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Strategic CHRO

Alan May

The CHRO Challenge and Opportunity: “This Is Not a Paint-By-Numbers Role”​

May 30, 2019

For the next installment of our interview series with leaders who are transforming the role of the CHRO, David Reimer, the CEO of The ExCo Group, and I sat down with Alan May, chief people officer at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, who shared smart insights about the unique nature of the position.

Reimer: The CHRO role is unusual in the C-suite, in that you have a lot of latitude to shape the position. What is your approach?

May: The role is relatively unique, and there are a lot of reasons for that. One is that it’s not a highly regulated role. Yes, there are lots of employment regulations, but unlike the roles of CFO role or chief legal officer, you don’t face as many constraints about how you report and fulfill other obligations of the position.

The other side of that, unfortunately – and this is one of the challenges in HR – is that there are very few decision models or specific formulas or algorithms for the field. They provide a lot of decision logic for the business and other functions, but not so much in HR. Because of that, it is not only a relatively unstructured role at times, but it’s also a very misunderstood role.

Another unique aspect of the job is that, unlike some other C-suite positions, it is highly influenced by the persona of the CEO. It’s the combination of the CEO – what they’re looking for and how they view the business and how they view talent – plus the CHRO that really creates the job description. One of the big responsibilities of a CHRO is to define a role somewhat independent of the CEO’s view, and that’s a very difficult thing to do.

Reimer: What is top of mind for you these days in terms of the forces affecting your role?

May: First would be the rate at which skill requirements are being transformed. People often articulate this in terms of finding and hiring people with certain skills. I think the bigger issue for HR professionals is how quickly skill requirements are changing within your current workforce and how you keep up to speed with them.

“There are very few decision models or specific formulas or algorithms for the field.”

AI and machine-learning applications now permeate virtually every role within an organization, or will in a short period of time. Everybody wants to focus on the pivotal jobs that are scarce and whether you are finding the talent to grow, but at the same time you really need to bring your overall workforce up to speed on a lot of these concepts.

In the old model, you had an L&D function and you did training yourself in classrooms. One advantage that we had when we split as a company from Hewlett Packard, we were able to start with a clean sheet of paper. Now, when I think about how we’re going to bring our workforce up to speed, it’s almost all curated content, and it’s almost all through curated platforms. I am not going to be able to build the capability of giving 60,000 employees a surface-level understanding on AI. However, there’s a lot of content out there to help me do that.

Bryant: The digital disruption that’s transforming every industry can be threatening to some employees. How do you signal to people that constant change is the new normal?

May: We do need to make it explicit. We’ve been focusing quite a bit from a cultural perspective on opportunity, which we define in part around career progression. I think a lot of people are hungry for an employer that provides with them an opportunity to learn and to grow, rather than just giving them a lottery ticket of a small stake in the company.

Here in Silicon Valley, a lot of companies I compete with are selling lottery tickets. If somebody has that type of risk profile, that’s fine for them to pursue that, and I’m not being disparaging. But we really try to focus more on the idea that we’re a career company, and that you have an obligation to continue to learn, grow, develop and re-skill yourself. We will help, of course, in terms of providing the curated content I mentioned earlier. But it’s also employees’ responsibility to take advantage of it.

Bryant: I’d like to go back to the point you made about the dynamic with the CEO. How do you get that balance right, so that you maintain a sense of independence?

May: It’s like any other relationship. It has to start with trust, and trust comes from common experiences, shared values and walking the talk. The great CHROs I’ve seen also really treat their board as their direct supervisors, particularly the board chair, in addition to the CEO.

That at times can be a somewhat ambiguous situation, but it also provides you that degree of independence. You’re there to advise the CEO and to drive a series of efforts on behalf of the function, but you’re also there for the shareholders and to ensure appropriate and high levels of governance and integrity within the organization to the board. You can’t report to twelve people, so realistically you’ve got to have a good relationship with your chair.

Reimer: And there’s the added complexity of the CHRO’s role with respect to your peers on the C-suite leadership team.

May: That can be the most challenging part of the role. On the one hand, your role is to bring out the best of each of your peers and make sure that they all work well together. So you’ve got that team-development dynamic as well as the individual coaching dynamic.

It’s very challenging because, while you’re a peer, you have to maintain a degree of independence and objectivity regarding their performance. There will be situations where the CEO, the chair or members of the board have opinions about your peers that are good, bad or indifferent.

You have to be incredibly neutral and objective – not in a detached, unemotional way, but in a way that’s fact-based and that is not potentially tainted by personal affinities.

Reimer: Have you always been comfortable in roles where it was your job to create the playbook?

May: I enjoy working in situations where there are degrees of ambiguity, and where the lines are not really super sharp. Certainly, the lines around matters of the law and integrity are non-negotiable. But this is not a paint-by-numbers role. It’s a collaborative effort with a large group of very different, disparate, diverse colleagues who have to achieve an objective. Then you figure out your role to help make things happen within the organization.

“There is a bit of a priestly or rabbinical aspect to this role.”

It’s also a very demanding role, but for reasons that people may not understand from the outside in. There are trust relationships that you have with people. They may open up to you about personal situations that you cannot share with anybody. There is a bit of a priestly or rabbinical aspect to this role, where people are going to entrust you with information that maybe is not totally relevant to the immediate business situation but that you have to hold in confidence forever.

You just have to listen and understand why that person is the way they are right now or the way they might be in terms of their motivations. That human dynamic is very difficult to manage in a clinical, detached kind of way, but it’s also essential to being successful in the job.

Bryant: What were some key influences for you early in your life?

May: I learned important lessons from my first job, delivering papers, when I was 11. Part of it was the realization at a very young age that when you deliver a paper and then collect money once a month, that’s not the only job. Some of your customers just want to chitchat about totally different things, such as their kids. By the way, some of them stiff you and don’t pay their bill and move away, and so you also need to be a little wary. But I learned how to listen to different people early on.

I was surrounded in my family with people who were very good listeners. I just enjoy listening to people – learning their stories, trying to understand how they’re wired, accepting them as they are, then maybe helping them be happier and more productive.

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