Today’s great corporate leaders associate success with culture, vision, character and trust. But leading US management academic, Professor Dave Ulrich challenges the conventional wisdom and places a relentless emphasis on results. Kate Kerrison talks to Dave Ulrich before he embarks on his lecture tour in Australia.
As co-author of Results-Based Leadership, and one of the world’s leading business educators, Dave Ulrich says today’s leadership teaching focuses too narrowly on personal attributes and fails to explore the critical connection between leadership and the desired results.
Much of the leadership training still focuses on the ‘be, know, and do’ of leadership personal character more than the results leaders should deliver, he says. We have seen dramatic results when leaders pay attention to the outcomes.
Ulrich, who was named BusinessWeek‘s Top Management Guru in 2001, says results do not just come in the form of short term financial impact, but even more as a longer-term intangible benefit where investors gain confidence in the firm as a result of the quality of leadership and, as a result, generate a higher market value.
That is not to say character and a beliefs system are not important. Ulrich says he learned key management lessons from his parents: From my mum, care and how to show it by listening and understanding rather than judging. From my dad, work hard, don’t overthink things, do them.
Having just taken a three-year sabbatical to serve his church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in Montreal, Canada, Ulrich says he will miss the chance he has had to focus on helping people find meaning, hope, learning, and relationships that matter most to them.
I have learned that people need meaning a sense of purpose in their lives; hope a focus on the future and what can be; learning an ability to grow and progress; and relationships an ability to be with others in personally important ways.
I think managers have the opportunity to weave these four factors into their organisations. When they do so, organisations become a community for employees and employees who become more committed. I like to be with managers who find meaning, hope, learning, and relationships important as part of their work pattern.
On a personal level, Ulrich has always worked as an academic and says he is drawn towards the world of ideas as well as their application. Academia gives me the chance to explore ideas and consulting the chance to apply them, he says.
At the same time he has resisted any temptation to take on a corporate role, saying that while the impact within a company would be more intense, he finds the ‘world of ideas’ much broader.
I don’t think I would be that good of an executive, to be honest. There are different skills to the executive world that I am not sure I have. I may not be as politically sensitive as I should be, nor able to be as consistent with an agenda as I would need to be. I like the idea of moving ideas from place to place.
Results-based leadership is hardly a new concept. Ulrich and his colleagues from the University of Michigan’s Centre for Strategic Human Resources have refined the methodology over more than 15 years. Each year they undertake surveys to identify what differentiates human resource (HR) practices and high performing organisations around the world.
However, Ulrich says it is hard to know exactly how pervasive results-based Leadership has been on a global basis.
Most good leaders intuitively do results-based leadership when they focus their personal competencies on delivering results.
The US market often gets criticised for being so bottom line focused so perhaps more of the message of results resonates in US markets than others. But, any leader anywhere in the world succeeds by delivering results in the right way.
Ulrich names General Electric (GE) as a company that has mastered results-based leadership.
GE gets a lot of press, and most of it for good reason. The leadership heritage at GE is to deliver results. But the company is also committed to ensuring that leaders know, and do, the right things. This means not only ethical behavior, but also leadership behavior. We would argue that GE has a leadership brand, or leaders with a certain reputation.
This means the reputation rubs off when GE leaders go elsewhere, like 3M or Home Depot, and transfer some of the leadership brand to another setting.
Some would argue that in a large and complex holding company like GE, the quality of management is their business.
The more complex the enterprise, the more diverse the enterprise, the more that the whole is more than the sum of the parts through the quality of management or leadership exhibited in the company. GE continues to demonstrate its leadership brand’ from the top throughout the company.
Ulrich says this leadership brand has transcended even the CEO. GE has a heritage of CEOs who embody a commitment to delivering results in the right way. This heritage may include leaders with quite different styles (Jack Welch v. Jeffrey Immelt), but while personalities and styles may differ the underlying leadership brand continues.
While results-based leadership is endorsed by some of the world’s largest businesses, Ulrich argues it is just as relevant for small business as big business.
All organisations require leaders who define and deliver results in the right ways. In large organisations the leadership brand that comes from a results approach gets enacted at each level of the organisation.
In smaller organisations, the senior leaders become the carriers of the leadership brand because everyone sees and touches them. Their personal behavior becomes the expected behavior of employees in the firm.
While Ulrich is recognised for his work in general management and leadership, he specialises in the HR profession.
In his latest book, The HR Value Proposition, he takes his results-based leadership theories into the HR domain.
The new book, to be published this year by Harvard Business School Press, is co-authored with Wayne Brockbank, the clinical professor of business at the University of Michigan Business School, as well as faculty director and core instructor of the Strategic Human Resource Planning Program, the Human Resource Executive Program, and the Advanced Human Resource Executive Program at the university’s Executive Education Center. Over the past twelve years, these have been consistently rated as the best HR executive programs in the United States and Europe by the Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek.
Ulrich is Director of the Michigan Human Resource Executive Programs in Hong Kong , Singapore, and India, as well as the Michigan Global Program in Management Development in India . He is also a distinguished visiting professor of business administration at Instituto De Altos Estudios Empresariales (Argentina).
Ulrich says, HR professionals need to actively deliver value. They must do things that actually make a difference and add value for investors.
According to Ulrich there are two major parts of the HR ‘value’ equation. One focuses on transactions and doing the administrative work of managing people better, faster, and cheaper. This can be done through service centres where duplication is reduced, through e-HR systems where employees have self-reliance, or through outsourcing some of the HR work.
The other part of the HR value equation is more difficult to define, but has a larger impact.
This is when the HR work helps meet the needs of employee, line manager, customer, and investor stakeholders. This value comes when HR professionals identify critical organisation capabilities and deliver them through their work, he says.
But it is easy to be seduced by process and activities rather than value delivery. At the end of the day, it is nice to look at the lines of code (or processes or guidelines) that were created and define this activity as success. However, it is more important to be measured by the impact of the activity.
HR professionals often like to do what is easy rather than what is right. After a while it is easy to run a compensation administration program, to run a training program, to do a hiring process. These administrative processes become routine and the HR people lose sight of the deliverables or strategies they are attempting to serve or deliver.
Turning the ‘strategic’ into operational actions is messy and confusing at times, so many HR folks don’t jump in and learn by doing.
What is left after transactional HR has been automated, centralised, eliminated or outsourced forms the heart of The HR Value Proposition.
Ulrich says he and Brockbank continue to be confronted by future-focused questions such as:
- Why does HR matter so much more today?
- How do I convince my line manager to pay attention to HR issues?
- What specific things can HR do to connect with customers, investors, employees, and line managers?
- What are emerging HR practices?
- While deliverables (outcomes, intangibles, or capabilities) are important, what are the investments in HR practices that make these outcomes happen?
- How does HR help to build, not just measure, intangible value creation?
- What are the evolving and emerging roles for HR professionals?
According to Ulrich: These are the questions that remain after re-engineering, automating, or outsourcing HR. These are the questions we address in this book.
We continue to believe that HR professionals should focus more on deliverables than on doables or activities. We believe that key deliverables are organisation capabilities and intangibles that define the organisation’s identity and personality and that deliver high performance to all stakeholders. We also believe that HR leaders can align practices to more effectively execute business strategy.
HR professionals who demonstrate the right competencies and play the right roles will be more effective than those who do not. And, we believe that with creative thought and discipline these beliefs will become actions that deliver value. In sum, we believe that this is a great time to be a HR professional, he says.
Ulrich urges aspiring leaders to strive for excellence in both areas by demonstrating attributes and achieving results. He suggests that a lot of leadership teaching focuses too narrowly on organisational capabilities such as vision, character and trust, while attention to the critical connection between leadership capabilities and the desired results is lacking.
He believes it is essential that leaders are able to demonstrate results in four key areas: results for employees (human capital); results for the organisation (learning, innovation); results for customers (delight target customers) and results for investors (cash flow)
Built around three critical capabilities, namely strategy and operational design, leadership development and strategic HR, results-based leadership will help you to define, build, increase and sustain value, with an emphasis on leveraging human and social capital critical intangible assets.
Dave Ulrich CV
Dave Ulrich has just completed a three-year sabbatical serving as president of the Canada Montreal Mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and has returned to the University of Michigan, where he is a Professor of Business.
Professionally, he studies how organisations use human resources (HR) to build capabilities of speed, learning, collaboration, accountability, talent, and leadership.
He has helped generate multiple award-winning databases that assess alignment between business strategies, HR practices, and HR competencies. Having consulted and done work with more than half the Fortune 200, Ulrich has been credited as a leader in moving HR from a staff backwater to its new place at the CEO’s right hand, while, along the way, helping with the process of building intellectual capital, creating strategic clarity and driving change.
He has published more than 100 articles and book chapters and 12 books, including: Why the Bottom Line Isn’t: How to Build Value Through People and Organization (with Norm Smallwood), Results-based Leadership: How Leaders Build the Business and Improve the Bottom Line (with Norm Smallwood and Jack Zenger), and Human Resource Champions: The Next Agenda for Adding Value and Delivering Results.
He was editor of Human Resource Management Journal (1990 1999), and has served on the editorial boards of four other journals.