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: Jeanne Achille, Founder/CEO, The Devon Group
Episode: 149
Air Date: March 18, 2016


Jeanne Achille is the founder and CEO of The Devon Group, the HR Tech’s industry preeminent public relations and marketing services firm. Since founding the firm in 1994, Jeanne has driven increasingly higher standards in communicating the business value of the technologies and services used by HR professionals and the workforces they serve.Her career in HR technology goes back to the 1980s when she led strategic marketing for InSci, the acknowledged forerunner of the HRMS for Fortune 500 and smaller companies. Jeanne was an integral part of the leadership team that transitioned the company during its acquisition by Computer Associates. From there, she joined Ceridian where she ran HR product management before moving from Minneapolis to Boston to launch that company’s professional services offering.

When press, analysts and investors think HR tech, they call Jeanne first. Her counsel about what drives operational efficiencies and supports business growth and workforce productivity has literally turned companies from unknowns to global brands. As a result, The Devon Group is a trusted partner to scores of vendors selling into the HR ecosystem as well as the agency of record for the HR Tech Conference, Human Capital Institute and Talent Board.


Audio MP3





Begin transcript


John Sumser: Good morning. Welcome to HRExaminer Radio. I’m your host, John Sumser and we’re coming to you from beautiful downtown Occidental, California, where it is once again the middle of the night because they took away our hour last weekend. Today, we’re going to be talking with Jeanne Achille, who’s my favorite guest on this show. Jeanne is the founder and CEO of the Devon Group, which many people think of as the gateway to the industry in HR technology. Hi Jeanne, how are you?


Jeanne Achille: Good morning John. How are you today?


John Sumser: I’m on top of the world although I don’t think I grew up wanting to get up first thing in the morning and be a radio guy.


Jeanne Achille: It is a bit more reasonable here in Red Bank, New Jersey. I’m here at the Jersey Shore and at least it’s mid morning so I applaud you getting up so early in the day for this show.


John Sumser: This is the price you pay for living in paradise. I live on the opposite shore and if what I want to do is do business in the real world, I have to get up early enough to be on your schedule.


Jeanne Achille: Exactly, follow the sun.


John Sumser: Would you take a moment and introduce yourself to the audience?


Jeanne Achille: That’s my pleasure. My name is Jeanne, the last name is Achille and I’m the founder and CEO of the Devon Group. We’re also known as Devon PR. Been in the industry for twenty-two years in my current capacity, having started the firm after working in product management and strategic marketing for vendors such as Ceridian, Nortel, and Insight, going way back to the grand daddy of the HR mess. We’re a tech agency in our heart of hearts and of course, my experience in marketing to the HR buyer has meant that we’ve really built a robust HCM practice over the years and as such, have had the pleasure of representing a number of vendors in the category.


John Sumser: What exactly does the Devon Group do?


Jeanne Achille: I’m not going to reveal the secret sauce but I can tell you some of the deliverables that we’re noted for. Vendors come to us to help us market their products and services to the economic buyer. The economic buyer in this case is typically the VP HR, CHRO, might be the director of talent acquisition, chief people officer, and not only are we marketing to those buyers, we’re helping to influence the CFO, the CEO, the nay-sayers, perhaps, making sure that we get IT on the side of the vendor as well. It’s a fine dance that involves things like media outreach, industry analyst outreach, a lot of content development, submitting our clients for awards and for earned speaking engagements and of course, social media.


John Sumser: That’s a big plate. You really help a client focus their communications and deliver it to the right targets. That’s the summary level, is that fair?


Jeanne Achille: It is. It’s fascinating to observe and consistent, I might add. We work with a lot of really, really smart people. People in technology are really, really smart and it’s so exhilarating to work with them. They are accustomed to speaking internally morning, noon, and night about their products or about their services and it’s a very different conversation when you turn, then, externally and attempt to engage those external audiences. External audiences, of course, have a whole different set of drivers and they also don’t have the same reference points that the technologists might have. Talking more in terms of the business benefits and what’s in it for me and what problems you’re going to solve for me, part of what we’re putting together for our clients, it is amazing, though, how many vendors take the talk that they use internally and attempt to then use that same dialogue externally and they wonder why it falls flat. That’s part of the value that we add to our clients is helping them with their messaging, helping them with their communications road maps, and showing them how to open a dialogue with those economic buyers and how to nurture those relationships into positive outcomes.


John Sumser: That’s a big chore. There’s a light bulb that has to go off for somebody to be able to be your client, it sounds like. That light bulb is understanding that the way you talk about this internally is probably not an effective way to talk about it externally. How do you help people get to that?


Jeanne Achille: It’s definitely a journey. I’ll be candid. I think some companies are more receptive and perhaps have a greater understanding in terms of the pain points that have led them to their relationship with Devon in the first place. What I mean by that is if a vendor, perhaps has experienced a great deal of frustration because their means of communicating externally has been to throw a data sheet over the transom, and they’ve been doing that perhaps for months and months and they’re saying to themselves, “Well it’s a great product and it’s a great data sheet. Why is that not resonating with all these people I’m carpet bombing with this?” When they’re coming to us at that juncture, obviously they’ve felt the frustration level and they’re ready to be receptive to, “Here’s about a dozen other ways that you could be engaging that external audience.”

In other scenarios, John, we have the good fortune of working with some amazing marketing and PR resources within our clients’ companies. Those folks are rockstars to begin with. We get to do some really fun things with them because they’re moving the needle well beyond the 101 level and doing stellar work.


John Sumser: You see a broad spectrum of sophistication in your clients. I’m sure that you’ll agree that the subject matter of the conversations changes over time. These days, what are the things that people are talking about most? What are the challenges that you’re hearing about most often?


Jeanne Achille: Let me ask you a question before I answer the question I think you asked me. Are we talking about … You know, John, how we go around and around. Are we talking about the challenges the vendors are facing or the challenges that the clients and prospects of the vendors are facing?


John Sumser: I actually think that I want to know about both. Why don’t we separate it into two piles? Let’s talk about the challenges the vendors are facing first and then we’ll talk about the challenges that clients are facing.


Jeanne Achille: Yeah. I think change is first and foremost, I think the ability to forecast change and manage change, especially on the vendor side, product road maps become … Companies become very wedded to a product road map and of course everyone wants that satisfaction from hitting their milestones. Yet externally, the markets are changing. There might be market dynamics that really alter that product roadmap. There’s no one who owns that internally. The ability to manage change is key. I think that in 2016, this is a really pivotal year on a number of different levels. I’ve already observed some pretty significant market trends. Of course, we have a number of pressures. We have the uncertainty of an election year. We have some financial uncertainty. We’ve seen certainly some turbulence in the markets. I think on the vendor’s side, it’s that ability to have some sort of visibility into what’s going on in the client companies that you’re targeting and better understand what those pressures are and then be able to translate what the impact of those pressures are on that product road map.


John Sumser: That’s great. I’m starting to see a couple of things that are going to dramatically impact the product road map almost instantaneously. I can’t see that anybody much is paying attention to it. There are things like non-graphic intelligent interfaces, text and chat and voice interfaces that are going to just dump themselves into the middle of our marketplace. Nobody appears to be prepared for that yet. It’s interesting that the industry seems to have lost its ability to tell its own future. Do you see that?


Jeanne Achille: I do. I do. You just hit the nail on the head. Some of our most successful clients are those that are ahead of the curve in terms of what the next big thing is going to be. Staying on the topic of communicating with your external audiences, something like email is becoming so passe. Think of the level of emails a team gets out and using other communications means such as text messaging. A company that’s doing some really interesting things around that would be Blazin’. Those are the companies that are seeing the future and taking us all into the future. I think the reluctance to embrace change works against many companies, not just on the vendor side of course, but on the practitioner side as well.


John Sumser: I think that’s generally a symptom of success. If you found something that works, it’s really hard to let go of it. It’s often the case that the people who are most resistant to change are the ones who brought the last round of change forward. Do you see that?


Jeanne Achille: Goodness, absolutely. I know you and I have a lot of shared history in terms of observing some of the key trajectories in this category. The applicant tracking vendors are a great example of that. Back in the ’90s, we saw the Resumix, Restrack, fast forward to the turn of the century, we have Verve and Taleo. We’ve watched some of these companies and their trajectory. They really created categories. The problem is that if you become too self-congratulatory, you’re yesterday’s news. It’s got to be all about the customer. It can’t be falling in love with your own image. It has to be that you’re focusing on that customer and what that customer needs in order to meet their objectives.

I think that the vendors who focus more externally than they do internally and part of that, just comes with getting larger and more bureaucratic. It’s really challenging. I think that’s why you see these smaller, nimble vendors leapfrog some of the older players in the category, because they can. They’re looking at the customer, not at themselves.


John Sumser: Let’s segue over to what’s challenging if you’re a customer today.


Jeanne Achille: Well, I’m fascinated by some of the things that I see the customer embrace without questioning. One of the items that I track closely is this issue of generational differences in the workforce. There’s been so much focus on the millennials, how we all have to change our entire way of working because of the millennials. I’m in a different category. I’m the mother of millennials. Work is work and we don’t need to draw lines by generational definition, by age that somehow our millennials are looking for something different than our boomers or our gen-X or our gen-Zs are looking for. We all come into the workplace with certain aspirations that we’re looking to be satisfied, certain developmental opportunities that we’re hoping we’re going to get the opportunity to pursue.

We’re all coming into the workplace looking with certain compensation expectations. We’re at work to work. A lot of this almost propaganda that’s been pushed out to the hiring companies about how they have to somehow retro-fit entire parts of their organization to accommodate a different age group just feels really odd to me.


John Sumser: It’s kind of a strange thing, although I remember when my cohort came to the workplace. Lots of things happened, including my dad wearing bell bottomed pants and having long sideburns. He looked like a guy who shouldn’t be wearing bell bottomed pants and having long sideburns.


John Sumser: Thank goodness for that. Thank goodness, thank goodness for that. What else is going on? When I think about the world of the HR technology customer and the user of HR technology, it seems to me that everybody is just busy all the time and that every additional piece of email or every additional requirement for somebody feels like it’s the straw that’s breaking the camel’s back to everybody. Overwhelm is a big part of the landscape. You get stuff done. Do you have some ideas about what people can do to regain a sense of control and prioritize their activities?


Jeanne Achille: You know, one of my favorite words, and I’m sure our staff will cringe if they’re listening in, one of my favorite words though is clarity. I think that we are all inundated with so much information. I’m averaging 2,000 emails a day and that’s with filters in place. I could just spend my entire day just pressing either the delete key or potentially triggering hours and hours of work related to an email. I know that when I’m talking to HR professionals, they’re inundated with reports. Every investment they have made in technology or some sort of service now spews forth all kinds of reports.

After a while, everything almost looks the same. It’s kind of to some extent, bright shiny object syndrome. To the other extent, it’s like, “Oh, one more thing I have to digest today and potentially do something with.” Well, it shouldn’t be that way. Yes, we have a lot of information sources, a lot of great information and insights that we didn’t have years ago. They’re enormously valuable but they’re not all as valuable as the other. The ability to prioritize, to have some sort of hot-list so you know what your top 5 are, and there there might be 25 right behind them but you know that if you hit your top 5, you’re able to move on with your day. I think people are really getting bogged down in a lot of busy work as opposed to a lot of important work.


John Sumser: I’m sure that’s right but I wonder, to tie this back to the conversation I had before, if you want to stay competent as a professional or as a vendor, one of the things that you have to do is continuously and continually learn about new stuff. You have to be able to learn about new stuff while it’s new. Learning about new stuff when it’s old is something that anybody can do and what it takes to be a great employee is to be on the edge of the way that things are evolving. Yet, it seems challenging to make the fifth thing on your list of 5, “Get a little bit more edge in your work.” I know you are a master of doing this. How do you do it?


Jeanne Achille: It goes back to clarity. If you don’t make time to do it, you’ll never do it. There’s never a good time to add one more thing to your plate. I’ll give you what I think is a reasonable example. I went to a class last month in fact, at Northwestern, at the Kellogg School of Business that was taught by Deepak Chopra. I hemmed and hawed about, “I don’t have time for this. Will this add value to my world immediately? How am I going to carve out the time?” Because it was not a mandatory thing for me to do, I was almost right up to the time of getting on the plane saying, “I got so many other things on my plate this week, I’m just going to blow this off.”

I went and I had a wonderful learning experience that I could not have possibly created on my own, sitting in my office, reading one more report, going to reading one more tweet. I wasn’t going to get that value that that acceleration in my own learning curve without going and participating in that classroom setting. I think a lot of us are faced with those decisions and we do what we call one more thing syndrome. You wind up sitting in your office until 7:30 at night, cleaning out your inbox. That’s not important. That’s not important. You have to have that clarity and that prioritization.

Those are actually skills that you have to learn. You have to force yourself to learn those. It also sometimes doesn’t make you popular because you have to turn around and say no to some other things. No one likes to hear the word no. No one likes to be told, “I’m sorry, I know your emergency on a Monday isn’t my priority until Wednesday.” You have to put some steel in your backbone and start to have those conversations with yourself as well as your constituents.


John Sumser: Do you think that gets easier with practice?


Jeanne Achille: I do. I do. I’ve had a lot of practice. In fairness to others and even when I watch some of our staff as they acquire these skills, it feels really good when you’ve done it. It’s a positively reinforcing experience once you’ve done it because you’re taking them … To some extent, you’re regaining control, you’re regaining some power. You’re regaining some decision making over your own time and how you manage it. It is a skill that you learn. I don’t think it’s intuitive in the workforce.

I’ve heard, going back to that discussion of millennials, for example, having sat with a lot of these people early on in their career and they’ll say things to me like, “We’re afraid to leave work at a reasonable time because then we won’t be taken seriously as an employee.” I’m like, “Who made that rule? Where did that come from?” It is about setting boundaries and it is about prioritizing what’s important and where you could really deliver value rather than just busy-work.


John Sumser: I know the best boss that I ever had worked about 6 hours a day.


Jeanne Achille: I haven’t gotten to that point.


John Sumser: He was amazing. He was amazing. He didn’t do anything he didn’t have to do. He was a gregarious kind of gentle guy but nobody ever tried to get him to do something that wasn’t important. The first thing was he was smiley and wonderful but if you came to waste his time, he would be done with you very quickly. I was never able to really master that and for the longest time, I thought that he was a lazy slob. I started noticing that our department performance just got better and better the less he worked. It was a wonderful lesson.


Jeanne Achille: I think what you learned … Yeah, exactly, you learned so much from him in terms of you’re reminding me of a boss I had years ago. I used to go to the door to his office and I’d stand there and be like, “Oh, I have this problem,” or, “I have that problem,” and he would just look up at me with this deadly stare and say, “Come back when you can present the problem and suggested solutions.” It was such a good learning experience. I, of course now, when I do have a problem, I filter it and say, “Okay, here’s the challenge but here are the possibilities so how can we fix this?”


John Sumser: We’ve been at this for almost half an hour now and I want to be sure that there isn’t something I should have asked you in the process.


Jeanne Achille: You know, I want to talk for a moment about this concept of branding. I think we’re all seeing a lot about employer branding as kind of this separate entity that we hold off to the side. I don’t know if you saw the report that recently came out about the reputation rankings that put Amazon and Apple and Google and USAA and Disney in the top 5 and I think it’s very interesting how we’re seeing this blurring of the lines between consumer branding and employer branding and how important it is whether your branding team is in house, if you’re using an in house marketing team or if you’re working with some of the wonderful external providers to technology providers to advance your employer brand. Again, I think looking at it holistically as opposed to in a silo is going to be really important in 2016.


John Sumser: I’m sure that’s right although I think what we’re seeing is the emergence of 21st century branding, which is more like a mosaic than 20th century branding was because you’re reaching massive multiples of audiences and massive multiples of niches for every organization. Rather than a brand idea that has to do with being distributed down 3 television networks and amongst 100 magazines, the opportunity for intimacy with the audience is by being granular. It’s going to take us a while to consume ideas like you must address the employment component of the brand.


Jeanne Achille: Yeah, yeah. Have you seen the General Electric commercials, John, the GE commercials?


John Sumser: I have. I have, aren’t they cool?


Jeanne Achille: Aren’t they fun? Yeah, they’re fun.


John Sumser: Yeah.


Jeanne Achille: Yeah, I love that. I love that kind of creative thinking that they’re putting out there.


John Sumser: Yeah. It’s possible, on the level of excellence that GE averages, it’s possible to do this as an integrated thing. Maybe beyond the capacity of lesser organizations.

What are the three things that a listener should take away from our conversation today?


Jeanne Achille: Well, going back to something I mentioned earlier in our conversation, I think always be prepared for change. Always assume that there will be change and that as soon as you finish something and feel good about it, you need to be thinking about what’s going to change next. We’re all guaranteed change will work in a very accelerated business environment. Clearly now a borderless business environment. We’ve seen enormous change just in the last 10 to 15 years and we are guaranteed a lot of change. I think baking change into our thinking is important. I think that kind of mystery shopping your company is important. I know Gerry Crispin does a fabulous job on this topic as it relates to recruiting, but mystery shopping what people think of your company and its messages. This is something vendors can actually do, where they can engage a third party who can solicit feedback. I’m not talking about SurveyMonkey, you know, email blasts, I mean actually getting people on the phone and saying, “What do you think about XYZ company? What does this message mean to you?” I think that’s really important.

I think to your point about staying abreast of what the next great things are going to be in the innovation of the category, shameless plug, we represent these two conferences, the HR Tech Conference which is in October in Chicago this year, and then the Talent Acquisition Technology Conference which will be in Austin in November. I think those are great destinations to talk with vendors, to talk with practitioners, to talk with industry leaders and analysts and have that great learning experience by virtue of attending those out of office venues.


John Sumser: That’s great. Would you take a moment and re-introduce yourself and let people know how to get ahold of you?


Jeanne Achille: Absolutely John, thank you. Again, my name is Jeanne. My last name is Achille. I’m the founder and CEO of the Devon Group. We’re located in Red Bank, New Jersey, which is at the Jersey Shore. We really do see Bruce Springsteen locally. I always like to tell people that, and Jon Bon Jovi. Remember us as being located near their hometowns. My email address is my first name,


John Sumser: Thanks so much, Jeanne. It’s been great having you here and I really appreciate the fact that you’ve taken the time to do this.


Jeanne Achille: Thank you.


John Sumser: You too. You’ve been listening to HRExaminer Radio. I’m your host, John Sumser, and we’ve been talking with Jeanne Achille, who is the founder and CEO of the Devon Group and is known throughout the HR technology industry as the gateway to the things that matter. Thanks for being with us today and hope you have a great weekend. Bye-bye now.


End transcript

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