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Most leaders don’t see 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, business leaders, and anyone who is an authority on HR who can share what companies can gain by having HR in the boardroom and why and how HR should help drive company decisions.

Michael Knierim

Michael Knierim

Michael Knierim is a Senior Human Resources Executive who spent 27 years at Roche Pharmaceuticals working in HR, Finance, and Quality. He led HR globally for the Pharma Division in over 110 countries for over 10 years.


Michael currently works as a senior advisor to Florens, a purpose-driven organization on a mission to bring qualitative and quantitative science-backed well-being interventions to organizations so people can flourish.

Hi Michael, 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?

Like a lot of people, after finishing college I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. My father was in sales, so I decided to pursue a similar path. Initially, I worked for a small company called Microstar selling medical software. 

After a year, I wanted to really learn business, so I moved to Williams & Watts, a materials management and purchasing company. They had a management trainee program where new hires rotated to every part of the business.

From there, I decided to focus on moving into the Pharmaceutical industry. New Jersey was the “hotbed” of Pharma at the time, so I thought this would be a good career move. 

I wrote letters to all of the major Pharma companies and, in less than 2 weeks, I had an interview with the CFO of Roche Pharma for a support role introducing total quality management into the US affiliate. I joined and stayed 27 years!  

During that time, I had the opportunity to work with almost every part of the organization working in HR, Finance, and Operations.

I also had the opportunity to move to Europe to help globalize HR. During that time, I was the first Global Head of HR for Strategic Marketing & Licensing, the first Regional HR Head for Europe, and, eventually, the Global Head of HR for Commercial Operations.

Once Roche acquired Genentech, I was named the Head of HR for the Pharma Division where I had the pleasure to lead the most incredible leadership team for over 10 years.  

It has 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?

When I started my first job, I was working as a sales representative. I had a Ford Escort that didn’t have Air Conditioning. I started my job in June and was visiting doctors' offices by July in the heat of the summer when it was extremely hot and humid.  

I was consistently sweating profusely so much that I kept a small towel in my car to wipe the sweat off my face before I went into each office. I also kept a bottle of cheap cologne to ensure I didn’t smell bad!  

I learned during my first job that you need to consider ALL of the tools you need to be successful. In this case, a car with air conditioning!!!

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?

Early in my career, when I worked for Williams & Watts, I became close with Bill VanEtten, the President of the company. 

Bill took me “under his wing” to discuss leadership and all aspects of the business. He was a role model for what great leadership looked like in practice. 

He focused on developing talent, he consistently challenged the organization to learn and get better, and he focused heavily on creating a culture of teamwork and trust. He also created a workforce of diversity, equity, and inclusion and focused on employee wellness before it was even being discussed in corporate America.

I was put in different cross-functional roles and given stretch assignments to help me develop and truly learn the business. When the company was going through an informal Chapter 11, Bill asked me to go on the road and try and re-negotiate credit terms, essentially offering 10 cents on the dollar for what we owed our vendors.

In this role, I was traveling across the US meeting with small business owners and Finance Directors from larger companies. 

Looking back, I learned so much about the finances of the business, how to “think on my feet”, and how to connect quickly and deeply with all different people. I also learned how to present complex information in a simplistic way, as well as the importance of empathy as we were directly impacting small businesses that couldn’t afford the loss that we were negotiating with them.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life? 

"Believe you can and you're halfway there." - Theodore Roosevelt

This quote always resonated with me. I often took many jobs or assignments I probably wasn’t qualified for but believed I could learn what I needed to and/or surround myself with people that were smarter than me and could help me be successful.

Another quote is from my father—he used to say that no one can limit how much you learn or how hard you work. This guided me on a daily basis as I did my job and took on new roles or tasks.  

Thinking back on your own career, what would you tell your younger self?

I would tell myself it’s ok to make mistakes learning something each time and to remember that 80/20 is often good enough. 

I was a perfectionist for much of my career and I spent too much time striving for perfection. As a result, I placed far too much pressure on myself and likely my teams. 

I would also tell myself to speak up and provide my perspective even if I wasn’t the expert. Every person brings a unique perspective that makes a discussion richer. 

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?

HR leaders are LEADERS first, but with expertise in human resources, and the good ones with a very strong understanding of the business.

HR Leaders often have the broadest perspective working across the entire organization on key strategic initiatives that touch all parts of the business. Most HR leaders also have a key role in shaping the culture of the organization and keeping a pulse of the organization, something every board member should care deeply about.

HR is also uniquely positioned to be fully objective for priorities or people being discussed and decided by the Board.  

Michael Knierim Quote

From your experience, how can HR people and culture professionals ensure they’re involved in strategic planning processes? 

Ideally, the HR Strategy is incorporated into the business plan. At a minimum, the HR Strategy must be fully aligned with the business strategy. 

In either case, HR should be working hand in hand with the business discussing structure, systems, culture, and capabilities. Workforce planning is part of a robust strategic planning process that HR can play a key role in.

A lot of folks believe that CHROs would make great CEOs, but often they’re overlooked. Why do you think that is?

I believe this is often a result of many HR Professionals coming up through HR without experience outside of the function.

I believe HR leaders should rotate through the business and business leaders should rotate through HR. Ultimately, we want well-rounded leaders who have a deep and broad understanding of the business, the culture, and how to best develop our people.

What skills can HR folks work on to become more effective business partners?

It’s difficult to make a broad-sweeping statement about all HR professionals. From my experience, I have found many HR professionals would benefit from greater financial and business acumen and gaining a deeper understanding of the external customer. 

I am a big believer that HR professionals would become better business leaders by gaining experience outside of HR in the business.

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?

1. Ask questions that consider the long-term implications of key decisions

HR often plays a critical role to ensure key decisions are being looked at as broadly as possible, especially considering the impact on people and culture.  

This means asking questions considering the long-term implications of key decisions that have lasting impact on the organization.

I have been involved with multiple acquisitions and company integrations and these can either can go well or terribly wrong! 

One of the important roles I played was to continuously raise questions about the uniqueness of each company's culture, what was important to employees, and how that contributed to the success of each organization. Keeping this perspective helped ensure we made thoughtful decisions that ultimately impacted employee retention and satisfaction. 

When Roche acquired Genentech, it was critical we retained the scientists in R&D, the lifeblood of the company. One of the most important things to these employees was to retain a long-standing sabbatical program they had in place. Without probing all aspects of the culture, this could have easily been ignored with significant negative implications.   

2. Resourcing for future growth

HR should be developing an HR Strategy aligned to the business strategy that includes robust workforce planning.  

This starts with understanding the growth drivers for the business and partnering with the leaders to identify the skills, capabilities, and resources needed, and the timing. The importance of this was evident early in my career.   

I insisted on partnering with business leaders in Informatics to develop a workforce plan. HR had not been involved previously in business planning discussions. As we worked through the three-year plan, we identified specific new skills and capabilities that would be needed to execute the business plan.

It became clear we needed new capabilities and more resources than had been initially anticipated and we didn’t have the skills internally. By asking the right questions and challenging the business leader, we identified significant gaps, including the skills that were necessary for the future

3.  Great decisions are most often made by great leaders.

HR plays a key role in the identification, development, and selection of talent. I have always believed this is one of HR’s most important roles to ensure we have the absolute best leaders in place.

When I was at Roche, I was part of the selection process for the most senior leaders in the Pharma Division. I was also in discussions about each one of the senior leaders and “High Potentials” development including career steps.  

HR plays a critical role to ensure an organization is developing talent to fill key roles and making the absolute best hiring decisions. This means exchanging ideas on the needs of the role and potential candidates, as well as challenging line managers on the development plans they are creating or on hiring decisions they are considering.

I can think of many times challenging hiring decisions of leaders that wanted to “settle” for an internal candidate because it was faster or more convenient than finding the best candidate available from the wider market.  

A number of years ago, one of the business leaders I was working with was planning to appoint a senior leader to head up one of our largest affiliates. 

In fact, he had already offered him the role but it had not been announced. Prior to the announcement, I (his HR Business Partner) called the hiring manager and told him I thought this was a very serious mistake that could have a significant negative impact on the company. 

While I had tremendous respect for the candidate, I knew from many discussions with business leaders that this candidate was not going to be accepted and didn’t have an understanding or appreciation for the culture of the company.

Over the weekend, the hiring manager and I had many discussions and ultimately agreed to appoint a different candidate. The leader selected had an outstanding career.

4. Consider the health and engagement of the workforce

While I believe every leader should care deeply and be accountable for employees within their organizations, many leaders neglect to consider the health or engagement of their workforce.  

Having healthy and engaged employees impacts the bottom line of every company. HR can help leaders by providing clear facts and data to help them identify where to focus and then partner with them on the action plans that are developed.  

Organizations need to have a clear understanding of what’s working well in an organization and where there are changes that need to be made. For example, HR can help leaders identify the root causes of issues identified and to help them to prioritize 2 to 3 things that would have the greatest impact.  

HR can also play an important role as the sounding board or sparring partner to ensure the most important priorities are being tackled eg., stress, workload, poor managers, etc.

It’s often too easy for managers to focus on the low-hanging fruit instead of the biggest pain points.   

5.  Partner with line managers to architect the org

As organizations need to adapt and reinvent themselves, HR can play a vital role to partner with line managers on the architecture of their organization.   

HR usually has a deep understanding of the organization's structure and core business processes. They often have vast experience working with other companies, functions, or departments, and they can help managers think outside the box and create different options. 

Often, line managers can get stuck on “one way” to set things up. This became evident very early in my career when I was working with the Finance organization on a reorganization. The leadership team had quickly aligned on a new structure without carefully considering the full impact of the decision. I was able to probe, challenge and help them consider alternatives which ultimately lead to a better decision.

Finally, a great HR Business Partner is fully immersed in the business and can play the role of coach, sounding board, sparring partner, and confidant with the business leader they are supporting. This trusted relationship can create the possibility for leaders to explore multiple possibilities and ultimately make the best decisions.  

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? 

1. Shying away from difficult performance decisions

The most common mistake I have seen is leaders are reluctant to have the hard performance discussions throughout the year, which often leads to over-inflated performance ratings. 

Many leaders like to be liked and want to avoid confrontation. In the end, this limits the development of the individual, creates inequality for peers, and limits the potential performance of the team.  

2. Keeping leaders in roles for too long

Business leaders too often keep leaders in roles even when they know in their hearts it’s not going to work.

I have too often seen leaders try and salvage a bad situation year after year. In the end, you know the kindest thing you can do is to help that person move to a different role or leave the organization.

As I look back, it’s one of the worst mistakes I ever made early in my career. I waited too long to make the hard decision and, after I finally did, the leader was actually relieved.

He knew he was not succeeding in the role and he was afraid to quit as he didn’t want to disappoint me. On top of that, after this leader left, I heard from many people on his team that they were waiting for him to go. 

3. Not striving for diversity

I have often seen leaders hire people they like and can relate to rather than striving for greater diversity on their teams.  

This could be diversity of thought, experience, gender, race, sexual orientation, or any other form of diversity that can create a more rich perspective that would benefit the team.  

Looking back, one of my best hires was a woman from Australia who could not have been any more different than me. She brought unique ideas and a very different energy to my team.  

While we often disagreed about many things, she knew how much I valued her and we often tried things she was advocating for and she made my team even better.   

4. Leverage the different perspectives on your team

Staying on the topic of diversity and inclusion, often leaders don’t focus enough on leveraging all the perspectives in their team.

I have often observed the same few people that speak up first shape the discussion and ultimately many of the decisions. 

Leaders need to know their team members well and understand how to best bring them into discussions to ensure their knowledge and experience are being leveraged. Inclusion matters a lot!

5.  Identifying who the best person is to make a decision. 

Leaders often feel that the most senior person on a team should make key decisions. I don’t believe that seniority is always or even often the best solution. I believe decision-making should be pushed down to the person that is closest to the impact of the decision and has the best knowledge to make the decision. 

Taking it a step further, the decision maker has the responsibility to seek input from key stakeholders and they are ultimately accountable for the quality of the decision.  

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private lunch with, and why?

Such an interesting question! I would love to have lunch with Elon Musk. From what I have heard and read, we look at the world completely differently.  

I’d love to understand how he sees his leadership style, how he takes decisions, and understand the culture he is trying to create on Twitter and the role the CHRO plays with him and the organization. I would also take the opportunity to try and influence some of the things he is doing and coach him to become a better leader!

If I had a second choice, it would be to meet Stephen Curry. I’m a huge Warriors fan and in awe of what he has accomplished while staying grounded and supportive of his community.  He also just seems like he would be a fun guy to hang out with!

Finn Bartram
By Finn Bartram

Finn is an editor at People Managing People. He's passionate about growing organizations where people are empowered to continuously improve and genuinely enjoy coming to work. If not at his desk, you can find him playing sports or enjoying the great outdoors.