What Can Strategic HR Leaders Do to Thrive in This VUCA World?

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Volatile. Uncertain. Complex. Ambiguous. VUCA.

The acronym is intimidating. In 2019, these four words say more than ever about the world of work that HR supports.

At McLean & Company, as strategic partners to HR leaders across the globe, we have heard the conditions driving VUCA come up repeatedly in our client calls, survey results, and research – which is why this year at our Signature Event we asked: What can strategic HR leaders do to thrive in this VUCA world?

This post outlines my key takeaways from the two days of McLean & Company’s Signature 2019 conference, where over 100 attendees worked on answers to this question with nine keynote speakers, five rapid-fire presenters, three CHRO panelists, two interactive workshops, and me – this year’s MC.

We were after practical takeaways – after all, we’re in the business of making best-practice research that gets used – not just read – and boy, did the sessions deliver. Everybody that I spoke with had something they were excited to bring back to the office to get working on.

Our opening keynote speaker, Jennifer Rozon (VP, McLean & Company), set our conference against a backdrop of rising pressure on HR to deliver – something she described as the Game of Thrones effect. Like the show, where each successful season led to higher fan expectations, so too have expectations risen on HR after each year of more strategically aligned performance. Under these conditions, it should come as no surprise that the entire audience chuckled or gasped when she shared that twice as many HR professionals claim their work negatively impacts their mental health compared to the general working population (PM Editorial)!

Next, our CHRO panel, comprised of Orville Trout (Crayola), Jasmine Kanga (Ontario Pension Board), and Eddie Hightower (Caliber Collision), shared their musings on VUCA with moderator Karen Mann (AVP – McLean & Company). Despite coming from radically different industries, all three panelists shared stories of how their organizations were finding success by closing the distance between their leaders and their front lines and proactively involving HR in business conversations. Relatable, candid, and often funny, our panelists were highly sought after at our evening networking session.

“VUCA is like fire: you can fear it, or you can harness it and put it to work.”

– Caroline Stephens, CHRO, Interac Corp.

The conference sessions drove home three key themes:

  • HR needs to take care of itself first in this VUCA world.
  • The scope of HR is expanding to rise to the challenges of VUCA.
  • Culture remains HR’s most powerful tool in VUCA conditions.

HR needs to take care of itself first:

“Ask yourself – what can you do about your own creativity, your own resilience, your own development? It starts here. You can’t help others if you don’t help yourself first – just like on an airplane where we put our own oxygen masks on first.”

– Jennifer Rozon, VP, McLean & Company.

Gord Houston’s (McLean & Company) talk on resiliency highlighted how these efforts can be more effective – and have a higher likelihood of success – if modeled within the HR department first.

Tchernavia Rocker’s (Under Armour) keynote on creating a new workplace paradigm put the emphasis on HR to drop the excuses and have the courage to stand up for what’s right, instead of doing “HR for HR’s sake.”

Diana Samu-Visser’s (McLean & Company) rapid-fire session on leveraging L&D principles in everyday HR decision making encouraged attendees to model backwards design when solving tough HR problems – so that the rest of the organization can see practices that bake in efficiency, accountability, and a future-focus.

The scope of HR is expanding to rise to the challenges of VUCA:

“We need to stop being HR professionals that know a thing or two about the business, and start being business people that have expertise in HR.”

– Nick Schacht, Chief Global Development Officer – SHRM

Nigel Travis (Dunkin’ Brands) represented how the skills of HR leaders can become invaluable skills in other C-level or board-level roles. He challenged attendees to get deep in their organizational context and learn from his Blockbuster mistake with Netflix: add value to your business by anticipating your demise and looking around corners to get ahead of it.

Rachel Stewart’s (McLean & Company) rapid-fire about HR’s role in data protection highlighted how the quantity of data HR is responsible for is often the most sensitive in an organization, and how HR can stay ahead of changing data regulations.

Will Howard’s (McLean & Company) rapid-fire about HR technology highlighted that many HR professionals stick with software that isn’t meeting their needs for too long due to high perceived costs of change, and he provided practical approaches for making better selections.

Kristie Dierig’s (Procter & Gamble) keynote illustrated how Procter & Gamble’s HR department adopted traditional IT and Communications tactics to embed a “learning lifestyle” within their HR department.

Leigh Caiger’s (McLean & Company) new insights into the employee experience encouraged HR to leverage insights from fields like neuroscience to provide a new lens to examine engagement results.

Evan Hughes (McLean & Company) cautioned that reading headlines won’t give HR the information needed to make informed decisions to position your organization for success in the future.We’ll be distributing his presentation to members in November – watch for it in your inbox!

Culture remains HR’s most powerful tool in VUCA conditions:

“If you say you’re going to do something, do it. You have to model the behaviors on the wall, or people will see right through you.”

– Eddie Hightower, Caliber Collision

Caroline Stephens’ (Interac Corp.) keynote drove home how a significant organizational structure change driven by VUCA conditions – from hierarchical to a more-flat organization – has been made more successful by focusing on cultural consistency and communication.

Nancy Svoboda’s (Denver Broncos) keynote on “Creating a Winning Employee Experience” demonstrated how a focus on cultural alignment between the stated business strategy and the activities of HR across several employee touchpoints – from pre-hire to training – has allowed the Denver Broncos to demonstrably improve employee engagement.

April Ridsdale’s (McLean & Company) rapid-fire discussion reminded us that employees, managers, senior leaders, and HR all have clear roles and responsibilities in relation to career development for staff.

Nigel Travis posited that a challenge culture, where leaders and staff are encouraged to constructively challenge decision making with an eye to improvement, not damage, can help with business agility to combat VUCA.

Dessalen Wood (Thoughtexchange) tackled the pressing issue of talent scarcity with an empowering message that employers have more control with culture and employee experience to drive new candidate success – because people are situationally reactive.

If you’d like to learn more about the practical responses to VUCA discussed at Signature 2019, and our related research, please reach out! I’d be happy to share my perspective from the front of the room and to learn more about how these factors are impacting your business: swilson@mcleanco.com

By Sid Wilson

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