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HRx Radio – Executive Conversations: On Friday mornings, John Sumser interviews key executives from around the industry. The conversation covers what makes the executive tick and what makes their company great.

HRx Radio – Executive Conversations

Guest: Cecile Alper-Leroux, VP of HCM Innovation, Ultimate Software
Episode: 332
Air Date: Rebroadcast from July 19, 2019




Important: Our transcripts at HRExaminer are AI-powered (and fairly accurate most of the time) but there are still many instances where the robots get confused (or very confued) and makes errors. Please expect some inaccuracies as you read through the text of this conversation. Thank you for your understanding.

Full Transcript with timecode

00:00:13:23 – 00:00:36:14
Good morning and welcome to HRExaminer Executive Conversations. I’m your host John Sumser and today we’re going to be talking with one of my favorite people Cecile Alper-Leroux, she’s the vice president of HCM Innovation at Ultimate Software and one of the actual senior level working anthropologists in the HR Tech industry. It’s an astonishing thing.

00:00:36:15 – 00:00:37:21
So how are you Cecile?

00:00:38:19 – 00:00:42:13
I’m doing very well John. Thank you so much for having me on the show.

00:00:42:13 – 00:00:56:08
Yes. Would you tell people just a little, you’ve had such an amazing life, give people some titbits that sort of explain how an anthropologist ends up driving strategy at a human capital software company.

00:00:57:23 – 00:02:18:04
It’s an interesting question and hopefully the story will be somewhat interesting. As a child I was one of these people who pored over Life magazine I was actually born in into a bi cultural family and because I was born in France and moved to the United States when I was very very little. And as a result of that I’ve always been interested in people cultures all things related to differences between people and what makes us similar. So I studied antropology in college and got a couple of master’s degrees and I then realized that it was going to be very difficult to get a job as an anthropology professor because I didn’t really feel like writing my thesis and they’re not a lot of jobs available for anthropologists in the scholarly realm or in the academic realm. So. I talked to a friend of mine who was head of H.R. for a small company in Minnesota. That’s where I was at the time. And I talked her into giving me the opportunity to help with some of the global. work and expansion that they were doing and got started in the realm of HR convinced her I look at as an anthropologist I interview people and I love people so I’m sure that I could be useful somewhere if you give me a chance. It was literally one of those put me in coach I promise I won’t disappoint you.

00:02:18:05 – 00:02:20:13
And so I ended up in the world of H.R.

00:02:20:23 – 00:02:23:19
That’s wild. But this is not just, I just ended up in the world of HR

00:02:26:00 – 00:02:40:06
Let me make the context clear for people who do understand it. Ultimate Software was a payroll company yes, and Ultimate Software has gone from being a payroll company

00:02:40:21 – 00:03:04:19
To being in a horse race that looks like they just might catch workday three or four years from now. And that transformation from payroll operation to full spectrum human capital software provider happened partly during the time while you were there so you had your hand in this amazing business transformation.

00:03:05:06 – 00:03:09:28
As an anthropologist that fluked into HR. Now that’s awesome.

00:03:10:00 – 00:03:25:01
It is really it is really remarkable. And I think that’s what has for sure takes a significant team and an openness and I know that one of the first things that I recognized when I first joined Ultimate Software about nine years ago

00:03:25:13 – 00:04:10:13
Was that it was the first place that I had worked in which the creative latitude was truly granted to people who worked and could provide a good reason for that to the openness and the ability to bring ideas regardless of where you fell in the organization is something that I think has propelled ultimately to its new position and I think you know where you say that for sure it’s a horse race. But I think that there are a lot of things one we are in right into the one that we do quite quite a bit better there’s a lot that we are still working on but I think one of the most exciting recent developments especially from a personal perspective is the localization effort which means both global and and localization effort

00:04:10:23 – 00:04:49:23
From a product perspective but also culturally it’s a significant change. But again if your focus is on people and making sure that we understand and want people to thrive in any environment which is something that any anthropologist is looking at is you want to be a participant observer as an anthropologist. So do you want to be part of the change but also you want to be able to always be watching and understanding this is what’s happening we may need to shift the way we do things we may need to try to bridge some gaps that we have here and I’m talking about it really from a business perspective not exclusively a product perspective.

00:04:49:27 – 00:04:58:08
I think that openness is really what is what happens and what allows this sort of transformation to take place. So I’m certainly not going to take that credit for it.

00:04:58:09 – 00:05:04:17
But it’s been fantastic to be part of that self reinforcing culture that made it possible.

00:05:04:17 – 00:05:10:17
Well so here you are you’ve got you’ve got a focused liberal arts movement.

00:05:10:18 – 00:05:54:02
It’s a little arts yeah yeah yeah you have there and you are shooting in the universe where we’re having so much trouble recruiting competent women to play with it was this liberal arts degree and my money that’s actually what we need rather than doing a bunch of people trying to be engineers we need oversight and sensible management technology so what do you tell young women who aspire to be as successful as your that there are still many things that I actually tell you a lot of of young women and one thing I would actually say I would disagree a little bit with the point.

00:05:54:03 – 00:06:24:20
We don’t need so many engineers. I actually think that there are engineers who are the perfect fit. In fact at Ultimate. We have a group of engineers that’s leading our class relations team and they all started out as engineers. They had a propensity. To see more broadly and also are interested in people in larger systems. But I think it’s knowing what kinds of engineers you need to be able to move certain departments ideas forward.

00:06:24:21 – 00:06:56:03
But I also I would agree with you there’s not there’s always a benefit from having a broader view that’s grounded in the liberal arts. And one of the things rather than strictly speaking for example a business degree. I think so much you pick up and you bring more to every role that you have. If you have a broader exposure which is probably one of the reasons that I love traveling so much so a couple of things that I would tell young women who want to rise in the world of technology is to not limit yourself. We

00:06:56:03 – 00:07:02:21
We have this sort of we’ve tended to become more and more specialists in this world. And you do have to specialize

00:07:03:00 – 00:07:34:11
But you can never stop having in other parts of your life that are nourished with things that are not your specialization or your specialty travel be it working with people that have nothing to do with the work that you do. I do a lot of things specifically about the importance of having a personal vision in this new world of work that’s highly digitized where where people are sometimes seem a little bit less grounded and less able to communicate with other people human to human that it’s really important to have this sort of beacon.

00:07:34:15 – 00:08:07:27
What is it that you want from your life and from your work and have those two things reinforce each other but be separate also the other thing I can’t overstate and I think sometimes you feel like wow that’s a really cool title makes him innovation. How do I get to be you know innovative and I think the most important thing is it takes a lot of hard work and fearlessness to be able to come up with an idea. Think about that idea promoted. And then you’re okay with letting it go. That’s where the whole idea fail quickly or fail fast comes into play.

00:08:07:27 – 00:08:37:03
So I think that those are some things that I talk a lot about to young women is don’t be afraid to work hard and get involved in a lot of things but also don’t hang on to them such that you can’t move on to something else because we are continuously hit with with walls or we come up against the wall brick walls glass ceiling you name it and you can’t be detracted from that. You have to sort of OK that didn’t work. Let’s try something else. And if you don’t have anything else to draw from it becomes really difficult.

00:08:37:03 – 00:09:00:03
Got it. That’s great. That’s great. So so ever make a hard if you’re an anthropologist. Everything everything that you read these days talks about the value of culture in organizations. And I sit here and I go That’s great. What the hell is culture. No no no no I couldn’t ask an actual expert

00:09:01:17 – 00:09:38:22
That’s the right one. But at the same time you and I both know that there are probably as many definitions of culture as there are people in the world maybe not quite as many but close. So I think that there are a couple of different definitions but overall there are some critical aspect of what culture is. In particular in the context of work and from my perspective and this is something quite frankly that I’ve talked to experts such as yourself about. We’ve had some conversations over the years about this but the culture really it’s a set of reinforcing frameworks that guide people.

00:09:38:23 – 00:10:10:05
And that also inform people and help them relate and associate with a whole group or a whole. So that’s a little bit abstract. But some of the things that come to mind when we talk about culture is it’s the traditional definition of culture as it’s a set of beliefs or shared set of beliefs which is OK but what does that mean that work. We all know that everyone has a slightly different interpretation of what is the mission of this organization what is my purpose in this organization. But it really speaks to how people are the culture themselves.

00:10:10:05 – 00:10:26:17
They bring together these ideas these philosophies practices that they adhere to in the workplace. And those are reinforced by bringing new people into the organization and adapting. So it’s a very dynamic living breathing thing a culture.

00:10:26:17 – 00:10:58:23
And the reason why everyone is talking about it today in the context of work is I believe it’s this need to try to define and hang on to something that’s more human in the face of so much digital pressure. And we know that in order to get people interested in the work that they’re doing they have to have this affinity or this shared idea this shared sense of purpose. And that’s really what culture is. So it’s hard to put your finger on what culture is. And yet it’s what ties all of us together.

00:10:58:26 – 00:11:34:18
So I’m of the opinion that this is the single most interesting question of official intelligence. What’s culture. How do you find it and how do you normally Modi understand what happens when you do something to it. And one of the cool things is I don’t know how the people who will issue the show actually have cancer which first reveals itself but also which is a deeply curated culture that seems to produce much extra jolt of energy in the people who inhabit lots culture without it being separate.

00:11:34:20 – 00:11:52:04
You know there’s a lot of organizations that have been run through the mill with rewards program they’ve had all hope. Thank you. What happens in unto itself is not some other almost electrical force. You have a good theory about how.

00:11:52:15 – 00:12:27:11
Absolutely. And I want to get back to that question of artificial intelligence and why I believe that artificial artificial intelligence is such an important tool. And yet it will never even though more and more is coming out about oh it’s getting closer and closer to humans culture is probably that one ingredient that will differentiate what a neural network is going to be and a culture of human activity. So I definitely want to get back to that but just talk to or address the question of what is some of that electrical force that jolt of energy that comes from a

00:12:27:22 – 00:13:10:23
Carefully curated but not in authentic culture. So an ultimate one of the things that is really really obvious in the first few moments and it gets people who join the organization for whom it’s not their first job. So people who have been elsewhere they’ve been arrested. We’ve seen other things that’s to say I have to pinch myself because I’m not really sure that this can be real. And so. What that is it’s number one there is an incredibly strong sense of and I don’t want to. Sort of make light of this term that’s somewhat overused but there is a sense of empowerment when our CEO and now or our new coach CEO say you are empowered to do something just do the right thing.

00:13:10:25 – 00:13:41:20
There is no doubt in anyone’s mind at ultimate that doing the right thing for a customer for another employee or a person that you that you see that you will not be questioned for doing the right thing if you know that what you’re doing makes sense and that you’re doing something for the better doesn’t mean that it’s without fault. Sometimes we have to do the right thing and your choices are not great. But there is no fear of you are going to be fired or called out for doing what you believe is the right thing.

00:13:41:20 – 00:14:13:12
So that is incredibly freeing and what it does is it creates a sense of taking care of each other and that extends to our customers. That really is palpable. And again not to sound too cheesy but there is a sense that our customers feel like they’re part of our family because they are part of our family and we treat them as such. And I have a work family which again I’m not the kind of person who would have thought I would say things like that. But I truly love a lot of the people that I work with and that’s that sense of not being afraid because we’re in this together.

00:14:13:17 – 00:14:27:20
You don’t get fired from a family you work through it. And if you do leave a family it’s because something has really gone wrong. So we’re not afraid to let people go. But it’s generally because they have done something that is that really is not the right thing.

00:14:27:22 – 00:14:43:16
That’s really I think that that’s freedom. Yeah yeah. And I’m sure to hear of this phenomenon that you’re describing called psychological safety. Yeah absolutely right. As a feature of our culture remember through the central feature of the family

00:14:45:22 – 00:14:55:28
it’s really always a family gathering feature the word function in every family there’s dysfunction in every family and at work there’s dysfunction also.

00:14:55:29 – 00:15:35:24
But I think in some instances you learn to live with that in a family and you try to focus. You also have a broader family when you’re talking about an organization with over 5000 a boy. But what’s interesting is when you come together I was recently at one of our services meeting where 40 percent of our workforce is is virtual and. It really felt like a family reunion. People were going crazy hugging each other they think oh do we really need some of these meetings but when you have most of your services team the people who are taking care of our customers everyday virtual they come together once or twice a year it literally feels like a family reunion and they’re genuinely elated to be together.

00:15:35:24 – 00:15:38:27
And I think that’s a remarkable thing in this day.

00:15:38:28 – 00:16:14:26
So it’s just back to the real question the how do you understand for her account or mitigate encourage the impact or culture is part of the question we don’t know. We used to Lucy. Lucy feeling the accused rolls of it. So there is something extraordinary in the case of Sherry we work these days it may not be pursuing a place right. How do you know. How do you know what the impact is going to be with you the level of precision the sense that we’re calling here you in.

00:16:14:27 – 00:16:45:28
There are a few things that have to be kept in mind and that some organizations will do naturally and other organizations will have to be very very judicious and intentional about how they introduced a I. When we introduce artificial intelligence and we have introduced to get a number of areas we describe it as one of as a way of simplifying and being able to take on some of the massive data crunching more but not to the exclusion of people.

00:16:45:29 – 00:17:27:18
So in certain places where we know and we found out before introducing this artificial intelligence and a number of areas. Not the least of which is our own software that we use or for feedback on a regular basis. But we talk to employees first understand where their greatest challenges are and we look to introduce artificial intelligence where it will have the most significant impact immediately. So we don’t just say hey we’re going to die and it’s going to change and improve your life in massive ways without knowing what it is that we’re trying to accomplish because a guy like any other software if there isn’t a really good business reason for it in all likelihood it may save you some money.

00:17:27:19 – 00:18:01:12
But in the long run it will likely end again in some places there are situations where automation is coming in which I wouldn’t say is necessarily artificial intelligence. There is intelligent automation happening but I think we have to distinguish what that is. But when it when we’re talking about artificial intelligence helping to assess to tree eyes even some problems but making sure that humans are expected. To make to have the conversation with with our customers. We don’t implement bots broadly to respond to our customers because we know that our customers don’t necessarily want that.

00:18:01:13 – 00:18:39:04
But we are having a high price problem and bring information to our customer service our customer success representative so that they can be better informed when they have those conversations. So it’s really about understanding where the impact is important when it comes to the impact on the overall culture especially a culture that is all about putting people first. We have to be extremely careful about what it means. This is a way of saying what you do. It’s a way of amplifying a message but it’s not a replacement of people because otherwise that would be an incredibly false way of bringing artificial intelligence into an organization.

00:18:39:04 – 00:19:16:00
But one of the things that we touched on before about. A more authentic culture. I think there’s that there’s psychological safety. And that means being pretty transparent about where we will be using artificial intelligence upfront. There’s also. A lot not just psychological safety but also psychological latitude latitude to explore and to be able to have employees bring I say look I’ve seen in this instance this has worked really well. Could we try this. So we do a lot of piloting internally and in and even in the software and also in the software that we bring to market.

00:19:16:08 – 00:19:48:24
So I think those are those are two different things to consider. But I also feel that artificial intelligence we talk about is getting smarter and smarter. It can do everything that a human brain can do. Well first of all that’s that’s not yet the case. And even when it does a culture in itself is something that is greater than the individuals that make up the culture. And so if you have a lot of artificial intelligence that is like a person that we still don’t have that broader

00:19:49:03 – 00:20:18:19
Then what’s going to aggregate and make all of this don’t work for people. And the machines together this new blended workforce that we’re talking about where humans and machines are working somewhat side by side culture is still greater than those individuals. So I I really am more optimistic about A.I. than again used judiciously and there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. When we when it comes day I. But. I don’t see it as a replacement for a culture without in any way shape or form.

00:20:18:20 – 00:20:48:20
Oh I hope you didn’t replace a culture but certainly transformed cultures. That that. That’s the kind of thing think that we’re looking at is you couldn’t have a culture of distributed housing with a loser. There would and we’ll be able to do that and we’ll shoot the same short circuit with it. All right. Sure. What do you see as some of the risks of installing a culture

00:20:51:00 – 00:20:53:23
there. There are an enormous number of risks

00:20:54:06 – 00:21:24:26
Which is which is why we’re still in the infancy and I know you’ve done a lot of research on more than most people in this whole arena of A.I.. I think some of the greatest risks that we face today are not being that or the backlash that will come from people actually becoming less motivated from people being less engaged or and I know that’s another one of those hopefully overused words that are in our supply at work here.

00:21:24:27 – 00:21:56:24
But people being less a part of the culture almost withdrawing because they aren’t sure they don’t feel safe or they don’t feel that is being implemented thoughtfully enough or with enough transparency. That’s one aspect. The other thing that I think is really pretty scary is that so much of A.I. that we rely on today is still quite siloed. And in terms of the source of information the source of data we don’t really have a multicultural A.I.

00:21:56:25 – 00:22:40:24
and so forth. As we become more and more our organizations become more global as that becomes a greater risk we make assumptions saying well no I’ve trained this A.I. it’s really really great but we don’t necessarily know that the A.I. has been properly trained or has learned based on a broad enough set of data. And there are no other benefits really today to make that happen. So. I think we would risk relying on the speed and the efficiency that comes but the thoughtlessness that can come from just saying well this is an easy answer and we’ll go with this is tremendously risky when it comes to not only serving people but making really important decisions and compliance and all of these other sorts of things.

00:22:40:24 – 00:23:04:04
So there are some significant risks because it’s so early. In the maturity of A.I. and yet I’ve been around for a long time and we’re not tackling some of the more challenging aspects of how appropriate is this A.I. in this particular setting. We can. We could do some of the horror stories that yeah we’ve heard it before stories right now Dawn four hours here.

00:23:04:05 – 00:23:15:28
One of the things I’m kind of drop this gracefully out of it a great Yogi Berra quote that shows in theory there’s no difference between practice and theory but in practice

00:23:17:15 – 00:23:55:12
I’m sure we’re going to talk about the important work of the H.R. function that isn’t procedural and administrative and giving the process is. It is the human part of the nature function. It seems to me that what people are going to do is big cheap policy and practice from becoming overlapping circles are driven by the job of H.R. is to push practice and policy apart and make the assumptions that make humans more comfortable with organizations and make policy effective because the uniform we apply didn’t work.

00:23:55:12 – 00:24:24:05
Machines do in the absence of compassion movement know how to do that. So we to you. But with the rescues or rescues traumatic unforgiving application of policy to all circumstances. Certainly. And that’s that scares you. That scares me. That has the potential to turn a well curated culture into something very rigid in a short amount of time.

00:24:24:10 – 00:24:44:09
Absolutely and you’re right which is why everyone when they’re looking for a chance offer other options is that configurable. Can we turn that off. All of these things because everyone likes the idea of policy and procedure that can be programmed. And yet we all know how messy humanity is. Thank God

00:24:45:27 – 00:25:16:15
that humanity is messy that it’s our differences. That’s our strength and beauty and creativity and all of those other sorts of things. And so I think I think that’s without a doubt a risk. But that’s why humans can never get out of the business of not just checking but learning to work more with the eye and addressing it. It should never replace because you’re absolutely right. When we start getting into a place where you’re eliminated because you didn’t meet X Y and Z criteria you know those options go out the door.

00:25:16:15 – 00:25:21:27
That’s tremendously dangerous. And it’s really it’s incredibly unrealistic in our world. Jeff

00:25:22:15 – 00:26:03:23
No I’m going to ask you one last question. Can you imagine also so far I don’t think people will notice either ultimates for most likely has the largest number of installations of intelligent tools of the software provider image or they’re to. I’m pretty sure about that. Yes. You’ve seen all sorts of things you’re seeing lots of things. I mean gracious. I wonder if you see the possibility for intelligent tools whose object is to create fulfilment and wonder in an employee population rather than me with an enforcement approach.

00:26:04:16 – 00:26:36:22
Yes. First of all I’m not even going to hesitate. I do see that as a possibility. I think that right now a lot of the wonder is attributed to the wonder in the artificial intelligence and the artificial tools that implement it the wonder in. That’s really incredible that a machine picked up on this. And I wonder if it could. Also if I could see what would happen if we ask more people these different kinds of question when you look at open ended questions being able to bring out information that someone didn’t see

00:26:37:09 – 00:27:10:11
And sometimes it’s not great news but it’s insightful. I think that is where a lot of wonder can can come from. And I know that tons endlessly pragmatic but we’ve all been in situations where you’re sort of like that was really interesting. I hadn’t seen it from that perspective and I think that if we can use artificial intelligence to aggregate information to understand even to assume and use that as one source or one perspective then not only will we be impressed by that potentially or be able to discard it.

00:27:10:13 – 00:27:41:14
Again notice that there’s there’s a there’s human judgment involved here as well but it can actually enhance and allow us to ask viewer questions or different questions that we would have otherwise. And I think that is absolutely a possibility and that’s one of the most exciting ones. For artificial intelligence to be able to bring up discussion discussion ideas that a leader because they’re mired in day to day thing wouldn’t have thought of and that actually enriches a teams meeting or the kind of conversations that people can have.

00:27:41:21 – 00:27:59:15
Then I think it’s wonder covered so we’re through the time we could talk for hours. I don’t think a lot more to think is you. Thank you so much. Fun to have a conversation. Yes. Thanks so much for doing this is there anything you think somebody should take away from work on a single song.

00:28:00:25 – 00:28:23:23
Yeah I think that it’s time for all of us to. Without a doubt learn more become much more educated about artificial intelligence and think about how best it can be applied to make us better at what we do and help us do more but not ever assume that it’s going to replace the power of our mind.

00:28:23:25 – 00:28:29:19
Awesome awesome so would you take a moment to reintroduce yourself from Toby I’ll be so good do the whole movie.

00:28:30:17 – 00:28:42:09
Thank you very much. So I had to steal Alfred the roots. The vice president of HCM innovation and also a cultural anthropologist. I also just recently published a book I really don’t know John if I’m allowed to say that

00:28:46:06 – 00:28:47:13
Not at all.

00:28:47:18 – 00:29:19:15
So I called From dissonance to Resonance and it talks specifically about other is talk of artificial intelligence and sort of the importance of really listening to your employees to bring people and workplaces more into sync it’s something I’m passionate about and it’s an ongoing conversation. So anyone interested in participating in that conversation give the book a read or a look and I can be reached through my Ultimate Software email. I’m also on Twitter at the feel ACM and on LinkedIn so I would love to hear from anyone.

00:29:19:15 – 00:29:26:08
The books available on Amazon but it’s also available through a site called bookshop or book based Fantastic.

00:29:26:08 – 00:29:33:21
Thanks for taking the time to do this Cecile. It was a wonderful action packed conversation I sure enjoyed it so thanks for taking the time to do this.

00:29:33:21 – 00:29:35:18
Thank you very much John, talk to you soon.

00:29:36:05 – 00:29:52:08
Yeah. You’ve been listening to HRExaminer’s Executive Conversations and we’ve been talking Cecile Alper-Leroux who is the Vice President of Human Capital Management and Innovation at Ultimate Software. Thanks for tuning in and we will see you back here next week. Bye bye now.


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