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Prudential's Sekhar Ramaswamy: A Counter-Cultural Approach to Culture Change

How do you drive transformational change in an organization with a strong, entrenched culture and sub-cultures? That was the challenge faced by Prudential seven years ago when the company’s new CEO stated his aspiration that excellence in leadership and talent should move front and center as part of the  company’s external value proposition. 

With well-established talent management programs and practices, Prudential was already a good company for people. However, making a significant leap forward would require establishing a universal talent mindset where business leaders took personal “ownership” of people-related issues. This meant throwing out the traditional HR change management playbook.

At the i4cp 2017 Conference: Next Practices Now (March 20 - 23, 2017), Prudential’s Chief Talent Officer, Sekhar Ramaswamy will explore the counter-cultural approach he and his team took to advance this transformational change, including the guiding principles that grounded the work, some of the key tactics employed, significant achievements and the lessons learned along the way. We had the chance to pose a few questions to Ramaswamy in advance of his session:

For other HR and talent leaders out there who are tasked with transforming their company’s culture at an organization where change traditionally comes slowly, what would you say are the critical factors to address first?

Buy-in at the top of the house is essential. In Prudential’s case, in 2008, we had a new CEO who made it clear that leadership, talent, and culture should be a key part of our business value proposition. He consistently focused on this, and that set the groundwork for leader-led change.

From there we focused on establishing a foundation that helped us prioritize and sequence the change work. We landed on a mission, vision, and guiding principles. These guiding principles included concepts like “don’t boil the ocean” and “minimal process for maximum impact.” Along with senior leaders, we assessed the current state and agreed on the aspirational future. There was quite a bit of internal debate and discussion around these foundational elements, but they have served us well as guideposts over the years.

So, I would underscore the importance of taking the time to get fundamental alignment on what you are trying to achieve and how you plan to get there when undertaking a major change initiative.   

Communication is also essential. I compare change to a political campaign in the sense that you need to be clear, consistent, and stay on message. Get early wins and publicize them. You can’t be everywhere, so you need to identify and build relationships with key allies and influencers and equip them to be your advocates.

How do you successfully make the leap to making business leaders take personal “ownership” of people-related issues? (i.e., how do you get them onboard?)

In our case, with the most senior leaders, it wasn’t just about getting them onboard, but really getting them to co-own and co-lead the transformation. That meant building a clear line of sight from the business agenda to the people agenda. We needed to speak in business terms.

Data was an important part of that—being able to show the impact on business performance for talent best practices, like using assessments as part of hiring, calibration of performance ratings, and participation in leadership development programs, has helped enroll leaders over time. They could see that this wasn’t just soft stuff.                                     

From a tactical standpoint, in the early years we had an advisory committee of business heads who acted as a “Board of Directors” for talent priorities. We also established a group of non-HR leaders who represented each of our businesses and functions and were charged with aspects of implementation in their organizations. We called this group our “Catalysts,” because they were accountable for sparking local change.

On the HR and talent function sides, what is the hardest part of the transition for them?

HR prides itself on its subject-matter expertise, which is certainly understandable, but it can also lead to us being a very insular group. We can forget that ultimately the tools and programs we create need to work for the business leaders and front-line managers who use them.

So we had to reset the mindset that we “know what’s best,” invite our business partners in as co-creators, and listen and learn from them. That has meant moving toward more shared decision making and shared power. It also has meant getting better at working across HR disciplines. Today, it isn’t unusual to have a project team include representation from our learning, staffing, assessment, and engagement groups for example. That wouldn’t have happened seven years ago.

Another big shift has been applying business discipline to HR. It is no longer enough to believe intuitively that a program will work. We need to be prepared to show tangible impact and return on investment. That has meant getting better at measurement and analytics and at expressing ideas in plain English.

Prudential is a compliance-based company, and many people asked for more instruction during this transformation. You purposefully held back—why, and what became of that decision?

The change we were after was more about building a consistent talent mindset than rolling out new and better HR tools and programs. I mentioned our guiding principles earlier—one of them was “seek commitment, not compliance.” Leaders and managers were accustomed to getting directives from HR and were generally pretty good about following them. I call that “HR Homework.” You do the activity to get credit from corporate, not because your heart is in it.

Asking leaders and managers to figure out how, for example, they would roll out our new leadership competencies forced them to really engage with the change on a deeper level. It resulted in more creative approaches that were better suited to the particular business or function.

You’ll talk more about this at the conference, but you’re starting to see results of the work you’ve put in for this massive transformation. What is the result you’re most pleased with?

I think the most gratifying result is the level of ownership and personal accountability for talent that has happened over the past several years. Today, we have leaders who are campus champions, who teach segments of our leadership programs, who mentor high potentials. Talent is a regular topic at Town Hall meetings, and it is often the extended leadership leading these discussions—not HR.

We’ve had situations where people returned to Prudential after leaving the company for another opportunity for several years. Inevitably, they will remark on how dramatically our culture has changed in terms of an increased focus on talent. That’s a tremendously gratifying indicator that we are moving in the right direction.

Erik Samdahl
Erik is the head of marketing at i4cp, and has nearly 20 years in the market research and human capital research industry.