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How To Develop Successful Organizations With Dave Ulrich – The Father of Modern HR

7 Mar 2023

The people behind the voices:

Dave Ulrich

Author and businessman

Gillian French

Employee Experience Officer


The Employee Experience Podcast Ep. 7

How To Develop Successful Organizations

This week’s guest on The Employee Experience Podcast is Dave Ulrich, professor, businessman, and HR guru.

Known as ‘the father of Modern HR’, Dave Ulrich has been ranked the “#1 Management Educator & Guru” by BusinessWeek, profiled by Fast Company as one of the world’s top 10 creative people in business, and “The Most Influential Person in HR” by HR Magazine on three occasions.

Dave Ulrich’s best-selling books and popular speeches inspire the corporate and academic agenda. Dave has co-authored over 30 books and 200 articles that have shaped three fields: organization, leadership, and human resources. He and his colleagues have shaped the HR profession and he has been called the “father of modern HR” and “HR thought leader of the decade” by focusing on HR outcomes, governance, competencies, and practices.

About The Employee Experience Podcast

The Employee Experience Podcast, hosted by Gillian French, is a podcast series for leaders pursuing innovative ideas to engage and connect with their employees. We’ll speak to leaders about how to best connect with employees, build healthy cultures and deliver an employee experience where everyone can reach their potential.

Guests so far on Season 1 of The Employee Experience Podcast include:

  • Claude Silver, Chief Heart Officer at Vayner Media, on building the best human empire
  • Leslie Caputo, People Scientist at Humu, on empowering people to improve themselves
  • Gary Keegan, CEO at Uppercut, on the secret to elevating performance (Part One)
  • Gary Keegan, CEO at Uppercut, on the secret to elevating performance (Part Two)
  • Niamh Gunn, CEO of the Dialogue Code, on creating a workplace for Humane Leadership
  • Scott McInnes, Founder of Inspiring Change, on engaging people to build a great culture
  • Stan Slap, Author and CEO on the secrets to building a world-class company culture
  • Ryan Jenkins, bestselling Author on how to decrease loneliness at work
  • Margaret Heffernan, bestselling Author and CEO on how to improve the Global Employee Experience
Full Transcript

Gillian French (00:00):
Hi, I’m Gillian French from Workvivo. You’re very welcome to The Employee Experience Podcast. We speak to leaders about how to best connect with employees, build healthy cultures and deliver an employee experience where everyone can reach their potential.

This week, we have Dave Ulrich, ranked as the number one management guru by Business Week and profiled by Fast Company as one of the world’s top 10 creative people in business. A top-five coach in Forbes, and recognized on Thinkers50 as one of the world’s leading business thinkers, Dave has written 30 books and over 200 articles.

He has shaped the HR profession and been called the Father of Modern HR. He has also spearheaded a gift book for the future of HR, which was distributed to over one million HR professionals.

Gillian French (01:02):
So Dave, it’s wonderful to have you on today. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me.

Dave Ulrich (01:07):
I am so delighted. I’ve looked at your background and seen you’ve done such wonderful things. And Gillian, I look forward to this conversation and hope we can share ideas with each other that our listeners, and I’ll say our listeners for this podcast, will get something that will be helpful for them.

Gillian French (01:24):
I was looking over some of the articles that you’ve written, and I just stumbled upon a quote that you said, which was I was drawn into the then emerging field of organizational behavior because I was enthralled by how organizations shape people’s lives. And, I’d love to hear from you what your thoughts are about how organizations have shaped people’s lives over the past five to 10 years.

Dave Ulrich (01:50):
It’s not been five or 10 years. I remember sitting at a session … This shows how old I am … by Peter Drucker, the father of management. And he said the most powerful organizational phenomena in the history of mankind was the pyramids. That’s not the last four or five years. You bring together thousands of people to build this incredible monument.

Dave Ulrich (02:08):
Think about your day. Think about the food you eat. Think about the clothes you wear. Think about the technology that connects us at a distance. Think about the house you live in, the school your kids go to. Every one of those things is brought to you by an organization. Individuals couldn’t have gotten you the food the way you eat it. The stores, the distribution system, the clothes we wear. Organizations are pervasive. They’re everywhere. They’re where we live, where we work, where we play, where we worship.

Dave Ulrich (02:39):
And so, my passion is to figure out how do I make sense out of how that thing called an organization works? My wife is a very good psychologist. She says I have OCD, which means obsessive compulsive disorder. And that’s not it. I have OCD, organization compulsive disorder. I love to study organizations.

We went to dinner recently and I looked at my wife and I said, “I could improve the productivity of this restaurant 5%. Should I call the manager over?” And she said, “Dave, stop it. Do not do that. I know that’s your compulsion.” But, I just enjoy organizations. They’re fascinating social systems that shape almost every part of our life.

Gillian French (03:23):
And how do you think, if I was to look at how it has shaped us, say over the past five years and with what has happened with the pandemic, do you think that it has had a positive impact on say family structures, social structures? Or, do you think we’re at a tipping point that maybe we need to take a step back? I know you’ve written about reinventing organizations, but I just feel like there’s a point at this moment in time where organizations probably need … and how we operate within organizations needs to have a big shift.

Dave Ulrich (03:59):
No question, no question. And, I like that you went back five years, not two. Everybody’s going back to the pandemic being the point of demarcation. Even before the pandemic, Arthur Young and I. He’s a colleague in China who’s brilliant. Happened to be a doctoral student. It’s so cool when your students exceed what you’ve done. He’s better than I am.

We wanted to look at what makes an organization successful in the world we live in. This was five or six years ago. And, the first message is it’s not your structure. If you used to say to people, “Draw an organization,” they’d draw hierarchy, boxes, arrows, who reports to whom. I’ll give an example. Gillian, who’s a company you admire, a relatively big company people might have heard of.

Gillian French (04:40):
HubSpot, actually. I think they’re doing quite good things at the moment.

Dave Ulrich (04:44):
Okay. How many levels of management?

Gillian French (04:47):
I don’t actually know off the top of my head.

Dave Ulrich (04:49):
And, here’s the addendum to that; and, I don’t care. I admire them because of what they’re known for and good at doing. By the way, in a simple way, we call that their capabilities. I admire Google. I admire Amazon, whoever it is. Those are North American. I admire Unilever. Not because of their hierarchy and bureaucracy, but because what they’re good at doing. And so we began to say think of an organization as a bundle of capabilities. What are you known for and what are you good at doing?

And then, make sure that those capabilities create value for customers, investors, communities in the marketplace. And so, that evolution of organizational logic is really pretty cool because when I think of is this a good or a bad organization, as you say, I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but I can predict how successful they’ll be if the capabilities that they create, create value for their customers, for their investors and for their communities.

Gillian French (05:48):
That’s really interesting.

Dave Ulrich (05:51):
Let me anchor that, if I’m a senior business leader or HR leader, business and HR leaders, here’s the question. To what extent does my organization have the right capabilities? And, a capability is our identity, what we’re known for. I’ve forgotten already the organization you mentioned-

Gillian French (06:09):

Dave Ulrich (06:10):
What is it?

Gillian French (06:11):

Dave Ulrich (06:11):
HubSpot. What are they known for not only by their employees, that’s an internal culture if you will, but what are they known for by their users, their customers, their stakeholders outside? When that identity is effective, that organization’s going to succeed. Anyway, that’s the thing I hope our listeners are thinking about, “Wow, what am I known for that will help me be successful in the marketplace?”

Gillian French (06:39):
You talk about organizations and responding to future requirements, and you talk about believing, becoming, and belonging, which I think is really interesting. Would you mind expanding on what you mean by that?

Dave Ulrich (06:53):
Let me anchor it with the story. I like stories. This was 15 years ago. My wife and I were serving a mission for a Christian church in Montreal. One day, we visited a refugee family from … It doesn’t matter … from South America. It happened to be from Haiti. Poor, not wealthy, but we walked into their apartment and it was clean, it was warm. And, you can imagine, it doesn’t matter the wealth, but it was kind and gracious, and the mother and the father and the children were just, there was a spirit, if you will, of warmth.

That evening, we went to one of the elegant houses in Montreal up on the hill. A butler opened the door dressed in a penguin suit, and we had this very fancy dinner with multiple courses and my wife had to remind me start with the outside fork.

Dave Ulrich (07:48):
And as we left that evening, we thought there was a real difference between these two experiences. The first one had a feeling of what we called abundance. The second one, elegant, original artwork, all this cool stuff, but it felt a little bit empty. And we thought, “What’s going on here?”

And so Wendy, a psychologist, and myself begin to say in an organization that matters so much, how do you create that feeling of abundance? What is it you give people that makes that really happen? And it’s not titles, it’s not fancy offices.

Dave Ulrich (08:21):
We identified seven things. We did a book called Why of Work. That was in about 2010. It took us a few years to get it written. If you ever do a book or partnership with your partner, writing a book is not always the first thing. It’s about as hard as putting up wallpaper together.

Dave Ulrich (08:38):
But, we did it. In the last 10 years, I’ve loved simplicity, and so I kept thinking what does an organization do that gives the employee a better experience? What can happen? What can a leader do? If you’re a leader, what can I do to give my employees an experience? And, we’ve synthesized these seven into three.

Believe. Do I help my employees have a sense of purpose? A sense of meaning? Why am I here?

Two, become. Am I helping my employees grow? Growth mindset, learn, develop their skills?

Three, belong. Are we creating a sense of community, a sense of relationships?

Dave Ulrich (09:19):
And, when we synthesized our original work into those three, they really make sense. Do we, as an organization, have a better employee experience? I like the metaphor of experience. It comes from technology. The user experience is the usefulness, the application, and you have all these dimensions of a user experience. I like to think of those three as the dimensions of employee experience. When we hire people, did we organize the hiring around believe, meaning becoming, joining a good team? Belonging, joining a good team. Becoming, helping them learn. When we do training, does it fit those three criteria?

Dave Ulrich (09:56):
Every practice we offer can now be judged against those three criteria. Am I helping an employee believe? Am I helping the company values reflect your values? What is it that you want? How do we help you get what you want by contributing to the company? Become better. Am I helping you build a growth mindset? Learning, experimenting, trying. Belonging. Am I helping you feel like you’re connected to each other?

One example of that, and then I’ll shut up. I could give examples all over on those three, but a long time ago, there was a book, In Search of Excellence by two great scholars, Peters and Waterman.

Dave Ulrich (10:37):
And, they talked about managing by wandering around, so you’d bump into people. Well today, we can’t. We’re hybrid work. In fact, I hope that nobody has a camera that they can turn on and off in your house. That would be an invasion of all kinds of privacy. So, what do we do? We check in. Gillian, how you doing? Richard, how are you doing? What’s going on? What’s good news? What’s bad news? Well, that’s part of belonging.

That’s part of being part of a community. And I think leaders who have those, again, pretty simple things believe, become and belong in their mind will find ways to help their employees have a better experience in their daily work.

Gillian French (11:15):
With the Great Resignation, what do you think organizations got wrong? If you were to look at it through the lens of believing, becoming and belonging, what do you believe organizations are missing?

Dave Ulrich (11:27):
I think some of all three. I think people don’t work often … I mean, people don’t leave an organization often for money or title. They leave because it’s not meeting my needs. That’s believing. I’m not doing work here that makes a difference. So, what does a leader do? They say, “Richard, what would you like in your job that would help you meet your personal values?”

Dave Ulrich (11:50):
“Well, I’d like to be doing this, this and this.” “Okay. Let’s find a way to do it.” What are you learning? What’s helping you become better? How do we build a community that managing … I call it managing by checking in. How do we help you feel connected to us and to other people? I think that resignation happens when all three of those get missed. Now, to some extent [crosstalk 00:12:12]-

Gillian French (12:11):
Is there one more important than the other?

Dave Ulrich (12:15):
That’s a great question. I hadn’t thought about that. I think that would depend on the person. One of the takeaways for me out of this last two years, not five years of pandemic is an idea of personalization. For example, the Great Resignation, or people working hybrid, not everybody works hybrid. If you’re going to run a doctor’s office, you probably have to see people, even though you can do telemedicine. You have a store, people have to come in. You have a restaurant, there need to be people that cook the food and serve the food.

Dave Ulrich (12:46):
So I think everybody’s going to be in a different spot. I’d ask you, Gillian. If I’m giving you these three and said to divide 10 points. What matters most to of me is you’ve evolved your jobs. I’ve looked at your incredible career. What drives you? Is it purpose, believe? Is it learning and growth? Becoming. Or is it relationships and network? Belonging? Which one seems to be driving you now, because that could change over time?

Gillian French (13:13):
I would say belonging for me is really important.

Dave Ulrich (13:17):

Gillian French (13:17):
And then the other two are definitely close seconds, but belonging and the relationships and feeling I can be myself and not wear a mask, and I feel that I’m accepted for my whole self and … really, really important to me.

Dave Ulrich (13:34):
And, if I were a leader, that’s the question I’d ask. I’m trying to model what we hope people get from this podcast. What matters most to you? Good. It’s belonging. So Gillian, how do we then build a job where you can belong? And, I love where you started. Am I taking care of myself? Where do I work best? Is it in my home? Is it with others? What can we do to help you build relationships with the people that you work with? And, we figure out how to do that. By the way, for me lately, it’s believe. Am I doing something that matters? Is there value created for me and for someone else? And by the way, none of these are zero points and they come and go.

Dave Ulrich (14:18):
I think that’s just fascinating. And, back to the Great Resignation. If a company can create for those workers who have choice, and not all workers have choice, believe, become and belong. My sense is people will stay. And, I’m going to add if they leave, they’re likely to come back. In fact, I think one of the greatest sources of talent today are those who’ve left the company. We say, “Oh, this isn’t working for me.” For whatever reason, we leave and we go, “Ooh, that isn’t what I thought.”

Dave Ulrich (14:46):
And so, re-inviting people back, maybe-

Gillian French (14:50):

Dave Ulrich (14:51):
A boomerang hire maybe of great strokes of talent. Now, you can’t invite them back with a big pay raise because that says the only way you get promoted here is to leave. And also, the great news of that is you can only invite back the ones you think you want back. But anyway, those three for me, I just find them helpful, believe, become and belong. It’s similar to what people like Dan Pink and Ed Lawler and great thinkers have come up with. But, that’s our topology.

Gillian French (15:17):
I think as I’ve gotten older as well, it’s changed. Now, I think I’ve always wanted to belong and always want to feel comfortable and it’s important for me, but I think the older I’ve gotten probably the believing piece as well has become even more important. I’m leaving my three kids to do work, so it has to matter and it has to add value. So, I think I’ve definitely changed as the years have gone on now. I’m at the midlife point, so …

Dave Ulrich (15:47):
And, I’m obviously much older than you. Maybe the purpose and believe piece comes when you get really old like me and you go through stages. But again, I’m not sure they’re stages. I think they’re cyclical and they all interface with each other. And, here’s the beauty of it. If you take and you say believe, become and belong on one side of a paper, creates an employee experience, and I think those three may be helpful to do it. Then what happens? Then what you get is a positive customer experience because we found in our research, and it’s not complicated to think about it, if you enjoy a company, you probably had a good experience with an employee in that company.

Dave Ulrich (16:28):
And so, that customer experience is tied to the employee experience. And, guess what? That then leads to an investor positive experience. Because if you get more customers, investors, either data or equity, are going to be happier. That leads to a community reputation. And, you create this virtual … I’m not going to call it a cycle because that reverts on itself, but a spiral that we can create this spiral of going forward, where let’s create this believe, become and belong that drives employee experience, that then drives customer investor and community experience. And, we create this incredibly positive cycle.

Dave Ulrich (17:03):
Now, that’s a little Pollyanna and naive, but I hope leaders are paying attention to that.

Gillian French (17:09):
Yeah, well it makes sense. Sometimes the most simple things in life, employees are happy, of course they’re going to give a good customer experience.

Dave Ulrich (17:15):
Well, let me give an example for a leader. Believe, become and belong. That’s part of the employee experience. I love research and I love theory. We’ve just finished three major research projects with lots of data, but sometimes I love the simple questions. If you’re a leader, ask this question. How often do people leave their interaction with me feeling better or worse about themselves? That’s the experience. “Wow, I just had an interaction with Gillian. I feel better about myself. She gave me ideas. She made me feel better. Got it.”

Dave Ulrich (17:47):
Now, by the way, we can unravel what makes that happen, but at that intuitive level, that’s what we want leaders to do with this process we just laid out. Create, believe, become, and belong so the employee has better experience so that the customer has … That’s a great theory and logic. Net-net. Did that employee leave that interaction feeling better about themselves? By the way, I’m not always is good at that. I can be quite cryptic and critical at times. I’ve been trying to practice that. So when I’m on LinkedIn, and I’m on LinkedIn quite a bit lately, that’s my water cooler or social network. When somebody makes a comment, I almost always try to say, “Thank you. Thank you.” And by the way, sometimes the comments I don’t agree with all the way, then I say, “Thank you for disagreeing.”

Gillian French (18:34):
No, it’s really [crosstalk 00:18:35]. No, I think it’s really important and it does mean a lot. Anytime I’ve ever put anything, you’ve always thanked me or gotten back to me. It’s I’m for people.

Dave Ulrich (18:47):
Let me give one example of that. And again, I’m trying to really respond, believe, becoming belong, what does that mean in practice? I’m working in a big company coaching a leader, and one of his employees, and I won’t name the company anymore than that, made a big mistake. Cost a lot of money, a lot of money. And this company, better or worse, used email and so I said as a coach, “Before you send emails impromptu, send them to me so I can coach you.” Here’s his email. “You made a huge mistake that cost us an enormous amount of money. You have to improve or you’re at risk of your job.” And I said, “May I edit that?” And he said, “That’s why you’re coaching me.”

Dave Ulrich (19:27):
Look at the three lines I added. I care about you. You have great potential at this company. You made an enormous mistake. You must improve. I want to work with you to help you improve. Now, the reason I like that story in some ways is I didn’t walk away from you made a huge mistake. You’ve got to get better. You can’t hide that. That’s part of leadership. But when you put the beginning on it, I care about you. I know you have potential, and you put the ending on it. You’re not at risk if you don’t change, how can I help you learn so that you change, suddenly the whole interaction is about improving that employee experience. It’s making the employee feel better. And, that employee left that interaction, even through as horrible a medium as email, feeling, wow, a little better about himself. So, that’s the logic, Gillian. I love what you do and I’ve seen your work, and it’s so powerful in this, but that’s the thing I wish we could bring into organizations and leadership.

Gillian French (20:29):
And that brings me on nicely to another article … I’m a big fan of yours … wrote about emotional deficit disorder due to the global pandemic. And, I’m wondering just with that story that you said there is there sometimes because people are so remote and they become so distant from … Human interaction is a bit different when you’re having to sit in front of someone face-to-face. Much easier to maybe have a Zoom and not turn your camera on. You talk about emotional deficit and leaders and organizations needing to work on that. Do you maybe want to expand a little bit?

Dave Ulrich (21:03):
You bet. I actually get worried about that in a pretty big way. The pandemic has been a trauma for everybody. I don’t know anyone that doesn’t know somebody who’s been sick and tragically, if somebody passed away. But if I step back, the physical crisis, we’ll eventually get over. We’ll get vaccines, we’ll get herd immunity. We’ll find a way to get through this physical crisis that we’ve all lived through.

Dave Ulrich (21:32):
I worry more about the mental health and emotional crisis, because it’s not going to be a vaccine. Oh, I’m really feeling anxiety, I’m feeling depressed, I’m feeling stressed. Oh, here’s a shot, take it. That may be a shot of liquor. That’s not going to solve the problem when you go to a pub or a bar. How do we help people through that emotional mental challenge?

Dave Ulrich (21:54):
My wife and I are doing a session on mental health. She’s, again, a very good psychologist. How do you help people look back and not be depressed about their past? How do you help people look forward and not face anxiety about their future? I believe, and we believe, that leaders become in some ways meaning makers to help people sort that through. That’s not easy. It’s very personal, and we all deal with those emotional crises in a different way, but that emotional deficit and the mental health that will follow, I think will be in some ways a lingering, longer issue.

Dave Ulrich (22:26):
So, how do you do that? I think you go to people and you start by saying, “I care about you. I care.” Actually I call it the E’s. Let me do my E’s. I have empathy. I care. I have emotion. I’m aware of what you’re feeling. I try to shape your experience. How are you doing? And, I try to provide you energy. Empathy, emotion, experience, energy. When leaders focus on those … Again, the other E is the employee … those areas, I think they’re going to help their employees feel better. This is not a panacea. It is not let’s go get vaccinated and a booster and I’m going to be healthy. It’s not wear a mask and all is well.

Dave Ulrich (23:10):
That’s not true. But, let’s pay attention to the wellbeing of people. A simple thing. When we start a conversation, even today I hope I did it. We don’t start by saying, “What’s the goal?” We start by saying, “How are you? What’s going in your life? Tell me a story of what’s good news.” And I think when we can help leaders recognize that empathy and emotion and experience and energy, I think we can build care and compassion in the workforce.

Dave Ulrich (23:42):
I got to say it because I haven’t written this yet, so I’m afraid to write it. We’ve also got to make sure that we get work done. We’ve also got to make sure … I’ve seen some employees feel another E, entitled. I can do whatever I want whenever I want wherever I want. Now, I bet Gillian, even in your work history, there have been times when work is a four letter word. It’s not always fine. It’s not always pleasurable, but you got to do it. And, I hope we can help employees recognize, “Yeah, sometimes I am going to have to step out of my comfort zone and do things that are hard.”

Dave Ulrich (24:16):
I don’t know how to say that in a way that’s positive, but it is a reality. We can’t just have entitlement in that world.

Gillian French (24:24):
No, for sure. But, it just seems like a massive shift because again, my experience over … and I’ll say five years, because it’s not just the pandemic. It’s pre-pandemic … is that leadership, the type of leadership that is probably won in the marketplace, or has won out, is the driver style, results-oriented, getting results for boards, winning, having that driver mentality. And, I think there is a big shift to now focus leadership. And, I’m wondering, is that possible with the existing leadership that has been in place? Is it a learnable skill or is it going to require a new generation of leaders, or how do we make this transition? Because I do think it’s a big shift and it wouldn’t be from my experience that the type of leadership that I’ve observed has been driven, results oriented and wouldn’t be that empathetic or compassionate.

Dave Ulrich (25:27):
Let me tweak just a little bit what you said. There was a group called the Business Round Table, a couple of hundred CEOs of big companies. They put out a proclamation about a year and a half ago, profit and purpose, profit and people. So I think senior executives are starting to see this agenda, but I think they made a mistake. Oh, that’s scary. Profit and purpose, profit and people.

Dave Ulrich (25:52):
Here’s the mistake, the word and. And for me designates Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, we’ll do profit. Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, we’ll do people. No, it’s profit through people, profit through purpose. And when we can connect the way we treat our people to the results, this is not an either/or, it’s an and/also. And by the way, the research is so compelling. We looked at employee experience in banks and retail stores where the employee works and customer experience in banks and retail. Any bet what the correlation was between the employee experience inside those shops and the customer experience who visits those shops? Any bets? High, medium, or low.

Gillian French (26:39):
I would say they were pretty equal as in they-

Dave Ulrich (26:42):
They’re high. They’re highly correlated. So, if you say here’s a bank with 50 branches, here’s their employee engagement scores or experience scores, however you measure it. Retention, productivity, morale, et cetera. Here’s the customer satisfaction of those 50 branches, however you measure it, that promoter score, the correlations are 0.6 to 0.8, which is incredibly high. And as you said, they go together. So, my comment back to the CEOs is don’t make profit and purpose or profit and people separate events. Make them combined. And that’s where I’d love to start with the customer. What do we want our customer experience to be? How do we then build that in to the employee experience? I want a customer to feel cared for. Well, then we better care for our employees. I want a customer to get a high quality product on time.

Dave Ulrich (27:37):
I want to make sure that our employees are committed to that agenda. And the more that we can build what we call outside in, the identity of the firm with customers … There’s a lot of examples of that, but if I’m a business leader listening to this, business and/or HR, what do we want our customers to know us for that will give investors confidence in our future and a great community reputation? Make that part of what we do inside the company. Make that part of hiring, training, development, leadership development. When the external promise becomes part of the internal behavior, that’s where we tend to see long term success.

Gillian French (28:18):
Brilliant. Well, it makes sense. But as you said, probably easier said than done.

Dave Ulrich (28:25):
By the way, if everybody did as people like you and I wouldn’t have a job. Now, could every leader get there? The answer, it’s a great question. I love the distribution 20/60/20. 20% of leaders are there, and frankly, we don’t need to spend time with them. Get out of their way. Let them run their journey. There’s a 10 to 20% who will never get there. My experience lately is, I hate to say this, if they’re just not going to get there for whatever reason, their history, their heritage, their bias, I’d rather spend time with that 60% in the middle. How do I help those who really want to deliver success? Show that the pathway to success is changed. I agree with you. It’s there and let’s show what you can do in specific ways.

Dave Ulrich (29:13):
The example I gave, does somebody leave an interaction with me feeling better about themselves? Well, that’s a good question. Here’s what you can do. It’s pretty simple. It’s pretty simple. Anyway, that’s my hope is the 10 to 20% at the bottom, I think that’s going to be more energy than I have right now. I hope someday that will change, but I’m going to focus on the 60% in the middle.

Gillian French (29:39):
So from our conversation, I’m gleaning that the new requirements for leadership is around empathy, compassion, understanding. What are the new competencies that are required for HR in your opinion?

Dave Ulrich (29:55):
I’ll answer that, because we have a lot of research on that. But before I do, you’ve got a lot of experience and I respect that. We talk about this emotion, empathy, compassion. What would you say? You’ve done these podcasts. You’ve worked in companies. You talked to people. You’re a great observer. If you were sitting knee-to-knee with the leader, who’s not in the top 20%, they’re already there. Not the bottom 20%, they’ll never get there, but that 60% leader at whatever level. And they said, “Gillian, what do I have to do?” What would you tell her or him?

Gillian French (30:31):
That empathy is the only way forward. You have to be able to stand into someone else’s shoes, see their perspective, to truly understand the customer, to truly understand your employees, to truly understand another team’s perspective. You have to be able to stand and understand where someone is coming from.

Dave Ulrich (30:48):
I love it. And, there’s some questions that I think we could coach leaders. Ask people, what do you think? How do you feel? How will your actions affect others? How do you use your strengths to strengthen others? How do you use your power to empower others?

Dave Ulrich (31:03):
I love that because empathy is not about … In fact, somebody wrote me a note this morning. They’re doing a piece on authenticity and said, “What do you think?” And I said, “I don’t think authenticity is the key.” I think a leader who’s authentic does what he or she believes, but the real key to leadership is that your beliefs create value for others. A leader told me I’m a great leader because I’m a billionaire. By the way, you can put that label on a lot of leaders. My comment back to that leader is did you create a thousand millionaires? And, I’m authentic. I tell people what I think. Does your agenda in talking to people help them think better?

Dave Ulrich (31:44):
Does it help them get better? Are your strengths strengthening them? Is your power empowering them? And to me, that’s the emotional empathy piece that you just talked about so eloquently. Empathy is not about me. It’s about how what I do help you.

Dave Ulrich (31:58):
Now, HR. I just posted this morning on LinkedIn a short piece. I post every Tuesday and I do a short 150 words. And, the message I got out, and I’m probably going to get criticized, a lot of people in our field have great observations and opinions. I have an opinion. Let me share it. I have an opinion. I think opinions can be healthy for that person, but they don’t shape a field. To turn an opinion into an insight takes theory and research. For example, somebody just posted here’s the 17 skills for HR people. And I said, “What’s your data? What’s your theory? What’s happened before? How does this fit into the map, the quilt, if you will, of HR theory over the last 30 years?”

Dave Ulrich (32:45):
“I don’t know, but it’s what I think.” Great. You have a right to your opinion. Insight requires theory. Why does that work? What’s happened before. And, research. How do you make that work? We’ve studied HR competencies for a long time. We’ve done eight rounds of data. We now have over 120,000 data points. In the last round of research that was done during the pandemic, so it was in March of 2021, we had a major shift in our thinking. Up until then, almost all of our competence work was about a role, an adjective and a noun. Business partner. Change agent. Employee champion. In our latest research, it’s a verb and using a whole lot of statistics … And I won’t bore you with factor analysis and multivariate.

Dave Ulrich (33:37):
Anyway, I won’t bore you with that crap. Five things. Accelerates the business. Notice the verb. Do you as an HR professional … I don’t care where you are. Specialist, generalist, head of the company, middle. Do you accelerate the business? Advance human capability? Do you advance talent organization and leadership? Mobilize information. Do you access data and experience? Collaborates? I can’t remember the word. It’s collaboration, but fosters collaboration. Do you foster working with each other? And then, the final one we found is simplify complexity. I love those five. Accelerate a business, make the business better by advances in human capability. Mobilizing information, fostering collaboration, and simplifying complexity. That’s what we found will drive outcomes that matter.

Gillian French (34:37):
I think that’s great because I did see your post this morning, and that was one of my questions. I was like, “God love anyone in HR at the moment.” There’s just every day, the HR person needs to be executive coach. The HR person has to be the analytics specialist. The HR person has to be strategic and agile, and the list just went on and on. And I was like, “Are we expecting too much from HR?” And maybe it’s because everything I follow and things that I’m involved in is HR, but I’m like, “Hello. Any of the other executive team members getting all this?” It just seems so broad. And then, I saw your post this morning where you had compiled all these different opinions. Yeah, it just seems way too broad, but I really like that. I think that’s-

Dave Ulrich (35:21):
I love to simplify complexity. By the way, this is so helpful, and my test with you right now is I’m leaving feeling better about myself, and I hope you are too, so thank you. I love the image of a diamond. Start with a simple question. How does HR create value? That’s good. The wide angle of the diamond, you’ve got to do a lot of stuff. And then, the bottom of the diamond is how do you then simplify? Don’t be simplistic, because you got to go through the lens of the broad angle. Go get theory, go get data, go get research. What have others said? How have they said it? But down at the bottom, you say, “Okay, given all that, what are the set of priorities that we should focus on?” And it’s that ability in HR, and I think that’s where theory helps.

Dave Ulrich (36:05):
What has somebody else said? Let’s build on it. Let’s learn from it. What’s the evidence? Either observation evidence, unstructured data, or data evidence from statistics. What’s the evidence? Where should I focus? We have those five. And by the way, even in those five, we can prioritize. Where do you need to focus to create value for others? I like that and I hope that HR moves from opinions to insights. That’s the message I tried to share today. And, I think that’s what your podcast does. You have a lot of opinion leaders. They’re good. Can that become an insight for others? And the formula, an insight equals theory times research. You’ve got to have the theory and you got to have the research. Wow, that’s helpful. And then the opinion will translate to the next generation.

Dave Ulrich (36:54):
So again, I’m going to keep asking you, because I want to learn with you. You’ve talked to HR people. You’ve talked to business leaders. This is, in fact, a new world. And, you’ve done some great writing … when I got on your site and read your material … around the centrality of the employee and the experience. You talked about empathy and leaders showing empathy. Is there any other message you’d give those listening to your podcast? Show empathy, listen, care, compassion. Any other message you’d give?

Dave Ulrich (37:27):
By the way, I went and got my pen. I’ve got a page of Gillian notes here, so any other message that you’d give?

Gillian French (37:38):
Well, we talked about authenticity there, but I think it’s really important. As I said, I’m a mom of three. Whenever I was in the workplace, I was human. I understood. I always kept my humanity. I think sometimes in HR you believe that maybe you’re supposed to be this swan in the business or keep yourself a little bit aloof from our everybody else, but I took a totally different approach. Even people might say I was a little bit irreverent, but I was myself and I kept that human aspect of knowing that I was there, that my role was to be with the people, to listen to what they had to say. My role was to ensure that they were all okay and that I was approachable and human.

Gillian French (38:24):
And, I think that’s really important within HR to make sure that you hold onto your humanity and know that you’re there to look after the people. That’s your sole role. I absolutely love strategy. And as I said to you before, I studied under Fergus Barry, and a lot of your material, I studied later in life, of course. But I loved strategic HR. I loved the HR aspect of mapping to the business. Love all that. But my big thing was I was drawn to people. I liked people to get on and I held onto the human aspect, and I think that’s really important for HR people never to forget that.

Dave Ulrich (39:03):
I love what you just said, and let me give a quick story again. I don’t coach all that many, but when I coach I generally have a good experience. I’m coaching a woman. She’s the head of a large university. Her backstory is the most incredible ever. Born in the Philippines in a hut, couldn’t read or write. Literally as impoverished as you get. Went to a school at age six out in the back corner because she couldn’t read or write. By the end of the year … now I’m going to go fast forward … front row, center seat went through the school, went to the United States, got valedictorian at a university, went to Harvard, MIT, PhD. Speak six languages. This was a rags to riches story that you wouldn’t believe. So, she’s now the president of a university with 40,000 students. Ran Asia for one of the large computer companies … brilliant … worked in the Russian embassy.

Dave Ulrich (39:59):
Brilliant, brilliant lady. Everybody wants her to share her brand, her story, because her story is so compelling. I heard her story and I’m touched. I could go on. There’s videos on her. And, I looked at her and said, “You got to stop that. Your job is as the president is not to share your story. Your job is to help 40,000 students and 10,0000, 5,000 faculty create their story.” And she said, “What do you mean?” I said, “When you talk to people, they want to hear how you did it. And, that’s legitimate. It’s inspiring. It’s motivating. But you need to say to them, so what are you trying to do? And the ultimate humanity, I think, is not that we have empathy, but that we use our empathy to help the other person create their brand. And I said, “They’re not going to speak six languages.”

Dave Ulrich (40:51):
I don’t know anyone else in the world who does what you do, but they are going to become an airline pilot and a chef, and they are going to become a school teacher. How do you help them realize their aspirations? That’s believe, become and belong? We’re going back. And so, the only thing I’d add to the comment you made is yes, we have to demonstrate humanity, but the ultimate humanity is helping others achieve theirs. And by the way, that not easy to do because when you’ve got a story, and you’ve got a story, I’ve got a story, this woman has an incredible story, it’s so easy to get focused on our legacy rather than how do we use our strengths to strengthen others?

Dave Ulrich (41:33):
The Gallup research, build on your strengths, I think is 50% right. Build on your strengths so that you strengthen others. Use your power to empower others, and when that mindset of creating value in someone else shows up, you look at that person and say, “How could what I know and do, and my title, my position power be helpful to you?” And that’s where I think the ultimate humanity comes. So again, I’m Pollyanna. That’s naive, but that’s the agenda that I hope HR and business leaders move towards.

Gillian French (42:07):
When I worked in Cubic Telecom, one of our values was help others and how we used to position it was what a wonderful place to come in every day and to think what can I do for others? Because we all know when you help others, it gives you that great, warm, fuzzy feeling inside. And, when everyone’s open and receptive to helping each other, it just creates a lovely environment.

Dave Ulrich (42:34):
I’ll share a personal … People have said to me, “Oh, I’m having a tough day.” This is an emotional deficit time. Serve someone else. I wake up every day in my morning musings and reflections, in whatever form of faith we might have in reflections, I ask myself the question who can I serve today? I’m going to get emotional. A lot of days, nobody comes to mind and that’s fine. Some days, serve yourself. Go eat chocolate, or don’t eat chocolate. But once in a while, something comes to mind and says, “Huh, today is John’s birthday. John lost his wife six weeks ago. Send him a note.” So right before we got on the call, I sent John a little love note. I don’t know how he’s going to respond, but if you, as an HR leader and a person … This is not leadership.

Dave Ulrich (43:21):
Who can I serve today? See what comes to your mind, to your spirit, and by the way, don’t expect every day is going to be happy. Sometimes I send people a love note and they go, “Are you okay? I don’t love you that much.” But, just that affirmation, I think is just a part of the life that we live where we become part of a broader community. Believe, become, belong. Again, go back to those.

Dave Ulrich (43:47):
So anyway, I’m sorry, that was more personal than I usually share.

Gillian French (43:50):
No, that was lovely and thanks for sharing. So I can’t believe we’re actually coming up on time. I can’t believe it. It flew by, but I just have three quick fire questions just for the end, which is what’s your favorite book and why? You have so many yourself. I don’t know how you would pick, but …

Dave Ulrich (44:09):
That’s going to be easy and you’re going to be a little freaked out by that. By the way, I’m sitting here talking to you. I just got a note back.

Gillian French (44:15):
From your friend?

Dave Ulrich (44:16):
From the person I sent it to. Oh, that’s so cool. I won’t read it. I haven’t read. I just noticed it. My favorite book is the Bible, and I know that’s not an answer you would ever get from almost anybody. But I think the Bible, whether you’re Jewish, Christian, Muslim, has a set of principles in the Old Testament that’s Muslim and Jewish, and the New Testament is more Christianity. I think those principles are a marvelous blueprint for life. How’s that for an answer you did not expect?

Gillian French (44:44):
I did not expect, but I love it. What is your prediction for the future of work? And, I know we’re all like, “God, can we even predict [crosstalk 00:44:53].

Dave Ulrich (44:53):
I am going to give a funny answer, and it’s going to show that I don’t speak good French. [Foreign language 00:44:58]. The more things change, the more they’re the same. There are some fundamental principles about the future of work. When we care for people, we’ll have a better future. I don’t know where we’re going to … Everybody’s gaga right now about hybrid. Where are you going to work? How are you going to work with technology? I think those are the wrong questions.

Gillian French (45:15):
Yeah, totally.

Dave Ulrich (45:15):
Why are you working? What are you delivering in value to others? I don’t care where you work. You’re at home, I’m in a rental house, wherever we are. I don’t care, but I do care about why you’re working. Believe, become and belong. And I do care about what you’re working on that will help others. So, I think those fundamental principles will endure.

Gillian French (45:36):
Brilliant. And yeah, I think that … Oh actually, sorry, what type of leader do you believe we require in the new global context? Because I think leadership globally is a hot topic. I look around and I find it very hard to see any role models that I would look up to. So, what leader do you think embodies the leadership that we require, living or dead?

Dave Ulrich (46:03):
As soon as you name somebody, somebody will have a difficulty with them. Since I started in the Bible, let’s go to the beginning. Abraham, the father of all nations. Moses, who was a great leader and never reached his destination, which is actually interesting. He led by empowering others to reach their destination. Again, David, who was a great leader who was flawed at the end of his life. He made an egregious mistake and failed his people. I could keep going.

Dave Ulrich (46:33):
Anyway, I go back to those leaders because they’re a long time ago. Someday, I’m hoping I’ll get to meet them and ask them, “What did you do?” I remember Peter Drucker, the greatest leadership was the creation of the pyramids. I hope everybody has a piece of that leadership divinity in them, and that can make a difference.

Dave Ulrich (46:52):
The minute I name one person, people will say, “Well, my experience with that person was bad.” We all have good and bad days, so I go back to those experiences that are heritage and legacy and … Abraham, incredible leader, the father of Christianity, the father of Muslim, father of all nations.

Dave Ulrich (47:14):
Anyway, those are some quick examples.

Gillian French (47:16):
Thank you so much. I can’t believe we’re out of time. It’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you. I’ve learned so much and I’m so appreciative, and as you know, I’ve always been a big fan of yours and of your work.

Dave Ulrich (47:28):
I have my page of Gillian notes, so you’re making me feel better, and I’m going to have to reflect on a couple of things that you mentioned about EDD and about empathy and authenticity and transparency. So, thank you.

Gillian French (47:42):
Thank you so much for listening to The Employee Experience Podcast. Subscribe on Acast or wherever you get your podcasts, and check out to find out more.

The people behind the voices

Dave Ulrich

Author and businessman

Known as ‘the father of Modern HR’, Dave Ulrich has been ranked the “#1 Management Educator & Guru” by BusinessWeek,  profiled by Fast Company as one of the world’s top 10 creative people in business, and “The Most Influential Person in HR” by HR Magazine on three occasions.

Ulrich has written over a dozen books covering topics in HR and Leadership and his work has received multiple awards connected with his expertise and breadth of knowledge concerning the correlation between strategies, HR practices, and HR competencies of organizations.

Gillian French

Employee Experience Officer

Employee Experience Officer

Gillian French is a veteran people leader and organizational behaviorist with over 10 years of experience as Chief People Strategist.

She is passionate about coaching, strategy, building resilient and sustainable organisational culture, and improving global employee experience. She has also contributed to Forbes and is a regular panelist on the future of work.

Gillian is also the founder and CEO of SISU consulting, a business that specializes in organisation development and design.