Dave Ulrich

Dave Ulrich: Stop Chasing Uncertainty

For the first time ever, the Talent Experience Podcast has a returning guest, Dave Ulrich! Dave is the Rensis Likert Professor at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan and a partner at The RBL Group. Dave’s first Talent Experience Podcast episode is our most listened to episode yet and we are thrilled to have him join us once again!

Dave is joined by host John Hollon for a very intuitive conversation on why we should be focusing on what we know rather than chasing uncertainty, why HR is about producing success in the marketplace, and how redefining success is a process and not just a result.

Tune in to Dave’s episode below, at tlntx.co/davep1 or wherever you like to podcast!

Here’s how the conversation went… This interview has been edited and condensed.

John Hollon: Hello, I’m John Hollon and welcome to the Talent Experience Podcast. Today we have a returning guest, Dave Ulrich. Dave is the Rensis Likert, professor at the Ross School of Business University of Michigan, and a partner at the RBL group, a consulting firm focused on helping organizations and leaders deliver value. He studies how organizations build capabilities of leadership, speed, learning, accountability, and talent through leveraging human resources. Dave has published over 200 articles and book chapters and written over 30 books. He edited Human Resource Management from 1990 to 1999. He served on the editorial board of four journals, on the board of directors for the office furniture maker Herman Miller, and the Board of Trustees at Southern Virginia University. And Dave is a fellow in the National Academy of human resources. Dave, thanks for joining us again. How are you?

Dave Ulrich: John, it is so great to talk with you. I’m doing well, and I hope you are as well.

John Hollon: I am, and you are the first returning guests we’ve had on the Talent Experience Podcast. And I know that all of us here at Fuel50 are very happy to have you back.

Dave Ulrich: You know, there’s two ways to interpret that, it could be good news, or it could be bad news. Maybe I’ll get it right this time.

John Hollon: Not only do you have great insights, but your last time with us in October of 2020 is still the most listened to Talent Experience Podcast we’ve ever had. Thanks so much for being willing to come back and do it again.

Dave Ulrich: I’m honored, what a privilege. I look forward to the conversation. And I don’t know if much has happened since March of 2020, so I don’t know if there’s much to talk about.

John Hollon: Well, as you know, a lot has happened since the last time we talked and everyone has had to cope with the chaos surrounding COVID, and now with inflation and soaring gas prices and the daily turmoil of life in 2020. And when I look at many of the articles on your RBL website posted in the last six months, two words jumped out at me ambiguity and uncertainty. Can you talk a bit about the challenges for managers and leaders who are dealing with so much uncertainty and ambiguity right now?

Dave Ulrich: It’s amazing John, I think people used to talk about the new normal. And I say to them, wow, you must be rich. And they said, what do you mean, I must be rich. So, I said in January of 2020, you bought Google and Amazon and Tesla, and Intel stock all the high-tech companies. No, I didn’t… Well, then you don’t know the new normal. We don’t know what’s going to happen. And I think ambiguity, uncertainty, whatever word you want to give it is rampant. Let me go a step deeper. I decided to how do you deal with uncertainty. And so, a year ago, we did a piece we looked at the military VUCA, which we’ve all seen, volatility uncertainty, we looked at finance, it’s called risk. We looked at health risk matters, and we looked at all the pieces of uncertainty and in religion, we looked at what’s faith, faith is a form of uncertainty. And we tried to say there’s lessons of uncertainty. Earlier this year, I had an epiphany, I had an insight. You can’t chase uncertainty. You can’t get ahead of it. You just can’t because you don’t know. And you said it brilliantly John, are we going to face recession or inflation? Are we going to have inflation? Are we going to have high growth or low growth? Are we going to have a pandemic again? Are we going to have war who could have predicted the war in Ukraine? And so, it hit me a few months ago. In managing uncertainty. Don’t chase it. Focus on what you’re certain about. By the way, for me, that was an incredible “Aha.” John, I can’t remember. Do you have kids?

John Hollon: I have three kids and two grand grandkids.

Dave Ulrich: Congratulation. How old are your kids?

John Hollon: Haha, you’re going to make me feel old.

Dave Ulrich: It doesn’t matter, don’t tell me. Don’t tell me. I don’t need to know. I don’t need to know. Do you know with certainty where they’re going to live in the next few years? Do you know what their career will look like? Do you know what their lifestyle will be? Do you know what their house will look like? Their car they’ll buy? No! You just don’t know. Now, let me get the point. John, you have three kids and two grandkids. What do you know with certainty about those five people? Will you love them?

John Hollon: Yes.

Dave Ulrich: By the way, for those who are listening, I can see John’s face, there’s almost an emotion. Are you kidding me? I don’t know the future. I don’t know where we’re going to live. I don’t know what we’re going to do. In January of this year, I’ve kept thinking, Am I going to travel? I’m not going to travel? Am I going to do this book? Or I’m going to do that book? Are we going to have inflation? Are we going to do this or that? I don’t know when I saw it, hold it, stop it. What do I know? For me, personal level, I know I’m going to learn. And I’m going to try to help other people get better. Okay, I don’t know if that’s going to be one, A, B, C, or D. In a company I just spoke to today, you don’t know your future. But you do know your core values, you’re going to serve customers, you’re going to be innovative. John, I think in this world of ambiguity, uncertainty, we need to focus on certainty. So, what do you know for sure, with those three kids, and those two even more precious grandkids? I know that I will be there for them. By the way, I find that so helpful. One of our daughters had a health problem recently. You know what? I know, I’ll be there. I got on a plane the next day. I know I will do that. And I’ll do that no matter what happens. By the way, when you have teenagers, they’ll test that. They’ll test it quite aggressively. And again, anyway, so John, I’m sorry, I got off on that too far, but I think sometimes we get obsessed with what we don’t know. And the uncertainty. Whereas if we say, is it going to be recession? Is it going to be growth? Is there going to be inflation or deflation? Are we going to travel? Are we not going to travel? I worry less about that than I worry about what do I know for sure. Anyway, that’s a quick response, it has a little bit of an emotional appeal, for me, at least.

John Hollon: Well, speaking to that then in business world, you know, how do leaders deal with uncertainty? What can they do to help manage that, and not just leaders, you can talk about managers at the middle levels, you can talk about chief HR officers, how to all those people who are in the world of managing a company and driving it and taking it to whatever goals that they have set out, how do they deal with uncertainty?

Dave Ulrich: Often badly, I think they deal with a bad thing, because they tried to chase it. We’ve just had and again, timing, somebody may be listening to this in a year or two, we had a Great Resignation, where everybody was leaving, now we’re having a Great Regret that people are sorry, they’re leaving, because we’re going into a recession, and they’re not going to have jobs. I think a manager needs to not chase the uncertainty but focus on at a personal level. When I as a manager, sit down I with you as an employee, what am I certain about? I can look at that employee and say, I’m going to care for you. I’m going to try to give you opportunities to develop your gifts and your talents. That doesn’t mean I’m always going to make it easy for you. Because sometimes it’s going to be challenging, but I’m going to care for you. And you should know that I have your interests at mind. At an organization level, every company has a value thing they post on the wall, we’re going to live those values. We talk about innovation; we’re going to be innovative! I can guarantee whatever happens will respond in a more innovative way. So, when I coached leaders, I want leaders to say you can be certain about how I will respond. I don’t know the content; I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I do know the process.

John Hollon: You know, a one of the things that we talked about before we started our recording here is innovation in HR. And you were talking about it a bit. Can you sort of talk about what you’ve seen? And has it been driven by what we’ve been through the last couple of years?

Dave Ulrich: We can’t avoid the last two years. And I actually have said I think the last two years feels like one year. I mean, we can almost all say where were we in March of 2020 when the NBA stopped, and there was a domino effect. I think some of the themes are the same that I think we’ve seen great evolution, let me just highlight a couple. We just posted on LinkedIn 11 evolutions in the HR field that we are seeing some incredible innovation and growth. One, HR is not about HR. HR is about helping your company succeed in the marketplace. The best thing you can give an employee is a job that succeeds in the marketplace. The best thing we can give an employee is a company that is successful. By the way I say that because I think in HR right now a lot of people say, we got to be caring, we got to be empathetic, we got to have compassion. Well, if your company doesn’t succeed in the marketplace, there’s no workplace. So that’s one of the evolutions is that HR is not about HR. It’s about what do we do to succeed in the marketplace so that our people can have jobs? And in that line, we want to connect what we do to the marketplace and to business success. I could do a lot of these, I’ll just I’ll do I’ll give an example of that, and then we’ll go to one other. We just taught a course at the university two weeks on HR, we looked at evolutions in culture and hybrid work and Diversity and Equity and Inclusion, leadership. But end of the course, I got a plan, I’m going to go back and present to the executive team, my DEI plan, my culture, plan, my leadership plan, and I’m going to show them my compensation plan what we’re doing. And I stopped, and I said, oh, we haven’t taught you and what’s wrong, and I said, do not start a discussion in a business team, with your HR plan. Start by saying, what is the business trying to do to succeed? What do we have to do to succeed in our marketplace, with customers, investors, communities? We have to be innovative; we have to have low cost. Once you articulate that business outcome, then say, my DEI plan, my culture plan, my leadership plan will enable that outcome to happen. HR is not about HR. HR is about having success in the marketplace. And I think that trend John, that we call it outside in, that is getting more pervasive now than we’ve ever seen it. I’ll stop with that. I could do others. But that is, that is such a mindset shift. I said HR people, who are your customers, the employees? Incomplete. Who are your customers, the customers of the company, the customers of the company. Are you hiring people your customers would want you to hire? Are you paying people for things your customers want you to do that outside in logic, I hope John is starting to get a little more real because it forces us in HR to be innovative, to be creative. When our customers change, we need to change.

John Hollon:
You mentioned in passing the Great Resignation, which I know has been on a lot of people’s minds, and the difficulties that a lot of organizations have been having hiring people. And it made me wonder, because from my own personal experience, having worked a number of places, there’s always a lot of talk about retention. But when it came right down to it, companies were more focused on hiring new people than they really were about retaining their own staff. Do you think the Great Resignation is finally going to get companies to pay more attention to retaining growing their own staff?

Dave Ulrich: Oh, I hope so. You know, look how long it takes to hire someone, all the sourcing and screening and securing, and then the orienting versus you’ve got somebody who’s good, don’t let them go. Sit down with them, you know, the tips that are there, have what Beverly (inaudible) brilliantly says is a stay interview. Courtney, you’re really talented here, you’re really good, what’s it going to take to keep you? That’s not a big performance management is just a discussion. And then by the way, some of that is she says, “Well, I want to be the CEO in two years,” well, that’s not going to happen. So, what else would it take? So, you get a conversation, you go to people, you retain them. And then when the good ones leave, you bring them back. We don’t want you to leave and stay gone. We want you to come back. And what do we do? How do we make this job work for you? And then you have an honest conversation. You’ve got to develop new skills and abilities so that you can continue to create value for the customer because they’re changing. But John, if we can keep the people who are good, and make them better here, we save time and energy, and we build a community that works. And I hope the Great Resignation gets people talking about we got to keep the ones we got not chase the ones that we don’t have.

John Hollon: Yeah, I keep hoping that it will make business leaders, people who run organizations wake up and finally see, hey, we’ve been sort of missing the boat on this for the longest time, because it always seemed to me, recruiting was always the focal point, and there was this notion a lot of folks have, if I want to really get a promotion here, I need to go someplace else, because they’re not going to do it here.

Dave Ulrich: Well, I agree. And that’s one of the dangers if people leave as a career track. So, I’m going to go to a new company and get a 20% raise, then I’ll come back and get a bigger raise. You can’t create a career track outside the company that just isn’t going to work. By the way, companies are getting smart. Here’s some research we recently saw from a company. You got your high potential employees, you’re really talented employees and ones you really do want to keep because they’re so critical to who we are. Keep track! When somebody updates their LinkedIn profile, they’re likely to start looking. So, we had one company that had a summer intern simply say here’s X number of employees who we don’t want to lose. Could you keep track and have any of them upgraded their LinkedIn profile? And if they do business leader or HR leader sit down, say, how are you doing? That’s the stay interview. were worried about you, are you getting the experience you want? What can we do to help make this work? And then to start that conversation that I just talked about the stay interview. Those are the things that I hope business leaders recognize, because that’s what’s going to help us as a company, build a talent pool and Fuel50 does that wonderfully, they will help us succeed in the future.

John Hollon: Well it’s interesting, you should say that about when people change their LinkedIn, that’s a big hint that they are, they are looking. My younger son had graduated with a MBA and had been working at CarMax in their finance department and was working part time and when he got done with his MBA wanted a full time job. And CarMax, who’d spent a tremendous amount of money training him, which I thought was unusual at the time, but I thought it was a good sign, couldn’t seem to find him a job, a full-time job. Well guess what he did, he went on LinkedIn, changed his profile, and guess who started calling him, Tesla. Tesla figured out that CarMax has people we could use, we’re going to go on go on after him. He’s a director with Tesla now.

Dave Ulrich: I hope he got stock two years ago! And that means he will take care of his father in his old age, haha! I mean, what a great example. And I don’t want to slam CarMax, but what a tragedy, what a tragedy! Cause you got to, and this, this isn’t your son, as is one, but it’s a case study, we got all this person we’ve invested in and we’ve got them an MBA, they got skills, they got growth, they got opportunity, they’re wonderful, and we lose them, we lose them. Now, the good news of Tesla is Tesla has lost more good people than they’ve kept. So if I were CarMax, I would go back to Tesla and say to your son, you know, maybe he can come back. Now when you bring them back, you can bring them back at a big promotion, because then you create a career path. But you bring them back in a way that would allow CarMax to get the benefit of his been having done a Tesla. Anyway, I’m joking about your case, but what a great example of really a tragedy,

John Hollon: Hey, something else that I was reading, and I loved all the articles on your website, and one of them talked about redefining success as a process rather than an expected result. Could you talk about it? I’ve never heard it put that way before.

Dave Ulrich: You know, it came from COVID. And so again, when you’re listening to this COVID, maybe a distant memory, we hope so. Should we open the school or not open the school? A COVID test, should we vaccine or not vaccine? And a lot of people got exercised about the solution. My insight was, did we have a process to answer that question that made people feel comfortable? Because the answer may vary. And the certainty back to certainty, uncertainty, the certainty is we have a fair and equitable process, you may not like the answer, but how we derive the answer is something you can have confidence in. And so, I think sometimes in the world we live in, we want a clear and quick answer. Rather than managing have we created a process of how we go about making the decision. Who’s involved? What data do we have? How do we look at trade-offs? How do we, we’re not going to make a decision that satisfies everyone, but if people say, I’ve been heard. Let me tell you where that comes from quick story, I was coaching a person on participative management. And he looked at me he said, Dave, if you any I agree on everything, one of us is unnecessary. And he said it won’t be me. You and I need to disagree. That’s the process. And then he had a part two, but when we go public, we go with one voice. don’t disagree with me publicly disagree with me in private. By the way, that’s the fair process, dialogue, discuss, and then we go public, you may not agree, but you’ve been heard. And then we go public. And John, I just I think sometimes in in the world of HR and human capabilities, what I’ve been calling it lately, we get all excited about what’s the answer? I’d rather say how did you come up with your answer? What process did you use to get there who was involved? What data did you look at? What trade-offs did you consider? And then you may not have an answer I agree with, but I at least respect the way you came up with it.

We hope you enjoy listening to part 1 of this episode of the Talent Experience Podcast with Dave Ulrich! We look forward to sharing more learning with you.