People + Strategy Journal

Summer 2022

In First Person: Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, is the president and chief executive officer of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), the largest HR trade association in the world. People + Strategy spoke with Taylor about the value of resilience.

In First Person: Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.

​The Changes and Challenges of Today’s World Present Risks for Businesses, But Also Opportunities

People + Strategy: Give us a sense of the challenges you’ve faced as a leader over the last two years.

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: Three things really stand out thematically. No. 1, we had to retool our entire business strategy. SHRM is a business that relies heavily on live events, and in early 2020, we canceled them all. While technology helped with virtual meetings, they were different and people didn’t want to pay the same amount that they would pay for a live event. And so we had to reduce our prices.

It forced us all to address enterprise risk in a way that we hadn’t done, because none of us in our lifetimes had ever experienced such a total shutdown. So my No. 1 task was to figure out how to make sure that we had a business two years later. And we didn’t know how long it was going to last. It required a total rework of our business model and challenged  everything. 

The second area was around people and our talent and our culture. None of us had ever experienced the equivalent of this pandemic, but it was especially hard for those generations coming into the business who had never experienced any real adversity in the broader world, like many of us did during the financial crisis of 2008. They had only seen great economic times. 

And so they were ill-equipped to deal with this level of uncertainty. Even aside from the health risk that COVID-19 presented, they just could not contemplate the idea that you could lose your job. So what we saw from a talent standpoint is that they were ill-equipped, and we as people managers were ill-equipped to help them deal with being ill-equipped. It was a real problem. 

We were also in the middle of a very divided political environment. We underestimate what that was doing to the psyche, the morale and the culture of the organization. Layer on top of that COVID, and if that wasn’t enough, layer on social and racial injustice and George Floyd’s death. Everyone was on edge, and there was so much uncertainty. It was pretty profound. 

What do you do? The answer for me was to break every problem down and set up a framework for responding. Let’s figure out what we’re going to do to our business, to our talent. All these competing issues were coming into play, so it was very difficult. I had to really dig into and lean into my empathy as a leader across every sort of component of my life, and particularly as a business leader.

P+S: Empathy is one of those balancing acts of leadership, because you want to be understanding but you also have to make tough decisions.

Taylor: It is a heck of a balancing act. And we all knew that we had to figure it out. Ultimately, it was about communication and transparency. 

P+S: Not everybody’s up for leading in this kind of environment. What prepared you for this? 

Taylor: I think you’re wired this way or you’re not. I know there’s the debate over nature and nurture, but some people see adversity as an opportunity rather than as a problem, and that speaks to me. I’m competitive. And competitors like to win, but they don’t mind being up against some real threats. That’s just the nature of how I’m wired. 

I like uncertainty. I’m not uncomfortable with volatility. I’ve faced adversity. I saw a hurricane demolish South Florida, where entire neighborhoods didn’t exist anymore. My parents divorced when I was a very young kid. I had two sisters, my mother was a housewife, and we had to figure it out. So I got very comfortable early in my life dealing with uncertainty. 

P+S: What is your advice to HR leaders on how to build a resilient organization going forward?

Taylor: You have to be intentional about building a culture that understands that resiliency is just a requirement, period. You’re going to have to build that capacity and help people exercise or develop that muscle to be resilient. A lot of it is about skills-building to be comfortable with the uncertainty and volatility. 

The second thing that HR professionals need to do is to make an honest assessment of our talent. Do we have HR people who will be successful in this new world? I’ve talked to many board members, and they have been transparent with me. They’ve said, “Johnny, some of our star CHROs were great pre-2020, but the demands of 2021 and beyond are not their skill set.” So we’ve literally changed the job description for HR. 

P+S: What’s your framework for how much volatility and uncertainty to account for in the future as you’re setting strategy and planning for different scenarios?

Taylor: We all have enterprise risk management conversations, and we go through scenarios. We’ve expanded those conversations. What if there is another pandemic? Our scenario planning has to be pretty doomsday. And it requires long-term thinking.

But we have to see this as an opportunity. In the past, enterprise risk management either sat in the law department, finance department or risk management. In a knowledge-based economy, your talent strategy is your business strategy, and HR has to be integrally involved in those conversations. 

P+S: Final thoughts on this incredibly challenging period for HR leaders? 

Taylor: The turnover of HR executives is through the roof. How many people are leaving because they had their moment of “COVID clarity” and just decided they didn’t want to do this, versus how many people were very honest with themselves and said to themselves, “I’m not prepared to do this?”

I think all C-suite leaders are asking themselves: “Can I be successful given the new world demands?” The job has changed so much, and I think a lot of people need to really have an honest dialogue with themselves about whether they can do this or if they are up to it.