It can be hard to say no. But learning how to do so effectively is one of the most critical skills a CLO can learn. It reinforces the point that not every problem is a training problem.
“Executives like the shortcut of, ‘I have an issue, put training program X together,’” said Greg Friedman, vice president of HR, organization and leadership development at Parexel, a Boston-based specialist in clinical drug trials. “And I think we need to be strong enough to say what result are you going for?”
In this episode of the Chief Learning Officer Podcast, Greg talks about the perspective his background as an organizational development professional brings to the work of employee development and what learning executives can do to set aside the busy work and do more of what’s meaningful.
Greg also shares why culture change work is risky for CLOs and how and why he’s rethinking performance management at Parexel to focus less on ratings and more on meaningful conversation.
Plus, co-hosts Mike Prokopeak and Justin Lombardo discuss the differences between learning, OD and HR and why they sometimes come into conflict.
This episode of the podcast is brought to you by the Chief Learning Officer Symposium, the premier gathering for senior learning executives. The fall event takes place in Chicago from Oct. 14-16, 2019. For more information, go to CLOsymposium.com.
Podcast Producer: Jesse McQuarters.
Note: This transcript has been edited for space and clarity.
Mike Prokopeak: Hello and welcome to the Chief Learning Officer Podcast. I’m Mike Prokopeak, editor in chief at Chief Learning Officer magazine and I’m joined by my co-host today Justin Lombardo. Welcome Justin.
Justin Lombardo: Hey Mike, how you doing?
Mike: I’m doing well. You’re just back from vacation.
Justin: Well, I call it a re-energizing trip. I was on a 36-day trip to Greenland, Iceland, Norway – so it was called “The Voyage of the Vikings.” It was really pretty cool.
Mike: “The Voyage of the Vikings.” Any travel recommendations you have for others? I know we’re not a travel podcast but any recommendations you have based off of that trip? You were gone three weeks?
Justin: About four weeks. About four weeks on the ship. I’d say it’s worth doing. I mean, see Greenland. See Iceland. See the places you normally wouldn’t go. Do it before everything melts, which actually is a serious concern they’ve got and just remember Viking helmets do not have horns.
Mike: Viking helmets … explain that one.
Justin: You know the whole thing about Viking helmets always having horns. We see that in all the images of Vikings. They have horns. Well that’s a late accretion that comes from Wagner’s The Ring Cycle, [that] was the first time in the costumes that they had horns. Vikings never actually had them. They had drinking horns that they carried. But the helmets were without horns. Now I spent 36 days learning that little bit of information, for what it’s worth.
Mike: You truly do learn something new every day.
Justin: You do try and learn something new every day. Speaking of which, who do we have with us today?
Mike: We have today as our guest Greg Friedman. He is vice president of HR, learning and organizational development for Parexel. They’re a Boston-based CRO, a clinical research organization. Basically that means that they specialize in drug trials.
Justin: And they don’t have horn helmets, either. Do they?
Mike: As far as I know, they don’t.
Justin: That’s good.
Mike: I spoke with Greg at our Boston Breakfast Club event in front of the audience there. And we had a pretty good conversation, I think, focusing particularly on his background and experience as an organizational development person, an OD person.
Justin: He came out of OD.
Mike: Well, he started in learning and development but eventually got a degree in OD and really kind of made his career as an OD person. Which got me thinking as we were talking about OD and learning and the distinction between the two, because I think OD isn’t necessarily something that people in learning and development circles really have a strong grasp of. I think it’s a term that gets thrown around quite a bit very loosely when we talk about OD and organizational development. So let me throw a definition at you. I found it on the Internet so you know it’s true.
Justin: OK, there you go.
Mike: And you know it’s accurate. “Organizational development – OD – is a field of research theory and practice dedicated to expanding the knowledge and effectiveness of people to accomplish more successful organizational change in performance.” Isn’t that a learning person?
Justin: Well, it pretty much sounds like it. But I mean, I think you’re dealing with something Mike that goes into the learning and OD function for the last 15-20 years. And to quote the Supreme Court decision on pornography in the Larry Flynt case, we may not be able to define pornography but we certainly know it when we see it.
And I think that’s the case with OD and with learning that we come up with definitions. And no matter how you try and spin it, the definitions overlap. So the disciplines have a lot of synergy with each other. But that also when you have two separate departments within an organization, one OD and one training, that synergy can sometimes really create tension and problems if they’re not working well together. Because in the definition that our guests gave it looks at performance change but that’s the same thing for training, you could flip the two words, depending on the order that you want. And it’s the same definition.
Mike: How much experience did you have with OD when you were doing CLO gigs? I mean, was it something that you ran into? Did you have OD people on staff?
Justin: In my first gig with Motorola, we had some separate OD people but that line blurred as learning and development grew from simply being a training organization. I know our guest has actually used the words training is not enough. And he’s absolutely right. So as the notion of what training really does expanded and looked at what it has to reinforce, it has to create structures around it so that what is being trained on can be really used on the job and reinforced, you’re moving truly into a traditional OD. So we had OD practitioners there.
In health care, it’s not as common. It gets lumped together. Very often what you find is some department in health care under the old rubrics. What’s changing now is you’d have someone who was in charge of HR, training, OD, and short order cooking, pretty much. Whatever was left over they tossed into that executive’s portfolio. So you really didn’t have separate OD people there with it. Now though we’re at a stage, I think, where the disciplines are separate and distinct.
And by the definition you read it’s a field of research. And one could contend that now both learning and OD as well as certain aspects of HR are three distinct disciplines that have developed an expertise with depth over time. So they are no longer interchangeable. And they need to work synergistically together when you have them, because if they don’t I guarantee you, not one of the three will be successful. And in point of fact I would contend they will hurt the overall movement forward of the organization.
Mike: Well that brings up an interesting point – and this is one that Greg brings up in our conversation in Boston when he talked about the tension that comes from those sort of functions that are working in concert or should be but that are sometimes not necessarily working together. There’s a tension between HR and learning. There’s a tension when you have an OD team who’s coming in and overlapping with learning work in some cases. So why is that tension there in your opinion? Why can’t we all just get along?
Justin: Well that’s a good question, why we can’t all get along? Partially, now, I think there’s two reasons for it. There’s a historical reason for it. And the history of it is … And I’m just going to lay this out here and I’m sure some of our listeners are going to take offense at it.
Mike: I’m not used to you laying things out.
Justin: Just laying out there and letting the folks take offense at it if they so choose. I don’t get the letters you do. But the reality is historically HR, training and what we call back in the day OD, were not fully developed or understood disciplines. So consequently in many ways back in the day they were the graveyard of careers. That’s where you sent the people that no longer were great in operations or you send somebody maybe to do a rotation for a year or two before they really got to the work of the company. And so they were not respected disciplines. It was one of those where the feeling was you can throw anybody in the business and had experience and they can manage those functions, where in the reality we’ve seen that that’s not the case.
So that’s one reason. I think the other reason why there’s tension is very often all three and particularly OD and training approach the same issue or concern or challenge within a corporation. And both with specific parts of the discipline but so much is interdependent. So for example, if you’re trying to shift the culture, OD can say what we’re going to do is restructure this way. Well, that’s all well and good but structure is not going to drive the culture without some performance behavior interventions to support it. Well, conversely, on the training side, people may say, “Oh, we’ve got to train the folks to do X, Y and Z or to perform their job this way, anything from call centers to really very highly skilled work.”
Well, that’s all well and good. But if you don’t have the structures around that to reinforce that performance it’s not going to succeed. So the disciplines are together. And sometimes we overreach. We think in training we can do it without OD. And indeed, some people may be completely skilled in both. And OD sometimes thinks they can do it without us. But the success is when both sides – both disciplines – are working together. Now it doesn’t matter whether or not you have two separate people or departments you need both those disciplines working in concert to drive change and better business outcomes if that’s what you’re after.
Mike: So that’s the hallmark of a mature organization, when you can have the two of them working in concert together?
Mike: There’s going to be conflict. There’s going to be some butting of heads that happens but as long as it’s productive versus destructive.
Justin: And I think the reality is if you’re working on an initiative that really is supposed to be a game changer for the company or with the organization, if in the plan you don’t see things about shifting culture and management, accountability and performance management as well as training and those kind of things, if you don’t see all that bound into a plan together then you’ve got a plan that’s never going to work.
Mike: You’re wasting your effort.
Justin: You’re wasting. You need both sides.
Mike: So that’s my question for you. What can CLOs learn from the OD perspective or the field of OD? It seems like what you just said kind of puts it into a nutshell. It’s that looking at it from a broader perspective of structure, culture and practice and how that all works.
Justin: And it is that. It’s the whole notion of having training alone is not going to drive real change for a business. Training has to be supported by management reinforcement, structures, policies, procedures that reinforce where you want to go. And that means all the disciplines, and I would include HR in this, which is usually the policy side of it. The structure side of it is OD, the learning side of it is obviously the CLO. And then overall performance management usually involves all three, because you’ve got rewards …
Mike: Tied into compensation, tied to management.
Justin: So when you have the three disciplines working together is when you’re going to biggest bang for your buck. The mistake is when an executive usually a CFO working with the CEO says, “Well they’re so closely related, we don’t need expertise in each one of the three, we only need it one or two. Well, good luck with that.”
Mike: So what do you do in that situation? What we were just talking about was sort of like the perfect state. It’s never a continuous state but it’s at least it’s what we’re aiming for, where they’re working in concert, working …
Justin: It’s the ideal.
Mike: But what do you do? What can a CLO do when it’s not there? So to put out that example of – if you’re a CLO and you’re building a learning intervention or practice or a system, and there isn’t those sort of management culture pieces of it, the structural pieces of it to support this change that you’re trying to make? What do you do?
Justin: Well, that’s good question. I mean, that’s where I would say right away depending on how critical that intervention is to the overall success of the organization, you would do well to bring in a consultant to work with you to sort of say don’t forget these pieces. Because yes as an experienced learning exec I know the extra pieces that need to be there. But I will tell you that there’s things in the discipline when I worked with OD professionals; a depth of knowledge and skill about structure, about performance in a way that I don’t have as a learning exec.
And conversely when I’ve been called in to work with people on restructuring. They’ll go, “Well, we never thought about it that way.” So it is a really good balance if it’s critical. Now, if it’s a small-scale intervention, I would contend that either side can probably make a go at it. If it’s a limited scope, not business critical but something that still needs to get done, you can do it. But if you’re betting part of the farm on it and that’s what we talked about doing if we’re really going to …
Mike: What CLOs should be doing.
Justin: Exactly, that’s the thing. You’ve got the things you’ve always got to do that are run right. But if you’re really betting the farm on the change part of it you better at least if not have somebody who knows OD really well bring somebody in to make sure that suggestions you’re making are really appropriate for that intervention from an OD perspective, from an organizational shift or structure, change management. That’s a good example. Every CLO believes in their heart of hearts that they are experts at change management and many probably are. But the reality is there’s ebbs and flows and waves within change management for sustainability. That really is better left to OD experts.
Mike: So you’re going to hear from this conversation with Greg – his perspective on this and how he’s built OD into his work at Boston Scientific and now Parexel. Are there limitations on an OD point of view? Are there things that you see that maybe they perhaps don’t get? When it comes to how you develop people within your organization, something that somebody who grew up in a learning and development background may bring as a strength that perhaps an OD person may miss when they’re looking at that overarching structure?
Justin: Yeah, there are. And I’m sure if we had an OD person sitting here …
Mike: It would be a good argument.
Justin: They would say, “Here’s what we know you guys miss.” Very often, OD folks that I know haven’t had the opportunity to dig in depth into what learning professionals and CLOs know about the whole notion of just-in-time learning at this point, about individualized learning, about people that want learning objects that they can go and find, construct themselves and put together. That’s a field that they don’t keep up with because they don’t need to. It’s not within their purview. So I mean I think that’s one of the lacks. They also, I think, tend to believe that if you train them and then have it reinforced it’s going to be effective in and of itself where we know that’s not always the case. One time trying to get somebody to do something differently isn’t always going to be the best way.
So I mean I think that’s it. I think a lot of the tension of the reality is it comes down to artificially constructed turf wars. Who’s really driving the change, the cultural distinction, to get the biggest bang for the buck for the business? And as you mature in the field that’s not an argument you need to have anymore. Both sides should be doing it together and just let the rest of the chips fall where they may.
Mike: Just focus on doing good work.
Justin: Focus on doing the good work. And that’s what you do with it. Now having said that I always think that the OD people are always wrong. I just wanted to lay that out there as a learning professional. If I had decided on one side or the other. The learning people say the OD people need to go back to school.
Mike: That’s a perfect way to end this, I think. So with that we’re going to jump into this conversation with Greg.
Justin: Look forward to it.
Mike: As always if you like what you hear give us a rating on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen and consider sharing it with your network. And if you have an idea for a future episode or a topic or just want to let us know what you think. Drop us a line at editor at chieflearningofficer.com. Are you ready, Justin?
Justin: All set.
Mike: Let’s get learning.
Mike: So Greg we did a little bit of a talk not too long ago as we were getting ready for this event about your background. And one of the things that I thought was interesting before we dive into your professional career is that you actually got start working as a counselor with prisoners in the correction system. How is your work working with prisoners different from the work that you do now? Or is it kind of the same thing?
Greg: First, thank you for inviting me here. It’s an honor, it’s a pleasure to do this with all of you. So yes I did act as a corrections counselor for a little while. And you’re asking me sort of the parallels. Of course it was different. But one thing that I got out of it is working with an executive – political, overbearing, strong – is nothing compared to a murderer. So I have the ability to sort of stand my ground with the contrast, create some good balance, but of course, very different. And the one thing I know that I got out of it is I found a job that I definitely did not want to do anymore. And that led me to do what I love to do which is what did I do today.
Mike: It was a learning experience.
Mike: Well, I think there was some stat – and there’s always this person who brings up stats but they have actually no reference for it and I’m about to do that. I thought I saw some stat like a lot of CEOs actually have some sociopathic tendencies. There’s actually a little bit of a parallel there when you brought up working with the CEO you can sort of stand your ground when you sat face to face with somebody who is a murderer.
Greg: The truth is, I guess if this is the evening, we’re actually drinking wine I can make some really awesome jokes. Because there are those parallels too.
Mike: So the one thing that I want to talk to you a little bit about before we dive into talking to your career is organization development because that’s a big piece of your background. So you’re not a CLO proper in the sense that you don’t have that title. You’re VP of HR, you oversee organization development, learning and obviously all that. But you really bring that organization development side to that. So I want to ask you how does an OD person approach some of the challenges that we just talked about in this audience differently than maybe somebody who grew up in a learning and development function? How’s that distinct?
Greg: I think it’s a really good question. I think high level probably someone from learning, their goal is to partner with an executive to shape the future of individual capability performance. I think OD does something similar. It’s partnering with an executive to shape the future of the organization in which those individuals sit. So it’s a great partnership there. At the end of the day, I think OD is the idea of ensuring all the interventions are aligned to enabling the strategy, the business strategy, that’s what OD is going to do. And it’s going to maybe look at learning on how do you keep that alive but look at a many, many, many other facets as well.
Mike: You alluded to a minute ago that experience of being a counselor and leading you to believe that I don’t want to do this anymore. Was there a moment when you figured out OD is my thing? I mean, where did that happen? When you said it, “OK, this is what I want to pursue.” And you’ve actually done some academic work on it as well.
Greg: So I ended up getting very early in my career a pretty senior job at the American Red Cross and I was associate director of training. OD wasn’t a thing back then. And I was constantly asked to intervene on the conflict between managers and employees. [Employees] are always blaming it’s the managers. And what I would always do is – Groundhog Day- deliver this is old stuff – Zenger Miller frontline leadership training. Awesome. I loved it. But I found myself delivering the same training over and over to solve the same problem with the same results. And the same results led to the same problem.
At the same time I was in grad school. OD wasn’t the thing by the way back then. It really wasn’t a field but OB – so when I was in grad school part of my degree was an MBA and I was taking an OB class, organizational behavior. And I’m learning all these ideas that training is not the only way to address some of these issues that I’m working with right now with the American Red Cross. And I’m learning and learning and learning. But yet I find myself at my job facilitating Zenger Miller Frontline Leadership. So that was my sort of epiphany, right there.
Mike: So you’ve benefited from that perspective and that experience. As you look at the way that learning is done in corporate education do you see places where if you didn’t go and do an OD degree or do some study of it, that OD can be inserted pretty easily as a layman so to speak, as somebody who doesn’t have background in OD? Like some principles that you could say, here’s something I see pretty commonly that it’s really kind of simple but if you did this, things would go better.
Greg: Like learning, OD is made up a lot of frameworks. We carry these frameworks in our mind and so if someone can bring those plus bring the passion of trying to align the organization to achieving the strategy you can be really successful. I think I’ve cracked the code. So one thing I’m great at and I’m not going to say I’m the greatest at OD but I’m really great at putting together OD teams. And my perfect mix is a few PhD level I/O psychologists and a few folks who don’t do OD who are in other places within the organization. Some come from learning, some come from other parts of the organization, like not even the HR circle. And that’s the perfect balance. In other words, folks who have the passion, who have the sort of the genetics, if you will, the will to intervene without any formal education. They’ve been some of my best performers and they added the most value to the company.
Mike: So it’s finding those people. I mean, that kind of helps to solve that alignment question that we were talking to when you bring those people who have the experience and the passion for it. They kind of just start to make those conversations happen in a way that you don’t have to manufacture. They’re going to do it on their own.
Mike: So bring in teams. Teams is a good idea to bring in some principles. All right, so let’s dive into your career. Because right now, you’re VP of HR at Parexel. So you lead global OD, leadership development, people analytics and the HRIS function. You’ve got about team about 40 that are working with you. It wasn’t always that way. You talked about your start in counseling and American Red Cross. You also worked at Boston Scientific. So tell us a little bit about your work at Boston Scientific before you moved into Parexel. What were some of the things that you worked on? Some of the things that you did while you were there?
Greg: So first this might be interesting for everybody. Before Boston Scientific I was at a company called PTC – Parametric Technology. And I was loving what I was doing. I started there to build a learning organization and it actually transitioned to more of a learning and OD organization. I loved the job. I ended up getting a phone call from retained search. And they said, “Hey, Greg, we want you to consider this job at Boston Scientific to basically take part in an experiment.” I’m like, it’s my career? An experiment?
Mike: It’s my life. I’ve got a family.
Greg: So I’m like, “What’s the experiment?” So basically, Boston Scientific they had a new CHRO, the company was about to change the world. So there was all kinds of funding to do whatever they wanted. And the CHRO was getting coached by David Ulrich. And so some might know that name he is very popular in the HR field. He wrote the book on the strategic business partner and that changed the whole idea in HR from generalist to the sexy word called HRBP. And his experiment, the company’s experiment was let’s not take generalists and make them these strategic HR business partners. Let’s find OD practitioners and bring them in and call them HRBPs and align them to C-level leaders in the company. So over some negotiation I took a job where I let go of OD, I let go of learning … and I joined the dark side. There’s always this tension. I joined the dark side of being an HR business partner.
Mike: I was going to say, you meant HR when you said the dark side?
Greg: So I started in that role doing a lot of balance of understanding what it’s like to be an HR business partner but also lots of OD interventions. Now to answer your question more direct, I had a lot of fun there. It’s because the learning organization which was awesome at Boston Scientific was distracted. The company got a FDA warning letter. It’s super serious for a company. Investors hate it. And learning and development at Boston Scientific at the time, everything was really focused on lifting this letter. So helping people understand compliance and quality and that sort of thing.
So there was this big gap in OD. And OD really wasn’t even a thing at Boston Scientific at the time. So myself, actually the CHRO and a few others, we basically built an OD group ad hoc. And we did some amazing things there. And one of the things I’m most proud of is right before we made a $28 billion acquisition we basically put together this OD intervention that cleaned the company and made it really easy to click this acquisition into Boston Scientific.
Mike: So you mentioned something just a second ago. L&D was distracted that it kind of allowed you to do some creative things. I mean, do you think that’s a fairly common thing? That the way we think about organizations, whether we’re learning and development function we kind of say “that’s our job” and we get protective around that. And new ideas, whether that’s coming from OD or coming from HR, push them back a little bit. Is that been your experience a little bit? And why is that you see this happening that it kind of limits our ability to work across functions?
Greg: I think part of it is because it’s easy for us to sort of lose course and lose track of our main goal is to make it easier for this strategy to be achieved. And we can do that in a lot of ways. So again, the L&D group at Boston Scientific at the time was doing that by helping lift that letter, that warning letter.
Mike: There was nothing more important business wise, then for that to happen.
Greg: If you’re an investor and you hear about a warning, there is nothing more important. You’re going to take away your money if you don’t hear something good. But at the same time, it did create this gap. But I think in other instances I do see a learning group or even HR sort of lose their eye on the ball and do interventions for intervention’s sake or putting in a program for program’s sake without remembering: How is this going to make it easier for folks to perform in a way that they’re more likely to achieve the strategy within the culture that you have?
Mike: Be able to step back and take that long view that gives you the opportunity. It was forced in sort of negative circumstances in this case but to find those opportunities or if you’re not in that situation to pull back and say, “Let’s step back from what we’re intervening to do.” What this particular leader wants to happen in his group or her group and really be able to say, “Here’s what we’re trying to achieve from a strategy point of view.”
The new CHRO, I think, came from the Special Forces or came from the military. Didn’t have any HR experience but had this idea to bring in the Special Forces methodology that-
Greg: So the first CHRO was new. She ended up leaving and then they did bring in somebody else. This guy had no HR experience, no corporate experience. And if anyone watched that movie “Black Hawk Down” that movie was literally built about him and his team. He was the guy in the helicopter. So you say, “How can this be?” Well, one thing that he brought that was probably more insightful than anyone would have had from the corporate world is leadership development. He might not have known HR but he knew leadership development. He knew how to build leaders in a world where resilience and chaos is paramount. So one thing that he wanted to leave Boston Scientific was the idea of build the leadership bench in a way that it’s strong forever. And so I actually left my job at Boston Scientific as this HR business partner. And I took this job to create a new way of doing leadership development at the company.
Mike: So let’s talk about that transition to Parexel now. So about eight years ago, you made the jump. Is that right to Parexel?
Greg: So at BSC I did this leadership thing with this guy. And then about eight and a half years ago, I left BAC to go to Parexel.
Mike: So about 20,000 employees, global in scale, CRO so basically an outsourcer for clinical research. So pharmaceutical companies will hire Parexel to do clinical research on their behalf on drugs that they’re developing.
Greg: Exactly. Make sure that they work, they do what they’re supposed to do and make sure they’re safe.
Mike: So it’s a pretty large organization but maybe not necessarily a Fortune 100 name brand. What made you take that jump to Parexel? What personally was in it for you after you had just done this pretty cool gig at Boston Scientific and put in this new approach.
Greg: Probably three things. One, I had a friend who was working there and he one day calls me and says, “Greg, this company just changed their strategy.” At the time was like, 6,500 employees. And he’s like, “They’re going to grow significantly. The CEO needs OD. The CEO has no idea what OD means but he needs it. Come in and talk.” So I did. And from an OD point of view, I’ve got a park in front of me. I got a playground in front of me. But I was also really compelled compelled by their mission. So Boston Scientific literally changed the way cardiac healthcare is done. It’s a complete change. But Parexel can change the healthcare not just in one therapeutic area but all the therapeutic areas. If you’re mission driven and I am, here is an opportunity to help shape the whole world in terms of making it more healthy. Plus, they’re growing. Plus, I have a CEO who is open armed, “Come in, I want your help.” Which if the CEO does something opposite, everything else was futile.
Mike: Can you give me a sense of the learning function there? How does it work? I mean, how’s it structured? Are their particular characteristics which you would say are hallmarks of the Parexel approach to learning and development?
Greg: So at the end of the day Parexel is a services company. So we don’t have traditional R&D. We have a technology division of engineers that make new things but basically our R&D is people. And to work on our people, to help them get stronger and grow through learning and other type of interventions, costs us money before we even spend money. In other words, because it’s a services company they’re billable and every minute they’re learning, most likely we’re not billing out for that. So learning is a big deal in terms of the scope of it. So our HRLT, we have five vice presidents, myself and sort of even a third one – we’re all about the people helping them develop and learning. Just to give you the sort of like the focus on learning at this company. Our budget is pretty big, it’s about $10 million altogether annually. Making our employees stronger and better so they can at the end of the day get things done with high quality. Quality is not even an option. So if a drug passes regulatory filing and gets on the market and doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do, that’s a huge, huge deal. So as Parexel folks showing up strong and being developed is everything. So it’s an important thing at Parexel.
Mike: And I think that’s how learning and development fits into strategy. We talked about that capability and you’ve got to be focused on the quality of the individuals and their development there in order to be able to carry out the business strategy. Are there particular investments that you’ve made that have enabled from your point of view that success?
Greg: I’d love to share 20 examples with you. One that I’m really proud of at Parexel is when the company first decided that they were going to be a different CRO from a strategic point of view, how do we differentiate how we take advantage of what’s going on the market. And what they did at the time was instead of saying, “Hey, Pfizer, Novartis, AstraZeneca, instead of us supplementing your clinical trials with some of our people how about you just outsource everything to us?” Huge deal for a pharma company or biotech because everything’s riding on the clinical trials. Parexel’s strategy at the time was give it all to us. Just everything, the whole journey from a phase one trial all the way to commercialization. The fish bought the worm and it changed everything at Parexel in terms of we grew, grew, grew, grew.
And I remember facilitating every year it would be a retreat with the CEO and his team and I remember being in Vermont and facilitating the meeting, and they’re like, “Something’s wrong, the strategy not completely working.” And I’m like, “Well, what’s up?” And I had this flip chart behind me and I’m kind of writing down what it was that he was saying wasn’t working. It wasn’t working, wasn’t working. I was like, “Well, what should it be? What’s your ideal state?” I get out another flip chart and I’m writing all that.
And I look in between the flip charts, of course there’re no words between them. And I’m like, “The gap is culture. You completely realigned your technologies, your processes, your marketing, your sales, the commercial teams to this new strategy but you forgot about to reprogram the minds of all the employees. Culture.” And so one of the big interventions that my OD team did in partnership with the CEO and the president of the company was to reshape Parexel culture so that we showed up in line with actually owning the studies being the experts, working with clients with the ability to say no, for the best of the trial.
Mike: So let’s talk about culture. Because I think we were talking a bit about this and I think culture is something that has come a lot more into the learning and development vocabulary. Everything is about creating a learning culture, we’re trying to create a culture that is attractive to employees that will be successful. But you’ve got some points of view on culture work in the sense that it can be a little bit like playing with fire when you enter into this, we’re about building culture, you can really enter in some dangerous territory.
So can you tell me, how can it be dangerous? Why is it a little bit like playing with fire when you enter into this work about culture? Like in that moment when you went to the CEO and team and said, “Listen, I see the gap and very clearly it is to me culture.” At that moment, you entered into some tricky territory. Fortunately, that worked out for you by the fact that you’re still here with us right now. But it could have been pretty dangerous. And so can you explain a little bit about what’s dangerous there?
Greg: So culture it’s kind of trendy right now. It’s a word that’s always being overused. It’s an important word. It’s an important concept. I actually think these days strategy is important for a company to win. But what strategy is actually sustainable in other words over time? Companies catch up. They always do. But what can’t be copied, what they can’t catch up on, what competitors can’t catch up on his culture. It’s why I think Disney is as great as they are. Apple would be in that category.
For me, the primary reason for culture is to make it easy for the employees to achieve the strategy. And if those beliefs and those behaviors and those practices are ones that counter to the strategy, you’ve almost reprogram folks to create fire if you will. In other words, this is my own hot button, my own pet peeve where you have a CEO or an executive at a company that says, “We have such a good culture. It will not change no matter what. And by the way, now we’re going to figure out our strategy.” Well, if you want to retain a culture that contradicts the strategy, you’re going to be a confused company. And I just think that’s a big, big issue. That’s kind of playing with fire or if you’re starting to shape the culture, when you already have this strategy that’s not going to be aligned to make it easy to achieve the strategy. Again, you’re going backwards. You’re creating a detractor.
Mike: So I’m a chief learning officer. I’m in a learning and development organization or heading a function and I wasn’t in that position where you were brainstorming this with the executives and say, “Oh, I think we’ve identified what the problem is.” But this comes to you a little bit later. Like, “Hey, we’re going to do some culture work, learning and development. We’re all about creating a learning culture. Now go.” What are some of the questions you would ask at that point to say, “OK, let me understand. Let’s pause for a second.” What were some questions you would ask to make sure that you can effectively carry through the culture work?
Greg: I actually do this often. So I like to say, think of the future where we’ve achieved our aspiration through the strategy we have in front of us and as we have achieved it what are the beliefs – go up and look down at all the employees – what are their behaviors that they’ve been demonstrating as if we’ve achieved the strategy. And if you can start to have the conversation around that, then that’s the ingredients to start shaping the company – I use the word shaping not managing, not changing – but shaping the culture. But it’s all about what are the right beliefs, behaviors, practices, norms, values that folks believe in. They demonstrate when no one else is looking as if they’re achieving and winning through the strategy that’s in front of them. Not the other way around.
Mike: So you can ask the leaders, what are the behaviors? What are the beliefs that we have but there is often a gap between what leaders believe are the beliefs and values and what people actually on the ground are doing and believing and valuing? How do you address that gap?
Greg: That’s really difficult. So I’m talking about the ideal culture. The ideal culture is the one that makes it easy for folks to achieve the strategy then there’s the real culture and there’s always a gap. And for Parexel we’re in 53 different countries. So it’s not only the corporate culture and the sort of the microcultures, there’s also all these regional cultures. I think that’s the way to do these type of things is understand the ideal culture, understand the culture that you have, understand the gap, and do your best to sort of – sounds way easier than actually doing it – but close that gap.
I have this model in terms of how I would change culture and how I’ve sort of shaped it, I should say, and it’s always served me very well. I’ve used it at my last three companies. If I would say what’s the most important thing you can do to enable that shape? And it comes down to one thing, and it comes down to one concept actually, as people we take our behavioral cues from those that were respect and usually who are more authoritative positions, i.e, leaders. And so if I would say if there’s one thing, it’s leaders, go out, demonstrate the culture, the behaviors, show them that you believe, demonstrate those practices. But I always like, “Get caught doing it.” Don’t just do it when you’re alone, make sure other people see you do it and go on almost a “get caught campaign.” Because if folks see those they hopefully respect and they’re definitely in an authoritative position, demonstrate what it is that we want then all the signs and posters doesn’t matter. It’s the behavior of the leaders.
Mike: I like that idea, that get caught doing it, practicing it. That’s a nice little hook for it. I want to ask you a little bit about some change that’s happened in Parexel over the last couple years. So in 2017, the company was bought by private equity, taken private.
Greg: 35 years, it was a public company. But two years ago, private equity bought us.
Mike: And then 2018, the longtime cofounder moved into the chairman role and you brought in a new CEO, Jamie MacDonald, last year.
Mike: Can you talk a little bit of how you navigated those changes from your function, and the things that you’ve done over time? How did that experience you’ve had in form that change that happened in the company?
Greg: So man, that was hard. I was very, very aligned with the CEO, the founder of the company, the executive team that was Parexel up to maybe a year and a half ago. And that’s a really good alignment to have until there’s a new CEO. I’ve seen this many times. I’m sure everybody here has seen this. A new CEO usually equals at least 50 percent of the executive team is going to turn over.
Mike: Because they thought they were going to be the CEO.
Greg: Exactly. For us, it was 100 percent of the executive team turned over. So it was really hard for me at first to sort of build credibility and sort of sit with them and show them that I’m your partner in this. And there’s a lot of politics. Anything that was done before couldn’t possibly be the right thing – the way we think some people are wired. But over time, my team doing the right thing over and over and over and over we started to build some quick credibility. Until now, I like to think I’m their partner again. So deep thinking, sort of the enterprise interventions.
Mike: So you kind of have had to start from ground zero.
Greg: I did.
Mike: Why did you do it? I mean, because you could have easily have just said, “You know what, I’m going to go find a new gig.” What made you stay?
Greg: I really do love the company. I love the mission. I love where we’re going. And quite frankly, with the the PE, we have a new strategy and where we’re going. [It] doesn’t mean because we have a new CEO, it’s a bad CEO. The new CEO is actually great. He’s different. He has an amazing amount of energy, very casual, down to earth, super experienced. I think he’s going to take this company to a really good spot. So I think I believe.
Mike: So you’re a believer in it?
Mike: Let’s take a quick break. So speed round. I want to ask you a couple of questions – something that might surprise us about something you think. So what is something that might surprise us about Parexel? So we just talked about the company but what is something surprising about the company that people may not realize?
Greg: So how’s this: So 96 percent of the best-selling medicine on the market today is because of Parexel. This is one of those companies if you’re not in life sciences, you’ve never heard of us but we touch everything that you do, assuming that you either take medicine or you know someone who does and probably mostly just about everybody.
Mike: Something that might surprise us about Parexel’s approach to L&D?
Greg: Because of the billability there’s always a lot of we want more training, we want more learning programs. And then once it takes people’s time and energy it’s we want less. But the other part is they really do embrace OD. I would say the executives really are trained to see sort of a systematic picture. Learning is not the only intervention for sure. It’s a whole series of interventions.
Mike: Is there a learning tool that you find overrated? What is it?
Greg: Coming from OD, love frameworks, lots of tools, lots of them in my head. I don’t know if I would find one overrated. I would say that the right tool for the wrong situation that’s overrated. And what really gets to me, one of my hot buttons is when you have especially a vendor convincing a leader in that company that you need to use our tool, you need to use our program. And it’s probably the right tool, right program it’s just for the wrong situation or for a situation that hasn’t even been articulated. That to me is overrated.
Mike: So don’t follow the shiny objects. Figure out what your real problem is and that may be the tool you need but it could be something completely different.
Greg: All tools are good but some of them get really shiny.
Mike: You’re talking about the OD background and you kind of bring in this holistic view to learning and development, how it fits not on an intervention basis but looking at teams, looking at different functions and how they all work together. Let’s talk a little bit about performance management because I think that’s a world that has crept into L&D, not so much in a stealth way but it’s sort of become part of our work. It’s like learning and development should be about driving higher performance. Makes complete sense.
But at the same time there’s been this revolution in performance management that has happened, where we’ve moved away from the annual reviews to these more informal type of performance conversations. From your point of view, have we done ourselves a disservice with this movement to how we’ve deconstructed the performance management process?
Greg: For three companies, I’ve owned the performance management process. I own it at Parexel. The bottom line is, I don’t know. I can say that early on in my career, I built competency based balanced scorecard, cascading, very structured, calibration meetings, all the bells and whistles, bringing in the best system behind it to put in the right ratings, that sort of thing.
I think that stuff is helpful for sure. But where I am right now at Parexel is we got rid of almost all that this past – so we have a weird fiscal year, our first year actually just ended in June – so we just ended our year. We just completed our end of the year performance management discussions.
And this year we did something different which was at the end of the day, managers have a meaningful conversation with your employees. You don’t need to write anything in the system, nothing. If you want to, you can but you don’t need to do seven pages or four pages or whatever. Just at the end of the day put two ratings in. We have the “what” rating: what results did the employee achieve? And then the “how” rating: so how did they achieve it. But focus on a conversation. That’s where it is. I do a lot of measurement at the company. And I think about hundred percent of the managers and employees say they’ve engaged in this conversation. Was it meaningful, was it high quality is there a line to better performance? We’ll see, I don’t know.
I’ll tell you where I’m going with this. Maybe I’ll go back to the highly structured, I don’t know. But where I’m going with this now is maybe we even take that away. And maybe we flip the whole performance management system. And instead of rating employees maybe we actually rate managers. And what I mean by this is, people are smart. Do they really need all this infrastructure and process and technology to do something that can be pretty simple which is having meaningful, high quality conversation. Well, people figure out stuff when they know they’re measured on it.
And that is something I brought up a Parexel and something we’re playing with. What if we said at the end of the year we’re going to actually ask employees to rate their experience with their managers, and part of that experience is getting meaningful feedback. Well then if you’re a manager, you’ll figure it out. And maybe it will be writing seven pages, competency-based, calibration with your co-workers. Or maybe it will just be a conversation. And I don’t know if that matters as long as the output, as long as a result is meaningful feedback was given to the employee and the employee figures out how to develop him or herself in line with where the company’s going.
Mike: So how do you align in development tools into that informal conversation? If the goal really is just having a meaningful conversation and however that meaning is determined is through [and] between the manager and that particular person? How do you bring in the development that is going to be meaningful into that meaningful conversation? Like, OK, Greg, you and I are meeting, we’re having our conversation. Alright, here’s the three things we want to do. How do you then bring in the learning organization to help?
Greg: I think it’s a good question and we do try to do that. So first off, don’t get me wrong there is some cascading. I think it’s so important for everyone to know exactly what our strategy is, what are our corporate objectives and so we do cascade that, not to the point where it’s overbearing but transparency of where we’re going as a company, super important.
But in terms of tools, I can give you a couple quick examples but we do build it and they will come. There’s a movie on that one, too. I don’t know if that actually works. But I do know if people are measured on things, they’re more likely to show up. And so for the managers, we do offer them training programs and toolkits and things like that. But one of the philosophies that we put out there is, think about development in a way that will build the employees’ performance for today but also build it for their future. It’s almost like where medicine is going.
Think of precision medicine. So right now, most medicine if we have some type of disease, the medicine that we get is probably about the same. Maybe it’ll be a little bit of a different dose. But the future is precision medicine like I’m different than you.
Mike: Our genomes are different enough that we can target it.
Greg: There’s tons of clinical trials in that sort of thing too. Well, what if we take that concept and bring it into learning or into development, which is where people are [and] where they want to go is all different. And so you know, one thing that I don’t like is sort of the blank development, here’s your career development tool. And one of the things we try to train people on is there is a proficiency scale. So someone is new into something, let’s get them into a typical education training program. Whether it’s classroom or web based or something related like that.
If their proficiency is a little bit better, let’s get them into a program where they getting coached. They read about, so to speak, not to touch the hot stove. But someone actually used to coach them and say, “Yeah, really when I touch the stove and it’s on three or more, it really hurts.” And their proficiency goes up. Let’s get them to start doing it in simple situations but then let’s get the situations more complex. Depending on the proficiency, let’s get them some training. If they’re pretty good. let’s get them some coaching. If they’re really good, let’s get them to go do it, experience it. And then finally if they’re awesome at it, let’s make them the teacher and just make them the coaches, make them the mentor. That’s kind of like this. So that’s concept we have at Parexel and if you will sort of pull from that toolkit.
Mike: That makes a lot of sense, you’ve got tools that are there for the basics. And then if you’ve got some proficiency level, here’s our approach. Greg, I know you’re right here so you know what, you do the coaching because you’ve got the basics there. We know that you don’t need this. But here’s the things that our learning organization or development organization can help you with at that level and just sort of tier that with different approaches based on where they’re at.
Mike: It’s not like you’re trying to do everything all the time. It’s a framework versus-
Greg: One solution, drive it all. Why would I go take the negotiation skills training program when I negotiate with Pfizer clients all the time? I’m good at it. Why would I take that program?
Mike: Don’t make me do it.
Mike: The other thing I want to talk to you about is data analytics because I think that’s something that has moved more and more importantly into the learning and development world. It’s really taken over a lot of what we do. We have incredibly powerful technology tools that give us a lot of data and a lot of things that perhaps we couldn’t have done before. But where are we going wrong when it comes to HR and people analytics from your point of view? What are the things that we need to make sure we get right from the beginning?
Greg: So first off and so I do have a pretty big team around data analytics. Data analytics is the future of HR, probably the future of everything. It’s definitely a feature of HR. And I think what happens a lot in HR right now, it’s confusing because we’re at this period where it’s all exploding and we don’t know what to do with it.
I think the most important thing – I think it’s a Chinese proverb, I don’t even know – if a tree falls in a forest and no one’s there to hear it did it really fall. And I think it goes really good with the data analytics where we have so much analytics, we have so much data these days. And if you don’t want, one, do some statistics on it and do some curation and put some insights towards it and most of all, if you don’t communicate it, it doesn’t matter. And I think HR, OD, learning, we can be really slow to use that data or not use it in the right way at all and therefore the tree never fell.
The other trend I’m seeing is because finally the technology has caught up to the quick sort of AI, “I have a question,” I can get a quick data-driven answer. The technology is there. And I think what the problem is a lot of companies with have the money, they’re buying these systems. There’s some really good ones – Visier, Zeroed In – and they’re awesome with these things can do. But what companies are forgetting to do is putting in a team who can actually do something with it.
As smart as these systems are, they still just give you the data and they might do some insights. But you need people to take that and look at it from a systematic perspective, understand the context of what’s happening in the company. And this is what I want my team to do, I’m always pushing them, is it’s not good enough to curate the data. We need to summarize it. We need to give some insights. And at the end of the day, getting some recommendations and advice to executives or it doesn’t matter,
Mike: This is an overly simplistic way to think about it and learning and development terms. But it’s like you get all these wonderful data analytics tools about your employee performance and programs that they’ve gone through. And if you’re an L&D person and all you do is create classroom training off of that you’re not using it to the possibility that it has because your traditional way of doing things needs to be expanded. And your point is you need people to make that that transition. You need build out a team or build the capability within your team of people who can take the analytics and do something meaningful.
Greg: And simplify it and get it so executives hear it. And so I mean, we got to the point where our board of directors now there’s a literally a moment in their board meetings where they look at our analytics and they make decisions off of it. Kind of cool.
Mike: Speaking of you’re using predictive analytics around employee turnover. And I think it’s just an interesting way you’re looking at what is the potential of people leaving in the next six months? And actually come up with the figure of what that costs, I think you said $70 million is the figure and predicted turnover over six years. And so that becomes a North Star. How do we drive that down? How do we manage that? You want to save that turnover cost. Some turnover is just going to happen. You can’t do anything about it.
Mike: So how are you using that tool to sort of inform your work?
Greg: The predictive cost of turnover is a great way to get the board’s attention. $70 million. It’s a private equity board. $70 million …
Mike: Speaks to them.
Greg: It speaks to them. I got their attention and then we better have a so what. And so what we can do, we got the analytics to a point where based on our history – from employee opinion surveys, based on we’ve had reductions and based on how different demographics react to reductions, and based on some other data – we can actually get to the point we can predict someone in this role at this level in this country in this organization is more likely to leave than this other person. And we can then do more analytics, and say well out that group we want everyone to stay but there’s maybe some high performers, high potential folks that we really, really, really need to stay. And if they’re in this category and we predict them to leave, we’ve got to do something.
There’s a caution here. I don’t know why I’m doing movie quotes. But in “Minority Report,” that Tom Cruise movie, they will arrest people before they would murder someone.
Greg: Just because we think you’re in a demographic that is going to leave doesn’t mean you’re actually going to leave. But it’s a data point that gets us to pay attention. Maybe you give that data to the executive ion that organization and say you have the data, you’ve got to think through this and maybe do something.
Mike: How did you get there? So you figured out OK, that’s a number that the PE people behind the company will understand. How can others get to that number? If it’s not that what are some of the ways that you’d suggest that they would go to find that thing that’s going to make their ears pop up? And people listen to what it is that you’re doing using data? I mean, are there other approaches that you’d suggest that others might take?
Greg: I think like in anything, create some urgency. First, think about what’s best for the company but create some urgency. And we have other very, unique ways of looking at data. I like these org scans. I can literally do a scan and say with ones and zeros, it becomes a picture. And I can say you have a healthy structure or you have an unhealthy structure. But if I just gave that report to an executive, they’d be like I don’t know what to do with us. But if you start to talk about if you have the right structure it’s more likely you’re going to be successful, more than likely you’re going to hit your revenue, it’s more likely that you’re going to make decisions quicker, and get more MBA, that sort of thing. So create that urgency and then give them the data that says and here’s the issue. And then, of course, here’s some potential ways to address it and mitigate it.
Mike: I think that’s the beauty of an OD approach to learning is that you’re able to step back a little bit easier. The training is there to step back a little bit easier to say what are we really solving for? Because when you’re within a learning function, it’s really easy to make things fit what you already know how to do. With an OD perspective, it’s a little bit easier to pull back and have those conversations.
Greg: In my experience early on but I see it today, too, is executives like the shortcut of, “I have an issue, put training program X together.” And I think we need to be strong enough to say – just simply to say – what result are you going for? There’s a framework in my head that I always use that says, “Well, is it because they don’t have the skill and knowledge? Or is it because A, B, C, D, E or F? And typically, what I find is it’s a combination of a few of those, and then boom there’s your intervention. It’s not a training solution. Most likely it’s probably a hybrid type of solution that’s going to help them mitigate or address whatever it is they’re up to.
Mike: And that raises your credibility as an executive who works with them because you’re actually helping solve their problems vs. just doing stuff.
Greg: The first time, it’s hard, right? The first time it’s like, well, what do you mean? It’s like you’re getting some breakfast and you say to the waiter or the waitress, I want some eggs. And most of the time they’ll say do you want to ketchup with that too? And I think what we need to be strong and say, well, no, eggs is not going to solve your solution today. Eggs make you sick.
Mike: So with that I want to say thank you, Greg, for joining us today being our guest. And thank you so much for joining us.
Greg: I’m honored Mike, thank you. Thanks for letting me share the stage.
Mike: Thank you again for joining us for the Chief Learning Officer Podcast. If you like what you heard, please consider giving us a rating on iTunes. And if you have a comment, a topic or something that you’d like to see us tackle in an upcoming episode, be sure to drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to having you back again soon and keep on learning.
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