Sarah Smith, Head of Talent and Organizational Development at Marathon Oil Corporation, described how HR can lead in challenging business times.
In her keynote address at the 2016 Human Capital Leadership Forum held on March 2 in San Francisco, Smith described in detail what it means, in HR, to roll up our sleeves and get practical when the going gets tough. As an executive in the oil and gas industry, she knows whereof she speaks when it comes to a business downturn. “It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in or where your company is in its cultural journey,” she said. “We in HR face essentially the same challenges, no matter our industry.”
As we know, the speed of change is rapidly increasing. “I thrive on change,” Smith admitted. “I find opportunity in it, and lead other people through it. This doesn’t describe most people,” she pointed out, “but most people wish they had this attitude toward change.”
“We need to coach in the moment, consider relative performance, and tie performance to pay in terms of relative—not absolute—results.”
There are three characteristics that serve as hallmarks in creating change—performance, behavior (leadership), and engagement. None of these are revolutionary, said Smith, but when combined and ramped up, they create transformational change.
Performance management is different from driving performance, Smith pointed out. “We need to drop performance management. It’s a patriarchal paradigm. Ratings are passé. We need to coach in the moment, consider relative performance, and tie performance to pay in terms of relative—not absolute—results.”
In a change environment, stress behaviors emerge, which makes the challenge of transformation even more difficult, said Smith. People tend to retreat in a change environment, not become proactive. We need to listen more to people in these environments. This builds trust, which makes change easier. “If you focus on developing behaviors, people will follow and change will happen.”
Communication is of utmost importance in leadership, said Smith. “It’s impossible to over-communicate in a change environment.” Also important is collaboration. “This isn’t about the gluing together of existing egos. It’s about ideas that didn’t even exist until everyone entered the room. In times of stress, egos emerge more strongly, so focusing on ideas is the key to collaboration.”
“This isn’t about the gluing together of existing egos…In times of stress, egos emerge more strongly, so focusing on ideas is the key to collaboration.”
Resiliency in the individual, the team, and the organization is the third pillar of leadership, along with collaboration and communication, said Smith. “Keep calm and carry on” is the motto here. If you’re stressed, you stress other people. Neuroscience has proven this.
Engagement is perhaps the most elusive of our tasks, observed Smith. She defined engagement as purpose + voice + belonging + trust, which leads to commitment. “Use the ripple effect—create movement and give it momentum,” she suggested. “Another way to cultivate engagement is to intentionally hit every part of your business—every organization and every geography. Give them the same, 15-minute gems, and then listen and learn from these conversations.”
In summary, HR’s role in tough times focuses on:
Performance: Encourage authenticity and two-way feedback.
Leadership: Promote practical, clear steps with a sense of urgency.
Engagement: Acknowledge that everyone matters, and help them see the future.
“Ask yourself where you are in your own journey in these three areas; where your company is and what its maturity is in these three areas; and ask if you’re pulling on all the levers at the same time and with the same amount of power.”
Smith ended by encouraging people to face challenges not by asking, ‘What can I do about this?’ but ‘What can HR do about this?’ “We can learn from one another because we’re all at different stages along the journey. We can inspire each other.”
ABOUT SARAH SMITH:
Sarah describes herself as practitioner, connector, achiever, and—above all—believer in naturally inserting real transformational change into daily life.
As Director of Talent Management at Marathon Oil, Sarah is the driving force for key change initiatives within Recruitment, Technical Development, Performance Management, Talent Readiness, and Leadership Development. Never one to shy away from a challenge, she enjoys the creativity associated with delivering strategic plays at a time of significant industry turbulence—and thrives in it.
Prior to joining Marathon Oil, Sarah was at Schlumberger for 18 years, driving innovation through various practical talent management roles and embedding change at every step. Did she mention that she started as a geologist? That’s a great story, so don’t be afraid to ask.
Sarah’s advice to her twenty-two-year-old self is, “Don’t worry about being right. Instead, challenge, have courage, and look to create bold and juicy solutions. That’s where all the fun is.”