Most leaders don’t know how to employ 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 in the know business leaders, to share what companies can gain by having HR helping to drive company decisions.
Doug Dennerline began his technology career as an HP sales representative in the Bay Area of San Francisco many moons ago. Today he’s CEO of Betterworks, a performance management tool used by some of the world’s top companies.
As Vice President of HR Transformation at Betterworks, Jamie Aitken brings over twenty-five years of experience in delivering organizational development, HR transformation and employee engagement strategies that contribute to business performance. Her portfolio spans multiple industries and sectors working both within those organizations as an HR practitioner as well as supporting them as a consultant across the entire spectrum of human capital practices.
Hi both, welcome to the series! Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Jamie Aitken: After graduating from university, I moved up to Canada and started working for a public sector division of the provincial government doing strategy and communications relating to mine reclamation. I also did graphic design for an organization that investigated airplane accidents—I credit this work for both my skill of thinking outside of the box to solve puzzles, something I’m still fascinated with today.
Doug Dennerline: Our company Betterworks actually began in the Objectives and Key Results space—think Fitbit for enterprises—where you can see how you’re progressing with goals on a regular basis. Over time, we’ve morphed it into being more than just a goal application, but working to replace the antiquated annual performance review process. This shift was vital, reflecting the demand for regular, ongoing feedback in the workplace that we’re seeing as Millennials and Gen Z enter the workforce.
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?
Jamie Aitken: Early in my career, I was working in change management for a large national retailer in a corporate office. I was coming across resistance from different parts of the organization, and was getting irritated. My then-boss had to remind me that I was the common denominator in each of those situations and, as a change practitioner, I was actually doing exactly the opposite of my intentions! This helped make me a lot more savvy about how I navigate organizationally, realizing not everybody would immediately be your ally.
Doug Dennerline: When I was a leader at Cisco, we used voicemails as our primary internal communication method. At the time I was having some difficulty with how one of my direct reports was performing, and was going to forward a voicemail message from that person to HR as evidence that they were not a fit for the company. Instead replied directly to that individual! I’ve since learned to be very thoughtful about both what I say to people and how I treat people.
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?
Jamie Aitken: I credit a former HR practitioner colleague of mine, Manal Kemah, for drilling down every HR meeting into one simple reminder, “How is this going to help the business?” It can get easy to get swept away by the newest shiny workplace trend, or get bogged down in creating processes that we find interesting, but as HR practitioners we always have to remind ourselves how we can best support the business.
Doug Dennerline: One influential person in my life was a close friend and former colleague, Rick Justice. We became very close friends bonding over both being expats running companies in Hong Kong. I ended up working for him at Cisco. We lost Rick to cancer last year, but the way he treated people with empathy, the way he truly cared about the people that worked for him, will stay with me always.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Jamie Aitken: My favorite life lesson is that you always have choices, even when you don’t think you do. If you feel backed into a corner, you have the choice of how to react. It can be hard to recognize this choice, especially if the situation is clouding your better judgment, but if you’re willing to take a deep breath and not respond out of fear or anger, you’ll be able to see those choices and act in your best interest.
Doug Dennerline: Know people, don’t just manage them. It’s also important to show up to work as the same person every day—no highs or lows—so that the people you work with know they can depend on your stability and consistency.
Thinking back on your own career, what would you tell your younger self?
Jamie Aitken: Be equally courageous and patient. You’ll need the courage to create and innovate, but you’ll need the patience to realize that your motivation for change and your capacity for change will not always be at the same level and to be patient and respectful to others who may not move as quickly as you.
Doug Dennerline: Early in my managing roles, I had high expectations for the people around me and did not tolerate diversions from those expectations well. Now, I try to give people the benefit of the doubt and assume positive intent for their actions.
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?
Jamie Aitken: The real question is, why hasn’t HR deserved a place in the boardroom before now? Human capital is an organization’s biggest asset, as CEOs keep quoting in annual reports, but it still doesn’t carry the same weight in the boardroom. The workplace turbulence we’ve seen post-pandemic, like The Great Resignation and Quiet Quitting, are starting to bring this issue to the forefront, but it’s got a long way to go.
Doug Dennerline: I believe one of the most critical roles a CEO can have on their executive team is a strong, operationally-minded HR leader.
A great HR leader is one who is curious about the business and strategy, not just the people. CEOs should recognize that their HR leader can act as a business mirror to ensure the leadership team has the goals of the company in mind.
From your experience, how can HR people and culture professionals ensure they’re involved in strategic planning processes?
Jamie Aitken: Demand a seat at that table. In terms of assets, think of employees and company culture like another piece of necessary machinery that needs to be focused on in terms of financial resources, maintenance, upgrades, etc., but it’s been overlooked until now.
Doug Dennerline: You have to earn the respect of the leadership team, which is unfortunately not something you can necessarily teach people. It's knowing when to be diplomatic and knowing when to bring up a difficult conversation in a diplomatic way so that people can be heard. There’s an innate quality that you need. Beyond that, it’s a matter of building a background of handling and learning from different situations that arise.
A lot of folks believe that CHROs would make great CEOs, but often they’re overlooked. Why do you think that is?
Jamie Aitken: I actually think the skillet that CHROs build throughout their career doesn’t necessarily align with the public’s current perception of CEOs—there’s a stereotypical assumption that CEOs have to be a certain level of ruthless, which is on the opposite side of the spectrum from the empathy we expect from a CHRO. We’re seeing a current shift in executive competencies right now that leans toward empathetic leadership, but there’s still a disconnect.
Doug Dennerline: Unfortunately, we see all too often HR people hiding behind the policies of HR, such as making it difficult to manage out poor performers without having every I dotted and T crossed regarding all the written communication about their poor performance before you can get them moved out of the organization, which can actually slow the organization down. This can lead to leadership teams having the perception that HR practitioners won’t be able to run a company, which I disagree with. Good, strategic HR leaders can definitely run a company well.
What skills can HR folks work on to become more effective business partners?
Jamie Aitken: Listening is the most important skill across the board and is the hallmark of a top CEO. HR practitioners would also benefit from learning skills typically reserved for CEOs and CFOs, like honing their finance, data, and business acumen.
Doug Dennerline: You have to be curious about the business. Who’s the customer? What’s the selling methodology? Why do they buy? These are the questions you need to ask to become a more effective business partner. It also helps to be excited about the organization’s mission and products.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important ways that HR can help drive company decisions? Please share a story or an example for each.
1 . Have data at hand. It’s all about quantifying traditionally non-quantified data points so that you can make data-driven decisions and provide those kinds of insights to the organization. Implementing a human capital management system allows technology to uncover data points that would otherwise be scattered across a million different pieces of paper around the world.
2 . Foster a collaborative executive team and make sure it’s a cohesive unit. The gift that we bring from our perspective and our experience is bringing that to the very team that we are on without being a facilitator. In that way we are an active participant, but also taking on that role to ensure that the team is cohesive and work to remove friction that would get in the way of the effectiveness of that team.
3 . Have the mindset of the CEO (Chief Empathy Officer, that is). Think of empathy as a strength and a core part of your skill set. Being the model for empathy allows others to adapt to and adopt a people-centric mindset when making company decisions.
4 . Company culture extends beyond HR. CHROs tend to be the organization’s ‘culture carrier’, but it’s actually something that the entire executive team should be responsible for. This allows leadership to get involved in a meaningful way in change initiatives and bring that mindset into all of their business decisions.
5 . Focus on business outcomes. HR should be able to explain why retaining or disposing of approaches makes both “sense” and “cents” to the business – to borrow a phrase from Leapgen co-founder Jason Averbook. Rather than focusing on a new technology or process that will make life easier for HR, explain how the business benefits. HR competes with other functions for investment dollars and must be able to articulate a compelling business case.
1. Have a strong understanding of the company’s strategy, and then help to promote the strategy by making sure the company is future-proofed leadership-wise to have the skills they'll need to get you to where the strategy's trying to take you.
2. Be a mirror to the leadership team, especially the CEO. This will help make sure the people they are hiring and developing have the skills to get the organization where it needs to be
3. Build a competent team. You’ll need all the right human resources capabilities in order to build a company culture that can win against your organization’s competitors.
4. Be a trusted listener. Since they have an ear to the ground, HR can serve as a sounding board for leadership, especially in terms of communicating difficult conversations between individuals—they’re more likely to tell a trusted HR leader as a means of mediating the conflict.
5. Be visible and accessible. The best way to build confidence and trust within the organization is to be more forward-facing and amongst the people than any other role.
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?
Jamie Aitken: The most common mistakes I’ve seen are acting out of fear, acting too quickly or slowly, and acting without consulting others.
Doug Dennerline: The biggest mistake I continue to see is waiting too long to make a decision that needed to be made. For example, knowing that someone on the leadership team isn’t a good fit but waiting too long to do anything about it. Every amount of time lost waiting for that decision counts against the success of the business. Another mistake is not voicing your opinion, which is a big part of being a diplomatic HR leader.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private lunch with, and why?
Jamie Aitken: I would have loved to have lunch with Anthony Bourdain—it would have been an eye-opening experience and the food would have been magnificent.
Doug Dennerline: I’d love to have lunch with Tiger Woods. His accomplishments and perseverance are astounding, and I just want to ask him a bunch of questions about how he was able to do that.
Thank you both for your insights! How can our readers further follow your work?
We can both be found on our LinkedIn profiles (Jamie Aitken and Doug Dennerline), as well as our upcoming book Make Work Better: Revolutionizing How Great Bosses Lead, Give Feedback, and Empower Employees, which publishes in April.
More insights from the series: