Innovation Junkies Podcast

HR Sucks But It Doesn’t Have To, With Annissa Desphande

Annissa Deshpande talks about the importance of HR in leading businesses & organizations. She & the Jeffs chat about how to find & keep talent in the workplace, modernizing HR departments & why you should do it, & the importance of a strong & healthy workplace culture.

Annissa Deshpande:
It was starting to happen before and you saw it in competitive talent environments, but now everyone understands the importance of HR leading and really helping to shape the business strategy, to inform the business strategy, to play a big role in it and to be a business person. You can’t lead from a place of compliance. You need to lead from, what is it that we’re trying to do from a business perspective and how do we align our people programs to drive those outcomes.

Jeff Standridge:
If you want to drastically improve your business, learn proven growth strategies and generate sustained results for your organization, you’ve come to the right place. Welcome to the Innovation Junkies podcast.

GrowthDX Plug:
Is your growth plan missing the mark? Take advantage of our strategic growth diagnostic from Innovation Junkie. GrowthDX helps you benchmark your company and leadership team with a set of best practices across six critical pillars of every successful growth plan. Visit innovationjunkie.com/growthDX to learn more. Now, onto the episode.

Jeff Standridge:
Well, tell us about our guest today, Jeff.

Jeff Amerine:
Well, we have a fantastic guest today that’s an expert in all things related to people and talent development. Her name is Annissa Deshpande. She is a fractional chief people officer. She’s a former HR exec of a Fortune 500 company, where she oversaw the successful hiring of over 20,000 people a year in 150 different countries. She’s designed internal talent initiatives to achieve business results. She also founded lōglab in 2015 and now combines her 20 years of experience and finance, IT, and strategy to help companies modernize HR and talent-related things to grow revenue and create a place where people love to work. Annissa, it’s so great to have you on.

Annissa Deshpande:
It’s great to be here. Thank you, Jeff and Jeff.

Jeff Standridge:
Yeah, absolutely. Great to have you. And before we get off of here today, we’re going to want to learn a little bit about your book called The Comeback, so we’ll be anxious to dig into that a little bit as well. It’s a unique approach for telling a talent and organizational story, I think, so I’m very interested in talking about that. Well, before we get started into all of that, though, we have a random musing. If you’ve listened to the podcast, you know that when we remember, sometimes we forget because we’re old, but when we remember, we have a random musing. And today’s random musing is, what was your first real job?

Annissa Deshpande:
Okay, so I go first? Is that the rule here?

Jeff Standridge:
Absolutely. You’re up, Annissa.

Annissa Deshpande:
So, I’m going to date myself when I tell this story, but when I was nine years old, I had a paper route, back when newspapers were a thing. And so, it was the local city newspaper, which was published once a week. And so I would get the papers delivered to my house. I’d have to roll them up and then I’d have to ride my bike or beg my dad for a ride and toss the papers to about, I think, about two or three blocks of houses. And so for that, I was paid an awesome $3 a week.

Jeff Standridge:
Very good. Very good. And you were nine?

Annissa Deshpande:
I was nine. I did that job until I was 12. And then my first job in high school, I worked for a children’s dentist and my job was to call people who hadn’t been to the dentist in a while and get them to schedule an appointment.

Jeff Standridge:
At 12, that’s awesome.

Annissa Deshpande:

No. That was 16. I was driving. I was driving by then. That was high school.

Jeff Standridge:
Oh, I gotcha. How about you, Amerine?

Jeff Amerine:
So, a couple things. And this was a semi-real job. I guess it was the entrepreneurial spirit, even back then, but I mowed lawns when I was in the fifth and sixth grade, for a living, and I would charge a whopping 2 to $3 per lawn. And sometimes the lawns would look like the Tasmanian devil had mowed them because a lot of times I was interested in getting done in a hurry so I could go hang out and play with my friends, but that was my first entrepreneurial venture. And then my first real job where I got a W2 was as a midshipman in the United States Naval Academy. That was the first time I ever had a job that felt a little bit like being in a federal penitentiary, but it was work for four years. And so that would be the time when I got a W2. And between that I was doing farm work. My dad thought it was a great idea when he retired out of the Air Force to move onto a farm. And I thought, “That’ll be fun. And it’ll be all these great things.” And it was, “Wake up early in the morning and haul hay and break the ice for the cattle and all that”, so that was more like indentured servitude rather than really a job, I would say. What about you, Jeff?

Jeff Standridge:
Well, similar for me. Growing up in a town of about 1,200, kind of farm area, did all those odd jobs, hauling hay, mowing yards, cleaning fence rows, catching chickens, those kinds of things. I guess the first job that I got at W2 was starting about the ninth grade. I worked at a gas station, muffler shop, automotive service center. So full service gas, but by the time I was in the ninth grade, I could literally cut the exhaust system off of a vehicle at the manifold and bend and reweld the pipe all the way back. And so, I did that all the way up through high school. And then my first… What I considered my first big boy job, where it was full time and I was really on my own, was I was an EMT paramedic for Conway Regional Health Systems before becoming a respiratory therapist on the helicopter team at Children’s Hospital, so I was in the medical field doing… 19 years old, going to college full time, working as an EMT and doing things that probably were way beyond my level of maturity at the time. I’ve bounced around ever since, so anyway. Well, very good. Let’s hop into our episode today. Annissa, great to have you with us. Tell us a little more about this concept of a Fractional Chief People Officer.

Annissa Deshpande:
Yeah, so what I do is I work with venture backs or private equity backs, so mostly investor-back companies that are probably too small to have a full-time CHRO, but they know that they need strategic help. They know that they need help thinking about the culture, the organizational design, what type of people to hire, when to hire, projecting out their growth. And so, when I come in I usually advise the CEO between eight to 20 hours a month, just on those higher level strategic things of how do we really get this company to achieve its business goals and how do we align the people to do that.
And so, I start with companies sometimes in very early stages. I’ve had clients as small as 13. And I think where the investor-back really works for me is, there’s usually a strategic imperative for them to grow. They have something that they need to get done. There’s someone they’re accountable to, there’s someone that’s driving the business in a way where they feel like they have this urgency around the workforce and the people and that’s usually where I come in.

Jeff Standridge:
Very good. So, how do you market your organization to the private equity and the venture back world and how do you go about getting clients?

Annissa Deshpande:
That’s a great question. So, in the beginning, when I first had this idea, and you mentioned that I came from a fortune 500, I went up to Menlo Park and knocked on the doors of a bunch of venture capital firms and they said, “Hey, it’s really nice to meet you, but your experience is too big for a tiny little company, so that’s not going to work.” And over time, through my network, I got introduced to a couple of private equity firms, I met their operating partners, chatted with them a little bit about what I could do and was fortunate to be given opportunities and then continue those relationships. So, I definitely get referrals directly from the investors. I’ve done a lot of LinkedIn marketing. I’ve done some cold calling, some cold outreach. I try to find companies that are in that sweet spot, who look like they have a CEO or a COO that’s very modern in their approach, and I try to make a connection with them and just chat with them a little bit about what’s going on. So, a lot of it is just picking up the phone and calling people the old fashioned way. Most of my referrals and leads, or most of my leads come in through LinkedIn, that tends to be the right platform for me. And then I’ve spent… I think everyone knows there’s no sales without marketing. So I have a marketing firm that I work with that helps me to hone my message. And I think one thing I didn’t realize in the very beginning, and I’ve been out of my own now for seven years, but in the beginning, I didn’t realize how important it was to make sure that your message changes all the time to meet what’s happening in the marketplace.
And growing up in corporate environments, you just aren’t exposed to that as much, but it makes total sense now. And so I’ve got a great firm that I partner with that helps me with my brand and really making sure that the website and everything conveys the right type of work that I’m doing as well as tells a complete story. So, one thing that’s different about me is you can learn about every service I offer right on my website, including pricing. So I don’t try to… and it’s great because people then don’t negotiate on pricing, they understand that this is what it costs and they only want to move forward if they’re willing to pay. So, it reduces a lot of the noise when you’re trying to sell and deliver.

Jeff Standridge:
So, you talk about eight to 20 hours a month working with the CEO usually. Is that more of a coaching model that you use or how do you set up that engagement?

Annissa Deshpande:
Yeah, it tends to be a lot of coaching. So, even if it starts off as a fractional chief people officer where I’m building strategy and I’m helping them think through the culture, it usually morphs into more of a coaching relationship. And the other thing that I do offer, and I just launched this last year, is coaching for HR professionals. So whether it’s a CHRO or an up and coming, what happens at a lot of these smaller companies is they hire a really great up and comer into HR to lead and they want the person to grow with the company. Well, that person often needs a coach to help them grow with the company and that’s the role I play.

Jeff Standridge:
Very good.

Jeff Amerine:
And point of interest is, we’ve all been kind of wrestling with this war for talent, the great resignation and all the paradigm changes during the course of the last two and a half years during the pandemic. With that in mind, how would you define modern HR leadership? What are your thoughts about all that?

Annissa Deshpande:
So, I think traditionally HR has had a compliance mindset. Their number one goal is to make sure that you don’t get sued. And I’ve seen a big change over the last two and a half years with the pandemic and it was starting to happen before, and you saw it in competitive talent environments, but now everyone understands the importance of HR leading and really helping to shape the business strategy, to inform the business strategy, to play a big role in it and to be a business person. You can’t lead from a place of compliance. You need to lead from what is it that we’re trying to do from a business perspective and how do we align our people programs to drive those outcomes. So, I think that what we’re seeing across the board is a desire for a true partner to help think through the people aspects and the cultural aspects of the business.
And you’re absolutely right. I think it’s interesting that we’re having this debate right now about getting back to work, because first of all, people never really stopped working. We were always working, so I don’t know why we call it a return to work, but I think the debate about where you do work is a little interesting because I don’t think it depends on where, I think it depends on what, and I think what we’ve learned over the last few years is that even before the pandemic, the way that we did work wasn’t productive and efficient. So if you’re sitting in meetings like a lot of executives are, back to back for 12 hours of your day, when do you have time to get work done? And I think we’ve started to look at meetings as a way to get work done versus really quiet time where we can work and then time for collaboration. And so, I think it’s a really opportune time to reinvent how work gets done and to stop focusing on where, because I think it’s different for everybody. Some people thrive five days in the office and some people thrive five days at home and we need to figure out how we accommodate all these different work styles and still make something work.

Jeff Standridge:
I’m really glad to hear you talk about this, the HR leader, the HR person as a business person. I got my introduction into HR about 25 years ago, at a publicly traded company, where the chief, they didn’t call it a chief people officer, but the second most influential person in the company, next to the CEO, was the head of the HR organization. But they didn’t call it HR, they called it organizational development. And HR compliance was a subset of organizational development, not the other way around, which you find in many traditional organizations. And she was an accountant by background, but she made sure that we were business partners before they were even using the words “HR business partner”.

Annissa Deshpande:
That’s awesome. I think you’re seeing this more and more where… And it’s really becoming a small portion of companies now that have more of that traditional HR mindset, but then the CEO will come to me and say, “I need something more from my HR team. I just don’t want benefits and compliance and payroll. I need someone who’s helping me navigate this crazy path.” The talent market right now is like nothing we’ve ever seen and you’ve got to be proactive. You really have to be thinking about how you’re marketing yourself, what the external talent presence is. Sorry, the external market presence is. And that’s something that HR hasn’t had to traditionally think about. I tell my clients all the time, “You have to be as intentional about recruiting talent as you are about acquiring customers.” And you already have the skill set more or less because you’re a successful business. So now how do you hone that muscle and develop it so that you can do the same in the talent market?

Jeff Standridge:
I’ve said this before, we talked about this model of Uber, where you have the two sides of the economy, where you’ve got the drivers and you’ve got the riders, and virtually every company now is becoming like the Uber, because you have both sides. If you can’t recruit and retain the talent, you can’t serve the customers. If you can’t keep the customers, you can’t pay the talent. And so it’s becoming… Even the more traditional companies are having to think about that Uber model of how do you acquire both and retain both.

Annissa Deshpande:
And I think the Uber model is fascinating, or any of these kind of… You’re flexible. You decide as you go, how you want to work, because these are essentially self managing workforces. There is no middle management, there’s nobody telling the drivers what to do. And so, what can we learn from these models that we can apply to other environments to really create modern workforces? And I think the time is here because people are realizing that they don’t have to do things the way they did two and a half years ago or 10 years ago. And so there’s an appetite for this now, and we need to figure out how we create something of value that can really engage people and and make them want to come work for us.

Jeff Amerine:
That kind of hits on something that we talk a lot about, which is the importance of culture and how that informs strategy. And really, I’d be interested in your thoughts and how often do you get into a situation where it’s clear that the stated culture doesn’t match the actual culture and you have to really help them rethink some of that so that they attract the best talent, retain the best talent and can do well in the business. What are your thoughts about all of that?

Annissa Deshpande:
That’s a common challenge that I see, and it typically happens. So, I have other clients that are not investor back, but I come in later where they’re struggling with something. They can’t achieve their business goals. They didn’t meet their operating targets, whatever it may be. And when we dig into it, there usually is that disconnect between the stated culture and the way the culture actually operates. And so we have to have really difficult discussions. And one of the things that I try to do is bring them the data. The first place that I typically go to in a situation like that is Glassdoor. Nearly every company has a Glassdoor presence and it’s pretty accurate. It’s what people are saying about companies. And you can learn a lot about what people perceive the culture to be by going through your Glassdoor reviews and just writing down what you’re reading.
What are the strengths? What are people saying is great about your company? Because those are things you need to amplify in your culture and what are the opportunities that you need to structurally fix. And so, I think it’s such an underutilized resource that not enough companies are really looking at this as insights that they need to manage. And the other interesting part to me is a lot of times they’ll say, “Well, our engagement survey tells us something totally different.” And I said, “Well, yeah, that’s interesting, but you gotta bring all of this data together to create the picture that really exists.”

Jeff Standridge:
And unless you’re doing your engagement surveys or your employee satisfaction surveys, or what have you, unless you’re doing them continuously, you’re getting them at a point in time, and my experience has been, many times as they do those at the start of the year, right after Q4 payout.

Annissa Deshpande:
Right. Everyone’s happy then!

Jeff Standridge:
OK. Well… Oh, great. Our satisfaction surveys are fantastic.

Annissa Deshpande:
And they also look at the incremental improvement in engagement surveys. So like, “Oh, we went from a 75 to a 78.” Well, is that really where you want to be? You only want 78% of your employee base engaged? That’s not a good place to be.

Jeff Standridge:
So when you’re working, you talked about how these CEOs, obviously there is a mandate for them to grow, there’s a strategic imperative for them to grow. And I know that every engagement is different that you have, but what are some of the things that you really help that CEO think about and do differently because you’re there, than they would do if you weren’t there, relative to that strategic growth imperative?

Annissa Deshpande:
So, as you said, it depends, but I think a lot of it is, CEOs love the strategy, the product, the sales piece of it and they’re less excited about the people aspect of it. So my tagline is, “HR sucks, but it doesn’t have to.” And I think that’s partly because when I… I’m sure when you guys are like, “Oh, we’re going to have an HR person come and talk to us. Great. What are we going to ask her?” People don’t really want to engage on this topic and they actually believe that it’s something they don’t have to—it’s not that they believe that they don’t have to think about it, but they don’t believe that they have to be as intentional about it as they are with the other aspects of their business. And so, what I bring is that continual focus on the people aspects.
So, if you’re going to come up, this is a great example right now everyone’s coming up with, we want our turnover at a certain percentage, these metrics to manage our performance. So if you’re going to have a metric of less than 10% turnover, you have to intentionally manage that. You have to come up with programs that guarantee and help you achieve that metric. And that’s where I think a lot of CEOs either don’t like to focus their time there, or they don’t know exactly what they need to do. They think it’s a soft problem versus a business problem, like it’s a touchy feely type problem. So, that’s where I really come in to help guide in. And a lot of it is looking at the data, like we talked about, and just helping them understand what’s being said, what they need to do, what blinders they may have on from a people perspective, how we need to think about the culture. All of the things that we’ve talked about so far.

Jeff Standridge:
Let’s talk about your… Go ahead, Jeff.

Jeff Amerine:
We were both headed in the same direction. This is where we’re kind of like Siamese twins. I think we actually are connected neurally to half a brain. But I think the next question we were going to want to talk to you about was, you took the time and the effort to write a novel called The Comeback. Which is focused on people and talent and HR. Talk about what compelled you to write the book and what you were trying to convey and just give us a little bit more on The Comeback.

Annissa Deshpande:
Sure. So, as I was going through the sales process with various prospects, and this would probably be, let’s say, from 2017 to 2019, I would tell them these little anecdotes to get them interested or excited in modern HR. It still hadn’t hit in a lot of, what I’ll call, the more traditional industries. People would kind of nod their head and they go, “That’s interesting”, but they didn’t really get it. So, what I was looking for was a way for them to understand that, if you take these principles and you apply them to HR, this is the result that you’re going to get. Oftentimes I was being asked to come into companies where an investor had purchased a company, they had significant turnover, they were in a more traditional environment like manufacturing. And there was just this acceptance of the turnover and not the understanding of what’s happening and who are our talent competitors.
If you have a warehouse or a facility that has logistics of some sort, one of your biggest competitors is Amazon. And they couldn’t even fathom that. They were competing against these tech giants and they had no idea as to what to do about it. And so I wanted to open up this conversation about modern HR and show them what a strategic proactive HR department looks like. And it starts very much with a common scenario that I used to get, which is, “Hey, we have a good HR person, but they’re not focused on the right things.” And so this book tells a story about a manufacturing company, that’s private equity back, that is going through a difficult situation. They have a new competitor that’s come in, they’re facing turnover, they’ve got some challenging numbers. The CEO, like I said, comfortably works with all of the leaders, R&D, sales, operations, to turn around the business and develop a plan.
But the people side is lagging. And so, he brings in a coach, who’s loosely disguised as me, to help the head of HR really think about what it means to have a proactive, strategic, modern HR approach. And so, this is her journey as she goes through and transforms the HR function and ultimately helps the company achieve its business goals. And it’s a fun book to read. It doesn’t take place in the office. It’s based in Chicago, there’s a baseball theme around the Cubs, a lot of cheap beer references. And a lot of the conversations in the book take place in the meeting after the meeting. So either at the happy hour or going home and talking to your spouse about what happened during the day. So you see the conversations play out that way.

Jeff Amerine:
And since you’re in California, there might be movie rights at some point, we’re going to see this on one of the streaming services?

Annissa Deshpande:
I’m hoping, right? I should call Netflix. I hear they may be looking for content.

Jeff Amerine:
They may need some better content. Absolutely.

Jeff Standridge:
You know, having written, Jeff and I both have written books before, and how hard it is, in my mind, to take a book and write even just a non-fiction book, which in my mind has to be way easier than a fiction novel, to teach what I would consider business concepts. How did you choose that? I’m fascinated by the fact that you chose that genre, so to speak, so tell us a little bit about that.

Annissa Deshpande:
Yeah. So, I read a lot of nonfiction as well, and I typically get to page 200 and then I wonder why they added the next 200 pages. And so, I actually… So it was interesting. I’ve always been a creative person. I’ve always been, so I write poetry. I do a bunch of different writing. I’ve always liked stories. And I think in stories. So for me, it was like this whole world just came together in my head. And these characters came together and I was fortunate to meet a great company that coaches you through the process. And let me tell you, I had no idea what was involved in writing fiction. I just thought you sat down and popped out a couple of chapters and you’re good. You actually have to write the back stories for all the main characters going back from the time that they were born to where they are now.
And so, there was a lot of prep work. But then, what happens is you become really connected to these characters. You care about them way too much. And you want them to do a certain thing. And so you’ll write a chapter a certain way, because in your mind, you’re like, “Well, this person should be doing this.” And the editor would give me feedback and she’s like, “That’s not the character you’ve built. That doesn’t align.” And so, you know how you get frustrated at TV shows, because the character does something you go, “Why would they do that?” It’s because it all has to come together. So, it was fun for me to write this. It was easy for me. And I got to bring in a lot of my friends and their weird habits and my family and just base characters off of people I know, which was just super fun. And it was a time, we were in the pandemic when I wrote it, so we were already missing that connection. So, being able to tap into that and create something was a lot of fun for me.

Jeff Amerine:
And so, you use that development-

Jeff Standridge:
How do you use that-

Jeff Amerine:
Sorry. Go ahead, Jeff.

Jeff Standridge:

You’ve done that twice now, Jeff.

Jeff Amerine:
It’s one of those kind of days. Do you use that as part of your business development process?
Annissa Deshpande:
Yes, I do. I don’t send out the book to people because people don’t read anything you send them. But a lot of times I get the question of, “Hey, what’s your coaching style like?” And I’ll be like, “Oh, I wrote a book if you want to read it.” And it’s a quick read. It only takes a couple of hours. You can read it in one setting if you want. Or maybe two, one may be hard. And people read it and they’re like, “This is exactly what’s happening and we could use somebody like you to help with this.” So it does help with that and it’s something you can talk about. And I think the other thing is, creativity is super important in HR and I think it’s an underlooked, or it’s just a value that people don’t really understand the importance of. And so when people see that I’ve written a book, I think that helps as well. They see that I have that creative storytelling ability.

Jeff Standridge:
Very good. So, where can people find the book and where can people find you?

Annissa Deshpande:
The book is on Amazon. You just have to search for The Comeback and there’s a couple of them. So you should use my name as well. You can find me on my website is the lōglab, T-H-E-L-O-G-L-A-B.net. And you can reach out to me through there or you can find me on LinkedIn.

Jeff Standridge:
Very good. We’re talking to Annissa Deshpande, who is a fractional chief people officer. Annissa, great to have you with us today. We appreciate you spending a little bit of time with us.

Annissa Deshpande:
Thanks for having me guys. This was super fun.

Jeff Amerine:
Thanks for coming on.

Jeff Standridge:
Absolutely. This has been another episode of the Innovation Junkies podcast. Thank you for joining us.

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