Keri Ohlrich & Kelly Guenther, co-founders of Abbracci Group, join The HR Risk Podcast to discuss the HR leader’s potential and the book The Way of the HR Warrior. Subscribe to The HR Risk Podcast on iTunes/Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or your favorite podcast app!
Jennings: Our topic today is The HR Leader’s Potential, about the risks HR leaders and their teams face when they don’t fully develop as executives and trusted business advisors. Joining us to discuss this topic are Keri Ohlrich and Kelly Guenther, co-founders of the Abbracci Group, an HR consulting firm whose services include diagnostics and assessments, coaching solutions for urgent people issues, and leadership development. Keri is the author of the HR leadership book The Way of the HR Warrior, which will give us a lot to talk about for today’s topic. Keri, Kelly, welcome to the HR risk podcast.
Guest: Thank you.
Jennings: Before we jump into today’s topic, could you tell us a little bit more about your background and the work you’ve been doing?
Ohlrich: I’ve been in HR for a little bit over 20 years now. I’ve worked at big companies, Fortune 500, and I’ve worked in startups, including manufacturing, professional services. I’ve worked on the generalist side and ran an employee relations center for 50,000 associates. I have been in love psychology since I majored in psychology and business and then ended up getting my Ph.D. in human development and organizational systems. So I’m around what’s going on with the human. How does the system impact the human? And I think overall I love HR because it’s kind of an underdog. Most people don’t like it. It has kind of a bad perception. And I always loved all the films about underdogs. I kind of like that people don’t like you so much, then you’ve got to fight for it and change their minds.
Guenther: My background is in learning and development. That’s my first love. So to be able to see people grow and develop and push themselves, reaching new confidence levels in a classroom is so fulfilling for me. And I wanted to continue learning more about HR, because it isn’t just learning and development, what I would consider to be the fun side of HR. There’s also the very realistic and very necessary side of the HR generalist world. I’ve had the fortune of working with IT companies, professional services, healthcare, nonprofit, manufacturing. I’ve seen a lot of different uses of HR, so to speak. Some leaders who really get HR and embraced HR and some that they’re not quite there. So I’ve had the fortune of being able to be involved in many different environments, but always pushing myself to learn more.
Jennings: You described HR as being a little bit of an underdog in the workplace setting and that’s one thing that has drawn you to it. Keri, you’ve authored a book along those lines with a pretty intriguing title. It’s The Way of the HR Warrior, which partly touches on that theme of HR being an underdog and the ability to transcend that Toby Flenderson stereotype from The Office. What is the nature of an HR warrior and what does it mean to be one?
Ohlrich: Yes, in the book we talk about Toby and how he is definitely an HR Weenie. If you take “what is a warrior,” it’s really the opposite of a Toby. It’s a high-performing business leader who happens to be in HR. You’re a warrior because you could be a warrior in any profession. You can be an IT or finance or legal, and as a COO, you can be a warrior. And what are those qualities? It’s that person who you know the project’s not going to be as good, the outcome won’t be as good without this person.
Ohlrich: We need to have him or her on this project. They will bring not only the HR perspective, not only that functional expertise. But you’re also bringing, “hey, did you think about it this way or how would this work” or “what’s a different scenario we can look at it?” So it’s someone who brings so much to the table that it’s just missing when they’re not there. That is an HR Warrior and you are absolutely not a Toby Flenderson, the complete opposite of that. It’s where people want you to be in their projects and they don’t even say, “oh, we need the HR person.” They say, “oh, we need Kelly in that project,” or “we need Andrew in that project because they are going to help us.” That’s a warrior.
Jennings: One thing that you really emphasize is that there’s an unfortunate expectation oftentimes that HR is there for a functionary role to manage paperwork, to process forms. I think you make a good point that that wouldn’t be acceptable for any other business function in a company. Imagine a logistics department to just say, “oh well we put out the purchase orders and we accept the purchase orders and we send out invoices and we pay invoices and that’s what our role is.” That wouldn’t be an acceptable answer for a high-performing company. At least the logistics department should be of the mind that “we figure out how to get things just in time, how to reduce costs, to get better materials,” whatever it is that we do as a logistics department. “We don’t just push paper around.” In the book you provide a diagnostic for HR professionals to assess whether they’re “HR Warriors,” “HR Wishfuls,” or “HR Weenies.” Could you tell us a little bit more about those categories, what they are and which one professionals should strive to be? Where do they fall in the career progression for an HR leader?
Guenther: Like anything in life—you’re going on a diet for example—it’s important to give them a scale and understand where you are in comparison to where you want to be. That will help you determine the actions that you need to take to move from where you are again to where you want to be. So the same thing holds true with the assessment. It’s designed to be a way for you to look intrinsically within yourself, be honest and answer the questions in the assessment to determine whether you are an HR Weenie, an HR Wishful, or an HR Warrior. First start with HR Weenie. A Weenie is someone who has a lot of opportunity, there’s a lot of growth that may be needed for that individual, but there are some key behaviors if you will, behavioral anchors that are discussed in the book.
Guenther: Things like resisting change, being the first one, to say “no,” using “no” as a reflex answer rather than looking at the opportunity to explore, maybe do something differently. They’re the compliance police and really only being known for that, as opposed to being known for having conversations and coaching leaders or employees. They’re over analyzing, over designing something to the point where now it’s almost too confusing and too corporate. There’s a lot of opportunity to grow, which is a good thing. So it’s going to be up to that individual to determine “do I want to take the steps necessary to move the needle and maybe change my behavior to become an HR Warrior?” An HR Wishful is someone who sees that there’s opportunity, but also recognizes that there are strengths that they have within themselves. So there are things that they do really well.
Guenther: They rock the house, they have the adoration of the business, but there might be areas where they feel like they’re falling, they’re falling short of the mark they need to hit and they they’re looking for the next way to develop and guide themselves to becoming an HR Warrior. It’s really that middle ground where there’s an opportunity to grow as well. An HR Warrior is a professional who can be counted on to get the job done right, to exceed expectations, to inspire others and set expectations that increased the work output of everyone around them. So they’re constantly pushing, they’re constantly looking for ways to reinvent themselves, understand the complexity of the HR function and how to reinvent it for their business. They see their work as an opportunity to have a positive impact on the business every day.
Jennings: So everybody sits into one of those categories. It’s really something worth diagnosing and assessing whether you’re in at the latter two categories because that really shows that there’s opportunity to improve. A theme that a number of guests on this show have raised, and that I saw in this book too, was HR’s seat at the table. And how is not just about having a seat at the table where you take notes or maybe answer questions or act in a reactive way, but where you’re contributing to the leadership and goals of the business. And of course that can mean a literal seat at the table, or more figuratively and broadly. How does the “seat at the table” theme fit into being an HR Warrior in your view?
Ohlrich: It builds on when you asked “what is an HR warrior.” And so let me take a step back on why we even wrote the book. We found that people weren’t at that table, the proverbial table that we keep talking about. When I took over an HR team, they didn’t have the best reputation. And there was a vice president that I talked to and he told me, “I don’t even invite the HR person to my team meetings.” So he had some meetings with finance, sales, supply chain, everyone. And he literally did not invite the HR person. When I asked why and what is it that this person needs to do, he said, “you need to understand the business and understand it, not by quoting, do you know your EBITDA and the profit with this, just kind of being a robot about it. But understand really my concerns as a leader, what are the dynamics going on? How can you warn me: ‘you might not want to do it this way.’ How can you guide me?” That’s what he wanted as his HR Warrior at the table. And that’s how we figured out the book because there were so many people who weren’t doing it right and weren’t getting that seat at the table.
Ohlrich: We asked a lot of business leaders, “what do you want, what do you need, and what are those qualities of an HR person who would then sit at the table with you?” And that’s how we came up with the CHARGE framework, which is about those qualities. So leaders, it’s kind of funny. It’s one of the only departments you could just not invite. I mean, could you imagine if you didn’t invite finance? Someone would get mad at you. “How come you didn’t invite finance?” But HR is “yeah, you don’t have to invite them, just do it around them and tell them what you did.” So it really is incumbent upon us to show how wonderful we are because we don’t get the easy seat at the table.
Jennings: You’ve mentioned the CHARGE framework. Could you give our listeners an overview of what this model is?
Guenther: I love the CHARGE framework. One is because it’s easy. It ties along very naturally to our HR Warrior theme, “charging ahead.” But the idea is these are things that if I’m a true HR Warrior, I’m able to demonstrate in the work that I do. These are qualities that are essential and vital to the success of an HR Warrior. So the first one being “courage,” being able to demonstrate courage can look like different things in different people, but an example is being the one to say the thing on everyone’s mind, but maybe no one has the courage to say to a business leader. It’s being able to put yourself out there, to be able to say what is on everyone’s mind.
Guenther: The next is “humility.” Knowing where your role is. Sometimes you can be a coach, counselor, advisor to the business, but sometimes the business will make decisions that you don’t always agree with. Be able to recognize that you’ve done everything, you can step aside, let the chips fall where they may. And know that if the decision they make doesn’t end up the way they thought it would, that you don’t use the opportunity to say “see, I told you so.” Use the opportunity to regroup with them, find out what can we do to work through the situation, find the next best logical solution and still be an advisor to them in the process.
Guenther: The next is “accuracy” and it’s all about really getting to root cause. What is the reason an issue was happening? My favorite thing being in a development role was training. A lot of leaders will come to me and say, “I need customer service training for my team. They’re not doing their job.” Rarely would I take them at their word, not because I was trying to challenge them or poke holes in their assumptions, but I wanted to better understand what the true issue was. If it was a training solution that was needed, we know that and have the confidence to know that we’re doing the right thing because training, obviously it’s a lot of time, a lot of effort and in a lot of cases, a lot of money. In many of my conversations with leaders, I’d often find out after asking a number of questions to get to the root cause is that it happens to be a couple of individuals who might be acting out or choosing to behave in a way that isn’t tied to the objectives of the department or the company.
Guenther: Next we have “resiliency,” which when we would talk with HR professionals, many will raise their hand and say, “I’ve got that.” And that’s a good thing because HR can be a very lonely road, especially if you’re a team of one or even if you’re in a larger team, the issues that you’re dealing with are very personal to people. It’s dealing with people’s jobs. It can leave you feeling pretty empty inside and it can make you feel very at times alone. It’s important to center yourself around people who have your back, that you can go to ask questions, trusted advisors for you in the process.
Guenther: Then we have “goal orientation.” Goal orientation is all about showing the value that you possess in HR to the business, making sure your goals are aligned to the business goal. And then finally we have “exemplary.” It’s being a role model to yourself, to your team, to employees in the organization, as well as other business leaders, not asking them to do something that you aren’t already doing or haven’t already done. So for example, performance management: if we’re rolling out performance management, if I’m leading HR and I allow our team to fall to the wayside, I’m not really a role model. I’m not acting exemplary in the eyes of other business owners. They may say, “well, why is she asking us to do it when they’re not doing it themselves?”
Jennings: Just as you discuss the spectrum of HR professionals, you also provide a spectrum for organizations themselves when it comes to HR. You classify them as HR Problem versus HR Potential versus HR Promoter. Could you describe what those are?
Ohlrich: When Monica Frede and I wrote The Way of the HR Warrior, we started with the assessment. And then we thought, “you know there’s a lot of warriors out there who still had a hard time getting things done” and we didn’t want this book to feel like a brick to your head, like you’re a warrior and you still can’t make it work. And we saw it. There is this other part of the equation, the organization. So we came up with this two-by-two grid and we talked about “what does the organization look like?” Because we all know there’s some organizations that embrace HR. There’s some who don’t get it and there are some who actually don’t want it.
Ohlrich: “HR Problem” doesn’t see the value of HR, typically isn’t very open to seeing it. The “HR Potential” is a company who’s really thinking “I don’t know about it, but I’m open. Give me your ideas.” And “HR Promoter” is a company that totally gets HR. You report to the CEO. There’s no question that you’re in the leadership team and they look at you for root cause analysis for things. If there’s a merger, instead of calling you the day before, you are in on it from day one and going, “okay, there’s going to be huge change for our employees. What are your thoughts on this? What should we do?”
Jennings: If our listeners want to learn more about this topic, where can they go for that?
Guenther: We welcome you to visit Amazon to purchase The Way of the HR Warrior and we would love your feedback and reviews; we love to check out what your thoughts are. At the Abbracci Group, we love to learn about HR teams and work with HR teams, whether it is team building, team interventions, learning and development, HR compliance or development programs for your organization. We’re certainly here for you and we’d love to talk.
Jennings: Okay, great. And I will put a link to those on the show notes. Keri, Kelly, thank you for joining The HR Risk Podcast.
Guests: Thank you for having us.