Accessing “Whole” – People Is the Path to Sustained Innovation and Growth

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Putting the human back in human resources turns work from a transactional exchange into a transformational connection. Creating authentic connections opens the door to advancing productivity and building a culture of innovation to sustain growth in and out of crisis.

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In the dogged pursuit of emergent technology, we can often overlook the most critical factor in organizational success: People. In the quest for talent, businesses become focused on human resources for knowledge, skills, and ability. We seek out the relevant experiences but see people as simply the storage bins for talent. However, people aren’t solely made up of experience relevant to their jobs. People are made up of whole life experience that impacts every corner of their being including their work. If they are having a negative experience at home, at work or otherwise, guess what? It is going to manifest in their work performance. It will have an impact on business. Business tends to covet all resources a human can offer but with less of the human vulnerabilities.

There Is No Work/Life Balance

For years society has chased after “work/life balance,” but the reality is there is no separation between work and life. I prefer to speak in terms of work/life integration precisely because work is part of life and life is part of work. More than connected, they are integrated. The human experience cannot be successfully segmented. Mental, Physical, Social, Financial, it all matters. It all impacts life therefore it all impacts work. We saw this play out with the overnight shift to remote and hybrid work. People’s personal lives were on display as work and home fused into a single location.

Now, as a CEO my control over what goes on in the personal lives of my employees is almost non-existent. Sure, I can care; I can be empathetic to their experiences, but without overstepping my bounds I simply don’t have a direct role in their personal lives. The greatest influence business executives can make stems from how they lead their companies. As a CEO, I am charged with providing stability in periods of upheaval whether they derive from internal or external sources.

Let’s look back to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Seemingly overnight, at least 220 million people worldwide lost full-time job alone (Source: COVID-19 and the world of work, International Labor Organization, 2021). The receding tide of widespread financial insecurity deflated our collective spirit. A SHRM poll found nearly six in ten Americans felt increased symptoms of depression. As leaders, we must understand how life impacts work performance and ultimately organizational productivity. Recognizing how these twists, trials and traumas manifest in the workplace can help us formulate a response and, if necessary, adjust our strategies. And because it impacts the balance sheet, it should definitely matter to the CEO, the CFO, the COO.

Many executives I speak with claim they have little, to no interest in the lives of their employees. They assume leadership plus strategy plus talent somehow equals performance. But when we bury our heads in the sand, we shouldn’t be shocked when these issues land on our doorstep and performance suffers. As COVID-19 has made us painfully aware, business leaders need a broader radar to detect crisis whether they stem from internal or external sources. To be truly effective, leaders’ must be cognizant of what their workers are experiencing—that’s simply doing your job. For years we’ve been telling people to bring their whole selves to work, only to balk when parents need to take leave to care for an ill child. It’s time to walk the walk. As a CEO, executive, leader or people manager your sphere of influence extends further than you know.

Finding Humanity In A Global Pandemic

We all had a front row seat to see how intertwined home and work life truly is. Leaders had no choice but to be keenly aware of what workers experience and how it impacts their work. As we look to reset our workplaces, we must take into account workers entire lives. Their lives aren’t going always be on screens for all to see. It will take an intentional effort to stay plugged into what they are going through.

Their humanity, and their whole self, is too often neglected as their coveted talent is methodically mined. When times are good, we can skate by with these tendencies. But when people and organizations face strife, neglect of people’s whole selves can quickly devolve into workplace troubles.

As a CEO I’m not omniscient or omnipresent. As much as I might want to, I alone cannot sustain a connection with hundreds of employees. Managers reach more people in an organization on a daily basis. That is precisely why I emphasis the moniker, “People Managers.” They are critical to transmitting organizational culture, mission, values, and objectives. The C-Suite plays a large role in determining our organization values and establishing our culture. When you want to engage the bulk of your workers business executives can do so through People Managers, but you need good ones.

I say it all the time. People don’t quit companies, they quit their managers. It is not uncommon to hear: “great company, but I couldn’t stand working for Bob.” So, the great work you’re doing in the C-Suite won’t register, if you have poor People Managers not executing that vision on the front line. In a 2019 SHRM report on toxic workplace culture, we discovered that 58 percent of employees who quit their jobs due to workplace culture blamed their People Managers. Their ability to clearly communicate the culture, build positive workplaces by listening, and implement accountability by setting expectations is vital to your success.

People Managers are the ones best positioned to cultivate the awareness of the workforce. They are better suited to keep a pulse on how workers are doing on an individual level and check for signs of distress and disfunction that could hinder their work performance. But organizations must prioritize and invest in developing great People Managers. Investment in People Managers is multiplied in the workforce. However, the greatest tool in their toolbox is empathy. Empathy is vital because it opens up a space for employees to be their entire selves. When that happens, we can better gauge and respond to issues that would otherwise be invisible. Empathy builds the trust and credibility required to better understand people and engage them in the work. Truly listening to workers yields insight on how to best manage workers and adapt work to produce at a higher level. Empowering the right people is critical for growth and innovation.

Technology Is A Tool; Innovation Is The Process; Innovators Are The Source

Going back to people. It’s really people who drive business. Innovators are the ones that discover the breakthroughs that evolve business. Your best ideas come from creative minds with unique viewpoints. Survival in the pandemic meant birthing new ideas to meet challenges daily. Maintain an understanding of who and where your best ideas come from. Invest in those sources regularly. Those people who felt empowered to take risks in order to accomplish something new are your change agents. They imbue your organization with the agility and flexibility to meet tomorrow’s challenges. They are the one’s more likely to ask for forgiveness over permission. It’s the innovators who are inspired by future opportunity, not blinded by past success. Breakthroughs are fueled by people being curious enough to ask the questions that make others feel uncomfortable. Facing the uncomfortable requires being open to new concepts and trusting that there is a new solution around the corner. Innovators trust there is a way forward even when they can’t yet see it. Fostering new ideas requires a willingness to test a concept and be wrong, so we can learn something new and build it into the next iteration to test again. Innovators value the process of creation and thinking beyond convention. To commit to ideation, we must be willing to set time and money aside away from operations to “play,” to tinker.

Again, it requires being ok with risk and possible failure. Embrace failure. Autopsy your failures to find out what went wrong. Those lessons shed light on the way forward. Conversely, the fear of failure can paralyze action and limit success. Past success can also blind you to future opportunity. That is part of the vulnerability of the status quo where hyper focus on day-to-day operations and crises can have a chilling effect on innovation.

Fat And Happy

When I worked for Blockbuster, we found that our revenues grew in relation to the number of stores we opened. We made our mission to be everywhere. For us that meant putting a brick and mortar storefront in every corner of the global. And nobody was going to beat us at that game. Meanwhile, Netflix took that premise, stepped back and reimagined what “being everywhere” could mean. As movies became digital, Netflix saw the next delivery mechanism for movies. First, it was mailing DVDs on request, then morphed into streaming subscriptions. Subsequently, Blockbuster became obsolete almost overnight. Focusing on their past definition of success robbed them of the time and energy needed to envision future potential. Are you investing in your innovators? Are you regularly reimaging your execution? Are you evaluating emerging technologies to understand their potential to transform your operations? Do you have a start-up mentality embedded in your business?

There are no shortages of organizations that talk innovation. They point to R&D as their evidence. But innovation doesn’t just take place in R&D. From service to manufacturing to finance and marketing, innovation can be cultivated in every aspect of an organization. But it requires a willingness to identify, recruit, develop and advance creative talent. But oftentimes, those creative people defy convention. They can and often do have vastly different outlooks on life. And that’s what we want. People who challenge convention. They often bring attitudes, behaviors and even an appearance that is outside of our expectations and workplace norms. We rely on them not to fit in, but to stretch the workplace culture. Their idiosyncrasies are part of the whole package. As I said earlier, organizations tend to want that creative talent sans the messiness of humanity. If we are truly intentional about embedding innovation within our Culture, we have to embrace “whole people.” This means employing empathy. This means being accepting of some of the eccentricity that innovators bring.

If you want an Elon Musk you’ve got to be willing to embrace his quirkiness. I would argue it could be worth it. You want people who have the ability to focus on an objective without being locked in on a particular route. People who are willing to uncover better ways to getting the work done. People who look at our collection of assets and MacGyver them into something new. The emergence of e-books should have been fatal to Amazon Books who had built a revolutionary system for inventory and distribution of physical books. They saw value in that efficient operation and reapplied their product fulfillment strategy to selling just about anything. That doesn’t happen unless you have a culture infused with a flexible mindset that can adapt to shifting paradigms. It doesn’t happen without the visionaries who have license to reinvent the wheel.

Article By Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., President and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and author of Reset: A Leader’s Guide to Work in an Age of Upheaval

About the Author:

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, is President and Chief Executive Officer of SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management. With over 300,000 members in 165 countries, SHRM is the largest HR professional association in the world, impacting the lives of 115 million workers every day.

As a global leader on the future of employment, culture and leadership, Mr. Taylor is a sought-after voice on all matters affecting work, workers and the workplace. He is frequently asked to testify before Congress on critical workforce issues and authors the weekly USA Today column, "Ask HR."

Mr. Taylor's career spans over 20 years as a lawyer, human resources executive and CEO in both the not-for-profit and for-profit space. He has held senior and chief executive roles at IAC/Interactive Corp, Viacom's Paramount Pictures, Blockbuster Entertainment Group, the McGuireWoods law firm, and Compass Group USA. Most recently, Mr. Taylor was President and Chief Executive Officer of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.

He was appointed chairman of the President's Advisory Board on Historically Black Colleges and Universities and served as a member of the White House American Workforce Policy Advisory Board during the Trump Administration. He is a Trustee of the University of Miami, Governor of the American Red Cross, and member of the corporate boards of Guild Education, iCIMS, and XPO Logistics (NYSE: XPO).. He is licensed to practice law in Florida, Illinois and Washington, D.C.

All author proceeds will benefit the SHRM Foundation, which is committed to empowering HR as a social force for change. To learn more, please visit