Episode 3

HR is not about HR, Professor Dave Ulrich, the Father of modern-day HR explains the role of 21st Century HR

In this wide-ranging interview, Dave Ulrich explains why HR professionals need to have a much better understanding of business strategy; spend much more time with a firm’s customers; spend less time hiding behind theoretical models; stand up and be counted when it comes to corporate misdemeanours; and how HR professionals should behave following the Covid-19 pandemic and the anticipated return to work.

About my guest

In this episode, Chris interviews Professor Dave Ulrich, the father of modern-day HR thinking and one of the world’s most respected business thinkers.

Transcript

[Chris]: Welcome to Oven-Ready HR. This is the podcast that aims to demystify and deconstruct HR best practises for the startup and SME sectors. This week’s episode considers whether the HR profession has an image and reputational problem, and if so, what can be done to fix it? Articles are still regularly published, decrying that not enough boards include a senior HR professional, but can you remember the last time you read a headline saying not enough chief finance, marketing, or technology officers had a board seat?
Joining me to discuss this topic is Professor Dave Ulrich, the Rensis Likert Professor of Business at the Ross School, University of Michigan, and a partner at The RBL Group, a consulting business focussed on helping leaders and organisations deliver value to their stakeholders. Dave Ulrich is widely considered as the preeminent HR thought leader of our time and the father of modern human resources, the author of over 30 books and countless articles and journals. Dave Ulrich has been called the world’s number one Management Educator. You may not have realised it, but you’re very likely to be working for an organisation shaped by Professor Ulrich’s thinking. Welcome, Professor Ulrich. How are you doing?
[Dave]: A little embarrassed by that introduction, Chris, but I’m doing well. Thank you for the privilege of chatting with you.
[Chris]: You’re most welcome. As I say, sort of interviewing you is rather than like having Steven Spielberg direct your movies. So, I’m delighted to have you on board. If you’re happy, we’ll just jump straight in with a few questions.
[Dave]: Absolutely. That would be terrific.
[Chris]: Perfect. So, for large corporates, the role of the chief people officer is often to be found at the executive board level, but my client-base is drawn really from the startup and SME sectors. Many of these organisations don’t employ a dedicated HR professional and either outsource the function or muddle through and roll up the various responsibilities into other positions. To me, it seems that these organisations are much more likely to employ a finance, marketing, or technology lead before an HR professional.
So, if it’s the saying goes, “the workforce is an organisation’s greatest asset,” why do you think HR has failed to make a greater impact in these organisations to employ the majority of the workforce?
[Dave]: Yeah. You know, my issue is not about saving an HR function. My issue is about helping a business be successful.
[Chris]: Okay.
[Dave]: And in that line, the thing I love to say is that HR is not about HR. It’s not about the function. It’s about helping a business succeed in the marketplace.
[Chris]: Okay.
[Dave]: People love to say, “Our people are our most important asset.” I actually think that’s wrong. I think our people are our customer’s most important asset. So, when a small-medium enterprise focuses on its people and organisation in ways that help the customer be more satisfied or successful and obviously buy more services or product, that’s good HR work. Final comment, in small-medium enterprises, I don’t think it’s necessary to have a chief HR officer because the head of HR is the founder of the company.
[Chris]: Okay.
[Dave]: And he or she who founds the company until you get—I don’t know the right number—200, 300, 400 people, the most critical decision they make was to get access to capital and ability to identify their market and focus. They got to get the right people. In a small company, you can’t hide. I mean, if you hire an incompetent, they’re going to create major difficulty for your customer.
[Chris]: Yeah.
[Dave]: So, I think I’m worried less about the HR person per se and more about HR issues around talent and leadership and organisation.
[Chris]: Okay. Interesting. This is hardly scientific, so bear with me, but yesterday I Googled, “Why do people hate HR?” And 57.6 million results came up, and even Forbes Magazine carried a piece that said, “Amongst other crimes, we were considered untrustworthy, we take the organisation’s side, and we’re often having trouble seeing the human side in our interactions with employees. There’s some obviously very good leaders out there, brilliant ones, and there’s a few bad apples too. But why have we got ourselves in this reputational mess, do you think?
[Dave]: You know, I just Googled, “Why people like HR?”
[Chris]: What results did you get?
[Dave]: 1 billion.
[Chris]: Oh, well done.
[Dave]: I think sometimes we judge HR by the legacy public perceptions. It’s a little bit–. There was an actor I really loved and enjoyed, Robin Williams.
[Chris]: Yeah.
[Dave]: He began his career playing Mork, this foreign figure on Happy Days. Again, I’m dating myself in horrible ways—
[Chris 00:04:57]: Oh, I understand.
[Dave]: –but he was a street comedian, and then he did Mork and Mindy.
[Chris]: Yep.
[Dave]: You forget, this guy was trained at Julliard.
[Chris]: Yep.
[Dave]: I mean, he and Chris Reeve were the only two actors accepted the year he got in. I think we judge Robin Williams by his creative humour, what he did early in his career, not by his repertoire of incredible acting ability. I think, sometimes, in HR, we judge HR by a legacy. I don’t know if the cartoon is shown in the UK as much—Dilbert. Which, and there’s cartoons and why I hate HR because HR touches every employee around benefits and payroll and administrative stuff. That kind of legacy view is really hard to overcome.
I think people wanted Robin Williams to play more Mork and even in his later career, and it created obviously emotional and other challenges for him. It’s interesting, one of those articles, I’ll tell you a quick, quick anecdote. It came out, I think, decades ago, and about every 12 to 18 months, it’s almost like a comedian wearing suspenders. A writer has to write the article, “Why I hate HR,” and everybody reads it and gets uptight.
In one of the early ones, “Why I hate HR,” I got invited to go on some international media thing. So, I’m standing on the corner in New York City, and the author of the article is in a studio, and they said to him, “What do you think?” He said, “I hate HR.” They said, “Professor, Dave, what do you think?” and I said, “I like HR.” They went to him and said, “What do you think?” He said, “I hate HR. I like HR. I hate HR.” It was the shortest and worst interview I’ve ever done.
[Chris]: We’ll try and make sure this one’s better.
[Dave]: Yeah. I mean, it just was completely stupid on my part and on the other person’s part.
[Chris]: Yeah.
[Dave]: Yeah, liking or hating a function is not very helpful, and I thought a lot about that. I thought, Oh, man, I hope nobody watches that because I made an absolute fool of myself.
[Chris]: It’s no big deal.
[Dave]: You don’t like a function. Who loves the finance function? Who says, “Oh my goodness, I’m going to walk by IT today and genuflect and show respect as I go by these great computer systems.
[Chris]: Yeah.
[Dave]: What you appreciate is the things they do that helped the company be successful in the marketplace. Finance gives access to capital. IT gives access to data and information. HR should give access to people and organisations in ways that help a company be successful in the marketplace.
[Chris]: But are you seeing that?
[Dave]: I think that is so critical today, and again, and I don’t know when people will listen to this. We’re coming out—
[Chris]: January.
[Dave]: –-and we live in recency of 2020, a horrible pandemic where I think in 2008 and nine, that was the financial and economic crisis in managing debt and cash flow and capital.
[Chris]: Yep.
[Dave]: This is the human crisis, the pandemic, and not just the pandemic. Social injustice in the United States and around the world, the refugee issue, political squabbles, going on economic turbulence, emotional uncertainty. I think this is a time when the HR issues become central for any business or HR leader.
How do I help my people? We’ve discovered three things believe, become, and belong. How do I help my people have a sense of belief? Do they find meaning? Do they find purpose in the work we do? How do I help them become better? Learn, grow, develop their talents and their skills and belong. Feel like we’re part of a community where the experience we have is helpful. Business and HR leaders together, I think, need to make that happen.
I hope your audience, almost everyone I know, can say, “Think of a company where you have experienced that—meaning purpose, becoming better, belonging. People stop, and they think, and their eyes light up and a small smile and go, “Wow, that was really cool. There was something magical.” In small-medium enterprises, it’s almost more likely to happen because the founder/owner can bring her or his personal agenda. This little kind of community exists, even in this big, bad ocean of change and difficulty. Anyway, I’m rambling, and I apologise.
[Chris]: It’s all right.
[Dave]: But I think this is an incredibly important time coming out of 2020 for the people and organisational issues to come centre stage.
[Chris]: Okay. So, if HR isn’t about HR, then it is about, as you say, success in the marketplace, and therefore, that’s defined ultimately by the consumer or the customer. Do you think that HR people understand business enough?
[Dave 00:09:50]: I love a simple concept called “the normal curve.” For some, yes, the top 20% do, and I can list those. I love to go say, “Well, look at these great HR people.” The bottom 20% don’t, and if you want to find some of that 20%, I’ll give you an address. I, frankly, don’t worry. I’m trying not to work. What I love to do is go find the top 20% and claim I helped make them that way. I didn’t. They were that way on their own.
[Chris]: Yeah.
[Dave]: I don’t really, and this is going to sound more rude than it is. I don’t want to spend enormous time on the bottom 20%. There are people in HR who are not prone to helping a business succeed. In every profession—finance, IT—there’s the laggards who just aren’t there, even in teaching or in podcasting.

[Dave]: I want to look at the 60%.
[Chris]: Sure.
[Dave]: And by the way, you can argue it’s not 60%, it’s 75. I’m not going to quibble with that. But what can I do to help those with good intent find ways to deliver more value to their company? And those are the ones that I hope are helpful. Again, not just HR leaders, since a lot of your audience are small-medium enterprises, business leaders. Are you really—you’ve got to go get money to build a business. No question. You’ve got to get products and services your customers value. No question. But are you getting the right people and systems and culture that will create something so that those customers get their services and products over time?
[Chris]: Sure.
[Dave]: So that’s the HR issues that I think are so critical.
[Chris]: Okay. I mean, I’ve got a podcast coming up actually in a couple of week’s time, which is the working title is “Why HR and Marketing Should Be Best Friends.” I mean, I think marketing obviously needs HR to deliver talent and programmes to increase engagement and thus fulfilled the brand promise that marketing has already made to the consumer. But I think we have a lot to learn from marketing, particularly in terms with how to build an employer choice of brand and actually, how to communicate with employees. Because I think sometimes, we’re not very good at that, and I think they have a few tricks to teach us.
[Dave]: Oh, I think marketing people have a lot of tricks. One, their handicap on the golf course is probably lower than ours. That’s a horrible stereotype. I confess I should not have said that, and I love your idea. I think, for example, a lot of us in HR talk about culture as our core values. The root of our tree. I think that’s wrong. My colleagues and I, our entire focus is culture is not the roots of the tree. It’s the leaves of the tree. It’s the brand. It’s the identity in the marketplace. Disney is known for something. So, when the opportunities are there outside of this pandemic, that identity in the marketplace pulls people to Disney. How do we build our HR systems against that outside expectation?
I think the marriage—I think there are multiple marriages. I think marketing and HR is a marriage. I think finance and HR. I think data and technology and HR. I think when you put these four Venn diagrams together—marketing, customer, outside, finance, economics, financial, access to capital, IT, access to data and information, and HR, people and organisation—at the intersection of those four circles is the customer. Magic can happen, and I guess that’s why I mentioned Disney. They can find characters that make our granddaughters, or your children just want to go back again and again and again.
[Chris]: Absolutely.
[Dave]: Google finds these incredible data analysts who are just remarkable. I was on the phone yesterday with someone from Amazon, and they have PhDs in AI and machine learning, and somebody’s got those people in who just make the things happen.
[Chris]: That’s incredible, though. Isn’t it?
[Dave]: Isn’t it amazing?
[Chris]: Yeah.
[Dave]: That when you can do that, good things seem to happen, and boy, do I hope HR can learn from marketing to communicate the value we create.
[Chris]: Yeah.
[Dave]: Not to measure ourselves by activity. I hired ten people. Well, this person got 40 hours of training. Eh, who cares? Were the ten people any good? Were the 40 hours of training helpful? That’s what marketing wants to do is to create success with customers.
[Chris]: But you see, and I think you’re right. What I do enjoy, particularly working with the clients that I have, is actually that I am so much closer to the end-user or the consumer or the customer of the product or service that actually is provided. Because I’m not in an ivory tower 200 miles away in a great big corporate headquarters, where I don’t know the people on the shop floor. I think it’s indicative of me to be an HR professional to actually know and to walk in other people’s shoes. I think how on Earth can I possibly understand the business if I don’t know that?
[Dave 00:14:54]: Oh, man, you and I–. In America, there is a tradition, and it’s probably uncouth, but it’s a high five that you slap hands with agreement. We would be high fiving right now. I think a lot of HR people need to be really versed on who is the customer? Why do they buy? Why do they buy from us? Why do they buy from our competitors? What is it we give them? Then the answers to those questions should be framing who do we hire? How do we pay people? How do we train people?
[Chris]: Exactly.
[Dave]: Because our people, again, our customer is most important asset. So, I like to encourage—again, I love specific kind of actions—that thoughtful HR people in that 60% spend like about a day a week with customers, either in their presence or their essence. Just find out what your customer is expecting. What do they want? And not just what they want, but what do they need for them to succeed?
[Chris]: Definitely. Yeah, absolutely, and if you move the dial just a tiny little bit on that 60%. So, you say the 20% are already doing it anyway at the very top. The bottom 20%, they’re going to be difficult to move, whatever you do. But that large percentage in the middle, let’s say that 60%, if you just moved it just a teeny bit to see what would happen.

[Dave]: Oh, and I think you’ll see companies that worked so hard to make that happen, and I hope your audience–. Again, if you’re in HR, don’t pretend you’re in HR. Pretend you’re in the business, and you go into a business leader. You don’t want to start by saying, “Oh, I’ll tell one quick story. I had a—” Because you alluded to it.
A couple of months ago, somebody came to me, and I went to lunch, and they said, “I got this latest app on employee experience. It’s so cool. It’s on my phone. It’s a mobile device. It’ll take pictures. It’ll do qualitative analysis about data and surveys, and it will give you an assessment up to date about the employee’s experience at work. They went about 15 or 20 minutes, just obviously enthused, and they said, “Would you like to help us with it?” I stopped, and I looked, and I said, “Why?” They go, “What do you mean why?” And I said, “Why should I help you with this?” “Because it’s the best measure of employee experience ever.” And I said, “So?” “But that’s good.” I said, “Why?” And I’ll finish the story. My advice to them–. By the way, I paid for lunch, and they never called back.
[Chris]: I’m sorry.
[Dave]: But my advice to them is don’t go to your business leader and communicate you’ve got the greatest app on employee experience. Sit down with a business leader and say, “How critical is it you to get your Net Promoter Score higher? To get revenue from targeted customers? What are you tracking? What are you measuring—market share, revenue from customers? Whatever the latest marketing tool is.
[Chris]: Yeah.
[Dave]: Would you like us to give you a way to improve that dramatically? By the way, if the business leader says no, then sells short, I mean, I’d get out. Of course!
[Chris]: Yeah.
[Dave]: We know that employee experience is a lead indicator of customer experience. We also know from hundreds of research studies that it’s about a two to one ratio. If I can increase employee experience ten points on whatever scale, 10%, I can get a 5% increase on customer experience. We know that employee experience is about a third of your Net Promoter Score. There is evidence out there. Let me work with you.
To me, if you’re in HR listening to this, I beg you, don’t go into your business leaders with the latest HR best practise. I think sometimes that’s dangerous. Oh, we’re going to do it because company X did it. No! We’re going to do it because it will help our company succeed in our marketplace.
[Chris]: So, do you think, sorry, but I might be being a little cheeky here, but do you think that people then have, so HR people have looked at the various models and you’re very well known for being produced on some of the most famous models that we all use. Do you think that we hide behind some of this theory at times, and that actually we miss the point slightly, and we miss the point of what you wanted us to get?
[Dave]: Yeah, that is so helpful, Chris, because you talk to a lot of people. I think sometimes we love to—I love the metaphor. We hide behind our wall of theory. I think in HR, we need to step out and take risks. I’ll be personal; I’m old now. When I started my career, I studied in undergraduate school English. I mean, my area of expertise was reading books. That’s not a particularly strong business area. It was tough. Then my Ph.D.’s in business, but I did a lot of organisation, HR organisation theory stuff. I had not had a course in finance, and to step out and say, “Help me understand some of these financial numbers.”
In fact, what I did is I was privileged at the university to teach with an exceptional professor of finance, and he got tired. My line to HR people is take a finance person to lunch. They’re probably lonely, pay for the lunch, and take an annual report, the income statement, the balance sheet, and say, “Teach me these numbers.”
[Chris 00:20:19]: Explain where they come to. Explain how they arrived. Absolutely.
[Dave]: And what they mean, and you know what? It’s probably no more than 20 to 30 vocabulary words.
[Chris]: Yeah.
[Dave]: If we in HR can’t learn 20 to 30 vocab. What’s net present value (NPV)? What’s EBITDA? What’s cost of capital? If we can’t learn the 20 to 30 words that are the financial literacy, get out of HR. I mean, you’re in the bottom 20%. I mean, I think we get scared because it sounds difficult.
[Chris]: Yeah.
[Dave]: It’s a vocab and my metaphor. Do you speak a second language, Chris?
[Chris]: Sadly, I—well, I mean, obviously when we all learnt French at school, but very much it’s restaurant French. Is about as far as I would say it is.
[Dave]: [Foreign 00:21:10]. So, let me do what I just described. I lived in Montreal, spoke French. I lived in France, spoke French. And people would come up to me and say, you have an accent, like a small child. And at first, I was offended. I thought, Oh, I have an accent. I can’t get over it. And then I thought, I don’t need to speak perfect French to get by.
[Chris]: No.
[Dave]: I don’t need to be a perfect finance person to get by in finance. I can have a weak French accent and get by. I need to know the basics of French that I can communicate what I’m trying to do, and that’s the same with finance. I don’t need to know the details about finance. I was on a Board of Directors, and they made me the head of the Compensation Committee.
[Chris]: Right.
[Dave]: I’ll just give a quick example because I’m a professor. They said, “So, should we use The Black-Sholes Formula for compensation or some other formula?” And I looked at it and said, “That’s a heck of a question. I don’t have a clue.” So, I brought in an expert. I don’t have to be the expert in everything to get by, and the same is true in finance, but I’ve got to know enough to get around. I mean, your French, if you go to Paris or Southern France, you’ve got to know enough to figure out where to go and where–.
[Chris]: Oh, yeah. I mean, a week in France and my French is so much better than it was a week before. I mean, it’s amazing actually, what you can pick up in such a short space of time. And I would agree with you about whether it’s IT, finance, marketing or any other business functions. If you’re going to be a well-rounded individual, you need to know when people are either lying to you because people do sometimes, or that actually you just want to be curious enough to learn a bit more. So that you can make sure that the area that you’re responsible for, as you say, is really focussed on delivering value for the customer. Because that’s you, that’s the only opinion that matters. I think that’s what we’ve agreed.
[Dave]: Man, I love what you’ve just said. I’m coaching a senior executive, and this is also really embarrassing. It happened yesterday. I said, “So, what have you learnt in the six months?” And he said, “Yeah, you’ve been really helpful,” but he said, “I learnt one thing from you.” And I thought, Well, that’s helpful for six months of work. And he said, “You told me to put the words, ‘help me understand’ in front of a lot of my directives.” And I think sometimes in HR we’re too shy to say to the IT people, “Help me understand what that digital transfer. Help me understand what machine learning means. Help me understand what that cloud insight comes from.” To finance people, “Help me understand why our price-earnings ratio is less than our competitors. Help me understand some of the market trends that are shaping our industry.”
I think, and again, I hope that’s not all he learnt, but that three-word phrase helped me understand I think, sometimes in HR, because we don’t have the confidence, we try to show our confidence with bravado. I think people who are the most confident have a sense of humility.
[Chris]: Oh, I think totally. I think it is humidity, and I think it is being humble. But also, as you say, having the confidence to say to someone, “I really don’t understand what you’re talking about.”
[Dave]: And “Help me.”
[Chris]: Yeah. “Help me. Can you show me?” Because actually, if I don’t understand, and you say to me, “I need some people for the IT team,” or “I need some coding people,” or “I need a finance wizard.” I’m not going to be able to find them if I don’t understand what you’re talking about or what they’re talking about. I won’t spot it either, and ignorance isn’t great, really. I think that’s the main point.
[Dave 00:24:52]: I love it. I mean, we don’t plead false ignorance, and in HR, we have nothing to be shy about. One of the things that came up this week. They said, “HR people are not the CEOs, so HR is not respected.” My comment was, “Listen to what you just said. The primary way you just said HR is respected is by leaving HR and being a CEO. That’s horrible. The only way I can show respect is by leaving what I do well.” Some HR people can and should be CEOs if they know business, finance, and strategy. No question.
But I think the job of HR is not to leave HR. It’s to deliver talent, organisation, and leadership in ways that help us succeed in the marketplace. My success is not that I leave. My successes that I create value from where I sit. So, I think that’s a false positive. Again, it’s great if HR people have the business skills to lead a company, and I think we find a lot of the CEO failures are around the people side, not finance or marketing often, but people.
But HR doesn’t have to leave HR to be good. We’re really good at what we do when we do it well.
[Chris]: But if you look at those CEO failures around people, and there’s been lots of high-profile cases, both sides of the pond, I would say. Some very well-known organisations. They probably did have a chief person officer or an HR lead or whatever they had. Do you think that, therefore, then HR study fell to have a restraining hand on these people and said, “You know what? You can’t really use that sort of language, and your racism or your misogyny, or whatever it is, your bullying isn’t acceptable. Why do you think we haven’t been better at doing that then?
[Dave]: We need to be. I think there were two cases. I think, to some extent, HR’s job is not to replace the business leader. It’s to hold a mirror up, and what are the consequences of your choices?
[Chris]: Yeah.
[Dave]: If you make this choice, let me lay out the consequence so that you can make a more informed choice. One of my colleagues taught me that the biggest corruption in third world markets is hiring and paying people who are not qualified because of relationships. Well, if you hire that person because he or she is a nephew, this is the consequence, and then it’s your choice.
But there are two cases where I think we need HR people to be more aggressive. One is if it’s blatantly illegal. If you’re doing something that’s illegal or out of legal boundaries, I have a stewardship to the owners of the company, and then maybe the family to raise the issue. That’s illegal. You can’t do that. And second, if you’re doing something that is so blatantly stupid that it’s going to cause the company to make some horrible mistakes. The one I just gave is an example of corruption. We’re going to hire my nephew, even though my nephew has no experience whatsoever in doing business in that country, and say, “I got to raise the flag. I can lay out the consequence, and I’ve got to let you know that you’re not going to get what you want.? Sometimes it’s hard. I mean, there’s cases in the US where HR has not stepped up to that, and I get tempted to name companies, but.
[Chris]: You can’t say it, yeah.
[Dave]: Where there’s a bad management culture, and they’re chauvinist. They’re sexist, and I’ve had some experiences. Again, I think the anecdotes are catching. I was doing a talk a few years ago. I won’t name the company. It was in February in a Southern part of the US where it’s warm, and it was a company from the North. So, they got out of the cold. And before I spoke, they’d had an awards dinner the night before.
[Chris]: All right.
[Dave]: They gave awards to their top hundred, and they had—oh, I don’t even know what they are—flamingo dancers that were dressed scantily, dancing. They showed a little video of that and doing things that I [didn’t run toward.] I leaned over to the HR person, and I was going to speak, and I said, “I’m going to give you some free advice. Get rid of that video. You don’t want that on social media.” Anyway, it was not illegal, but it was just inappropriate and stupid.
[Chris]: Well, the tone is incorrect in modern 21st century in the US.
[Dave]: It is so incorrect.
[Chris]: Yeah.
[Dave]: He said, “Oh, I don’t know. It’s not that bad. It’s not illegal.” So, I gave my talk, and it was fine, and then the CEO said, “Thank you.” And I said, “Can I–unsolicited advice? Get rid of that video.” And he said, “You can’t dare tell me what to do. We’ll run the company the way we want.”
[Chris]: Okay.
[Dave]: And I thought, Yes, sir. Yes, sir.
[Chris]: You can if you want.
[Dave]: I can point out the risk you’re going to take, and by the way, I’ve not been back by mutual consent. But I just think in this day and age, come on folks, you can’t. You can’t do that. That’s where I hope in HR we have the courage to say, “Let me point out the risk.” And then it does get tough. I wish it was obvious that–. I’d love to say, and the CEO said, Oh my gosh, I’m wrong. I apologise. I’m going to immediately change my whole life.
[Chris]: Yeah.
[Dave]: The CEO didn’t.
[Chris 00:30:13]: But the sanction though, for let’s say, a finance director or head of finance is doing something that’s illegal is often jail [gaol], whereas, in HR, that’s kind of a bit wishy-washy. I think that maybe professional standards should be higher.
[Dave]: No question. No question.
[Chris]: And therefore, I think the people would respect the profession slightly more if sometimes the professional bodies actually stepped in and said, “Look, you know what was going on in this organisation is completely unacceptable, and you were part of it. You should have said something, and you didn’t. That’s not good. You can’t work in here again.”
[Dave]: It’s interesting, Chris, is that changed with, and now I’m going back 18 months, The Me Too movement, and it gets tricky again because there are obvious cases of male mistreatment in the United States. And I assume they’re the same in the UK.
[Chris]: Yes.
[Dave]: I hope HR steps up to that and does a fair investigation. I don’t think it’s fair to make allegations–. There are obviously obvious cases too, where allegations are made that are unfounded. But when the cases are obvious and pattern and over time, boy, do I hope HR steps up and says, “No, you can’t do that. You just simply can’t do that.”
[Chris]: Yeah.
[Dave]: And does it in a way that’s respectful, but also foundational.
[Chris]: You’ve got to go to sleep at night. I think you’ve got to be able to sleep at night and you’ve got to think, I did a good job today, and I looked after somebody, and I protected somebody. I think that’s really important.
[Dave]: Yeah. Yeah, and who is it we’re protecting when we raise that? I think we’re protecting the enterprise and literally thousands of jobs.
[Chris]: Yeah.
[Dave]: I mean, in some of those cases where the senior leaders were acting badly, male or female in whatever it is around bad treatment of people. When that gets public, it affects the stock price in a huge way because you lose your intangible value. It affects confidence of future employers. You’re not going to get the best people. It’s a demoralising effect on the entire enterprise.
[Chris]: Absolutely.
[Dave]: Again, I think in HR, we have to use good judgement to do this with respect, with dignity. But we also have to do it as finance would with diligence and discipline.
[Chris]: Absolutely, absolutely. Now, you’ve got a new leader coming in with president-elect Biden. So, is he taking charge in January next year? I think you wrote an article for LinkedIn in January this year that looked at the lessons for leadership from President Trump’s impeachment trial. I think you commented that leaders create a personal brand that shapes what they are known for by others. That’s affecting how we, as individuals, respond to them. What do you think is Mr. Biden’s personal brand, and what do you think we can expect in terms of tone and policy from this incoming administration?
[Dave]: Boy, if I was wise enough to have the answer to that, I’d probably be his adviser. I think the right brand is what the market needs.
[Chris]: Yeah.
[Dave]: Branding starts outside in. Disney wanted to give a magical experience. Google wants to give ideas that will help you source information. Amazon wants great guest service. I observe. I watch. I listen as somebody in America, as you do in the UK, and I could ask the same with you. What does the country need?
I think America needs a little bit of healing. I’m going to call them the E’s—empathy, emotion, experience, a sense of personal wellbeing. I hope Mr. Biden brings some of that. In America, we have lived in a world–. There’s a great book that came out a year ago by Arthur Brooks, where he talks about the politics of contempt. That we spend our time bad mouthing others so that we looked better.
[Chris]: Yeah.
[Dave]: I hope President Biden can rise above that.
[Chris]: Okay.
[Dave]: And most of the people I know would agree, and then we go back to saying why he’s so much better than somebody else, and we fall back into contempt. I hope we can look at Donald Trump and say, “The man had a style and a set of backgrounds. He did some things that were good, and he did some things that were not good.” I hope President Biden can come in and say, “I hope to bring a style that will in my mind be a little bit healing, a little bit connecting, a little bit of empathy so that we can, as a country, come together and solve—” Again, my view is we have problems we need to solve in education, immigration, and healthcare. Let’s find ways to solve them. Let’s focus outside on the problems, not inside on our positions.
[Chris 00:35:01]: I think that’s very admirable. I think that here in the UK, I think the concentration has been very much on the personalities and not really, and it’s very polarising, and I think what people–. The truth is somewhere in the middle, but we’ve forgotten how to get there a little bit.
[Dave]: Yeah, and I’m going to confess. When I read this book, I thought, Yeah, I fall prey to that. I fall prey to saying, “Oh, because he or she acts this way, they’re bad, I think.” What’s the best possible explanation for their behavior? What can I learn? Where can I find common ground, and where can I see something, we’re both trying to solve? That’s not easy. We have a family. I have three kids and wife—
[Chris]: You have that many children?
[Dave]: –and we are all over the political spectrum. We have liberal. We have conservative. We have one child who just could care less. You know what’s interesting? Actually, our three kids they’re married, and their spouse is saying, “You can’t have Sunday dinner at the Ulrich’s without doing your homework.”
[Chris]: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
[Dave]: Because we get into pretty, and they all have Ph.D.’s, and we get into discussions. But you know what? It’s so respectful. Our daughter, who is extremely liberal, and our son, who’s very conservative, they talk, and they say, “So, what can we do about immigration? What can we do about healthcare? What can we do to solve the problems of homeless in cities where we live?”
[Chris]: Do they ever change their positions after lunch?
[Dave]: No, but they’re—can we disagree without being disagreeable? Yeah, I think instead of being one’s at zero, the others at a hundred, I think they both moved to where they may be at 40/60.
[Chris]: Yeah.
[Dave]: So, are they flip-flopping? Is my son going to become liberal? Is our daughter going to become conservative? Probably not, but I love that they can be respectful.
[Chris]: Yeah, and they respect another point of view, perhaps because of this.
[Dave]: Yeah, they do, and it’s really nice. I mean, even my wife and I have political differences, and we know that there are things—it’s okay. It’s okay to disagree as long as we show a sense of concern and don’t get contemptuous. Well, if you believe this, you must be stupid. Well, no, you’re not stupid. One of my favourite words, when I learnt as a student decades and decades ago, is the systems theory, equifinality. Equifinality means there’s multiple pathways to the outcome.
[Chris]: Right.
[Dave]: My daughter says, “Dad, everybody wants people to get healthcare. Nobody wants to avoid healthcare.” Here’s the pathway I propose, and I say, “Here’s the pathway I propose.” And we say, I don’t know the best pathway, but we’re each talking about what can we learn if we have a common agreement? I don’t know. Well, if there is somebody who said, “No, people shouldn’t get healthcare,” then that’s that bottom 20% or 10%. I hope it’s not even that. Those are unfortunate folks, but most of us share a common agenda. Everybody wants immigrants who come to our country, refugees in Europe, to appropriately come and have a good experience when they’re allowed in. How do we do that?
[Chris]: Exactly. But if there’s something that’s come out of this year and COVID, and obviously the terrible things that have happened in your country, in my country. In a way, it’s ironic, but there has been a sense, I think, of a greater humanity, and I think there’s been more kindness this year than perhaps there’s been in previous years. Whether that’s because we’re all trying to be nice to one another and actually we’re all in the same boat, I don’t know. But somehow, I feel that we have been kinder as colleagues and competitors. Do you think that?
[Dave]: I hope so, and you know, I do. I mean, I think one of the things I think I have a strong belief in the goodness of human nature. If we ask for help, most people will give it.
[Chris]: Yeah.
[Dave]: In this situation, we’ve had some people ask for help. I’m sensing personally, and most of the people I know we’re all stretched. We’re living at home. We’re living under this cloud, and we’re all stretched in different ways. Our daughters have children, and they’ve had to leave careers to homeschool their kids, and they’re stretched in real ways.
So, when that emotional reserve gets dried up, Steve Covey called it an emotional bank account, we’ve got to support each other. I think most of us are willing to do that if we can step up and say, “I really need your help. Help me understand.” I mean, go back to my three words. Help me understand how I can be helpful. When people returned to the office, and I don’t like the comment returned to work because we’ve been working, and remotely we’re not, not working. But when we return to the office, the leaders I’m coaching, I’m saying, “Do not start with goals and objectives. Start with listening. Start with hearing. Help me understand what’s it been like for you the last three months, six months in quarantine.”
[Chris 00:40:14]: So, is that your tip, you think, for HR for next year is the first thing we should do is we should listen more than anything?
[Dave]: Yeah.
[Chris]: And people are back from furlough.
[Dave]: Can I take one step beyond listening? I think listen is great. That’s with my ears. I think we should hear with our hearts.
[Chris]: Yeah.
[Dave]: Oh, you’re telling me a story, and I’m sitting there nodding my head and thinking something else. No, let me really hear it. Let me feel it. Our daughter, she gave up a career opportunity that was pretty cool to homeschool her two kids.
[Chris]: That’s not easy.
[Dave]: That was hard for her. That was really hard, and once in a while, she just, “Dad, what did I do? I gave up this incredible opportunity, and I love my kids, and there’s no regret. I’d make the same decision.” “Yeah, sweetheart. That was tough. Thank you.”
[Chris]: Yep.
[Dave]: Our grandkids are better off. Thank you.
[Chris]: Yep. Yep. And it was the right decision, ultimately. Yep.
[Dave]: Yeah.
[Chris]: Okay. Professor Ulrich, thank you very much, indeed.
[Dave]: You know, I got to say Chris, one of my tests of leadership and it’s gotten more clear in the last year. When an employee leaves an interaction with the leader, does the employee feel better or worse about him or herself? It’s the simplest emotive test. Chris, 40 minutes into this conversation, I feel a little better about myself. Some is you have a great voice, even though we’ve never met. But I can feel through your voice, a sense of empathy, a sense of care, and a sense of hope.
[Chris]: Thanks.
[Dave]: To me, that’s as an HR person, test your leaders.
[Chris]: Thank you, David. I appreciate it.
[Dave]: When people leave an interaction with you, are they feeling better or worse? Even in tough interactions.
[Chris]: Yeah.
[Dave]: So, thank you.
[Chris]: No, thank you. Thank you very much.

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