Engineering a turnaround through talent to become a “business of consequence” – interview with Justin Hastings CHRO Experian North America

Engineering a turnaround through talent to become a “business of consequence” – interview with Justin Hastings CHRO Experian North America

Defining and measuring “what great looks like”, while fostering a highly inclusive culture, is how Experian North America’s Chief HR Officer Justin Hastings is aligning HR with the wider business vision to bridge financial inclusion gaps.

By MaryLou Costa

Keeping top talent is set to keep business leaders on their toes as the pandemic closes. 38% of employees in the UK and Ireland are looking to change roles once the economy has picked up again, according to research from HR software company Personio, with The Evening Standard predicting a “war for talent”.

But Experian North America’s Chief HR Officer Justin Hastings has already laid the groundwork before the battle begins. Since he took on the role in 2015, ‘regretted attrition’ (defined as voluntary staff departures that stand to significantly impact the company) has fallen from 17% to 10%, with high performer attrition in the single digit percentages  – well below the US software industry average of 22%.  

Resetting business foundations around leadership capability

Hastings’ talent acquisition and development strategy for Experian North America has had two key pillars – leadership and focusing on specific disciplines.

“When Craig (CEO Craig Boundy) first arrived in North America in 2014, the business was in a more challenged position. It had been contracting, particularly the consumer side of the business, which had been massively disrupted by market shifts,” Hastings recalls.

“And it was almost about rebuilding what the business was about, with a sustainable plan, to create some long-term momentum in driving growth and profit. When I followed Craig a year and a half or so after, one of the first things that was important in resetting the foundation of the business was to instill a stronger leadership capability around product and technology.”

Leaders in a software-based product company, he elaborates, need not only a strong market orientation, but an understanding of applying technology to create products consumers want to interact with. Boosting this required a combination of organic development from within the company and an injection of new talent. 

“We particularly focused on bringing in some great product leadership and some great technology and engineering leadership into the business. And from there, you percolate that down the organisation, and five or six years later, I believe we genuinely have some world class engineering capability in the company,” Hastings claims.

That, he adds, is what has helped Experian innovate, not just from a technical capability perspective, but in embracing agile ways of working in a product environment,  “enabling you to innovate at pace”.

Profiling talent for innovation potential

But how do you identify the right talent characteristics to help drive such innovation? That’s been at the heart of Experian’s partnership with talent strategy consultancy The Chemistry Group, which is responsible for profile assessment of each of the company’s senior recruits. This is against core capabilities like market and industry knowledge, customer insight, innovating for customers, relationship building, collaboration, developing the team, negotiation capability, transferring belief, planning and foresight, improving sales efficiency, and others. 

“One of the areas where Roger and the Chemistry team have helped us is in profiling and assessing talent, whether it’s external talent that we’re thinking about recruiting, or indeed some of our internal talent. Because a lot of the time, you make hiring decisions based on personal judgment, but to have more of this data to help to furnish those judgments is really important,” Hastings reveals.

“They’re looking at some of those characteristics which help us to drive pace in the business. This helps us to make decisions quickly, and to identify whether people are prepared to take on personal accountability, and that they are able to collaborate effectively.” 

Cross-business collaboration is in fact one of the biggest shifts that has taken place within Experian North America over the last five years, he adds, taking it to a place where it can leverage its “component strengths” to “build things for the greater good”.

“10 years ago, that wouldn’t have happened in the company. It was a much more territorial, much more federalised sort of business. Now, we run a fairly similar structure, but what we’ve seen is a real shift in that kind of leadership mentality – that collaboration and sharing is a good thing. That’s been really important,” Hastings explains.

What great looks like

There’s a clear correlation, Hastings believes, in talent Chemistry has profiled and approved against those core capabilities, and leaders who have been promoted and become part of succession plans, earning a reputation as role models within the business, and helping fuel its turnaround. 

“When Chemistry first started working with us, we had come off a period of business contraction. Then, within five years, we were delivering strong revenue growth annually. That’s not to say that’s been entirely down to the intervention of Chemistry, but working with them has been an important part of setting performance and development expectations, and building, measuring and managing capability against that,” affirms Hastings.

This approach has also permeated across departments like sales, engineering, and HR, with a demonstrated link between capability building and performance, and in the reduction of the company’s “miss-hire” rate, ie, hires that don’t work out. 

He gives the examples of sales: “We’ve used Roger and the Chemistry team to work with us over multiple years now to define ‘what great looks like’ in a sales context, at a different level. So here is a telephone based salesperson, versus a strategic account executive who’s working with one of our biggest financial services clients on multiples of millions of dollars of contract value – identifying through a capability framework, what great looks like and the characteristics that underpin that, and being able to measure that over time, as well.”

Becoming a “business of consequence”

Such traction across talent recruitment and development is how HR as a function plays its part in realising CEO Craig Boundy’s vision of Experian as a “business of consequence”. Known for his laser-focused leadership style, it’s one that he has purveyed across the company so effectively, that, if you “asked anybody in the organisation the couple of things that are the most important, you’ll get a fairly consistent answer”, Hastings reckons.

As a “business of consequence”, Experian  sees its purpose in breaking down barriers to social and financial inclusion, with future growth tied to products driven by those principles. For example, in the application of expanded data to create credit scoring for those who “have been underserved by the banking system”, or helping consumers to take control of their own personal data to improve their credit score, such as with the Experian Boost product.

“In some of the issues we’re hearing more of around social justice, we’ve felt ourselves being more deliberate and even maybe more courageous about pushing this idea of us being a ‘business of consequence’. We have an important role to play in helping to drive greater levels of economic equity into underprivileged or underserved communities,” declares Hastings.

“It’s about improving the way in which consumers can use data to improve their personal positions, whether it’s getting access to credit, to buy a car, or sofa or a house, or putting your kids through college, or improving your interactions with the healthcare system – there’s a whole range of things we do, which are all intended to improve consumers’ lives.”

It’s crucial that this philosophy is reflected in an inclusive environment internally, which is another priority area for Hastings as a leader.

“Ultimately, what I’ve been trying to do over the last five years has been to build a culture where everybody in the company feels like they have a voice that is worth listening to. We talk a lot about bringing your whole self to work, creating an organisation where the diversity of thinking, the cognitive diversity of the organisation, is incredibly valued,” he says.

“Everybody feels they can be authentic, whether you’re white, black, Asian, gay, straight, female, male, military veteran, whatever it might be, whatever dimension that forms part of who you are, you should feel free to express yourself authentically in the workplace, and feel respected and safe.”

Beyond Experian’s high performance culture, creating that sense of inclusion, Hastings argues, doesn’t just help it win the war on talent, it helps nurture ideas. And the more of those that are generated, the greater Experian’s ability to innovate – and realise its ambition of being a true “business of consequence”.

TAKEAWAYS

  • Experian North America’s  growth is due in part to attracting and leadership talent with innovation capabilities.
  • Such traction across talent recruitment and development is how HR as a function plays its part in realising CEO Craig Boundy’s vision of Experian North America as a “business of consequence”.
  • This means breaking down barriers to social and financial inclusion, with future growth tied to products driven by those principles.
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