HR Must Lead Through Learning, Says SHRM Board Chair

By Christina Folz Jun 19, 2017

The nature of change in the business world is itself changing, according to Coretha M. Rushing, SHRM-SCP, in her speech opening the general session at the SHRM 2017 Annual Conference & Exposition on June 19.

"Change isn't incremental or predictable anymore," Rushing said. "Things aren't just getting faster, or cheaper, or bigger, or smaller. Now change means real disruption and turning expectations upside down." It's evidenced by ride-hailing companies like Uber that own no cars, she said, and the nation's largest retailer—Amazon—operating until very recently without a single brick-and-mortar store.  

"HR is ripe for disruption, too. As the world transforms so does business and so does talent," she said. "We must be open to the possibility that any technique we use to cultivate talent today will not be effective tomorrow."

For HR, success in today's environment will require eschewing traditional fixes to complex problems and embracing nimble thinking and "outside-in" learning. "HR professionals who want to survive and thrive in today's climate need to understand the larger world they operate in. We position ourselves as leaders when we humble ourselves to learn—wherever the knowledge comes from."

Turning Traditional HR on Its Head

Rushing gave an example of unconventional—but effective—learning from her own career. In a previous role with IBM, she worked as a compensation analyst in a division that developed sonar devices for nuclear submarines. It was a technical environment, and Rushing struggled to grasp the requirements of the roles she was tasked with analyzing.

"This was sensitive and highly confidential work, requiring hard-to-find skills that were even harder to explain. I had to evaluate extremely technical jobs based on specs that I didn't really understand."

Fortunately, a longtime employee gave her the perfect tool to help her do her job better: a worn-out paperback copy of The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy. The 1980s spy thriller about the chase of a Soviet submarine imparted all the information Rushing needed, including the job specs for the positions in her division. "I must have read this book about a million times," she said.  

The Human Factor

As tempting as it may be to seek out one-size-fits-all policies and off-the-shelf solutions, as many HR professionals have done in the past, Rushing challenged the audience to discover new ways to absorb information—in short, to find their own Hunt for Red October for every situation.

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Doing so is vital because modern HR hinges more than ever on leveraging the most elusive and ever-changing asset in business: human talent. "It is shifting and dynamic. Talent is human, and humans have a million different ideas, desires, needs and capabilities. Learning about what drives them is a never-ending education for HR."

And because we no longer live in a business-as-usual world, HR must continuously evolve. "We must be open to the possibility that any technique we use to cultivate talent today will not be effective tomorrow," said Rushing, who is now corporate vice president and chief human resources officer at Equifax Inc. "There is too much happening outside our walls."

For example, HR must constantly seek out external information to understand:

  • Threats to their industries.
  • Relevant legislation and regulatory changes.
  • Social and geopolitical trends.
  • Changing expectations of today's workers.

Those dynamic forces have resulted in a modern workplace that is, in Rushing's words, "part classroom, part competitive arena, part daily TED Talk, and on top of it, a place we connect with our 'bestie.' "

It's an environment where new challenges await. "Do you know how to keep hardworking employees motivated when they are tempted by competitive offers? Or seeking work with more meaning? Or what happens if your organization's talent want more flexibility in their work life but leaders can't stand the idea of telecommuting?"

It's OK to not know the answers, Rushing said. But what's not OK is expecting to find cookie-cutter solutions in dusty old handbooks. "Today, there are no easy answers or solutions off the shelf," she said. "HR must start with knowing what we don't know and actively working to acquire new knowledge and skills every day from the outside in."

And by cultivating that hunger for learning, she said, HR professionals will become more able to adapt to new situations moving forward. Because more change is on the way. Just wait a minute. 

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