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A CHRO Leads Through Uncertainty

A conversation with Carol Surface, CHRO at Medtronic
August 2021

In 2003, just weeks into her first international assignment in Hong Kong, Carol Surface was faced with leading during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic. This experience, perhaps unexpectedly, proved valuable 17 years later when she was the CHRO of Medtronic, a global healthcare technology company, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was certainly formative,” said Surface. “I had to keep myself healthy and safe as a first-time ex-pat, so I could effectively lead an organization of 12,000 employees through the crisis…. That experience taught me to be calm in the face of a crisis, and to keep employee safety front and center, despite the uncertainty of what the future may hold.”

We recently spoke with Surface as part of our series of interviews with Fortune 500 CHROs about their paths to the position and the skills that guided them. In our interview below, edited for brevity, we talked with her about her path to HR leadership, being CHRO at Medtronic during the pandemic and the future of the CHRO role.

My background in industrial-organizational psychology led me to several specialist roles in HR at PepsiCo. Being a CHRO wasn’t an early career ambition. I would have been perfectly happy staying focused on talent management, connecting data and insights with my knowledge of psychology.

But leaders at PepsiCo suggested perhaps I should think about doing more, which led to HR business partner roles outside of the U.S. — first in Hong Kong, supporting businesses in several Asia Pacific countries, then onward to Dubai where I focused on the Middle East and Africa. As I continued on at PepsiCo, there were signals I should set my sights higher, including the top HR job.

What attracted me to HR was the ability to apply my knowledge and experience in industrial organizational psychology to make an impact on a much bigger and broader scale. A company’s performance is the accumulation of tens of thousands of individual talent, organizational, and cultural decisions. Having a direct impact on an organization’s success through its people appeals to me.

Over the past year and a half, with the pandemic and societal unrest, I suppose you could say I was well-trained for that. During the seven years I lived outside the U.S., I became accustomed to dealing with the unexpected. Particularly in emerging markets, it’s difficult to predict what may unfold. Whether SARS, a military coup, the devastating Asian tsunami in 2004, or many other external challenges, prioritizing the safety and wellbeing of employees, their families, and communities always remains my number-one goal.

This key takeaway — focus on your people first — continues to serve us well managing through the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s not over. The crisis team I lead with a colleague continues to meet weekly. Of course, the HR team needed to be at forefront of all employee efforts. We implemented new benefits, provided access to virtual healthcare providers, offered onsite vaccination clinics, promoted educational resources, and more.

I’ve learned that when companies invest in and prioritize their employees, our employees will take care of our customers. Medtronic employees stepped up in extraordinary ways and delivered an inordinate amount of work at what I call a “pandemic pace.” We’re doing things that once seemed impossible: producing ventilators at five times the speed; partnering with organizations like SpaceX, Intel and GM. open-sourcing ventilator design specifications (which means giving away one of our ventilator proprietary designs for free to anyone who needed them) to help meet critical customer and patient needs during COVID-19.

We’ve also applied innovation to how we work. Historically, for example, when a pacemaker is implanted, a Medtronic team member would be physically present, along with the doctor, an electrophysiologist, to support the procedure. We now do this remotely and virtually. So, the other takeaway for me is the tremendous opportunity to embrace the good which comes out of the pandemic and to apply it to our ongoing work, structures, and processes.

Leaders who demonstrated empathy, transparency, vulnerability, and optimism for the future, while also adapting to the current reality and operating with speed, urgency, and decisiveness. These really stood out.

First and foremost is empathy for the human experience. In March 2020, I kicked off our COVID-19 response efforts by saying everyone is going to interpret and experience the virus threat very differently, which translates into unique behaviors. As leaders, we must understand that each individual’s health situation, along with that of their family, influences how much stress and strain they feel. Leading with empathy means respecting that everyone is experiencing the pandemic differently and accepting this with no judgement.

That doesn’t imply a trade-off with maintaining a competitive, performance-oriented culture. You can get there with a level of transparency and by openly acknowledging the uncertainty of the situation. Focus your leaders and employees on what is in their control and the support you’ll provide. Embrace the uncertainty, talk about the benefits, and adapt.

I've been involved with Gartner’s CHRO Global Leadership Board, which has developed a CHRO competency model. One aspect of the model is the CHRO’s ability to anticipate and respond to external trends. If 2020 is any indication, then I think that specific accountability is only going to increase. We're already seeing increased expectations of transparency and disclosure from a variety of stakeholders, including institutional investors, shareholders, ISS governance, proxy advisory firms and employees.

Further, CHROs must play a key role in leveraging data and AI, to create more consumable, interactive employee experiences that aren't HR-process heavy — and engage employees to co-author the approach. We must make sure technology, data and AI benefit the employee experience.

Last, the work environment is going to be different in a post-pandemic world and employee expectations for flexibility and other changes will be higher. Given the high productivity and ingenuity of employees during a pandemic, expect hybrid work to be a non-negotiable. Organizations must embrace and recognize the bar is going to be raised and see it as an opportunity. Companies that don't embrace this — in a way which reflects both their business needs as well as what their employees are looking for — will be left behind or will lose out on the best talent. We won’t make that mistake. As Medtronic implements our own hybrid work model, we’re focused on creating an environment that inspires collaboration, innovation, and flexibility — things to position us well into the future.