Knowledge Center: Podcast

Human Resources Officers

The CHRO’s evolving role in the digital age

4/6/2020 Heidrick & Struggles

In this podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Christina Cary speaks with Holly Kortright, Senior Vice President of People at Ellucian, a provider of software and services for the higher education sector. Kortright discusses how the CHRO role has evolved to one of both a business and talent strategist, enabling an organizational culture that embraces change and innovation to reach business goals. She stresses the importance of offering a unique employee value proposition to attract and retain the best talent and supporting and developing your people. She further draws attention to the need for diversity and inclusion to build powerful teams, where everyone’s unique perspectives can be heard to drive the best solutions for the business.

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Some questions answered in this episode include the following:

  • (1:11) What do you think are the essential ingredients for a thriving CEO–CHRO relationship?
  • (4:02) Where is Ellucian in terms of its digital journey right now?
  • (7:04) Does Ellucian have a specific strategy to really attract and retain the best talent?
  • (11:55) The role of the CHRO has been evolving quite a bit over the past few years. What are the most important changes you’ve seen, and what additional changes do you think we’re going to see within human capital?
  • (19:53) What advice do you have for other leaders as they think about how diversity and inclusion efforts can add value to their business?

Below is a full transcript of the episode, which has been edited for clarity.


Welcome to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast, the premier provider of leadership consulting, culture shaping, and senior-level executive search services. Every day, we’re privileged to talk with fascinating people who are shaping the future through their leadership and vision. In each episode, you’ll hear a different perspective from thought leaders and innovators. Thanks for listening to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast.

Christina Cary: Hi, I’m Christina Cary, principal in Heidrick & Struggles’ Washington, DC, office and a member of the Technology and Human Resources Officers practices. In today’s podcast, I’m speaking with Holly Kortright, Senior Vice President of People at Ellucian, a provider of software and services for the higher education sector. Holly joined Ellucian in 2013, after having spent six years as Senior Vice President of Human Resources at Deltek. And prior to Deltek, Holly was Vice President of Human Resources at Capital One Financial Corporation and held senior HR positions at Mobil Oil Corporation, Hay Group, and Anderson Consulting. Holly, welcome, and thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today.

You have worked very closely with many CEOs over the course of your career. What do you think are the essential ingredients for a thriving CEO–CHRO relationship?

Holly Kortright: Thanks Christina. I have definitely learned a lot from all the CEOs whom I have worked with. The first thing is you have to be a business leader first and an HR leader second. And I think that was one of the reasons, in my last company, at Deltek, that I worked so well with the CEO. You have to be able to put yourself in their shoes and understand that a CEO is accountable to a board of directors and other stakeholders and shareholders for financial results and also accountable to customers for high-quality outcomes. So you really need to understand the business and partner with him or her to drive business outcomes.

Secondly, trust and mutual respect are key in any great CEO–CHRO relationship—the ability to be curious, to listen to the other person, to be humble and consider a different perspective, the ability for each of you to have hard conversations with each other and be candid and respect each other’s viewpoints to find the best solution, and then to stand together in partnership, taking on people and business challenges, and be able to show that unity and partnership with the rest of the executive team and to all the employees. Because sometimes, as a CHRO, you’re the only person in the room standing up for employees and advocating for what is right, and you have to have the trust and respect of the CEO if you’re going to do that and if you’re going to move the organization forward in the right direction.

And my last point would be, as a CHRO, you have to be fearless in sharing feedback, and sometimes that’s really challenging because the CEO doesn’t hear the feedback; everything is filtered by the time it gets there because of their position. So sometimes you have to speak truth to power when no one else is willing to say it, and you have to be confident that you’re going to have someone who is going to listen to your opinions and who values you as a sounding board. And even if you have challenging feedback on their own behaviors or how they’re operating, that you can share those insights and that you’re doing it for the right reasons, and that is to put people first and move the company forward. And if you’re going to be able to share fearless feedback as a CHRO, you have to have a strong value set that guides you, but also your values have to match the organization so that you can guide the CEO, the executive teams, and employees every day.

Christina Cary: One of the things we hear a lot about in a wide variety of sectors is this whole concept of digital evolution—every business is going through its own sort of digital transformation. Where is Ellucian in terms of its digital journey right now?

Holly Kortright: It’s interesting for us because we are a software company that makes products and solutions for colleges and universities around the globe, so not only do we have to internally go through a digital transformation, but we’re also trying to support our customers at colleges and universities to go through their own digital transformation. So we’ve had to transform all of our products and solutions to cloud and SaaS [software as a service], and so that’s a huge investment in technology and products. And then as we’ve been implementing those solutions with customers, we found out the hardest part was the change management at the college or university. Well, that’s exactly the same as inside a company, right?

We’ve brought in all kinds of new systems that give us data on our mobile devices about customers and exactly how they feel, and there are feedback loops to how we address things. In HR, we implemented a whole new HRIS [human resource information system] suite, and we’ve been driving our own digital transformation. We’ve also been leveraging self-service in mobile capabilities so that our employees and managers around the globe can do their jobs anywhere at any time, which is fantastic because we want sales selling, we want our developers innovating, and we want consultants spending time with customers. But it’s not just changing a system; it’s not just leveraging analytics. You also have to have everybody on board with what the ultimate problems are that you’re trying to solve and how you use data and information to solve those challenges.

For example, we have a large remote population around the globe, and we’re a very diverse company. We had a theory in our company that maybe our remote employees weren’t as engaged as folks who were in offices. And that was a theory for about two years. So we’ve been leveraging our Culture Amp tool; we’ve been looking at the data and dissecting it. Well, guess what? It turns out that our remote folks, and especially our employees on college campuses who support customers, are super engaged, and so there was no truth in the anecdote. So, in my mind, in the digital transformation, you have to combine quantitative data and analysis, but you have to bring insights. And the way you bring insights is looking at data and information but also leveraging qualitative information and really leveraging information from employees to understand what will make their experience better. How can you leverage data to do that, but then how do you also make sure that you’re explaining the why behind things and that they’re part of the change? Make them the ambassadors for why you’re changing things and have them help lead it.

Christina Cary: Moving into the next piece of the digital age: the workplace is rapidly changing, and needing to be digitally savvy is something that’s really critical. There are a lot of demographic changes, with multiple generations working side by side for the first time. Does Ellucian have a specific strategy to really attract and retain the best talent, given the situation that we’re living in right now?

Holly Kortright: Absolutely. And talent attraction, retention, and engagement are so important because we’re a tech company in a super-competitive marketplace for tech talent. What we’ve learned, and tried to do over the past two years especially, is you need an incredible employment brand and a unique employee value proposition that attracts candidates to your company, as well as a mission that people are drawn to and believe in. That’s really, really critical.

Folks at our organization are very passionate about improving student success, improving access to education, and enabling colleges and universities to do that with our systems. That’s a big motivator above and beyond a paycheck or anything else that might differentiate us. But also we try to have a learning culture. And so we really focus on shared learning, collaborative learning, taking risk, failing fast, learning from that, growing, and moving forward. And so people are always growing and learning and innovating. But how do candidates know that?

So what we try to do is tell real-life stories about our employees and who they are, how diverse they are, what they’re passionate about at work and in their life. We actually call it Ellucian Life; it’s like a hashtag. And so it really enables candidates to get a real picture of what it’s like to work at Ellucian, and with that picture, they can also see themselves in our company or see themselves partnering with someone they see on a video, and that has really helped us to attract talent.

The other thing is to show what is unique about what you offer. Why do people not only come [to Ellucian] but why do they stay? And a lot of that is the caliber of the talent in the company and the mission you have, but you also have unique things you can offer. So for us, our folks really care about charitable giving and corporate social responsibility, so we give everyone five days of charitable leave a year, which is a pretty unique benefit. And we also have groups of team members who have gone to places devastated by natural disasters. And it just tells the story about how you bring your whole self to work at Ellucian and how you’re going to be motivated and challenged and how you’re going to grow, and you can see that through the stories that we tell.

Christina Cary: Just to follow up, where does AI [artificial intelligence] and different types of technologies fit in not only the HR function but broadly within an organization?

Holly Kortright: We use all kinds of AI. We actually design our solutions that we make for colleges and universities with AI and chatbots and a lot of the new things that are out there, to enable schools to analyze information and interact with students in new ways that they expect as digital natives.

In HR, we’ve really tried, through our new systems, to leverage AI, leverage chatbots, make it really easy and simple for people to interact and learn from the information. So we serve up insights through the technology that they can then leverage and make better judgments and better decisions.

But I also think, with AI and with all the things we offer now, that there’s a human side that we have to remember. So critical-thinking skills and problem-solving skills are never going to be replaced, so how you’re supporting and developing those, how you’re coaching others so they can develop their own skills in that arena, is so critical. In recruiting, we use a lot of AI in sourcing and how we do our recruiting processes, and it’s so helpful. It can go through incredible volume, and it can really help pinpoint who you’re looking for, but, at the end of the day, a computer cannot sell a candidate on your company. A human and a variety of humans have to be able to do that, and so I think it’s the combination of AI and human capabilities that will make us uber successful as we go forward.

Christina Cary: That last point certainly resonates with me as a recruiter, so I wholeheartedly agree. In addition to all of these other changes that we’re seeing in the marketplace, the role of the CHRO specifically has been evolving quite a bit over the past few years. What are the most important changes you’ve seen, and what additional changes do you think we’re going to see within human capital?

Holly Kortright: The role of the CHRO has evolved so much since I started. Today, we’re expected to deliver data and insights on talent, much in the same way a CFO is expected to deliver data and insights on the growth of the business and the business model and how you’re going to drive even more success. You have to be a business and a talent strategist at the same time to be an equal partner on the executive team, and that’s because most organizations are in some form of growth or transformation, and you have to be in the middle of that. The speed of change is so fast and continues to accelerate, and the role of the CHRO has really become an enabler in organizations for driving continuous change. I read a quote once that it’s no longer about change management, but now it’s about continuous change enablement and change agility. So how are you creating an organizational culture and dynamic that enables leaders and everyone across the company to continuously embrace change, improve their capabilities, and drive innovation? That’s a huge part of our job that probably was not there when I started my career.

The CHRO is also becoming a more critical advisor to the board. So it used to be that when you were advising on compensation, you’d meet with the compensation committee and talk about what that needs to look like. Now the board wants to talk about all aspects of talent, not even just executive talent. They want to discuss your culture and what that’s about. They want to see the data behind what you’re doing. Diversity and inclusion is on the agenda at most board conversations now and how you’re supporting that. And then succession, but succession is not just the top of the house now; it’s about what your talent pools look like for the future and how you are going to enable growth globally. What you don’t want to be is the CHRO whose processes prevent you from scaling or growing a business. And so as boards recognize the importance of culture and the importance of organizational health and the employee experience and what huge assets they are to a business, CHROs are now front and center in the board dialogue and conversations. And that’s a new and exciting experience but also a lot of responsibility and accountability with you and the CEO and the executive team to really deliver against that, because the board recognizes that people experience will determine the financial results of the company and that talent is really the only competitive advantage you have anymore. And so that’s in the forefront. Those are some of the exciting changes that I’ve seen.

Christina Cary: And building on that, how have you evolved as a business leader, given again the change in the CHRO role over the course of your career?

Holly Kortright: I’ve definitely evolved from being a HR functional leader who influenced or advised leaders on how to develop talent and create a great culture and evaluate performance to an HR leader who, in all respects, is a business partner first and a full member of that leadership team who’s advising on how we’re going to achieve our business goals, and also the person who can help partner with the team to bring creative talent solutions to the table. You can’t just do the practices that we did 15 years ago around performance and compensation. There are so many changing dynamics now that you often have to introduce new ideas and try new things and really test and learn and figure out what works in your company, for your culture, for your talent, and then drive that forward. And we a lot of times will pilot new programs or ideas with our R&D organization, with all our engineers, because, we say, if we can get our engineers on board and develop a new approach, we can get the whole company on board. But it’s partnering with them and being a sounding board and bringing in that input and feedback to really have an impact.

And I’ve definitely learned, especially in the past couple of years, that, as a CHRO, not only are you business focused, but you must continuously care about the people and the talent in your company. Mental health has become such a challenge for so many in an organization. There is so much happening with the stressors in the world, and continuous change in companies and outside, that you have be the vanguard for doing the right thing and supporting and caring for employees, while at the same driving business excellence. There is so much we can do to help support employees inside and outside of work and focus on the whole person. That drives productivity and business performance, and, frankly, it drives engagement, it drives loyalty, and it drives commitment. As CHROs, we own that, and it’s part of what we have to focus on, and we have to put that on the agenda with our senior leadership teams.

Christina Cary: Yes, it’s not just about the blocking and tackling anymore.

Holly Kortright: Exactly.

Christina Cary: One of the things that I think is so interesting about your career is that, in addition to working with many CEOs, you’ve also driven change in a wide variety of company environments—large public, midmarket, private, and private-equity [PE] backed. How has this smattering of organizations influenced your personal development as an HR leader, and is there anything constant across all of those experiences?

Holly Kortright: I actually think there’s a lot that’s constant across all the experiences. The accelerating pace of change has caused it to be more constant than you might expect. Initially in my career, in Fortune 500, I noticed in HR that you spend a lot of time building a business case for what you want to do and then proving out, with lots of PowerPoint slides, how that would be impactful and with a return on investment, and then you would move forward with these things. And then as I got into midsized companies, you have to do the same thing, but you have to be a little more scrappy and you have to move a little bit faster to results. But what I really discovered in the past 5 to 10 years is that, no matter if you’re in a large or small company, no matter if it’s public or PE-backed, the accelerating pace of change has changed the dynamic about how we all work, and the competitive nature of the talent market has also changed how we all work. So it’s really now about how do you embrace change, with the size you are, and move forward as quickly as possible to be a first market mover, to stave off the competition, to innovate faster than the competition? And the only way you do that is with your approach to talent and your approach to employee engagement and the culture that you create as a company. And so it’s really very similar now, even more similar than it was in the beginning of my career, across all these sizes and all these different industries. How do you empower teams of employees to drive change and be impactful and innovate? And the only way you do that is through having the top talent that you grow and nurture and develop over time.

Christina Cary: So one of the other big things that we hear a lot about in today’s marketplace is creating a more diverse and inclusive environment within your organization. What advice do you have for other leaders as they think about how diversity and inclusion efforts can add value to their business?

Holly Kortright: This is really a passion area for me, and I’ve been very focused on this throughout my career, as well as here at Ellucian. Diversity, inclusion, and belonging are almost table stakes now to be a successful company and organization, and we’ve learned so much about teams and how teams operate. And we all work in a cross-functional world. It’s no longer the case where, even for individual contributors, that you’re in an organization where you’re in a hierarchy and you do the goals of that business unit and that’s it; we’re all on cross-functional teams.

And the best teams are teams that have what Google, I think, first termed “psychological safety,” where you can bring your whole self to work. You can ask a question, you can throw out bold and crazy ideas, you can share candid feedback and engage in really constructive conflict, but the team comes together and comes out with the best solutions and ideas. And we’ve all been on teams like that; they’re the best teams to be on, they’re the most fun, and the results you deliver are above and beyond anything an individual could have done. If you don’t have a strong, diverse team, but also a team where employees can bring their unique voice to the table in a compelling way, you won’t drive the best solutions. And that’s why diversity and inclusion and belonging are so critical every day for how we work. The businesses that have teams that are diverse but also act in this way, where you bring your whole self to the table and you challenge each other and then you really come out with the best solutions, have the greatest business results.

And also, if you don’t have that diversity of thought and idea, then you can’t really expect to mirror what your customers expect and how they look and think and how they want to operate differently as they go forward. In higher education, our customers are very diverse, and they’re very focused on bringing in diverse student populations. And when I first arrived, I was the only female on the executive team, and I said, “How does this possibly work?” And I talked to some of the teams and folks, and they said that it was a big challenge with our customers, so we put lean-in circles in place, teams of women that come together all over the world. We just started one in Dubai, which I am so excited about and never thought would be a possibility. And so it’s really bringing the full contribution that everyone can share in a company to these teams and having that influence and impact on your customers, on your businesses, and on your communities.

And so that’s the way I would look at it from a CHRO perspective. There’s so much more than the statistics around diversity; it’s about how you operate every day in every single interaction on teams to make you successful as a business.

Christina Cary: Holly, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today. We really appreciate you joining us.

Thanks for listening to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. To make sure you don’t miss more future-shaping ideas and conversations, please subscribe to our channel on the podcast app. And if you’re listening via LinkedIn, Twitter, or YouTube, why not share this with your connections? Until next time.

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