Meeting Dave Ulrich
It is not often that you get to meet a globally renowned academic, more so personally assist him in setting up his engagement in the Philippines. Barely two weeks after arriving from studying overseas, I was given the privilege of coordinating Professor Dave Ulrich’s talk for this year’s PMAP Annual Conference. I got the call from events manager Cacay Ponce De Leon, and without hesitation, said yes in an instant. As any self-respecting nerd would say, you simply do not pass up on this opportunity!
Our first email exchange was unreal. From reading his works to actually talking to him, I was giddy. I mean, you cannot really help but fanboy over a global thought leader. But just as excited as I was over exchanging notes with Professor Ulrich, I was pleasantly surprised as well by how accessible he was. He was the least bit self-imposing and his only request was for us to get him first-class tickets, “if possible”, given that he was a travel-weary academic flying out from an engagement in Johannesburg and straight to Manila. He was very low maintenance, and his guilty pleasure – as his executive assistant, the awesomely named Ginger Bitter, would later disclose to me – would be a simple tall glass of ice-cold Diet Coke, something he shares with PMAP Executive Director Rene Gener, and if my memory serves me right, several other PMAP past presidents. Perhaps great minds do think alike.
Professor Ulrich ran on a very tight schedule. His connecting flight from Doha arrived Thursday evening at around 10:30 pm. His talk was at 9:00 am the following day, and he had to fly out right after his closing keynote in the afternoon. When I picked him up from the airport, he was as laid back as could be: shorts, a carry-on luggage, and a laptop bag. He seemed tired but he did not have an ounce of self-importance. This was later confirmed in our ride back to the hotel. He was obviously exhausted but he nonetheless struck up a conversation. He asked about all sorts of things, from what to expect in the conference to how things are going in the Philippines. To my mind, here was the leading HR expert in the world: humble, accommodating, and genuinely interested in his audience of one.
For his first talk on Friday, Professor Ulrich met with a limited number of C-level executives and HR leaders. He discussed with them how executives could build winning organizations by leveraging talent, leadership, and culture. Ably moderated by PMAP past president Grace Abella-Zata and MERALCO’s chief HR officer, Mr. Mon Segismundo, the morning session included a panel discussion that bounced off ideas on how best to apply the insights from Professor Ulrich’s interactive lecture. Mr. Roy Evalle, general manager of First Pacific Leadership Academy, presented the point-of-view from a Filipino conglomerate; Mr. Timothy Liong, general manager of Metalcast Corporation offered insights from a Filipino SME; Ms. Mitzie Antonio, senior vice president for HR of Nestle Philippines, Inc. represented senior HR leaders in the country; and Dr. Gina Hechanova of Ateneo De Manila University integrated perspectives from the Philippine academe. Meanwhile, Professor Ulrich’s closing keynote for this year’s Annual Conference at the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC) was moderated by no less than Mr. JP Orbeta, managing director of Ayala Corporation.
Sifting through his talks, Professor Ulrich built a compelling case for enabling leadership. The time-honored principle of leadership defining culture through modelling was reinforced. This was complemented by a call for better organizational design because as Professor Ulrich demonstrated, the best talent is not always found in the winning team. Hence, leaders providing an enabling environment are more critical to organizational success than having the best individual performers. Ultimately, Professor Ulrich’s message was a clarion call for teamwork. Individuals matter, but to optimize performance, they have to be part of a cohesive team.
Meanwhile, Professor Ulrich also offered new insights on how we look at culture and the HR competencies of the future. With a tinge of self-deprecation, Professor Ulrich pointed to the evolving needs of the HR profession by declaring that he himself would not buy today the books he wrote from a decade or two ago. Most striking was his observation that one’s organizational culture is the image that your worst customer has of your company. If your company is seen as providing the worst customer service, then perhaps that same culture is operating within your ranks. In an age of cognitive dissonance, this view presents a major challenge not only to HR professionals but also to business leaders in general. Are your internal practices aligned with your external strategies? Do you actually practice what you preach?
And to that perennial question of how HR could get a seat at the proverbial table, Professor Ulrich opined that HR is not about HR; that value is defined by the receiver. Accordingly, the results of his latest study on HR competencies proved instrumental. For instance, being a credible activist is a top priority for HR to remain relevant. Moreover, another key competency surfaced is the role of HR as paradox navigator. For Professor Ulrich, HR could create value in today’s business environment by making sense of uncertainty and managing tension. The HR professional must be able to lead the organization as it oscillates from divergence to convergence and vice versa. Ultimately, HR must act both as an architect and as an anthropologist. To me, this message brought the conference full circle given that the opening keynote was delivered by the country’s leading anthropologist, Chancellor Michael Tan of the University of the Philippines, Diliman. Such was a testament to the foresight of PMAP past president Bong Austero, this year’s Conference Program Chair.
When PMAP Executive Director Rene Gener wrapped up the morning session with a note that bringing Professor Ulrich to Manila was an item ticked off on PMAP’s bucket list, I myself crossed out a similar item in my personal wish list. And no, it was not just about meeting Dave Ulrich. It was more about realizing that brilliance and humility are not mutually exclusive, and that regardless of stature, being thoughtful and kind is really what matters. And when days after his engagement, Professor Ulrich sent me an email thanking me and wishing me luck in finding “a job I like,” that same giddy feeling I had when I first saw an email from him inevitably came rushing back. Yes, this fanboy was indeed very happy.
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