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Lessons from Visionaries: 10 Timely Insights on the Future of HR

Visionaries Summit 2019

Earlier this month, the SHRM Executive Network welcomed the country's leading HR executives to Washington, D.C., for the annual Visionaries Summit 2023. Over two days, EN members heard practical insights from top CHROs, CEOs and other thought leaders on HR's role in creating the future of work. Here are 10 nuggets of wisdom—and eight insightful quotes—from the 25+ speakers at the event:   

1. HR Has the Ear of Their CEOs—For Now

Does the head of HR in your organization report directly to the CEO? Just a couple decades ago that would have been unlikely. In the year 2000, only 30 percent of the companies in the S&P 500 had their head of HR reporting directly to the CEO. But by 2020, virtually all CHROs in the S&P 500 had a direct line to their CEO, according to research unveiled at Visionaries by Rick Smith, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and director of the school's Human Capital Development Lab.

"That is a dramatic change in our profession. That is a dramatic testimony to how far we've come in what we do; … we've made this happen," Smith said. He noted that several factors sparked HR's increasing prominence: the growing war for talent, the complexity of globalization, an expanding workforce, and increased legislation and regulation.

This rise of the CHRO role, Smith said, has come at the same time that other C-suite positions are being diminished or even eliminated, including chief marketing officer and chief information officer.

"CHROs are seeing a rapid rise [in influence] more so than we see of any of the other chiefs," Smith said. "We've made great progress. But the question we need to ask ourselves is, 'Where do we go from here?' Do we continue this strategic trajectory or will we fall like some of the other chiefs have over time?"

2. Hiring HR Staff? Look for People with 'Dynamic Range'

With the C-suite expecting more strategic thinking from their HR departments these days, CHROs need to be looking for the same trait in their key HR hires, said Beth Grous, chief people officer at Generate Biomedicines.

"The two words that I finally stumbled on when talking to my recruiters is 'dynamic range,' " Grous said. "People who can think way up here and then can toggle down to the details. That dynamic range and someone who is willing to stretch out of their comfort zone is the essential thing I'm looking for."

Curiosity is the other key feature she looks for in HR candidates. Grous said she seeks out people who embrace tough questions and challenges, not turn away from them.

"If they lean into those discussions—even if they don't entirely know where they're going—I find that openness to thinking about, 'Is there a better way?' is essential," Grous said.      

During the Q&A portion of Grous' session, a CHRO in the audience added this insight: "When I recruit for people in my department, my motto is, 'If you feel HR should be an ambassador and not a hall monitor, then we want you on our team.' "

3. Wage Inflation Is Top CEO Concern, and HR Has a Role

SHRM President and CEO Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. SHRM-SCPWhen SHRM President and CEO Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, recently met with a group of CEOs, he was surprised by what they said was the No. 1 thing keeping them up at night: wage inflation. The upward spiral of wages over the past few years has led to, for example, McDonald's workers demanding $15 an hour and UPS drivers earning up to $170,000 per year.

He said that has left CEOs thinking, "What am I going to do with my employees who are saying, 'If UPS is paying that much for a driver and I have a master's from MIT, then clearly you're going to pay me $250,000.' And it goes on from there. CEOs are wondering 'Where does this end?' " 

Taylor said HR leaders would be wise to get educated on the growing wage inflation problem and work with the C-suite on solutions.

"If you can help your organizations figure out how to address wage inflation on a strategic level, you will be talking their talk, and that's what they want to hear from you," Taylor said.

4. The 4 Key Questions to Build a Human Experience

HR leaders are grappling with a host of new challenges in recent years, but Hilton's CHRO Laura Fuentes said her company's HR strategy aims to focus on issues that remain consistent and transcend these trends.

"The pillars that we have focused on for our HR strategy have been the same for years, across generations, across cultures and across continents," Fuentes said.

She said Hilton consistently reviews employees' answers to four key questions to see if the company is offering "a fully human experience at work." The questions:

  • Am I welcome here? (Inclusion)
  • Is this a healthy organization for me to join? (Wellness)
  • Am I going to develop here? (Growth)
  • Is this place aligned with my values? (Purpose)

"Those are things that people have been yearning for, whether I talk to an 18-year-old looking for his first job or internship or people who have been at Hilton for 40 years," Fuentes said.

5. How Southwest Decides When to Speak Out on Social Issues

Workers and customers are no longer shy about demanding that companies take a stand on social or environmental issues. Organizations are being pulled in different directions, and it's hard to know when (and on which issues) to speak up. At Southwest Airlines, the company has established a Social Topics committee—made up of leaders from HR, communications, legal, diversity and community outreach—to decide which issues to get involved with and what statements to make (or actions to take). The committee makes recommendations to the CEO using a pyramid of guidelines, including business impact, employee perceptions, customer reactions, brand impact and timing.

"We are passionate, and we might be reacting to this issue in an emotional way. But we need to really understand what we want to get involved in," said Whitney Eichinger, Southwest's senior vice president for culture and communications. "That's the beauty of having this cross-functional group to talk through these issues. It's not just from one perspective, say HR or DE&I. We all talk as a group."

The committee also discusses reactions to the public backlash of its stances. Southwest recently faced an online campaign calling the company "South-woke" Airlines.

"It hurts our employees when they see that and don't know why we're not taking action," Eichinger said. "So what we've done, from our CEO down to our department heads, is to say we're not tolerating this hateful talk. This is an inclusive place. We have a competency now of belonging, so it's up to all of our leaders to make sure that our employees feel like they're working in a place where they belong. And whatever that means to them in how we're defining belonging."

6. Focus on Preventive Mental Health, Don't Wait for a Crisis  

Regular doctor check-ups, dental visits and eye exams—we know these are the preventive steps for good physical health, and employer insurance often financially incentivizes those steps. But the same is not always true for mental health care, said Ariela Safira, CEO of Real, an online mental wellness firm.   

"Today, we still are at a place where we don't have a mental wellness system in this country, we have a mental health crisis system," Safira said.

"We have not built the everyday form of care that prevents mental illness," she added. "We don't wait until a primary care visit to attend to our physical health. We haven't done that for mental health. Instead, most people wait for a crisis to engage with care."

Don't think this issue isn't affecting your organization. According to a recent SHRM survey, 1 in 3 U.S. employees say their job has had a negative effect on their mental health over the past six months, with 30 percent saying their job has made them feel overwhelmed.

"You're going to see the effects of a mentally ill workplace whether or not your employees tell you," Safira said. "It's going to show up in a tremendous number of KPIs that [HR leaders] are responsible for—absenteeism rate, turnover rate, etc."  

7. Key Retention Tool: Show Employees a Career Path

When employees have a manager who is invested in their development, those employees actually have a 25 percent higher level of work performance, and they tend to stick around longer (a 40 percent higher retention level), said Prudence Pitter, the global head of HR for Amazon Web Service's Auto/Manufacturing and Healthcare division, citing an Amazon survey.

"I know that, for me, when I've been at organizations in which I'm being groomed for a larger role, I want to make sure I'm doing my job really well. But I didn't consciously think about how much I was doing above and beyond," Pitter said, adding that HR leaders can use these types of studies to convince their C-suite to establish succession plans and to show employees a career path within the company.

"Many leaders are afraid to develop someone and then have them leave. For me as an HR professional, I've experienced the opposite," Pitter said. "When employees recognize that their career is important to their leader and they have a path of success in the organization, they tend to stay longer, they feel more committed and they're a little bit more afraid to leave because they don't know what the future holds."

8. Better Employee Health = Better Business

Too often, health equity—in which everyone has a fair opportunity to attain optimal health—is treated by employers as a "nice to have" instead of a "must have." But promoting health equity among employees of all backgrounds is the right thing to do—and it makes economic sense, said Gerald Johnson, executive vice president of health equity and chief diversity officer at the American Heart Association.

"Ask not what it costs you to do it, but what it costs you not to do it," Johnson said. "There are quantifiable sick days lost to health inequity. There is significant turnover when employees cannot afford care. Companies with a healthy workforce outperform others economically by 115 percent. Those are big numbers that are backed up by data. CEOs are interested in that."

What can companies do to reap the benefits of health equity? Pay attention to the "social determinants of health" in the communities in which they work, Johnson said. Do your employees have affordable housing, adequate transportation, access to nutritious food and day care?

If you haven't had a conversation about this with your CEO, you should now, Johnson urged. "Once they are aligned, then go to your board. This takes the commitment of all leaders to do."

9. Remove Friction at Every Step of the Application Process

Greg Kaye, Google's head of industryAmazon's one-click, one-day delivery experience is groundbreaking. But the problem is that people now expect such simple, seamless experiences in all their online transactions, including online job boards and your careers website, said Greg Kaye, Google's head of industry.

"While we don't compete with Amazon, that is in the minds of our users," Kaye said. "They are comparing that experience to every experience they have digitally. So our job is to remove friction [for the user] at every step. What you want to do is look for points of friction, frustration and overall time sucks, either internally or externally [on job boards]." 

More than 85 percent of job seekers say they experience some sort of challenge or frustration in their online job search process, Kaye said, citing Google research. Their primary complaint: not hearing back from positions after they've applied.

As a result, Kaye noted, more job boards are turning to artificial intelligence tools to ease some of those user frustrations. Examples: LinkedIn is helping companies write AI-powered job descriptions, and Indeed is using an AI recommendation engine to show job seekers a list of other jobs they may be interested in.  

10. Beware of Compassion Fatigue in HR

"A lot of times people such as HR professionals, clinicians and educators who lead with empathy and compassion are prone to cyclical compassion fatigue. Our fierce inner pleasers want us to soothe other people," according to psychotherapist and author Leah Marone. But people like this have a difficult time setting boundaries, so they absorb everyone's drama, Marone said, and "their balloons get bigger, but they don't incorporate enough time to let air out."  

She said empathetic HR professionals "tend to take 'false ownership' in other peoples' hurdles and battles and initiatives. And this false ownership takes a lot of energy."

How to respond? HR leaders need to rethink their instinct to fix everyone's problems. Marone said "support, don't solve" is a good approach when people bring you their burdens (at work or home). Think of yourself as someone who can create the space for people to arrive at solutions themselves, by providing empathy and asking the right questions.

"In order to set boundaries for others, we have to create boundaries for ourselves," she said.

Overheard at the 2023 Visionaries Summit:
8 Great Quotes

HR's NEW TABLE. "I used to say I wanted to have a seat at the table. Now the table is in my office, and I'm pulling up a seat for others to come sit and talk to me. So now is the time for HR to own our table." —Tamla Oates-Forney, CHRO of USAA

* * *

AI: FRIEND OR FOE? "Individuals are not competing against AI itself. But what we're seeing is that we, as workers, are competing against other individuals who are using AI themselves to their benefit." —Greg Kaye, Google's head of industry

* * *

DON'T WAIT FOR A CRISIS TO MAKE CHANGE. "Breakthrough change is driven by you. Don't let a crisis do it. [The change] will be artificial and it'll go back to the way it was, … and that will only create cynicism. You are the change-makers, and it's awesome that you have that accountability." —Bob Rothman, president of Gap International 

* * *

BEWARE BIAS IN SUCCESSION PLANNING. "Every opportunity we have to call out bias, we should. And it should not be any different in the succession planning process. … How are you as HR leaders calling that out and ensuring that you are getting leaders on the journey to make the best succession decisions?" —Prudence Pitter, the global head of HR for Amazon Web Service's Auto/Manufacturing and Healthcare division

* * *

MAKE THE SHIFT TO SKILLS-BASED HIRING. "We still use antiquated credentials—higher education degrees, for example—as an indicator of skills. … The use of verifiable digital credentials can create a much more balanced and less biased playing field for populations that don't have access to the old traditional ways of proving skills but do have the ability to prove their capabilities." —Etan Bernstein, co-founder, Velocity Network Foundation    

* * *

CO-CREATE THE EMPLOYEE EXPERIENCE. "It's a false dichotomy to put employers and employees pitted against one another. It almost feels like a war on talent, rather than a war for talent, if you read the headlines. But healthy organizations focus on creating something together with their employees. … If team members feel included, feel they're developing and that they're connected with something larger, they're going to drive our business forward." —Laura Fuentes, CHRO, Hilton

* * *

CAN HR HEAL AMERICA'S POLARIZATION? "We all, for better or worse, tend to live in bubbles. But the workplace is one of the very few places where we actually come in contact with people who have different points of view and different backgrounds. That's a huge opportunity and, frankly, a responsibility for us to tap into that and help deal with this polarization issue that we're all facing in this country." —Bob Feldman, founder of the Dialogue Project at Duke University's School of Business

* * *

EMBRACE RISK. "By taking risks, what would be the worst thing to happen if you don't succeed. You might learn something. And it might give you the courage to try again. Taking risks is rarely all-or-nothing." —Beth Grous, chief people officer at Generate Biomedicines


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