Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), the world's largest HR professional society. SHRM has grown to a record 3,00,000 members in over 165 countries, impacting the lives of more than 115 million workers and families globally.
Taylor has a diverse background in leadership and people strategies across various global organizations and industries. Before joining SHRM, he was president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. He also has been responsible for the global HR function at IAC, a portfolio of publicly-traded media and Internet businesses, later assuming the CEO role for one of IAC's operating companies. In addition, he was a labor and employment partner at McGuireWoods, LLP, where he was president of the law firm’s HR consulting section.
Taylor has served on multiple for-profit and mission-driven boards, while always making good human resource management a priority. Before becoming CEO, Taylor was a long-time SHRM member and served as chair of its board of directors in 2005 and 2006.
In an interaction with People Matters, Taylor takes us through his journey from a lawyer to the CEO of SHRM, the expert of all things work, workers and the workplace.
You started your career with a major law firm after pursuing a joint degree in law and mass communications. You then started a tech company as its founding CEO and then moved into the non-profit higher education space. Can you tell us more about your diverse career and what was the key motivator for you while going through these shifts?
Everything in the formative stages of my career was focused on becoming a lawyer.
As a matter of fact, going to law school was the only “planned” part of my life. I saw my neighbor go to law school and become a lawyer. I thought, ”I want to be that.”
That’s why mentorship, apprenticeships and things like that matter so much. I didn’t come from a family of lawyers, but I could look at other people who had done it and say, “If I can see it, I can do it.” So, seeing opportunities in other people is critical for career and growth.
What happened thereafter is interesting. I was a labor and employment lawyer. Those experiences – typically responding to things that had gone wrong between employers and their employees – gave me a real insight into the challenges of people management. What I found was that I was constantly fixing things that were broken – and typically in the course of costly, nasty litigation. I remember constantly wondering: “Why are we here? Where did this all go wrong?” That was really my segue to HR. I left the law department to go into HR and I said, ‘If we could just do things better, we could prevent lawsuits and improve the relationships between companies and their human resources.”
Conventional wisdom is that you design your business strategy first and then you go to your people strategy second. I flipped it on its head. I said, "We're going to start with people first."
Once in HR, I realized that finding really talented people was harder than I ever imagined, and that part of the problem was that people lacked the requisite skills for the jobs we were searching to fill. We were all saying we needed talent and we knew the talent we met suffered from a skills gap. This led me to want to better understand the education sector, college and university education in particular. So, I assumed the role at a national college fund. After seven and a half years in higher education, I received a call from an executive search firm looking for the next CEO of “SHRM”. And it’s so funny in life, everything makes sense. It was like, my legal practice, my HR practice, and my education practice. And I ran a business, in the middle of all that – a dot.com, so I knew how to run a business. It really felt like I was made for this job.
So, what was the mandate when SHRM happened to you? What was the exciting part and what was the big challenge that made you think you can really make a larger contribution?
I was the chairman of SHRM’s Board of Directors in 2005 and 2006. I didn’t ever envision coming back to do this because I had a corporate career at the time and couldn’t imagine working full-time for a non-profit trade association. I could not have been more wrong about the opportunity. It is a beautiful homecoming.
When I took over this role at the beginning of 2018, we were in the middle of the “perfect storm” for HR professionals: (1) we had a very healthy economy in the United States; (2) Growth was everywhere and businesses needed people to continue growing; CEOs were openly saying: “The key to my success is not access to financial capital, it’s access to human capital;” and (3) #MeToo became a global phenomenon as a result of Harvey Weinstein very public sexual harassment scandal. Everyone was talking about #MeToo, workplace harassment, and workplace equity. With all of these workplace/people issues happening at once, I realized that I could be in the middle of a global discussion and a global mission — which was to make people’s lives at work better. Because if we did that, then we could make a better world.
One of the things I want to do more globally is understanding employment. In the U.S., we're talking about the gig-economy, informal workforce, whereas in India, there seems to be the opposite problem with large percentage of informal employment.
So what were some of the foundational year-one things that had the biggest impact?
It was very simple: people strategy first, and then business strategy. Conventional wisdom is that you design your business strategy first and then you go to your people strategy second. I flipped it on its head. I said, “We’re going to start with people first.” The senior management team got together, and, within 30 days, we decided on our culture and guiding principles. We made a major change in the first 60 days. Not only was it challenging, but it’s also intimidating for people. A lot of folks told me, “Do the business strategy first.” But my logic was: If you have the wrong people helping you design your business strategy, then you’re going to end up with the wrong business strategy, right? We started replacing people almost instantly and, once we figured out that we had the right group of smart, talented people, we focused on our business strategy. It was a two-part, two-stage strategy. So, after we changed the people, we brought in three different business consultants, government affairs consultants, and communications consultants and they helped us think about it. Three of these groups came and sat down with the new team. Together we came up with the business strategy we’re implementing now.
That's quite a big commitment, isn't it? From a business-outcomes perspective, if you're starting with people, quite a lot of other things have to wait. So how did you build that conversation?
You noted how much time I spent with the people, our members, and our employees. I needed to get their buy-in and that was another side of it: What really worked for me was that people saw me talking with them — listening, learning, observing, not saying ”I know everything.” I took a different approach which is “look, listen, learn,” and then we acted. So that has really worked out well. But it took a lot of patience. Not just patience on my part, but patience on my team’s part as well. I like to say. “We drove the plane and built it at the same time, but we landed, and things are good.”
What do you spend most of your time as a CEO doing?
I became a CEO in 2007 - my first for-profit CEO. Then and now, I spend a lot of my time on people issues. This morning, one of my colleagues woke me up at 8 o’clock and the first thing she said was, “We’ve got a people issue.” It’s always a people issue. I spend more than 70 percent of my time as a CEO on people issues, not a broader business strategy. What I’ve learned over time is that, if you have a solid business strategy, the only way you will get it done is through your people. Making sure that moving players around the table and making sure I’m putting them in the right positions is really hard work.
You founded a tech company on your own and also served on a board of directors. So how much of all this came from your experience of running a business?
All of it. I observed very successful business people and it really was that “Aha” moment. I’ve worked with three billionaires, not CEOS who get a job from a board of directors but individual, personally wealthy people and all of them spent upwards of 60-80 percent on people. That’s what they do. They spend their time on people. If you get the right finance person, you don’t spend your time thinking about finances. I’m not an accountant. That’s not what I do. My job is to pick, motivate, and develop the right accountant. So that’s what you do. This job is all about people. Should I be able to read a balance sheet, a ledger? Yes, of course, I must know the fundamentals of business. But you need mastery at all levels in your team, which comes from investing in hiring and retaining the best talent.
I think it's a very intriguing problem statement for many HR leaders to get their leaders to actually understand. Is it people, entrepreneurs who have built businesses get it, and professionally hired HR people don't get it?
I think it comes from a lack of attention people management issues receive from the business school curriculum. For years, business leaders — CEOS, typically, not all — come from business schools. And the business schools, until recently, didn’t focus on people issues at all. They’d have one course or two of leadership in a two-year MBA program. The subject of people was never given an in-depth discussion and study. If you understand your people dynamics, your organizational chart, your succession as well as you do your capital and operations budget, you’d have a stronger organization. But business schools don’t prepare people for that. As a result, you’re asking people who’ve been trained to focus on this — as in, business — to also focus on people. That’s the problem. It’s their blindside.
It’s a foundational issue. Our schools can do better and it’s why in India, for example, we’re teaming up with universities like XLRI and ISB. There are a lot of business leaders who won’t come through those programs, so we have to figure out how to strengthen and equip HR people to do better. What it requires is courage and expertise. What happens when you, as the HR professional, know the right decision, but your CEO doesn’t? How do you use your influence and courage skills to get them to the right place? I say this oftentimes: Most CEOs don’t know technology, but the CTO’s job is to convince and persuade and influence them. That’s the same for CHROs when it comes to people matters.
SHRM recently announced an initiative called 'Getting Talent Back to Work'. Tell us about this initiative. What are the different levers that organizations need to change or barriers to break to make sure that workers with criminal backgrounds not only get hired but are included?
The first part of the question is really getting at why? Then why is pretty straightforward. In the United States alone — although it’s really important to think globally about this — about 700,000 people a year are going to be released from incarceration. If we want to do anything about lowering recidivism, they’ve got to get jobs. If they don’t have a job, they’re more likely to go back to jail. We start foundationally. Our pledge is about getting companies to not automatically throw away a candidate with a criminal record. What happens a lot: we learn a candidate has a criminal background and we immediately put them in the reject pile: “They can’t work here.” HR, sadly, oftentimes is the group that has enforced that. Background checks are important of course, but our initiative is about getting HR people and businesses to agree that we’re not going to automatically assume that they don’t fit. They deserve consideration as qualified people: give them a chance to be considered for opportunities.
For years, business leaders, CEOS, typically, not all ® come from business schools. And the business schools, until recently, didn't focus on people issues at all. They'd have one course or two of leadership in a two-year MBA program. The subject of people was never given an in-depth discussion and study.
Once you’ve done that, you can talk about the next step — bringing them in. The biggest issue now is inclusion. It’s not enough if they are hired but others won’t work with them. If people have drawn certain predisposed conclusions about how people who have been to jail are, then you put them in hostile environments. So much of our work is moving past that. The Getting Talent Back to Work” initiative is a pledge, but we also provide a toolkit. The toolkit educates, saying, “This is how you find the formally incarcerated. This is how you onboard them. But most importantly, how do you make them feel included.”
Once we’ve got people in the workplace, SHRM is going to study the issue. We don’t know a lot about this population and what happens when they come back to work. Think about it. In the past, we’ve just said, “If you have a record, there’s no job. There’s no data.” And in HR — I am a firm believer — you must make data-informed, evidence-based decisions. The First Step Act was signed in December 2018. We were there at the beginning. We can actually track these people. We can actually say: “This type of person, with this type of background, didn’t do well here; but these types of people do really well in this type of environment.” It will be informed with data, as opposed to anecdotal hit-or-miss. There will be issues. There will be people who have committed crimes who will come into your workplace and commit more crimes. Guess what? There are a ton of people who have never committed a crime who also commit crimes in the workplace for the first time. It happens. But I don’t think they are any more predisposed to commit crimes than others, and what we know for sure already is that you retain them better because they are looking for opportunities and they will value organizations that hire them.
Do you have a group of organizations that work very closely with this program? Are you piloting that toolkit and measuring it?
We are. We have more than 2,200 companies and individuals who’ve now signed up, and we are a community of people who have agreed to exchange information and data and talk about what worked and didn’t work. So yes, we’re absolutely doing it. It is about getting talent back to work. We have a workers shortage and we have a skills gap, which exacerbates the workers' shortage. We have to find talent no matter where we can find it. We don’t have the luxury of ruling out 700,000 people every year.
So this initiative is only for the U.S. right now. We have heard about your initiative in India where Indian Oil hires women with criminal records. Can you elaborate on this?
I have to tell you: SHRM has operated historically as an international organization. The same way that we take our U.S. model, thinking, vision and we export it, a truly global organization reciprocates. There is an organization from India that hires women who have been incarcerated, Indian Oil. We have learned a lot from that experience, and we are incorporating those learnings into the program. With the complexity of talent issues, we need to deal with, no one country has the answer. We need to learn from each other. One of the things I want to do more globally is understanding employment. In the U.S., we’re talking about the gig-economy, informal workforce, whereas in India, there seems to be the opposite problem with large percentage of informal employment. So there are learnings on the implications on employment, taxes, etc. It’s a fascinating discussion. We are now watching and learning from India. I love the global nature of this job.
When you look at this gig economy, automation, AI and technology coming, there will be a lot of shifts and changes in the nature of HR professionals. What would be your advice for HR leaders to get ready from a skilling or reskilling perspective of their teams?
Curiosity is the key. To look around the corner and say, “HR is going to be disrupted, not just once, twice, but in everything.” People who resist AI will be disrupted. Years ago, you used to go to the teller and get your money and the idea that an ATM machine was going to spit your money out at you, not a person, people thought was ridiculous. “That will never work!” Now, I can’t imagine living without ATMs. What has happened? People were worried about what would happen to those jobs. There are fewer bank tellers than there were 20 years ago, but now banks are larger. What it did was create a whole new set of jobs: AI jobs, programming jobs. History tells us the jobs are going to change. Banks are bigger than they were before they had the ATM. The ATM machine didn’t ruin people’s careers, right?
Where do you find that curiosity in our community?
We talk about it a lot and here’s the blunt answer: People who aren’t curious need to leave the profession. We’ve all met that HR person who you say, “You’re in HR?” You know they don’t represent our profession well. They don’t represent themselves well. They’re either not courageous, or they’re not equipped, haven’t taken the time to study HR. Whatever it is, we can help them. That’s SHRM’s role, globally, is to equip people with the skills. That’s why we have certifications. That’s why we have learning management systems. But for the people that either can't or won’t do it, we should encourage them to do something else. In HR, we need people who are curious and who genuinely care about how human beings can add value to an enterprise.
Does it feel difficult to be in an executive position in an organization that has so much history, so much of a legacy and, of course, so much of strength of the brand?
Yes, we’re 71 years old this year. We’ve been successful. That’s the problem — convincing people that we need to change when everything is going fine. My analogy is: I lease cars. Every three years, I get a new car. The car is not broken; I just want a better car. I want a new experience. I want disruption. I want the latest technology. But how difficult is it to adapt to change? Very. Human beings have a change-resistant gene.
What your advice to accelerate change in organizations?
First, people need to know what’s in it for them. Leaders need to be able to articulate their vision. Why should people want to stay here? You have to paint a vision. The second part, the part folks don’t like to talk about, is there are people who aren’t going to go on the next journey. Not just employees, but other partners, too. That’s when leaders need to say, “This isn’t for you; that’s it — so we need to separate amicably”! The third part is: Leaders need to celebrate successes. If you win, people get excited. We’re competitive, so success helps in change management.
What is your big hairy audacious goal for SHRM?
Our big hairy audacious goal for SHRM is to become $250 million business in less than five years. We have an ambitious goal. We will do it.