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David Ulrich HR Indaba 2011

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Human Resources Indaba with Dave Ulrich

Date: 23 March 2011

Place: Celebration Centre, Borrowdale, Harare

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  • David Ulrich's Profile

    Dave Ulrich is a Professor at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan and a partner at the RBL Group (http://www.rbl.net) 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.  He has helped generate award winning data bases that assess alignment between strategies, organization capabilities, HR practices, HR competencies, and customer and investor results.

    He has published over 175 articles and book chapters and 23 books: Asian Leadership (2010, Robert Sutton), The Why of Work (2010, Wendy Ulrich), Leadership in Asia (2009), HR Transformation (2009  Justin Allen, Wayne Brockbank, Jon Younger, Mark Nyman), Leadership Code (2008 Norm Smallwood, Kate Sweetman), Companion for Strategic Human Resources (2008 John Storey, Pat Wright), HR Competencies (2008 Wayne Brockbank, Dani Johnson, Kurt Sandholtz, Jon Younger), Leadership Brand (2007 Norm Smallwood), Human Resource Value Proposition (2005 Wayne Brockbank), The Future of Human Resource Management (2005 Michael Losey, Sue Meisinger), Human Resources Business Process Outsourcing (2004, Ed Lawler, Jac Fitz-enz, James Madden). 100 Things You Need to Know (2003, Robert Eichinger, Michael Lombardo), Competences for the New HR (2002, Wayne Brockbank); Why the Bottom Line Isn’t (2003, Norm Smallwood), GE Workout (2002, Steve Kerr, Ron Ashkenas), HR Scorecard (2001, Brian Becker, Mark Huselid), Results Based Leadership (1999, Norm Smallwood, Jack Zenger), Learning Capability (1999, Arthur Yeung, Mary Ann Von Glinow, Steve Nason); Tomorrow's (HR) Management (1997, Gerry Lake, Mike Losey); Human Resource Champions (1997); The Boundaryless Organization (1995, Ron Ashkenas, Steve Kerr, Todd Jick); The Boundaryless Organization Field Guide (2002, Ron Ashkenas, Todd Jick, Katy Paul-Chowdhury); Organizational Capability (1990, Dale Lake)

    He edited Human Resource Management 1990-1999, served on editorial board of 4 Journals, on the Board of Directors for Herman Miller, and Board of Trustees at Southern Virginia University, and is a Fellow in the National Academy of Human Resources. Honors include:

    2010:  *Nobels Colloquia Prize for Leadership on Business and Economic Thinking

    *Ranked #1 most influential international thought leader in HR by HR Magazine

    *Kirk Englehardt Exemplary Business Ethics Award from Utah Valley University

    *Why of Work (co-authored with Wendy Ulrich) was #1 best seller for Wall Street Journal and USA Today

    2009:   *Listed in Thinkers 50 as a management thought leader

    *Ranked #1 most influential person in HR by HR Magazine

    2008:   *Ranked #1 most influential person in HR by HR Magazine

    2007:   *Lifetime Achievement Award from American Society of Training and Development (ASTD)

    *Honorary Doctorate from University of Abertey, at Dundee Scotland

    2006:   *Ranked #1 most influential person in HR by HR Magazine in vote by influential HR thinkers

    *Dyer Distinguished Alumni Award from Brigham Young University, Marriott School of Management

    2005:     *Ranked #2 management guru by Executive Excellence

    *Named by Fast Company as one of the 10 most innovative and creative thinkers of 2005

    2002-2005 President, Canada Montreal Mission, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

    2001:     Ranked #1 management educator and guru by Business Week

    2000:  *Lifetime achievement award from World Federation of Personnel Management

    *Listed in Forbes as one of the "world’s top five" business coaches

    1998: *Society for Human Resource Management award for Professional Excellence for lifetime contributions

    *Lifetime achievement (PRO) award from International Association of Corporate and Professional Recruitment, and Employment Management Association

    1997:  *Warner W. Stockberger Lifetime Achievement Award from International Personnel Management Association

    1995:  *The Pro Meritus Award from Employment Management Association for "outstanding contribution to the human resources field,"

    He has consulted and done research with over half of the Fortune 200.

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  • Interview With David Ulrich

    Hi Dave,

    At last, I have finished your book. Waou! It was tough but really engaging and stimulating, I even did your brainstorming exercices and started (just a little) to put them in action. The read has taken me longer than expected, my work ethic isn't as developped as yours and I'm juggling with four young kids, my HR Magazin (reasearching, writing and networking) and a few other activities. I'm sorry, I'm giving you personnal stuff here.... You must get that quite a lot, your good ideas and writing are probably the cause:-) So here are my questions. They are adressed to you and to your wife Wendy. It would be great if she could answer some of them also. Note that with the interview I'll write a short comment on your book with the seven main ideas that help give meaning to work. You'll receive the whole article in french for a check-up before we go to print.

    1. Historians always have to keep in mind that their historical research is guided by issues and questions which emmerge from the  society they are living in. What has, in the world you and Wendy are living in sparked the need to go and research on the why of work?

    Research also is based on personal choices.   We call ourselves meaning junkies because we like to find a sense of purpose and meaning in our professional and personal lives.  But our search for meaning is not what drove this book.  We started this book before the recession when companies were trying to attract and fully engage employees with innovative practices.  During recession, the search for meaning did not go away.  Mental health care costs are increasing faster than other categories, employee commitment is declining, malaise is increasing politically, socially, and emotionally.   The search for meaning continues and work is one of the key settings to fulfill the search.

    Wendy:  At a more personal level, we recently completed a major work assignment, saw our last child off, and moved across the country. For me personally this has been a time of redefinition and looking at the question yet again, “What do I want to do when I grow up?”  I quickly realized that retirement is not very conducive to a meaningful life.  Work, for all its challenges, is where most of us find a good portion of our identity, usefulness, and meaning. 

    2. In the begining of the book you underline the need people have to find a meaning in the work that takes up so much of our time. For many people, there families and lives are at stake (they just need the money). Having to survive through work puts a lot of pressure on people. Which makes it very difficult to ask the meaning question and find the answers?

    Work is a universal setting for the universal search for meaning.  Obviously, we can also find meaning in homes, hobbies, social settings, and community organizations.   But, work is an increasing part of our daily lives and when we find meaning at work, it positively impacts the other settings.  Some people will make work a four letter word that has to be endured, but when employees find meaning from the work they do, they are more productive and socially connected.

    3. As you show it with the Frankl/Cambodian example, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that even though the situation may seem unbearable, meaning does arise. The bad news is that "we  have to work at this meaning-making process" (p.31) Does meaning come naturally to some people or are some people just better "meaning-workers" than others?

    obviously some people are predisposed to be optimistic and find abundance in their lives.  For others of us, we can learn the skills to make it work.  We tried to distill multiple disciplines that help make sense out of meaning to identify what leaders can adapt to their work setting.   We hope all leaders can be better meaning  makers by learning and applying these insights.

    Wendy:  The people who are better meaning makers have often had other people who helped them learn to find meaning in particular kind of work.  A parent, teacher, mentor, boss, or friend helped them see their strengths, stick with hard tasks, and envision exciting possibilities.  As we share with one another our own meaning-making processes our minds help other minds to see things in new ways and to pick up those meaning-making tools.

    4.  On page 83 you give the four levers to help people find meaning (insight, achievment, empowerment and connection). But these four levers are often not recognised at all in an organisation, where performance, profit and client satisfaction come first (quite rithly too). Are'nt you giving leaders very difficult if not impossible goals here? Organizations have purposes, called mission, vision, aspirations, and strategies.  These purposes can be tailored depending on the focus of the organization to align with what gives employees their purpose.  A leader who has an employee driven by insight will try to make sure that employee works in setting where learning and insight are key elements of the unit’s success.  An employee drive by achievement will work best in settings with clear specific goals (e.g., sales).  Employees will find more meaning when their personal purposes align with the organization purposes.

    5. The late french author Marguerite Yourcenar (try Hadrien's Memoirs) once wrote that we often critize the Medieval times because of the torturing and the terrible conditions of the poor people but we tend to forget that the modern world has created factories and industries where people slave away producing usless or very short-living products. She does have a good point there don't you think?

    Wendy?  There is no question that there are a lot of people today spending their labor on things that don’t have lasting value and working in very difficult settings.  We know that even in the most horrible of circumstances some people find meaning and hope, while even in the best of circumstances some people do not find either.  And I would say that the poor are not the only ones who sometimes have to work at jobs that offer little real value to them or to others.  They just have less choice about it, which unfortunately spurs some corporations to take advantage of them.


    But it is also important to realize that modern business organizations often do more than charities or governments in relieving poverty and raising the standard of living, even in the poorest of countries.  So we don’t give up on trying to improve the working conditions of the many people who are working in terrible situations, but those who feel stuck in these situations can also can realize that finding meaning at work is not totally out of our hands even if the work itself is demeaning or demoralizing.


    6. In chapter 7 (What challenges interest me) you ask leaders to understand what outcome applies to the employee. What do you mean?

    We each find work that is energizing to us.  We have a friend who would like to be a toll booth collector.  She would be energized by this job since she would not have to live it 24 hours a day (she could leave work at work); she could learn to do it well and fell confident in her skills; and it would not require her to work outside her comfort zone.  For many, this tedious job would be demoralizing.  Leaders need to recognize what energizes an employee and make sure that their job gives them opportunities to do that work.


    7. The chapter on delight and humour is very uplifting. It's a shame that so many CEO's or senior Executives frown down at ping-pong tables or a more loose activity - saying: I'm not paying you to play around. What kind of advice would you give an hr manager to convince his boss that it is actually going to make the company more successful?

    Sometimes leaders want to measure both the activity and the outcome.  These executives over control employees and reduce their agency and thus their sense of meaning.  Effective leaders become clear about the outcomes they desire, then give employees discretion over how to make those results happen.   If employees play ping pong all day or eat lots of free cafeteria food, they will not deliver the outcomes that are desired.  When employees share the outcomes and have choices over the means of achieving the outcomes, they are more likely to be productive.  And, having fun, delight, and civility at work will keep employees renewed and fresh.  Their productivity will be more sustainable.


    8. On a more personnal level, and this is my last question, you both are very honest about where you find meaning in work (Dave: helping HR people and leaders create better organisations; Wendy: helping people dealing with their personal struggles). Can you give us one good piece of advice (and maybe who gave it to you) that helped you find what you really like about your work?

    Dave:  “realistic aspirations” … have great aspirations of what is possible by envisioning a great future, but also be grounded in realism about what is possible.

    Wendy: I read the question somewhere, “What would you do with your life if you were guaranteed success?”  That helped me realize how much fear of failure was holding me back from pursuing what I really wanted to do.  There are hard parts about any job, things we don’t like or aren’t good at.  If we can stay focused on the parts we love and be willing to take the risks to improve and learn then life stays meaningful.  If we always try to stay safe or do what is convenient or easy we not only don’t grow, we have trouble finding meaning. 

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