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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: Jeanne Achille, Founder and CEO of The Devon Group
Episode: 382
Air Date: October 23, 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 0:13
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 Jeanne Achille, who shares the woman in HR Tech summit at the Annual HR technology conference and at the HR Festival in Asia and Singapore. She is the founder and CEO of the Devin Group. And it’s a family thing I used to work with a great grandmother 100 years ago. And this has been handed down from person to person in the Achille family. But Jeanne and I have been talking every year at this time about the upcoming HR Tech Conference. What is this the 50th time we’ve done this Jeanne?

Jeanne Achille 0:58
You know, john, I think it might be and thank you for that nod to our effective succession planning here at Devin, we appreciate that.

John Sumser 1:10
Well, you want to talk about that? I mean it looks like Kate is the managing partner. And every time I talk to her, she’s grumbling about when is the boss gonna finally get out of her way?

Jeanne Achille 1:22
Well, you know, first of all, Kate has been with us eight years, I always like to remind people that she has a pretty impressive background that includes having written books with Princeton university professors and ex-cabinet members of the LBJ his administration, so we’re lucky to hire her. And quite frankly, I’ve always been a big believer in hiring people smarter than yourself so that I have that lineage to draw from and no one retires John, you know that. I mean, you know, you and I have the pleasure of being the gray hairs or gray beards or whatever they’re calling us these days, and no one retires. Work just looks different for all of us, we play different positions as time goes on. So you know, at one time, I was a CEO with four offices, including one in London and 28 employees. And as things evolved, my role has become that of senior strategist, and also working closely with the press and with analysts such as yourself,

John Sumser 2:23
Quite an evolution. If I think about how the HR Tech conference has worked over the years, you’ve sort of been the spinal cord of the process, because all of the action swirls around you and spreads out into the other things. And so it’s been fun to watch you evolve while the show evolves at the same time. And here it is, it’s time for the show to start next week. And this time, the only way you’re going to be in Vegas is if you’re in Vegas, in your own head. And so I recommended everybody that I talked to that they pack a bag tonight, and open it up on Monday morning and practice changing their clothes twice a day next week. What do you think?

Jeanne Achille 3:05
And of course, make sure that you have some sparkly sandals and maybe a feather boa so that you’re truly in Vegas mode.

John Sumser 3:13
Exactly where something inappropriately slinky for a professional conference. That’s the thing that you’ve gotta get right.

Jeanne Achille 3:21
Yeah, well, we will all be missing, you know, the 7am wake up call that you know continues to 2am in the morning. We’re all sleep deprived and caffeinated, highly caffeinated, and eating those breakfast burritos that I know you’re very fond of. And it’ll be a different experience this year, and still a very good one and a very productive one. We do have record breaking attendance for the event, which is fabulous. And I think the HR tech conference is our yearly destination for everyone in the community.

John Sumser 3:51
I agree and I’m gonna miss – I chipped a tooth on one of those breakfast burritos one year.

Jeanne Achille 3:59
Do you think they’re recycling the breakfast burritos?

John Sumser 4:03
Well, there were often some left at the end of the day. So it wouldn’t surprise me that there’s a special bag in Las Vegas for last year’s burritos. So, record breaking attendance. And you know, I gotta tell you the keynote lineup is pretty spectacular too. Yeah, Josh Bursin is doing his regular job-dropping romp through the latest trends in HR tech and Stacey Harris is unfurling the latest survey results from her massive look at the world and I just recently Marcus Buckingham signed up to do this.

Jeanne Achille 4:39

John Sumser 4:39
That’s a lot of entertainment in a small space and then you have pinch hitters like me on that list and Jason Averbook’s on the list. Yeah, so it’s gonna be great nine keynotes.

Jeanne Achille 4:52
It’s an amazing lineup. You know, you mentioned Marcus and he’s going to be talking about his resilience insights. I think resiliency in 2020, is something we’re all holding on too tightly, and learning as we go, how to build resiliency into our workplaces and into our workforces. And it’s something we really haven’t had to focus on, you know, with any particular rigor as a discipline previously. So, you know, this is a new year for all of us and new trends and topics that HR people are particularly focused on.

John Sumser 5:29
Yeah, it’s a big change, it’s a big change. And kind of one of the things that I have been learning is, you know, I’m sure you know, that engagement scores have been going up since the epidemic started, that across the board are experiencing increasing engagement scores. And I couldn’t understand that I had a very cynical view of what that was. And the cynical view was, if your job is threatened you tell the boss whatever he wants to hear.

Jeanne Achille 5:57
Well, do you think that’s the impetus for the the increased engagement scores, John?

John Sumser 6:03
Well, I have a slightly better, slightly less cynical answer. And that is, the human response to trauma is to always what human beings do when they are exposed to trauma is they behave in heroic ways. And so if you look at the things that people have been dealing with threat to their lives, confinement in their homes, shortage of access to resources, these are exactly the things that families experience in war zones. And so there’s a group of people in the engagement community who are looking at those engagement scores and going Oh, right. This relic response is exactly what you do when you’re exposed to sustained trauma. And the problem is, after a while, that heroic response turns into burnout. And so there’s a pretty good pool, though now about when engagement scores are going to plummet, because you can only imagine this was a flood that we were dealing with in the entire town comes out to put sandbags up to stop the town from being flooded. And it’s extraordinary people who people who you’d never expect would do extraordinary things do extraordinary things because of the time. But if the trauma isn’t over, then it starts to eat away at people. And so I think that there’s probably a pretty serious shift that will come You know, we’re all going to get locked down. I’ve started canceling holiday plans. We’re all locked down. And so the question is, how do we bounce to that? And how do we try in a less draining way to work so that we can have sustainable businesses and if that’s Marcus is talking about as resilience? I can’t wait to hear the story.

Jeanne Achille 8:01
You know, and I’m sitting here, and I’m and I agree with what you’re saying. And I’d love to read the research you’ve referred to, but what’s coming to mind is you’re talking about it is almost an adrenaline fueled reaction when you’re talking about trauma, and people rise to the occasion, I think longer term, what I’m observing is that you’ll previously we’re all on the road all the time, and everything was about more and more and more and higher levels of performance and more productivity. And quite frankly, all openly admit, you know, I get hundreds, sometimes thousands of emails a day, I couldn’t even keep up with what was coming over the transom. I think now we’re all pausing. And I think empathy is the new currency in the workplace. I think that that’s what will sustain us, if we start to train our managers, if we start to have engagement from leaders as to why empathy is so important in the workplace. That’s what will ultimately support resiliency and take us to the next level. But you’re right. I mean, we’re going into a tough winter, we’ll talk in seasons, I can’t really speak two weeks. But you know, I’m sitting here in New Jersey, our numbers have been very favorable, they are now unfortunately, trending back upwards. So we are going into a modified lockdown that could potentially be as drastic as what we’ve seen previously. So I think this level of uncertainty also means that HR professionals have to prepare for a number of different scenarios. And those scenarios are supported by technology, and also employee communications. So I know those topics will be discussed at HR Tech.

John Sumser 9:46
So I’m pretty excited about my keynote. And I think that what’s happened is hrs priorities have been permanently altered. And so you know, like I do that in the early days. HR safety was a primary thing, right? Everyone’s company. Yeah, every company had a nurse and a doctor on staff. Because if you went out into the factory floor didn’t pay attention, you lose a hand or an eye or your life or so. And there was somebody there to catch back up if you ran sideways into the machine. And then when we moved into offices, we took the factory metaphor and made information work like a factory, but we didn’t bring the safety awareness along with us. And now, if you don’t have a safe workplace, you don’t have a workplace. And that will extend into the home. Right. And before you can have health and wellness, stability, you have to be safe. Once you’re safe, that you can be healthy. Once you’re healthy, then you can develop. And this is not what HR Tech has been about, over the last 20 years HR increasingly divorced from questions like safety. But now when you go and look at what the real innovations are inside of the space, they’re all about tracking and monitoring, making sure that things are safe. And the limitation is companies like workday and ServiceNow have done extraordinary things to build dashboards that allow you to see the status of the health in your organization. But they’ve failed to be able to predict when you should shut down. So you get the place open, you get all this stuff lined up. And then you don’t know which of the variables is so important that you need to pay attention to though you’ll have to shut down within a week. There’s no application of AI to those things, which is crazy to me, but it’ll come.

Jeanne Achille 11:41
Yeah. In this day and age. I agree. It’s crazy. I have to say, you know, when I understand what you’re talking about with regard to the manufacturing environment, where you actually would have like a chalkboard that had the number of days since the last accident. I mean, if that was a thing, when you and I started in our careers, I get it. I’m not so sure it’s gone away entirely though, pandemic times aside, I can remember being an hourly worker in restaurants and a retail environment where you know, there was still a focus on physical safety. What I’m seeing now, though, and I think this is fascinating, because it opens up so many possibilities, good and bad, by the way, is this focus on emotional well being. And you know, are your employees emotionally exhausted? I think burnout almost becomes a bit cliche, because, you know, what does burnout look like for me versus you and, you know, the the next person, but I think it’s the emotional exhaustion that people are experiencing where they’re genuinely tired, but they’re not really sure why. Although I have to say sitting on Leo 12, zoom calls a day definitely does it, which is why I’m so glad that your show is audio only. I didn’t actually have to put on makeup and get dressed up today. But yeah, I mean, we’re in a whole new world. And, John, I’d be curious to have your thoughts on what actually changes back to what we thought was normal post-pandemic, and what now has been redefined going forward.

John Sumser 13:20
Well, I think it’s still early. First of all, I think we haven’t really scratched the surface in the pandemic, it’s going to get very difficult this year, people who can’t bear to not spend the holidays with their family in December, will be the stories we meet about people dying in January in February. And that’s just the way it’s going to be. And so we have a slog ahead of us. And in that slot, some interesting things are happening. You know, you talk about emotional safety, which I think is right, but emotional safety means freedom from discrimination. It means freedom from sexual harassment, it means freedom from bias that makes a certain class of people more likely to get promoted than another class of people. These are all safety issues. These are all physical safety issues. And it’s going to have to be the case going forward that the office is cleaned of those things, because you want people to come back but they’re not going to come back if that’s what they have to face. It’s not just Am I going to get sick and die, but it’s am I going to get sick because of the strain of having good work? Am I going to get stereotyped Am I gonna have to endure the sort of, I’ve heard an interesting term recently that has my attention. That is inspiration porn, and inspiration porn is taking somebody from a protected class. It works particularly well with people with disabilities and shining a light on their accomplishment in spite of the fact that they have this disability and that gets applied in all sorts of protected classes, and it’s generally offensive.

Jeanne Achille 15:03
Yes, it is.

John Sumser 15:04
It’s generally supremely offensive.

Right? It’s inspiration porn.

Jeanne Achille 15:08
Yeah. So you and I have discussed this topic endlessly, but whenever you call someone out and women in the workplace, this is a great example where you’re being applauded for your accomplishments, because you’re a woman. Well, that’s offensive to that isn’t what we want to be judged on. And, you know, why are you making us feel like some sort of oddity in the workplace. And so that does apply to other protected classes. And, you know, you mentioned disabilities, which is a topic I’m passionate about. There’s another aspect to that, and that is not every disability is apparent. And yet judgments are made left and right in the workplace on who needs let’s say, some sort of Ada assistance and who doesn’t. This is a category that’s rife with all kinds of discrimination, and safety issues, for that matter. Probably a broader discussion for another day. You know, I’d be curious, I did hear you mentioned AI earlier, though, I’d be curious to learn about your thoughts on AI and workplace safety. And how that can be an enabler?

John Sumser 16:21
Well, it should be in a way that it isn’t yet, you know, you can imagine if there are, let’s imagine that. So you’ve done all of the work to have the office ready to be reopened. And that work means all the conference rooms are taped off, because you can’t afford somebody to clean them. After you choose. You’ve got a robot in the bathroom, because you wouldn’t ever dream of hiring a human being to clean the bathrooms between each use, because it’s such a dangerous thing to do. You’ve got everybody in the company wearing a bracelet that beeps when they’re within six feet of somebody else, because it’s easy to forget social distancing, you check the temperatures on the way there, you got all this stuff in place, and you’ve got other stations from employees about their symptom level in a database somewhere. And so the doors are open. Now, the data is going to change, right? The data is that you monitor the data because it’s going to change. And so what you can’t tell yet is how many things on the proximity sensors that people are wearing constitutes an elevation of risks so that you have to start tamping other things down. And if you have 5% more beeps in the proximity sensors plus 5% more cases, does that indicate a trend, that means if you don’t do something, you’re going to have to shut down in two weeks. Because the thing here, it’s great to have a safer place, you got to have a safe workplace. But you can’t just run it as if what we were going to do is shut it down on a phone call the way we did the last time, you got to be able to have a soft landing with the next there’s gonna be a next shut down. And so you kind of have the tools in place to make a software being for the next shutdown. But the vendors are generally anxious about offering that kind of algorithm because there’s a liability in it.

Jeanne Achille 18:21

John Sumser 18:23

Jeanne Achille 18:25
As an employer, think of the lawsuits that will ensue if risk isn’t being mitigated proactively,

John Sumser 18:33
Oh my god, and and we just don’t have the tools to do it right. And so, so we’ll learn about this stuff. But it is my view that this situation where we have to be conscious of what it means to be physically safe in Information Processing environments, isn’t going away, it isn’t going away. This is here to stay. And so we’re going to get more and more sensitive to the physical, emotional, and maybe even financial and spiritual health of our organizations, by watching the sensors tell us that stuff. But we don’t really have good measures of organizational health. The folks that humanized in Boston do have some measures of organizational health, but they don’t have warning signals when it’s out of skew. And I don’t think anybody has a product that does that yet. But it’s such an obvious thing. It just is very sophisticated. Because these are systems problems. It may be that if gene is having proximity sensor trip wire problems more often than john knows that you learn how to factor for that, that Oh, yeah, that’s just gene. Edit isn’t gonna cause something. But we don’t know any of these sorts of details about what interactions in a physically charged information processing environment are.

Jeanne Achille 20:00
You know, this is a fascinating area. I’m sitting here though thinking, Okay, here we go, again, we’re measuring all of this data. However, how are we helping HR analyze this data? So it’s truly meaningful, as opposed to just a morass of data again?

John Sumser 20:18
Well, you should be buy straight bad for this, because the answer is there’s a new way of making a decisions. That was perfect. That was perfect, I should send you a check.

Jeanne Achille 20:30
I was going to say, I didn’t know this, but okay.

John Sumser 20:36
There’s a new way of making decisions. And it’s called ethics. But it’s ethics. It’s not ethics, like Government Ethics. It’s, you know, Government Ethics, are you can’t take the $5 coffee cup. What I mean by ethics is, because so many things are decisions we’re making for the first time, we need decision making processes that make our decisions better. And there are some vendors who are wrestling really hard with how to help people make better decisions. But in general, we don’t know anything about how these things go together. So when we make a decision, for instance, if it’s okay to have the office open today, there has to be some accounting for the fact that we might be wrong. And so you can’t say the office is open. And that’s it, you can say the office is open, but we’re still continuing to watch. And we’ll let you know what we’re seeing, right. And that kind of transparent decision making is what I mean by ethics,

Jeanne Achille 21:36
that business leaders though, need to step up and be comfortable with that level of transparency, and that level of uncertainty, you know, in a command or vertical management style, that’s not going to be comfortable for some people. So we’re going to be looking at training for leaders, ethics, training for leaders, as well as managers. So that, you know, this is pervasive through the enterprise.

John Sumser 22:00
I think that’s right. And there are some extraordinary things going on, that I’m involved in about bringing the ethics conversation into the operational organization and how you do that. And yeah, I think we’ll, I think we’ll see a change because in order to do ethics, leadership has to be has to make itself vulnerable. And if you watch the dying of the old command and control model that we saw last night on TV, what you’ll notice is that the new leadership is about vulnerability, and is not about this macho strength that we’ve been running on since the Second World War.

Jeanne Achille 22:41

John Sumser 22:41
We’re shifting into a new way.

Jeanne Achille 22:44
Yeah, there’s a lot of peer to peer influence that’s part of that as well. That just tremendous uplift when you’re engaging everyone in the enterprise. JOHN, will you be talking about this at the HR tech conference? Will we get to hear more about there?

John Sumser 22:59
Oh, yeah, that was the preview of my talk. The talk has three pieces to it. One is the absolute mental health crisis that we are about to see. And I think I don’t want to say mental health any longer. I want to be able to plainly say mental illness, anti depressant sales are up 300% people are flagrantly starting to drink at eight o’clock in the morning. You know, there’s lots and lots of sciences, sustained trauma that are sort of manifest over decades, probably. But we’re seeing mental health problems. So we’re not allowed still to say, holy shit, I’m suffering from depression today, I may not be up to speed.

Jeanne Achille 23:44
Right, I need to, yeah, I need to sit down from something because today is you know, I need my energy to take, for self care. People need to have that permission, they need to know that they have that permission.

John Sumser 23:56
Yep. So there’s all that stuff. And then there is physical safety of development as a new way of thinking about HR. And then the third piece is about how you start an ethics operation in your organization.

Jeanne Achille 24:10
Yeah, well, it’s going to be fascinating. And I’m so excited that we are virtual this year, because we have I think attendees from over 120 countries, I mean, so the virtual model lends itself so nicely to enabling a lot of folks who might not have been able to get on the plane to Vegas to join us instead, virtually on what is a terrific platform. I hope you’ve had a few moments to take a look at the platform it’s quite robust. So it’s going to be a very, very good conference next week.

John Sumser 24:39
Yeah, so I would say, you know, every year forever, I’ve been sitting in the analyst room and this year, it’s virtual. And if you are a, an exhibitor at the conference, I would love to set up a briefing with you and so please ping me through the app and let’s talk at HR Tech next week. I’m really looking forward to it.

Jeanne Achille 25:03
Fantastic. Of course, I’ll see you there, John.

John Sumser 25:06
Okay, see you there. Thanks for doing this Jeanne. It’s different than our usual romp through the woods before HR Tech, but it’s good to keep the tradition going.

Jeanne Achille 25:16
Absolutely. Well see you in Vegas next year.

John Sumser 25:21
I’ll be in Vegas in my mind all next week. You can see me in Vegas in my mind all next week. So, thanks. Thanks for doing this Jeanne. And thanks, everybody, for tuning in. You’ve been listening to HR Examiner’s Executive Conversations and this was the annual pre-HR Tech conversation. Thanks very much, we’ll see you back here next week. Bye Bye now.

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