• James Kelley

Managing Talent in a Time of Uncertainty: An interview with industry experts.

On September 22nd, James Kelley, CEO of qChange, sat down with Juliet Bourke, Ph.D., and Lisa Buckingham, global H.R. leaders, and discussed the human capital uncertainties that lay on the horizon. This is a four-part blog post.




Juliet Bourke, Ph D.: Juliet was a partner at Deloitte for 10 years in human capital and left that as COVID began. After completing her Ph.D., Juliet went back to consulting around human capital with different clients around the globe, where she now focuses on inclusive leadership. Beyond this, Juliet is a professor of practice at the University of New South Wales and sits on a couple of boards, including qChange.


Lisa Buckingham: Spent her career in human resources, starting in labor relations, ending up in talent, and learning and development. After 14 years, Lisa retired as CHRO of an F200 company. Now Lisa consults and mentors startups, including qChange.


Part 1:

James Kelley:

The first question is with Juliet here. Juliet, you are a globe trotter working with different H.R. functions, helping them create an inclusive leadership environment. So I'm curious, how would this work in a time of uncertainty when employees may feel super vulnerable?


Juliet Bourke:

Let's just go back to the definition of inclusive leadership. Inclusive leadership is the set of behaviors that we want leaders to demonstrate so that more of the talent (employee) feels that they are respected in the environment, that they are valued, they have this sense of connection. And at the end of the day, you develop psychological safety when you have those baseline feelings. I mean, they are the contributors to psychological safety in which people can talk about their feelings of uncertainty, or they're going to take a risk about an idea or themselves.


So if that's the logic, I think inclusive leadership is even more important than it's been. When we see some of the reactions employees demonstrate, it seems like a challenging market. So I think it's actually more important, and back to your point around going around the world and doing this. I have been in many countries in the last six months, and there have been a lot of discussions around inclusive leadership, so I feel like it's on the rise.


Lisa Buckingham:

This is a little off-script, so apologies.


James Kelley:

No, that's fine.

Lisa Buckingham:

I saw somebody rant on LinkedIn the other day, saying, "I feel like this is not a professional platform anymore, and I saw that people were congratulating people about things maybe outside of work." But I felt like there was so much inclusion with that, so it's interesting. Have you thought about that?


Juliet Bourke:

I think LinkedIn has changed, and I believe there's this blurring of lines, I think, between humans as employees and humans as humans.

Lisa Buckingham:

Humans! Great.

Juliet Bourke:

Yeah. Exactly, right? And so because we're thinking about a person more holistically, then obviously leadership capability has to grow, and it shouldn't make any difference whether it's a time of stability or uncertainty. But, still, I would feel in an uncertain environment, even more important.

Lisa Buckingham:

I took away that person's comment was in the new world when people are connecting on Zoom or on Teams or wherever and they're saying, "Let's be mindful and ask, 'How are you? What's going on?' Before you jump into a business meeting or a decision-making process." And you wonder, is that person who doesn't want to help with the new cultures we are forming? So are they not as inclusive?

James Kelley:

I often wonder if it's culturally systemic in the U.S. to try to separate business and life. It seems to be very embedded. When I lived in Australia, that was one of the biggest learnings I took away. A job doesn't define you, but rather who you are defines you. Often in the U.S., the job and where you live defines you. So when we move to the idea of inclusion and bringing in your life story, over the last three years, in the U.S., an employee's life story has been infused into the conversation because a kid comes running into a home office or a dog jumps up on the screen, or whatever. From an inclusive standpoint, it has allowed humans to be more authentic and humanized versus robotic, structured, and tactical in my mind.


Juliet Bourke:

Yeah, I agree.

Lisa Buckingham:

That's true.


James Kelley:

So let's pivot over to Lisa here. So now, Lisa, you successfully led Lincoln Financial's People, Place, and Brand. Taking on those various roles and knowing that finance sometimes is volatile, how do you look at uncertainty through the CHRO/CPO perspective?


Lisa Buckingham:

Yeah, so this is a little bit of a whirling dervish right now from my perspective because people have had to be really agile with responding to, let's think about the COVID pivot, and then mental wellness became more of a focus. Financial wellness is becoming a focus. And now you think about it, if you go back to April 2020, we were at 14.7% unemployment in the United States. We're right now at 3.7. That was at the end of August. So there's a big difference, but I feel that CPOs or CHROs have to react to a lot of things, look around the corner, and think more about employee experience and manager experience. At the same time, are people returning to the office or not? Have you selected what roles should be remote, and does that open up your talent population even wider from an aperture perspective?

Some CEOs and CHROs, CPOs, are saying, "Everybody needs to be back in the office." That's not a debate we're getting into today, but I would tell you there are pros and cons. You have to think about it and think about sitting in a CHRO, CPO seat that you're like, "Wait a minute, if we don't have people coming in regularly, are we losing innovation? And how do you measure that?"

With the inflation, if you think about just business in general, people are tightening their financials and impacting people and so the unemployment is low, but this is now a rallying call for your managers to say, "You really better be managing your staff and your teams really well because they're being judged just as much as their paycheck and that experience." So it's a really interesting time. It's a time when you think about DEI, and we're all on learning curves in many different areas. I just feel that we have to have an open mind to what tomorrow's workforce looks like? But think about it, can we even say what it will look like in five years? And that's the challenge.

James Kelley:

I think you used the word early on in your answer around reactive, and it sounds like the way you're describing it is really being proactive because reactive to me feels like it's already happened to you, and you've got to respond to it. Maybe it's a nuance in the language where I feel like good CPOs are probably reading the tea leaves and trying to position the organization and the culture to withstand this. I think about 2008, not to go back too far, but it was a lot of reaction like, "Oh crap, what's happening?" And, "We got to shed employees, and we've got to rebalance the books." It feels like today it's just this mix of, "Well we need people to work; unemployment's really low, but yet inflation's really high." It's just a weird combination in my head.

Lisa Buckingham:

It's interesting, and then this is all very cyclical. I feel like we're almost merging into the dot-com era where the competition was so intense on talent that you had to do different things. But now, the expectation is so high for all of us that we have the right technology to make our lives easier. I mean, think about it, we walked around Las Vegas last week at the H.R. Tech Conference, and we saw so many brilliant ideas that can be easily bolted into your HRIS systems. And for me, I just think employees will be looking at, "What do I get out of this and how is my manager developing me, and what is my next step? Or do I jump to another job?" And it's a really interesting time, and I think that this is where you can be proactive, but there are days that you have to be reactive too.


Check back next week for Part 2 of the interview.


James Kelley, Ph.D.

email: jkelley@qchange.com

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