People + Strategy Journal

Spring 2021

The Big Question

People + Strategy posed a question: When each day or week presents a different set of challenges, what did you have to do differently or stop doing in order to succeed as the Chief of Everything Else?

By Matthew Breitfelder, Paula Coughlan, Kathleen Weslock
The Big Question

​Lead Differently to Stay Effective

With events of the past 18 months driving new areas of responsibility, new crises, and strategic and organizational priorities for many CHROs, we asked a handful of leaders who have navigated particularly effectively to reflect on what they’ve done differently to keep their own and their teams’ heads above water. When each day or week presents a different set of challenges, what did you have to do differently or stop doing in order to succeed as the Chief of Everything Else?

Modernize the CHRO Role 

Matthew Breitfelder is Senior Partner and Global Head of Human Capital at Apollo Global Management. He can be reached through LinkedIn.

In the CHRO role, we can’t be all things to all people, but there are three areas where we can have the biggest impact: 

  1. Leading: serving as a change leader for the company’s talent strategy, culture and the growing portfolio of change projects. 

  2. Operating: running the HR operational machine.

  3. Coaching: serving as an informal, in-house executive coach to senior leaders. 

Historically, the center of gravity of the CHRO role has been operational. But as my co-author Daisy Dowling and I discussed in a 2008 Harvard Business Review article, HR can magnify our impact through a greater focus on enabling innovation and growth. This is even more true today as we are asked to deepen our focus on change leadership and coaching. Of course, the challenge is to avoid getting squeezed by overwhelming demands on our time. As CHROs, we need to continue to reinvent and modernize the role—and aggressively let go of work that can be better performed by others on our teams. 

CHRO as Change Leader
More than anything else, as CHROs, we are in the change business—constantly striving to evolve and optimize the most critical talent, diversity and culture factors facing our companies. Many of the new challenges at the executive table these days are three-dimensional, complex problems that most of us have never faced before. I am finding three lessons helpful in tackling them:
  1. Be a relentless learner. Keep our hand on the pulse of employees and what they care about. Stay in the flow with our CHRO peers across industries to surface “next practices” in emerging areas. At the same time, keep a growth mindset to quickly come up to speed on new issues.
  2. Stay close to our four most critical peers on the leadership team—the COO, CFO, Head of Strategy and Head of Communications. Look at the financial, operational, strategic, communications and talent lens of each new issue and co-create the solutions with these peers. Ideally physically seat yourself right next to these peers or work hard to achieve the same dynamic virtually.
  3. Constantly pilot, test and scale new solutions in the same way that a tech firm develops a new product. Create a beta version, test it with a well-selected group, abandon it if doesn’t work and scale fast if it does. This helps create greater change agility across the workforce. A big part of our job is to modernize the HR toolbox, especially in advancing diversity, equity and inclusion goals across everything that we do. 
CHRO as Operational Leader
A huge part of the CHRO role has always been to drive operational issues. We are charged with ensuring strong governance, execution and risk management across the talent lifecycle. In many firms we manage the largest costs on the P&L. In order to focus more on coaching and change, we need help in running the HR machine. One of the first and most important decisions I made in taking on my role at Apollo was to appoint an HR COO, charged with building out our operating platform. By tapping a strong HR COO with deep expertise in operations as well as broad understanding of how each HR function drives value, we can ensure that we have the leverage we need. With the right COO, we can delegate many of the traditional day-to-day CHRO operational responsibilities and elevate the performance of our teams. 

Our operational role should be primarily focused on the design and modernization of the HR machine, setting policies and making decisions on material issues. The explosive growth in HR technologies is giving us many opportunities to streamline and humanize the HR machine while improving service delivery—and further increasing the leverage we need. 

CHRO as Executive Coach
If we have shown up as the leaders of change that our organizations need us to be, and we’ve created the right level of operating excellence within our own function, then we will have earned our right to fulfill one of our most critical peer-to-peer roles: executive coach. I believe that our overarching responsibility as CHROs is to help drive great performance in our companies. We also need to ensure that the senior team is firing on all cylinders. External executive coaches can certainly help, but CHROs see the senior team in action all day, every day. CHROs are uniquely positioned to provide continuous feedback, counsel and support to help ensure that executives see challenges clearly and are seizing the right opportunities.

The best CHROs excel at coaching by working hard to not have a personal agenda. If our only agenda as CHROs is to focus on the overlap of company goals and each executive’s personal goals, we can have a massive impact. Becoming a trusted advisor to each member of the executive team helps unlock their potential and spot the biggest issues that need attention quickly.

Let’s all rise to the challenge of being the architects, master craftspeople and builders of game-changing HR. The world needs us now more than ever.

Adapting Leadership Styles to Capture Opportunities

Paula Coughlan is Chief People Officer at Dixons Carphone PLC in London. She can be reached through LinkedIn. 

The year 2020 was always meant to be a transformational year for us at Dixons Carphone. With just under 1,000 stores and 33,500 colleagues, and as the fastest-growing specialist technology and services retailer in all our nine markets, we were poised to accelerate. But by March we faced huge uncertainty. As the pandemic escalated and the country went into a national lockdown, the UK Government classified our business as non-essential, which meant that most of our stores were only open for click-and-collect and delivery where allowed. 16,000 colleagues across the business were furloughed as a result. Our airports-based business, Dixons Travel, was almost instantly halted. Our transformation, which was underway and showing real progress, had to be paused as we looked to conserve cash as we worked to ensure the company’s future. We were a stores-based retailer with a solid e-commerce business and an ambition to be digital-first omni-channel. But we were not there yet.

Overnight, customer demand switched from our stores to our website, fueled by a need to work from home, to educate, to feed and entertain their families and households. Our contact centers saw a massive increase in queries. Our distribution and logistics networks faced huge demands. And we needed to design, create and implement extraordinary safety measures to protect our colleagues while the world was still grappling with the nature of the virus. The challenges were enormous. Quite simply, our ecosystem was never designed for this.

Fast forward to December 2020 where we shared our first half financial results and we reported double-digit sales growth across the group and a huge 150 percent year-on-year uplift in online sales in the UK alone. For context, very few competitor retailers had to deal with the same level of enforced closure as us, with others being allowed to keep stores open due to their classification as essential or being online pure-play in nature. This makes me even more proud of our achievement as, figuratively, we achieved a lot while having one arm tied behind our back.

The journey from struggling survivor to retail winner is an amazing story. But why were we so successful? We’ve obviously had some helpful tailwinds and the demand for technology has increased, but I don’t believe it’s all down to that. We’re growing our online business at three times the rate of our closest online pure-play competitor, for instance.

In short, we were united when it mattered most. Colleagues and teams across the business collaborated to help customers, keep everyone safe and secure livelihoods. 

Within four weeks, from concept to delivery—unheard of in the business before—we launched two omni-channel solutions bringing the best of digital and stores together to help customers in the crisis. One of those was ShopLive—a video shopping service where customers can get face-to-face advice from experts without leaving their home.

We were so nimble here; it surprised us. We were learning all the time. We were determined to bottle the best of who we were during the crisis, and one outcome of that was some pretty big changes to our structures and ways of working. It had become apparent we needed to make things clearer, simpler and faster for everyone. We set up a small coalition with several of our leaders to define the new operating model for the future. We deliberately decided not to bring in consultants and we did the whole exercise in about six weeks. We called this the Winning Together operating model.

At the same time, we also fueled a movement of mass talent mobility and re-skilling. We re-skilled and re-deployed thousands of our expert sales colleagues to support ShopLive and our contact centers, and many more to support our colleagues in supply chain.

We discovered our colleagues had a huge hunger for learning. In the first lockdown, thousands used our online MyLearning hub to complete over 200,000 training modules. Nobody asked them to and we were surprised by the demand. In the second UK lockdown, we decided not to furlough anyone. Instead, we took the opportunity to upskill 2,500 colleagues in our new even more customer-centric sales framework, scale up ShopLive and redeploy others, giving them new assignments and experiences. During the third lockdown, we’re upskilling again and by April 2021 over 6,000 colleagues will have been trained in our new sales framework. It’s been fabulous to see the energy and momentum around learning in our business. It brings wins all around—for colleagues, customers, shareholders and communities. 

The pandemic has brought in lasting change—not only for the business and our colleagues but also in my role. As the breadth of my role increased, I had to get better at being opportunistic; quickly assessing situations and taking an instinctive stance based on what I believed was right for the business and colleagues. It meant adapting my style to accommodate daily, collaborative meetings where together we quickly develop our ideas, make decisions and action them swiftly. I can honestly say that we have made good decisions with quality thinking, at pace. The legacy from this crisis is that we will come out of this as a stronger and better business.

More Listening and Self-Care to Lead Better

Kathleen Weslock is CHRO of Avalara in Seattle. She can be reached through LinkedIn.

With over 20 years of experience directing global HR departments and raising two teenage boys in New York City, I believe I can handle anything, most days. But this past year has certainly challenged me.

In 2001, I was in New York City and was the head of HR for a law firm when the planes hit the Twin Towers, so we had to mobilize and make sure that all our employees were safe in a matter of minutes. Although the COVID-19 pandemic is a much different crisis than 9/11, it was similar in that we had to quickly pivot to create plans to ensure that the well-being of our employees and their families would not be jeopardized. In times of crisis, the “Chief of Everything Else” is tasked with continuing to perform everyday business operations like recruiting, hiring, performance reviews and supporting our employees through programs and initiatives, while also maintaining increased flexibility to handle the different phases of the crisis at hand. There are a number of things that I’ve had to do differently in the past year to stay effective. 

Leading with Empathy and Concern for Employee Well-Being
I have always prioritized listening to the needs and concerns of all employees but I knew that the stress and concerns that came with navigating 2020 called for something deeper. Last year, I made it my mission to lead with empathy. I’ve always believed in the adage, “problems at home, problems at work” and this year we all had the balancing act of our lives before us. 

In addition to COVID-19, people around were also dealing with the loss of their loved ones, civil unrest sparked by the numerous occurrences of injustice and anxiety around the outcome of our election here in the U.S. How could we best help employees that are struggling and make sure that there aren’t any departments or underrepresented groups whose needs are falling through the cracks? As our employees’ needs quickly evolved, I knew that I needed to listen more empathetically to really understand what they are feeling. 

I asked myself tough questions like “Am I taking in others’ points of view? Am I understanding where the different members of my team are coming from and their backgrounds and cultures that help them get to these types of decisions?” I realized that to truly lead with empathy I had to be willing to leave my ego at the door and just listen and be quiet at times. 

Taking Care of Myself
At times, as Chief of Everything Else, it feels like everyone is looking to me for guidance, leadership and moral support, so I try to make sure I’m on my A-game at all times. I’ve had to adjust how I manage my schedule to build in time to recharge. Oftentimes as a company leader, especially in the HR space, we spend so much time working to support everybody else that we can forget that we also need to take care of ourselves, our own teams and our families. 

Since most of us are still working remotely, it has been more difficult to fully disconnect from work and relax. To avoid burnout, I stopped meeting for long, consecutive hours and made meeting times shorter, which allows me time in between meetings to regroup or maybe even work out. In an effort to give myself grace, I also stopped holding on to the unrealistic notion that everything needs to be perfect 100 percent of the time (except for compensation, which has to be 125 percent correct). Instead, I use the 80/20 rule—80 percent of the strategy and work should be perfectly thought out and executed and 20 percent is me going with the flow. 

At the end of the day, our role as Chief of Everything Else is critical. It requires us to see around corners and anticipate the evolving needs of our employees. The one thing that absolutely cannot go by the wayside is listening and being available. In order to balance both of those, we have to build the discipline of truly listening, and preserve within ourselves the mental and emotional “freshness” to be attuned to what we are hearing. 

My teams and I will continue to work on building relationships with our employee population and listen whenever anybody wants to talk.