In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic changed the working world as we knew it. Almost overnight, companies went entirely remote and had to pivot to the new normal. Employees didn’t have to be based at a central headquarters, and recruitment strategies expanded to include remote workers who were based in a different US state or even outside the US. COVID-19 shrunk our small world even smaller.
Working remotely won’t be changing any time soon. So what can executives do to lean into this new global reality?
Profile brought in Lorna Hagen, chief people officer at Guild Education, as its guest editor to expand on this new normal. Hagen has spent nearly two decades exploring the HR space, starting as an associate at IMG and throughout her subsequent leadership roles at iHeartMedia, HarperCollins Publishers, Dow Jones, Ann Inc., OnDeck, and leading software company Namely.
Kyle Evangelista, Profile’s president and group publisher, spoke with Hagen over video in January 2021 about what HR and global leaders can do to support not only their companies’ growth strategy but also a cohesive culture and people strategy.
Kyle Evangelista: How does a CHRO support a company when it’s going through an M&A or thinking about entering new markets, domestic or international?
Lorna Hagen: One of the things that I find really fascinating is that the whole M&A landscape has changed to be very much in line with the types of worker revolutions that we’re seeing. What I’m finding, however, is that the playbook for M&A hasn’t changed at all.
That becomes highly problematic. What’s really interesting is that in 2019, there were about fifteen thousand M&A transactions. Now, statistics say that 80 percent of those are going to fail and 60 percent of those are going to lose shareholder value. That’s staggering. What we also know from some studies is that culture counts for a lot in determining whether a transaction like this succeeds or fails. So why wouldn’t due diligence teams do everything in their power to predict a successful financial outcome through a successful culture outcome?
The University of Michigan came up with something called the Competing Values Framework. And it’s a diagnostic of organizational cultural fit that predicts a successful or a less successful M&A outcome with a 95 percent confidence rate. It’s absolutely incumbent on all executives to really think about this culture fit in the very beginning of the process as opposed to the end.
Every people decision is a business decision. My argument is that the CHRO is absolutely primed to be at the start of M&A work because the CHRO is at the intersection of everything.
KE: Could you expand on how to bridge the culture gaps between the departments or between two merging companies?
LH: A fantastic way to build a cohesive culture is through a very clear strategy. MYOB in Australia is one of those companies that has done that. I was fortunate enough to work with them a little bit when I was at OnDeck, and they were really were masterful at thinking about their organization in three-year time frames and then working through their strategy ideation, implementation, and execution. When you see a strategy outlined in that manner, it’s easy to then build a people strategy on top of it.
A very clear business strategy gets your entire company marching to the beat of the same drummer. This is the key in bridging internal culture gaps. The implementation phase of your corporate strategy should include a discovery phase of each team: are they aligned to the strategy? Are there gaps in understanding or agreement?
The second phase of implementation is a robust change management program that brings your teams in into alignment. Alignment doesn’t mean everyone is doing the same thing in the same way. You need to allow for creativity and autonomy in execution. The beauty of the clarity is that we are all working towards the same strategic goals now—that in and of itself is a way of building a cohesive culture.
I really do believe that US-centricity around employment is starting to decrease. I’ve worked at companies that were global, but policies and programs were all US-based. I think employees are losing patience with that.
This is where leadership comes into play. You need to be vulnerable to say, “I don’t know.” You have to be really conscientious about all of those different cultural norms that are small to you but important to others.
KE: It’s funny because before I started working for Profile, I was actually a high school teacher and I had the opportunity after I graduated to travel the world and teach abroad. The one place that always sticks out to me is Mexico. When you show up to work in Mexico, the first thing you have to do is hug and kiss everybody and tell them good morning. I think it’s really humanizing. It makes you slow down and appreciate the little things in life.
LH: I love that you use the word humanizing. Here is this notion of how I think culture is changing, especially in the context of diversity: we should stop talking about the golden rule in business and we should start talking about the platinum rule. The platinum rule is to treat others as they want to be treated. The golden rule operates under the conditions that the norms of the majority apply to the minority. The platinum rule opens you and your companies up to a globalized perspective of the workplace that is more diverse, more human.
KE: When we look at the events that have transpired in the past twelve months, it feels like organizations are losing control over staff, over environments, etc., and employees are gaining more control. What does this look like moving forward in the future?
LH: It really depends on the role and the person. People that have jobs of great responsibility are still finding their way through the importance and diversity, inclusion, and especially equity. We are still trying to figure out how to manage and motivate fully distributed teams. I do think, however, that this creates a lot of opportunity for young entrepreneurs and people that have been thinking about their own thing and what’s next.
For those of us who are really thinking and committed to the organizations that we’re in, it is almost a Herculean task for us as executives to really think about and design the next normal. Organizations are going to have to work really hard to figure that out because employees that they’re trying to hire and retain want clarity on what their programs are and how their company operates. Last year  opened the floodgates to the reinvention of work, the workplace, and the workforce.
KE: To wrap up, what type of advice do you have for these executives who are up and coming and wish to take on these larger global roles?
LH: Stop underestimating the importance of values and culture. Culture equals values plus behaviors. Employees are really asking us to stand up for the types of behaviors that we want in companies and telling us to show up in that way.
And don’t only think of technology as agile. Your entire business, starting with your C-suite, needs to be agile. To me, agility requires humility and vulnerability from leaders. Saying you need help is a sign of confidence and strength. One of the things that I’ve been really successful at doing is finding those leaders of my team with deep subject matter expertise—deeper than mine—to ensure we have diversity of thought and constant fresh ideas.
KE: And what about the folks that are currently in global executive leadership roles? What would you say to them right now?
LH: Every ship needs a captain. Your organizations need to be led from a place of growth and curiosity. The world isn’t getting bigger. The world is getting smaller. Embrace that ability to listen to more voices. Ask yourself at what point do you decide to collaborate versus compete? And I think that differentiation only comes if you have a growth mindset. Open yourself up to new ideas and don’t let yours define you or your reputation.
Read features from the Issue 3, 2021 Global section, featuring commentary from Guest Editor Lorna Hagen.