Insights from Shari Chernack, Senior Principal of People Strategy + Transformation at Mercer
In this latest installment of our People Developing People interview series, Jason Lavender had the privilege of conversing with Shari Chernack, Senior Principal of People Strategy + Transformation at Mercer. In this enlightening dialogue, Shari brings her wealth of experience and insights to the forefront, shedding light on the evolving landscape of HR, learning and organizational transformation. From her unique vantage point, Shari unveils the changing expectations for HR leaders, the dynamics of investing in human capital and the essential components of successful people development strategies in part one of our interview.
Throughout this interview, you'll uncover:
- Insights into the strategic evolution of HR.
- Why investments in human capital can vary among organizations and their leaders.
- The significance of proactive learning approaches and aligning them with business strategies and employee wants.
- Thoughts on creating space for learning.
- Strategies for fostering connections and building cultures in a rapidly changing work landscape.
Jason Lavender, CEO & Founder of Electives: Thanks for being here, Shari. Please share your background, your career path and what led you to where you are today.
Shari Chernack, Senior Principal of People Strategy + Transformation at Mercer: I wish I could say my career path was intentional. I thought I would be working for some policy shop. But, circumstances led me from a past life in marketing to a career in e-learning to what is now called change communications (but it didn't have a fancy name at the time). I expanded out from there, eventually reaching virtually every facet of people and transformation in my work.
HR leadership has changed.
Jason: From where you sit now (or where you've been in prior lives), how have you seen the role of HR, people or learning evolve over the last few years?
Shari: The currency of a good HR leader, and somebody who can command influence and get things done, has definitely changed.
It's no longer optional to have a significant amount of business acumen. To be an HR leader today, you need a deep understanding of business strategy, how organizations go to market and their financial details. You also need to know business operations.
When HR was more of a compliance function, it was seen as playing a support role. And, maybe, a little bit removed from the business.
HR and the business have gotten closer by necessity. Good HR leaders now need to have command of the business and sit shoulder to shoulder with their colleagues to provide insight — not only on HR matters, but on all aspects of the business.
Leadership perspectives can impact investments in people development.
Jason: Why do you think some organizations shy away from investing in their “human capital” when it is likely the largest asset in the organization?
Shari: To some extent, it's a function of where leaders come from in the business and where they are most comfortable making decisions.
Leaders who have been involved in business transformation, who have run significant operations or have been through some kind of adverse circumstances, are some of the leaders that I see make the most significant investments in people and recognize the criticality of people to the business.
Sometimes, when leaders take a career path that may have been a little bit narrower to the top of the organization, they see things differently. They may see the product as the most critical. They may see managing financial constraints and operating margins as the most critical.
The lens leaders take, based on their previous experiences, tends to guide them in terms of making a significant people investment or maybe making a little bit less of a people investment.
It's one of the reasons why having a diverse executive team is really important. And why many organizations are increasingly expecting leaders to have more broad-based backgrounds as they come into leadership roles.
Jason: Do you know what percentage of CHROs and CPOs did not come through the ranks of HR to get to leadership?
Shari: I just surveyed CHROs about their paths, and roughly 10% of HR and people leaders come from other functions.
That number is on the rise. It used to be almost unheard of.
It's great to give people rotational exposure. But, in some cases, HR is wrongly perceived as a place where leaders who have no experience can do no harm. So, when the decision is made [to have leaders from other areas rise to CHRO/CPO], it has to be made really purposefully. And those leaders need to enter the [CHRO/CPO] role with humility and be surrounded by people who have expertise in all of the talent and compliance functions that are required to make HR run smoothly in organizations.
People development requires investment.
Jason: Think of a group of companies that have been really successful in developing their people, and then think of another group of companies that have struggled. What are the contributing factors?
Shari: Investment (including money but also time), leadership messaging and opportunity are all critical.
The best way to develop people is by giving them opportunities to evolve — whether that is deeper subject matter expertise, development in their roles or functions, or moving them to different areas that will allow them to have broad-based capabilities for the business. Cross-functional projects also provide a great opportunity to give people exposure to new skills and different teams, without the formality of a new role or needing to worry about a role being open.
The best learning strategies support employee needs and wants.
Jason: Have you seen any organizations be successful at proactively understanding and delivering what people need and want to learn?
Shari: The best learning approaches combine several different ingredients.
One is understanding the business strategy. So many decisions, including the skills that people need to have, are downstream of what the organization is trying to achieve. Having a preview of where the organization is going can make learning proactive instead of reactive.
It's also really valuable to hear from leaders and managers. What are they seeing? When it comes to soft skills and executing business priorities, you need their observations and what the data tells them.
And then it's also really helpful to offer access to all of the learning that is becoming popular inside the organization and more broadly.
I love what organizations are doing to give their people access to learning that allows them to follow their passions and learn skills that are rising in prominence. Companies can and should take an active role in curating learning opportunities as well as giving people the ability to follow their curiosity.
Jason: I love that.
Electives began with private learning experiences for companies. But we had this interesting realization earlier this year: People leaders select which of our 500 classes to bring to their organizations. And even though they might choose 30 or 40 of those classes, there will always be classes that an employee just doesn't have a chance to take, because it wasn’t selected as a private class for their company.
In June, we launched Electives Memberships, allowing employees to “follow their curiosity” to use your words. We put the employees in the driver's seat and said, “You pick what you want to learn.”
It's only been three months, but the data is fascinating. In June, our most popular class was about coping with grief.
It is interesting to see the difference between what business leaders choose versus what employees pick to learn. Sometimes there's a lot of overlap, and often there are differences. And that information can be insightful for the business.
Shari: Giving people a subscription and the ability to go where their interests take them is such an easy way to invest and say, “We want you to grow - not only as an employee in this company who needs to learn X skills to be successful, but also as somebody who wants to develop as a holistic person.” And, it's very possible that certain skills employees value today (and organizations don't) may become the skills of the future. The skills that they need to develop.
Learning at work is easier when we have space to learn.
Jason: Help me fill in this sentence. “Learning at work would be easier if ______.”
Shari: If people had more time and a clear place to start.
Organizations need to create space in the day when people can learn, especially front-line workers or people within industries or roles that just don't have time to learn in the day.
Even people who have more traditional desk jobs don't necessarily have time to learn. And they aren't measured on the time they spend learning. And that time is not necessarily viewed as productive.
I've also seen a real difference in people when they have clarity on what they want to learn. And, sometimes, they need a little bit of a nudge in the right direction.
About Shari Chernack
Shari Chernack, Senior Principal of People Strategy and Transformation for Mercer, is a versatile HR leader renowned for her ability to steer organizations through growth and transformation. With an extensive background spanning business transformation, strategy, HR, operations, change management and communications, Shari excels in building differentiated capabilities, fostering inclusive cultures and propelling organizations to new heights.
Shari's commitment to reimagining people strategy is evidenced by her emphasis on talent, culture, leadership and the future of work. Her multifaceted skill set enables her to bridge the gap between visionary strategy and practical execution, making her a sought-after partner for organizational leaders.
Throughout her journey, Shari has been an influential advocate for proactive learning and development, recognizing the pivotal role of upskilling and reskilling in driving sustainable growth. Her dedication to nurturing talent, fostering engagement and advancing DEI positioned her as a transformative force in the HR landscape. Shari’s strategic insights, entrepreneurial spirit and commitment to continuous learning solidified her reputation as a driving force behind organizational evolution.
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