Executive teams under duress inevitably retreat behind walls of spreadsheets and for good reasons. Whether the stress arises from changing market pressures, acquisitions, divestitures, an IPO or any other cause, CEOs and their surrounding teams know that attention to top and bottom lines is crucial. Truth in transformation lies in numbers. However, thriving through transformation requires people — the right people.
And that requires prioritizing human resource management throughout the change.
I stepped in as Symantec’s chief human resources officer four years ago, just as the company was edging toward the decision to spin off its $7 billion storage group, Veritas.
With over 25 years of human resources leadership experience at Frito-Lay, Disney, Sun Microsystems, Cisco and others, I learned how successful enterprises leverage human resources to facilitate their transformation objectives through people. In order for a company to attract, motivate, deploy and capitalize on its talent, I would like to share a plan based on six core concepts that I have seen pay massive dividends during transformation.
1. Be relentlessly transparent. Businesses inevitably form silos, cliques and agendas. However, the more insulation develops between groups, the less any individual or group can gain an accurate sense of reality in the organization. I recall being in one executive meeting where everyone showed up with scorecards showing nothing but green statuses on their work streams. “If you’ve got this much green, I don’t believe it,” I thought. We need to have more yellows and reds to be real with ourselves. It’s not about truth so much as transparency. We have these interdependencies. We rely on each other. If I think you’re green that means I can go ahead and do my thing — until it’s too late, and then we risk all failing together. Successful corporate transformation requires alignment with every stakeholder, and that alignment can’t happen with people wearing rose-colored glasses.
Pulling those glasses off may entail fierce discussions and overcoming confusion. It may mean asking for help and accepting, without judgment, that people are imperfect. Part of HR’s job is to mediate that process in ways that empower everyone to leave them free to move forward on an aligned path.
2. Look both vertically and horizontally. Everyone has a vertical path, that set of problems and responsibilities that dominates your day and the strategy behind your role. Fewer people also scan horizontally. When you see and understand others’ work streams, you start to find points where their paths intersect with yours and those around you. Those intersections can yield major impact, both positive and negative, and the sooner you can see those patterns, the better you will be able to leverage or avoid those impacts. Because of its broad scope, HR should be better than most at this horizontal scanning and pattern recognition.
3. Use relationships to see both realities. Every corporate culture has its own paradoxes, its own forms of doublethink. How should someone new to HR leadership, or a leader in a new HR role, survive in the absence of experience? By embracing both realities. First, you need to rely on the formal leaders for alignment. They will tell you how things get done. Then, you need to find the informal leaders, the influencers and top performers who know how things “really” get done. Learn both routes and follow both.
Will formal and informal leaders tell you everything you need to know on Day One? Not at all. You must forge positive relationships with both groups and gain trust so that they want to tell you everything you’ll need. You must be an excellent listener. Those relationships will sustain you when things don’t go as planned. People will know your intentions were good, offer forgiveness, and help to orient you in a better direction.
4. Shape the energy. Every meeting I am in, I get clear about the energy in the room. That may sound really amorphous, but it’s real. People come in closed. They’re outcome-focused, not present in the conversation. I try to shift that energy, because if people aren’t listening and open to the discussion, then we’re going to see failure. Human resources professionals need to emphasize the human element of HR. The energy dynamics in the room as well as those outside of it shape the corporate culture and its operations. Consider: Is your company’s culture one in which the things said in the meeting room is the same things that get shared outside it? Are commitments made in the room but then not carried out beyond it? The answers define whether a business is functional or dysfunctional. HR executives have the power to shape the energy if they can recognize it and respond appropriately.
5. Don’t just be your hat. Do not fall into the trap of thinking HR leadership is your top role. You are a business leader first. Too often, people define what they do by the functional hat they wear. If you wear the HR hat and act within the traditional functional perspective of that HR role, you may have solid priorities, but you won’t have perspective. A business leader understands how the business operates, right down to its nuances. If people observe you not understanding these nuances, you will lose your ability to influence. They won’t trust your advice, because they’ll feel you don’t understand the whole picture.
6. Take the vitals, then use them. Times of transition are rife with ambiguity. Roles can change on a dime, and new plans often overlap with old, potentially breeding confusion. Clarity and effectiveness in such periods depends on constant inquiry, listening, and conversation. In this vein, if you will, HR executives need to be like doctors and take the pulse of employees at regular intervals in order to determine health. These are vital statistics — vital to the company’s well-being and growth.
Very often, employees have better insights than executives. In a transformation, regular pulsing is critical.
When you combine these six skills, you’re in a position to create clarity in a company that might otherwise get stuck in the fog of transition. A human resources executive with these skills is perfectly placed to help transform the top and bottom lines, open new markets, and lead the business in a wave of innovation.
Amy Cappellanti-Wolf is the chief human resources officer for Mountain View, California-based Symantec. Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.