There is perhaps no one better than Matthew Breitfelder, global head of human capital at Apollo, to speak about the changing role of HR professionals in today’s dynamic times. Breitfelder brings with him a deep understanding of what it takes to ensure employees have an environment that facilitates success – for the employees as well as the organization.
On Day 1 of People Matters TechHR India 2022 this week, Breitfelder shared his immense knowledge and experience during his keynote address, “Two Sides Of The Same Coin: People and Culture” at the virtual edition.
Right off the bat, Breitfelder’s keynote addressed the common goals and purposes that all HR divisions share, irrespective of the type of company they are a part of. “We are here in the HR field to recruit, develop and retain the best people for our companies to achieve their purpose and drive long term success, all while building the best cultures for our people to do the best work of their careers in our organizations,” he said.
Turning reality on its head
“One of the things that drives me in the work that I do in HR is the data on employee engagement: We see that only 20% of people self-report as being highly-engaged,” he said.
While people may choose to focus on the 20%, the economist in Breitfelder sees this as an 80% failure rate. “In all our companies, we have work to do to turn that reality on its head and create cultures that maximize engagement and strive for an 80-100% rate of high engagement and high performance,” he said.
“Let's all step back to look with #fresheyes at the complex and, in many cases, unprecedented challenges – pain of the pandemic, massive social changes, economic volatility and automation at work,” he advised.
“CHROs today not only have a seat at the table, we are superglued to the table!”
Everyone around these tables is looking to HR for answers, who have become the Chief of Everything Else. Science advisors, social change indicators, sympathiser-in-chief, HR tech guru, inflation predictor: CHROs are busier and more popular than ever.
“We are right in the centre of the action, faced by tremendous pressure and opportunity,” he said.
Breitfelder further spoke about how the moment of reckoning is here to modernize the CHRO role to fit the times. “Sure, the changes mean the CHRO role is elevated. But this change also presents a problem of its own – an excess demand problem.We have way more demands on our time than hours in the day,” he said, highlighting the many balls a CHRO has to constantly juggle through the day (and night).
To illustrate how HR professionals can effectively deal with the excess demand problem, Breitfelder explained the concept of alpha.
In the world of investing, “data” is used to describe the performance of the broader market. “Alpha” is used for the impact investors have in beating the market. The magic of investing is all about how much “alpha” you can create through your impacts and insights. The work of HR is also all about “alpha”.
On any given day an HR professional does all hiring, exits, developments, performance reviews, promotions, tech implementation, community activities, development programs. Each of those components are important. But they need to be narrowed down in a sustainable way to the work that generates the highest alpha.
We can create the most alpha in three areas: Change leader, executive coach and operational leader, he explained.
CHRO as an operational leader
Being a strong operational leader and accountable executive has been at the heart of the traditional role of HR. HR professionals are accountable for a range of operational responsibilities and are often responsible for the single largest spend item on the P&L - compensation.
“We are constantly re-engineering processes and looking for ways to be champions of simplification. There has been a proliferation of HR tech and innovation that is about improving employee experience and making achieving “alpha” in HR easier,” he said.
This proliferation can be, unfortunately, difficult to navigate.
Everyone seems to be pitching the next best thing in HR tech. But how many of these pitches can really deliver and how many of these can actually be absorbed is the real question.
“HR leaders need to approach this part of our role with a line leader mindset and we need to drive results in the same way. This is where we are essentially general managers.”
“One of HR’s superpowers is we have deep insights into how to unlock tremendous talent value and the value of human capital. There is a lot of opportunity for commercial impact in the work we do everyday, if we know where to look and what to focus on,” Breitfelder said.
CHRO as a change leader
“CHROs are in the change business,” he said as he moved to the second area where HR professionals need to create the most “alpha”.
To highlight the importance of being a change leader, Breitfelder quoted Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. “In the world today we need to move from being know-it-alls to learn-it-alls”.
“This is because so much of the work we need to do in change are not things we know or understand. They are things that are being shaped and driven and innovated as we speak,” he said.
Breitfelder further spoke about the importance of work tech and HR conferences such as TechHR, the largest conference of its kind in Asia. “Conferences like these are important in leveraging the expertise of our peers to co-create practices that don’t even exist yet,” he said.
“I have found it helpful to band together with the most critical quartet in any company that best advises the CEO. For me this is about working interchangeably with the COO, CFO and head of strategy. So the four are working together to tackle all big strategic issues to bring to the CEO, simultaneously, the operational lens, the strategic lens, the financial lens and the talent lens.”
“Any day that I am not speaking to these three partners is a day that is a little less productive,” he said.
“We should deploy the same mindset as our colleagues in the tech world. Constantly piloting, testing and scaling new solutions to see what works best. There are no silver bullet solutions! Iteration is the only path to sustainable excellence,” he advised.
CHRO as an executive coach
According to Breitfelder, this is the space where HR professionals can add the most value. “Getting transactions done will always be an important part of HR’s role. Some solutions can have a 5x, some have a standard x impact, if you get coaching right you are ready to seize the 100x and 1000x opportunities. You can then break through the most pivotal moments that usually come at the most inconvenient time,” he said.
At Apollo we are focused on building the ultimate modern high performance culture, and to do so it is important to create a feedback and coaching machine on what is working and what is not working at the individual, team and organisational level. These insights can then be used to coach leaders.
“The most serious leaders are always the most open-minded and they understand that the pain of trying something new is the price of high performance,” he said.
“In the modern craft of HR, the ability to build trust and focus each individual on the overlap between their personal purpose and the company’s goal, that is where we find the biggest opportunities for greater performance.”
“If we do this well we get better business outcomes, better employee engagement and better employee satisfaction.”
But better doesn’t mean done, he warned.
“We are never done. We are striving to build this modern learning culture that is engaged, inclusive, and high performing.” He added one final reminder to HR professionals: “Remember, we are the orchestrators of good ideas.”