Businesses live and die on the quality of their talent. How can you assure that you have the best talent for your company? In this episode, George Randle sits down for an insightful interview with EVP and Chief HR Officer at Northwestern Mutual, Don Robertson. Don and George talk about how Don got into the HR space and what he’s learned as an HR practitioner. Don also gives his insight on how managers impact talent development and why diversity and inclusion are important. Hear more talent insights from George and Don by tuning in to this episode.
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About Don Robertson
Don Robertson is an Executive Vice President and the Chief Human Resources Officer of Northwestern Mutual – a $30 billion in revenue, Fortune 90 financial services company; the largest U.S. provider of individual life insurance; and manager of more than $290.3 billion in policyholder assets.
Don is a catalyst of change within Northwestern Mutual, bringing a strategic mindset and a unique flair for identifying and developing talent to his role as CHRO.
Don understands how to meet the needs of a diverse workforce while employing strategic thinking to deliver real results for Northwestern Mutual, its workforce, and its clients. Benefitting from his varied experience as a leader in sales and finance as well as human resources, Don’s goal is to continue re-imagining how HR collaborates with other operational leaders to advance the goals of Northwestern Mutual and its workforce.
Prior to his role at Northwestern Mutual, Don developed workforces across the world at Hewlett-Packard Corporation, GE Capital, Stanford Research Institute, Apttus, and Sutherland Global Services, among others.
Don earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration from California State University in Fresno, where he currently serves on the Advisory Board for the Craig School of Business. Don also serves on the Boards of Directors for the Northwestern Mutual Foundation, Wisconsin Humane Society, and the Milwaukee Public Museum.
To learn more about Northwestern Mutual, visit NM.com.
Leading & Driving The Best Talent – How Your Company Wins With Don Robertson
I’ve had the great fortune of having some amazing guests. In this episode, I have a guy who has led by example and set the example for me that I had the great fortune to work with at HP. I’m in the gym five days a week. I’m on my bike on Saturday on the soccer field. I’m on email eighteen hours a day, and he still outpaces me. We’re pretty close to the same age, although I stopped counting at 50. I advised him to do the same. I don’t know if he listened to me.
When you get to work for great leaders, it’s a real gift in your career, and I certainly got to do that. I’m not going to give you the background on this amazing leader that he is the CHRO. It’s just leaders are leaders. They don’t need an adjective and a title. That’s the best intro I could give to somebody who has been a friend, coach, mentor and a hell of a boss. Don Robertson, welcome to the show.
Thanks, George. It’s great to be here. I haven’t stopped counting yet. I hit 60, believe it or not, in June 2021. I’m still doing the heavy insanity workouts. I don’t think I’m on email eighteen hours a day anymore. That’s the one advantage of not being with a crazy tech company.
That’s true but I don’t ever remember sending you an email or a text that wasn’t instantaneously received and I was anywhere on the globe at that time.
That’s still true.
I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near you if you’re answering texts in the middle of the night with Anne. She looks like she is great adult supervision for you. I’ll put it that way.
She makes me leave the phone in another room when we’re sleeping.
You guys have been together for what?
We started dating in 1986.
It’s the ultimate compliment. It’s the one thing that we have done well. We’ve married up, which was not expected of us. I tell people I’m getting better every year. They think that’s an ego-based statement but I’m like, “If you saw where I came from, you would know how true of a statement that is.” I don’t know if I got married out of love or sympathy but it worked out in my favor. I know that much.
Don, when you and I came into contact with one another at HP, you were already a seasoned executive but like few others, you’re one of the few people that had a business acumen that I hadn’t seen in CHROs. If you want, give us a thumbnail. I don’t think you started in HR. You ended up progressing that way, didn’t you?
Yes, correct. The first half of my career was not in HR. I started in finance accounting. I got an Accounting and Finance degree. I got my CPA with Deloitte way back. I started with them in the ’80s. I spent a number of years in what I would call the finance organizations, GE Capital is the name that most people would recognize, and then Stanford Research Institute, which was one of the great research institutes on tech. I like to say that Al Gore did not discover the internet but SRI did.
You’ve read it here, guys, definitive proof.
I can show you hypertext from Windows and other things from the 1950s. I moved into this and did some sales with HP. I was in sales before I went into HR. It’s a long story how I got into HR. The gist of it was this was right around the time when the HR function was starting to realize as a function that they needed to have people that understood the business as well as understanding the domain of HR. Fortunately, I got a chance to work with probably what I consider one of the greatest HR people I’ve ever known, Marcela Perez De Alonso. She recognized that I had a strong affinity for HR but also had the business and what I would call agility that she needed to help her transform the HR function at HP.
Were you like me at that moment where they’re talking to you about HR and you’re thinking, “Did I do something wrong? Why do you want me in HR?” That was my first thought but like I’ve said a bunch of times on this show and with the clients that I work with, that was a gift that I didn’t see coming when my career turned to HR. It brought me crossing paths with you and Tracy Keogh. I didn’t get to work with some of those leaders that you mentioned. They proceeded me but it was one of the greatest turns. Did they have to twist your arm or were you like, “This is the next new challenge and frontier where I can impact?” What was it for you?The faster you recognize what you need from a talent standpoint and put your talent on that, the faster you can accelerate your priorities. Click To Tweet
When I was in finance roles, a few times, I had HR reporting to me. It wasn’t my first exposure to HR. When they first approached me on it, it was predominantly because HP at that time was having some challenges in how they were doing sales, sales development, learning new development and Cisco was cleaning their clock. They wanted someone to help the HR function help the sales organization from a development standpoint. They wanted somebody with that kind of experience.
When I first went in, it was more of they’re loaning me into the function for a period of time to help grow and develop the sales organization. What happened is I got in it and I realized my business background, my experience and what I had done was advantageous. To be able to support as an HR leader for a function that you come from gives you an innate ability to understand the function in a way that, frankly, if you had never been in it, you wouldn’t understand.
If you have never carried a bag as a sales leader and had a quota and held those kinds of things, you’re not going to talk to those salespeople the way that I could because I understood the language, challenges and what they were going through. It gave me more credibility with them in terms of the ability to build that trusting relationship so I could have more of an impact as an HR leader.
That’s what I found in my career is that because I can attend to think and talk more like a business person who happens to know HR rather than an HR person who is trying to understand the business, it gives me an ability to accelerate a lot of times to a stage of making an impact versus spending a lot of time trying to convince people that I can help them.
When I made that transition to HR, I had come out of being a consultant in the defense space in KPMG Consulting. I was fortunate that I was turned around to be a resource manager and HR leader for the very same segment that I came from. They were like, “Do you know what we do?” I said, “Yes, I used to do what you did. Let’s figure out how to do this better together.”
It’s interesting that you say that you’re a business person doing HR because I don’t remember whether it was Tracy Keogh or Meg Whitman. 1 of the 2 of them was incessant. You were always like this. I knew you were like this with me. You have to be a student of the business. If you didn’t come from the business, you would better be a student of. Tracy was that way. She came from the business and then went into HR.
One of the things I didn’t add is the title of this show comes from the book, The Talent War: How Special Operations and Great Organizations Win on Talent. Don was a huge contributor to that. We had pages and pages. As a matter of fact, we spent time figuring out, “What is Don not going to be mad about that we leave out because there was such good material in there?”
Let’s turn it into that. When you now are that business person who knows HR and you’re working with the business, especially coming from sales, talent is everything. You must have had an entirely different eye on that talent as compared to your normal recruiting talent acquisition and HR business partner. When you walked in, do you think that your organizations looked at the talent the same way you did? Did you have to start to change mindsets about how they looked at great people?
One of the biggest challenges that businesses that I’ve been associated with always have been challenged with is businesses have very ambitious agendas and strategies. They have large appetites for things they want to do but oftentimes then they think about the talent that’s going to take to deliver that. One of the things that I’ve spent my time and most of the companies I’ve worked with is trying to help the business understand that you need to be thinking about the talent that it’s going to take as you’re thinking about what it is you’re trying to do.
Ideally, what you will do over time is build your organization to be a talent engine so that it becomes second nature, but there are foundational elements that you have to put in place around talent succession planning, rising star analysis, talent management to career growth and career development. You know those are the types of things that I’ve done in my career, putting in a system like Workday that allows you to even know who your talent is.
One of the most difficult things to help businesses understand is that the faster you can recognize what you need from a talent standpoint and put your talent on that, the faster you can accelerate your priorities. The more window you have that you allow yourself to have to what you’re going to need from talent, the faster you can start to deliver on your business strategies. Ultimately, what we have to do as businesses is to get away from requisitions and more instead of creating talent pools. Talent pools are things that you’re trying to accomplish.
For example, our company here now, we’ve got significant investments we’re making in technology, particularly significant investments we’re making in business initiatives to drive a better client and advisor experience. As a result of that, we need to do a lot of technological builds and other things client-wise. It requires a level of expertise technologically, subject-matter experts and a number of different things. The more that we can anticipate when we’re going to need those skills and how many, the faster we can start to build programs to put in place.
You can always hire externally but you also can build internal marketplaces. You can start to build internal processes so you can develop. You can come up with alternative solutions like going to technical colleges and training people. There are a lot of different levers you can pull. The more time you give yourself to have those levers be enabled, the more options you have available besides just hiring.
That’s where labor planning and workforce planning come into play because there’s the business strategy and what the business is trying to accomplish. There are investments the business wants to make. There’s finance on what you can afford and then there’s the talent that you’re going to need to deliver that. There are the talent strategies in between those two of how you’re going to address it.
I had come up with a quote and my co-author, Mike, has me saying that at every speech we make that you ought to be treating your human capital with the same rigor, focus and discipline that you do your financial capital. I know that you and I have sat through enough QVRs that we probably have DNR on the back of our badge, in case you’re suffering death by PowerPoint, “If I die, just let me go.”
When I was working with you, talent was always on my brain, “How are we doing it? What are the strategies? What is the workforce planning?” I remember working with Maneesh. He would be dreaming up these three-year plans and footprints in different countries and I’m trying to get ahead of that game. There are a lot of companies that don’t do that, that talent is an afterthought.
Let me digress a little bit. One of the statistics we came up with is that CHROs are paid 1/3 less than their C-Suite counterparts. They’ve been in many times resigned to compliance or overhead. One of the big things about the book is you don’t realize how valuable that HR can be and how critical it is. What would you say to companies that don’t put talent first? How do you start getting there? What would you recommend to the small to medium business that wants to be a Northwestern Mutual and the A-player on the block and leading the industry?
This goes without saying, “Whoever has the best talent is generally going to win.” We are in a talent war. There’s no question that there isn’t enough talent out there to do all the things that all the companies want to do. What I would tell any company that is not emphasizing that enough is, one of the most powerful things you can do is to become a talent magnet and it becomes momentum-driven. If you become a company that’s known to develop and grow talent and create opportunities for talent to develop and grow, you’re going to attract more of them.
There are a number of issues out there that companies are facing. It’s not just acquiring the right talent. It’s also now the talent needs to be diverse and have the right skillsets. There are a number of factors that come into play. It has got to be in the right location. Now that companies are allowing much more flexibility and remote capabilities, you’re going to have a challenge that anyone anywhere in the world can recruit your talent.
You can’t just be thinking about it from an acquisition standpoint. You also have to be thinking about it from a development, growth and retention standpoint. Therefore, it’s things like enabling your employees to have a career and achieve their lifetime dreams. It isn’t just a case where the company gets what it needs from the employee. The employee has to get what they need from the company and their own development as well.
There are two sides to this coin. Oftentimes, companies are simply thinking about the talent they need to deliver for them but if they don’t create an environment that allows the employee to benefit from that experience and grow and develop, you’re not going to develop and grow your talent. You’re not going to keep them.
If you’re in the business of constantly having to acquire talent because you’re losing them or you’re not attracting them, you’re going to eventually fall behind, whether it’s in how quickly you do things, the quality of what you do or the ideas you come up with. It’s no coincidence that the best talent generally works for the best companies and best leaders.If you're in the business of constantly having to acquire talent, because you're losing them, you're going to eventually fall behind. Click To Tweet
When we talk about leaders, one of the things that I’ve shared with companies or is an example that you give and many others have given, which is investing in your time and growing current leaders. For me, I remember the quote in the book and I believe it was you that was, “A-players want to work for A-players. A-players do not want to work for B-players.”
Outside of the talent acquisition space and creating talent pools, what do you say to the up-and-coming managers or the newly-minted managers or supervisors, people that are now in charge of developing others? What do you say to them where you are now? I know what you used to say to me and I always loved it. I was always picking up something good. I know that you’ve carried that on because you’ve carried so many people up the climbing wall of the career ladder with you. What is your best advice to the leaders and managers that are coming up to retain and develop those people?
One of the reasons that I have the attitude about is because I was fortunate enough to work with one of the great talent multipliers of all time in business, Jack Welch in GE. I remember that one of the things that imprinted on me early in my career was they used to evaluate senior leaders not just by the business performance but also by how many people are now in leadership positions across the organization that used to work for that person. They used to track that and give a lot of credit for that. I used to ask myself, “Why do you think that is?”
Ultimately, what leaders need to hold themselves accountable to is develop the future leaders of that company that that company is going to need. Oftentimes, managers, frankly, they’ve got their team. They have their top talent and they don’t want to let them go because they can’t think of, “How am I going to succeed without that top talent?” What you have to become is more of a thought about, “Your job is not to just deliver on what you’re doing now, but to develop people for the future and elevating in the organization.”
What I tell managers all the time is, “Your job is to be a talent multiplier.” I tell employees, “Your job is to own your career.” You need to be clear as an employee, what it is you want to accomplish in your career, the path that you want to go down, the skills and capabilities that you’re going to need to achieve that but your manager needs to work with you to chart out a path.
We’re in the wealth management business. Our whole mantra on Northwestern Mutual is about helping our clients develop a financial plan and then we help them execute against that. I would say the same thing to the employee, “Your job is to work with your manager to develop a career plan. Your manager’s job is to help you achieve that.”
Managers are the guides to their employees to achieve their career growth. If they do that, it means the person is performing. The company is benefiting but the individual is also benefiting. Therefore, you become an environment that’s known as developing talent. Any company that has the reputation and ability to be a talent engine is going to do a great job of recruiting and developing talent. That’s what I tell leaders. I try to tell it in a holistic way, “It’s not just to benefit you now. Your job is to develop the next generation of not just leaders but of talent.”
Believe it or not, I have lost every bit of sanity and Mike Cirelli talked me into a book too, which we’ll probably be talking to you about your sin. We’re already down the path. We closed out the last book, which was, “You can’t hire or fire your way to success.” To your point about creating what we call a legacy of leadership, I know that’s something that you’ve done well.
I had the good fortune to work with you and for you twice. I remember you were telling me about the people that I was going to interview. I was like, “I don’t have to worry. I interviewed you. How hard could they be?” I remember we were interviewing you for the book and you had some tough questions. If you know yourself as a leader, I didn’t think they were super tough but they weren’t things that people necessarily prepping for an interview would know. When you’re looking for talent, tell us what you’re digging into if you have to interview a person.
I don’t think it’s that unique. I try to get to know the person at an authentic level. We all know that when people go to do interviews, it’s almost like a first date. You wear your best clothes. You have your best personality on and your right smile. You’ve done all the things to get ready to make a first impression. What I try to do is get to the 3rd, 4th or 5th day when the person lets their hair down, “What are they about?” I typically try to ask about experiences that will cause that to go down because I’m ultimately trying to look for 3 or 4 things, as I told you guys when I met with you.
I’m obviously looking for intellect. The reason why I ask a lot of different questions in a lot of different ways is I’m trying to understand your intellect. A lot of the ways I test your intellect are the way you answer questions, the vocabulary you use and the way you think because I can’t make you smart. I can teach you a lot of things but I can’t teach you intelligence. It’s either you have it or you don’t.
I’m looking for somebody who has good energy because what we do is not easy and you need to have the energy, resilience and perseverance. I’m looking for somebody that has got good energy that they can overcome the obstacles that are going to come at them. I’m looking for someone who has a good attitude because nobody wants to work with people that are negative, especially in this day and age.
There are some underlying things I’m looking for. One is I’m looking for, “What difficulty or adversity have you dealt with in your life?” I believe if people have dealt with those things, they’re going to be much better equipped to be able to describe how they did it. It’s going to be much more applicable to what’s going to be difficult at work. There’s nothing that you’re going to be trying to take on from a challenge at a business level that is going to go from A to Z in a straight line. You have to have resilience.
Those are the things I look at. I also look for somebody who has got the agility to me and flexibility because, oftentimes, you’re going to need to pivot. One of the most powerful things I look for is someone who can demonstrate what I call contextual intelligence. In other words, it’s the ability to rapidly use the skills and experiences you’ve established in your life to new sets of issues but that you draw upon to problem-solve your way through those things.
An example of that is sometimes how it can be difficult. You know how to drive the car that you’re driving. You know how to get to work every day. You know the route you take but if I took you and dropped you in the middle of the Amazon with a car on the other side of the road and told you to go to X, you still know how to drive a car and read a map but you’re not going to be as good at it. Once you’ve done it after a week or two in that same location, all of a sudden, you start to master it.
The more that we’ve had experiences in life that allow us to master certain types of skills, the faster you’re going to be able to assimilate to whatever new environment you’re in. The more of those experiences that you’ve had, especially unconventionally, the more that I can get confidence in how you’re going to think and operate. That’s what I try to get to, is get people to not give me those pat answers but they have to think from their experiences how they would operate.
There’s nothing worse than candidates and worst when I’ve interviewed executives that tap dance or they’re dancing around it. How much importance do you place on digging into a potential or a candidate who has failed? How do you look at that? If people were going to tap dance on a question, it’s usually the weakness question, the failure or whatever form that that comes in. How do you dig into finding that resilience and discussing failure with people you consider to work there?
I’ve tried a lot of different techniques over the years. The one that I’ve landed on that works best is I start the question by describing a failure that I’ve had. I make it okay to talk about a real failure because we all get these questions, “Tell me something that didn’t work. Tell me a difficult person. How would you make it work?” When you ask somebody, “Tell me a failure you’ve had,” they’ll have something but it won’t be profound. People aren’t going to generally tell you, “I got fired for X.”
We’ve all had failures. I have failed numerous times in my career. Fortunately, I’ve had opportunities to resurrect. When you use that as an example of what you’ve done and that’s where you failed on something and it’s real, profound and authentic, I found that it tends to draw people out. Unless they’re right out of college, they’re lying because I don’t know anyone that has gone through life and never had a failure.
The failure could be as simple as, “I did this decision. I did this thing and I screwed up. I made the wrong call. I misread the situation.” I’m not talking about, “I missed the deadline by a couple of days.” I’m talking about, especially in our function, you completely blew a tough conversation or you got yourself in trouble with somebody and ended up suing the company and you didn’t handle it well. I’m talking about some significant stuff because most people that I’m going to be interviewing with have had those kinds of things. It’s okay that you’ve had those kinds but what did you learn from it? What are you going to do differently?Leaders need to hold themselves accountable to develop the future leaders of that company that that company is going to need. Click To Tweet
I’ve been asked it in so many different ways. What was interesting is I was coming up probably the mid-level manager. I wanted to soften the blow of that failure in my answer. For some reason, the more senior I got, it finally clicked in my head. I don’t know at what point. I wish I could remember but it was like, “They need to see the authentic me. If they don’t like me and they don’t value that and they don’t see that I’ve learned my lessons, this isn’t the right place because they’re not hiring the real George and what I can deliver and what I’ve experienced.”
I became more authentic as I got older and I would say, “Here’s what I was thinking. I brought too much ego to the table. I completely over-rotated on that conversation. I was too aggressive on that decision when I didn’t need to make it for about another two weeks. I should have gathered more data,” or whatever it was but I liked that. I’m going to start teaching that. I’ll give you due credit and make sure that you share your own first.
Somebody asked me, “We talk in general terms about developing talent but do you have any specific tips as to how they would develop that talent?” One of the things is we put such an emphasis that you have to develop your talent but many times, they don’t see it from great leaders. Are there certain things that you hold dear that are in your muscle memory that, “If I’m developing somebody, these are the things I’m going to do?”
It’s something that a lot of people leaders could benefit from understanding. You have to approach the folks that you’re privileged to have worked for you. You have to realize that you own a tremendous gift of their career in your hands. There’s a reason why people have worked for me now in 3, 4 or 5 companies and it’s because they believe that I looked at it that way. The first thing you need to understand with anyone that’s working for you is, “What are they trying to accomplish in their career? Where do they want to go? What do they want to be?”
It’s not what they want to be when they grow up because it’s not about a specific job, “Do you want to be a senior leader? Do you want to be in this area?” Every conversation I have with that person is to help them achieve that. The key is then to figure out, “How do you use the experiences that they will experience working for you and the things that they do every day to deliver for you but also deliver for them?”
For example, if I’m talking to somebody on my team and I know they want to eventually have my job and we’ve sat down and looked at the experiences that they’re going to need and the gaps that they have then every time we have a conversation, I can direct it to, “This is something that you need to work on if you’re going to do that someday. We need to figure out a way to get you this experience. I’m going to put you on this project so you can build some of that. You can get this kind of exposure because this person is going to be a key decision-maker on whether or not you could do that someday. We want to get you the right exposure.”
What I like to call it is career conversations with an intention. Every single person that works for me, every time I interact with them, I’m always thinking in the back of my head, “She wants that job. I’m going to give her that feedback.” When she is making this presentation to me, I know it’s a good presentation for her level but if she wants to be at my level, she is going to get questions asked this way or that way. I’ll ask, “Have you thought about this?” She will be like, “No.” “When you go present to these guys at this level, they’re going to ask that so you need to think about that.”
I feel it’s my responsibility to help prepare them for what they’re trying to achieve in their career and create an environment and experiences that give them the opportunity to hone those skills. You’re not going to get to where you want to get to in your career because you’re going to get trained. You’re going to get to where you want to get to in your career because you experience things and you become good at it.
It’s a great example. I was thinking of the great Caroline Atherton, if you remember her.
I remember Caroline.
It was when Nancy was the Head of Enterprise Services at that time and I was preparing a deck. I said, “Okay.” She was like, “I want to see this.” I gave it to Caroline. It came back with changes, “Make those changes. Go back to Caroline.” It came back 3 or 4 times. She goes, “I’m not looking at this again. Get on the phone.” We were using BlueJeans at that time and she said exactly that.
She said, “This is not crisp. You are taking five slides to say what you could say in one. Do you think I show five slides to Tracy, Meg or whomever?” I was like, “No, Caroline. All right. I got it.” I remember the word and it stuck in my head to this day, crisp. I don’t know why Caroline is in my head to this day on that one particular term. Who do you count as people other than Jack Welch? Did anybody come to mind who invested in you and your career and giving you good advice?
There are a number of people. The one thing I will tell you is nobody achieves things in life, and certainly I haven’t without the help of a number of folks. Marcela was somebody who believed in me and Bina Chaurasia on her team. Bina was at PepsiCo and was Head of HR at Ericsson and is now doing a large private company. She believed in me when I was coming out of the business into HR. I had no business being at the level I was at because I came over to a pretty high level but she knew I had the raw attributes.Employees, your job is to work with your manager to develop a career plan. Your manager's job is to help you achieve that. Click To Tweet
In fact, one of the things about the chef versus the baker is Bina was a great example of that. There’s nothing on paper that would have said that I should have been the Head of HR for HR. I’ve never had an HR job. I had not done HR strategy but I had all the attributes. I understood organizations’ org design and how to deliver to the business. She took me and made me the Head of HR for HR when I had no business. I owe her a tremendous amount.
Tracy taught me a lot about interacting with boards at the board level and those levels. That was a big support. Without her support, I don’t think I would have been there. Business leaders, John Hinshaw, Mike Nefkens, Meg and Mark Hurd. These were some capable people. I remember when you had to go present to Mark Hurd, you better be speaking at crisp. The best piece of advice I ever got was when you go to present to a CEO or a board, put the most important stuff on the first slide because you may not get off of that slide.
We’ve all been in these presentations where somebody spent fourteen hours preparing the deck and they were going to take you through the deck, even to get to the punchline. I tell my team all the time, “Tell me the punchline and if I have questions but don’t take me through the pain.” That was a big one. I learned that from going to Mark. When I went in to present to him, he would be like, “What slide do you care about?” I would be like, “Slide four.” He said, “Let’s go to that.” I learned from there on, slide 4 became slide 1. If I never got off of it, that was fine.
I used to teach something. I remember I was a young officer. For whatever reason, all of my seniors that were supposed to present to the generals were absent that day when I had to brief a three-star general. I had a major pull me aside and he said, “Be good, be brief, be gone.” That was it. I was like, “I could do that.” I got to slide two and I got pummeled. I answered the questions, gave my pint of blood and got off the stage right. I survived to fight another day, as they say.
Two more things before I finally get to the wrap-up question. You mentioned diversity. In the previous episode to this, I had Lisa Schreiber on who is the Chief Customer Success Officer at BlackLine and Myrna Soto. I did the offers on both. I recruited them both. Unbelievable. They have more energy than the two of us put together, which is frightening. They are some high-paced and solid leaders.
Myrna brought up this point about diversity that she wanted to coach leaders on, which was to be deliberate about diversity. You’re leading, guiding, coaching and mentoring how you develop, attract and source talent. How do you look at diversity for the benefit of all of the people, both at work for you and the millions of clients that you have? I know it’s got to play in how you approach things. What’s your particular view?
First of all, you need to institutionalize the way you do your talent so that diversity is at the forefront of anything you do. You and I both used to do services business. You remember the old days when the company would sell a product and then they would try to bolt on the services as an afterthought. The biggest thing when I think about diversity is it can’t be a bolt-on. It has to be threaded in what you do.
You have to mainstream the way you think about diversity. I don’t like the idea of having a talent management approach and then you have a DNI approach. I like to think of it as our talent management approach has to have the DNI lens pulled through it. Anytime we’re doing slating or talent management, it’s got to have that DNI lens then and there, not afterward and you don’t like the outcomes and you try to go back and reconstruct something.
When I look at the percentage of people that are top talent and at certain levels, everything we do is directionally to try to make sure that our workforce is consistent with the diversity goals that we have. The mechanisms to create that in how we promote, retain, acquire and develop are all consistent. We’re very data-driven. One of the first things I did when I got here was put in place metrics that we would put in our bonus programs to make sure we achieve our diversity goals.Nobody achieves things in life without the help of a number of folks. Click To Tweet
I knew that if we were very intentional about what we were trying to do then we would mechanize all the pieces in place underneath it to make it happen. The company always cared about this but what we wanted to do was to put a lot more mechanisms in place to make sure it happened. The number one thing I would leave you with is diversity and inclusion cannot be a hobby and a separate thing. It has to be threaded in your mainstream of what you do for talent.
I was talking to a big client. I was up in Dallas and I said, “There are so many people that do approach it as a bolt-on. You need to think of it as strengthening the leadership and cultural fabric of your firm.” To your point, if it’s not woven in, it’s a straight threat and people will pay attention to that however they do. I have two last questions. I’m going to give them both to you in advance because it’s not a got you.
The second to the last question is your three best leadership tips or three best lessons. The final question before I close out is if you could go back and tell 22-year-old accounting finance, Don Robertson, what to do differently that would have accelerated your career, made your career easier, made it better and allowed you to take care of more people, what would that advice be?
The reason for that question is you’ve been great at giving back and helping people along. I have tried to model that from all of the leaders like you and the generals, Tracy, Caroline, Tom and a whole bunch of people that I’ve worked with over the years. I feel like this is debt that I have to pay to people. Because so many people invested in me, I’ve got to pay it to others twice as much. That’s the context of the question. Before that, three great leadership pearls of wisdom?
I don’t know about pearls of wisdom. Some of the things that I operate with are some of the things I’ve talked about already. First and foremost, make sure that you spend a lot of time with the people that manage your people. To me, if you don’t have your people managers on board with what you’re trying to do, if you’re in any kind of company where you’ve got a large organization, you’re not going to communicate effectively to the people on the ground. You cannot townhall your way to change management. The people leaders have to be an extension of the leadership teams.
It’s incredible to me how often companies don’t think about that and how often they don’t spend time with their people managers, helping their people managers understand what they’re expected to do, what they need to do and spend time talking to them. That’s one thing. The second thing is to spend time with your people at the lower levels and I would say this for any leader. What was striking to me is how well a lot of our leaders know the people that they come in contact with regularly but how great the talent was down in the organization that we didn’t know very well.
When we started to put in place a lot of these mechanisms around talent management, talent development and career path, what wonderful talent we had that was down in the organization that we probably didn’t know as well as we should have known. Get to know your talent down in the organization because there’s an incredible amount of talent down there. The faster you get to know them, the faster you can help them accelerate their career and give them exposure. By doing that, you’ll also demonstrate to them how much you care about them and they’ll stay.
If you start to look at the percentages of people when they leave a company, most of your attrition comes from people that are down in the organization. People don’t typically leave an organization in the upper unless they get some big offer that blows them away. Where you lose most of the time is your 5 to 10-year rock stars who look ahead and they don’t see the opportunity and somebody calls them. The next thing you know, they’re jumping at something when you probably could have had great opportunities for them had you been intentional about it.
The third thing is to try to give your employee base as much context as you possibly can. Don’t shortcut how transparent you need to be with your employees about why you’re doing what you’re doing and as quickly as you can. It’s amazing to me. If you allow yourself as a company to be vulnerable, honest, open and transparent with your employees, they will be much more willing to work with you and wait for you.
The one thing I’ve learned is if you don’t give them the information, they’ll fill it in with things. It’s oftentimes not what you want them to fill it in with. You’re playing catch-up to try to change it around. I could give you the standard things with leadership, “Be honest and humble,” but I thought I would try to give you things that were a little bit unique, maybe to some of the experiences.
They’ve been great. You have some people reading and I know they do want to read. All of those things that you’re crystallizing are all the things that you gave to me when I was in my role. One of the things that, for those people reading, talent acquisition wasn’t at the table in enterprise services until you came along. You are the only person I knew that viewed it as an ecosystem.
I’ve used the analogy for those people that are pro-football or soccer but there are not too many soccer fans, except Mike Cirelli, who reminds me all the time. Could you imagine Bill Belichick andy Reid or Bruce Arians who said, “Special teams aren’t important. We’re going to focus on the defense and the offense. Whatever happens with special teams, we’ll just deal with.” It’s about the ecosystem and the full team that you put together. You can’t ignore any piece of that.
You’ve had some amazing insights. You got to go back and tell Don, 22 years old, after so many years of great wins and failures that you learned from, all of those things. What are some of the things you wish you would have knocked out of your head much earlier on that you would share with people who look at you, look at me and look at a lot of the people on your team and my team and say, “I want to rise to that level at some point. How do I get there faster, better and easier?” What would you tell yourself?
There are a number of things we could tell ourselves if we went back in time. One thing I would tell you is to be a lot more humble and willing to listen to other people’s points of view. I’ve been doing this for many years and last time I checked, I still haven’t cornered the market on all the great ideas. The one thing I would tell myself early in my career is to be a lot more willing to get a lot of smart people together to come up with ideas. Don’t think you have them all yourself.
One of the things when I came here, I was good at what I did but when I got here, I realized that there are still probably some smart people here. Maybe it might be good to pick their brains for some ideas as well. What we’ve accomplished here is remarkable. We did it as a team and because I have a lot of smart people around me. The one thing I would tell myself at 22 is, “Don’t try to do it all by yourself. Leverage a lot of smart people. Build those key relationships early.”
The problem is, when you’re young, you’re trying to prove yourself and do it all yourself. You think you’ve got it all figured out. Many of us have kids that think they know. I love it when my son tells me, “Do you don’t understand, dad?” I’m like, “I don’t.” There are a lot of things you can learn by getting together people. The biggest lesson I would tell you is to get to know the people that think differently than you and that disagree with you often. If you could become good at understanding different perspectives, people’s points of view and approaches, it’s going to make you more effective later on in life.
Even to this day, the biggest challenge you face when you’re my age is leaders who think differently than you and how you convince them. If you learn early in your career how to influence those kinds of people or at least how to understand them better so you can speak a common language, it’s a very powerful thing. It’s a skill I’ve developed now but it wasn’t one I had in most of my career and it would have benefited me tremendously. Those are a few of the nuggets in terms of what I might do differently.
I love that because when I looked back and I came out as a fresh newly-minted officer, I went to Berlin. I had fewer pointers there. My first thought was to throw my chest out, yell louder and I would lead with ego. You’re right. That still resonates with me. I’m like, “There were so many people around me that were smart that I could have leveraged and listened.” It’s great advice.You need to institutionalize the way you do your talent so that diversity is at the forefront of anything you do. Click To Tweet
If I get back in the game, I’m giving you a call. The team that you’ve got there, I know it’s Kelly. You’re assembling A-players, and no doubt I walked into a bunch of A-players with the reputation of Northwestern Mutual. I know your schedule is busy. I can’t thank you enough for all that you’ve done for me, helping us with the book and then taking time out of your day-to-day. I appreciate it. Give my best to the family. I look forward to talking to you again soon.
Thanks, George. Take care.
- Don Robertson
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