HRExaminer Radio

HRExaminer Radio is a weekly show devoted to Recruiting and Recruiting Technology airing live on Friday’s at 11AM Pacific

HRExaminer Radio

Guest: China Gorman
Episode: 107
Air Date: August 14, 2015



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China Gorman is a successful global business executive in the competitive Human Capital Management sector. She is a sought-after consultant, speaker and writer bringing the CEO perspective to the challenges of building cultures of strong employee engagement for top performance and innovation, and strengthening the business impact of Human Resources. Well known for her tenure as CEO of the Great Place to Work Institute, COO of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and President of Lee Hecht Harrison, China works with organizations all over the world to enhance their brands and their go-to-market strategies. Additionally, she serves on the Executive Committee of the Board of Jobs for America’s Graduates as well as the Advisory Boards of RiseSmart Inc. and the Workforce Institute at Kronos. China is the author of the popular blog Data Point Tuesday, and is published and frequently quoted in media properties like Fortune, Huffington Post, Inc., Fast Company, U.S. News & World Report and many others.

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Begin transcript

John:               Good morning and welcome to HRExaminer Radio. I’m your host John Sumser and we’re coming to you today again from beautiful downtown Occidental, the cradle of innovation in California. Today we’re going to be talking with China Gorman who’s most recent gig was as CEO of The Great Place To Work Institute. China is a force of nature in the human resources area, having served at the top of SHRM and Lee Hecht Erickson. She’s visible in the Workforce Institute at Kronos. You’re going to enjoy this one. His China. How are you.

China:             I’m good. Force of nature. I like that.

John:               Well it’s true. It’s true. When China’s coming, get out of the way.

China:             I hope that’s not the response, but yeah, I am frequently like a dog with a bone. I will own that. I will own that. How are you?

John:               How am I? I’m great. We’re in the middle of the revitalization of [inaudible 01:28]. We made it through our first year. It’s been a tremendous success so we are knuckling down and figuring out how to expand and improve for fiscal 2016. It’s good.

China:             I love what you did in your first year.

John:               Yeah, the work is good. The reports are extraordinary and now there’s just the slow pace of reputation building you have to do.

China:             Yeah, yeah.

John:               What are you doing these days?

China:             I love that question because there’s who I am and then there’s what I’m doing now. I’m a business leader in the HCM space. I have a reputation for turning businesses around which I think is well fought for and earned. The ultimate sort of outcome when I’m running a business is revenue, profitability and impact growth.

As you mentioned I just left The Great Pace To Work Institute. I was there for a couple of years, turned it around, enabled the founder, owner to have options in terms of monetizing his life’s work and when all of that was realized I exited stage left. Today I’m an individual consultant. I work with companies in the HCM space on their marketing strategies and in particular their approaches to social media world and their approaches to HR. I’m a paid speaker and I write a really popular blog for the HR community called Data Point Tuesday.

John:               That’s a handful of things. How did you get here? I don’t imagine as a small child you went to bed at night going, “Oh, what I want to be when I grow up is a turnaround artist with an expertise in HR.” I know you live in Las Vegas. Did you dream about living in Vegas?

China:             No, no. When I was a kid growing up in small, small town in southeastern Michigan after my folks moved there when I was I think three, I didn’t know any of this existed. My father was a journalist. He was the editor of a small town newspaper. Not a business guy. My mom was the middle school librarian. There was no business in my life so it’s ironic. I was a English Lit and Drama major in college. It is quite interesting that I’ve ended up with this incredibly rich and satisfying career leading businesses in the human resources space.

Here is really a common thread and that is the businesses that I have been a part of and ultimately run have had very strong sort of human missions. The cultures may not have been as people-focused as I might have liked in looking in retrospect, particularly when I wasn’t running it, but they were all focused on improving individual’s experiences in the workplace.

I spent 25 years in the outplacement business, from small little mom and pops to my own firm to a regional firm to DBM. Then running most North America. Then to lead Lee Hecht Erickson, running that whole global brand. Those business in the early days and even in the late ’80s and even today, the people who work in that business really are people who are focused on bringing sort of relief and support and success to people who find themselves without a job, largely through no fault of their own.

Going to SHRM was a no brainer. Working to support the development and the professionalization of the HR function and the HR profession was a very noble cause. Great Place To Work Institute’s mission is to change the world by transforming corporate cultures. There’s been this thread through my career really of making sort of work experience better for individuals and making individuals more successful and getting more of what they want.

I’m good with that. As I go forward, whether I’m chairing, and I know we’ll talk about this in a little bit, but chairing the Global Workforce Human Advisory Board or I was the chair of the board and a long serving board member of The Council For Adults and Experiential Learning or now on the Executive Committee of Jobs For America’s Graduates, there is a thread you can pull I think throughout my entire career.

John:               That takes us, I want to jump into something we were talking about just before the show. That takes us straight to an epiphany you’ve been having about technology. Do you want to tell the whole ugly story or do you want to jump to the punchline? It’s up to you.

China:             The epiphany is the question, not the answer because I really don’t have the answer yet, but because I write this great little blog that attempts to bring interesting research and analysis to the HR space, that the average HR practitioner would never find, would never take the time to read unless somebody just sort of stuck it under their nose because they’re under-staffed, they’re under-budgeted. They’re just working hard to keep the CEO out of jail these days from a regulatory perspective.

That’s sort of the mission of Data Point Tuesday. Because I write that, I’m invited to analysts days and I get briefings from new and upcoming as well as pretty well established human capital management technology-based service providers. Here’s what I’m noticing and then that’s the ah ha. Is that there is an inordinate focus and yea on taking the sort of annually based, nasty, somebody’s got to do it so let’s give it to HR, administration, record keeping, all the processes that we use to do HR.

Whether it’s how do we keep track of candidates who are applying? How do we keep track of the interview data that we get when Bob and Sally and Mary and Jamal are interviewing candidates? How do we pull it all together and make sense of it? To payroll, to performance management. All of these kinds of things. Technology providers are working hard to make those processes easier, more efficient, more cost effective, more legally defensible and cheaper to do.

All of those things are good. What I’m starting to see however, John, is that a lot of these solutions feel like we’re gamifying the processes of HR. In a video interview sort of stack, a manager can look through nine different interviews and do thumbs up and thumbs down, right? It’s like Facebook. I liked it, I didn’t like it.

In another solution there’s a different sort of, it’s not thumbs up and thumbs down, but it’s a different kind of thing. It’s taking from my perspective the heart and soul, the real brains and strategy out of HR and sort of kind of turning it into a game for the process, for the end game of efficiency, cost savings, legally defensive sort of information.

I just wonder as HR people all over the world continue to say the thing that I will not say, but lament that they aren’t sitting at the right hand of the CEO, it seems to me that the technology solutions are pushing them further and further away from that wanted piece of furniture because they’re not doing the strategy stuff. They’re doing thumbs up, thumbs down stuff.

I’m just wondering if the efficiencies and the gamification of HR processes are actually working against bringing HR up to the strategy level and using those people skills, having those difficult conversations with the EVP of marketing about why all of her direct reports look exactly the same. Or the director of technology, same conversation.

If all we’re doing is pressing buttons that give us a thumbs up or a thumbs down in an effort to save money and streamline stuff, what happens to those strategic skills? That was kind of an epiphany after my fourth sort of review of an up and coming product. I don’t have the answer and I don’t know, but it kind of makes me wonder.

John:               It’s a great question. What a great question to have. There are some interesting sub-pieces of it like the recruiting department does not have a consistent strategy for how to handle the volume of job applications that they get today. The first thing that technology did is it made it possible for the world to overwhelm HR. On some level for the last 20 years HR has been trying to figure out what to do with this incredible onslaught of data, in particular in recruiting but everywhere else that data has just been exploding. The machines have gotten great at being efficient and producing data, but they have not gotten great at producing wisdom or facilitating wisdom.

China:             Right.

John:               You can’t find a coder in the world whose work flow diagram goes use technology, use technology, use technology. Then please be smart here.

China:             I suspect you’re right.

John:               The magic of Google in the beginning days, the magic of Google was realizing that you can lash a whole lot of computers together doing stupid things and they would appear to be smart. Right? This is the whole essence of artificial intelligence today is if you do the same stupid thing over and over and over again it will eventually look smart.

That’s AI. That’s AI. It’s all brute force, we’re going to rule it out because we’ve looked at it rather than the more human approach which is to have an algorithm that begins by not looking at everything. Users everywhere are forced to pick up that slack. The idea that simplification is a decent goal for something that is going to become a tool is a very suspect one. That’s what I think you’re on to.

Can you imagine if you went to some master craftsman and said, “What we’re going to do is make you perform your work the exact same way over and over and over again.”? Precisely if you are a musician, precisely what you do is you learn to play your scales so that you can improvise. Then usability design with simple interfaces for users is you learn you’re scales so you can do your scales.

China:             Yeah and so here’s what I wonder about that. I think that’s a great analogy. This is what the likes of SHRM and World At Work and HRCI, this is what all these people deal with which is is HR really a profession or can somebody just walk in off the street and start doing it? I wonder if the application of all of these technologies that streamline processes and aggregate data and push out the bad and keep in the good and that kind of thing, if it’s going to support at the end of I don’t know, whatever the time is, of really kind of, now you’re going to get hate mail, but really of blowing up HR.

Like HBR says every 10 years. What it will leave behind is functions that could report anywhere, but most likely will report to IT because they are entirely technology bounded and only focused on the efficient process of new and repetitive data. Then all the stuff that’s turning out to be marketing, so that would be talent acquisition, employer branding, internal communication.

Then there will be this just tiny handful of people who are left doing what we think of and what HR thinks they want to be doing and never have enough time unless they work for the Fortune 300. That is the workforce planning, doing the people strategy, making the decisions around how the overall strategic spend in HR will be apportioned in the yearly budget. It occurs to me that that’s the end game.

John:               There’s certainly some pressure to do that, but what I’ve started to see is that the question of how you actually manage the human assets in an organization, and I use the word asset because that’s what we’re really talking about, you have to have all of this data and it has to be accurate. It isn’t any different than the supply chain.

You certainly wouldn’t give the supply chain problem to IT because while they get data, they don’t get how to negotiate a contract, right? While you would consider giving some of the marketing-like responsibilities to marketing, you sure wouldn’t put those jokers in charge of compensation and the negotiation required to have some somebody come work for you, would you?

There’s all of these extremely powerful and sensitive inflection points in HR surrounded by drudgery. Nobody wants, there’s nobody volunteering to do the drudgery.

China:             Right, right. No, no it’s true. Your use of the term human assets really triggers for me where I’m sort of doing a lot of my speaking and where I’m working with organizations right now. That’s sort of the intersection of culture and business performance and this, some will blame it on millennials, I don’t know, but this sort of movement and awareness that perhaps workplaces could actually treat employees like full human beings with lives and families and communities and full lives.

This sort of notions of humanity in the workplace is really interesting. You’ll notice I didn’t use the term engagement because I’m not a big fan of that term. I think engagement is an outcome of a whole bunch of other things. One of which is culture, but I’m thinking and reading and talking to people about so, why aren’t we treating people like people instead of sort of bags of skills that we can turn on and off when their shift starts and shifts end?

I think the strength of The Great Place To Work work over 25 years, the emergence of organization like Tracey Sentin’s World Blue that’s working on sort of creating freedom-centered workplace cultures. Heck, even Tony Shay’s grand, and everybody’s rolling their eyes now, but even Tony Shay’s sort of lab experiment about holacracy, I think all of these are sort of symptomatic of a shift of, maybe it’s a re-shift of the relationship between employers and employees and between employees and life, employees and work as a subset of life.

John:               The interesting thing, I went to a little conference in Portland that was part of the Open Source Conference, [inaudible 21:39]. The conference was called Cultivate. The basic theory is that every company is becoming a software company and when every company becomes a software company engineers start to take the leadership roles. When engineers start to take the leadership roles you have a leadership team that has no idea about people with culture.

China:             Interesting. Yeah.

John:               There’s a group of those people who are software leaders, but engineers by training who want to understand how to use culture to operate their business. There were 200 people in this thing inside of a swirl of 10,000, but there were 200 people. It was tracked. It’s a really worthwhile thing to understand because there will be changes to HR. Those changes come from the fundamental change in what business is and it’s happening outside of traditional business areas.

China:             Right, right.

John:               The things that are the real strengths of HR are the things that people are looking at, right? I would look for, as it always does, innovation in HR comes from outside, and it will come from IT, but I don’t think that what happens is the function blows up and moves into IT. This is a time honored thing in HR which is the crap work always ends up in HR. All of the great visionaries who want to have big empires don’t generally think oh, what I’m going to do is be great at the crap work.

China:             Yeah. Every function has crap work, right? There’s crap work everywhere, but it’s interesting I think that we focus so much of that in conversations in the HR community. We’ve been talking about and doing programs and writing books and having inspirational keynote speakers about engagement for a really long time. I saw an interesting graphic at a conference about a month ago and it charted the world famous Gallop engagement poll from 2000 to 2012.

You know they carve the data into actively disengaged, not engaged and engaged. You know what? Over 12 years, from 2000 to 2012 it’s hardly changed at all. Statistically there’s been no real movement even through 2007, 2008, 2009. There’s been almost no movement between the three categories. Around 19%, 18% of employees are actively disengaged. Around 51, 52% of employees are not engaged and around 28, 29% of employees are engaged. That’s held through since 2000.

That really makes me scratch my head because all anybody’s talking about these days is engagement. Consulting firms are selling surveys and programs and workshops and leadership development training and … Employer branding is now a thing. Yet, you know, nothing is changing. I find that fascinating.

John:               Well, so maybe the thing that they’re talking about is not something that changes. When you say 20% are actively disengaged, I go oh well, so the average tenure for somebody with a job in the United States is three years. That would be a third of the people are looking for work at any given point. Right?

China:             Yeah, right.

John:               That’s right. If 20% of the people are actively disengaged then the other 15% are lying.

China:             Of course, people lie. People lie all the time. I just think we’ve kind of been bamboozled …

John:               Of course we have.

China:             … into focusing on this thing we call engagement. Oh, by the way of course there’s no agreement on what engagement is, kind of what it looks like, how you measure it, but we’re all so focused on this thing called engagement that we’re not focusing on the things, even if we could agree on what engagement is, we’re not focusing on the things that are actually creating engagement. We measure it and then we try to put all kinds of programs in place to impact it, but we’re not … That’s on the back end.

On the front end, we’re not looking at things like leadership behavior and are the leaders doing what they say they’re going to do. Are they behaving in ways that are consistent with the values of the organization for which they hire? They fire other people who don’t behave in consistent, in those kind of consistent ways. You know? I think talking about engagement is the wrong topic and unless we get to the root causes, the numbers are never going to change.

John:               When one talks about engagement right in the assumption center is this is an employee problem. The way you tell it’s getting bigger is by measuring employees. That’s probably not accurate.

China:             Right. I agree.

John:               It’s probably not accurate so the fundamental construct is bad. Now we have plowed through a half an hour like nobody’s business. I didn’t get all of the fun stuff.

China:             Wow, we have.

John:               What should I have asked you? What is it you really want people to remember from having spent a half an hour with China Gorman?

China:             Well, maybe two things. One is the URL of my blog which is real easy to remember. It’s Data Point Tuesday is published every Tuesday. TLNT usually picks it up on Wednesday, but I’d really like it if you read it on my website. Then the second thing is while I am doing some really cool consulting now and having lots of fun with really amazing companies in the HR, HCM provider space, I would love another opportunity to take a business to new heights.

I’d be looking for a services or product company in the HCM space whose ownership, I don’t care what the ownership is, but they’re really ready to invest in growth. That is global or wants to be global and has a mission that is beyond making the ownership really rich. That’s a by product, that always happens, but I like a more human kind of mission as we talked about earlier. Those two things. My blog and if you know of a cool president, CEO, COO position in the HCM space, I’m available for conversation.

John:               We’ll close off by reminding people that you’ve been listening to HRExaminer Radio. We’ve been talking with China Gorman who is the most senior woman executive in the HR industry. She’s been turning around companies since all of eternity. Even though she’s only 29.

China:             Exactly. Thank you for that one. I appreciate that. Yes, exactly.

John:               If you spend time with her you’ll laugh as much I laughed through this last half hour. Thanks for doing this, China.

China:             My pleasure.

John:               Thanks for listening in everybody. This is John Sumser and you’ve been listening to HRExaminer Radio. Thank you so much. Have a great weekend.

End transcript

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