People and Strategy

Paul Falcone on the Power of Gratitude in HR Leadership

Episode Summary

Paul Falcone served in a range of senior HR roles at Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon, Time Warner, and City of Hope Medical Center; he's now a bestselling author, conference speaker, and columnist for In this episode of People and Strategy, Falcone speaks with host Tony Lee about the keys to success for effective HR leadership, and how adopting a leadership mindset of gratitude spurs alignment and motivation within organizations.

Episode Notes

Paul Falcone served in a range of senior HR roles at Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon, Time Warner, and City of Hope Medical Center; he's now a bestselling author, conference speaker, and columnist for In this episode of People and Strategy, Falcone speaks with host Tony Lee about the keys to success for effective HR leadership, and how adopting a leadership mindset of gratitude spurs alignment and motivation within organizations.

Follow wherever you listen to podcasts; rate and review on Apple Podcasts.

This episode of People and Strategy is sponsored by Safeguard Global.

Episode transcript

Episode Transcription

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 with Paul Falcone, a former CHRO and a bestselling author, conference speaker, and columnist for Paul has served in a range of senior HR roles at such companies as Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon, Time Warner, and City of Hope Medical Center. He's a member of the SHRM Speakers Bureau, a corporate leadership trainer, a certified executive coach, and the author of the five book Paul Falcone Workplace Leadership Series, published by Harper Collins. Paul, welcome to the People and Strategy podcast.

Paul Falcone: Thank you, Tony. It's an honor to be here.

Tony Lee: Well, it's our honor to have you here. Thank you. So after spending more than 30 years in managerial roles within HR across several industries, what do you think are the secrets of success for effective HR leaders?

Paul Falcone: Well, there's a few things. I like to refer to it as three decades, rather than 30 years. It makes me sound a little younger. No, but there are a couple of things that I would say were critical to my success. The first thing is I've always gotten ahead of the problem by doing management training in the companies where I worked, and I did it right off the bat. I wanted the frontline operational leaders and the senior executives to see me as the teacher, as the subject matter expert, because if I can take the time to share the wisdom, it would make my job a lot easier going down the road. I didn't want them coming to me and saying, "I want to fire this guy. You're not letting me do it." And all of a sudden, I'm the bad guy, and I'm the barrier for them getting work done.

The second thing though is, and this is always what I write about too, it's this idea of emotional intelligence or whether you call it soft skills. Raising awareness, it's a muscle. You can build it. You can help managers understand how to do things, so that they're not looking the other way, sweeping things under the rug, and hoping things fix themselves, because they rarely do. But they need to know they've got a partner. They need to know they've got someone who's got their back. And as long as you can help them with the phraseology, you can help them with the terminology, you can role play it with them, you offer to be there with them if they need it, they love you.

They're like, "Wow, I've never had an HR person like this, who knows the business so well and blah blah." Yeah. The truth of the matter is they just listen. But you have to know how to give them the tools, so that they can do things on their own. Because the truth of the matter is, even if you have an MBA from a top 10 school, they don't teach leadership in the trenches. And these operational managers, I don't care if they're SVPs, EVPs, division presidents, truth of the matter is they're missing a lot, usually by the time they get to that level. If you can give them that gift and then, they can pay it forward, you become the hero.

Tony Lee: Yeah, that makes perfect sense. So you're a good writer, a professional speaker. How important has that been in your HR career?

Paul Falcone: For me, it's been everything. I went to school in Manhattan, and there was the original Barnes & Noble in New York City was two blocks from where I went to high school. And when I went in that store, I was like, "I don't know what I'm going to do, but one day, I want to have a book." And my 16th book is coming out later this year, and I've been blessed. But the reality is my work informs my writing. My writing informs my work. And it does feel nice when people say, "I've read your book. I love your book. It's changed. It's made a difference. We get a copy for all of our managers." To me, that was really critical, growing up in my career. So I always recommend it, if anyone has that bug and they want to build on it.

Tony Lee: Do you think that's actually led to you getting a job offer at one point in your career? Has anyone hiring you said, "Wow, I've read your books. Would you come work here?"

Paul Falcone: Not so much.

Tony Lee: Okay.

Paul Falcone: It's mixed, to be honest. I think that, a lot of times, there's a level of, "Wow, he's a bestselling author," or "He's an author," or something like those lines. Yeah, that does make a difference. On the other hand, I've had some comments from people in an interview, where one person said to me, "Well, are you Mark Twain? Or are you human resources person? What's your identity?" And I didn't get that job. So it could turn people off if they feel like you're spending too much of your time in the writing space. But it didn't matter to me. It was where my heart was, and you have to go where your heart is. That creativity was the most important part of my growing up, of my business years in corporate America.

Tony Lee: No, that makes perfect sense. So how would you advise HR leaders to share their thoughts and goals through, whether it's writing or speaking as a way to advance their careers? Is it right for everyone?

Paul Falcone: No, it isn't right for everyone. Some people feel like, "Listen, Paul, sounds great. I'm so busy on my job. I don't have time to get a cup of coffee. I have no idea where you have time to write books." And most people, Tony, honestly, I'm not a geek. It's like I love this stuff. When I was a kid, I loved libraries. Well, the first time I walked into a Barnes & Noble in high school, I was like, "Wow." Most people don't have that same visceral reaction, like I did. But the truth of the matter is, when you get quoted in HR Magazine or the SHRM HR Daily Newsletter, there is an element of you must be some level of subject matter expert to be able to getting that quote. And the same thing, if you have a penchant for writing or you enjoy public speaking, put yourself in those situations.

For me, the way I did it was, when I would go to a new company, I would tell the managers, I didn't make it mandatory, I made it voluntary, but I paid for the pizza. And that usually got them in the door. And once they came in, they realized, "Wow, I'm learning stuff." And that changed my relationship with my clients. And I learned that fairly early on. So yeah, do it if you can, because it's usually going to help. There are a few times, where someone may say, "Are you the next...? Are you Shakespeare?" That may happen. But the truth of the matter is it doesn't. I think there is a greater respect when people can show themselves as experts in their space.

Tony Lee: Now, we both know, many CHROs, they want to build their own brand, whether it's for their current job or their future job, whatever it might be. Writing a book takes an enormous amount of time. Public speaking, if they're a decent public speaker, takes far less time. How would you recommend someone start? If they can write, would you say write a book, because that helps you become a public speaker? Or what do you think?

Paul Falcone: Yeah, it's not an either/or to me. It's both, a both/and. And in the sense where I mean that is the public speaking can be within your own organization or you can volunteer to help in the community by teaching people about job search, job finding, leadership development, whatever it happens to be. So that's one track. The other track is, if you like to write, try your hand at guest blogging or blogging itself or contributing as a subject matter expert in an article that someone else is writing. But get your name in print that way too. I don't like to make it like you have to go from zero to book. That's too much. That's like swallowing a whale. It's too big. But if this is important to you and you think this can build your long-term career projection in the brand that you're trying to build, there are opportunities for you to get out there in front of an audience. And there are opportunities for you to see your name in print. You just have to be creative at how you do it.

Tony Lee: Yeah. I've talked to some senior level HR folks who have said, "Look, I would love to speak at a SHRM conference. How do I make that happen?" And my advice has been, "Go to a SHRM chapter, start small, kind of build your... Is that same advice you give?

Paul Falcone: It's exactly what I did. I was in Southern California. So the group is PIHRA, the Professionals in Human Resources Association, which is the Southern California chapter of SHRM. But roughly 20 chapters, that was 20 speaking opportunities. And the standards to speak there are not as high as speaking at the SHRM National Conference, let's face it. So to me, that kind of opportunity is an example of starting small, but sharing. And the key to it all, Tony, to me, that I've always shared with people is teach the how. They all know the what. And teach them to be able to teach their frontline operational leaders the how. Once people understand how to do things, be surprised. That's why books like Tough Conversations to Have with Employees, or the 96 Great Interview Questions or the 101 Sample Write-Ups were all about teaching people how to do things that they know they should do. They just don't know how to start it. And so, if you can make it easier for them to get into a conversation, that may be a challenging conversation, that's really what the key is. So focus on the how.

Tony Lee: So in other words, as a public speaker, you want to focus much more on practical guidance than perhaps theoretical ideas?

Paul Falcone: To me, yeah. As a recipient, when I'm in an audience and someone's talking about theoretical constructs of this and that and the other, it's interesting, but I can't do anything with it. My standard as a speaker has always been, they should be able to leave my session, go back to their office, and do something right then and there to put it in play. And it's a simple standard, but that was my threshold and seemed to work well for me.

Tony Lee: So speaking in public groups has its pitfalls. Any memorable story you want to share?

Paul Falcone: Yeah, it was with SHRM, so I don't remember what year this was, because I've been speaking at SHRM for a long time. But there was a year where they transitioned from no more paper handouts to all the handouts were electronic. I missed the message. And I was doing the presentation on 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems, because that book had just come out. And when I arrived, and it was a big room, because that was a big topic, and it's still a big topic, I was, "Where's the handout with all the write-ups?" And they said, "We don't do that anymore." And I said, "Well, what am I supposed to talk about?" So I had to do a whole presentation saying, "You guys, you don't have it in front of you. I want you to use your imagination. I'm going to tell you what you're going to see online later, and you just have to wing it." But that is part of life. And as a public speaker, you have to land on your feet in those kinds of situations.

Tony Lee: I guess so. All right. So let's shift gears a little bit. Talk about HR issues. So HR is facing a range of critical challenges right now. High on the list is employee mental health and wellbeing. Do you think HR leaders are doing enough to prioritize mental health awareness among their workforce?

Paul Falcone: There's a yes and a no. We can always do more, but we're the ones who are spearheading. We're shepherding that movement. When you look at Gen Z, the Zoomers, these are the 25 and under crowd, statistically, they are the most lonely, isolated, and depressed generational cohort on the planet every test they take. And it's because they grew up in the digital world, where there's not a lot of human communication. And so, we're feeling the effects of that. And COVID made it worse, because with remote work, all of a sudden, it was loneliness on steroids. So the question becomes is, how do we recreate the campfire? We've lost the ability as a society to sit around the campfire and have the elders pass wisdom down to the younger generation. We're just too busy, or we'll get on our phones, or we're doing whatever. That's what a staff meeting is for.

And that's what one-on-one meetings are for. And we have to get better at that, especially with remote and hybrid work teams, because it has to be more intentional, more focused, more purposeful. And it is a challenge. But the reality is, can we do more? Yes. Should we do more? Yes. But we need to know where to focus it. And I think, with managers at your company, when you tell them that fact, that the Gen Z is suffering from this, then you can say, "You guys, we need you to pay it forward. We need you to make of your life a gift." Because we need to bring them back in to the realm, so that they feel comfortable, they feel confident, and most importantly, they feel connected. And I think that's a good movement. That's a good goal for HR to set in any company.

Tony Lee: Yeah. Now, we're hearing from a lot of CEOs who were saying, "Remote work experiment was great. I think it's done. I want everybody back in the office." And one of the reasons they give is this, that we have workplace loneliness. We have a lack of connectedness between people. Company culture is suffering. Do you see that?

Paul Falcone: Yep. And it's all legit, but there's two sides to this story. So I have it on good source for my two children, that one is 33 and one is 29. And they said, "Dad, truthfully, if our company went back to a hundred percent you must be in the office starting Monday, no exceptions," they'd both look to leave. I said, "Really?" They said "Yes," because they'd be, "The company's so tone deaf, they're not listening, and they're not caring. And luckily, we don't work for those kinds of organizations. Our companies are very reasonable, and they communicate to us." So both my kids happen to be in really good companies with strong leadership teams. But the problem is, if that is existing out there among the millennials and the Gen Z, you have to be careful not to just turn it over and say, "Okay, starting Monday." Number one, you've got to give him enough time.

And I'm talking probably several months. And number two, you have to make an argument, Tony, that hears both sides of the story. If the communication says, "Everyone, we know how important work-life-family balance is to you all, and we respect that and we treasure that. However, we are hearing from many of you that you feel lonely or isolated or you feel like you don't have enough face time in the company, at a point in your career when you're developing your career, we hear that too. And we want to try and find that balance. So what we feel would be best, that would incorporate your needs and our needs, because we don't want to lose the sense of teamwork, camaraderie, and culture that we've built all these years, is to begin bringing people back to the office. As a result, starting on such and such a date, three months from now, we will expect everyone to come back to work three days a week.

And we can always reevaluate that later and see how that's working. But we want you to feel like you are part of this family. That's how you were hired pre-COVID. And let's face it, many of you haven't even met your peers yet. Now would be a good opportunity to bring everyone together." If you can make that kind of message, I would bet, looking at my own two kids, they'd be like, "Yeah, yeah, that's cool." And actually, they're doing it. They're already back hybrid. But it was hard for companies. They didn't know how to do this stuff. We haven't had a pandemic in a hundred years. So trying to figure this out is not easy. You just don't want to come across as tone deaf. You have to make sure you're accounting for both sides of the equation, being very transparent with your employees in your communication.

Tony Lee: And casual connectiveness is a term I've heard. The water cooler conversations, the in the hall, is so beneficial, especially to younger employees, who they don't know what they don't know. And without that conversation, they may not have known. So let's take it to the next step, employee engagement then. So if you look at research, employee engagement has fallen, there's no question, almost across the board, but especially among younger generations. So what do you think companies should be doing? Are doing? Are you seeing examples of successes that companies are doing to raise engagement?

Paul Falcone: I would say there's a good momentum going on right now, while we're coming out of COVID, we're in this post-COVID reintegration phase, companies want to put energy back there. They know that a lot of their employees and the managers feel like they've been treading water career-wise for the last three years. And so, they want to put in training programs and they want to rebuild and they want to start over. And that's good. And one of the most important things that I would say, Tony, is I know we always say, "Oh, it's too many meetings" and all of that.

But think about it for a minute, knowing that a significant percentage of your population is feeling isolated and lonely, one-on-ones could be very, very healthy, especially if you do a once a quarter meeting with an employee, where you tell the employee, "Number one, you set the time on my calendar, number two, you set the agenda for the meeting. But I want to be there to coach. I want to be there to help you with your goals and how you're doing towards your goals, towards your career and your professional development. I just want to know what I can do to help you get along better in your career and prepare you for your next moving career progression."

What a message that sends. When they poll the Gen Y and the Gen Z, and these are the two most studied generational cohorts in world history, we know everything about them, there's constantly a top five. And at the top of the top five is they want career and professional development. So on the one hand, that means giving them recognition for a job well done. Don't be cheap, be generous when it comes to giving recognition. But it's also helping them learn their craft and their trade, which means you have to give "negative feedback."

Now, you can give it in a very constructive tone, but that's where the rubber meets the road. I think we have to teach the managers, again, you can call them soft skills, you can call it emotional intelligence and a high emotional quotient, we have to make management better at connecting with their employees. Because what they're telling us, the Gen Y and the Gen Z, is they want to work for an ethical company, for a management team that cares about them personally. It is about character, and it's about caring. And if we can get that message out to the frontline operational leaders, that will be a game changer in terms of the culture.

Tony Lee: So whose responsibility is it to do that?

Paul Falcone: Yes. It HR's responsibility primarily, because the C level oftentimes is just unaware. And business owners are not necessarily aware. There's a sense, I've always laughed, I've called it bringing fire to the cavemen, but there's this sense of we have to be the ones to keep our CEO, client, or whoever report we report to, keeping them in the loop. They depend on us to be the eyes and ears out there. And so, they want to be made aware. It's not like don't bring them the problems. Bring them the problems, but couch them the solution. And I think that's a critical piece of this, because if you can raise the awareness with the CEO and the CEO says, "Paul, I think that's a great idea. Let's go for it."

I'll usually say, "Would you like to join me?" And some CEOs will be the first ones to say, "Yep, let's do it." And other CEOs like, "Eh, thanks. That's a little bit more you. Why don't you take care of that?" So you got to get that alignment going. But the reality is, yeah, that's the critical piece that's missing out there that we learned from COVID, that we need to re-inject into the relationship going forward.

Tony Lee: Now, how much of that is mindset? And how much of that is resources? I've talked to HR folks who say, "I would love to train my people managers. I have no budget. I don't have the people. I can't make it happen."

Paul Falcone: I'm going to push back on that a little bit. And my logic is this, and again, maybe it's just my personality, I don't know, I want the management in my company to be more aligned, to feel more motivated, to have a greater muscle when it comes to knowing how to lead effectively. That's what I write about. That's what I've always done. You can sit back and say, "Not enough. I don't have enough time, resources." But nah, I don't like not enoughness. You know what the opposite of not enoughness is? Gratitude. Let people come from gratitude. I taught it to my kids. I teach it to the people on my teams, and I teach it to my client groups. When you come from thankfulness, you experience the world a certain way. And that's not only at work. It's also in your personal life.

And if you come from not enoughness, there's never going to be enough time, money, resources, love, or whatever else it happens to be. So you got to get past the noise. It's like, stop telling that to yourself. If you don't want to do the training yourself, delegate it to someone on your team who does and sit with that person, so that it's a united front. You can always go outside and bring someone in. But that's a budget issue. And I understand there may not be budget, but you can't keep telling yourself there's not enough,, because there will never be enough, and then you won't get anything done.

Tony Lee: Yeah. So we're almost out of time here, but one last question for you, which is, if there was a single issue that CHROs should be most thinking about, most thoughtful about in the next year, what do you think that would be?

Paul Falcone: Digital. Okay. When it comes to artificial intelligence, here's my little spiel, in October of 2022, it was not on our radar screen. And then, in November, ChatGPT came out. Now we're hearing that "Millions of American jobs, tens of millions of worldwide jobs, the robots are going to be smarter than us before we know..." It's like, wait a second, come on. That's the 24 hour news cycle making us afraid to put on our socks in the morning. But there's truth to it. There is this idea of, when you think about the human resources function, it is literally, if it's done right, it is the rudder that steers the ship. Yes, I understand finance, operations, and sales, but the human element is your profit lever. And we have to be able to monetize it, measure it, strengthen it, show where it goes from point A to point B to point C, and what those differences are on the operating results. So to me, I really think that is the next phase of human resources, and we need to jump into it. We need to grab it with all our arms.

Tony Lee: That's great. Well, Paul, thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us today. You can follow the People and Strategy podcast, wherever you listen to your podcasts, and you can learn more about the SHRM Executive Network at Also, listener reviews have a real impact on a podcast visibility. So if you enjoyed today's episode, please take a moment to leave a review and help others find the show. Finally, you can find all of our episodes on our website at and have a great day.