People and Strategy

Deb Bubb and Matt Breitfelder on the Modern CHRO

Episode Summary

Matt Breitfelder, global head of human capital and senior partner of Apollo Global Management, dives into how to modernize the role of CHRO. In this interview with Deb Bubb, associate editor of the People + Strategy editorial board and SVP and chief talent officer with UnitedHealth Group, Breitfelder talks about prioritizing and taking risks to become a future-minded CHRO. (length 36:09)

Episode Notes

Matt Breitfelder, global head of human capital and senior partner of Apollo Global Management, dives into how to modernize the role of CHRO.

In this interview with Deb Bubb, associate editor of the People + Strategy editorial board and SVP and chief talent officer with UnitedHealth Group, Breitfelder talks about prioritizing and taking risks to become a future-minded CHRO. (length 36:09)

Episode Transcription

Deb Bubb:

Welcome. I'm Deb Bubb, Associate Editor of the People and Strategy Editorial Board and Senior Vice President and Chief Talent Officer at UnitedHealth Group. People and Strategy is the professional journal of the SHRM Executive Network, the premier network of executives and thought leaders in the field of human resources. We advance our HR profession by engaging thought leaders and executive practitioners to create solutions and drive success for both people and organizations. Today, I'm excited to sit down with Matt Breitfelder, Global Head of Human Capital and Senior Partner of Apollo Global Management. Apollo Global Management is one of the world's leading alternative investment managers and seeks to have a positive impact on communities and promote sound ESG practices. Today we'll be discussing the role of the CHRO, particularly during challenging times. Thank you for being here, Matt.

Matt Breitfelder:

Great to be here, Deb.

Deb Bubb:

It's a super interesting time both to be, and to become a CHRO. A time of real contrasts. We've got tons of disruption, polarization, the pandemic, racial injustice, new expectations in the relationship between employees and their employers, new technologies, new experiences, so much of how business gets done has been changing. What has changed for the role of the CHRO and what else needs to change from your perspective?

Matt Breitfelder:

Well, it's great to be with you today, Deb. I do think that there is an incredibly challenging agenda for any HR leader, but for the CHRO in particular, during these times, we have many three dimensional problems that are on our plates that we need to wrestle with as leaders. I think the CHRO role has changed as a result of the pandemic and everything we're going through as a society. I think of the role as having three core components. Number one, the role of CHRO as a change leader. Number two, the role of the CHRO as an operational leader. And number three, the role of the CHRO as an executive coach. And if you think about this role, historically, that second bucket has tended to be the largest percentage of time allocation for most CHROs.

We have a really big role to play operationally. We are charged with strong governance, with execution, and with risk management across the talent life cycle. And in professional services firms, in many cases were responsible and accountable for the largest cost center on the P&L. So there's no question the operational component of our role is really, really important. But I think in recent years, particularly the last 12 months in particular, our organizations are asking all of us to step up as change leaders. And I think the role of executive coach to the senior leadership of the firm has become more and more important. So I think the main shift I've seen is those other two buckets are dramatically increasing in terms of how we spend our time as CHROs.

Deb Bubb:

Yeah. That makes a ton of sense, especially given the intensity of what you describe as the three dimensional problems that are facing us today, yet change leadership and executive coaching have been with us for a long time. Can you say a little bit more about how you see these three dimensional problems and what impact they have on how we think about change and executive coaching? What does it really mean to modernize the role of the CHRO in this context?

Matt Breitfelder:

That's a really good question. I mean, to your point, I think change in coaching have always been very core to the CHRO role, and we're blessed to work in a field that has incredible thought leadership in both areas. So we're standing on the shoulders of so many people who have pioneered in the HR and talent field. I do think that these problems are three dimensional. When you step back and think about the pandemic, as CHROs, we have needed to step up as public health experts. On DENI, this has become a huge part of our jobs, and there's a number of complex elements to DENI that we need to be deep experts in. And if you think about the modernization of corporate cultures and the fact that in the pandemic, we haven't just been public health experts, we've needed to become future of work experts as well, and have real thought leadership, depth of understanding in those three topic areas, just to name three of the most critical.

And I think the toolbox of change management, to your point, has existed in the HR field for quite some time. I think more than anything, what I'm saying is we need to use that toolbox more than ever as we're stepping up on these types of issues.

Deb Bubb:

Absolutely. And those toolboxes are being influenced by the very sort of innovations and technologies and cultural and social shifts around us, making room, both for greater challenge and also real innovation. And Matt, just knowing you over the years as I have, I don't think I've met a more creative or innovative leader in human capital, someone more willing to experiment with digital science based solutions. I'm curious in this environment, you might be tempted to say yes to everyone and everything, but this is one of the more interesting challenges, right? That sometimes what we say no to is just as important. So I guess I'm asking you as a CHRO, how do you decide what to do? How do you decide where you can have the biggest impact? What creative, innovative solutions do you say yes to? What do you say no to? How do you do that?

Matt Breitfelder:

That's a really good question, Deb. And I wish I had a great answer to it. I think it's one of the biggest challenges in this role. And I started my career as an economist, so I often think about it as it's a good problem to have, which is you have an excess demand on your time in this role and a limited supply. So ultimately we're talking about prioritization and I've worked in the asset management industry for about the last 10 years. So I think the metaphor that works the best for me, it's a portfolio allocation. So think about the portfolio. You have a finite amount of time. I think one of the most critical principles is diverse teams outperform. So as a CHRO, build an incredibly diverse team in every possible way and surround yourself with very complimentary people. So that as you're taking on big innovations, you've got the right group of people around you, who are going to challenge you and see things you don't see.

And frankly, prioritization's very dynamic. If you've got the right team around you, it's a day to day push and pull about what really matters now. I do think time horizon matters a lot as well. So in these roles we have, as I mentioned earlier, a really important operational responsibility. We've got to make sure that all of the activities across the talent life cycle at any given time are operating well, that it's a well-oiled machine. But if we only focus on the day to day transactions that we oversee in the critical talent decisions that we're part of, and we don't make time for innovation, then we miss the opportunity to increase our impact, to be those change leaders and to seize innovations.

I learned so much from my peers at other companies, if they've figured out a great solution to a hard problem, let's be generous with each other and share those. But I think that... I think we increasingly need next practices. And of course you have to tailor things to your own culture. So I'm a big fan of what is that portfolio of innovations that you really start small so that you're putting resources, time and energy against the things that are... That kind of pass a successful pilot test within your culture.

Deb Bubb:

I love that, starting small, iterating, learning that sort of orientation toward growth mindset and consistently raising the bar and consistently expanding the impact of well structured experiments, I think is really key to great innovation. I'm so glad you brought us back to the balance between strategic and operational work or cultural change and executive coaching kinds of work balanced against the time we necessarily spend on operational excellence so that we get the job done and have the credibility to be at the table for some of those bigger strategic moments. I'm curious about the relationship between these kinds of work. As a leader who has spent a lot of time in operational leadership roles, as well as in the strategic space, I'm always sort of skeptical about the division and thinking about what constitutes innovation and operations versus strategic innovation. And I wonder if you similarly see both domains as places where innovation and change and creativity can be applied. Tell me a little bit about how you think about the differences between those kinds of work and how innovation plays out in each.

Matt Breitfelder:

It's really interesting. I think that operational challenges and strategic ones are quite commingled and it's all about design. So perhaps the biggest difference between the two is, to me strategy is all about time horizon. So I think it's really important as CHROs to spend a lot of time with the head of strategy of our companies, because I want to make sure that the talent strategy and the cultural evolution is really well aligned with the three to five year business strategy, time horizon. If you do that, then the operational decisions we're making every day are going to, every day, kind of pivot you in the right direction, so that you're really well synchronized. So in all of my HR jobs, I've spent a lot of time with the head of strategy and the strategy team, because I want to be in the flow. I want to know what the horizon that they're moving towards so that we can make talent decisions and culture decisions that are really well synchronized.

But in order to do that, you got to make time for it and you've got to get the pilot testing right. I think operations and strategy go hand in hand. So we should be running operational pilots that unlock a talent strategy. And I think sometimes we can get a little too intimidated when we think about the word strategy, what does that really mean? I don't think it means we always have to do a McKinsey Quality strategic analysis. I'm a big fan of strategic intent and actually saying, what direction are we moving in from a tech perspective? From an AI machine learning insights type of perspective? What's our strategic intent? What are we trying to get done? And then how do we link operational innovation so that it serves that broader strategic intent? And that we think of operational innovation and strategic innovation as almost overlapping than an overlapping Venn diagram, then maybe they're not that different on a day to day basis. As long as you have real clarity into your business strategy and a pretty well defined strategic intent, I think you can manage that portfolio in a pretty integrated way.

Deb Bubb:

Matt, I love the way you describe the relationship there between strategic intent and operational innovation and execution. I think it puts both of these ways of working in such a powerful light. You can see the importance of strategic intent at framing possibilities, the importance of operational execution at testing strategic hypotheses and lighting the way to future innovation. I just think it's a really powerful frame. I want to pivot and think together with you about this domain of executive coaching. You mentioned growth mindset in the work of Carol Dweck. I'm curious about how coaching in the C-Suite is evolving, given how much more we know now about the neuroscience of leadership and how it's influencing you as a CHRO, and how you approach building teamwork, trust and coaching in the C-Suite.

Matt Breitfelder:

That's a great question, Deb. And when I talk about the role of HR in coaching, I want to be clear that I think external executive coaching remains incredibly important, and I think there's some tremendous value to how companies use executive coaches in specific situations and bringing that external perspective. I think that's as important as it's ever been. My point on the role of CHRO's executive coach and frankly of HR more broadly in executive coaching is that at the end of the day, our profession is about elevating, unlocking performance and potential for individuals, teams, and organizations. So everything we do can be seen in my view through that lens. So every day to day decision we make in HR about hiring, about performance assessment, about learning development, even about folks who are struggling in their performance inside our companies, those are coaching moments.

And I think if we apply a coaching mentality and we use that wonderful coaching toolbox that so many in our profession have developed in terms of listening, inquiry, helping people articulate and make those decisions themselves, stirring and catalyzing this point on growth mindset, we can have a tremendous impact. And frankly, I actually think if you look at the evolution of sports psychology and the overlap between how far sports psychology has come and the evolution of executive coaching, I think we've got a lot of great evidence that deploying these techniques in day to day leadership, and in day to day HR leadership, are incredible drivers of performance and of helping people fulfill their potential. So I don't personally see many limits to our ability to use coaching on a day to day basis in HR as a mentality and a mindset and an approach to HR work.

The other thing I would say is another Venn diagram to put on the table is when you think about how tough leadership jobs are at the senior most levels of organizations. I think there's so much we can do to create inclusion and a healthy performance mindset on these leadership teams, working with each individual leader and understanding who they are and trying to walk in their shoes, understand what they're trying to get done and put our energy, not at having any agenda ourselves as CHROs, but being in service to this idea of how do I help that individual leader find their best performance in a way that overlaps with what the organization and the CEO is trying to get done? And put all our energy at that overlapping Venn diagram. But in order to do that, you've got to get close to those leaders.

You've got to understand them as humans. You got to try to walk in their shoes, what drives them, what motivates them and help them steer that energy and that talent in a direction that maps to the agenda of the CEO and the company. I try to think about that every single day and look for those opportunities. And one other idea I'd put on the table, Deb, when I was running a business partner team about seven or eight years ago in asset management, I loved the idea... In investing, we have this great concept called alpha. So beta is the performance of a market and alpha is the extra value that a portfolio manager is able to create through their insights, through their portfolio construction, through the opportunities they see in an investment, their craft is alpha.

And one of the things I shared with my team was, listen as business partners and I think as a CHRO and a business partner, our most important work is coaching. And if we're doing a good job, we have a hundred hours of demand in any given day for our services and our help, and we've got 10 to 12 hours of capacity. So every single day, the question is, how are you managing your supply and demand? How are you making good choices as an HR business partner on how to narrow the hundred hours down to 10 to 12? And the concept that we came up with was, let's be high alpha business partners. So let's help each other as a peer group figure out where is the alpha in my client group right now, today, where I can create the most impact and the most value for the employees within the group that I cover, that creates the most value for the company.

And if you ask yourself that question on a day to day basis, as hard as prioritization is for all of us in these roles, if you ask yourself that question and say, where's the alpha today? Where am I going to move the needle the most? What's the hard conversation I need to have? How do I help the struggling employees see reality a bit more clearly, or get the feedback that they need to break through the obstacle that they're struggling with? When we ask ourselves those questions, and I try to start my day and end my day pushing myself on where's the alpha in the problems on my plate right now? I find it to be pretty helpful.

Deb Bubb:

I'm going to carry that with me today, Matt, that's a very high impact thought. I think many of us are operating in conditions where there are 17, 19, 20 important meetings we're having today. And many demands on our time and our attention as we wrestle with incredible three dimensional challenges, as you described at the beginning of our conversation. Really being able to operate from a mindset of possibility, seeing the potential for sustainable high performance in everyone around us, and picking our moments, what is really... Where am I going to find my alpha today? Where is my alpha today? Where do I see it? Where do I spot it? Where do I act on it? That's a very high impact thought, I'm going to carry that with me. I'm sure many of our listeners will as well.

Listen, you talked a little bit about culture change as a huge topic for CHROs today, as expectations from current and prospective employees, investors, shareholders, business partners are shifting, and the dynamic role that HR leadership usually plays in describing, creating the case for and driving these kinds of changes. How are you thinking about that as a CHRO, and your role in figuring out how, if in what direction to drive cultural change?

Matt Breitfelder:

Wow, that's a powerful question, Deb. Look, culture is such an important job for all of us in HR and cultures are dynamic. Cultures evolve over time. And one of the biggest ways they evolve over time is what the next generation of great talent is looking for in the workplace. They also evolve over time because business models change and there's such a tight connection between business models and culture. I'll give you a few ideas on culture about how I approach this. I do think evolution is a big theme. I think in all companies these days, from a culture perspective, we are modernizing and humanizing companies in a big way. And I think part of modernization is the future of work around technology, automation, AI, machine learning, we're seeing tremendous advances in people analytics, which teach us a lot about what the most important drivers are of culture change.

So I think that's incredibly important, but at the same time, we're seeing a really exciting humanization of business. And I work in the financial services industry, we're seeing that in a really big way in financial services, which isn't much needed for many reasons, but it's happening. And one of the statistics that drives me the most and always has, since I started in HR, is employee engagement surveys. The great thing about employee engagement surveys, and I know there are some skeptics out there that question whether they're still valuable, I'll take the other side of that. I think they're incredibly valuable, especially when you do them every year, because you're honoring your employees by asking them what they think about their work experience, what's working and what's not working? And that's gold. Those insights are incredibly helpful on how you evolve a culture.

If our job is to create a great place to work in an enabling environment, specific to an industry and a business model where we're bringing out the best in humans, that's our work from a culture perspective. And if you ask people what they're looking for, guess what, they'll tell you. And it's in the survey, all you have to do is ask, you got to ask the right questions. But if you look at the synthesis of engagement surveys and we have such good data as an industry, they tell us some really interesting things. And the macro studies that a number of the consulting firms have done when they roll up engagement surveys is they tend to always land on the exact same number when you synthesize across industries. They usually show that when you ask people their level of discretionary effort in their job, it's usually about 20%.

So as an economist, I look at that and think, wow, that's so sad. That's an 80% failure rate in the best companies on earth, where there's so many people who love to work in those companies, but 80% of employees are saying, yeah, I'm not quite fully engaged in my job, but certainly that they wish they were. So I think the work we have to do on culture is, how do you make sure that number's flipped? How do we make sure that 80% of the employees in our company are highly engaged and feel that they're doing the best work of their career? A 20% failure rate with the friction of transitions that we all go through in our careers, I think is pretty understandable. We can't have an 80% failure rate. We need to have an 80% success rate. So how do you do that?

I actually think right under our noses, as HR leaders, are these surveys and these surveys tell you what you need to do, and you can be very humble about it. Certainly the way that we approach it at Apollo and I have in my previous companies, is every year you run the survey, really challenge yourself to ask the right questions. Co-create the questions with your employees so you make sure that you're asking the right questions. I think there's a lot of things you can do... Comparing anonymized survey data with other data at your fingertips, to try to understand what the true drivers are of your culture, and then share those results transparently with your workforce. I'm a big fan of the rule of threes on anything you're trying to communicate, narrow it down to the three most critical elements. So we just did this at Apollo a couple of weeks ago with our annual survey.

Here's the three things that are really working. Here's the three things that we know we need to work on. And then we create working groups across those three growth areas, those development areas. And we get employees from every level of the company to provide input into the evolution in the three areas that need the most work. And that's our talent agenda for the year. And we can hold ourselves to it, co-creating that with our own employees. And then we get another report card within the next 12 months, and you can stop light your progress against it, and you can actually get very precise about it. And one last point is I think, particularly as we think about how to measure inclusion, we all have so much work to do on that and it's such critical work. With an employee survey you can very clearly see the different employee experiences that folks are having across demographic groups. You need to understand that your senior leaders need to sit with that, and then you can get very specific about the work that needs to be done on inclusion amongst the rest of the culture agenda.

Deb Bubb:

Yeah, Matt, I think a really interesting thread there is the sort of point of your positioning through all of these answers about the importance of both a data driven evidence based approach to our work, as well as the notion that it is ultimately co-created, culture's not something you do to someone. Engagement is not something we do to someone. Inclusion is not something we do to someone. These are experiences we create together. And so I think you're laying out a very powerful roadmap for CHROs to think about the existing tools we have, but using them in a very modern sort of distributed leadership, agile, and co-creative way that is much more powerful than maybe historically we've thought about these tools or experiences or ways of working.

It's just a much more modern and powerful way to accelerate the empowerment of our organizations to unlock their own performance, their own potential in a sustainable way, using data, insights, co-creative methodologies that really light that fire, as very inspiring. I'm I'm curious, talk a little bit to your peers who are CHROs, what do you think is one skill or lesson we all need to learn right now?

Matt Breitfelder:

I'm going to give you two, if you don't mind. And maybe it's two sides of the brain. The first one is I, like many people, I'm reading Adam Grant's new book, Think Again. And I think the theme you just talked about, Deb, is so consistent with Adam's book, about the importance of solving problems with a scientific mindset, really objectively, really humbly, treating our work, particularly as change leaders, as hypothesis testing. That we're going to co-create a hypothesis based on the available data of what we're seeing inside of our companies, of the problems that we need to solve. We may or may not be right about that hypothesis, but we need to be really objective and really clear eyed about what's working and what's not. I find that very inspiring and particularly since so many of these three dimensional challenges folks on all sides of an issue are so passionate about these challenges.

I think as coaches inside of our organizations, I think we can be very objective facilitators in a very data driven way of testing hypotheses to help the organization navigate through and make really good choices. So I find that scientific mindset that Adam talks about so powerfully in his book, really helpful to staying calm and focused and facilitative in this environment. And I think it's really helpful for any CHRO. The second thing I would say is kind of the other side of the spectrum. I think what we're going through as a society and this whole point of humanization on some level, what we all need from each other more than anything right now is empathy. I've spent a lot of my career in leadership development and thinking deeply about leadership development. I remember the impact of Daniel Goleman's work on my life and career when he wrote the book, Emotional Intelligence, and What Makes a Leader was a great article on HBR that lays out the basic idea, changed my life, because he was basically saying, what if it's all about empathy?

And when I think about the work we need to do in inclusion, I guess I'd ask myself the same question, what if it's all about empathy? And even though people analytics are really important for all of us as HR professionals, let's not miss the point that empathy's always been at the heart of HR and what if it's still the most important thing? And how do we create space in our conversations with our employees? We're in so many conversations every day, how do we just create a little bit more space for empathy and ask people a more personal question and then just give them the space to express themselves? I'm finding when I'm leaning into that more, good things happen. And I think we need to approach COVID, the pandemic, and the work we desperately need to do in DENI, with just a little more empathy and space to understand where people are coming from. And they'll help illuminate the path we need to take in these hard issues if we give them that space.

Deb Bubb:

Matt, so much of what you've said today is really, I think, driven by a fundamental mindset and belief that people have within them, the answers, the potential, the possibility of sustainable high performance. That mindset drives so much of how you think about using the tools of science, the disciplinary tools of our profession, the interdisciplinary tools of strategy and innovation to create the possibility for real growth, for real emergence. It is so inspiring for me to hear as a leader in our profession to think about the possibility that lives in each one of us and that we in our profession are really dedicated to helping people uncover and live into their full capacity as human beings. It is so inspiring to me to think about you as a CHRO out there creating those kinds of conditions for people. Where do you see the role of CHRO headed in 5, 10, 25 years? What are we going to create for the next generation of CHROs as a possibility for their emergence?

Matt Breitfelder:

Look, I think those three buckets we talked about earlier on change leader, operational leader, and coach, I think we're going to continue to see an evolution of all three buckets. I think we're going to spend more time in change and coaching. I think we're going to spend... As CHROs, we'll spend less time on operations, but we can only do that if we have really strong COOs on our HR teams, who have the operational gifts and love building great machines, that's always going to be an important part of the job. One of the gifts of people analytics is people analytics will help us always understand within the operational domain, which things are the most material and which things really need attention right now, and which things are going to drive the most value over a long period of time. That's the gift of people, analytics. It will really help us manage our operational agenda in a really powerful way.

I do think that honing our skills in change and honing our skills in coaching are the future. So we need to work both sides of our brain as CHROs. We need to be fluent enough in people analytics, AI, machine learning, we need to spend the time making sure that we're up to speed on those things, but more than anything we need to double down on what's always been the heart of the HR profession, OD, organizational development, culture change and coaching.

Build out that toolbox and understand as you articulated so powerfully just a minute ago, that our profession is about coaching people to achieve their best performance, helping them see reality clearly, including getting feedback and more than anything, seeing the strengths and potential inside of people that one of the greatest gifts we can give our employees in these jobs is helping them see potential that they don't see, but that we see because we're trained to see it and to help them fulfill that potential either inside of our organizations, or if it's the wrong fit for them, in another frontier. But to your point, the heart of this whole thing, in this wonderful profession that we all get to be part of, is seeing that potential in other human beings and using these very powerful tools that the pioneers of our industry have helped us create to bring out the best in folks while helping the company achieve what it's trying to get done. I think it's probably as simple as that.

Deb Bubb:

Matt, I'm going to go find my alpha.

Matt Breitfelder:

I'm still hunting for mine too.

Deb Bubb:

In the meantime, I want to thank you so much for sharing your expertise, your mindset, your toolbox with us today. For more information on the topics we've discussed, or for further details on SHRM, please visit us at, and I wish you well.