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HR Exec Jeff Smith Shares Tips on Navigating Human Resources Challenges

Jeff Smith, BlackRock’s former head of human resources who also held senior HR roles at BGI, Time Warner, and AOL, has spent decades in the HR space. Over the course of his career, he’s seen the landscape undergo significant shifts, and he has many insights on the challenges he’s faced and the future of the industry.

Smith’s perspective is a window into the broader trends that have shaped HR in the 21st century and what the trajectory of those changes looks like in a post-pandemic world dealing with disruptions like remote and hybrid work environments and the broader adoption of artificial intelligence across industries.

Jeff Smith’s Pillars of HR Leadership

For Smith, solid human resources leadership is crucial to both establishing a company culture and maintaining that culture and mission throughout the process of navigating change.

One of the most significant challenges Smith faced early in his career was the perception of HR as merely an administrative function. He posits that HR is a critical enabler of business success, responsible for everything from hiring to performance standards, reinforcing and creating culture, succession planning, and compensation.

“HR is a business in its own right and literally enables most things that happen in a company,” he says.

Many innovative HR pros like Jeff Smith realize there are two essential traits in quality human resources leaders: a firm but humane approach to making tough decisions, and the ability to take a constructive, engaged approach to listening to employees from across an organization. HR leaders often find themselves at the intersection of business needs and human considerations. Whether it’s hiring, restructuring, layoffs, or performance evaluations, these decisions require a delicate balance.

Some sound advice that Smith passes on to upcoming human resources professionals? Take a deep breath, speak frankly, and don’t expect a standing ovation. “I always found that if I was having difficult conversations, and I’ve had many, many of them, that they always went better when my intent and motivation was not about myself,” says Smith. “It was about a real issue that was either about someone’s development and improving or making a better decision for the company. That always went better.”

Building Collaborative Talent Acquisition and Management

Throughout his career, Jeff Smith focused on collaborating with leadership to build company cultures through talent acquisition and talent management, as evidenced by his participation in BlackRock’s Human Capital Committee. According to the Harvard Business Review, “Putting the right talent in the right roles at the right time is one of the differentiators that keep BlackRock out in front. Its talent management policies and practices are guided by its global Human Capital Committee, composed of 35 senior line leaders from across the firm’s businesses and key locations. The HCC’s very existence sends a powerful message that talent is not only a strategic and scarce resource but a matter of critical accountability for line management.”

One form of diversity is industry-based. In many cases, finding talent doesn’t have to be limited to industry-specific qualifications, but rather can be expanded to consider intangibles like genuine intellectual curiosity and collaborative skills.

“I think that focusing solely on any one industry leads to a more narrow pool and more narrow perspective,” Smith weighs in. “If you are hiring for a very specific job, industry matters. In HR, though, I think people can learn industries, and if you bring in people with the right skills and personality and culture fit, then I think it is much easier to have those things and learn industry than have industry and change your skills, personality and fit for the culture.”

Current Challenges in HR

Smith pinpoints several challenges currently shaping the HR industry. Each of these challenges presents both obstacles and opportunities for industry leaders.

Shifting expectations around remote work have become a front and center issue for every human resources department. The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically altered the work landscape, making remote work a new norm for many. While this shift offers employees greater flexibility, it also poses challenges in terms of engagement, team cohesion, and productivity.

“Ideally, managers and organizations can be outcome-focused more than place-focused in terms of where work is done,” Smith notes. “One of the outcomes that CEOs and leaders want in a company is the culture they are trying to create, and many believe, as do I, that culture is easier to create in person,” he continues. “It is easier to have random moments of learning or mentoring or coaching or ideation and innovation if people are walking the halls and interacting with each other. I strongly believe all of those things.”

Like others in his position, Jeff Smith has a keen eye on a hybrid work model. His preferred arrangement would involve a baseline of four days in the office and one from home.

“In the end,” he says, “it comes down to the job and the company and what needs to get done.”

Smith identifies data analytics as another increasingly important area of focus for human resources. Data analytics is becoming a cornerstone in HR, used for everything from talent acquisition to employee engagement metrics.

“The HR function needs to be data literate but also figure out how to build that capability across an enterprise,” he says. “I think data and the ability to provide analytics around the right business issues is key. Everyone is likely to make better decisions with better data.”

He points to AI as a potential game changer in terms of informing data-based decisions.

“In its best form, it will enhance decision-making through providing insights and data analysis in a faster, more efficient way,” he says, while noting that “AI should augment human abilities.”

Still, Jeff Smith is careful to point out that at the core of all HR functions is the human element, which remains constant even as the industry changes alongside technological advancements and shifts in societal views on the workplace.

“The amount and diversity of work is incredible, people are complex, and the conversations and work are never-ending,” he concludes.