The Next Big Question

Episode 21
Hosted by: Anthony Congi and Liz Ramey

Janice Deskus

CHRO

Staples

Janice Deskus is currently CHRO at Staples, Inc. Her previous experience includes global HR leadership at Medtronic and Aetna. She is also an experienced Board member with 5 years of service at American Eagle Financial Credit Union.

How Should C-level Executives Influence the Enterprise?


AUGUST 8, 2022

Janice Deskus, CHRO of Staples, joins the podcast to discuss leading and influencing the business from her role in the C-suite. Listen as she shares how HR leaders bring a different perspective than anyone else in the room and how to earn – and keep – a seat at the decision-making table. Janice explains why HR leaders are “full-fledged” business leaders in all respects and how the future of C-suite leadership involves staying holistically informed and not limiting yourself to your functional role.

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Liz Ramey (00:13):

Welcome to The Next Big Question, a podcast with senior business leaders sharing their vision for tomorrow, brought to you by Evanta, a Gartner company.

Each episode features a question with C-suite executives about the future of their roles, organizations, and industries. Thanks for listening. I’m your host, Liz Ramey.

Now, let’s hear what today’s Next Big Question is. On this episode, I have a co-host, Anthony Congi. Anthony is a Content Manager here at Evanta, a Gartner company, and specializes in CHRO content. 

Today, Anthony and I discuss the question, “How should C-level executives influence the enterprise?” We discuss this question with Janice Deskus, the Chief Human Resource & Communications Officer at Staples. We talk to Janice about her influence from the vantage point of the role of a CHRO, as well as the vantage point of a C-level executive, in general.

We dive into questions about power, and influence, and the executive’s responsibility to the future enterprise. Now, let’s hear what Janice has to say about this question.

Liz Ramey (01:34):

So, Janice, thank you so much for being a part of the show. 

Janice Deskus (01:38):

Yeah, great to be here. Thanks for having me. 

Liz Ramey (01:40):

We're really excited to talk to you today about a question that I think is going to be really relevant across the C-suite. And that is, how should C-level executives influence the enterprise? And I think that you take a really great and unique standpoint from the CHRO's perspective. And so I'm anxious and curious to dig in and hear about your experiences being a C-level executive. So, I want to start out by asking you just about your experience, kind of your career and leading up to the position that you have right now as a CHRO. 

Janice Deskus (02:20):

Yeah, sure. So I knew very early on, all the way back in college days that I wanted to go down the path of human resources. I loved the combination of psychology and business, really intrigued me. So I knew very early on sort of the path that I wanted to go on and was pretty single-mindedly focused on that. However, I did leave HR early in my career for about three years, and I went into non-HR roles, everything from supplier diversity, purchasing, to start-up facilities. And I was a foreman back when they called it foreman on the shop floor in aerospace and a number of other things. And then that really helped give me a nice indication of the business side that I could then use as I applied it to my HR career going forward. 

After that, for me, it was about diversity. It was wanting to get a lot of different roles within the HR function, getting exposure to a lot of different projects. So a lot of different aspects of the lifecycle of any business. And then, ultimately over the years, really also being able to accumulate a few different industry perspectives, which I think has only served to help me. And then just throw on top of that, through all that, a number of different leaders, right? And the diversity of the type of leader that you're working with really helps to strengthen your HR sort of functional skill sets as well. So, I think that diversity of experience, that business focus that I've had is really sort of what led me to want to want to be in the seat that I'm in today, and then ultimately to be best positioned to actually get the seat. 

Anthony Congi (03:58):

Janice, I'd love to know about your individual journey now at Staples, being the CHRO, and getting to that point of influence and point of power in that table. So kind of talk to us – what does that look like for your organization, specifically, and how do you operate with other executives as well? 

Janice Deskus (04:15):

Yeah. So for me, it's been really important through my career, even early on, that I really wanted to work with leaders of all levels who understood and appreciated the HR function. And in many cases, I was lucky that I walked in and was presented with that type of leader who just expected me to be a full, functioning member of the business. In other cases, I've had to show leaders what's possible when you encourage and allow HR to be sort of at the table, if you will. And so, as I've gotten further into my career and have more choice around where I work, etc., that's definitely been a key selection for me to make sure that the leaders I'm going to work with have that orientation. And I've been really lucky here at Staples, in particular, all the way back to when the chairman interviewed me. It was clear to me that Sycamore Partners, our private equity owner, really felt that HR should be at the table. Our chairman felt that way, and ultimately the CEO and the C-suite that I worked with. So, I was lucky to kind of walk into a situation where they expected that of me. And it was a bit of - it was mine to lose, if you will. 

Liz Ramey (05:30):

So, you know, it sounds as if you haven't had a whole lot of obstacles getting that kind of respect and that seat at the table. But that doesn't always happen for other CHROs. What would you say, you know, what kind of advice would you give other CHROs who are struggling to really earn that respect within an organization? 

Janice Deskus (05:52):

So as I say, I've been lucky and even selective in choosing the leaders I work with. But I have had leaders who did not expect it. I've had leaders who said, ‘hey, we'll come up with the strategy, and I want HR to be here to fill the order.’ And so I had to really work hard to make sure that that person understood that I could do more than just fill the order. I could bring a different perspective and maybe a unique perspective than anyone else around the room has. So, if you're in a position, whether it's CHRO or any C-suite level role where you're not feeling that you are able to influence or don't have that seat at the table, there are -- to me, there's a number of things you can do. 

The first one is sort of your own perspective or your mindset, and that is, just assume you should be at the table, right. And so if there are meetings that you're not invited to, within appropriate guidelines, of course, right, you should find a way to get yourself in those meetings. And then when you're there, make sure you're informed -- and you don't have to have all the answers, right. So it doesn't mean, especially if you're an HR person and you go into, I don't know, you make it up, an engineering meeting, and you don't have the technical depth. Of course you don't. But what you have is the ability to ask questions and to inquire. And then as a result of that, you inform yourself, and you find your own gaps, and then you find ways to fill those gaps so that when you come back in the next time, you might have actually an informed position or perspective or opinion that you can share. And you build it up over time. And people then come to see that you're not just there as the HR person, but you're a full fledged business leader just as much as any other C-suite. And again, I'd say that for any C-level executive, not just CHROs. 

Anthony Congi (07:33):

Janice, you mentioned the word ‘gap.’ And I would love to know because you said you wanted to show that you belonged at the table and also want to be collaborative in the entire enterprise, what were the gaps in your own knowledge and how did you maybe recognize and then remedy those gaps? 

Janice Deskus (07:48):

For me, the never ending gap is around financials. I do not have an MBA. My background is all psychology, so it's something that I have always felt a need to continue to learn. And so, whether it's here at Staples or anywhere in my career, when I'm in a room, and there's a financial conversation going on and there are elements of it that I just don't understand or don't think I understand as well as I should, I usually go in to my CFO, who I have a great partnership with and say, so we talked about you name it - could be PE ratio, it could be any element of the financials, the P&L, etc. That's not as clear. Or why did we make a particular decision and what were the trade offs of it? And he's great, he's a great partner, and you know he'll really help fill me in. And the other thing is quite frankly Google it, and a lot of the time that gives you 90% of what you need. So I know more on the financials than I give myself credit for, but I'm always trying to build that skillset. 

The other one that I tried to fill and have filled fairly well in the last few years is really around private equity. I was very curious about private equity after having worked in public companies for most of my career. And so coming in here over the last three and a half years and just learning how that world works, what drives it, priorities has just been fascinating. And so I'm really I'm pleased with, one, the ability that I had to be able to learn about PE, and also how my chairman, now CEO, has really sort of embraced and kind of pulled me in to give me a little bit of a peek behind the curtain or to that world maybe more than normally would happen. 

Liz Ramey (09:33):

So, Janice, for many C-level executives, the pandemic really kind of positioned them in a different light within the organization, in particular, CHROs. You know, the enterprise has really shifted in how they view people, and you are essentially the people leader. So just curious as far as that position of influence, position of power, that many CHROs were essentially propelled into, you've had it for a while. You know, how can CHROs maintain this level of influence as we slowly start to get out of this pandemic world? 

Janice Deskus (10:18):

Yeah, so I mean, the first thing is to be intentional, right? Don't just assume that because you've had a greater voice and maybe more influence and even just more air time over the last couple of years that that's going to continue going forward. Don't rely on the pandemic for your position. Rather, I would say, is – use the pandemic in the position that you are in currently to ensure that you're involved on the upfront of the development of the strategy for your organization, pandemic or no pandemic. Make sure that you are active, as I mentioned earlier, asking questions, being informed, staying up to speed on what's happening in your own organization, but also externally, and bringing in information and resources that really add to the conversation. And I think it's also starting to shift away from the pandemic conversation as much as possible. I think it's going to be with us for a while, so it'll be there. But does it have to be as front and center? Instead, let's talk about the strategy and the org structure aligned to that strategy. What's the future of our workforce? What does the digital workplace look like? There are lots of areas that HR can continue to play as loud a voice and as powerful a voice as it has in the last couple of years. But you've got to be thoughtful about it and not just find yourself a year or two years from now saying, I wish the pandemic were back, and I were in that seat again. 

Anthony Congi (11:45):

So, Janice, now that folks are, let's say, at this table and hopefully continuing to be so, I'd like to talk now a little bit more about – thinking to move the enterprise forward and those experiences that each individual person brings. So, as a C-level executive, making those critical decisions on the direction of the enterprise. How do you come to the table ready to make those informative decisions to really influence the business as a whole? 

Janice Deskus (12:09):

Yeah, I mean, there's a number of ways, and it takes work. You can't sit back and expect to be influential at the C-level table or the boardroom or any of those level of conversation. You've got to be informed. And for me, there's a number of ways that you do that. It's everything from a lot of reading. So whether it's The Wall Street Journal or understanding what's happening in the political environment and the impact on your business and the economy and your industry, etc.. Reading industry journals. Making sure that you're attending investor calls for your competitors or other key companies out there where you can learn more about what's happening in the environment. 

For me, where I learn a lot as well is traveling with my CEO and making sure I'm getting out there, and one, seeing how he's engaging with the organization. What are the issues that are top of mind of our workforce? Skip level meetings, right? Talking to your employees. So it's really that fulsome, 360 all of the external sort of information that's available to you, as well as the internal, and bring that together to really make sure that you are as informed as possible. So when you're sitting there at that table, you are adding value and again, you have an informed viewpoint. You don't always sort of win the day, if you will, but you have an opportunity to come in and share an informed set of views as well as ask really good questions that may get the rest of the organization to an even better place. 

Liz Ramey (13:42):

I love that, Janice. It's so interesting. And I want to ask kind of a side question to that, staying informed. You know, you've said two different things that really struck me. One, diversity, your diversity of experience that you're building and probably continuing to build upon. And then, of course, your unique perspective. Are there unique things that you read aside from what other C-level executives are probably reading as well, to help inform you, to help give you a different perspective? You know, as an example, I read a lot of fiction. And when I'm talking with my teammates, even about business, I try to apply the lessons that I learn in fictional books to real-life decision making. 

Janice Deskus (14:32):

Mm hmm. Yeah. So for me, you know, there's a lot of ways that I try to stay informed. I've mentioned a number of them here previously, but on a more personal level, I like to read biographies and in particular biographies of historic women. And, you know, one of my favorites that I just can't read enough about is Eleanor Roosevelt as an example. And she just has brought to me a number of lessons, both in terms of my own leadership style, but also I think it gave me perspective into a world where, in this case, women. She was in leadership, right? She had a great opportunity, and she really utilized that. But she had a lot of adversity and how she overcame that in a time when it was very difficult for women to have a voice. So there are a lot of ways I think you can be informed. I think for each of us, it's really incumbent upon us to figure out sort of what are our gaps, what are the things that we need help with, where might we have blindspots? And go out and find those resources. So what may work for me may not work for someone else. It really just depends on what it is you're trying to inform yourself. Or it could even be what is it that your business is trying to accomplish, right? And go and find the resources that are going to best contribute to that. 

Liz Ramey (15:50):

Absolutely. I love Eleanor Roosevelt. She's just so she's such a fantastic female figure in history. So, you know, but speaking of that, you know, you're a very informed person. Like you said, it's so important to be asking the right questions and really influencing your other C-level partners in the questions and information that you're bringing to the table. So, what sort of influence do you have on these other C-level executives and their decisions? And how do you guide them to make sure that, you know, I think you said in a previous conversation that they're in the game, too? 

Janice Deskus (16:30):

100%. And so, I think all C-suite level folks have the opportunity to influence one another in terms of our own development, our own effectiveness, etc. But certainly the CHRO has sort of been appointed that role in many respects, right? It's sort of expected that we do that. So, I kind of walking in the door, folks expect me to be playing that role. And the way that I play it is multiple ways. They're formal ways, of course, through performance management and all of those types of things. But I think actually the more effective way, especially at the most senior levels of an organization, is the informal approach. And so I, while certainly participating in whatever the conversation at hand is in a room, I also have an eye towards kind of the effectiveness of the individuals, the effectiveness of the team, and what are some opportunities that we might have to be better going forward. And the way that I typically approach that is not to provide people with feedback after every single meeting, but rather to look for trends and opportunities where it might be helpful. And usually what I've done leading up to those kinds of conversations with folks is to have built good personal relationships. So there's trust there. They know that I'm there for the benefit of the larger organization, as well as for them as an individual. And you know, the conversation is between the two of us. And so usually it's behind closed doors where we talk about either a gap or a strength in many cases, and how they can further leverage a strength that they might have and just give some general advice about how we might move to the next level for whatever that means for the individual at hand. 

Anthony Congi (18:19):

Janice, I'm curious, when there's so many influential people in the room, you know, we've all heard the saying, you know, so many cooks in the kitchen, so to speak. Is there a competition for that influence or power? 

Janice Deskus (18:29):

I mean, there always are here and there. I think every organization is a little different. Some are more, if you will, political, power-oriented than others. I'm fortunate where I am today that it's less of that than I've seen in some of my other companies. But it's there. I mean, it's in every company for certain -- and it's in every person, oh, by the way, if you're sitting at the C-suite, there's probably some interest in power somewhere along the lines for you. So, you know, the best way to handle that, I think, starts at the top. So, in you know, in our case here, it's with our chairman, CEO, and kind of coming in from a leadership perspective, setting the tone around his expectations of teaming and partnership and collaboration and not reinforcing any one particular person's position of power, but understanding that the collective is much better than the individual. 

And so, that starts at the top. I mean, once you get past that, then it's really about making sure that the organization has a common purpose, vision, strategy, whatever you want to refer to it as that we're all coalescing around. And with that, it makes it more difficult for any one person to kind of be more powerful, if you will, than others. They all need to come together in order to affect that strategy. And if anyone's trying to do that independent of the rest of the group, it's probably not going to be supported. And quite frankly, those kinds of behaviors just don't get tolerated for very long. And then the last thing I guess I would say is sort of accountability, making sure that people are held accountable for their good behaviors when they're supporting the broader organization and strategy and all of that. And then, of course, there's always the rare, hopefully, occasion where, you know, they're not, and we have to obviously address that. But most people are pretty coachable and get where they need to be in these situations with a little bit of just course correction. 

Anthony Congi (20:25):

I'd actually love to follow up on that. So if you do need to do some type of course correction, obviously, you being the CHRO, what is that conversation like? 

Janice Deskus (20:33):

Yeah, it's usually very direct. Make sure that you treat people with respect, of course. But you’ve got to be honest with people about what are they doing well and then what's not working. And give very specific examples because most of the time people don't get to watch themselves and replay to see how they behaved and how they came across. You also have to be inquiring about why people might be behaving a certain way because it may be something completely different than what you're assuming. We might think that it's because the person wants a position of power or is looking for more resources or whatever the issue is. But in fact, it may be that they're feeling challenged, that they haven't been able to get the collaboration across the board. 

And so, where you think you might go in that conversation, you might find yourself in a completely different direction and helping to coach that person to get there. And, you know, you want people to be successful, right? Number one, you want your teams to be effective. You want your teams to deliver the strategy and to make the business successful. But number two, it's expensive to recruit new people, especially at the C-suite. So you want to do everything you can to ensure that folks are as successful as possible. And we've set them up that way. And for the most part, people, especially at this level, really do take coaching quite well. And we see the small, sometimes even, changes that are necessary to make them more effective. 

Liz Ramey (21:57):

That's great. Janice, let's shift gears a little bit. And, you know, we've talked about the perspective of the CHRO, and then really kind of digging into, you know, across the C-suite how you can influence what you know, how you can operate. We'd love to just get into this conversation about the future and the future of the enterprise. You know, we have seen, Anthony and I from our standpoint, and I'm sure yours as well, business is changing at an unusually rapid pace. The things around the globe, if it's health or economic or political, social, these big things that have happened are influencing the business deeper and faster than ever. So, how do you think that this is going to impact the way in which the C-suite operates? 

Janice Deskus (22:51):

Yeah, it kind of goes back to what we were talking about a few minutes ago in terms of keeping yourself sort of holistically informed, right. Not just focusing on your function or your business, but really understanding the world that we live in, and all of the pieces and parts that come with it. It used to be that 3 to 5 years ago, maybe, when we talked about external influences on a business, most of the time we were talking about regulations, laws, etc., right? And it was – you could pull out the regulation and read it, and it was pretty darn clear what you needed to do and what you shouldn't be doing. Today, sure, regulations, of course, continue to be important, but now it's really about everything from social and political and, you know, the changes in the culture, workforce expectations, the list goes on and on of all of the things that we need to be aware of as we consider how we're moving our businesses forward. 

You can't stay internally focused any longer, or you won't survive. So again, it goes back to the conversation earlier about you need to be a student of the world. You've got to be educated, you've got to be informed about how all of the different influences come to bear, and how are you going to respond. And in some cases, that response may be just in time, because you may not know something is about to change, right? We just lived through the beginnings of the pandemic two years ago, where none of us expected to be where we are today. So, how do you continue to be nimble, informed and just ready to respond to what's happening, but also to be as planful as you can when you can be. 

Anthony Congi (24:34):

You mentioned ‘nimble’ and ‘informed.’ Of course, those are important qualities to have. But I'm kind of curious, do the responsibilities of the C-suite change in the future or how those are going to change? And what do you foresee really? 

Janice Deskus (24:48):

Yeah, I think some of it is the overall balance of work is changing and the focus of work is changing for the C-suite. Again, it used to be managing the enterprise, right? Managing your business. And within that, each of us had a functional set of responsibilities. And that's what we did. We moved forward. Today, it is again so much larger and so many more challenges, consequences, and just considerations in general as you're building out your business strategy and leading. So you cannot just sit back and be a functional leader. You need to be a true enterprise and even world leader at some level to make sure that you really are moving your business ahead with all of those aspects in mind. It's harder. It's more complicated, and it's a lot more work. You cannot sit back and just be the CHRO or the CFO and think that that's the role you're playing. It's much bigger than that today. 

Anthony Congi (25:47):

The next thing is going to happen. You and I have talked about that specifically, Janice. It seems every few months, couple years, whatever it is, something else is going to happen. What would your words of influence be to other executives when that happens? You know, how should they pivot? 

Janice Deskus (26:01):

Yeah, well, hopefully over the last few years, in particular, most of us have built a muscle of more nimbleness, if you will, in the organization. And we know how to respond more quickly and pivot and know that tomorrow could bring a completely different set of situations and expectations even for your organization. And how do you mobilize the organization around that? I think, for most leaders, part of the opportunity is, one, to build that muscle of being more nimble and agile, but two, also to try to get ahead where you can. So where there are knowns, take advantage of them, right, and get out and be a leader. And whether, again, that's outside of your organization and you have a position on a particular issue and whatnot, you should be able to go forward and really represent what that is and make sure that you're driving the needs of your business and hopefully the organization as a whole going forward. Otherwise, I think – what we can't do is we can't sit back and just say ‘we can't control anything anymore.’ No, there are things we can control. Let's go after that, and let's make sure that we're getting what we need from that. And then let's just be ready to be able to pivot on a dime when necessary. 

Liz Ramey (27:18):

That's great. I think you've given us an idea for an entirely new episode. We could talk and talk and talk about this. And, you know, just the changes in the C-suite, the complexities of your role in the C-suite. It's just fascinating. Janice, we have two more questions for you. And one is actually from our last guest, who was Kurt John. He's the CISO at Siemens. And we always like to have our C-level executive guests pose a question to our guests, and then we're going to ask you to pose a question. So, Kurt asked, you know, he said the private sector owns most of the Internet today. And thinking about the threats that we are facing, how do you as a leader view your responsibility in both protecting our way of life and your obligation to collaborate with external partners, such as the federal government and other private sectors in order to keep protecting us, but allowing us to do the things that we are use to day to day. 

Janice Deskus (28:28):

Yeah, I think, you know, it's really important that organizations and executives within those organizations are really clear on what the purpose of their company is, right. And that's everything from sort of the business purpose, if you will, to the cultural elements of their organization and what they're trying to drive in society and what role they want to play in broader society. And I think once organizations are clear on that purpose, then it becomes much easier to sort of partner with external organizations, whether, again, there are political organizations or societal organizations, whatever it is, to make sure that your voice is heard. Be clear in your purpose, be clear on the voice that you have, and get out in front and make sure that you're heard in partnering with those individuals so that you're not just on the receiving end of whatever it is that's coming at you, but rather, you're there and you're up front and leading and influencing to get to a place where not maybe isn't always exactly where you want to be, but at least you've had the opportunity to influence it. 

Liz Ramey (29:36):

Fantastic. That, you know, is a nice wrap around to the point that you made about the complexity of being a C-suite leader, right. I mean, you know, 100 years ago, this wasn't a question, right? 

Janice Deskus (29:51):

Right. Right. Five years ago, it doesn't seem that it was a question. 

Liz Ramey (29:56):

Exactly. Exactly. Yeah, there's definitely a lot of pressure for organizations these days to have that kind of, like you said, that clear purpose, to voice that clear purpose, right? Yeah. Oh, great. Well, so, Janice, I would love for… to know what you think should be the next big question. 

Janice Deskus (30:20):

Well, it actually fits in beautifully to some of the conversation we've had here today. I would love to hear from others about how organizations can use the lessons from the past couple of years to really help organizations shift further away from that bureaucratic, control-centered organization to one that's much more adaptive, purpose-driven and generally just inspiring. 

Anthony Congi (30:42):

It's a fantastic question. 

Liz Ramey (30:44):

Yeah, that is a fantastic question. Thank you so much for posing that, and I cannot wait to ask that to our next guest. 

Anthony Congi (30:51):

Yes. Thank you so much, Janice. We really appreciate your time and your insight today. I know a lot of people are going to find great value in it. 

Janice Deskus (30:57):

Great. Thank you, guys. It was great fun. I'm glad to have been here. 

Liz Ramey (30:59):

Thanks, Janice. 

Liz Ramey (31:00):

Thank you, again, for listening to The Next Big Question. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. Rate and review the show, so that we can continue to grow and improve. You can also visit Evanta.com to explore more content and learn about how your peers are tackling questions and challenges every day. Connect, learn, and grow with Evanta, a Gartner Company.


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