Most leaders don’t view HR as a strategic pillar of the business and this leaves a lot of professionals feeling somewhat frustrated. In this interview series, we talk to HR professionals and business leaders in the know to share what companies can gain by having HR should help drive company decisions.
Hi Cydney, welcome to the series! Before we drive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I became a creative director when my boss (who had a serious anger management problem) threw a desk phone through a plate glass window onto Third Avenue in NYC (and in the process threw away his career).
There was a global print campaign to be presented to the client the next day. I filled in and essentially received a battlefield promotion—an inglorious but colorful way to become a VP/CD at age 26. I loved developing concepts and bringing them to life in beautiful print and wacky TC ads. I was riding the last fumes of the Madmen era and it was a very fun ride.
After a stint in the middle east working for Saatchi and BBDO in developing markets, I returned to NYC, took a left turn into consulting at Deloitte, and then EY’s human capital practices making a very happy landing at Edelman 6 years ago.
It’s been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Wasn’t it Freud who said there are no accidents, just the subconscious leaking out? The funniest mistake was going into an interview for a Creative Director role and mistaking the Chief Creative Officer for his admin.
But, in the end, the mistake had a happy ending because the exec was happy to be mistaken for someone half his age (hello vanity!) and the admin thought it was hilarious and ended up doing me lots of favors when I was eventually hired to that team.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’m so grateful to my mentor at Deloitte who saw my passion and ambition for innovating human capital offerings and gave me license to operate and color outside the lines—a big gift when you keep in mind that Big Four consultancies are essentially risk-averse.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If you ain’t the lead dog, the scenery never changes.” This quote sums up what it means to be a successful advisor in professional services since our purpose is to help clients stay ahead of the pack, see around corners, and anticipate what’s next.
From a personal perspective, it’s the impetus that led me to want to live and work in places like Cairo, Paris, Jerusalem, Gaza, Dallas, NYC, and London in order to gain a global perspective—critical to serving multinational clients.
Thinking back on your own career, what would you tell your younger self?
He who hesitates is lunch. Don’t limit yourself with expectations of perfection. Dive in, iterate ideas and keep moving them along.
Let’s now move to the central part of our interview about HR. Why do you think HR deserves a place in the boardroom and in high-level decision-making? Can you help articulate how a company will gain from that?
Employees have never had more material impact on business. The ability to design and execute a talent strategy that delivers the business strategy is now a board-level concern because the war for talent has never been more complex.
But, perhaps more importantly, there’s been a sea change in the employee/employer compact. No longer is shareholder value the sole focus of the board. And, today, employees sit at the intersection of a company’s entire multistakeholder ecosystem; their influence on all other stakeholders is unprecedented.
Yet heretofore, their voice was seldom heard at a governance level. HR is the manifestation of the worker voice. Worker voice matters because human-centric organizations are good places for business and society.
From your experience, how can HR people and culture professionals ensure they’re involved in strategic planning processes?
The complexity of today's operating environment demands new types of data to inform strategic discussions. This new data goes far beyond typical workforce analytics and even encompasses insights on talent risks and opportunities derived from large bodies of unstructured data.
The best way to sum this up? Last summer, within a span of 8 weeks, I had calls from over a dozen C-suite leaders all asking for the same thing. This is how the CCO of one of the world’s largest software companies summed up the need: “Cydney, while I have engagement surveys and pulse survey data, that’s only the top of the iceberg. How can I understand what’s below the surface of the water?”
Employee sentiment and the ability to predict it can avert crises and create armies of advocates.
A lot of folks believe that CHROs would make great CEOs, but often they’re overlooked. Why do you think that is?
Human capital has never been perceived as true capital. In a world of shareholder primacy, the realm of HR stood in a distant shadow. Despite the old saw “treat employees like customers,” their value has only recently been felt. This is HR’s moment.
What skills can HR folks work on to become more effective business partners?
In addition to mastering the complexities of finance, become passionate about data and the insights it can bring. These will, in essence, become your competitive advantage.
Based on your experience and success, what are the most important ways that HR can help drive company decisions?
1. Deliver a differentiated level of information your board needs to make people-related decisions.
When recovering from a crisis in 2021, one of the world’s largest heavy industry multinationals struggled to get real-time, warm data on raw employee sentiment that was critical to their reputation recovery. They knew they couldn’t rely on survey data alone, given the inherent bias that accompanies even the best-administered surveys.
When the board asked for real-time, warm data, their CHRO worked with her data and analytics team to create a set of data that combined their own engagement surveys, traditional workforce analytics KPIs (such as the ability to attract and retain talent), and employee experience data flows from all their international sites.
This provided leadership with a continuous stream of insights on the volume and velocity of employee sentiment on crisis-related issues. That intel informed decisions that sped reputation recovery.
2 . Prepare to take on significant accountability for delivering your company’s next large-scale business transformation.
Because “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, and HR typically supports culture-shift programs, CHROs can drive better transformation decisions by redefining culture as behavior-led strategy execution instead of focusing on a culture solely informed by values.
When Europe’s largest performance materials company launched a new strategy to future-proof it against competition, the leadership team identified their top strategic value driver. Then their CHRO and HRLT, working alongside their partners in the business, defined the behaviors and ways of working that were critical to supporting those value drivers for the workforce segments most associated with them
This accelerated the attainment of business objectives with a precision focus where needed, instead of trying to “boil the ocean” of culture.
3 . Represent the worker voice.
Workers are a rich source of strategic and operational insight for the companies that employ them. And yet, only 30% of American workers surveyed by Gallup reported that, at work, their opinions really count.
By recognizing, seriously considering, and acting upon employee voices, employers can build a community where trust is stronger.
In June of 2020, the CEO of a leading global pharmaceutical company met with his leadership team and told his CHRO to set in motion a mandated return to office for all employees.
Sensing this would ignite a highly unfavorable employee reaction, the CHRO quickly gathered data regarding the unwavering productivity of its remote workers, the stances other CEOs were taking on flexibility, and powerful sentiment insights from their own people.
Forty-eight hours after calling for RTO, the CEO reversed his decision, citing, in his words, “the voices of my own people spoke to me loudest of all the data.” The CEO as Chief Empathy Officer.
4 . Partner with your CMO colleague to align the Cx and Ex.
Today, your brand promise for consumers and employees must be one and the same. In essence, they are reciprocal because, as behavioral science tells us, human beings expect reciprocity i.e employees expect to be treated the same way as customers!
In 2022, the US’ largest pharmacy retailer was set to launch its new consumer brand, accompanied by a set of employee behaviors designed to reinforce the customer brand promise in stores.
The CHRO pioneered a collaboration with the CMO to join forces and make the employee brand promise reciprocal to the consumer brand promise: to ensure a positive, healthy, and safe experience each time they entered a store. This created a virtuous circle of positive outcomes.
Our own Edelman Trust Barometer data tells us that consumers are now watching how companies treat their people. The data revealed that “90% of consumers want brands to protect the well-being and financial security of their employees and suppliers, even if it means suffering financial losses…”
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen businesses make when faced with hard decisions? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
I often see this mistake in transformative mergers or other difficult transactions: leaders focus on managing deal value not realizing that, no matter how elegant the deal strategy, it’s only as executable if the people who must deliver on it are engaged.
Leaders often ignore the need to communicate, manage painful and uncertain change, design clear operating models, or simply take a human-centric approach to the transformation because they are so focused on Wall Street.
Another hard decision: the inability to sunset ways of working that are no longer serving the organization. New behaviors must be aligned to new operating models and strategies and take the employee value proposition into consideration…. not dictated by tradition.
Culture shift is the hardest work in the realm of HR, yet it is at the heart of large-scale business transformation.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private lunch with and why?
Hands down Christiane Lagarde, President of the European Central Bank since 2019, previously the Managing Director of the IMF, former French Minister of Economy, Finance and Industry (and the first woman to hold each of those posts).
Perhaps even more phenomenally, she rose through the ranks of Baker McKenzie to become its first female Global Chairperson in 1999. I’d love to have a conversation with her about human capital, how its valuation can be better considered in economics, and how a more human-centric approach to labor economics is long overdue.
Thanks so much for your insights, Cydney! How can our readers further follow your work?
Other interviews in the series: