Ulrich’s expertise tackles how organizations provide value to customer and investors through leadership and strategic human resource practices to improve speed, learning, collaboration, accountability, and talent. The RBL group, a consulting firm that he co-founded, addresses this issue. A well-traveled speaker, Ulrich has authored 15 books on topics in human resources and leadership, including most recently, The Why of Work, co-authored with his wife, Wendy Ulrich. He was also a former editor of the Human Resource Management Journal from 1990 to 1999. Ulrich serves on the board of directors for Herman Miller, the board of trustees for Southern Virginia University, and is a fellow in the National Academy of Human Resources.
He has been honored through various lists including being named the “#1 Management Educator and Guru” by BusinessWeek, one of the top 10 most innovative and creative leaders by Fast Company, the most influential person in HR by HR Magazine for three years running, and on the World’s Top 50 Business Thinkers list since 2007. He is also the winner of the 2010 Kirk Englehardt Exemplary Business Ethics Award.
Q| How did you first become interested in the fields of organizational development and human resources?
In some ways, I have always been predisposed to these fields. My wife, who's a psychologist, says I have permanent OCD - defined in this case as Organization Compulsive Disorder. I like to restructure, redefine, and reorganize organizations I visit, from restaurants to hotels to rental car agencies. It's not much fun to travel with me.
Professionally, decades ago, I intended to go to law school, but took a career-changing course in organizational behavior that tapped into my interest in figuring out how organizations work. This led to a Ph.D. that was mostly in statistics, but also in trying to solve real business problems in a sustainable way, which led to my focus on HR systems.
Q| What is the importance of making academic research accessible for a widespread audience? Does this allow for cross-pollination of ideas?
The academic/practitioner accessibility is a huge opportunity if and when done well, but a huge loss when done poorly. I was privileged to give a keynote talk to the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology about turning knowledge warehouses (great ideas with little impact) into knowledge networks (ideas with impact).
Theorists answer the "why" question by helping to frame problems so that findings can be replicated over time and settings. Theory without research is daydreaming; theory without practice is irrelevant. To offer sustainable explanations, theorists need to be active in research to test ideas, and also in practice to ground ideas. We need rigorous and action-oriented theory.
Researchers answer the "how" question by helping to discover what is reality versus what is myth, which separates valid insights from popular opinion. Research without theory is unguided empiricism; research without practice is convenience studies without sustainability. Researchers need to know why they find what they find (theory) and how to make their findings useful to others (practice). We need replicable and problem-based research.
Q| What do you think is a key capability that many organizations overlook or undervalue?
In today's rapidly changing markets, there are a number of capabilities that have deserved and received increased attention: speed (that is, agility, responsiveness, and capacity for change), innovation, service, a global mindset, and collaboration. But, I am sensing that risk management is becoming more important. Many organizational systems have been stretched to their breaking points with recent economic demands. Coming out of an economic recession also requires recovery from an emotional recession. This emotional recovery may be furthered when leaders become meaning makers who help employees find a sense of abundance from their work.
Q| Could you explain the basic idea behind dividing the modern HR organization into shared services, centers of expertise, and business partners?
The premise of this HR organization comes from thinking of HR departments as professional services firms within a firm. Every professional services firm has the challenge of turning its knowledge into client productivity. HR knowledge can be organized into centers of expertise (talent, rewards, communication, and organization) and then they have to transfer their insights into client productivity through business partners. Lessons from professional services firms offer insights as relationship managers, or rather business partners, transfer firm insights into client results.
Q| What are some strategies to help organizations effectively strengthen themselves through leadership and HR best practices?
First, we leaders need to realize that leadership matters. A higher quality of leadership will not only manifest inside the company in terms of more committed employees and more capable organizations, but also outside in terms of customer share, investor intangibles, and community reputation.
Next, the standards - the criteria or competencies - of effective leaders need to be defined in terms of customer expectations, and then rigorously and regularly assessed so that gaps can be identified. Investments may then be made to upgrade the quality of leadership. Finally, these investments and leadership may be measured to ensure sustainable leadership. By following these steps, leaders and HR professionals can help deliver value from the work that they do.
Q| How can companies create meaning in the workplace for employees at all levels, or in other words, foster a sense of community and a shared vision?
In The Why of Work, multiple disciplines are synthesized that identify a set of questions that leaders can pose to better create meaning among their employees:
Who am I? Help employees build on their strengths to strengthen others.
Where am I going? Help employees discover how their personal purposes can be realized through organization purposes.
Who goes with me? Help employees build relationships of enduring trust.
What is my work environment? Help employees establish an affirming and positive work setting or culture.
What is the work that matters most to me? Help employees identify work that is easy, energizing, and enjoyable.
What gives me a sense of opportunity to learn and to grow? Help employees become resilient and learning centered in the face of change.
What gives me delight at work? Help employees find a sense of fun and please from the work they do.
Q| Are you currently working on any new books or projects?
My wife and I are excited to have just finished The Why of Work. We hope this book combines with other thoughtful books about finding meaning and purpose in people's lives and work settings. We focus more on leaders than on individuals and organizations. We hope to further this work by showing how meaning shifts the discussion of talent, leadership, and organizations.
Norm Smallwood and I are working to write about leadership to investors. We want to show investors that the quality of leadership is something they should pay serious attention to since it affects shareholder value over time. We are in the process of creating a leadership index that matches other investment tools in the assessment of firm value.
Q| How do you enjoy spending your free time?
I tend to not have a lot of free time because of serious work addiction. But I do enjoy watching basketball (and occasionally playing at a much slower pace and a lower altitude), bike riding, and hanging out with family, especially Maren, my one year old granddaughter. I also enjoy church service where I get to teach a gospel class to 16 year olds who could care less what I do for a living, but care that I care for them.