.
I think as broader leaders right, as C suite leaders or HR leaders, we need to think about what we actually expect as part of the future of work as it pertains to our organization. And how do we make it easier to consume the goods and services that HR offers, right?
To drive more considered mobility, more value generation, and again, be very intentional about what we communicate and the outcomes that we're responsible for driving and frankly, holding other people accountable for the portion of the message and the execution and the outcomes that they need to drive. So I think if we come in with our eyes open with candor, with transparency, with grace and with support for the individual human; the sky's the limit
...and this is what's been so exciting and I have been through so many cycles of change, not only with the organizations we have the good graces of serving but just as part of the HR function over the years that I am starting to get actually excited about what's to come right, there's a lot of work to do.
We're gonna break a lot of glass. We have to break a lot of norms and have to prepare ourselves to be ready for the change that's afoot. But if we can do it, which I think we can; the sky is really the limit, that's what gives me the energy every single day and why I show up.
But I really enjoyed our conversation today, so I wanted to thank you for really insightful questions and a great dialogue.
Oh, it's my pleasure. I had so much fun talking to you. It was so engaging and I’ve learned so many new things. You kind of brought a very different perspective of things which I haven’t really experienced before so I really, really appreciate you sharing your views with us and definitely appreciate your time. Thank you so much.
It's my pleasure. Have a great evening.
You too, bye, take care.