Growing up, we always had the radio playing in the background—an old wireless in the kitchen that was stuck on one station. My favorites were the dramas that would play just before bedtime. I loved listening to the stories that would go on for weeks until the series would come to an end.
Radio made me love listening to people talk. It also helped me develop my listening skills and possibly also helped me with some areas of the English language. So, I have this thing for listening with my eyes closed. I can hear clearly what is being said, and paying attention to the tone and pitch of the voice matters.
Speaking is a form of art. That is why I have such respect for SHRM President and CEO Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. I enjoy listening to him talk about our profession, his vision for it, and his advice on different issues within our industry. There is something about the way he structures his message, and how he conveys it, that always makes sense to me.
Johnny is the most sought-after voice in HR. You have to be seriously talented to reach over 25,000 people with one message. He is an influencer of note and a truly inspirational leader.
At SHRM18, Johnny challenged us to “chase our lions”: “If your goals don’t scare you, then they are not big enough,” he said.
So, after I confirmed my trip to Las Vegas this year to attend what would be my second SHRM conference. I thought, who can I interview to feature in a blog post? On the long list of great options, he was the scariest of them all. He was my “lion,” and I knew then that I had to make it happen! So, I connected with him and asked for time in his diary at annual. He simply replied, “Count me in!”
After tons of research, I started to put together questions to ask him. My nerves kicked in after watching him on the Rubin Report podcast. I was seriously intimidated and thought it may not be a bad idea to mail my questions for his response.
Johnny was so cool and down to earth. In the course of our conversation, I was surprised and pleased to learn that Johnny has spent a bit of time on the continent, in Ghana and South Africa. We even shared a few laughs. But what blew me away is that he answered “I don’t know” to one of my questions, and then offered his thoughts. When was the last time you heard a leader honestly admitting that they didn’t have a ready answer to an issue?
Below are Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.’s answers to my questions:
Q1. Culture is an abstract concept, and yet it has a real bearing on business results. What advice can you offer organizations on approaches to root out bad (unwanted) behavior and transform organizational cultures in Africa?
A1. When people ask me the definition of culture, I often say we can have all these fancy definitions, but at its core, your average employer would say it’s what means to work here. What are acceptable behaviors? What are unacceptable behaviors? And these might vary by company.
There is no such thing as a perfect culture, or even an ideal culture. It depends upon what the organization decides it wants it to be, and it is that simple.
There are organizational cultures where people are allowed to work from home and others where the leaders have said, no, we want to all our people at work. One is not better than another—it’s just the culture.
What we have to do if we want successful organizations—be it in Africa or any other continent on the globe—is to make sure leaders, along with their HR partners, are honest about who they are. Culture is not based on the aspirational plaques that hang on the wall saying, “We are full of integrity, blah, blah.” Of course you are a company with integrity, I’d like to think.
We have to get down to real cultural statements that are supported by real behavioral statements. So, when you recruit people into your company, you can use those statements during the interview process, as you do when you are describing hard competencies and skills.
So, if I ask in a typical interview, “Do you have three to five years’ experience of this?” and “Can you give me examples of when you have done this?” what I am doing is really focusing on the technical skills. What we don’t do enough of as employers is to ask for examples about what they would do in X situation. What we want to do in an open-ended way is to determine whether or not they will fit into your culture. And we don’t always do that in our interview processes.
Oftentimes, we will take a very talented person who is technically competent but does not fit in, and then we wonder why the culture is what it is, and why we don’t enjoy the business successes we could have. Well, that’s the reason.
Organizations who get it are going to be crystal clear about what their culture is, and that means I may say to someone, “You are great candidate, but you are not gonna fit here.”
Q2. Most organizations don’t seem to have the inclusion part bedded down. What advice do you have for leaders today who want to have an immediate impact on building more inclusive workplace cultures?
A2. That’s a tough one. It’s tough because, while diversity is hard to achieve, inclusion is much harder. In fact, it is far more difficult to make a ton of people who are different feel like one unit than it would be for a whole bunch of people who are alike.
Think about your immediate family. If it’s just them, things are good, but when you bring others in from the outside, it becomes more difficult. It’s not that you love the others any less, or you think you are better than they are, it’s that we naturally gravitate toward people who have similar experiences, backgrounds, etc.
So, once you introduce diversity, inclusion is hard. We don’t have real conversations about inclusion in the workplace—in the United States and likely in Africa too. We don’t seem to understand that people who appear to look the same are not a monolithic group. We don’t all think, respond, or react the same, and there is a naivety about that.
Diversity has been oversimplified in some ways, focusing on the basics of race and gender, but there are so many other ways people are different, and we can’t ignore them.
The inclusion issue about being crystal clear about your culture, because once you get your culture statement right, and then you recruit against that, then you will automatically move toward the culture you want.
Establish your rules of engagement. We can have a whole bunch of diversity in the room, but we must be unafraid to tell people who we are as an organization and what our cultural norms are. Yes, we run the risk of getting a whole bunch of people who think and act alike. And that’s where really talented HR people can help keep that in check, because we do want diverse opinions, perspectives, and experiences.
Q3. I know that you are passionate about the issue of ageism, not only in hiring practices but also how it affects the rest of the workforce. How can employers work together to overcome this bias?
A3. I don’t know! And I am going to be very transparent here. Of course we can have courses and training, and even have laws that make it illegal to discriminate. Those will impact a little bit, but I believe what we’ve got to do is to talk about it, to call it out. The reason I say “I don’t know” is that I am trying that approach now, and we will see how effective it is.
I think we have all been conditioned to like the newest, coolest thing on the market. I want the iPhone 10, not the iPhone 7. Since we are socialized that way, we shouldn’t be surprised about bias against older workers.
Like any other type of unconscious bias, the way to deal with it is to talk about it a lot and put it in the person’s face. You could say, “Listen, when you are running HR and you have a recruitment ad that says you want ‘young, energetic, vibrant people,’ do you know what you are saying to people who aren’t young anymore? That you don’t want them. You have immediately sent all the wrong messages. I know you didn’t mean anything by it when you said ‘young’, but you excluded a lot of people.”
Many companies do most of their recruitment on college campuses. They don’t go looking for other people unless it’s for management roles. Yes, we will get a 50-60 year-old CEO, and that’s a different conversation, but in most cases, everyone wants the newest.
Q4. What single piece of advice do you have for HR practitioners, wherever they may be in the world, that would be relevant to all of them?
A4. Practice with courage. I have met a number of really smart HR people who are really good practitioners, so they know HR and they do HR well. But where a lot of them fail is a lack of courage—workplace professional courage. They are in rooms where the HR perspective is really important, but they are afraid to be the stand-out when the business people are making suggestions about an approach. We automatically think, Well, they are the business people, and I am not. I am here to support them; I am not one of them.
Our mindset is one of not believing that our voice really matters, and so we sit in meetings and hear bad suggestions, bad ideas, and defer because secretly we lack the courage to step up.
And I have been in that position. I have sat in a room where the CFO and CTO and everyone is making decisions about where to find the extra money, and they say they can just eliminate 20% of every department. And I am sitting there thinking, “Now why would you do that? There are some departments where 20% of people need to go away because it is too fat, but there are other departments where the manager is already operating in a very lean fashion. A one-size-fits-all staff cut isn’t smart.” I am thinking all of that—I just didn’t have the courage to speak up. I sat in those meetings and thought the others were smarter. They went to MBA school; they know numbers. I was wrong about that.
Related to courage is HR’s need to understand the business and how our organizations make money or don’t. That knowledge helps us build the muster to speak intelligently about operational issues. The best practitioners know HR and do HR courageously.
Q5. Discuss your faith, purpose and this moment.
A5. If you look at my career, it’s been a very circuitous one, and it may be hard to understand how I ended here. God has been making it clear to me over time.
I would love to say I woke up at 20 years old and said I’m going to map my career to this job. It wasn’t that way. In fact, I rely very heavily on my faith and my instincts. I think they may be intertwined as concepts. And I am led.
When I chose the role of CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, supporting Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), every person I know told me that that was a career-killer. They reminded me I had worked for Wayne Huizenga at Blockbuster, Sumner Redstone at Viacom, Barry Diller at IAC and Paramount—big names. So why would I want to work for a small black college fund—and by the way I didn’t even go to an HBCU. Why would I take myself off the corporate path for a non-profit black thing?
A lot of people said to me, “Johnny, you are too young to take yourself out of corporate America—are you out of your mind?” These were well-intentioned people, and smart. Some of the best headhunters in the country called me and said, “I don’t know what you are doing, but this is a very bad idea”.
As coincidence would have it, I had just had my first child, a little girl who I am in love with. She was born at the time I decided I needed a different lifestyle. I didn’t think about it that way, but God just made it all happen for me to end up being the CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which is something that I never thought I would be doing.
And when she got to seven years old, and she was now independent enough, I went back to being a CEO in a corner suite, but still improving and changing people’s lives.
I am going on this journey, so where it takes me, is where I end up!