Oh,” says Dave Ulrich, with not a hint of false modesty, “I’m not sure I’m the most influential thinker.” It’s a self-effacing statement, and one with which many people working in HR in particular and business in general would beg to differ.
professor to tell him: “You’re weird. You must come into this field.” Ulrich took his advice – and law’s loss is HR’s gain.
Since that moment, Ulrich has lived and breathed OD and HR competencies for 30 years. In that time, surely, much has changed in the industry he admits to being more than a little obsessed by?
After all, this is the person who has published more than 20 books, consulted and done research with over half of the firms in the Fortune 200 and been listed in business magazine Forbes as one of the world’s top five business coaches. He has been voted most influential international thinker in our rankings so many times (every year since they began in 2006 in fact), that this year it only seemed fair to give him a lifetime achievement award, and let somebody else have a go.
“There’s a great saying in French: ‘Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.’ Or, the more things change, the more they’re the same,” he says. “Many of the principles of HR as business partner have stayed the same, and they will stay the same: HR contributes to the business, it adds value, it helps multiple people get better at what they do.
“But,” he continues, “some things have changed. First: HR is not just there to serve the strategy. For 15 years, we have been saying that HR people look at the company strategy
Professor at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, and partner at consulting firm the RBL Group, which focuses on helping organisations and leaders deliver value, Ulrich is best known for coming up with and popularising the g a m e - c h a n g i n g model of HR as business partner. He has studied themes of leadership, learning and talent for three decades and published hundreds of influential articles. And while his accomplishments speak for themselves, they are backed by the comments of our readers who voted for him: “Still at the top of his game.” “A real thought leader.” “The father of the HR business partner.”
Look at the strategy as a window. Connect HR to the outside as a mirror and see the reflection of what they should do. Now, we say: look at the strategy as a window. Look through the strategy to the outside world. Connect HR to customers, investors, communities, the regulators and suppliers outside the company. I call it ‘HR Outside-In’.”
That slight shift in point of view, explains Ulrich, leads to a new idea of what HR contributes to the business – and it’s not just to do with people. “It’s the culture and the organisation capability that’s created from those people. HR deliverables should be talent, the culture and identity of the firm and the quality of the leadership.”
But despite this impressive role-call of achievements, Ulrich, who professes to being something of an introvert, modestly attributes much of his success to being “lucky enough to steal ideas from people who I really respect”, name-checking, among others, fellow HR influencer Lynda Gratton, research partner Steve Kerr and Center for Effective Organizations’ John Boudreau.
Although he has dedicated himself to the subject for much of his life, Ulrich fell into organisational development (OD) almost by accident. “I was on my way to law school, when a friend suggested I take a course in organisational behaviour,” he says. “It captured my imagination.” So much so, he at once wrote a 20-page paper, prompting the
The question of not only improving our current crop of leaders but building the next generation is an area of inquiry for Ulrich at present. It is something he explores in his new book, Leadership Sustainability, published in March. “How do you sustain what you know you should improve?” he says. “I lose weight, I put it back on. Or I fall prey to workaholism – one of my addictions of choice. It’s the same with leadership behaviour: we fall into habits that are difficult to change, even though we know we should.”
And it is not only leaders who slip into bad habits – he believes the HR profession as a whole is also guilty of not kicking certain counterproductive tendencies. According to Ulrich, one of the most frustrating is the
4 HR Most Influential Supplement November 2012
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36 HRMI 2015 10th Anniversary