Innovate or Die – Building a Workforce for the Future

Alec Bashinsky has more than 30 years’ experience in global talent transformation and innovation in professional services, technology and retail sectors, and is credited with rapidly turning around the poor fortunes of Deloitte, using key people strategies to triple the company’s revenue and instigating gender diversity initiatives. This month Alec kindly agreed to talk with us about the challenges of innovation, and the changing shape of our Workforce.

Alec, Deloitte has acquired a number of technology start-ups such as Mashable, The Explainers, and Sixtree, over the last few years. How have you integrated those various organisational cultures into Deloitte?

I think it works two ways. As a company, we’ve been doing innovation to ourselves for many years now. As an example, some years ago we brought out two professors from Stanford to spend a couple of days with us, and we put about 400 executives through a program around design thinking. We then brought them back and put another 400 executives through a similar sort of programme.

On top of that, our CEO and our executive team are very geared to driving innovation, or creating disruption across the organisation. I think we are extremely conscious that if we don’t innovate and our business model and structure remain the same then we, like many other companies, risk becoming irrelevant as 2025 comes along. I only need to cite places like Borders and Blockbuster to illustrate that example. Innovation is built-in in the way that we do things.

How do you instil that type of culture in the organisation?

We offer various incentives to our people to innovate. As an example, we have an innovation council and encourage employees to put ideas forward. The idea could involve a start-up piece of technology, it could be a new product, or it could involve a different way of doing things. The council reviews all of the ideas, and then provides up to $10,000 micro-funding at a time for the employee to incubate the idea, and to go out and build the idea to see whether or not it can actually work.

As an organisation we are quite extreme in the way we challenge our processes and our strategy. We are very cognisant that we need to move with the times to remain relevant.

Over the years you’ve experienced a lot of change in your industry. How have you navigated that change?

I think I’ve always challenged the status quo, even in my younger days. I’ve always asked ‘why’ or ‘why not’. I don’t like working with people who continue to put roadblocks or barriers in the way of progress or who stop you from doing things.

Sometimes that’s been to my detriment, but I think, invariably, I’ve always tried to push that envelope because I think if you don’t stay ahead of the curve, whether that’s business, technology, or process, you risk becoming second, you risk losing market share, you risk losing talent. I’ve navigated that, and in that context, I’ve always been focussed on trying to drive change.

A lot of organisations don’t move forward. They have people who are process leaders and authoritarian box-tickers and that is not something that I’ve worked with. I think the tech industry over the years has always looked to do not just innovative things, but also streamlining and automating the process.

I’m a great believer that we should always look to improve things and make them more efficient. If there’s a six step process in a framework, how can we shift and it down to four? Can we automate some activities? I think the real value, particularly for HR teams is actually working with the organisation to help solve business issues and to make processes more efficient, which unfortunately many HR teams simply don’t do.

Innovation, to me, is pretty cool.

Ever since I was working at Cisco, I’ve travelled regularly to and from the U.S. I’ve only just recently returned, and again – spent some time in San Francisco before coming home.

Every time I’m there I search out the new start ups to find out what is happening, what ideas are coming through – and what might be relevant to the businesses and industries that we work with. Here’s an interesting one. I came across a diversity spell-checker organisation. Think of a spell-checker, in the grammatical sense, well, think about it from a screening of the correct terminology in a diversity context.

I think you’ve got to stay up to date with what’s happening. That mantra just doesn’t apply to HR – it also applies to business.

From an HR perspective, my big focus at the moment is in creating a Workforce for the future. How do we pull talent pools together to satisfy our client needs either locally or globally.

You currently sit on a number of boards. As one of the most recognised HR leaders in the country what are your thoughts about the lack of HR present in the boardroom generally?

I hear a lot of HR leaders or HR directors in general whining about the lack of HR representation at the board level. I look at it differently. Boards need to be looking at the calibre of individuals, their experiences, and the results they’ve delivered. Being an HR director for an ISX top 200 in itself, isn’t necessarily the relevant thing.

Directors need to show that they have made an impact, that they are business focused, that they can innovate. Those are the skills and capabilities that boards need.

My view is that some of the HR Directors don’t make an impact, they don’t deliver outcomes and their impact on the organisation is poor. And, if that were the case, why would a board consider bringing you in with that track record. You’re better off focusing, as an HR leader, around innovation, around change management. Think about the people dimensions and what outcomes you can bring to the board role.

On my first board role, I spent more time helping the organisation define its strategy, defining where they should and shouldn’t play, what they would and wouldn’t do and then how they would go to market.

If you listen to those descriptions, they don’t necessarily form part of a traditional HR director’s role.

You’ve got to build that business experience, but I think the biggest issue, to answer your question of why HR is represented is that there are far too many HR directors that just don’t understand the businesses that they’re in.

How has the recruitment process at Deloitte changed over the years.

Well, if you think of it from a broader perspective, the days of just hiring accounting and commerce graduates from the top universities are well and truly long gone.

We now recruit graduates from science, engineering and technology… graduates from a range of different disciplines. We’re really looking for people who demonstrate good, basic cognitive thinking and are able to adapt in today’s environment.

We do more advisory work and consulting work these days than we used to do, so I think the role of the graduate has changed. The undergrad stream that we look for has changed, and the impact that the people have has also changed. We are now taking lateral hires from a whole range of different areas, the banking industry, the mining industry, and the health industry. There’s so much more diversity being added to what is already a fairly rich cultural palette, so the change is quite significant.

As a non-executive director of the diversity council, there’s always talk around what diversity means, and in most instances a lot of print is dedicated to gender diversity. What are your thoughts on diversity, both at the executive level of organisations and in the boardroom?

I think we are making change slowly at board and executive level, but you read enough media articles and you look at the government workplace agency for gender and equality (WGEA) and even their metrics are showing that the change is slow.

I think what we’re still seeing diversity managed at an organisational level in ‘a ticking of boxes’ style approach, rather than looking at an organisation more broadly, at both the executive and the board level and then driving the whole concept of diversity forward through-out the entire organisation.

Deloitte started this back in 2005 when we recognised that the number of female partners we had was totally inadequate. Change takes time – you can turn around and make appointments quickly, and that fixes your immediate numbers, but that’s not sustainable.

We took time to understand what the issues were at all levels of the organisation. We looked at promotion cycles, hiring cycles and then started to drive a pipeline of development. As an example we saw that we needed to develop a pipeline of female leaders, and provide mentors and opportunities in order to get the balance right.

We’ve even had push back from some of our men. However our numbers show that there’s not a problem in promoting and developing men, so we’ve continued to address the issue.

I think the diversity of a board is critical. There needs to be a more sustainable approach to driving diversity at board and exec level rather than a set quota focus which tends to drive a ‘tick the box’ mentality. You don’t get genuine, sustainable change through quotas. As I mentioned earlier, you’ve really got to understand that diversity, it could be cultural, it could be indigenous, but certainly gender, is applied in two elements. It’s a business play, which is critical, and it’s a talent play.

How do you ensure that you’re able to build executive and board level teams with gender diversity – without the need for quota’s at the top?

You’ve got to have the programmes and the frameworks in place in order for that to succeed. Having said that, I am a big believer of targets within business units to build a pipeline. Targets enable you to dissect your business, by business unit and by sub-business unit, which enables you to identify the problem areas. Yet many leaders continue to provide excuses why there’s not enough gender diversity talent in their group.

I have to say; I’ve heard all the excuses and none of them cut it. Part of the success of what we’ve done has been as a result of building talent pipelines along the journey to address our issues.

You don’t just go out and say, “I’m going to build an executive team with 50% male/female.” You’ve got to understand where you are today and what you think is achievable, because there’s nothing worse than setting out a target and then not achieving it.

If you build in quotas and targets at the bottom rungs of the business – and stick to a pipeline agenda, then you build the talent internally, enabling you to sustain gender diversity and increase your gender diversity mix as you move forward. Providing you have the business leaders who get the importance and can drive this forward.

As an example, we hire our graduates almost 50/50 male and female. We’ll look at promotion cycles, and will naturally review male to female promotions as well as male to female remuneration at job level. Then we’ll identify high potentials at manager level.

In order for women to make partner, we need to ensure that we have equal representation of men and women at that mid-range management level. Where we don’t have equal representation, we have a targeted strategy around what we’re going to do to build a pipeline of talented female partners.

We’ve appointed some of our female directors to partnerships while they have been on maternity leave and we have lots of female partners that go out on maternity leave while still a partner. If you were to go back ten years ago, those sorts of examples would have been unheard of.

How important is it to have mentors available to help develop talent?

I think it’s very important. But – it’s just as important for the mentee to understand what they want to get out of the relationship.

Let me give you an example of that. People will come to me and ask me whether I’d consider being a mentor to them, and I ask them exactly that question.

“What do you want to get out of this?”

If they want me to problem solve for them, then the answer is no. But if they want a sounding board, or if they want career advice, or a conversation along those lines to provide realistic advice around what is, and isn’t possible, then that to me is what being a mentor is all about.

What are your tips for HR executives who are interested in starting a board career?

  1. Diversify your career by industry.

If you’re in professional services, think about communications. If you’re into communications, think about energy and resources. It’s important that you are offering some diversity or industry role and expertise to that board.

  1. Demonstrate how you can add value to a board.

Is it great M&I experience? Is it great business or HR transformation? Is it that you’ll be able to build a strategy and deliver outcomes? Those sorts of things are very relevant to a board.

  1. Start out with a smaller not for profit board.

Build your confidence and experience there around board mechanics and board formalities.

  1. Look for a board with a strong and experienced Chair.

You’ll learn a lot from the team around you. Ensuring you join a board with experienced Directors and an experienced Chair will be of enormous value. I would also consider doing some kind of formal governance training whether that is at the AICD, or Director Institute.

  1. Learn how to read the financial papers.

As a board member you will probably belong to a range of subcommittees. It may be an IT subcommittee, or an HR subcommittee. You’ll be regularly looking at financial statements, P&L’s, strategy documents. If you’re not dealing with that as an HR practitioner, you need to build that expertise.

About Alec:

Alec Bashinsky has more than 30 years’ experience in global talent transformation and innovation in professional services, technology and retail sectors. He is passionate about creating high-performance teams and supporting them with the intelligent application of technology. Alec is credited with rapidly turning around the poor fortunes of Deloitte, using key people strategies to triple the company’s revenue and instigating gender diversity initiatives.

As CHRO Australia and Asia Pacific Regional Talent Leader for Deloitte, Alec is responsible for driving a high-performance culture, building leadership capability and embedding organisational culture and employee engagement. As Human Resources Director, Alec rebuilt HR teams globally with Deloitte, Cisco, Peoplesoft and Toys R Us.

Alec serves as a non-executive director for the Diversity Council of Australia and is a member of the Advisory Board for I-Lead at the Australian Business School UNSW. He is also a non-executive director of HR Onboard and a board member of the Deloitte Foundation. Alec sits on the Deloitte Global Talent Executive and has advised a range of Australian organisations, which span from start-ups through to large established companies.

Alec is one of the few HR leaders considered both an innovator and a pioneer for talent strategies. His recent, highly acclaimed work includes Blowing Up Performance Management, a global project that he leads for Deloitte, and delivering business outcomes in Shaping the Workforce of the Future, also for Deloitte. He has twice been awarded HR Director of the Year and also Human Resources Leader of the Year. Alec and his team have been recognised externally by the numerous awards they have achieved over the years, including HR Team of the Year and Employer of Choice for Gender Equality.