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How Chief Human Resources Officers Can Be Your C-Suite’s Innovation Drivers

Senior Principal and Innovation Leader in Mercer’s Global Digital Innovation Hub

Innovation is top of mind for most C-suite executives and directors of companies — and for good reason. According to a study by Credit Suisse, the average life span of an S&P 500 company is now less than 20 years, compared to 60 years in the 1950s. Additionally, Mercer’s 2019 Global Talent Trends survey found that 73% of executives predict significant industry disruption in the next three years, up sharply from 26% in 2018. In many industries, continued innovation is critical to a company’s ability to survive and thrive.

In the recent past, having a dedicated, centralized innovation team seemed like the obvious answer to this corporate imperative, and companies made the move to create such teams. The number of corporate innovation centers has grown from 300 to 580 from 2015 to 2017. Unfortunately, the success of these innovation centers has been mixed. Centers that tend to lag in performance usually have unclear strategic goals, suboptimal setup and vaguely defined success metrics.

Now, to truly embrace a culture that is open and prone to innovation, CEOs have been turning to a new source to help lead this cultural change and drive innovation: their chief human resources officers (CHROs).

The CHRO As Innovation Catalyst

The role of the CHRO has evolved, and it has never been more critical for the board to focus on this person’s ability to drive a culture of innovation throughout the organization. To enable innovation at scale, having a sound people strategy for innovation is equally important as having the right infrastructure, processes and tools.

When considering the role of the CHRO in setting in place the framework to build a workforce that drives innovation, the board should consider how the CHRO is leveraging the following four building blocks: talent identification, diversity and inclusion, performance management and learning and development.

Talent Identification

The most important building block for the CHRO’s talent strategy is identifying the right people. One could argue that innovation is an innate skill, not a skill that is developed. In reality, it depends. The company’s definition of innovation drives the types of talent needed, whether the talent can be developed from within and whether recruitment from outside needs to happen. People also have varying degrees of innovative talent. Organizations may have a limited number of innovation whizzes available to create transformative ideas, but many are capable of developing incremental innovations to improve existing solutions or modernize core businesses with the right training, support and tools. 

The board and management need to think beyond traditional approaches to identify the right talent and teams to work on innovation initiatives. Depending on the level of disruption required, the board and management may need to urge the CHRO to consider external talent, such as seasoned entrepreneurs, to get an injection of fresh ideas. The CHRO should keep a close pulse on innovation talent across the firm, meet with innovation teams on a regular basis, and report back to the CEO and board on a regular basis to ensure the firm has a strong pipeline of talent suited for innovation. 

Diversity and Inclusion

It is no secret that diversity drives innovation. Diversity in this context extends beyond gender, race and ethnicity, and includes experiences, expertise, perspectives and even working styles. Diversity of thought fuels innovation. Individuals with differing thoughts can result in dissent and conflict, but this should be viewed as the gateway toward developing breakthrough ideas. Inclusion must come hand in hand with diversity. One can only maximize the potential of a diverse team when each individual’s differences are respected and valued. 

Developing a culture of innovation requires commitment from the top, starting with the CEO.

In addition, a diverse and inclusive workforce ensures that the innovations created are reflective of the organization’s diverse customer base. The board should embrace and work with the CEO and CHRO to measure how diversity and inclusion impacts innovation and the company’s people strategy on an ongoing basis. 

Performance Management

Since innovation development processes are agile in nature, performance management and metrics should align with “test and learn” principles. The test and learn approach ensures that projects can fail fast and pivot as needed. To encourage such behavior, performance management also needs to allow continuous and open feedback to enable individuals to adapt according to project needs. The board and CEO can make this feedback loop a priority by measuring how the CHRO structures performance reviews at the firm. 

Disruptive innovation initiatives require a longer time horizon to realize potential and impact. These initiatives should not be measured on a quarterly basis. Setting key milestones that could be an early indicator of success will help boards monitor progress. Although driving revenue, profit and ROI growth are the ultimate goals of innovation, nonfinancial metrics are not to be ignored and are arguably equally important. These metrics include, but are not limited to, enhanced company brand, increased ability to attract top talent, improved customer satisfaction, speed to decision-making and execution, ability to break down silos, the number of ideas in the pipeline and increased digital presence and digitization across the firm. 

Learning and Development 

In this rapidly changing environment, it is critical for all employees to be on top of key trends and to develop new skills — the board included. Besides formal training courses, entrepreneurs and startups are excellent channels for corporate “intrapreneur” learning, and including exposure to these resources as part of a corporate people strategy could yield measurable benefits that the board could use to assess efficacy of the program. As an example, Mercer piloted a learning program with NewCampus, a startup that invites entrepreneurs around the world to share their expertise and experiences with Mercer colleagues. This type of alternative learning is a great source of inspiration for new ideas. For companies with dedicated innovation centers, having rotational programs will enable organizations to build stronger innovation muscle, share what has been learned and develop skills with broader employee populations to achieve greater impact. 

Innovation Starts from the Top

Developing a culture of innovation requires commitment from the top, starting with the CEO. The company’s CEO needs to define what innovation means to the firm, be its biggest advocate and get the entire leadership team’s buy-in and support — including the backing of the board. 

Boards, in turn, should make sure that the innovation strategy is forward-looking with a balance of incremental and disruptive goals. Once the vision is defined, leaders need to infuse innovation into the company’s DNA by cultivating an open-minded and intellectually curious culture that is ready for change. In addition, boards and management need to be receptive to taking calculated risks and weathering the inevitable failures that come with the innovation process, with the goal of driving long-term shareholder and stakeholder values. When Mercer established its Global Innovation Hub in 2014, the CEO at the time openly talked about the importance of embracing failures as part of the firm’s innovation journey. The key is to fail early, fail fast and adapt to limit unnecessary waste of resources. 

For CHROs to drive innovation, they need to innovate and reimagine the HR function they lead. The CHRO and their team at entrepreneurial companies are more progressive in their thinking, willing to experiment and thrive when setting new industry standards. If companies believe that their people are the ultimate sustainable competitive advantage — the power for creating innovations for the firm — the CHRO and that person’s entire team should be the key to unlocking human capital potential at the firm. The board and CEO need to empower the CHRO to experiment, and that could be as simple as trying out new technologies and policies. The time to do so is now.

An earlier version of this article was published on NACD Board Talk.

Patty Sung

Senior Principal and Innovation Leader in Mercer’s Global Digital Innovation Hub

Patty Sung is an innovation project leader focusing on emerging technologies and demographic challenges as it relates to the future of work.

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