People and Strategy

Don Robertson's Business-Forward Approach to HR

Episode Summary

In this episode of People and Strategy, he speaks with host Tony Lee on topics that include his business-forward approach to HR, how Northwestern Mutual’s identity as a purpose-driven organization drives their recruiting, and the expanding role of the CHRO.

Episode Notes

Don Robertson is Northwestern Mutual’s chief human resources officer. He says his career in HR “just kind of happened,” but he also acknowledges how his background in finance, business and sales helped make him a great fit. In this episode of People and Strategy, Robertson speaks with host Tony Lee on topics that include his business-forward approach to HR, how Northwestern Mutual’s identity as a purpose-driven organization drives their recruiting, and the expanding role of the CHRO.

This episode of People and Strategy is sponsored by BambooHR.

Episode transcript

Episode Transcription

Speaker 1: SHRM People and Strategy podcast is sponsored by BambooHR. BambooHR is easy to use HR software that helps your employees know they can count on you. Whether it's through on-time, every time payroll, or asking for unflinchingly authentic feedback, go to for a free demo.

Tony Lee: Welcome to today's People and Strategy podcast. I'm Tony Lee, Vice President of Content for the Society for Human Resource Management, and the SHRM Executive Network, which is the premier network of executives and thought leaders in the field of human resources.

I'm excited to speak today with Don Robertson, Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer with Northwestern Mutual, a Fortune 100 financial services company, and the largest provider of life insurance in the United States. Based in Milwaukee, Don oversees more than 33,000 employees worldwide. Don, welcome to the People and Strategy podcast.

Don Robertson: Thanks, Tony. It's great to be here.

Tony Lee: Well, we're very pleased to have you join us. So let's start at the top. You've held a range of senior leadership roles with a wide variety of companies, but HR wasn't your initial career path. You started in accounting, and then you progressed to sales, and then you got to HR. What attracted you to HR as a profession?

Don Robertson: That's a great question. I get that one all the time, Tony. And I will tell you, it wasn't so much of an attraction as it just kind of happened, and I'll walk you through it. I mean, I spent the first 17, 18 years of my career in what I would call accounting and more senior finance M&A kind of roles, and then kind of maneuvered into sales and general management. But when I got to Hewlett Packard, which is of course one of the largest technology companies in the world, I originally went in to kind of lead their sales organization for their services business. But then I spent some time in their sales development organization, which was focused on really helping grow their sales teams because I had quite a bit of success with my teams, and so they asked me to lead that. That ultimately became part of the HR organization.

When I first got engulfed into HR, it was a kind of new experience for me. I hadn't really been part of HR before, and now I'd had a lot of affinity and a lot of experience working with HR, and I'd always had a strong kind of alignment with people and thinking about people and the impact of people. But I hadn't been part of it before. When I got to HP, it was really a great experience for me. It helped me really realize that having a strong financial background, a strong background in business, combined with a strong HR domain as well, was really kind of a powerful combination. And it helped me, I think to this day, really bring the business side to HR and helps break down some of those barriers that go on between the business and the function.

Tony Lee: Yeah, I mean, the advice we often hear to HR pros who are trying to elevate to the next level is understand the business, get into the analytics, get into all aspects of the numbers. It sounds like that's advice you would share as well.

Don Robertson: Well, I would. First of all, business leaders don't talk like HR people. I coach my folks all the time on this. They talk like business people. They talk like regular people. They don't use a lot of HR jargon and terminology. They're really just ultimately trying to recruit the right kind of people that are going to help them deliver what they're trying to do from a business standpoint. The language that business people use is much more focused on that than it is on what I would call a lot of the language a lot of me and my colleagues tend to use. Having that business background allows me to really speak the language quicker, understand the objectives. I mean, I've carried a bag. I know what it's like to be a sales person. I've been in the finance organization. I know what it means to do budgets, and I've been a general manager and I understand what it takes to run a business. So having those understandings allows me to really develop credibility and develop a relationship and chemistry with business people, I think, a little bit faster.

Tony Lee: Yeah, no, makes perfect sense. All right, so HR is facing, gosh, a wide range of critical challenges right now. So let's kind of walk through some of those and get your thoughts. The most pressing from our research seems to be the talent war, whether it's recruiting or retaining top talent. What are you learning out there? What strategies seem to be working for you guys?

Don Robertson: Well, first of all, I couldn't agree with you more. I ultimately believe that not only are we facing a talent war like we've never seen, Tony, I think we're facing a paradigm shift in the way talent is kind of recruited, the way it's retained. It's just the way we think about talent. The power is shifted really more to the buyer than it is to the seller, so I think employees have a very different view than what they may have had 10 years ago.

I think it's more critical than ever that you really connect with your employees at a very individualized level, that you help them think about their careers and their career aspirations, and that you have to marry what you're trying to do as a business, whether you're shareholders or policy owners in our case, and the employee. And you've got to kind of think about it as two sides of a coin. I think the companies that are going to win the war on talent are those that help their employees develop and grow in their careers while they're delivering for their policy owners and shareholders. The companies that do that best are ones that are going to be much more intentional about helping make sure that their employees are achieving the things that they need to do to achieve their career aspirations.

And so when you think about it, the way you organize, the way you institutionalize a lot of the processes and systems and tools that you do from an ecosystem standpoint for your employees has to be much more with that thought in mind, that intentionality, so that they will actually be feeling like they're getting something out of it while they're delivering. And this generation, I think, is much more demanding of that than many of us that grew up in the last 10, 20, 30 years.

Tony Lee: Yeah, no, it's very solid messaging. Northwestern Mutual recruits a lot of people every year. How do you communicate that message that you just shared to those folks who are thinking about whether to join you or not?

Don Robertson: Well, first of all, we're a very mission, and I would say purpose driven, organization. It's much easier for us to be attractive as a talent location when you have such a purpose and a mission, which is, for us, it's all about creating financial security for all our clients and allowing them to live their best lives. Everything we do every day is to try to allow our policy owners to really have a more successful life and a more fulfilled life, and frankly, freedom of the anxiety of the financial elements of that.

We look for people that are kind of more mission driven, that are more purpose driven. One of the big challenges for us was to really help people understand that even though we're a 166 year old insurance company, that we're modern and we're thinking about things in a modern way, and we're moving in that direction. We're more sophisticated. We're working on cool stuff, and we've been wildly successful. In fact, last year was the greatest year the company had in it's 166 year history even though it was during a pandemic.

We're constantly trying to help people understand that this is kind of a cool place that's thinking about them. You think about the holistic values of what we have, the way we treat people, the way we value our employees, the way we compensate them, the way we surround them in really more of a family type environment, and that we care about them. It's very relationship driven organization.

I think our big challenge over the last two to three years has really just been to get that message out there. Fortunately, we've been pretty successful at doing that. And then of course, once you bring people in and they start telling their friends, the momentum starts happening. People, first of all, want to be part of a winning organization, and we've been successful, significantly successful financially, as well as you know what we're doing to help our clients. And so as a result, that's a really good story to tell.

Tony Lee: Yeah. All right. So you've succeeded in bringing them in. Now you need to keep them engaged. It's not just in keeping the 20 somethings engaged, the Gen Zs, it's keeping the people who've been with you for 30 years engaged. I mean, between the great resignation and quiet quitting, I mean, it sounds like there's a really disengaged workforce out there. What's your guidance on boosting that engagement?

Don Robertson: Well, Tony, we've been pretty successful at that, and I'll talk about what we've done to do that. But just to give you an idea, our engagement scores are in the mid 80s, and that includes every generation, every tenure, every ethnicity, gender, function, geography, or an 80 percentile or higher on engagement. It wasn't like it's always been that way, and we've done a lot of things to get there, but we've been able to maintain pretty high engagement. Our attrition is no worse today than it was pre-pandemic, so we're not experiencing a lot of the things that a lot of our sister and brother companies are experiencing.

How we've done that quite candidly is it's a lot of little things that add up to an environment. I mean, it's not one thing that we do, but at the core of it, it's to really build a connected relationship with our people at the individual level as well as at the collective level. We spend a lot of time really getting to understand what our employees want, what they care about. We do lots of round tables, we do lots of one-on-ones. We do lots of what I would call group sessions. We co-create with our employees to hear what's going on. That doesn't mean we give everybody everything they want, but we spend a lot of time really just connecting with people.

You have to do that differently today than, I think, five and 10 years ago. People are hybrid, they're remote, they're not always with you, and you can't rely on proximity as your recipe for engagement. You have to spend a lot more time, again, to be intentional and to really understand what your employees want.

We've kind of moved from a lifetime of employment because we've always been a place that had long tenure to more of a lifetime of opportunity. We focus on four or five key things. One is to really understand what the employee wants and help build an environment for them to be able to achieve that. We want to make sure that our managers are really connected to their people. They're not just managers that are getting the work done, but they're also coaches and career counselors for our employees. Just like our clients who have a financial plan and then we help them live their financial plan, we want our employees to have a career plan, and we want to help them achieve their career plan. And so everything we do is around that.

We're very transparent, we're very authentic in what we talk about. We've just done a number of things. And then of course, we have a significant thread that we pull through from diversity and inclusion. We want to be a company that represents the dynamics and the demographics of who we serve and where we work, and so we have a lot of strategies that we do around in our D&I area. A couple examples of that is we've gone from having about 10% of our company as people of color to over 30%. We're almost 50/50 on women and men. We've made tremendous strides. These are all four and five year positive trends. We've just done a number of things in a lot of areas, but most importantly, we just attack it from an ecosystem standpoint. Everything we do every day is trying to help enable that environment.

Tony Lee: Yeah. I mean, it sounds like you're having great success. I can share that a number of HR people we talk to, CHROs as well, come up with a great strategy and implement it, and the challenge is that the people managers don't do what they should. They don't either get the training that they need or they just don't understand it. So how do you make sure your line managers are aligned with what HR has come up with?

Don Robertson: Well, first of all, you're exactly right. None of this happens if you don't win the hearts and minds of your employees. And you can't do that if you don't win the hearts and minds of your managers, because they're the people that talk to your people every day. I say this all the time when I meet with managers as groups, "In my opinion, you're the most important function in this company." I will tell you one of the things that we constantly do is meet with them. We have an entire program; if you're a brand new manager, we're revamping our entire onboarding process to help brand new managers understand how to be manager here. If you're an experienced manager, we have a lot of programs that are focused on helping experienced managers.

But most importantly, we just spend time talking to them. I hold sessions just as an example, Tony, where I will meet with about 40 to 50 managers in an intimate way, either in person or on Zoom as a group, and we just do one hour sessions where I talk about things like this at a high level of what we're trying to get done, and we will then just have questions. You know, "Here's what we're trying to do." And they'll have tons of questions like, "Well, how do I do this? And how do I do that?"

My other 10 colleagues on the senior leadership team do the same kinds of things, and we just spend a lot of time talking to our 1,100 people leaders in a very, I would say, individual as well as group sessions. But we don't rely on town halls, because you can't town hall your way to change. We don't rely on email, we don't rely on really broad communications. We do those things, but we don't rely on them exclusively. We just spend a lot of time in smaller groups talking to managers and helping them understand, because it's really the translation of the strategy to the execution that's critical to them.

Tony Lee: Yeah, well it makes perfect sense. Let's talk a little bit more about physical workplaces versus virtual. I mean, when you're attempting to communicate with employees as well as with line managers, a lot of folks say, "Boy, it's a lot easier to do it across the table than it is across a Zoom camera." What's your take there?

Don Robertson: Well, I think many companies, up until about the last five to 10 years, particularly the last three to five years, have really relied on proximity as a way to have a culture or have a relationship. I think as a result, I think they have become a little bit complacent in how they think about engagement. Proximity does not equal connectedness; connectedness equals connectedness. If you want to have a strong relationship with your employees, you have to connect with them. Engagement is an outcome, it's not an activity. In order to have high engagement and high connectedness, you have to actually spend the time to connect with your folks. And that doesn't matter whether you're in person or whether you're virtual.

What I would say is proximity is great and you should take advantage of it when you have it, but you also have to have strong digital environments that can connect with your people. You have to have more urgency. So as an example, over the last few years, 50 to 60% of the hiring we've been doing is predominantly technology people and they're predominantly remote. One of the things that we've had to really do is rethink the way we onboard people. We used to rely a lot more on tribal knowledge, on proximity, on just relationships, and they would take their time to get to know the company. You can't do that anymore. You have to connect with people much quicker. You have to have systems and tools that are much more what I would call modern. You have to really be much more intentional and you have to spend a lot more time and a lot more effort.

I don't think it's any harder to build a relationship with someone that's remote, but you have to be much more intentional about it. It's no different, Tony, than if you live next door to your family, you can rely on running into them as you go get the paper or whatever versus when they move across the country you have to plan and make trips to go see them. We just have to be much more intentional and much more thoughtful about it. And frankly, you just have to be much more, what I would call, proactive about it.

One of the things that we've started to do with our new technology folks is start really just meeting with them regularly to understand, "Hey, how's it going? What do you want? What do you see that's different? What are we doing well? What are we not doing well?" And then teaching our managers also, how do you manage a person in person versus somebody that's remote? We just have to learn a whole different set of skills. But I think the number one thing, it starts with this intentionality.

Tony Lee: So where have you ended up? Are you guys hybrid? Are some employees required to come in? Are no employees required to come in?

Don Robertson: Well, I would say we're very functionally driven. So there's a number of roles that are remote, predominantly tech and digital, and what I would call new age type roles that we need to recruit those people in large numbers. We can't find them all in Milwaukee. We can't find them all in the locations that we're in. For those kind of positions and roles or where the market really is much more flexible, we're pretty flexible. We're pretty much very open to where people are going to be and work.

Then there's other roles, some of our institutional and our wealth management areas, some of our accounting, your finance, those kind of roles that work more in teams, we tend to have those roles more come in. But we're generally allowing people to have flexibility. Flexibility's number one, probably, our criteria. We like to have some places in the office. So if employees are coming in, we try to get them in two or three days a week for the ones that are coming in. And then they have two or three days to be flexible. If you're fully remote, you may not come in other than quarterly meetings.

It tends to be very driven by the role you're in, the function you're in. But I would say in general, we're pretty flexible. And it's a new thing for us. There's a lot of folks that feel like our culture was very much built on being in person. This has been an interesting change because about half our company has joined us in the last five years, and about half our company has been here like 10 years or longer. And so blending those two has been an interesting challenge and experience, and I think it works well as long as you're taking all the positives, all the traditions that you love, and you're pulling those forward, but you're adding the edginess and the modernness of the future and bringing them together.

Tony Lee: It sounds like a winning strategy. We don't have much time left. I want to ask you about the role of the CHRO, because it really feels like through the pandemic, the CHRO is sitting at the right hand of the CEO more than ever before and has really been seen as a key to the future of the company's performance. What do you think? Do you see that change? And if so, do you think that change is permanent?

Don Robertson: Well, I think I am seeing that change. It's all about talent. I mean, at the end of the day, you can have great products, you can have a number of things, but if you don't have the talent to really do what you need to do as a company, you're not going to be successful. And obviously the CHRO is the catalyst and the architect for many of the things that you do to make sure you have the right talent, you keep the talent, you grow the talent. They can't do it alone. So that's why I use the term catalyst or architect, not necessarily builder or general contractor. I mean, we're working as a team.

I view myself as the change agent and driving a lot of the change, being in front of a lot of the change that's necessary, and then architecting and being a catalyst for what's it going to take to actually get the outcomes that the business wants. So I would say we're not just anymore getting a seat at the table; we're part of the team that's designing the table, and we play a very critical role in that. And I think that's why having that business experience, having that financial understanding, having that sound business acumen is critical. Not just being somebody that understands HR strategies and talent strategies, you need that absolutely, but you also have to be able to understand and speak the language of business and really understand what the business is trying to achieve. I don't think you can be effective as a CHRO if you're not someone who could frankly sit in half a dozen other roles on the leadership team and do those well.

I like to tell people, "If you came into the room and heard a conversation, you wouldn't necessarily know I was the HR guy," because everybody's talking about the talent stuff. The key is you need the business to be talking about it and owning it as much as you. So I'm excited about that. I think that that creates a lot of opportunity for CHROs to really make a huge impact on the business.

Tony Lee: Yeah, it's a fundamental change and one I'm sure everyone in HR is so pleased to see. Well, Don, thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us today. We really appreciate it. You can follow the People and Strategy podcast wherever you listen to your podcast, and you can learn more about the SHRM Executive Network at

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Speaker 1: People and Strategy is sponsored by BambooHR. BambooHR is HR software that lets you hear your employees' stories, how they're performing, how they're growing, and how they're working together to accomplish a shared vision. Its intuitive design helps connect everyone in your organization and build trust, whether it's through on time, every time payroll, or asking employees for unflinchingly authentic feedback. Visit to book a free demo.