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Seeing a “Golden Age” for the HR Function, a Long-Time HR Leader Prepares for the Future

A conversation with Bill Strahan, EVP, Human Resources at Comcast
March 2024

A lot has changed since we first spoke four years ago with Bill Strahan, executive vice president of human resources at Comcast, as part of our series of interviews with top CHROs. For one, the COVID-19 shutdown would not happen yet for another month. And while technology was top of mind, AI’s rapid rise in the public consciousness was still years away.

Against this backdrop, Spencer Stuart’s Fleur Segal recently sat down with Strahan again to learn more about where the CHRO role is headed in the wake of these trends. In this interview, which has been edited for brevity, Strahan talks about his approach to CHRO succession planning, the current and future state of HR talent, and how his organization and function are addressing the rise of AI.

Fleur Segal: More companies today are becoming more methodical about their succession planning for the CHRO role. How are you helping to drive Comcast’s long-term thinking for the top HR role?

Bill Strahan: Absent some sort of black swan event, I see my responsibility to leave the CEO with a difficult decision choosing among many people who are well prepared. Perhaps a better way to look at it is that I want to leave the CEO with a menu of different skill sets to choose from, depending on what the business needs at that point. The overall idea is that there’s a big slate of possible internal candidates, and my job is to constantly broaden them and make sure they can be the best version of themselves.

What I've told those people is that I can't predict, and certainly can't dictate, what the company will need when it’s time to replace me. But I can help make sure that when that time comes, you will have a great chance, and if you’re the right match for that moment, you'll be ready to go. For now, I’m looking at where you're either not broad or not deep, and how can we fill out your skill set — say, more work with technology or finance, or more global experience. Something I’ve said many times is that your first experience as an HR business partner is not as the CHRO of a company with tens of thousands of people. You may be the best benefit expert, the best talent expert, the best comp expert, but CHRO is not the place to learn on the job about how to be a business partner.

Fleur Segal: You spoke a little bit about not knowing what the company will need at any given moment. That said, do you try to look forward and figure out what “the CHRO of the future” might look like at Comcast?

Bill Strahan: Not as much. The distinction I would make is this: Our organization puts a really high premium on cultural alignment, on character, and on having a broad, effective, impactful executive leadership presence. I think with an organization as large and complex as ours, there certainly are some fundamental experiences that you'd want somebody to have had — that is important.

But more than that, I think the question is, at the C-suite level, will this person be a good steward of the culture? Will the person know how and when and where to guide the development of the culture? That, more than anything is what you want in those top jobs, rather than just experience managing the shop. Your CHRO needs to know enough to select and manage a great team, be a great internal service provider, take care of customers — all of those kinds of things. But the thing you're hiring for is whether the CHRO is going to be an incredible steward of the culture and advance it to where it needs to go. I don’t think that’s an easy thing to profile early on.

Fleur Segal: How are you feeling about the overall HR talent pipeline and the evolution of the function today?

Bill Strahan: In many ways HR talent is better than ever before. HR management has been professionalized, and there’s an appreciation both outside of and within HR that you need good technical skills in terms of statistics, mass communication, change management, etc.

That said, I think there’s still that lingering feeling sometimes along the lines of, “What HR does is helpful, but what we do is run the business.” We haven't really broken down that barrier yet — getting across the idea that a vital human capital function is an essential element of running the business, much like you would say about finance. It’s gotten better, but we’re not quite there, and not as fast as maybe you and I might like when we think about the amount of time that we've invested in this.

However, I must say, I’m optimistic because I think we’re in a bit of a golden age. You’re seeing better people practices across the board. It’s in fact appalling when you see bad people practices, whereas a few decades ago you might have heard “that’s just the way it goes” or “boys will be boys,” or you’d have no interest in DE&I, no interest in career development, poor change management.

The pipeline for HR people is better than the past. The turning point will be when HR people are more willing to exert power within the organization to achieve the organization's people goals, in ways that sometimes folks in the profession are not yet comfortable with. We have to move from just advisory to more direct management. I think we need maybe more aggressive leaders to break down that last artifice of distinction, and really kind of preserve HR as a profession going forward so that it doesn't fall back to administration.

Fleur Segal: How much does “business acumen” matter when it comes to future-thinking HR talent?

Bill Strahan: When you talk about business acumen, sometimes people are like, "Yeah, I know the difference between an income statement and a balance sheet." Well, I think it needs to be a bit more than that. Do they really understand the process flows in their organization? Do we understand the process of value creation? Not just a generic understanding, but down to the level of knowing the business plan well enough to know the dozen variables that go into achieving that plan, and how human capital impacts all of those?

A lot of that is about investing in learning about your own organization—going to Poughkeepsie to a factory floor or talking to the third shift computer operator at a bank or something. I would say, I sometimes don't think that people in HR actually spend enough time learning about their own organization, as opposed to learning layer and layer and layer of additional HR conversation or insight.

Fleur Segal: How has technology — and in particular AI — impacted both your organization and HR in general?

Bill Strahan: Comcast has been using AI for more than a decade in general. Some of our most important products and features, like the voice remote, are built on AI. The embedding of AI throughout everything we do has changed the nature of the workforce here. People are not afraid that the robots are coming to take their job. They see improvements in quality and security that have benefited both the company and our customers.

Like almost all organizations, we take data privacy and cybersecurity very, very seriously. We're very cognizant of the dangers. That being said, we've taken a little bit more of a platform partner–first view of AI. This means we haven't gone out seeking every new, sexy, bolt-on tool that’s out there as a standalone piece. Rather, we have pushed our big technological vendor partners about how we can operate better, about how we can get smarter inside the platforms where we already know we have good security protocols in place.

Fundamental business common sense still plays. What are the most important things that I should be working on? What are the opportunities to maybe dramatically improve my business? And then, is AI a good tool to do any of that? Or are we just seeing a new tool and deciding that we have to use it?

For HR, the sequence should be to review our priorities, both in terms of what must get done soon and the bold, generational advancements you want to make. Then you test those goals against a lot of tools, AI being one of them. But you shouldn’t have it in your head that AI's out there and you absolutely have to now find someplace to apply it or you’ll fall behind. I think it might be worse to apply it inappropriately, or to acquire something that doesn't really move the needle for the people function than it is to wait for the use case to come along and applying it correctly.


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