Dave Ulrich: An interview by Bob Morris

Dave Ulrich  is Professor of Business Administration at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan where he is on the core faculty of the Executive Program, Co-Director of Michigan’s Human Resource Executive Program, and Advanced Human Resource Executive Program. His teaching and research addresses how to create an organization that adds value to customers and investors. He studies how organizations change, build capabilities, learn, remove boundaries, and leverage human resource activities. He is also a partner at the RBL Group, a consulting firm focused on helping organizations and leaders deliver value. He studies how organizations build capabilities of speed, learning, collaboration, accountability, talent, and leadership through leveraging human resources. He has helped generate award winning data bases that assess alignment between strategies, human resource practices and HR competencies. Ulrich has published over 200 articles and book chapters as well as authored or co-authored over 20 books, including Results-Based Leadership, The HR Scorecard, The HR Value Proposition and The Workforce Scorecard,  Beyond HR, Leadership Brand, HR Competencies, Leadership Code: Five Rules to Lead By, and then HR Transformation: Building Human Resources from the Outside In.

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Morris: Before discussing a few of your books, first a few general questions. At what point in your life that you realize that you wanted to focus on understanding what maximizing human development requires and then how to help individuals as well as teams and even entire organizations to achieve that?

Ulrich: Eons ago in college, I wanted to go to law school. It was my boyhood dream. I took a course called “organizational behavior” from a master teacher who captured my imagination. He asked us to examine how organizations work and be alerted on how to improve them. He challenged us to see organizational issues in where we worked, what we read, and how we lived our lives. I ended up writing a 15 to 20-page paper every week for 15 weeks. He told me afterwards that I had found my niche. Decades later I figured I had “OCD” … organization compulsive disorder … where I constantly look at finding how to organize better. This torments family and friends when I go to restaurants, airplanes, churches, or other organization settings and offer unsolicited advice.

Morris: Looking back over (let’s say) the last decade, what have been the most significant changes in HR operations and management of them?

Ulrich: About a decade ago, HR began to serious focus on outcomes not activities. It was not enough to hire someone, but to make sure that you are hiring the right person. As HR aligned to strategy, the focus was less on what HR activities were done (e.g., how many leaders received 40 hours of training), but on the outcomes of what was done. A second shift was finding technology-based ways to do the transaction work often affiliated with legacy HR. The work ended up in service centers, being outsourced, or on line for employee self-sufficiency. This freed up HR professionals to focus on the more strategic and transformational parts of their job. Finally, line managers began to realize that competitors can more easily copy price, product, and technology, but the way to manage people and organization was a unique advantage that competitors could not easily copy. HR has become more strategic not because HR wants to be strategic, but because line managers need insights that good HR professionals can offer.

Morris: How do you explain the fact that, even today, the head of HR is not a member of senior management in many organizations?

Ulrich: I believe that in almost any change there is 20 – 60 – 20. 20% are doing the change and we need to stay out of their way. 20% will never get there (a large percent still go into banks to see tellers vs. ATMs). 60% are in the middle. I think you will always find some companies where the head of HR is not a member of senior management team (bottom 20% and some companies where she or he has always been (top 20%). In the middle 60%, HR is dramatically joining the management team. 15 or 20 years ago HR “wanted a set at the table”. In a vast majority of companies it now has that seat.

Morris: Jeremy Hope has written a book entitled Reinventing the CFO: How Financial Managers Can Transform Their Roles and Add Greater Value. Having read all of your books and most of your articles, I think you are among those who are attempting to redefine the head of HR. Is that a fair assessment? If so, what should the new definition be?

Ulrich: I look forward to reading the CFO book. I think all staff functions are continually being redefined, for the better. The head of HR (chief HR officer, or CHRO) will be a full contributor to business discussions so that she or he can help create value for employees, build disciplines to deliver strategy, create customer share from key customers, increase investor confidence in future earnings, and create confidence in the broader community.

Morris: Now please explain when and why the RBL was founded and what its mission is.

Ulrich: about ten years ago, Norm Smallwood and I found that we were doing a lot of work together. In the metaphor of a marriage, we dated, like it, and we got married by forming the firm. We found that together we are a good team. Norm is so gifted at turning ideas into practice and he has a knack for creating infrastructures that enable clients to successfully change. We have added two fantastic partners, Wayne Brockbank and Jon Younger. We are shaping ideas in HR, leadership, and talent in ways that deliver value both inside and outside companies. Clients have graciously allowed us to learn with and from them.

Morris: Those who read this interview will also be interested in knowing more about The RBL Institute and its various activities.

Ulrich: In a book on organization learning, we coined a definition of learning: “generate * generalize ideas with impact.” To do this in HR, we wanted to surround ourselves with bright people who had questions to which they did not have easy or obvious answers. We wanted to create a think tank but one with an applied edge. We have been blessed in the RBL Institute to have over 35 companies who share our commitment to learning about the HR profession. We share information among each other, offer papers and forums that address future issues, and work to advance the profession.

Morris: Now please focus on a few of your books. First, in Leadership Brand: Developing Customer-Focused Leaders to Drive Performance and Build Lasting Value co-authored with Norm Smallwood, you and he make an important distinction between the leader as a brand and leadership as a brand. Please explain.

Brand is an easy concept for us to grasp. The Olympics is a brand and the give Olympic circles have an image. Companies have brands that go beyond product brands to the firm itself (think Nike, Wal-Mart, Marriott, Lexus). A firm with a strong brand is able to charge more to customers for the value that the brand creates. Others had talked about a personal brand (Tom Peters), but when we applied the brand idea to leaders, we came up with a simple and fascinating insight. Most leadership work focuses on the individual leader and on internal issues (inside the leader or inside the firm). Leadership brand exists when customer expectations transfer to employee actions through leadership behaviors. When leaders behave consistently with the expectations of customers, they are doing things inside their organization that deliver value outside.

In Leadership Code: Five Rules to Lead co-authored with Smallwood and Kate Sweetman, the three of you observe, “we have discovered and validated what we now know to be the five essential rules all excellent leaders must follow. Since these rules form the basis for all good leaders, just as our genetic code determines our elemental core as people, we call it the leadership code.” Do these rules comprise, in effect, a DNA of leadership and, if so, does this mean that leadership is genetic rather than developmental…that leaders are born, not made?

Ulrich: Leaders being born vs. made is a bit of a separate issue. The research on this issue is fairly conclusive: 50/50. We have innate predispositions that affect who we are and what we do (nature) but we can learn and develop and grow (nurture). I am predisposed to being an introvert, but have learned that in teaching I need to become an extrovert to be effective. In our leadership code work, we found that 1,000s of studies had been done on what makes effective leaders, each person offering his or her point of view. In the spirit of taxonomy, we wanted to find common themes or patterns. The five rules we identified were a synthesis and integration of this leadership thicket.

Morris: I think HR Transformation is the most valuable book you have authored or co-authored thus far. You and your co-authors (Justin Allen, Wayne Brockbank, Jon Younger, and Mark Nyman) succeed brilliantly synthesizing everything you have learned about HR thus far. Here is a brief excerpt from the Introduction: “Simply stated, we propose that the biggest challenge for HR professionals today is to help their respective organizations succeed.” Hasn’t that always been true, not only about HR professionals but about all other C-level executives in any organization?

Ulrich: We hope most good executives and employees go to work to help their organizations succeed. But what determines value added shifts as some of the HR work can be done more efficiently and effectively through technology or other forms. We tried in HR Transformation to capture how HR professionals can create more value added through the work they do. This means doing the administrative work efficiently, but also doing the more strategic work of helping companies deliver value inside to employees and outside to investors and customers.

Morris: Most change initiatives fail and, of course, reasons vary from one situation to the next. What are some of the most common pitfalls that await those about to embark on HR transformation initiatives?

Ulrich: Sometimes HR transformations have been definitions. Just because someone does an e-HR system or puts in a new talent system or changes the HR function does not mean an HR transformation has occurred. We identified four phases of HR transformation. Missing any of the four phases would be an incomplete effort.

Morris: Just as this book pulls together everything you and your co-authors have learned about HR, the material in Chapter 8 seems to pull together everything you and your co-authors believe must be understood and done to complete a successful transformation of HR. For me, some of the most important material in this chapter concerns “milestones.” For those who have not as yet read this book, why are they so important?

Ulrich: As you suggested, it is easier to talk about doing things than doing them. Many of us want to exercise more, eat more healthy, be kinder to our loved ones, etc., but unless we have specific milestones about how to do this, our intentions do not match our actions. The HR milestones we lay out offer specific steps along the longer journey to HR transformation.

Morris: Those who read HR Transformation will appreciate the provision of several case studies of companies that have been involved in HR transformation: Flextronics, Pfizer, Intel, and Takeda. However different these companies in most other respects, what do they share in common in terms of lessons to be learned from their initiatives?

Ulrich: Each of these companies did the majority of the things we recommended. They understood the business context as to why HR transformation matters; they identified the outcomes of the HR transformation; they had an integrated model of HR transformation (the HR department, practices, and people), and they involved a host of committed individuals to make it happen (line managers, HR professionals, and advisors).

Morris: Perhaps the point is so obvious that it not need to be addressed but I’ll raise it anyway. Before attempting to transform an organization’s HR, isn’t it first necessary to transform how those involved think about challenging what James O’Toole has so aptly characterized as “ideology of comfort and tyranny of custom”?

Ulrich: Of course, change requires change. Until there is a felt need for change, it is only an event not a pattern. This is one reason we like to start HR transformation with the question “why”…why should we do an HR transformation? What is happening in the business that would justify a commitment to upgrade HR? When people know the why, they are more likely to accept the “what.”

Morris: Here’s a hypothetical situation. Let’s say that someone who reads this book (who is not head of his or her organization’s HR department) leads a successful transformation. At its conclusion what if the company’s head of HR has not also completed a transformation in terms of the mindset, values, leadership style, management priorities, etc. that the position now requires?

Ulrich: People will change when they see that the change will help them reach their goals. If the CHRO sees that the HR transformation that others desire will help the CHRO reach his or her goals, then there will be more support. Absent this reasoning, the CHRO may go through the motions, but the transformation will not be sincere or lasting. People are more likely to support a change when they have information on it and when they participate in it. So, getting the CHRO information about the transformation and involving the CHRO in the transformation effort are critical to success.

Morris: Which question do you wish you had been asked – but weren’t — and what is your response to it?

Ulrich: What’s next? I have a passion for learning! I hope that I can keep ahead of practice by anticipating what’s next. WE are working on a couple of ideas (that will be books):

Abundant organization. In the midst of an economic recession, many employees have struggled with an emotional or psychological recession. While the employees may be committed (and engagement scores may be up right now since employees are grateful for a job), but when they do not feel that they are really contributing to their personal meaning through work, they may leave in the future. We have identified 8 principles of abundant organizations that leaders (not just HR) can and should create.

Marshalling talent. At the end of WWI, there was a treaty where “to the victors go the spoils”. And, it led to WW II. The war for talent was a good issue, but today, we need a Marshall Plan where the general manager takes the lead on talent to create the organization of the future. We are writing about 10 things a leader should know to marshal talent.

• Invest in leadership. Most leadership books are to those who want to be or build leadership. We want to write to those who are investing in leadership. What are the things an investor should look for that gives confidence in future leadership?

The more I learn the more I realize I don’t know.

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You are cordially invited to visit these Web sites that provide an abundance of resources:



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