THE JOURNAL OF PEOPLE + STRATEGY
The Chief of Rapid Learning
June 4, 2021
Pat Wadors brings a deep experience in HR and talent to her role as Chief Talent Officer and CHRO of Procore Technologies. Wadors spoke with People + Strategy about the changing role of HR leadership, taking a stand as a company and providing flexibility in recruitment and work locations.
This article was published in print and online in the Spring 2021 Issue of the Journal of HR People + Strategy.
People + Strategy: The past year of challenges has pushed the CHRO role to center stage. How have you experienced that?
Pat Wadors: The job had been evolving, but we’ve been thrust into a whole expanded arena. There’s the core function of the role plus, plus, plus. The challenge is that we do not know what we don’t know, and people turn to us whenever it’s a people-related topic, and they want our opinion or they want us to take the lead.
The perception of our role based on the audience can also be challenging. Either we’re meeting that expectation of being the chief of everything else or we’re not. We’re not a chief medical officer. We’re not the chief of security, real estate, mental health, labor law, IT or digital transformation. The role is exciting because you get involved in more conversations, but it is humbling because we’re learning along with everyone else.
The challenge is, do we have the courage to learn faster and take more risks? How do you find the answer in a way that is trusted, reliable and scalable? How do you make a decision with only maybe 60 percent of the data or less and iterate quickly and have more agility? HR is not known for its agility historically and being able to experiment more often is challenging.
P+S: How else have you shifted how you operate?
Wadors: I’m an introvert, and 2020 forced me to participate exponentially more in various CHRO forums and leadership forums with outside experts. I’ve extended myself beyond my comfort zone because I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and I wanted to be a fast follower. I wanted to be a person that could connect dots for others and pollinate what I’m learning quickly about digital transformation, virtual cultures, handling mental health, racial injustice and politicizing the right to vote.
These were issues that I did not have all the language for or the right approach. I had to accelerate what I did, where I did it and how quickly I learned. There were long workdays and a lot of questions. You’ve got to be okay with not being perfect—directionally accurate, not perfect.
P+S: That requires you being comfortable with ambiguity.
Wadors: If you’re comfortable with mistakes, then you’re going to have more success. I’ve become more comfortable listening to colleagues, peers and subject-matter experts and being willing to try things. I use a short timeframe for calibrating whether I hit the target—how close did I hit it, and if not, why not, and then rethinking the plan.
I won’t let a mistake linger for six months. It might linger for a month or a week, and then I’m more fearless about pulling it. Wrong answer. Try again. I’ve been more intentional about telling people, even my peers, that I’m “perfectly imperfect.” I share my learnings so we are all on the same journey.
P+S: Many of the challenges of 2020 seem to have rolled up to the front door of the HR profession. It’s been a real spotlight moment. Your reflections?
Wadors: If we are strong enough and comfortable enough in our chair, then we’re going to be comfortable outsourcing, insourcing and crowd-sourcing solutions and sharing the journey with our leaders. Where I see HR get into trouble is if we think we’re an expert on something and we’re not. Then if we try something and it fails, and then our confidence gets hit and we kind of freeze. Once you freeze, it’s hard to un-freeze and recover lost confidence in the business.
In those moments of debate, we need to push for understanding, for clarity on what success looks like to the various stakeholders, and we must push for clarity on the guiding principles. Is it about time, quality, cost, reputation or legal? Have we defined the right metric? Then we come back with a community-owned solution. People are looking for somebody brave enough to lead in that ambiguity, and HR can be a natural catcher for a lot of these issues that impact our talent within the business.
P+S: How do you think about the phenomenon of companies taking on a bigger role in society, and employees feeling increasingly like they should have a say in company policies?
Wadors: Employees are raising their voices like never before. But how much influence and power—implied or explicit—do you give employees? The questions run the gamut. Do you work with the government? Do you do business with certain countries and not with others? What is your stance on various societal issues?
What risks does your organization’s brand face if you act or don’t act on certain issues?
The key is also setting the right level of expectations with our employees. How do we gather their input, incorporate what makes sense for the business and then communicate the goal clearly?
However, there are times you’ve got to have the courage to say no. That can be hard for some leaders, and so they want HR to say no. Sometimes HR should say no—but other times the line leader needs to hold the line. To help with this situation, I’m leaning a lot more on setting up guiding principles up front, providing transparency on decisions and partnering with the leadership team to ensure alignment. Reinforce that all employees have a right to provide input, share their perspective but not the right to make the final decision or veto decisions made.
Companies need to be clear on who you are as an organization and let your values and behaviors stand for themselves over time. But in the moment, you may take some hits.
The best approach is to establish clear guardrails about what your company stands for and its values. Pretend the organization is a human. “Because we do fill-in-the-blank, we care about talent and immigration. Anything related to immigration rights, we will lobby for and support.” Better to choose three things and do them well than try to address the personal needs, wants and desires of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of employees.
Companies will have to pre-emptively strike and say this is what we believe in, this is how we’ll develop our products, this is how we’ll deliver our services and these are the societal issues we care about. It is very hard to walk in the gray zone with employees.
P+S: The conversation is shifting from the employer saying to employees, in effect, “What are you going to do for me?” to the employee saying to their company, “What are you going to do for me?” How does that play out?
Wadors: Carefully—but if done well—it can be a competitive advantage. Along this evolutionary path, I learned the “tour of duty” concept from Reid Hoffman at LinkedIn. In simple terms, it’s about companies saying to their employees, here is our value proposition: We promise that you will get fair pay, respect and have an opportunity to build your career while here. In return, you will provide the company goods and services, respect for the company, care of each other, respect of management and adherence to policies.
We need to articulate the value proposition on both sides more intentionally because what’s happening is that leaders are freezing when they hear what people want, and they don’t want to say no and risk angering talent—perhaps even losing key talent.
With a large employee base that has many interests, we cannot fund and cosponsor every one-off idea. Going a “mile wide, but an inch deep” is ineffective. A company needs to focus on a few key areas. For me, I focus on building a sense of belonging, because everyone can see themselves in a belonging, inclusive culture that’s diverse and respectful of each other’s unique perspectives. If you don’t believe in those things, respecting diverse points of view for example, you don’t have to work with our company.
P+S: What other issues are becoming bigger for HR over time?
Wadors: The employee has so much more influence and power today than they’ve ever had. Research indicates that a key indicator of organizational success is a company’s ability to make employees feel heard. Giving employees a shared voice is a key component of respect, shared values and engagement. It will change how work gets done and where it gets done. Cautionary note, you need to ensure that this response is not at conflict with your response to employees having a say in your policies.
That is exciting. If companies aren’t listening and seeking to understand, they will fail as a business proposition and they’ll fail their customers.
Some of the signals that I’m already seeing is that there are high-level talented people in the world who refuse now to relocate to a great job. They say, “I can work and do this job from XYZ. I don’t have to move to New York or some other city.” Maybe they want to start their day at 6:00 in the morning and end at 2:00 in the afternoon so they can surf, and then travel for business when they need to.
They’re saying, in effect, “I’m an adult. I know when travel is needed and when it’s not needed. I know how to build relationships. You don’t have to tell me how. You don’t always have to see people in person to win. We don’t have to watch the parking lot to determine our productivity.” Employees will vote with their feet. It’s going to change the way companies think about pay differentials based on location.
Because of this, I predict we are all going to change how we recruit. We’re going to change to give more flexibility about where you work and how you work. We’re going to have to address the compensation issues that arise from working in different parts of the country. In this hybrid world, we’re going to have more technology to allow us to live in different locations. We can reimagine the world in a better way where I can work to live—not live to work.
P+S: Looking ahead, what are the other main framing principles that HR leaders, particularly new CHROs, should keep in mind as they navigate 2021?
Wadors: Historically, HR often fixated on process, accountability and checklists. Now it’s about doing the right thing within the company’s framework and guiding principles. For the new CHRO, it is about reminding them to be constantly curious and constantly listening, and don’t enter this gig thinking there’s a war for talent.
The competition is in our product and services, so stop treating talent as a war. Focus instead on creating a sticky, engaging, healthy company, and you can do that by learning what companies are doing in other industries, like entertainment, pharmaceuticals and healthcare. I’ve become a better people leader by thinking outside my industry. Don’t fall into the trap of just looking at other companies in your own industry.
It’s important to remember that we are business leaders. This is the time to lead strategy for a company. That means the ecosystem that includes your suppliers, your customers, how we behave and how we support not only our employees but their families.
It’s about the social good and being clear on what we will and will not do. We have a huge role to play if we do it right. I think our job is sexier than the CEO’s job. Maybe I’m the only one who thinks that, but it’s a cool gig. It has such an impact on the world when done well.