Be More is a weekly one-on-one podcast about how everyone can thrive in the new world of work, hosted by Workday’s Patrick Cournoyer. This week: Lars Schmidt, Founder & Principal at Amplify, joins us to share why we need to redefine HR to focus more on business objectives, examples of HR teams working in innovative ways, and whether the HR function is becoming more or less relevant.
Lars is the founder of Amplify and the author of a recently released book entitled Redefining HR: Transforming People Teams To Drive Business Performance. He is also the host of the Redefining HR Podcast.
"I think it’s a great time to retire the phrase 'future of work.'"
Lars Schmidt Founder & Principal Amplify
Patrick: Welcome to Be More, a podcast by Peakon. Disrupting the status quo has always had an appeal to me. I have gravitated towards working at organizations that have a fresh and forward-thinking perspective. I’m inspired by others that share this passion. Lars Schmidt is joining our conversation today. He has a fresh outlook from so many perspectives. He’s the founder of Amplify. He’s also the author of a recently released book titled Redefining HR. He’s also the host of the Redefining HR podcast. Lars believes that the future of work is not in the future. It’s actually now, and I couldn’t agree more. Lars, thank you for joining me today.
Lars: Yes, Patrick. Thanks so much for having me on. It’s good to be here.
Patrick: Great. You’re a podcasting pro as well. We’re going to go switch the roles a little bit.
Lars: Pro is generous, but I’ll take it.
Patrick: All right, cool. You get to be the one being interviewed. Let’s start out with this. Future of work being now as opposed to being in the future. I think that is a bold statement. It’s a very honest and real statement. I could not agree with you more. Tell our audience a bit about why you feel that way.
Lars: I think as an industry, we’ve been infatuated with the concept of future of work for years. Even before 2020, I started souring on the term because, for me, I think that it became a crutch for our industry to look at some of these opportunities to reinvent ourselves and our business and our operations and our practices and our technology, as the thing that we’ll get to in the future, as opposed to actually address right now. I think that 2020, in particular, obviously, has been a massive catalyst that propelled our companies and our practices forward in ways like nothing we’ve experienced.
For me, I think it’s a great time to actually retire the phrase ‘future of work’. I’ve personally done that. I used to use the phrase a lot because I think it’s an abdication of our responsibility to seize this moment and make real and lasting change now. I’m excited about the potential of what we have as an industry if we really do move away from our gradual, incremental evolution and take some leaps forward that 2020 gives us the great springboard to do.
Patrick: That’s a good way to shape this conversation because here we are at the start of 2021 and we just closed this chapter in 2020, a challenging year for all of us in so many different ways. To your point, we have this amazing opportunity ahead of us, not only as organizations but as individuals. I think we all have the opportunity to look at how we want to be in 2021, how we want to show up, really, as people and also as organizations, and how we can take those leaps forward.
One of those leaps that you talk about and I’d love to get your perspective on is this idea about the evolution of HR and how HR is becoming so much more business-focused, as opposed to transactional. I was an HR practitioner for many years. There’s always this transactional side that has to be done, but there’s this new horizon that is here for HR, where it’s truly becoming an important part of business success and a strategic part of businesses. How do you see HR progressing and leaping forward when it comes to being more business-focused, as opposed to transactional?
Lars: I think if you look at the progressive sect of HR, the modern wing of the field, it’s a business function. That’s not to say that people practicing HR back in the day weren’t business-minded. Many of them probably were, but I think that the field of HR in large part was somewhat insular. It was the field that you came into at some point earlier in your career as an associate and you progressed to manager and director and VP and you finally got that CHRO seat. For many operators and leaders in HR, they hadn’t spent any time in other areas of the business. Their HR acumen was very deep. Their business acumen often is not as much.
I think if you look at the field today, really, again, focused on the modern wing of the field, it’s very different. You’ve got people in the CPO, chief people officer or CHRO seat from different areas of the business bringing marketing expertise, bringing technology expertise, bringing financial acumen into that role. You’ve got lots of people moving into the field broadly from design, from creative. We’ve gotten much more sophisticated with branding and employer brand. We’ve got marketing capabilities. We’ve got data analytics capabilities into our people analytics functions. The field of HR has been infused with all of these different disciplines and skill sets from outside of what is historically considered HR.
I think that that has radically shifted our thinking, our mindset, and our capabilities. If you apply that, especially at the top job, the CHRO, the chief people officer, head of people, whatever the title might be, in my view, that is maybe next to the CEO, the most difficult position in the C-suite. Especially in today’s climate, it’s not enough to go deep in HR. You have to understand the financials like a CFO. You have to understand the go-to-market strategy like a CMO.
You have to understand the sales pipeline like a chief revenue officer. You have to understand the organizational strategy and your two to three-year roadmap of the business. You have to take all of that and interpret that into a dynamic people and talent plan to support that roadmap. You’re doing all of that while you’re also overseeing the most volatile asset a company has, which is your people. That is not easy. That can’t be done with HR acumen alone. I think it’s an essential part and it’s an ever-expanding and dynamic component of modern HR and people operations today.
Patrick: You mentioned this idea of people from other parts of the business interacting with HR. Another thing that you and I quickly talked about, as we were preparing for this conversation was this idea that people are moving into HR from different parts of the business as well, where there’s definitely this connection point that is happening. EVP is a great example. There has never been probably more of a need for marketing and HR people operations to be aligned when we talk about employee value proposition because, really, employee value proposition is your brand value proposition as well. The two things are so intertwined.
With the future of the workforce making decisions where they work based off of, “Does the company’s values, do the brand values resonate with my personal individual values?” That’s now a decision point for people choosing where they work and what organizations they work at. To go back to the idea that other departments, people from other teams are moving into HR, tell me a bit more about that. Where do you see people moving into HR from and what benefit is that having on these HR teams? Maybe not at the C-level, but when we talk about HRBPs, maybe some of these mid-level roles, how is that affecting people that are working the day-to-day work of HR?
Lars: I think a couple of ways, like you speak to the employer brand and EVP. That is a very obvious shift, where I think recruiting– Historically, we would write terrible job advertisements. We would design career sites that were okay, as we started getting more sophisticated in employer brands and as we started partnering more closely with our consumer branding and consumer marketing teams, and then building out employer brand capabilities. Bringing people into our orgs with traditional marketing backgrounds, or design backgrounds, or storytelling backgrounds. It made recruiting a creative discipline.
Recruiting is now a creative discipline. It’s not just about the transactional, “I’m going to go find a person for this job.” It’s how you tell the story of the company and the role and the team and the values and the culture, how do you help people make more informed decisions about whether they align or don’t with that. Great employer branding attracts and repels. You want to be able to portray an accurate vision of what that work will look like, what that experience will look. That’s one clear department. I think HR and People Operations and Analytics is certainly another big discipline within the industry where we’re bringing people in from data scientists, data analysts. People from other disciplines who have that skill set, who are now applying that skill set to HR and to HR data and to HR operations. That, again, having that external subject matter expertise now infused into and zeroed in, if you will, on HR data and HR challenges and people challenges, that then really broadens our capabilities and our thinking. It’s almost like you’re taking a professional way of doing something that legacy wise, wasn’t really a part of HR.
We’ve always had reporting, but we haven’t had analytics and insights and predictive measures that we do now. I think that those are two areas specifically, where the influx of talent from other areas of the business has really made a dramatic impact on our capabilities because this brought in disciplines and skill sets that were not historically known as HR disciplines and skill sets and now they are. The output is 10xed from it.
Patrick: Something that I see at organizations that are jumping forward and integrating these different departmental business practices that I want to say more strategic because I do believe that HR teams, as you said earlier, they do think from a strategic perspective, or at least are moving to that. But I think that there are just ways of working that have evolved very positively for HR. A good example of that is this idea of, if you work at a technology company, Peakon’s obviously a technology company, and we obviously have a people function.
We work with a lot of technology companies as well and their people functions are starting to look at working in sprints and working in smaller sections, as opposed to these long-term goals because technology companies, a lot of departments and a lot of teams within technology companies work in sprints. Engineering and product teams, two weeks or a month or two months, that’s the future that a lot of teams work in and that started to migrate into areas like finance or people. That’s great in a lot of ways because work is evolving and because businesses are evolving so fast, the way how we work also has to evolve.
I like your story about recruiting being storytelling because that could not be more real for today. So many companies are really having to sell themselves to job seekers. People thought a couple of months ago, “Oh, well, people are lucky to have jobs and there’s a lot of people that– The market is very big for people that are looking for jobs.” But if you look at engineering, it is just as competitive today as it was 18, 24 months ago, if not even more competitive today. Do you have any other specific examples of how HR teams are working differently or in more innovative ways due to the influence of other parts of the business?
Lars: Yes. You touched on agile practices, stand-up shorter-term goals, rapid iteration. I think that’s happening in pockets. I don’t think that’s happening quite at scale yet. If anything, looking back at 2020, what it taught us is that our reality is a VUCA reality. There’s so much volatility that’s happening right now and if you plan your HR roadmaps in two-year, very concrete ways, you’re going to struggle. I think looking back at last year, the dramatic changes that happened, the external forces that forced companies to adapt their businesses and their operations seemingly overnight.
The companies that had the ability to operate more agilely, navigated those waters much more successfully than those that had very bureaucratic command and control frameworks for how they supported the business from HR and people standpoints. We talk a lot about agile in HR right now, there’s little A agile and big A agile.? I don’t think many companies are practicing big A agile, which is more of the traditional methodology that you see coming from software and the idea of sprints and all of that. Again, I know some teams are doing that. Typically, if they’re smaller teams, it’s easier to operate that way because you have less layers, you’re more centralized.
Bigger companies, I think, struggle with that kind of approach. All HR and people teams should certainly be working to integrate little A agile practices in their approaches. You see that a little bit with things like OKRs, the way that you’re looking at progress and impact on a quarterly basis. On an annual basis, but you’re breaking it down into quarterly chunks. I think that’s another way of looking at smaller scale progress. That is going to become a bigger, fundamental part of how HR operates because again, we are in this VUCA climate, I don’t think that’s going to be changing anytime soon.
You have to look at the very short-term. Have an idea, have a vision for the long-term, but don’t have massive resources allocated towards programs that might actually be designed around a world that doesn’t exist in 18 months. I do think we’ll see more of that.
Patrick: Would you say that HR is becoming more relevant? I think people are struggling a bit with this because there’s a lot of focus on people right now. Do you think that this is a time where HR is becoming more relevant or do you think it’s something else?
Lars: Absolutely, HR is relevant. I think we have to be honest about the field of HR. I think the field of HR is not a monolith. When you look at the field, it is the spectrum. You have the leading edge of HR, absolutely relevant, necessary, vital, essential, and viewed that way within the organization. Decisions don’t get made without the people-team being looped in and being a part of actually arriving at that answer and that decision. You have the other end of that, which is again, still operating much more in that personnel, administrative transactional role. They probably are not viewed as very relevant within their organizations because that’s the perception of them.
Maybe that’s their capability for whatever reason, that may not be their fault. There are lots of reasons why they may be that way. Then you have the bulk of the industry somewhere in between those two spaces, leaning more towards one or the other, depending on how advanced they are. I think you can’t go through something like we just went through in 2020 and hold on to a view that HR is not relevant. There’s just so much that happened, companies who had to completely reinvent their business model to survive, and needing the people strategy to basically help propel them forward.
Had the companies that had to go through furloughs and layoffs. I think 2020 really reinforced the importance of, again, good HR, companies that had those legacy models, they probably struggled and that probably solidify their view that HR wasn’t as important, but I think for the vast majority, 2020 shined a bright light on the capabilities of HR, and they rose to that occasion. Keep in mind, everybody listening to this episode right now, who sits at HR, you just went through something that none of you have gone through before. You were asked to do things that practitioners in HR have never had to do before and you made it work. You changed a lot of how you operate in that meantime.
I’m obviously a huge proponent of Open Source practices. The legacy of HR isn’t really known for Open Source. We’re pretty proprietary, we operated in silos that changed radically when we were experiencing something collectively and globally that we’ve never gone through before. There is no playbook for what we just experienced. The fact that so many people were willing to come together, share their experiences, share their templates, share their communications guides, things like that, I saw so much of that. I think that that collective collaboration really allowed the field broadly, to come together and have that transformative impact for their business. Again, relevant, absolutely, but I do think you have to apply that answer across the spectrum that is HR.
Patrick: I also think that you’re a bit underplaying the open-source because you’re also the founder of a community of Open Source content, the future of human resources, hros.co. Obviously, you’re a big fan of Open Source, but there’s quite a bit. This is a community of HR practitioners that are driving innovation through collaboration. What inspired you to start that?
Lars: My co-founder, Ambrosia Vertesi, who at the time was the head of Peapod at Hootsuite, we had this idea to build something that we wish we would have had earlier in our careers. We looked at innovation. We were both plugged into these networks of leading operators in the space. Once we were able to build out those networks, it had a transformative impact on our own capabilities, and what we brought to our employers, our companies, our projects, et cetera. We also realized that we were pretty rare to have that kind of a global network and we said, “Well, what about the vast majority of practitioners out there that don’t have budgets to go to conferences, don’t have budgets for these membership groups so they can download templates?” We also looked at a lot of the organizations out there, and many of them are pretty dated in the way that they operated, in their thinking, their toolkits, their frameworks, we’re still oriented in that legacy model. Stuff was changing too fast for them to keep up at their size.
That was really the idea behind HR Open Source, is we said, “What if we took a page out of Open Source software and built a community based around contributing templates and toolkits and practices and everybody working together to make each other better?” That was really the genesis of the effort. We’ve both since stepped down there. We’ve turned it over to an operating board, who’s driving the next chapter of HR Open Source, but that was really the spirit behind it.
It was right around the same time that Google introduced their rework platform, and then you started seeing more and more communities popping up in HR, where it was a scenario where people said, “The industry really needs X. X doesn’t exist, we’re going to build X.” That is super exciting to see that entrepreneurial spirit in a field that, again, the legacy of it is not necessarily– HR was not always known as an entrepreneurial place, and now it is. It’s been exciting to see the growth and maturity of Open Source practices and approaches and philosophy over the last seven years since we launched that.
Patrick: Well, thank you for launching it, because the more that we can create the opportunity to learn from each other, and to find our best practices and share them in a non-competing way. I mean, there’s so much that we can learn from each other, and there’s so much in HR and people’s practice that is not about, well, this company against this company, we’re all here to do the same thing, which is create an amazing place for our people. As you said, our most important asset at our organizations are our people, so if we can learn from each other in an Open Source format, I commend you for starting that up and continuing that.
Also, just to go quickly back, I went on a bit of a tangent with the Open Source, as you said that because I wanted to talk quickly about that. I also completely agree with you about your statements around what HR and members of HR teams have had to accomplish over the past 12 months. It’s pretty astounding about what has been able to be accomplished during a very quick time frame, and it’s also provided inspiration for all of us. Particularly people that work in people operations or work directly with employees at organizations, that there is so much that can be done. So much innovation, creativity that can come out of a negative situation.
That’s why 2021 really has the opportunity to be such an amazing and game-changing year for so many organizations. Partially because they’re still going to be forced to be creative and forced to be innovative, and how they write their next chapters of their business. That’s always been a good forcing function for us to stretch our capabilities a bit more.
Lars: You’re right. Look, going through something like what we just experienced, you have to adapt, you have to, you can’t stay in the same position. I think, as we look at 2021 and what’s ahead of us. What I’m hopeful for is that, as a field, we really seize this momentum and make lasting changes, right? We can’t revert back to old practices, inertia will pull us that way, right? There’s a lot of our CEOs who would love to see us go back to how things were in January of 2020.
That’s never going to happen, we’re just not going to be back in that environment again. It’s on us to educate ourselves on what’s possible to advocate within our businesses and organizations around new flexible ways of working. All the things that we’ve learned in 2020, the continuity of that, as we begin to stabilize a bit more as it relates to the pandemic, hopefully, as the year progresses, that part is what will be really important.
Patrick: I agree. As we wrap up the conversation, tell our audience a bit about your book. Your book obviously just came out, what could they expect from reading your book?
Lars: The book is really the culmination of everywhere I’ve been for the last five years, between scaling HR Open Source and traveling the world and meeting with hundreds of practitioners literally. To write my first book on employer branding, to my stories in a Fast Company, to my podcast, and then to my work.
I’ve had this really unique and fortunate, perched if you will, on the evolution of HR, and really on the ingredients of modern HR, and what that looks like. I wanted to write the book because I wanted to essentially capture all of that into a document. A lasting document that will hopefully help practitioners get inspired about what modern HR is and what the impact it could have on the business. Get inspired for what the impact of HR operators can be, and get inspired for the future of the field.
I think what I’m most proud of, of the book is that, as I looked across the marketplace, that there were a lot of books about HR written by analysts, written by consultants. I’m a consultant, so I’m not knocking that space, but people who are pretty removed from the actual work. It was really important to me in writing the book that I harnessed a range of voices of practitioners doing the work in the seats from CHROs to CEOs, to frontline operators, people operations. I had over 50 case studies, quotes, personal essays from practitioners in the trenches doing the work. It was one thing for me to frame, these are the fundamental components.
The core, the book is a blueprint to modern HR, so each chapter gets into a fundamental component of modern HR. I compare and contrast legacy for modern. I really bring in, tap into all of my networks to bring in experts in different fields like people analytics, and diversity and inclusion and belonging and employee experience. Harness their first-hand experience, building those capabilities within organizations.
To me, that was the thing that I’m really most excited about the book. It’s not just my perspective on all of these things that would be marginally valuable, but it’s really harnessing so many people who I admire. Leading executives from HubSpot, Spotify, VaynerMedia, MasterCard, and many others, and sharing their perspective on not the future of work, but where we are now and what’s capable.
Patrick: Well, a very big part of our audience are HR practitioners, so I’m sure they’re going to want to check out this book. The title of the book is Redefining HR: Transforming People, Teams To Drive Business Performance. You can find it anywhere that books are sold. It’s on Amazon, and it’s actually doing quite well on Amazon, so congratulations on the book. Lars, thank you for spending some time with me. I appreciate your passion.
You are inspirational in how you talk, you’re direct, and I like the fact that you’re really starting to help people think about, let’s not think about the future of work, let’s think about it today because our opportunity to drive change is today. It’s not a year from now, it’s not two years from now, we really need to be doing it now. Thank you for spending time with me. Where can people find your podcasts as well? I’m sure it’s everywhere. Spotify, Apple, Redefining HR podcast, correct?
Lars: It is. Yes. The hub for everything is redefininghr.com. There you can find the podcast is syndicated across Spotify, Google Podcasts, wherever your listening desires are, you’ll be able to find it and link to the book and quotes and videos and everything you might need to get a sense of what redefining HR is all about.
Patrick: That’s perfect. Lars, thank you again for spending some time with me today. Be well, and we’ll speak to you soon.
Lars: All right. Yes. Thanks for having me on, Patrick.
Patrick: Thanks, Lars.