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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 Product Innovation, Ultimate Software
Episode: 375
Air Date: August 14, 2020




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

Full Transcript with timecode

John Sumser: Good morning and welcome to HR Examiner’s, Executive Conversations. I’m your host, John Sumser and today we’re going to be talking with Cecile Alper-Leroux. And Cecile, you probably remember her from times past on the show. Cecile is the vice president of product innovation at Ultimate Software, which is a fancy way of saying she’s the smarts behind the amazing company.

And so I’m going to let Cecile introduce herself in a little bit and then we’ll get into the conversation. Good morning Cecile.

[00:00:46] Cecile Alper-Leroux: Good morning, John. It’s great to talk with you again and to be part of the show. I don’t know about the smarts. I think the key to leadership in general is to surround yourself with people that are smarter than you, and that bring totally different perspectives.

And that it’s actually potentially something we’re going to talk about a little bit later today, but as I think you may remember, I started out as an anthropologist, cultural anthropologist, after doing some archeology. And I, I found my way in an odd and circuitous manner into the world of HR technology that I’m absolutely passionate about.

So again, I’m delighted to be here to talk about some of the things you’re going to be asking.

[00:01:26] John Sumser: Good. Good. So, Ultimate Software and Kronos merged recently. And my sense is that your life got really interesting. It had been interesting all along, but it got really interesting then. So what’s going on?

[00:01:40] Cecile Alper-Leroux: So it has been a fascinating experience and really a journey, a tale of two cultures coming together.

I think there’s no real mystery about the fact that mergers can be an incredible challenge and that they also have at times a pretty high failure rate. And so one of the things that our organizations were really, really adamant about, and by the way, we still don’t have a new company name that should be coming in the next, the combined new branding logo name, et cetera, is coming in the next month or two.

There’s some rumblings that are already happening. There are apparently lots of rumors as well. But I think we were very intentional about, was to do a lot of listening and there was a fair bit of separation for the first couple of months, but things have really started to gel as we bring these two cultures and really nearly equally sized organizations together.

[00:02:37] And when I say a tale of two cultures, although both Kronos and Ultimate are known to have sort of a people centered ethos, there are certainly differences in how that plays out. And so we’ve really been besides learning a lot. Looking at how we can exchange information. And there’s really been an interesting appetite and also a series of challenges.

I’m not going to sugar coat it. It’s never easy in these situations, but it’s been a very complex and fascinating experience to think about how do we bring, it’s easy to say, let’s bring the best of cultures together, but as you and I have talked about over the years, John culture is not something that you can just flip a switch and it’s going to be changed overnight.

[00:03:20] It’s a sort of a set of reinforcing experiences. It’s a framework really, in which managers, leaders will provide information and employees experience and live a culture through those exchanges, with their leaders, with the technology that they use, with decision-making, all of those things.

[00:03:41] John Sumser: So it’s back to anthropology after all, isn’t it?

[00:03:44] Cecile Alper-Leroux: A hundred percent. It really is. The participant observer is alive and well right now.

[00:03:52] John Sumser: So I’m going to put my money on UltiKro as the new brand name.

[00:03:57] Cecile Alper-Leroux: I hope not, but, uh,

[00:03:59] John Sumser: [laughing] I think I will be the one vote for UltiKro.

[00:04:03] Cecile Alper-Leroux: I have to just say one thing. So ultimate employees are known as UltiPeeps and Kronos, Kronos employees call themselves Kronights. And so there were some interesting blending that happened with, will we be Kreeps now?

[00:04:16] And, uh, so I’m really also voting against that one. As a new identity for the employees of the joint company.

[00:04:23] John Sumser: I don’t know. That’s pretty good. We really take care of our Kreeps. That’s an inclusive message if there ever was one.

[00:04:31] Cecile Alper-Leroux: Perfect.

[00:04:33] John Sumser: So, the next thing is, you’ve been volcanic quality and depth of your advocacy for diversity,, inclusion, belonging, equity, those sorts of issues. How’s that going?

You know, so you pulled out of, I don’t know, you probably need to tell me about your job, but it seems to me that you’re a little further away from that, and so I’m curious about how that plays in this role, which appears to be more technical.

[00:05:01] Cecile Alper-Leroux: So it’s interesting, John, because I actually think that I’m now in a position to do more, to influence, not just the makeup of our teams and do and diversity equity, belonging as part of the makeup of our company and as just a topic that needs to be brought to the forefront of our conversations even more so now, although it’s always been important, let’s be real just because of what’s happened in the past in the last few months after George Floyd’s death. To me that only surfaced how important all of this has been for so long. And it’s really not been, we haven’t been as honest as we need to be in that arena.

[00:05:39] But I actually think that now for, rather than looking to shape the discussion in the world of HR, technology, business. Now, it’s also adding to the ability now to truly reshape the solutions that we bring to the market. And that’s something that can only happen. I think about the 76% of leaders in HR. If we take that as one example, are women. There’s a large number of women of color who are leading the HR or the diversity role within organizations.

And yet, if you look at the makeup of the people who create the products that serve that audience or that population, it’s largely white male from a development standpoint. So I feel that now, I have even more of an opportunity to say, you know what, we’re going to be very, very serious about the pipeline and changing the conversation.

Okay. Who comes in and who’s influencing the development and checking the development, shaping the development of our solutions that we’re bringing to market. And it’s already starting to bear fruit, quite frankly. So that volcanic or fierce advocacy, I feel like it’s more than talking in, shaping a conversation.

[00:06:50] Now it’s about, we are going to ensure and are already ensuring that we are challenging and bringing in different voices in the creation of solutions. And I think that’s probably the most significant. As, you know, Ultimate has had a pretty good balance from a management perspective of women, not enough people of color though, without a doubt.

And so part of the shift for me was also getting out of the way of some of my colleagues, some of the people who were on my team so that their voices could be raised at a new level as well. So it’s being very intentional about hiring decisions, promotion decisions. And when you go from having a team of about 20 to having a team of more than 300, you actually can have a greater impact in some of those decisions.

[00:07:36] John Sumser: So, as I understand it you are in charge of both the technical function at Ultimate Software and the product function at Ultimate Software.

[00:07:44] Cecile Alper-Leroux: It’s the product and strategy. What we’ve done though, is I have a counterpart on the engineering standpoint and we actually manage jointly. What’s unique though, is I don’t believe there are a lot of product and engineering senior executives that are both women leading a large product portfolio. And so my counterpart is Jess Keeney and she’s responsible directly. We actually have joint meetings. Our leadership meetings are also joint meetings. We really don’t manage the team separately. We are paired and our leaders are paired from a product and technology standpoint, and we wanted to create this much more collaborative approach to building new solutions, to executing the vision that we have, because it’s one thing to say, here’s what we’re going to do from a product standpoint, we’re going to develop the strategy and throw it over the fence.

[00:08:31] One of the things we didn’t want to do. We wanted the ownership and the discussion to be a constant conversation. And so we’ve completely restructured to meet that goal.

[00:08:42] John Sumser: That’s awesome. I don’t know anywhere else where there’s that kind of female leadership, in the technical functions in HR tech and so that’s amazing.

And I wonder if thinking, it’s gotta be sort of a weird thing to think about, but your competitors could learn from you, and there’s this sense that the industry to learn from you, and you must have conflicting emotions about that, right? Because you’ve got this secret powerhouse now and if everybody else copies it you’ll lose the corporate differentiation from it.

So, how do you think about grooming, growing, encouraging the development of other female talent in similar roles?

[00:09:18] Cecile Alper-Leroux: I think about it all the time. And part of that plays out daily with the decisions of who we’ve brought together and how we blend the strengths under the team. I will say that what it requires is a setting aside of ego that is hard to find in this world.

[00:09:35] Quite honestly, people get married to their ideas thinking, Oh, no, I got to get this over. You’re going to take care of doing this. How can you not understand how important this is? And it does take the setting aside of ego to say, look. What I believe is not the most important thing. I want to know what you believe and then having that conversation together and being okay with discipline agreements, but then eventually respecting each other enough to move forward.

[00:10:01] So when I think about how. And I will say it is interesting because to me, yeah, it feels like a very natural way to work. I know that for my counterpart, by the way, who was an attorney, believe it or not, and is now leading a group. So together we have 1,300 people on the team engineers, product, business analysts, et cetera.

[00:10:21] And when you think about that the vast number of people on the team, we’re always, we’ve worked at it. Over the past few months. And we know that the collaborative approach is not natural. And actually we feel ourselves at times being pulled back. Well, don’t you think? Why is engineering vs. Product and not we’re one. So I don’t know why you’re bringing that up. So it takes this kind of constant checking. So when looking at, how do we share that message? How do we shape that? It has everything to do with modeling that behavior so that when you have a man and woman pair in engineering and technology, and by the way, it’s not only male in engineering and women on the product side of things, we have a really good balance there.

It’s modeling that behavior and then describing how important it is to set aside one’s own firmly held beliefs for really the benefit of a greater population. And that’s not easily done. I think that a lot of organizations can learn from that because when you actually put aside ego and you think about, okay, how are we going to make this happen in a better way? It’s really, and what the job of HR needs to be anyhow.

So if we can’t model that in our own organization, then I think it’s going to be really difficult to create solutions that will help other organizations get there.

[00:11:39] John Sumser: So I’m going to switch gears on you. I personally have been following the evolution of your framework for thinking about people at work. And my question for it is primitive cause I don’t really understand what you’re doing, but I recall the last time we spoke that you’re really excited about this framework. So tell me some about it.

[00:11:58] Cecile Alper-Leroux: So the pandemic and the reigniting of the social justice has only put a brighter light shined a brighter light on the need for a framework that really thinks differently about how people’s lives and their work truly intersect.

I think the whole idea of work life balance is a fallacy. And so working with some of my colleagues. Actually Dr. Derek Conrad and I have together worked on this framework about a year ago. We called it the employee continuum of needs at the time, and then really shifted to think, you know, what this is really about?

This is about how people live and work, how those things sactually intersect, how they meld. Because again, I think there is no balance. And so the idea of a Lifework journey. It’s not just the employee journey, it’s ones life and work together. And the idea is that there are sort of six stages and individuals will revisit these stages either at, and I’ll give you a quick rundown of the different stages.

The first is being at risk and being at risk can happen at the beginning of one’s career. It can happen at the end of one career, it can happen in the middle of one’s working life, essentially. And it can happen when something dreadful happens at home or a change happens within someone’s life. And these all have impacts on our ability to work and even what we can take on in the workplace.
[00:13:11] And so there’s at risk. Once you move from being at risk where you’re really more focused on just surviving and getting paid and making sure there’s some form of continuity, you go into security. Once you’re in security, you can start thinking about, okay, maybe I’m willing to take a risk and go into a new area, explore something new.

[00:13:29] That’s when you go into the growth phase, some people may say insecurity and be totally happy in that area. And they’ll get going for growth and perhaps taking on a leadership role. But in these first three phases, you’re really not ready for leadership when you’re at risk security, or even in growth, you may take that challenge, but once you accepted a challenge and you succeed in it, you end up in this area.

[00:13:51] And what’s interesting is most HR professionals that you’ll find at conferences that we talk to on a regular basis are in this phase of self realization. You’re okay with yourself. Once you are self-realized essentially, then you can think about how am I going to influence, and this doesn’t have to do with management.

[00:14:08] But when you think about you start turning your days outward at how can I influence others. And then the final stage, which is generally not addressed either in technology or even in the whole life work or work life balance, and even employee life cycle is the notion of legacy. And what’s interesting is I have a son who just graduated from college and I was talking to him and about this.

And he said, mom, I felt like I was in legacy in my last year. I was trying to share how I had built a network before graduating from college. And I said, you were in legacy and that’s absolutely appropriate. So we revisit these stages. It’s not as simple cycle, even though we like to simply, we’ll say that from an imagery standpoint, very messy, just like life is messy.

And so it’s the idea that it’s not appropriate to have a conversation with someone who’s in legacy about growth opportunities. They’ve moved beyond that and they don’t necessarily want to, unless for example, a company is sold or merges or a global pandemic hits and all of a sudden you’re back to square one.

So it’s this idea that understanding where people are in their life’s work journey will help us better serve them. And what that translates to in technology standpoint is how do we glean some of that information, whether we’re asking, or we can tell based on people’s interactions with technology, where they are and provide a better experience for those individuals in that stage.

[00:15:25] John Sumser: What a great scheme. I’m going to steal it.

[00:15:28] Cecile Alper-Leroux: Please do. [laughing]

[00:15:29] John Sumser: Yeah, I may claim it as my own. This is useful.

[00:15:32] Cecile Alper-Leroux: One thing I think is important though. It’s a very useful framework to describe where people are, because we know on a global basis, about 84% of people are afraid that they’re going to lose their job, or they perceive that they’re going to lose their job.

[00:15:44] So if you think of how many people are at risk and what happens to people when they’re at risk is they’re not going to take a lot of risks. They’re not necessarily ready to innovate, to influence, and share those ideas. And so how is it that we can move people out of that chain so that they. Truly can come into their own and are ready to innovate, to think about new ideas, to bring new things without this fear of, Oh, I’m going to lose my job, or I don’t want to rock the boat necessarily.

And so if you can imagine how shifting and understanding and helping people get to another stage. And what balance you have in your own organization based on where your organization is. Are you a retracting as an organization, as a whole, or are you in growth mode? What’s the right balance for your organization and how can you assess that?

It could change the nature of how productive our organizations are and even more important? Oh, well, how healthy people feel when they’re at work?

[00:16:37] John Sumser: This is really interesting. As you’ve been talking, I’ve been thinking about the sentiment analysis that’s part of the Ultimate Software product line.

[00:16:46] Cecile Alper-Leroux: Yeah.

[00:16:47] John Sumser: And one of the questions I’ve been wondering about since the start of the pandemics is how it is that you can trust self-reporting in an environment where people were scared.

And I think that what you’ve just told me is how. Ultimate is going to look at the self reported data, because if you cross reference an assessment with the self-reported sentiment, you might get a different picture. So if you’re talking to the 84% of people who are scared and they say they’re very engaged,

[00:17:18] Cecile Alper-Leroux: Right.

[00:17:19] John Sumser: [00:17:19] You can factor that properly.

[00:17:21] Cecile Alper-Leroux: Absolutely. And I think it’s also picking up on signals that aren’t necessarily part of the obvious self reporting. There are other signals that people have. How often are they going to check on certain pay information? So there’s a lot of sort of interaction or digital exhaust that can signal where someone is also.

And the self reporting then is often in our goal is to be able to make that more of a validation. Rather than an outright, how you doing, because you know, a lot of people won’t feel comfortable necessarily in certain environments to be open about that. Part of the interesting challenge that we’re finding in terms of how comfortable are people self reporting or not.

So there are other signals that we want to be able to look at and even things such as understanding. Okay. How would you craft your life work in the coming months? Has anything changed in your life? Obviously, for most of us, a lot has changed in the past few months. So one of, sort of the tip of the spear that we think about is how can one prep, can you talk a lot about career crafting, but if you think about Lifework crafting, then you’re bringing this other element that is so crucial because today our life and our work has blended even more than it ever has in the past.

You work remotely, you and I actually, most of the time worked on planes or en route to another location, but those are some of the things that have changed so dramatically that I think it’s really important to be able to look at emotional signals at interactional signals and bring all of that to bear as well as self reporting.

[00:18:47] John Sumser: So, I have a question that we didn’t talk about, talking about, but let’s see how it goes. One of the things I’m learning about diversity and inclusion is that it’s often a game of manipulating self reported data. And there’s this very interesting thing. The percentage of the American population that self-identifies as black has remained fixed for many, many, many years, and it’s simply not true.

[00:19:13] And the reason that I’m starting to understand is that there’s no incentive for self reporting that you’re black and smart African American parents teach their children to answer those questions with whatever gets you the best advantages, the answer you’re supposed to put in those things. And so.

When we measure accomplishment in these areas, gender, ethnicity, sexual preference, we’re looking at narrow categories that people self report for a variety of reasons. And the question is, how do you take those initiatives to bring equity into the workforce? Beyond the categorization that is compliance data into the real rich reality of what race actually is in the workplace.

Because it’s much larger than the category. So, are you thinking about that? It’s a really hard problem because you can’t collect data on it.

[00:20:05] Cecile Alper-Leroux: No, you can not collect data on that. One of the things that I think that is an important aspect of that, and tell me, I’m getting, there are not some of the initiatives that work best to create an environment in which people are more open to, whether it’s self reporting or having these honest open conversations are oftentimes grassroots, not necessarily sanctioned initiative.

In which really difficult conversations are enabled and supported, but that grow organically and give people who are curious to learn more about what’s actually happening in the workplace and what the lived experience of black American workers might be. Or LGBT employees might be, is to actually enable those conversations and then have other voices and the growth of allyship organically start to make changes happen.

I think about things as simple, as changes in terminology that you wouldn’t even think are a problem. We think of the master feature and we have white companies you might get doesn’t. It seem like a master feature is a bad idea. Absolutely. Let’s change that right now. And so what you find is as those conversations happen, as those changes happen, it grows.

There’s a group that started, uh, actually at ultimate called the color of change. And it was a couple of people. There were five or 10 people on the first phone call on a Friday at noon that started talking about what it’s really like. And now there are over 400 people who are engaged in this conversation.

It’s not organized or sanctioned by the company. It’s just something that was started by some employees and the conversations are more honest and more real than anything I have heard anywhere. And it’s something that we look forward to. And now you say, well, you should maybe check that out. You’re curious and you’ll find there’s absolutely no, no up et cetera.

And I don’t know if that gets at the crux of what you’re asking, which is how do we change the situation that self reporting is problematic, but is it the self reporting or is it the change that’s happening within an organization that’s more important? This is one of those situations where the data may not be.

And I know we all love data, but in some cases, I think it’s the reality that could actually eventually shift the data more than trying to look at the data to give us those answers.

[00:22:25] John Sumser: [00:22:25] Yeah. I think it’s as simple as if I’m trans and I don’t want the company to know about that. Then I mark myself off as something else, and the stats all change and so self reporting is suspect but it’s where all data come from. And so the question is, how do you keep your eye on the ball? When you know, the data is room and at the very same time that, you know, the data is wrong and you have to report the data for a variety of reasons,

[00:22:52] Cecile Alper-Leroux: Right. Yeah, I think the only way that we can really change that is to know and recognize the data’s wrong and not let the data dictate everything or funding for certain things, et cetera.

[00:23:04] So it’s that recognition. And once that recognition occurs in there, other kinds of activities that will allow for the idea that you know, what I’m not worried about reporting this data. So it’s okay. But again, it’s going to continue to be one of our greatest challenges, honestly. What are the right signals that we can pick up that aren’t invasive, that aren’t problematic.

That will give us more information than just the data that will enrich the data I guess. It’s not an easy one though. You’re right.

[00:23:31] John Sumser: No, but it wasn’t meant to be an easy one. I’m interested in getting into the meat of the problem rather than reporting that we solved it.

[00:23:38] Cecile Alper-Leroux: I agree. I agree.

[00:23:40] John Sumser: And that’s hard to get across some place, particularly when you build software that allows people to report that they solved it.

[00:23:47] Cecile Alper-Leroux: Yes, absolutely. It’s not sitting back and saying, okay, we got it. Move on. Because that’s never the case.

[00:23:53] John Sumser: That’s right. That’s right. So we’re running towards the end of this. What else is going on that I haven’t asked you about? I know you’re busy and there’s all sorts of stuff. So what else is out there?

[00:24:04] Cecile Alper-Leroux: When you say what’s out there, what are some of the things that are keeping things interesting, challenging, et cetera, in the world we live in?

[00:24:11] John Sumser: Yeah.

[00:24:11] Cecile Alper-Leroux: You know, one of the things that John, you and I have talked a little bit about is that the whole notion or idea that this change that we’re going through, that we may go back to where we were before. I really think, and I think you agree as well that there are some fundamental changes that have occurred, that I believe will reshape the workplace more than anyone is, and I say workplace, or even just this whole idea of life work, how we connect with people, et cetera. You and I’ve talked about fatigue associated with being on screen all the time. Those kinds of things, but I think that we are just at the cusp of understanding, or even being able to picture or visualize how different life will be in the coming years.

[00:24:55] And I think that poses a whole set of really fascinating, but also interesting challenges when it comes to the role of technology, the role of HR, we know that HR leaders have been propelled to the forefront of being the communication arm. The connection point, whether you have furloughed employees or not. And I really think we paid lip service to rethinking re-imagining what kind of technology is really going to serve the workplace, the employee, the leader, or the manager or whoever it is. And I think we’re starting to get potentially a sense of that, but I feel like there’s too much recycling of old ideas. And there’s still a little bit of a fear to say, you know, what, what we’ve done in the past, this transactional stuff just doesn’t matter anymore.

[00:25:40] And it’s a big risk to do that. But I think in the next year or so, there will be a Renaissance of completely new ways of thinking about how we serve. And I do think that there’s going to be the bite size or micro innovation, micro changes that are going to be experiencing. That will plugin to the more traditional framework until we can really get to a completely new way of designing solutions for people and serving them at work.

[00:26:06] And this idea of serving in connection have not really been well thought through in the past I think.

[00:26:13] John Sumser: I think you’re right. The way that I’m thinking about it is that HR is in the process of becoming the safety, health, and ethics department and responsible for the health, safety, and ethics of the individual and the organization.

And that means we’re going into a time where the old model, where HR was, where you turned for firm answers to questions isn’t going to work. Instead HR is going to be where you turn to get better questions.

[00:26:40] Cecile Alper-Leroux: Absolutely. And it’s going to be that interesting base of that it’s really uncharted territory, even for HR, but it could finally be the answer, I think, to HR taking its place. Because you’re right, health, safety, ethics, but it’s also motivation and things like engagement that in a remote setting are just that much more of an interesting challenge that people don’t think enough about.

[00:27:04] John Sumser: So I’d put those things under the category of health. A healthy workforce is engaged.

[00:27:09] Cecile Alper-Leroux: Yeah, you’re right. Very true.

[00:27:11] John Sumser: So, thanks for doing this. I always love getting to spend some time with you. We should start our regular calls back up now that things are plateauing a little.

[00:27:20] Cecile Alper-Leroux: Absolutely. I would love that. Thank you so much for having me on the show again.

[00:27:24] John Sumser: Yeah, thanks Cecile.

[00:27:27] You’ve been listening to HR Examiner’s Executive Conversations and we’ve been talking with Cecile Alper-Leroux at Ultimate Software. Thanks for tuning in, and we will talk to you again next week. Have a great day. Bye bye now.

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