Lewisa Anciano Encourages HR Disruptors: Be Brave, Beware (and Follow the Five Cs)

Jason McRobbie

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Without a doubt, leaders’ perceptions of HR changed during the pandemic, as people issues flooded the forefront and HR rose to the occasion. Counted upon in countless ways throughout the chaos, the opportunity exists for HR to capitalize on their accomplishments, but is now the time? We sit down with the founder of Kickstart HR, Lewisa Anciano, a self-professed, passionate provocateur and veteran CHRO turned consultant, to talk about why HR’s role as a disruptor is so critical—as well as why being fired for doing the right thing is perfectly acceptable.

Key Takeaways:

  • While no longer in the Covid-chaos spotlight, HR can capitalize on its elevated status with well-considered disruption;
  • Aligning disruptive efforts to overarching business goals is critical background work within all organizations to prepare for future change now;
  • Laying the groundwork for disruption with the Five Cs—clarity, credibility, connection, conversations and courage—is key to ensuring results.

As a consultant called upon to provide a catalytic kick for organizations worldwide, for Lewisa Anciano, founder of Kickstart HR, disruption is a due diligence—but she has a caveat and Five Cs for those seeking to follow in her footsteps.

After 25 years plus at the forefront of the profession within both banking and tech, Lewisa knows the power and the perils of disruption intimately.

“Never be afraid of being fired for the right reason. I have been ‘unwelcomed’ because of my convictions, but have no regrets about it limiting my career.  It’s a lesson I learned in my 20’s from reading an article by a notable CEO. The name didn’t stick, but the message did,” said Lewisa.  “So, I’ve been the top HR executive five times reporting to the CEO, but have far more enjoyed being a consultant—as I toggled between corporate roles and being an external coach, advisor, and team facilitator—because you get to be a provocateur and more deeply challenge the status quo.”

A strong proponent of HR and a passionate presenter on the topic of disruption, Lewisa is also a grounded realist when it comes to her profession in the post-Covid era.

“Bluntly, I think there is a time and place for everything. During the pandemic, there was a lot of panic, so HR was at the table strategically—as the advisor, as the therapist, as the consultant, really, as the everything to everyone,” said Lewisa. “Being everything to everybody wore a lot of us down. That led to a whole lot of burnout in HR. For a while, everybody wanted HR, like we were a secret weapon.”

“Then, after the pandemic, for the last year, there has been a slow down. The barometer is the economic necessity, so it can really be boom or bust. HR is important when there is a crisis, but when there’s not a crisis, that HR need isn’t there in the same way,” said Lewisa.  “We have to be more proactive in constantly maintaining our relevance and figure out what that looks like outside of a crisis—because we are definitely relevant when there is a crisis.”

While an equally strong proponent of HR learning to ride that ebb and flow of relevance with a greater degree of acceptance and humility, Lewisa herself knows what it feels like to go from the thick of things to the supply closet.

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“We can be too much of a good thing. As HR professionals, we know when we are relevant, but we need to know when to be irrelevant too, at least from the stakeholders’ perspective—in a positive way, out of the spotlight, but not out of the loop. We need to deploy those energies towards quieter efforts and get our egos out of the way,“ said Lewisa. “I want to send a message that timing is everything and we need to watch where the wind blows. So when there is a crisis and we ARE relevant, we really need to capitalize on that for when we are not.”

As for tapping those pent up HR energies to maximum effect? Enter positive disruption as the means of HR not only staying on the board, but charting fresh organizational opportunities in the process.

“Being needed in the midst of crisis is like an adrenaline hit for HR and we can get addicted to that, but we can’t create crises just to satisfy ourselves,” Lewisa said. “That’s why I am a proponent of disruption in the first place because it satisfies that need and, done right, serves the business imperatives and the stakeholders too.”

“As a result, I talk a lot about how to make disruption actually work and I have come with Five Cs that lay the foundation,” said Lewisa. “There IS actually a process.”

Clarity of purpose and role: What is your purpose? This will always vary, but I always had a purpose statement as a CHRO. One time it was to help the CEO be the best he could be. Another time it was to help an organization during a build out and acquisition. What is your role? This is equally important, because sometimes an organization wants HR to be shake things up, but sometimes they are just looking for administration—and that’s okay too. Knowing your role in the context of where the business is key.

Credibility to build upon: Establishing credibility with quick wins in your role is key to being a disruptor or catalyst for change. You need a very clear 100-day plan and longer term vision. What are you going to achieve within 30 days, the first 60 days and what is your one, two, three year road map? Be very clear and able to articulate that to the stakeholders.

Connection is key: Whatever the question is relationships are the answer. Build those connections. Constantly building and nurturing your networks and knowing your allies is critical. Think about it, as HR you hire and fire and are always the “No” person, so building connections in different contexts is key to escaping that stereotype—and that aligns with building that credibility.

Conversations that count with key stakeholders: Figure out how to build conversations that matter to your organization, whether that is with your HR business partners or via the conversations that your team has with the organization. We’re talking about the conversations that happen in meetings formally and informally, but also in your internal HR programs. This is why I think leadership development programs and building out effective managers who embrace smart efficiency is the most important thing that a CHRO does for an organization.

Courage on every occasion: Picking your battles, knowing your convictions and having the courage to stand by them is never easy, but always required for better or worse. The caveat with courage is to find the right place where your courage is appreciated. Particularly in HR, you have to be able to know when to come onto the stage and when to talk off. At the end of the day, people can feel positive intention. Courage with intention is invaluable and always pays off.

Above all else, Lewisa stresses the importance of picking a purpose with maximum impact on business—and keeping one metric in mind above all else.

“The only HR metric that really matters is revenue per employee, but a lot of HR people don’t like hearing that. We just need to remember that we are a cost centre, so our job is to save money or help the organization make money,”” said Lewisa. “Make the business KPIs the HR KPIs because if the business is not successful, then neither are you.

As to where HR professional might look to serve their organizations best in the relative, post-Covid calm, Lewisa looks to a future far more fraught with challenge than she feels many organizations have yet recognized—a future workplace with augmented technologies replacing even further swaths of the workforce.

“Large organizations are getting ready for the major disruption of large segments of employees becoming irrelevant—quietly upscaling, quietly downsizing, quietly closing businesses and portfolios that don’t make sense anymore,” said Lewisa. “There is a stat bouncing around that 50 per cent of current jobs will be irrelevant in 10 years. This is a burning platform for us as HR professionals. Disrupt or be disrupted.”

“We need to be able to define what those new skills—i.e. knowledge of artificial intelligence—will be and align development to skill our employees up because our they are going to be obsolete otherwise. And who is going to have to transition them? HR,” she added. “And then, we’ll have to deal with ourselves.”

As for how to go about it, Lewisa is unequivocal.

“There has been a lot of recent investment in areas like DEI, mental health and social awareness, and this is well and good, but people leave bad managers more often than bad jobs or organizations,” said Lewisa. “To me, this puts even greater value on the ROI of real leadership development—strategic thinking, business acumen, managing with backbone and heart. To say that leadership development will pay better dividends across the organization sounds controversial, but the rest really does come along with it you have true leaders leading. Really doubling down on learning and development today is the only way to be ready for what is coming—and already here in many cases.”

Resultantly, she also recommends a flexible and firm focus on talent.

“HR needs to get leaders focused on recruiting the right people—not just bums in seats,” said Lewisa. “This is natural to HR, but we really need to educate organizations about talent—what it is and what the implications of not having the needed talent and skills really are in the short and long term. Above all else, we need to be making the managers into the HR professionals they should be.”

And should you do yourself out of a job in the process, keep calm. Better futures embracing more strategic work always await those who actively create them for others.

“Just remember, our job is to make other people into stars,” said Lewisa. “There is a time to be a star in HR and there is also a time to sit back and let others shine. Particularly in HR, you have to be able to know when to come onto the stage and when to walk off.”