People + Strategy Journal

Winter 2021

CHRO Connection: Michelle Nettles

Michelle Nettles, Chief People and Culture Officer of ManpowerGroup, discusses the bravery required of leaders, shifting workplace culture after COVID-19 and actions toward social justice.

By Lisa Connell

Courage and Compassion Are Hallmarks of Modern Leadership

Michelle Nettles: Johann Nel, the former HR Managing Director of SABMiller, convinced me that HR was strategic and a place that I could leverage my strengths, support my community and grow professionally. 

LC: Describe some lessons you’ve learned as an HR professional, even some perhaps learned the hard way. 

MN: Many of our own policies perpetuate the challenges we face today. For example, compensation philosophies built on experience—not performance—perpetuates gender pay gaps. Diversity, equity and inclusion roles without resources and distinct from HR responsibilities often excuse accountabilities and placate leaders. 

LC: What advice would you give to a rising HR leader? 

MN: Be courageous and lead. Early in the COVID-19 era, I heard Tracy Keogh of HP say that when the tide rolls out, you see who is left wearing their swimsuit and who is not. It put quite the visual in your mind but I took it to heart. As HR leaders, we have often been without our swimsuit because we too often want to be liked or please leaders or the famous “business” that we serve but are not a part of. 

In today’s era, workers increasingly have stronger voices and are unapologetic about exercising their choices. As HR leaders, we can no longer sit on the side lines—we must step up, we must be courageous and we must lead. In an era of social justice, we must empower the voice of the worker whilst balancing the needs of the company and the larger community. It’s tough. And courage is a requirement. 

LC: How do you think the role of a CHRO is going to change in the next five years? 

MN: Increasingly, the role of CHRO will parallel (but not yet equal) the role of CFO. As institutional investors revisit Milton Friedman’s shareholder theory and shift to stakeholders, employees will gain more voice and more power. The CHRO must truly balance the voice of ALL stakeholders and will surely need to contemplate social justice as the world of work continues to be reshaped by technology and the demand for equity. 

LC: What is your leadership philosophy? How did you adapt your leadership in response to business changes from COVID-19? 

MN: Leadership happens in the light—not in the dark. In short, what are you prepared to say when others lack the courage to say what needs to be said remains the cornerstone of leadership. In the wake of COVID-19, leadership traits changed overnight. Words like empathy, vulnerability and transparency are the new hallmarks of leadership. And while words like visionary, strategic and inspiring remain foundational, transformative leaders are more human than ever. 

LC: Companies made several shifts in response to the pandemic and its continuing effects. What changes at ManpowerGroup are you most proud of? 

MN: While not a change, I’m most proud that ManpowerGroup held true to our people first approach. The word People (comprised of employees, consultants, associates, customers and communities) is one of our three values. At every turn, our people were at the forefront of every decision we made. 

If I must pick a change, I’m super proud that we are taking this opportunity to modernize our culture through some simple steps, including policies to promote working from anywhere, dressing for your day or virtual espresso with our CEO. These are all done with a lens to build a more collaborative and inclusive culture, break down hierarchal structures and drive an innovative, consumer-centric approach through the organization. 


LC: Many companies have found that the pandemic accelerated trends in the business world, such as the digitalization of talent management. What areas of HR at ManpowerGroup were pushed forward suddenly? 

MN: Digitalization accelerated for sure. We had been rolling out new collaboration tools at what now seems like a snail’s pace. Within 10 days, following the COVID-19 spread to Italy and France, we moved 80 percent of our global business/workforce to work from home. 

LC: What do you envision in the new world of work? What will change? What parts may not return? 

MN: 40 percent of the workforce will have greater flexibility. Many companies will have a hybrid work schedule whilst reducing their physical footprint. The gap between the have and have-nots will widen. And in-demand skills (logistics, supply chain, e-commerce, health and wellbeing) and soft skills (adaptability, communication, prioritization) will be on fire for the next two to three years. 

LC: Diversity, equity and inclusion have been a focus at ManpowerGroup. What strategies are bringing the most success? What strategies needed to be adjusted? 

MN: I’m not sure that there is a bright line. In the wake of George Floyd, we embarked on courageous conversations. This has come with benefits and challenges. I’m not sure this is a question of strategy, but rather leadership. Courageous leaders grounded in values move people and in return, change outcomes. If there is a strategy, it is simple—what gets measured, gets done. I will not pretend that we are done, but we are having honest discussions and there is momentum for change. 

LC: Culture is a critical component of an organization. How do you and the top leadership team guide and shape the culture at ManpowerGroup? 

MN: It is important to keep in mind that we have a relatively new executive leadership team at ManpowerGroup. Our team came together only once as a team, just three months prior to COVID-19. We are learning together the strengths and opportunities of culture. We are currently partnering with EY to learn more about our culture and what behaviors we must employ to achieve our ambition. 

LC: What are you learning right now? 

MN: Historically, I have turned to books. The four books that I’m currently reading are Hit Refresh, Mindfulness, Emotional Agility and 2020 Trends. However, in the era of COVID-19, I’ve been listening more to podcasts and reading more periodicals. And as I reflect on those, I’m learning more about how disconnected we are as human beings from the day and life of other human beings. The fact that it takes a pandemic for us to notice our local barista, whom we see daily, and to praise health care workers as superheroes, seems odd. 

LC: The future of HR is… 

MN: Is the CHRO the next CFO?