E Pluribus Unum: D.C. Strategies Day Two

Out of many, one. That’s the English translation of the Latin phrase, E pluribus unum, that has been a part of the national seal of the United States since 1782, and it’s also one of the themes that I walked away with this week from Talent Strategies D.C.

Talent Strategies D.C., the two-day conference hosted and produced by Chief Learning Officer, Diversity Executive and Talent Management magazines this week in downtown Washington, D.C., brought together nearly 300 human capital leaders for a summit on the future of our people practice.

When we set out to create the event more than a year ago, we first met with leaders from the Federal Interagency Chief Learning Officer Council as well as leaders from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. Both groups were invaluable in helping us develop an event that aimed to be different from the scores of other human capital-themed events in Washington throughout the year.

Their advice: Bring leaders from the public sector together with executives from private industry to explore the ideas and practices to be found at that intersection.

But there were three or four other streets that fed into that same intersection. We brought together speakers from a range of disciplines, including learning and workforce development, talent acquisition, employee engagement and retention, performance management and strategic diversity and inclusion into a single event. While we hoped it would be a valuable event and a powerful differentiator, it also was quite possibly a blueprint for the stifling traffic and deadening gridlock so common to the capital’s highways and byways. Everybody in the same place but all going different directions at a really slow speed.

So it was heartening to see powerful connections developing between the industries as the event unfolded. Out of many streams of conversation, out of the more than 40 government agencies and departments in attendance and 20 or so private sector companies, out of many different roles and responsibilities, one community bound together by common themes became apparent.

The Power of Emotion and Intuition

The first theme that arose had to do with what truly drives us as human beings. Data and numbers are important – and human capital professionals need to continue to evolve their measurement and analytical capabilities. But when it comes to making positive changes in their organizations, they need to focus on what really drives us as people: our emotions and unconscious behavior. Dan Heath, the co-author of the best-selling books Made to Stick and Switch, shared a powerful metaphor for thinking about our behaviors.

Think of our emotional nature as an elephant. Then think of our rational, logical minds as a rider perched atop that elephant. The rider can attempt to control the elephant with data, smart reasoning and logic, but ultimately it is the elephant that has the power to move or not.

As human capital leaders, we have the opportunity to take the numbers and data and reasoning about where we have to go as an organization and craft it into stories that will motivate our organizations to create lasting change – to move the elephant in the right direction.

Define and Live Your Organizational Values

Building on Heath’s points, Ann Rhoades, the founding vice president of people at JetBlue Airways, shared how her company made organizational values a central part of its operating principles from the beginning. Identifying those values – in JetBlue’s case they were safety, caring, integrity, fun and passion – helped JetBlue create a culture and find the right talent to help the company grow into one of the nation’s major airlines.

Again, the links to what ultimately drives people as human beings, not just as workers, is what makes for a successful organization. Those same points came out in a later panel discussion on employer branding featuring executives from Farmers Insurance, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, investment advice company The Motley Fool and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC).

Julie Goodall, deputy director of human resources at the FDIC, made this point clear when she said what motivates her, and the many people at the agency, is the job of ensuring the security of citizens’ bank deposits. Since it was established in 1933, depositors have not lost a penny at a bank that is insured by the FDIC. That connection to mission is critical to attracting and retaining employees at FDIC when they could work in the private sector for a higher salary.

Transforming HR

Talent Management columnist and USC professor John Boudreau grounded all this dialogue about change and values in forward-thinking principles based on the research for his book, Transformative HR:How Great Companies Use Evidence-Based Change for Sustainable Advantage. You can find more on the five principles that Boudreau identified as transformative in an article I wrote here, but the short answer is it’s not about the tools and data and technology available to us. It’s about the “five inches of space between our ears.” In other words, the change is up to us to make it happen, and we have the intelligence and ability to make it happen if we apply it right.

All these themes were brought home by Marshall Goldsmith, the closing keynote speaker, who tackled the topic of employee engagement and development with a closing keynote titled “It’s Up to You.” One of the world’s pre-eminent business thinkers and a genuinely generous and kind person, Goldsmith was able to bring a perfect end to the event with a message that drove home the role we each play, individually and organizationally, in our own happiness and success.

Rather than looking outside ourselves for answers or blaming external barriers for why we aren’t successful or happy, we should turn our attention inward. Find what we are doing right and what we can do to improve ourselves first. Then, little by little, we’ll make changes, big and small, whether it’s in our personal lives or in our work, whether it’s in government or in the private sector.