Leadership Buy-In Strategies from Northwestern Mutual's Head of HR Technology & People Analytics, Brad Williams



October 11, 2023

Brad Williams, Head of HR Technology and People Analytics at Northwestern Mutual, a Fortune 100 company with nearly 9,000 employees, gives examples on strategies that work. Brad shares his experiences for gaining leadership buy-in for data-driven HR initiatives and transitioning to a skills-based talent culture. Discover how to effectively communicate the value of investing in data-driven HR tools, quantify the return on investment, and navigate political challenges in the corporate environment. If you're interested in harnessing the potential of HR analytics and technology, this episode is a must-listen.

Ann le Cam

Brad Williams

Head of HR Technology and People Analytics at Northwestern Mutual

Felicia Shakiba  00:04

Hello, everyone. I'm Felicia Shakiba. And you're listening to the CPO PLAYBOOK podcast. Join me and my guests as we feature insightful conversations with HR leaders, people scientists and executives from diverse industries and functions, offering valuable perspectives on the future of work. Discover a unique outlook on navigating the complexities of the modern day working world. Exploring innovative strategies in talent management and corporate culture from the Chief People Officers perspective. Tune in to stay ahead of the game when it comes to all things people related.

Felicia Shakiba  00:44

Getting leadership buy in for HR data driven initiatives can be challenging due to factors such as a lack of understanding and awareness among leaders. According to a Deloitte Survey, only 33% of HR professionals believe that senior leaders have a strong understanding of HR analytics and its potential impact on the organization. This lack of data literacy combined with concerns about cost, change resistance, and competing priorities often make it difficult for HR professionals to secure support from senior executives. As we prepare for a world renowned HR Tech Conference in Las Vegas this October, it's crucial to understand how to effectively communicate the value of investing in the tools needed for data driven HR strategies using statistics and evidence to highlight the potential benefits and ROI. 

Felicia Shakiba  01:40

Joining us today is Brad Williams, head of HR Technology and People Analytics at Northwestern Mutual, a company with nearly 9,000 employees. 

Felicia Shakiba  01:51

Brad, thanks for being here today.

Brad Williams  01:53

My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Felicia Shakiba  01:55

Could you start by giving us an overview of Northwestern Mutual, including the organization's size, stakeholders, the design, and so forth? 

Brad Williams  02:05

So, Northwestern Mutual, we're a 166 year old company, we were founded 1857. So we've been around for quite some time. We're headquartered out in Milwaukee. I think, as of last year, maybe the year prior officially a Fortune 100 company. We've always kind of teetered right around there, but made it official within the past year or two. $34 billion in revenue. Most people know us through life insurance, but we do offer a whole host of financial services, investments as well. So that's us in a nutshell, 5 million customers, I think, if $566 million with assets under management, so fairly large, fairly stable, Midwestern company.

Brad Williams  02:50

We operate from what we call our home office, which is our employee base. And then we have a field force, which is what most customers interact with, that are contractors and advisors that work out in the field, but are separate from what we manage within our home office here, from an employee standpoint.

Felicia Shakiba  03:14

Can you share a specific challenge, from your experience at Northwestern Mutual, where you needed to gain leadership buy in? And What strategies did you employ? 

Brad Williams  03:25

Yeah, so I think there's two that are that are most relevant to my world here. So my role has largely sat in the HR technology, analytics, insights, and workforce planning space. And two things in my three and a half years here that we encountered. First, our technology team sat separate from our data and analytics team within HR and so within a year of my tenure here at NM, I made the proposal to bring those two worlds together. And the timing was right, because we had a couple of retirements and a resignation within the leadership team. 

Brad Williams  04:05

I pitched the idea of rather than two separate teams technology and data and analytics, to bring them together as part of that as well. I shifted from a largely outsourced HR Technology team to bring that team in house and bringing the skills, the capacity, the capability within the NM employee base versus outsourcing and having third party support. So those were big shifts that really took a lot of influence and a lot of conversations with leadership across all levels within HR and even beyond to really make that a reality.

Felicia Shakiba  04:45

Who were you collaborating with most? How hard or difficult was it to get leadership's attention? What did that look like for you?

Brad Williams  04:57

There's a couple of things that I did a lot of lessons learned and along the way, but a lot of this was I used kind of, and this is true of a lot of arguments that I make both logic and emotional argument to the stakeholders that I'm trying to influence. And from my perspective, it starts with the top, my boss, our head of HR / CHRO, and getting his support getting his buy in. But honestly, it doesn't end there. I needed to convince my peers to convince even their teams that this was the right thing to do. And both bringing technology and data together, but also shifting to an in-house model from an HR technology perspective. 

Brad Williams  05:40

And the analogy I kind of used was, especially on bringing an in-house model to the HR Technology team was imagine we're building a house, and all of our stakeholders, the customer, the person who was getting the house built, we weren't happy. But we felt like we just needed to get the project done, we needed to get the house built. And I had to go and convince those individuals that, hey, let's take a pause, let's go out and find the right builders, let me go do that. And I'll find the right builders, I'll find the right general contractor so that we can build the right house. And it's going to prevent all these future problems. And so that was kind of the analogy that I use as I went around and convinced because nobody, most of my peers weren't happy with the service levels they were receiving from the third party. 

Brad Williams  06:31

And part of that was third parties aren't nearly as invested, and also don't have to live with the consequences of many of their implementations, or many of their changes that they're making. If we bring those resources in house, and part of my pitch was for the same amount of money, we're going to get better outcomes where the team is going to be held more accountable, because you can follow up directly with them and say, Hey, this isn't working like you promised it would and we can fix that we can build that. And so it was a very logic based argument to get them on board. But by no means was it easy. But once they saw the vision, and having that trust and credibility built up over the first year of my tenure here, I think sold them on making that a reality.

Felicia Shakiba  07:18

I love that you approached your strategy with basically how everybody makes a decision, which is either in the logic camp or the emotional camp. So covering both camps kind of assures that you're going to have some sort of influence, right? That's exciting. I love that approach. How did you approach leadership to secure their commitment to this strategic shift of transitioning from an outsourced HR tech model to an in house one?

Brad Williams  07:50

I really started with my peer network, the folks that were going to be impacted by the work that was getting done, because I knew there was going to be a disruption along the way that we were going to have to slowly wean off our third party support, while we built and sourced our newly internal team to go out and do that work. And even after we got those resources, there was an onboarding period where they needed to become familiar with NM with the environment with the infrastructure that we have with our strategy, our direction, and so it wasn't, you start them on day one, and it's smooth sailing thereafter, it was a bumpy road. And I went out and made sure that they were prepared for some of the challenges. 

Brad Williams  08:41

But again, keeping the vision in mind and got their buy in, got their support. And then took that to our Head of HR and said, "Look, I've got my peers supportive of this, for the same dollar investment, which I think was the big thing that he was worried about. So for the same dollar investment, we can get better outcomes, we can get things done quicker, we can get things done more efficiently. And I've got all of my peers supported, he gave me the green light to go out and do that, again, with the understanding that the dollars needed to work itself out. So we had to go out and hire thoughtfully, and move that along, while also being aware of the spend that we had from a third party standpoint. And there were checks along the way to make sure that we weren't veering off course, and that we were still achieving the outcomes that I promised my peer group and my peers. 

Felicia Shakiba  09:40

That's so interesting that you started with your peers and by peers, you mean peers in HR, peers in the business?

Brad Williams  09:49

Yeah, it was largely the peers within our HR leadership team. So most of the work that gets delivered through my team is through our COE. So think about talent management, talent acquisition and total reward. They're really the drivers of much of the work. Although we have partners outside of HR as well, I certainly don't want to position them as less important or less impactful. But they were more aware of the direction, certainly from an HR engineering standpoint, what the impact was going to be to them. But really, the disruption that was going to occur was within my peers across our HR leadership team. And so I wanted to get their buy in above anybody else.

Felicia Shakiba  10:35

And I think that makes a lot of sense, because the HR business partner for their client groups are really the representatives of their business and have that insight to share with you. So that makes a lot of sense. Many leaders have reservations about adopting data driven HR practices, as you experienced yourself. So in your opinion, what are your most common concerns.

Brad Williams  10:58

One of the big things that I've experienced and first thing that I love about the space of HR analytics and HR technology is that there's a lot of whitespace still in the field, we don't have everything figured out. We're, I think, a little less mature, although very quickly catching up to other analytics functions across other functions. And so that gives you a lot of space to play in. But I think the downside of that is there's trepidation and there's fear among many of your closest allies in HR, on what it means to be data centric, how to use analytics to drive decisions. 

Brad Williams  11:40

And I think the biggest fear that I consistently hear, granted, it's not always directly stated like this, it's normally an undercurrent is it takes the autonomy away from the decision making that I'm making, in my role. 

Brad Williams  11:56

As an HR business partner, you're making judgment calls, you're interacting with humans, which is really hard to put data behind and try to quantify behavior or why people behave the way that they do. And so I think there's an undercurrent of fear that while you can just use data to do my job, or to make the decisions that I'm making on a day to day basis. And my retort back is always that it's not a substitution. It's purely additive. And it gives you another, no pun intended, another data point to use in making those decisions. And if you look at all of the work done in Moneyball, and just analytics across sports, you see how that has evolved. And that's really where I see HR analytics going, in general, is, there's this fear that you can't really quantify a lot of these things. And to some degree, that's true, we're not gonna be able to quantify human behavior with the data that we've got today or predict it perfectly. But we can use it to help steer and guide some of the decisions. But at the end of the day, you need a human making those decisions with the information available to them. So that's how I've navigated some of the anxiety and fear that I've spent working within HR.

Felicia Shakiba  13:14

I love your analogy with Moneyball. I think I see it so clearly. And I'm glad you mentioned it because you re-triggered, my memory of Moneyball and how well it fits in this arena. And so when you think about that, you also think about building a skills based talent culture, in a strategic imperative. Could you describe the steps that you took to ensure that stakeholders saw the value in this approach, and then actively supported its implementation?

Brad Williams  13:49

Yeah, so like many companies, we're on this transition to a skills based talent culture, and it's been a multi year effort. And what I will say is, I by no means am singularly at the front of the line leading the charge and getting everybody to follow. This is really and I think about part of the theme already in this podcast is how to build that coalition, how to collaborate, how to bring everybody along, so that there's a united front. 

Brad Williams  14:19

And that's really what we did with our transition to skills, which we're still in early innings of to go back to Moneyball, always resonates with me is the quote of, "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, bring others along." 

Brad Williams  14:35

And so we're really emphasizing all of the connections not just within HR, but outside of HR with the business because if we want to shift the skills based culture, we need to understand from an employee perspective, from a manager perspective, what are their concerns, what's in it for them, how do we sell that to them? 

Brad Williams  14:58

And how do we really mean make this impactful and resonate with them and have staying power, because a lot of initiatives, and I've seen this before in the skill space where you spring up this skills, taxonomy, and you do all this great work, and you nail it down, and it's tied to your job architecture. And then it just kind of fizzles out and doesn't go anywhere. Nobody uses it for anything. 

Brad Williams  15:24

And so part of the work that's going on right now is, how do we actually create staying power with the shift to skills? And how do we really make a compelling value prop for employees to buy into this for managers to buy into it? And so we're looking at how do we really bring this internal talent marketplace to life and provide career path for employees based on skills that they have skills that they want, that's also tied to NM's, multi year strategy and the future roles that we need to enable that? And so we're doing a lot of work on not just how do we build the skills, infrastructure? And how do we create the right taxonomy? How do we tie it to our job architecture? How do we create the right governance, we're spending even more time on the value prop and making sure that this resonates with the employees, the managers, the business themselves, so that it has that staying power.

Felicia Shakiba  16:25

You just said so much. I'm digesting everything that you've shared, because my mind has gone in several directions on the taxonomy and the skills and influencing the business and making sure that they know that this is something for them. And then being able to also bring along your HR peers, and let them know that decision making is really a layered approach with data and the day to day, your knowledge, the qualitative data, relationships. I mean, it's very encompassing. So it's a lot of rich sharing that you just did that, which is so awesome. Did you leverage any key metrics to help persuade stakeholders to move forward with your initiative?

Brad Williams  17:10

Yeah, we absolutely did. And I will say that I don't know that there was much outward resistance to this. So I don't think it was a hard sales pitch that HR had to go out and say, Hey, guys, we really need to do this. I think people intuitively got it in large part because of the things that they're experiencing within their teams trying to make hiring decisions within the research that they're reading. 

Brad Williams  17:37

But a couple of things that stood out to us from an HR standpoint, in doing our research and due diligence, a couple of stats were that 73% of high potential employees would leave their job for opportunities that better leveraged the skills that they had. 

Brad Williams  17:57

So if we think about huge retention risks, and perhaps a little bit of the fear of retaining key critical talent, if three quarters of them or nearly three quarters of them are willing to leave NM to find an opportunity that better utilizes the skills that they have, we need to understand what skills that they have. And we need to make sure that we're fully leveraging them or else we're at risk of losing. Another piece that rings true at at NM and we found this in the research across other industries and other companies as well, was that more than half of employees say it's easier to find a job externally than it is internally. And part of that my caveat to that is part of it is because there's just more opportunities outside of any company than there are internally. But usually, it's because that internal marketplace really doesn't showcase what are all the opportunities that are available, or how can you grow your career grow your skills, to match some of the needs that any organization has. 

Brad Williams  19:02

And so that was part of the value prop of moving the skills was to create that transparency, there was a little bit of a both a carrot and a stick mentality. A carrot in that look at what's in it for the employee base, look at what's in it for managers, look at what's in it for us as an employer to be an employer of choice to fulfill our employee value prop to help people grow and develop in their career. But there is also the stick on the other end of most other organizations are doing this. If we don't get on board, we're gonna fall behind. We're going to lose top critical key talent, we're not going to be able to understand the skills or roles that we need for the future and we're going to fall further and further behind. There was both kind of an upside, here's the carrot, but also, here's the risk if we don't and here's what can happen. And then the consequences. 

Felicia Shakiba  20:01

It sounds like it's also about sharing what's going to happen if we don't do this? 

Brad Williams  20:06


Felicia Shakiba  20:07

And so how do you recommend HR professionals communicate the return on investment? You know, and that could be to the executive team, it could be to the head of their client group, any leadership or stakeholder?

Brad Williams  20:23

Yeah. So I, I think the ROI is something I'm very keen on in trying to measure. I think it gets a little challenging within the HR space because you're quantifying humans. But there's an impact there. And I'm convinced it's not always going to be 100% accurate. But I'm convinced you can do enough analysis and make enough directionally correct assumptions to prove out your ROI. 

Brad Williams  20:55

How much does it cost when you lose an employee between the costs of going out and backfilling and spending recruiters time and hiring managers time, the onboarding process, the risk that other people in the organization then leave as well? 

Brad Williams  21:12

You're the contagion effect of attrition. There's a cost associated with that. So how much is that? Is that attrition worth and attempting to quantify that? How much is a bad leader across the organization? What are the consequences of having that? And again, there's a lot of things that you can put numbers behind and quantify granted with some assumption. But there's also things that qualitatively you can speak to the emotional side of things, how much is engagement worth? How much more productivity do you get from employees, when they're engaged, they're happy. They're enjoying the work that they do. That's something that organizations just naturally want, even if there's zero hard dollars associated with it, you want to walk into your workplace and feel that energy, feel that excitement across your employee base. 

Brad Williams  22:04

And so I think looking at things from an ROI perspective, and focusing on what is that return both from a dollar standpoint, as well as from a qualitative standpoint, is important across HR. And I'm convinced that everything that HR does, should be quantified. Again, some things may be more challenging than others. But usually, if there's a will, there's a way to measure it.

Felicia Shakiba  22:28

And so what's next from a skills perspective?

Brad Williams  22:32

So one of the things I'm most excited about along our skills journey, is really fully leveraging some of the information that we're getting on our workforce, the skills that they have, the roles that we have, and the skills that are needed for each of those roles, but projecting that forward and kind of tying it to workforce planning. So how do we leverage that information and project that forward, and understand what our multi year strategy is here at NM? And what roles we need to fulfill that? What skills do we need? What do we need more of what do we need less of, and then working to bridge that gap? So how do we upskill our workforce? How do we give them those development opportunities? Who are the employees that are best suited for those development opportunities, whether it's because they're in a role that is easily transitioned to a different role with a couple of skilling opportunities, or because they're a high potential employee, and we can kind of shaped their career path or give them the opportunities. 

Brad Williams  23:39

So I think from a workforce planning standpoint, the skills piece really unlocks that and I can't tell you how excited I am to see what the future holds there, and how we can leverage that to really be more sophisticated in our planning. And also, from an employee standpoint, how we can fulfill those value props that we have to employees to grow and develop in their current role as well as the staying power to move into the next role and promote and drive their own career.

Felicia Shakiba  24:11

So it's really around how do we identify these high potentials, with this skills data information?

Brad Williams  24:21

Exactly. And even one of the things in the skills work too is, what skills are most important or most impactful? You can have a whole host of skills, and most people have a whole host of skills. And there's a ton of skills that are needed for any given role in any given company. 

Brad Williams  24:38

But what are really the drivers of performance within a given role or within a given individual? And attempting to quantify that and really understand what matters and what do we focus on? What skills do we need from employees that are most impactful to the work that we're trying to do? So I think it's not just broadly understanding skills, what do people have? But really, what are the most impactful skills that people have? And how do we make sure that we're capturing that quantifying that, growing and developing that?

Felicia Shakiba  25:11

I think the value is very obvious, especially after hearing this conversation. But sometimes there are political roadblocks. So how do you build support from leadership given sometimes a more political environment?

Brad Williams  25:28

I absolutely resonate with the political environment. And unfortunately, as much as I would love to dig my head in the sand on things like that, that's a reality of every single company, every single organization. And so, I think it's going to be unique at any given organization. But I think it goes back to the earlier question that we talked through on gaining the buy in and articulating, what are all the great things that this unlocks? If we do it and do it well? What are the consequences if we just sit on our hands and wait around and don't take action on this? And I think, again, maybe it even ties into the ROI discussion too like, how do we quantify that? And what's your real impact? 

Brad Williams  26:13

Because politics are going to exist. And at the end of the day, I'm convinced that if you can make a logical argument, appeal to people's emotion, things are gonna get prioritized. That's what it comes down to. 

Brad Williams  26:28

It's it's not necessarily that people don't want to do things. It's that it falls lower on their priority list. And it just something that, yep, that might sound good in theory, or if we had unlimited time, of course, we would do that. So I think part of the argument on politics and gaining buy in is, how do you move that up the prioritization list? And I think that's where some of the work on quantifying it and being able to articulate what the return on investment is, as well as you know, all the great things that have unlocks from the employee from a manager from an employer standpoint, and then again, drawing on the consequences. What happens if we don't do this and leaving it in the arms of the decision makers? I think building that coalition, building as much support from as many different stakeholders as you can is probably the best place to start. 

Felicia Shakiba  27:38

Brad, thank you so much for being here. I really appreciate everything you've shared.

Brad Williams  27:42

My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Felicia Shakiba  27:44

That's Brad Williams, Head of HR Technology and People Analytics at Northwestern Mutual.

Felicia Shakiba  27:57

If you like today's podcast, we have more podcasts on innovative HR strategies, talent management, organizational culture and more, and how to navigate the complexities of modern day HR. Find them at CPO playbook.com/podcasts or search CPO, playbook on Apple podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen. Thanks for listening to the CPO playbook podcast. We'll be back with a new episode next time.

Felicia Shakiba 28:27

If you liked today’s episode, we have more podcasts on innovative HR strategies, talent management, organizational culture, and more, and how to navigate the complexities of modern-day HR. Find them, at CPOPLAYBOOK.com/podcast or search CPO PLAYBOOK on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. Thanks for listening to the CPO PLAYBOOK podcast - we’ll be back with a new episode next time. I’m Felicia Shakiba.

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