Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
December 3, 2020

Seeking ‘Grit and Grace,’ HR Leads the Change Agenda

After joining Ford in 1995 as a labor relations representative in Australia, Kiersten Robinson rose through the ranks, eventually becoming global chief human resources officer in 2018. Two years later, she is leading the function through one of the most tumultuous periods in recent history. As the world shut down, Ford not only pivoted much of its workforce to remote work, but also shifted a large portion of its manufacturing from cars and trucks to designing and producing urgently needed personal protective equipment in the fight against COVID-19.

Earlier this year, Robinson was one of several CHROs we interviewed to learn about their career paths and how they have managed the HR function during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the interview below, shortened for brevity, Robinson tells us about her experience through the pandemic and how technology will drive the future of HR.

How did the pandemic impact your unit?

We were one year into a five-year people strategy that featured culture transformation as one of three core pillars. Starting with our strong foundation of innovation, trust and family heritage, we sought to build a diverse and adaptive learning community and environment where every employee felt empowered to learn, grow and thrive. In hindsight, we learned many of our aspirations were actually too conservative and, with significant business pivots, the transformation has actually sped up by two or three years.

Through the pandemic, we have recognized the significance of the workplace in shaping our culture and employee experience. As such, we have integrated our Ford Land organization (the area responsible for buildings, facilities and workplace experience) within HR as part of our focus on driving culture change, and are re-imagining the future of work, the workplace and the employee experience.

The crisis has also helped identify future leadership talent. These emerging leaders have my favorite combination: grit and grace. They are problem solvers with a tolerance for ambiguity and an ability to provide clarity during chaos. They are clear, authentic communicators in a virtual, cross-functional and global environment. They are values-based leaders who know that leading a team through crisis must start with empathy and trust.

What past experiences have helped you navigate the COVID-19 crisis?

What is great about working in the auto industry is that we know how to lead during crisis. The core capabilities of focusing the organization, allocating the right skills and talents, breaking constraints, developing scalable solutions and relentlessly communicating are things that we do exceptionally well. Additionally, within Ford, our strong involvement in the community allowed us to pivot quickly and partner with the right stakeholders and experts who could help us take on the problem..

How has technology impacted your work since taking the top job?

I saw from the beginning that there was a gap in our understanding of how to really optimize technology like data, AI and machine learning to better deliver HR products and services. The biggest shift we made in our delivery model is that most of our workforce now accesses the bulk of HR products and services through technology. We use AI in the background for a lot of those services to better learn about the employee and anticipate their needs.

For example, we are in the midst of launching a new performance management and compensation planning process, underpinned by a completely new technology platform. With employee privacy being a heavy focus, we have used AI in the background of our change management communications to learn where employees are seeking information, what resonates and where they need more help. We are aiming to better anticipate and understand employee needs when they go online looking for particular support.

What career experience best prepared you for being CHRO?

My international experience was really important. I cannot say enough about the value of being put in a location that's completely outside of your comfort zone. It forces you to build the capability muscles you need not just as an HR professional, but as a leader and as a person. Outside of that, I would actually say less about the roles I have had and more about the experiences. There were pivotal projects that were transformative in terms of the potential business impact, but also required taking a risk.

How do you see the role of CHRO evolving in the coming years?

The CHRO will continue to lead the change agenda for the company in a way that is not just grounded in data, but also human-centered. One of the key responsibilities unique to HR is how technology and data intersects with human science and behavioral knowledge. Even in an engineering-based company like Ford, we cannot simply go to the data for the answer. We must ensure we pay equal attention to the humans at the center of our processes, practices, products and services.

In driving the change agenda, CHROs must have a deeper appreciation and understanding about how to optimize human behavior and performance. In a world faced with increasing mental health concerns, anxiety and uncertainty, many people need help with the foundational skills to cope. How do we make sure that we are thinking about how to help and support people so that when they come to work, they can be the best that they can be?