I’ve known that I’ve wanted to lead an HR team ever since I was 18 — not just be in HR, but be an HR leader. At that age, I wasn’t even so sure what it would mean to lead HR, but I had two great mentors in my father and uncle and I knew it was my calling. I wanted to help people at work and make them better off in their careers and lives because of my positively impactful leadership.
Today, I am fortunate to be in my dream job at UKG, fostering a culture that truly cares for its employees and our customers, and helping people find their purpose along the way. While I’m the Chief People Officer at UKG, it’s not so much my title that matters. It’s the work I do every day to serve our employees, nurture our culture, challenge our team, and, in the process, serve our customers and greater society outside of UKG. That’s my purpose, whether I’m known as the CPO or simply as Pat.
Recently, I spoke with Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., President and CEO of SHRM in a UKG Exclusive event called "Untitled (Why Leadership Is More Than a Job Title)". Johnny and I spoke candidly about our individual experiences as C-suite leaders, what led us to our respective passions, and how there is a lot more to being a leader than just the carrying the title.
If you haven’t had a chance to listen in on our conversation, I outline in this blog post the key topics we talked about and my key memory moments from the discussion. No matter your title, I hope you find our fireside chat as enlightening as I did.
Key Takeaways from "Untitled (Why Leadership Is More Than a Job Title)"
1. Seeing the personal and the professional
Being a leader isn't just about pleasing your stakeholders. It's about working with your employees to find a solution that shows compassion, even when it might be an unpopular thing to do. Johnny used to be a lawyer, specializing in labor and employment law. In the early days, he made sure that any lawsuits that employees or unions made toward his company wouldn’t see the light of day — and he was good at that. It even got to a point where his boss told him he was “doing a really, really good job helping them beat the employees.” And that’s when his epiphany happened.
“It dawned on me that I could be far more effective for our stakeholders if I could prevent employees from needing to bring these lawsuits to us in the first place,” Johnny said in Untitled. “Employees should be able to come to us and say what they are concerned about, and we should appropriately respond to that, so they don’t get someone else involved. That was the reason why I got into HR.”
2. Putting mental health front and center
The pandemic brought a lot of challenges to light, especially mental health. I remember having conversations with managers about mental health and was surprised to find that they rarely spoke about it at work before the pandemic. Becoming accustomed to answering the “How has your day been?” question with the auto-piloted response of “OK, how about you?” just isn’t good enough anymore — because, sometimes, we aren’t OK. And that’s OK.
As leaders (and as people), we have to pause in the moment and acknowledge how we’re feeling, even if it’s hard, awkward, and painful at times. Being open, honest, and having those difficult conversations can have a hugely positive impact for our people. In fact, a recent UKG study on mental health and managers revealed that managers have as much of an impact on employees’ mental health as their spouses (both 69%) — and an even greater impact than their doctors (51%) or therapists (41%). The onus is on us as leaders to recognize the effect we have on our people, and whether that effect will be positive or negative.
3. Embracing empathy and vulnerability
I have been noodling about empathy a lot lately. What does empathy mean to me? What does empathy mean to those around me? Johnny brought up that empathy and culture should go hand in hand.
“Empathy is a core element that makes an extraordinary leader, with the second being culture, and making for a culture warrior of sorts,” he said. “When taking on this culture-warrior mindset, you can tell prospective employees exactly what the culture will feel like because you’re fully immersed in it. When C-suite leaders can articulate the culture and lead with empathy, I don’t think there’s much you can’t overcome, even when the business falls on hard times.”
Being empathetic—and vulnerable—toward those who are closest to you, whether they’re colleagues at work or family members at home, should always remain a priority.
4. Mentoring the leaders of the future
It’s important to not lose sight of who you are as a person, as your position at work doesn’t define you — that’s the ultimate takeaway from our “Untitled” conversation. Only you get to define who you are. Not a title, rank, nor role at work.
Also, it’s OK to make mistakes. Mistakes can be a gift because you get to learn something from them.
I have a t-shirt that says, “perfectly imperfect,” and I wore it to a recent VP Immersion event we held with more than 200 UKG leaders. While wearing the shirt, I talked about the importance of having a growth mindset and being an agile, “For All” leader. The agile leader knows that they are on the right mountain (their goal), but the path to climb that mountain might change along the way. Being openly perfectly imperfect with your team will help you co-create something much more magical than if you had a fixed mindset.
Success in leadership—and in life—is built on trust. We have to trust the people around us. We have to trust our family. We have to trust our employees. Most of all, we have to trust ourselves that, even if we’re on the wrong path, we can be agile enough to right the trip.