Influence and a Culture of Innovation – #SHRM17

The 2017 Society for Human Resource Management Annual Conference and Expo is well underway.  This year’s edition in New Orleans, LA boasts the second largest in history from an attendance perspective with well over 17,000 attendees from across the country and world.


The first two keynote speakers can claim one thing in common that makes them particularly relatable to the audience; they both spent time in senior level HR leadership positions.  Kat Cole, President of Focus Brands (you know them as the parent of Cinnabon, Aunt Annies, Moe’s, and other yumminess) who spent a good part of her career in learning & development was Sunday’s opening keynote, and Laszlo Bock, former SVP of People Operations at Google, opened up Monday.


Both are well known business leaders but come from very different industries.  Food service/retail is a much grittier, salt-of-the-earth business environment than high-tech Google, but interestingly, despite vastly different realities, their messages contained a number of parallel ideas.  Both focused a great deal on the importance of great culture with several lessons for HR pros.



The Importance of Influence

Kat Cole began by talking about how influence is much more important and powerful than command and control authority, a lesson she learned in a business that depends on franchise partners who you can’t always tell exactly what to do and how to do it.  Not so different from what we often need to do as HR professionals, right?  But more importantly she talked about using that influence to create a culture of openness and innovation, and the responsibility we have in helping to define and shape that culture.  So how do we as HR pros do that?  How do we successfully champion new and progressive ideas and create a culture that fosters innovative thinking?


  • Don’t fall in love with our projects and processes if they don’t actually impact business results, and stop doing things just because they make us feel good. If we want to champion a new project or idea, show how it will help drive the business forward.
  • Realize that there will always be “legacy” folks who will feel threatened by new ideas and change. Instead of focusing on them, find the “coalition of the willing” who will help champion the idea.
  • Embrace the mantra “If not me, then who?” We have a responsibility that comes with our work, we need to embrace that responsibility. Then go after it even when you’re not ready, and use your “hustle muscle” to figure it out along the way.
  • Don’t get so paralyzed by policy; adapt policies to reflect new practices.
  • Ask yourself every day, “what’s the one thing we could do better?” and then do it.


Treat Your People Right

Laszlo Bock continued the culture conversation with a simple idea: for too many people, the experience of work is a terrible one.  If you treat your people right, business results will follow.  And as HR pros, we have the power to fix bad cultures.


In the high-tech world there is often a misconception that great culture equals free food and bean bags.  Those of us that don’t work in that world can breathe a sigh of relief that it’s just that, a misconception.  However, the bigger challenge is that great cultures are also not as easy as free lunches and games.  To champion truly great cultures, he suggested we do the following:


  • Ensure that work has meaning. What is your company’s mission?  Define it, and then ensure everyone knows it and how their specific work connects to it.
  • Trust your people – give them the flexibility to choose how to do their work, even if that means being a little bit uncomfortable about that freedom.
  • Hire people who are better than you. Stop hiring people who are just like you.
  • Pay people what their work is worth. If they are star performers, treat them like that, even if it seems like an overall unfair practice.
  • “Nudge” – make small changes to the environment that help people make better decisions and that make a difference.
  • See this as an iterative process that needs to happen over and over again.


Sound like a lot of responsibility?  Just remember, “if not me, who?”  Let’s go do it, HR pros!




About the Author

Jennifer Payne

Jennifer Payne is a 20+ year human resources leader with a focus on researching, developing, and implementing talent management programs. She is a believer in lifelong learning and self-development who strives to stay current in HR trends, technology, best practices, and the future of work by sharing knowledge with and learning from HR colleagues and thought leaders across the country and throughout the world through writing, speaking, and involvement in various industry conferences and events.  She is one of the co-founders of Women of HR, and is currently the Editor of the site. You can connect with her on Twitter...


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *