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Episode 2: HR Guru Dave Ulrich

For the second episode of “Everything Thought Leadership,” our video + podcast series, Bob sits down with Dave Ulrich, an internationally renowned expert on managing people.

Dave, a partner in the RBL Group consulting firm, has published over 30 books on leadership, organization, and human resources. These ideas have shaped how people and organizations deliver value to customers, investors and communities. He has consulted and done research with over half of the Fortune 200 and worked in over 80 countries.  He has received numerous public recognitions and lifetime awards for his work.

In this discussion, he recounts his unlikely path to becoming a thought leader (starting with a college paper based on “Paradise Lost”), and shares advice for others who aspire to thought leadership in their own fields.  Some important takeaways: Bring a learner’s mindset to the quest. Figure out how your passion can create value for others. Consider failure as part of the process and embrace it. Don’t rest on your past achievements; strive for the next frontier of insight.  And focus on small ideas that can have impact rather than grand ideas that never take off.

Bob interviewed Dave on January 14, 2022.  

Listen to the Podcast


Generating Ideas with Impact:

A Conversation with Dave Ulrich

Bob: Dave, so you’ve had a long and illustrious career in consulting on leadership, corporate culture, transformation of the HR function and other issues. When you look back at your career, what do you think are the key elements of getting to the top of your profession over that time?

Dave: Well, Bob, first of all, you’re very kind to spend some time with me, I should be interviewing you. You are the thought leader of thought leaders, as you’ve done your book and other work and have such good ideas. But I hope we can make this an interaction so that we learn from each other.

I have two values that drive my thinking. The first is, I want to learn. That involves curiosity, inquisitiveness, observing, putting myself in front of stuff that I don’t understand. Don’t go solve a problem I’ve solved 50 more times. I don’t want to give the same talk.

Number two is creating value for others. For me, the ultimate value of learning is not what I know but how what I know will help somebody else get better. My PhD is in taxonomy, which is the science of simplicity. My simple test of a leader is this: when you leave an interaction with one, do you feel better or worse about yourself?

What a simple test, Bob. I’ve had a dozen interactions with you over the last few months as you’ve done your book and your work. Every time I leave, I’ve got ideas. I feel like wow, that was helpful. I learned something. That’s the test. So for me, the two things that drive me are: Am I learning? And is my learning helping somebody else get better?

Build on your strengths so that they’ll strengthen someone else. Use your power to empower others.

A Hunger for Learning

Bob: Like other people at the top of this thought leadership profession that I’ve met over the years, you share this hunger for learning, of believing that there is so much more to be learned, even just in the domains in which you have been for years.

Dave: What does leadership look like? We’ve seen the command and control type like in the military, where we created leaders. Now we have a hybrid workforce. So what does leadership look like when you’re in one country and I’m in another country? And how do you lead in a distributed way?

I think the challenge is that learning requires putting yourself in new positions to observe. I’ll give one example. I think Tom Peters did some great work with Bob Waterman [the authors of the blockbuster 1982 business book “In Search of Excellence”] with “managing by wandering around.” They looked at Hewlett Packard, whose headquarters was near where Peters was, at Stanford (University in Palo Alto, Calif.) And so he went to Hewlett Packard. They did managing by wandering around.

Well, guess what: you can’t do that in a remote workforce. In fact, if you were trying to do managing by wandering around, we’re going to turn our camera on your house … randomly to see what you’re doing. That’s an invasion of our privacy.

So what do you do? I think that’s a great question. I love thought leadership [that] says, “Managing by wandering around doesn’t work. So what do you do to build informal relationships?”

I started calling it “management by checking in.” One leader calls her employees once a week for 10 minutes. And it’s prohibited to talk about work. When you get on the phone with someone, the first question is not “Where are you?” It’s not “What’s going on with work?” It’s “What’s going on in your life?”

You formally check in to manage the informal relationship. Managing by wandering around was a great idea. But it doesn’t work today in the way that it may have worked another time. So how do you think about what’s next? That’s what I love to do: just take stuff that doesn’t work and evolve it, build on it.

Ideas with Impact

Bob: Looking at this decade, do you see the need for big and beneficial ideas in your domain? Or do you think there are a lot of good ideas already out there, and not enough companies applying them?

Dave:  Well, we did a book called “Organizational Learning Capability.” I guarantee nobody’s seen it because it didn’t sell. But the subtitle was to “Generating and Generalizing Ideas With Impact.” You generate an idea, then you generalize. And here’s the key: ideas with impact. I love that term.

I have spent a lot of my life with ”ideas” in big neon letters, and then “impact” was with a small “I”. Today I’m willing to go a little lower on the neon ideas and a little bigger on the small impact idea. Because if a tree falls in the forest, and nobody heard it — if you’ve got a great idea, but it has no impact – that’s going to be a closed loop.

I’m getting more intrigued than ever, with not just the quality of ideas, which have to be good, but also the impact of those ideas and how they create value for others.

“The Next Dave Ulrich?”

Bob: Dave, Let’s look at your field — the people who are professors, consultants, the 25-year-old consultant who is working at a big or small firm and wants to explore the areas that you’ve been exploring for many years. If they want to be the next Dave Ulrich, what would you advise them to do?

Dave: Change their goal. Don’t become the next Bob: Become your own identity. I remember when I started teaching at the University of Michigan, people would say, “Well, you should be doing this, this and this when you teach.” And I said, “Then I’d be doing what you do. I don’t want that. I want to do what I do.”

And so I hope the next 25-year-old would just say, “What’s my passion?” It’s okay to have different passions. It’s okay to say, “I want to deliver something.” That’s a great career. It’s okay to say, “I want to go create something.” What are my strengths? What are my interests?” And that goes far back.

When I was younger, I was going to be an attorney because that sounded really good. I took a course from a mentor. His name was Bonner Ritchie.  He taught a course called “Organizational Behavior” before it was a very common term. I came into the class and he said, “I don’t have anything required. Go look at the organizations where you live, where you work, where you worship, where you play. Figure out how they affect your life. Read a novel, write a book, write an article about it.”

This man captured my imagination. I was an English major on the way to law school. I read “Paradise Lost” and wrote a paper on it. In fact, my first paper was called “William Foote Whyte, The Ideal Organizational Man,” as evidenced in Beelzebub, “Paradise Lost.” I shouldn’t confess this, but I turned in that paper to both my English professor and to Bonner.

My English professor said, “That’s really weird.” Bonner said, “That’s phenomenal. Do another one.” I wrote 15 10-page papers for him on books and on movies, and I studied organizations.

My wife tells me I have OCD — not obsessive compulsive disorder, but organizational compulsive disorder. I still have it. I’d ask the 25-year-old: Who are you? What is it you’re going to do? And then pursue that passion, and find out what you can contribute. I’ve done that and it hasn’t always been easy. It doesn’t it doesn’t always result in tenure at great universities. It doesn’t always get papers accepted, but it’s what drives me to learn, to create value.

Passion, Impact and Rigor

Dave: If you’re passionate, you’ll stick with it even without the money. I remember teaching MBA students a long time ago. When I asked if they wanted an MBA from a top university so they could make more money, they’d all raise their hands. I would say, “You’re in the wrong program. If you want to make money, go sell drugs. You’ll go to jail, but you’re gonna get rich. This is not about money. And it’s about the passion for the ideas that will have impact, because you’re going to fail. Sometimes our ideas just won’t work.

A quick anecdote. I was working with a 50,000-person company. They had put together vision, values, goals, objectives, priorities, aspirations; they had a statement with six of those things and 35 terms. They put it on a video, and they overnighted it to all 50,000 people the week before I showed up, and they were so proud. I said, “What do you think happened to those 50,000 overnight packages? How many people said, ‘Oh my goodness, thank you, corporate manna from heaven. I’m going to open it up, I’m going to read it, I’m going to memorize those 35 words.’”

I told them, you know what you’ve created? Concept clutter and “SPOTS,” Strategic Plan on Top Shelf. And they looked at me and said, that doesn’t feel good. And I said, I’m not trying to make you feel good. I’m trying to help you have an impact. My one-day consulting ended at noon, and they invited me not to come back. That felt really bad at the time. My colleague told me to just tell them what they wanted to hear, but that’s not who I am. And it was a failure on many dimensions; I’m not even sure they paid the fee. But it taught me to help clients look at impact, not just ideas.

You also need some rigor. A student could ask an IT professor, “How do I get my app to change the world? What can you do to get me rich, so I can be the next great scientist?” And the IT professor should tell him or her, “learn how to code.” But the student typically doesn’t want to code. You got to build the basics: theory, research, observation.

The people who are really true thought leaders don’t just randomly do it. Mike Hammer (with CSC Index, creator of the blockbuster reengineering concept) was a good theorist. He knew how to do research. He knew how to do that cycle and spiral to keep learning. Get the basics under your belt. It helps.

What’s Most Misunderstood about Thought Leaders

Bob: Hammer realized there were no shortcuts to coming up with big ideas. That leads to this question: What do people who aspire to be thought leaders, and often the big firms that they work for, misunderstand about what’s required to attain that status?

Dave: Lots of people have good observations, but they don’t have insights. Thought leadership is going from an observation to the rigor of an insight. If you’re going to be a thought leader, make ideas your friends.

Get those ideas to become almost like holograms at a Disney “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride. Just look at that idea, study its theory…why does it exist? What’s the research? What’s the evidence?

I bet Mike Hammer lived with the ideas around reengineering for a long time before they gelled and became the tools that he had.

Bob: In fact, they did.

In the last year of his life in 2008, he brought me and a colleague in to [talk about] helping market his firm, Hammer and Company. His request was to a give him a proposal. He said, “I want to be known as Mr. Process — the person who turned the business world upside down by looking at organizations as a series of cross-functional business processes, as opposed to a bunch of silos of marketing, sales, distribution, etc. That’s what I want to be known for.”

We asked him, “Is there anything else you want to be known for?” He got quite defensive. He said, “You think reengineering has run its course? Has operational transformation run its course? Look at the technology.”

This was 2008. Look at the technology around us – [especially] the internet. He said companies haven’t begun to tap the potential of [that era’s] technology, much less the technology that was going to follow.

Dave:  You know, isn’t it sad that people like Mike Hammer and CK Prahalad and Jay Galbraith and other iconic thought leaders aren’t alive today? I don’t think Steve Jobs would be doing today what he did in 2010. I don’t think Mike Hammer would be doing reengineering.

CK was one of my mentors. He always pushed us [to explore] what’s next. I hope if you’re 25 or if you’re a company that is trying to build thought leadership, don’t look back on what you did. Envision forward, go explore.

One of my friends is the head of R&D at Nike. He has 600 people reporting to him and tons of research, budgets, clothes, shoes, etc. Four days a year, he spends a day just wandering, in a place like New York City. And he says those four days are probably some of the most critical for thought leadership. [He] has no schedule, no statistics, [he[ just goes and sees, and then filter.

I encourage companies that want to be thought leaders to build a culture where that’s okay. 3M did that, and Google. Make time to explore, to try new things, and be delighted when something doesn’t work.

Bob, you’ve been around thought leaders; you studied thought leadership; you’re the thought leader on thought leaders. What advice would you give that 25-year-old?

Bob: I would say something very similar to what you said about passion: What problem in the world do you want to solve? Or at least you want to play a nice role in addressing? Second, don’t underestimate the amount of time it’s going to take to understand what the best companies at solving this issue today are doing.

It’s often not easy to find the people in the company who really understand what the magic is internally. This is the kind of research that needs to be done at a large scale, in order to have a chance to shed new and important light on better ways of addressing problems in the world. And that’s why I say that there are no shortcuts to it. So if somebody tells me they want to be a thought leader on an issue in six months, I tell them, ‘Good luck.’

Making Sense of Complexity

Dave: A lot of people just want to be simplistic: here’s the problem; here’s the solution. Well, that’s not going to be sustainable; simplistic answers don’t work very well. People have come to me and said, “Dave, you need to lose weight, you need to eat less.” Wow, let me write that down. “You need to exercise more.” Whoa, I got two for two. “You need to eat healthy food.” You’re three for three. That’s useless. Complexity is critical.

Progress (in making sense of complexity) doesn’t require perfection. What’s important is to get out of your comfort zone, observe, relax, observe, act agilely. Take a risk. Try something again. And finally, renew. What did I learn? I see people getting uptight; they don’t want to relax or calm down. This isn’t going to get solved today. Observe, organize, see the world … what other people did not see. Act, adapt with agility, and then finally renew, reinvent and keep that cycle going.

Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “If you don’t get to the other side of complexity, you’re never going to be successful.” I think that’s where true thought leadership is. It’s not simplistic, or getting lost in the complexity. It’s turning that complexity into some daily choices.

I think that occurs not just in in our field in management, but also in life. Reading 37 books about relationships won’t work. So my advice to those individuals is to get a good question that you can be passionate about. For me, it’s about how you create organizations that succeed in the marketplace. Get broad, and then get focused.

What Comes Next

Bob: Last question: What are the issues this decade that you are most interested in studying, writing about or consulting on? What would you like to be known for this decade that you weren’t known for in the last few decades?

Dave: So what I’m intrigued with right now is, when you look at a company, how do you have the right talent, organization, leadership and HR systems in place? I’m calling that domain “human capability.” Human is the people, capabilities is your organization, leadership is your HR. For example, in the United States, the SEC required a year ago that you report human capital. So 7,000 companies in 2021 reported [on their] human capital. They didn’t have a framework. We looked at those reports; some were 200 words talking about how “our people are our most important asset.” Others had 2000 words: “Here’s our safety protocols. Here’s our unionization. Here are all the metrics.”

I would love to give the world a framework. By the way, I’m going to get emotional about this: Human capital should be part of every SEC report, every investor discussion, every board meeting. Do you have the right talent, organization leadership and HR systems? That’s it. Can Dave help create a human capability in organizations so that people are more productive and have better mental health, so that the business strategy happens, so that customers are delighted, so that investors have confidence in intangibles, and our community reputation and social citizenship is increased?

Those four dimensions — talent, organization, leadership and HR — they drive outcomes. And that’s what we’re trying to sort out. I get excited about that,

Bob: Like a balanced scorecard, but for people.

Dave: In fact, the balanced scorecard starts out really good. You have the financials, the customer, but then you get into that process piece. And you go, what’s that? Well, it’s talent, organization, leadership and HR. So let’s clarify that third segment. And let’s not just have financial results and customer results. Let’s have social citizenship results.

Closing Thoughts

Dave: Some prophets tell people they will go to hell if they don’t repent. Other prophets tell people what heaven looks like and give them a pathway to get there. I hope thought leaders are not the first kind. I hope thought leaders are saying, “Here’s what we can create, through organizations that win by learning, by being creative. Let us discover together how to get there.”

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