Dennis Shuler, currently the President and Founder of Core Strengths Management Consulting and Executive Chairman (and Investor) at Kinetic Consulting, North America, is an HR leader with over three decades of business experience in C-suite Human Resources leadership roles in companies including Procter & Gamble, The Walt Disney Company, The Kellogg Company among others. Shuler has recently joined the Board of PeopleStrong and is an expert in HR strategy.
You have been in HR for more than three decades now, and have been associated with some of the world’s top brands. What have been the major takeaways from your journey?
In my career, I intentionally joined companies that had a mission I could associate with, I could feel part of and be proud of. Procter & Gamble was the first company I worked with, and then it was the Walt Disney Company and Kellogg Company among others.
What I realized in my professional journey was that an employer gets the employees it deserves. The employer either develops the organization and its culture in a way that allows its people to flourish, be motivated and inspired to create things that are unimaginable; or be a kind of a downcast, low trust organization that needs to be controlled and manipulated. People are central to any business’ sustained success, and the employers who fervently believe (and practice) this, end up creating the most successful companies that stand the test of times. I reflect back on what Walt Disney said, “You can design or create and build the most wonderful place in the world, but it takes people to make the dream a reality.” This underlines the vital importance of people in an organization.
So how can organizations truly achieve sustainable superior performance? What can companies do differently to attain this?
Some companies succeed over generations while others don't. The HR needs to contemplate on the reasons for this. I believe the reason that some companies continue to be high performing organizations is because they are mission-driven. Take the case of P&G that was incorporated almost 180 years ago. Many Fortune 500 companies have ceased to exist, but P&G continues to be among the most admired companies in the world. Why? Because it is mission-driven. When you work for this company, you truly do believe that you are touching people and improving their lives with your products. It's one of the best and when you work there you feel you are among the best. Richard Deupree (CEO of P&G from 1930-1947) had also stated, “You can take away all our brands and money, but our people will rebuild the company in a decade.” And those same values about the importance of people are passed onto the next generation of management, thus the value-system of the company remains intact.
Speaking at a strategic level, all employees want to be business partners. They want to understand, feel connected and be a part of the business. And they will take responsibility and ownership if the workplace environment facilitates that. This is the essential building block of high performing organizations.
How can HR create an environment that facilitates high performance?
Firstly, high performance organizations are driven by line management, not by HR. HR enables it, but the trick is to get the line management to step-up and design the organization in a way that fuels the ambition and motivation of its people. Secondly, it is the aspirational purpose that creates alignment. What happens mostly with strategy is that you create the ‘whats’ and the ‘hows’ of choices, but end up obscuring the core purpose of the enterprise in the communication process. Deploying strategy in a way that provides context to the organization creates higher levels of alignment and meaning.
Thirdly, a clear set of values that are ingrained over and over throughout the organization. This is done not just to avoid the legal ramifications of rule violation, but more importantly because it is part of the ethos of the organization and what it stands for. Take the example of Nordstrom, a major retail company in the US renowned for its customer service. Their policy book is just one statement – “Do the right thing at the cash register.” They don't have a big binder of policies, but they continually train their people to be responsible where it counts at the point of customer service. The principle is that if one hires the right people, train them well, they will make the right decision.
Fourth, in high performance organizations, leadership is distributed throughout the organization. There is a premium on selecting people who can be leaders, training people, providing performance feedback, all designed to create more leaders. These companies put a premium on business ownership, irrespective of the function one belongs to, be it HR or marketing. And the organization is seen as a resource base, not a cost. Asking how to trim the cost of an organization is the wrong question. The right question is how to make the organization and its people more effective and motivated. A right workforce will innovate and create space. Fear is Kryptonite to the innovation process. Companies that create an environment of trust where people can aspire to be all that they can be are more innovative and better performers than their peers.
In the given context, what would you say the real job of HR would be then?
HR’s role is to design organizations and work in a way that creates meaning, not to robotize it – so much so that people will give the essence of their lives to the enterprise. There are two theories that underpin how organizations design their systems – Theory X or Theory Y. Theory X managers believe employees aren’t very smart and motivated, and tend to avoid work. So when they design an organization system, their reaction is to control. But in Theory Y, one is predisposed to achieve and want to aspire to greatness and all that is needed is an environment that catalyses that. In most companies I have studied, on an average, 58 percent people state that they work to their fullest potential. So what to do with the 42% who have not unlocked their true potential? That's the leverage point for HR. HR needs to ask itself – How does one take that 58 percent and make it into 100 percent?
In the book, “The Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter”, Liz Wiseman classifies people into talent diminishers and talent multipliers. Talent diminishers are the hero leaders, and without them, people cannot do anything. They are usually empire builders, tyrants, know-it-alls, they make all the decisions and more often than not they are seen micro-managers. They are only able to tap into 48 percent of the capability that exists in the organization. Talent multipliers, on the other side, operate from the premise that they have hired very smart people and their job is to get out of the way and enable the people. By doing this, they create high levels of ownership within the company.
According to you, what aspect of HR function is of the maximum value to the organization?
It would have to be strategy. I’ve managed all aspects of HR – recruiting, compensation, benefits management, talent management, etc. and I think these functions are very important. However, the real differentiator for HR is the ability to sit next to the business leader and determine the plan or framework to grow the business in the next 3 to 5 years, to develop key focus areas for strategy, convey it to the organization and build the required organization capability. That's where HR people should be.
Most of the times when people are asked why they want to be in HR, one of the most common answers is that they are very good with people or they like to help people. Is that the right reason to be in HR? How does one figure out whether it is a good idea to be in HR or not?
HR is really about unleashing the capacity of people. So you have to have an interest in people, but that is not the real issue. The best people that stand out in HR are the ones that you can’t distinguish from business people. Personally, the best compliment I ever got was when someone said I sounded more like a business person than an HR person. When you understand the business and you understand it really well, then you can bring expertise on organizations and insights on people to it that nobody else on the leadership team has.
Is it true that when people put on that kind of a perspective of understanding the business, there comes a time when you stop worrying about the people element of it? How would one balance it out?
It certainly doesn't mean that if you're close to the business that you do not have an independent viewpoint of the organization. My role throughout my professional life has been to understand the business in order to be a balancing voice between the business and that of the organization. Balance is key.
This interview has been built from excerpts from Dennis Shuler's keynote speech and his talkshow with Abhijit Bhaduri, at the TechHR'16 Conference held on the 4th & 5th of August.