The Human Experience Function with Norm Smallwood and Anne-Marie Law
Anne-Marie Law and Norm Smallwood sat down to discuss their efforts and results in a remarkable HR Transformation. A panel of professionals submitted their questions based on their personal business experiences.
The Human Experience Function with Norm Smallwood and Anne-Marie Law
Below is the full transcript of the podcast with Anne-Marie Law and Norm Smallwood.
How did RBL help with your HR Transformation?
My conversations with RBL were really like, I have to design HR and then their conversations with me, it was, well, what's the business going to become? And if you know what the business is going to become, then you can start to figure out what HR should become. And that's when we really began down this conversation around what our direction of growth was going to be.
At the previous company, the previous path had been about product centricity. We were, as I say, this very expensive product, but we didn't have a particularly strong pipeline of new products. So we weren't going to be a product company. We could be a platform company, in theory, around the mechanism of action of our product, but there were already competitors in the field that had entered into the market with a similar mechanism of action. So being that platform company really wasn't going to work either.
Which then led to that final direction of growth around the customer, which really in many ways was the only path forward that was left to us. (The customer in our vernacular, being the patient.) And many of you who know the biotech industry will know, it's really hard to win by coming out and saying you're going to be a patient-centered company. Everybody's saying that, right? And now you have a reputation of being a highly priced drug and having a sort of a leadership organization or a leadership reputation that's in tatters.
So that doesn't seem like it's going to win you any favors, but really, I don't think you have any other options. So we decided as bold and audacious as that was going to be, we were going to become the most patient centered organization, within the confines of rare disease - which was where we were focusing. The question then isn't what we said we were going to be, but how we were going to design ourselves to be that - to be patient-centered by design.
So we were going to have to focus on what it was that patients needed and wanted from us as rare disease patients. And that was going to require us to change from the inside out. We couldn't stay the way we were organized. We were organized as a product company in silos. So the next question that we had to ask was, well, if we're going to organize ourselves some way differently, to be patient-centered for the patient experience, what were we going to need to do differently inside and what were the capabilities we were going to need to be world class in?
And that's really what drove us towards - well, you're going to have to be world class in innovation if you're going to be designing for patients, and those patients are going to be asking you to create new solutions for them. Innovation is something you're going to have to be world class in. But then looking back at the journey I described for you the context, it's like, well, how do you get to be a world class innovation company if that's not what you are? And we quickly concluded we needed to be world class in leadership and world class in innovation, because our leaders were going to need to help us transform the company on so many dimensions.
We had to focus on them almost first. That innovation could become a byproduct of the focus on leadership, which also then, in theory, would help us become more patient-centered. So that's where we really went to focus on our leadership, and that's where I think HR and the journey started to pivot in tandem. So the design of HR really became around becoming world class, in leadership, in innovation, and at the same time working with leaders to understand what it was that we needed to do to become truly patient centered.
How did you navigate this transformation in leadership with the employees?
I will tell you that the journey around leadership, even though we were in somewhat in disarray as we tried to renew ourselves and become this new version of ourselves, we all kind of knew the journey started with leaders - finding the high potential leaders in the organization, getting them nominated by the executive team, putting them through a program which we co-designed with RBL to ask them the boldened question: what was the unit of competitive advantage for the company as we thought about being really patient-centered, and that part of it was fairly easy.
They're doing it in tandem as we redesigned HR and then finding out how to connect what they told us into the design that we were creating for HR. That's when it kind of was, I think, a little bit more challenging. Yes, HR was designed with all of that going on very differently to how it would have been designed if we didn't have all of that going on.
So, you know, the keys were the HR executive partners. That was a version of business partnership, but I would say it was on steroids. So we're redesigning the whole company and we need executive partners who are brave and bold and able to push the executives out beyond their comfort zones. But the typical challenge you have with HR business partners is that they have organizations underneath them, and those organizations underneath them often have tactical responsibilities. So it's very hard for them to get emboldened and do brave new work because they're being held accountable to metrics that are more transactional.
So we severed that relationship. And instead, under the executive partners, we brought in a cadre of what we called organization capability and strategy leaders. And these were people who came from Deloitte or came from PWC who had backgrounds in human capital in various different dimensions, and they operated like a swarm. So as an HR executive partner realized that, “My executive partner team has this particular challenge, I'm going to help them with that challenge-“ they went back out into this internal swarming team and said, come help me, come figure it out.
So they built a reputation very quickly of having capabilities to help with organizational transformation that they wouldn't have had if they hadn't got this sort of swarm team behind them. On the other side, we knew that the employee experience was going to be critical through this journey, that we created an employee experience function, and they focused on employee journey mapping. They focused on employee engagement. They focused on employee relations. Ultimately, underneath them, we had employee talent management, you know, employee skill training, all of that sort of like general area.
But it was under the employee experience function that freed it up from having to please the executive. They could almost become this expression of a canary in a coal mine, right?
They could be the ones that were saying, you're talking about the culture and you've got these sort of, you know, ‘words’ that you're using. But the reality that the employees are experiencing is very different.
So to ensure that we continued to invest in the employee experience and didn't get fooled by our own language, [we had to see] the reality that was really there. They were the two things that I would say were very different about the model that we built.
In addition, we didn't have a traditional talent management model. We really focused in on building capabilities around leadership and innovation. And ultimately, we kind of wove in belonging and diversity inclusion in the early stages with that journey.
So that there was a group that was purely free to focus on those elements. They didn't have to worry about whether or not people were getting their own career development needs met. They were just focused on how are we going to drive innovation and leadership, those capabilities that we knew we needed to become world class in.
So then in tandem, as I say, this group of high potential leaders went off. And the question that we asked them was, “What's the unit of competitive advantage?” They came back and said it is all of the experiences that our patients have with us, but we aren't designed to deliver it in any way coherently. Every single function within the business thinks it's got a piece of responsibility around it, but there isn't any rallying cry. There isn't any system internally to garner that information.
How did the customers or in this case, the patient influence this design?
So a perfect example would be a patient who's on therapy drops off therapy. The sales team's responsibility is to find another patient, right? Because their numbers and metrics driven, their job isn't to find out why that patient isn't on therapy. So all of the knowledge that they might have about why that patient isn't on therapy goes nowhere. It doesn't even help them as they try and find another patient to put on therapy.
So that's when this group of high potential leaders came back with the idea that we should create an organization that was called STAR, that stood for Solutions To Accelerate Results for patients. Very leanly: a staffed organization or team that ultimately floated up these questions, these challenges, these problems, and these notable exceptions to our effort to be patient centric.
And really, it was in that group (STAR) that we tried to solve those problems - of course, using all of the people within the company who had expertise and creativity and wanted to help us solve the problems too. And that group came under me, and that's when we really started to destroy the terminology around Human Resources and really moved into Human Experience, because that was where we understood what the patients needed.
We had a vehicle to be able to solve for patients, and we had an organization, formerly known as HR, that was really dedicated to ensuring there was an internal design that could optimize solving for patients. And as we went through that journey, that sort of takes me to lesson six, which is this cohort of leaders that were ready to be champions, this group that was originally the high-performance team or a high-potential team, they stayed with us on the journey. They kind of grounded us, ensuring that we will continue to move forward and make progress. Ultimately what became really obvious was that digital was an enabler and without digital focused on enabling us, we weren't going to be successful.
And the job of IT had really been to drive efficiency. It wasn't to create products. It wasn't to create connections. It wasn't to create value. It was to ensure costs weren't escalating. And we really flipped that on its head and said, actually, the cost element of IT is a fraction. We can have IT help us design clinical trials. We can help IT can help us understand employees and that what's driving their exasperation so that we can refuel them and reenergize them.
We could actually be a force multiplier. So that's when IT also came into the realms of human experience and sort of became the connection point between the work we were doing to drive patient insights and solutions, and the work we were doing to drive organizational insights and people insights and solutions coming together through this wonderful energizer. We had an end in mind, even though we didn't know what the end was going to be.
How big was your HR department before and how has your organization grown over time?
So Alexion, when I arrived, had about 2500 people, I think we cut the workforce by 25 percent and then built back up to I think about four thousand now. They just announced maybe six months ago, less than six months ago, that they're being acquired by AstraZeneca. So not that unusual given the industry that we're in. The HR department, I think, was about 80 people when I joined. I think it's roughly probably about 110 people now.
One of the things that the executive team decided to do in this sort of context of the previous reputation of the previous company and trying to become this new company. The decision was made to move the headquarters from Connecticut to Boston. So that became a problem because Boston's a very competitive marketplace for talent. And we didn't have a great reputation, but it also meant that many more people left because they simply weren't willing to move from Connecticut to Boston. So whilst the numbers didn't change, you know, on an annual basis, we were adding about a thousand people to the employee base.
And then what we also decided what we would do is that we would not just add a thousand people, but change a thousand people's jobs. By that, I mean that when you looked at the actual net added the first year, I think it was a thousand and close to. But then the sort of positions that we were filling were a thousand. But we weren't adding a thousand new people. What we had was that real life line of that chain where a job gets posted, an internal applicant applies, and they're successful. Another job then gets posted, and an internal applicant applies, so we really had this amazing sort of life-energizing move of people evolving their careers within the company. It meant that recruitment was still very busy, but we weren't actually adding that same number of net new people.
What was your burning platform: how did you create momentum and inspire change?
Well, the burning platform was this sort of what we described as the path forward. So under the circumstances, there wasn't any option to stay as is, right? I mean, on every dimension, there was an expectation that we were changing. And so that really then created that, well, what are we going to change into? Because if you just sort of iterate, you don't really change. I mean, you may you may grow, but not to the extent that we needed to change because we had this terrible reputational challenge and we had a real challenge. If we didn't have a pipeline of drugs, we didn't have a reputation of being able to innovate. Investors didn't believe in us.
So it was sort of an almost cataclysmic set of circumstances. Well, what was interesting, however, was that whilst it was clear to me that we needed to be very bold and very brave, not everybody agreed with that. You know, some people thought we could be quite successful if we just made small changes. And that then I think goes to your point around, “Well, everybody's very busy.” What should we be spending our time doing and trying to find those things that people could do that would have multiple impacts, not just one impact?
And that's when we got to, you know, focusing on leaders. I found that very, very helpful. First of all, the executive team said they needed world-class leadership. Don't forget, we had a net promoter score of minus 70 within that top group of leader, so none of them were thinking we can transform the company without transforming their energy, right? They actually think that the company is not worth staying in and so we need to transform their energy. Engaging them was really clear then. And then once we engaged them, they became these full multi-force multipliers where in some instances where I would have said, oh, you know, “maybe we shouldn't,” they were like, “yes, we should.”
You know, some of them, even to this day, I think are very much championing the philosophies that were put out there, even though I'm no longer with the company. So they kind of, you know, to put it in some terms, they got religion and they became fervent. And then it wasn't my religion, it was theirs.
How do you heal what can feel like a battle between the HR agenda and the business agenda?
There is an image of you as a leader of a practitioner, and you're challenging that, you're changing the way you fit in in the business, and you have to be brave and bold in knowing that that's true, and that many of your colleagues won't really understand why you're sort of stepping above the fray or why you're pushing this agenda. And you have to keep coming back to it's a business agenda. It's not my agenda, it’s not a HR agenda, it is a business agenda.
But you can't change a business if you don't change the people within the business in some way, shape or form. And if HR is at the center point of changing the people, whether that's changing leaders or helping people become more innovative or helping people understand how to better service. There are all those elements. It has to start with the people, and HR has the key to that.
But so, yeah, I mean, it's a challenging scenario, though, because sometimes people want to be able to sort of, you know, make it simple. And if you make it simple, then you under-utilize the talent that you have within the organization. Change isn't simple. So you're kind of in this challenging situation where people want you to make it simple, make it easy, make the problems go away.
But for you to be a real service, you have to keep reminding people of the complexity and the challenges and the reality and that, you know, it's not easy. So it's a fine line that you're walking, but it starts with you being willing to walk that line.
How can you be a champion for an outcome that hasn’t happened yet?
It doesn't start with HR, but if HR doesn't transform to fit the new model that you're championing it, it will it will devolve and will dissolve. It won't work. So you kind of have to do the two in tandem, which is when it becomes I think, you know, uber stressful, right? Because people want you to be able to tell them what the outcomes of this changes that you're championing, but you can't tell them what the outcome is because it hasn't happened.
You know, you have to get people who are believers who are going to go on the journey. The benefit for us was that not changing, wasn't an option. There were definitely moments with the HR leadership team where I would sort of say, you know, we're on a journey, just draw the visual.
We've walked for two miles. We're running out of water. Everybody's getting hungry. There's an element of we don't really know where we're going and we don't know how much longer we're going to have to walk for. So let us all just sit down. And if we all just sit down and stay sitting down, we can regenerate ourselves and recoup. But like, at some point, we just have to get up. And so what are the options?
Do we get up and turn home, turn back, or do we get up and keep going? Knowing that we haven't arrived at our destination yet. So there was a lot of that that needed to happen. This sort of like re-instilling belief in the way back isn't the right way. That won't work anymore, even if we wanted it to work.
The company has changed enough now for that not to work anymore. And yet we still don't have the answers. So we have to continue to be brave and be bold and recognize that it is a journey and the journey is actually really important. We have to keep ourselves energized to go on. The other element [that helped] I would say is that the people and culture leads were separated from the HR business partners. It was an ongoing kind of challenge, right?
The people and culture leads enjoyed having a separation and being responsible for the voice of the employee, but the career path into HR executive partner wasn't clear to them because the HR executive partners were doing totally different work. They were doing organization design work. They were doing workforce planning. They were doing strategy. And the people in culture-lead sort of looked up at that work and wanted to get involved in it. So what we ended up doing was saying, “Well, you know, the work at executive-level needs to be done by these people who have deep experience in the work. But at the same time, team dynamics and team evolution work, that work is really important. And you, the people in culture leads can do that work. That's how you grow into becoming these executive partners.”
And I think Covid really helped with that, because suddenly everything became about people. And these people and culture leads were at the center of the voice of the people. They were doing weekly employee engagement surveys. They were analyzing the results. They were coming up with recommendations on how to improve the employee experience. That was very pure, and sort of, in some ways [helped inform] the executive partners. So it's sort of the model really ended up working very well under Covid. And that may be as well, kind of gave a little bit of relief to people who were finding tension within the way we designed it.
How did you go about influencing and rewarding the behaviors you wanted to see driving business performance?
You know, I purposefully kept away from changing some of those. I sort of would describe that as an unwinnable war. What we instead did, was we focused on the employee experience. And the very first thing that came up was employee's engagement with the company through all the other processes.
So I would say, you know, as a company, we were quite immature. And so when employees needed to do things like bring a consultant on or fill out expenses, there were so many steps in the process that were not designed to create a positive experience. And the employees were exasperated. They were spending inordinate amount of their time doing things they didn't think would drive value.
So we really focused on that. And then what we were going to move towards was [leveraging some] sort of like digital enabler sort of platform. We can build performance management into that. We did start, however, [with] the behaviors of leadership. So we built out, using RBL as a sort of a facilitator, a new leadership profile with behaviors that were level appropriate and went right the way down to individual contributor.
And then we started to talk about how those behaviors needed to be lived and brought to life. And we went much more into the development, into the performance evaluation. So everybody has room to develop. We did a survey: a 360 degree survey. All of our leaders went through that 360 degree survey. They got rated and then they created their own development plans.
So we really went much more into that. We know we're trying to become world class. We know we're not starting from world class. All of us need to develop. Let us not make this punitive around how are we going to pay you for development? Let's make it aspirational around how beneficial it will be for you as you develop. So that was kind of my sense. And we had PWC come in and talk to us about the great new performance management system that they had created that was very frequent orientated in check ins.
And, you know, sort of as you go evaluation versus annual evaluation. And that was definitely the direction that we were going to move into. But we needed that that digital platform in order to make that work. And that's why we started with a digital platform.
Question for Norm: What have your observations been during this process?
Well, there's just so many I mean, Anne-Marie has not only led the function, but she created a new function. And it's not even a function because it's cross-functional. The STAR organization that she's talking about owned all of the critical patient insights parts of the work, and the employee experience that she talked about. And then IT really brought together, under Anne-Marie's leadership, this human experience opportunity. And what was she was so - I mean, many times we heard the CEO say that Anne-Marie was sort of ahead of her peers on the executive team and continued to encourage her to not slow down.
And so she had she had that support and didn't slow down. Maybe there were some times we should have slowed down. But the people really were inspired by this vision that Anne-Marie is describing as sort of the journey of Moses through the wilderness. And, you know, what do we do? Do we stop or do we keep going? And we're not quite sure, but we know there's something really important on the other side. And that's what it was like, right? And I just can't imagine her ability to continue to inspire both the executives as well as the people in IT, as well as the people in employee and patient experience. It's really, really one of the coolest projects that that I've ever been a part of. And I can't imagine anybody besides Anne-Marie sort of being the front end of that charge.
It's very impressive.
How did you manage to bridge the customer experience with the employee experience?
Context is really important. The arrival in 2017, the morale and motivation of the employees was really, really low. One of the first things I did was go around and ask employees why they had stayed like under all of that. Why are you here? And the thing that came back over and over again was that they felt that the work was rewarding.
And through those conversations, we sort of came up with a framework for what we wanted to be for our employees. And it was there was five elements to it. The first one was everybody that I spoke to wanted a connection to the purpose. So the purpose was the passion that was really clear. And they wanted to know what their work, how their work was driving that patient outcome. And this goes back to why did we focus on the digital platform?
Employees were saying, you know, with my job, I'm spending more of my time doing these really annoying internal things. I don't think that any of that helps the patient. So the argument for why we would streamline and focus resources there was that it's distracting these wonderful, brilliant people from doing what we're supposed to be doing, which is serving the patients.
So purposeful work. The second one was fulfilling work. People wanted to continue to believe that they were getting their own sense of mojo fulfilled. And that's unique to individuals. It's not you can't say, well, if I do this one thing, it's going to fulfill every one, right? So encouraging people to talk about why the connection was important to them, what they were trying to accomplish for themselves and their own, if you like, "soul." Why were they there fulfilling what was really important?
The third one was a sense of being valued. And this was where we really began to understand the hierarchy wasn't our help. The hierarchy was really focused on the silos, because when people search for value in work, it's value from colleagues. If a colleague brings them in to help them solve a problem, they feel valued. If their boss tells them they did a really good job, they feel like their boss is supposed to tell them that. It doesn't enhance their sense of value and contribution.
So really, we focused on making sure that we busted down the silos. We put in programs that we call the badging program, where employees could badge one another and say, you did a great job. We were exposing the great work that was going on. So people really felt like, oh, yeah, I'm here and I'm valued for my contribution.
The fourth one was a sense of belonging. Do I belong here? Can I be my authentic self? Can I be seen? Can I be understood? Will I be accepted? And then the final one was that in our company everyone was an owner. And we really wanted them to believe that when we created value for the patient, it would create value for the shareholders and they were all shareholders.
So there was a kind of a perfect connection. But we made that number five because we knew that people weren't going to stay with the company through all of the crazy, through all that we were going through, for money. That was never going to be enough if those other four things weren't in place. So we did really focus on those things that were higher order. I mean, instead of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, we were really trying to understand the connection between the patient and fulfilling work and purposeful work and belonging and meaning and [we] really represented that every opportunity that we could get to.
And we were in rare disease and still are in rare disease. And so those patient stories - Oh, my gosh. And the other thing I would tell you is that while rare diseases are rare, most people know somebody who's suffering from a rare disease. So it's not actually rare to have a rare disease; it's just that disease, the individual disease, that might be rare. So that that really was something that people could get behind.
How does this translate for non-pharmaceutical businesses?
I just want to say on my journey, I started out in retail. I went to bleeding edge technology components, Intel, and then another component company. I then went to Internet security with Berenstein. I then went to pharmaceutical distribution with McKesson. And then I went to Baxalta, which is sort of pharmaceutical. But then I went to Hyatt and then back to pharmaceutical.
So just so that you know, the journey that I've been on, these energies that I'm describing, that I have had them at every company. They haven't been just because I kind of hit gold in patient centricity. This sense of connecting people within the company to the outcomes that you're trying to drive. That's really what gets people out of bed, I believe, and it enhances their wanting to come and work for you.
How do you implement and measure actual change?
Not everybody understands that when you change a mission, you always have to change the design in the organization that's been delivering the previous mission. Otherwise, what happens is you just fall back into doing everything you've always done, which is going to get you what you always got.
And I just sort of pile in there with this idea of, you know, the world has an awful lot of reasons to thank Sir Isaac Newton. He, you know, he created this kind of concept of measuring, right? And we have become, as a modern society, very, very focused on measuring things. Often the things that we work in human resources aren't measurable. And we've twisted ourselves inside and outside to come up with measures, but not everything that matters can be measured.
So, yeah, I mean, I just think that that's part of what we have to do in HR, is not go back to the old. Performance management requires us to measure these things because they're easy, but the easy things that we measure may not be the right things at all.
I think we even think about something as nebulous as the climate. For the longest time, the battle was, did we have a problem? Because there were different people measuring in different ways. And then we kind of got to the point where we all stood back as a society and went, oh, for God's sakes, not only have we got a problem, but we wasted so much time talking about measuring it. Now let's get busy doing something about it.
Gosh, we can spend an awful lot of time talking about the measuring of something, but maybe that's not where the secret sauce lies. Maybe it's getting busy doing something. Let's figure out what we're going to do.
How do you help employees connect with customers if their position does not require them to directly interact?
I mean, when we started the conversation, many people said, well, we can't go direct to the patients because there's so much FDA regulation. You know, all of us know that if you have a pharma company and you start targeting directly to patients, people think that's somehow wrong because you're not a physical, medical qualified doctor. So only a doctor can really prescribe medicine and the doctor has to diagnose and do the prescription.
So then should we focus on the doctor? But interestingly enough, why would the doctor prescribe a solution? It's because the doctor understands and cares and believes that the solution that you've manufactured is going to work for the patient. So the doctor cares about the patient, too. So even if you're not going directly to the patient, you're really talking to the doctor about the value proposition to the patient. And that has to be echoed from the patient.
So the patient- I'll give you an example. When we were doing the drug development around ALS, we've never had a patient in to discuss the target product profile discussion. And when we brought the patient in, some of the physicians were a bit uncomfortable. And the physicians really wanted us to focus on the extent to which our drug delayed the onset of requiring breathing support. As you know, with ALS, that becomes a very dramatic shift in the patient's welfare.
The patient said, I don't think that should be the way you measure the performance of this drug. I think you should be focused on upper body strength. And so the physicians were like, well, why would that matter? I mean, breathing is life. And they said, because the average patient for ALS is in their sort of mid to late 30s, early 40s. They generally have young children. And for them, the quality of life is the ability to continue to hold their young children. So now you've got really what makes my life worth living versus breathing, which is life.
So you start to understand how the physicians need help from the patients in understanding what really matters. So the same was true for component businesses when I was at Xilinx. The people who were using the programable logic that we were creating were helping to change the world. And so our mission at the time was to put a piece of programable logic in every electronic device. And what we started to do was to explain why that would transform the world.
And so all of you, I'm sure, have access to cars. And now you don't have wind down windows and you don't worry about having the radio on at the same time as the air conditioning. Well, the thing that enables that car to be that unit of comfort for you now is programable logic.
You know, when you get into a car, you never think to yourself, I'm so glad that that company existed and was able to create this environment where all of these pieces of computerized logic can talk to each other or can connect within the car. But that's what's happening.
So we connected to the future with the employees and told them that we needed to change the world and that our product would help do it, even though it wasn't that we weren't manufacturing the cars. So absolutely, I think it's sometimes harder, but actually sometimes it also is more worthwhile and more liberating because you've got a broader footprint when you're working through others than you do if you're just working directly yourself as a product company.
How do you make HR the focal point of transformation when you want to change your entire organization?
I would just say that if your organization is in in a point where it recognizes it needs to change, I don't know how the changes can start anywhere else, but HR. Maybe the scouts and strategy kind of give you the strategic direction of the growth that you need to accomplish as an organization and the markets that you're going to go into. But the energy to get all of that change done happens through the people. And so the way the organization is designed to create that energy within the people is the definition of success. So I don't know how it can be done without HR at the center.
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