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Jamie Lawrence


Insights Director

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Interview: Kelly Butler, Global Head of HR Operations, Rackspace


Kelly previously took part in a webinar with HRZone and software provider Workday entitled "Is Employee Engagement the secret sauce of HR?"

1. You’re a big fan of ‘evergreen goals.’ What’s the thinking behind this—improvements in engagement and employee development?

Business moves fast today, and cloud computing is leading the pack. At Rackspace it’s unrealistic to think that the goals a manager and employee agreed upon in January will still be relevant 12 months later. Of course there are always exceptions but for most ‘Rackers’ (what we call our employees at Rackspace) who work to provide Fanatical Support® to our customers requires adapting to meet their needs monthly, weekly and even daily. Our product development, for example, is happening so rapidly that we’re creating new roadmaps, targets, and often, new jobs within the span of a few quarters. Having static goals doesn’t make sense.

Evergreen goals allow us to keep the performance targets aligned to our business drivers and relevant to the individual. We need our workforce to know what the target is at all times, even though it can move—the clarity around personalized goals to achieve business results is important.

For Rackspace, evergreen doesn’t mean “constantly changing”, but more “staying fresh”. If one goal needs to be removed and another added, while a third needs tweaking for the new plan, it’s better to enable a manager and Racker to do this real-time as the changes are happening, rather than at the end of the year. If not, then either they will have a conversation discussing obsolete goals or they waste valuable time trying to remember what happened when and how something changed. 

At the core, our focus on goals is more about ensuring clarity and direction rather than “documenting” a recap of the past period. While the documentation is important, the real value of setting goals at Rackspace is in achieving business results.

2. What are the main challenges facing HR at the moment?

A few key things come to mind: Talent, Speed and Flexibility, Talent, and Talent.

Talent: It’s no secret that talent has become the key driver to execute company initiatives. The old rules of “location, location, location” or deploying the best widget no longer drive business success. Ingenuity, brain power, service, expertise, and innovation are the new commodities to build an outstanding company. Those attributes are more innate to an individual’s make up and less about them being trainable, yet such qualities are often the most impactful to your customers and therefore your business. Your ability to locate, attract and engage new talent at the right time along with providing development opportunities for current employees can very well make or break the bottom line.

Many of these candidates are the hardest to bring into your organisation. Around Rackspace we affectionately call them “Purple Squirrels”. Purple Squirrels have not only unique, specialized skills, but are in low supply, are highly sought after, currently have very good roles and are therefore passive candidates. A simple post on isn’t going to do it. Recruiters now have to be some of the best sales people in your company to convince these candidates to make a move. They will use the company’s mission and vision, recent wins in the market or maybe even the benefits of a new location as tools but often the most valuable tools are those that are influenced by the HR team. What are your pay policies? Do you allow flexible working arrangements? What about the work environment; are there meditation rooms, concierge services, or onsite food vendors? What are your differentiating rewards? Vacation days, sabbatical programs, volunteer days or anything other program that will add value to potential candidates must be considered. These programs and ideas come from the broader HR group to propose, support and highlight to those outside the company. HR does not own company culture, yet one can’t deny that HR policies, practices and programs often nurture the fertile ground a culture needs to grow and thrive. Now more than ever, the ability to maintain a strong culture will influence the decisions of candidates.

Speed and flexibility: All successful businesses are moving, changing and growing rapidly. The capability for HR to keep pace with, and at times be ahead of, the business is imperative. The world in general is becoming more and more ‘instant’, ‘on demand’, and ‘rapid response’ focused. HR professionals and tools need to be nimble, and user-friendly. HR must operate like a business within a business, building every decision or program around driving successful customer outcomes and exceeding expectations.

Week-long training classes, three-hour e-learning modules and the archaic idea of reading the manual are all distant memories of a past forgotten. Customers expect 24/7, on-demand information packaged into quickly consumable chunks. Positive customer outcomes now come from comprehensive portals, concise 30-second videos and if necessary, face-to-face access to an expert rather in person or virtually through Skype-like services. HR is a service provider and must operate that way. 

Oh, and talent. Did I mention talent?

3. Where are companies going wrong when it comes to process improvement?

Announcing changes without fully understanding the impact to the people and teams involved is a sure recipe for failure. Not providing sound reasons or clear and simple information will most often result in a flop.

The key to successful process improvement is change management. That’s really what’s happening, right? You’re asking someone to do something differently than before. Keeping the change small and focused, knowing that you are taking a phased approach to accomplish the broader goal can help people adapt to the new processes over time.

So, how do you accomplish this? Start with the big picture. First, be really clear on what you want to accomplish and why. Intensely evaluate and validate that a proposed change will have a meaningful impact justifying the business efforts.  Once you know what and why a change is needed, focus on which critical few things will really make a difference—minimize the amount of change you’re asking for. This could mean launching a change one group at a time, or asking for one change today, knowing 10 is really the end goal. Starting small and building on the successes you see will build confidence from your customers opening the door for future improvements.

I also see better success when we don’t call things ‘process improvement’ or any formal, or technical HR speak. Know your customer. People are often growing weary of the methodologies and theories we throw at them. It goes a long way to just speak plain English.

Here’s the formula:

  1. Validate that there is a compelling reason.
  2. See change happen by making it simple and telling it like it is.
  3. Build confidence by recognizing and celebrating successes.
  4. Rinse and Repeat.

For a fast paced, always changing business model,  organisational transformation may be more likely to succeed and be welcomed as a catalyst for driving talent forward.

4. How does organisational development differ from organisational transformation? Is one ‘better’ than the other?

I think of these terms as relating to ‘evolution’ versus ‘revolution”. Organisational development is the evolution of skills and experiences to improve everyone’s game—in a more traditional context. Focusing on traditional structures where top-down decisions are made and implemented because the leader said so. Teams, people, and processes evolve over time to an improved state, adding skills and experiences into the current organisational framework.

Whereas, organisational transformation tends to imply a faster push through change, sometimes working to up-end current thinking, processes and methods to drive different results than what is currently being achieved. A more significant change is typically underway with more impactful outcomes happening at a faster pace.  The current mindsets and methods need to be challenged and often completely revamped. True to the definition of revolution, transformation often requires broader scale personnel shifts driven from the bottom up with the hands-on managers and employees calling for change that bubbles upward through the organisation. While leadership needs to support the transformation, sometimes it takes the momentum of the masses to enable it to happen. 

Neither is better or worse on the whole. It’s more a question of what the business needs, the starting point, the timeframe for change to happen, and the appetite for change. If the business truly is a more traditional operation and intends to stay that way, then organisational development would be more appropriate. This approach would keep the business skills and methods constantly progressing to avoiding becoming stale, while being less disruptive overall.

For a fast paced, always changing business model, organisational transformation may be more likely to succeed and be welcomed as a catalyst for driving talent forward.

5. What are your top three tips for companies implementing new software systems?

There are the obvious tips around planning, building in contingencies, and ensuring you have the resources assigned to the project. Here are some additional perspectives learned through experience that will ensure a successful implementation of a new solution:

  1. Define and use guiding principles for the project. What can you not live with? Which user group is most important in the decision making? Will you cut scope or push the date if challenges arise? Having a handful of guiding principles that you get agreement on from sponsors, stakeholders and team members before the project starts makes decisions along the way more objective and less about the emotion of the moment. Defining these principles isn’t always an easy process, and at times an outside facilitator might be of great value to ensure you get these right. I’ve seen projects stall midstream because key stakeholders can’t agree on priorities in order to make decisions, and trying to sort out a decision support model while watching the days click away on the project plan brings on massive stress that can be avoided by doing this important homework early on.
  2. Get the messages right. Being able to provide a compelling answer to the question of ‘why are we doing this?’ is key. Know your audience because the answer to that question will be different for each. Take the replacement of your Applicant Tracking System (ATS)—your recruiters and hiring managers are significantly impacted during their daily job functions, while executives may only want to understand the return on investment, and your employees and candidates only want a logical system to apply for jobs. “What’s in it for me?”, is really what they are all asking during times of change. Clearly messaged value statements will garner supporters among each group.
  3. Plan for two-thirds of your time to be spent on change management and communication efforts, and one-third on the actual technology. Don’t fool yourselves, even the best technology can fail due to poor change management efforts causing users to reject the changes and blame the software. Making sure the implementation team understands the impacts across all levels and roles in the organisation and can communicate those with simplicity is important. When users feel like the team driving the change gets the impact to their daily work, they are more likely to embrace the changes. When users feel that the project team doesn’t get the impact, often a lot of time and energy can be spent on trying to explain away the pain versus working towards the new state of operation.

One Response

  1. Kelly Butler Article

    Interesting article – thanks for sharing your perspective Kelly!

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Jamie Lawrence

Insights Director

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