Peter Ramjug pivoted from a wire service journalism career to writing and strategizing executive communications. He helps thought leaders gather their thoughts.
Peter RamjugJune 30, 2023
Topics: Talent Experience

HR is So Much More Than Toby in “The Office”

Chief human resources officers (CHROs) are supposed to be high-level strategy-setters, but the reality is many of them tend to get pulled into the deep work in the trenches of their organizations. That can be a good thing on occasion because staying involved in the daily to-and-fro of the business leads to better decision making. But staying in the weeds can stunt the strategic influence today’s HR executive must have.

That observation was one of several insider views shared by Phenom’s CHRO, Jess Elmquist. He sat down with host Devin Foster on a recent episode of Talent Experience Live. We’ve got the highlights packaged up below, or you can view the full episode right here!

Challenging Norms

When most people hear “HR,” usually the first person who comes to mind for most people is “Toby,” the fictional character in “The Office” TV series. The roles in HR have traditionally not been glamorized and are often mishandled in the media, but that is changing rapidly.

Elmquist said that as the new talent economy is redefining how HR leaders think about their work, it’s imperative that they also take an objective look at how they have been doing all aspects of their jobs – talent acquisition and talent management being two key areas.

The workforce is changing. It’s getting younger and they’re more aware of what they want and don’t want in a job. And, they’re not willing to sit around for five years until someone taps them on the shoulder for a new role; they’ve got their eye on moving around in the company on day one!

Communicate & Collaborate

For lasting change, CHROs should share best practices with one another, which is why he communicates regularly with peers across a swath of channels on some of the big-picture trends in the talent market.

Elmquist is everywhere! If he isn’t dispensing strategic advice in articles for Forbes or Fast Company, or blogging about the latest insights into the talent market, or hosting webinars with movers and shakers, then he can usually be found behind a microphone for his podcast that launched just this year. It’s called “Smarter” because, well, CHROs are in constant learning mode. It’s an executive-centric podcast by leaders for leaders.

Episodes that have aired so far include HR industry analyst Ben Eubanks as well as Jess’s C-level peers at athletic country club operator Life Time and hardware retailer Aubuchon Co. “Smarter” is taped in advance and airs on demand, allowing viewers to watch when and where learning is most convenient.

The talent market is shifting and morphing; HR leaders need insights and advice on how to stay competitive. Elmquist has long called for CHROs to know their industries inside and out. Keep abreast of business trends and get a thorough understanding of how their enterprises make money.

Amidst a swirl of communications outreach, it should be obvious what remains Elmquist’s favorite part of the job: being a thought leader and influencer.

“I love helping people solve complex problems and build relationships with them.”

NBA Star. Lawyer. HR Leader?

Elmquist readily acknowledges that most people don’t grow up thinking “I want to work in HR.” It doesn’t have the cachet nor is it as well known as say, playing professional sports or walking into a courtroom to argue a case before a judge. Today’s successfulHR professionals are united by a desire to work with people and drive a business to new heights; Elmquist is no exception.

His HR epiphany began as a public high school teacher in Minnesota. It was there that he discovered a gift for helping others tap into a potential some of them didn’t even know they had. Some of his students came from tough circumstances, but Elmquist challenged them to see beyond the here and now and focus on the future.

His career zigged when he joined a health and wellness startup in an executive sales and marketing role before shifting into a learning and development position with the same company.

“What I found was that I had a real skill in helping build and motivate teams. That was like a ‘eureka’ moment for me.”

Elmquist’s career journey is an example of a working-backwards executive because he started on the L&D and talent side before working his way into more traditional HR roles.

“But it really started to help connect me to ultimately my own personal life mission, which is to leave people and the world better than I found them.”

Other CHROs feel the same way. In fact, that’s why many of them got into this line of work in the first place.

Seeing Challenges as Opportunities

There’s no shortage of obstacles facing CHROs. Here, Elmquist lays out what he sees are the ones that are most top-of-mind.

Summing it all up, artificial intelligence and people, coupled with work-life harmony and employer brand, are just some of the challenges -– no, opportunities — facing HR in the days ahead.

Take AI. More HR leaders are seeing the value of letting their teams be more human by automating the tasks that clog up their day. Yet at the same time, a significant percentage of Fortune 500 companies scored poorly in their use of AI, indicating there is still a significant gap between the solutions available and what companies have implemented.

This is an example of a ripe opportunity for HR executives to take the reins of leadership and bridge that divide.

It’s clear that CHROs have a choice in making the most of those opportunities: continue down the path that has failed them time and again, or try something new.

Keep alive the old “post and pray” model of talent acquisition, or let technology “wow” candidates enough to apply for roles. Continue to move talent around the organization with little insight into skills and experiences, or adopt a better way, an easier way to see who’s the best fit for that next career move.

“What if we just blew the thing up?” Elmquist said about about traditional HR practices. “What would it look like in a different way?”

As an executive, it's important to hold on to things that are working well, but be ready to challenge the processes that aren't working as they should.

Which brings this story back to Elmquist’s time teaching economics and U.S. history in a high school in Minnesota.

His school district discovered that some students were dropping out before they had a basic understanding of economics (like how to open a bank account or balance a checkbook). So Elmquist helped launch a new curriculum that blended fundamental economics with American history.

The ROI of that endeavor: it contextualized history in a different way, and it focused on both macro and micro economics.

It’s all in keeping with Elmquist’s approach to looking at things in a different way.

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