An HR Icon Reflects on Retirement

Randy MacDonald talks about his decision to step down as senior vice president of HR for IBM, his preparation beforehand, and the profession he has championed -- and critiqued -- throughout his career.

Thursday, May 30, 2013
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The announcement earlier this month that Randy MacDonald would be stepping down, effective June 1, as senior vice president of human resources for IBM marks a loss, not only for IBM, but for the entire HR profession. In his 42-year career, the last 13 with IBM, MacDonald has been an outspoken champion of a bolder, more strategic HR, a function far surpassing the administrative-support roles of the past and one in which human resource executives lead their organizations as change agents who know the business and can further its objectives and goals through human capital.

In a note to her leadership team upon his announcement, IBM Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer Ginni Rometty called MacDonald "a treasured asset for three IBM CEOs [and] an innovator [who] has continuously pushed us to anticipate major shifts -- in the process, stepping up to some of the most important workforce challenges of our time."

"Randy's innovative approaches have become a model," she writes, "not just for businesses, but for entire societies. In all cases, he helped us maintain our essential values."

MacDonald -- a Fellow of the National Academy of Human Resources, member of Cornell University's Center for Advanced Human Resources Study and past chairman of the HR Policy Association's board of directors -- was featured on the cover of Human Resource Executive ® when he was named HRE's 2008 HR Executive of the Year. In that story, he described himself as being "uncomfortable with the status quo," a man who is "always looking for how to do something better."

Six years earlier, in a 2002 Q&A with HRE Managing Editor Kristen B. Frasch -- at a time when strategic HR leadership was more of a burgeoning ideal than the reality it is now becoming in many organizations and within many HR circles -- MacDonald spoke with passion and intensity about the "courage of conviction" he saw HR leaders in need of if they're to see themselves as change agents instead of administrative personnel. " ... [A] lot of HR people ... live in a cocoon, comfortable with the support [role]," he said then. "We can't be afraid to speak up for change and for what's right, or what's wrong."

Frasch and MacDonald recently joined up for another Q&A -- this time surrounding his reflections and perceptions as he bids adieu to the profession he has had an instrumental part in raising to a new standard.

HRE: In your words, how would you describe your legacy?

RM: I've had the honor to be one of many who set out to move the HR profession forward. In my 42-year career, I've witnessed our profession's evolution from an administrative function to one viewed globally as a critical part of the success of the enterprise today. To be part of that evolution, to affect it in some way, has been a great privilege for me personally.

HRE: How has this evolution played out for you at IBM specifically?

RM: The opportunity IBM gave me -- to allow creativity and innovation to flourish, to take risks and push -- not just the profession forward, but the business too -- is one of the things I will always treasure in my career. Companies like IBM give HR professionals the platform to integrate the needs of various constituents -- and to do so through innovation, creativity and persistence. It was a great ride.

HRE: What can you tell us about your succession plan leading up to the selection of Diane Gherson?

RM: I believe that any leader of any enterprise should start thinking about succession the day [he or she] enters the job. So for me, that started on my first day at IBM, when I set out to continue the transformation of our HR function -- and to make sure we continued to become an integral part of making the enterprise more leading-edge.

HRE: How does one go about doing that?

RM: One way you get that is by creating the opportunity for people to succeed, to take risks, to be innovative. Diane has had those opportunities and has proven she has what it takes to lead this function. She is operationally savvy and creative. She has the ability to deliver and to collaborate across the function as well as the business. And she has an insatiable appetite for learning and for taking bold risks. All that reflects well on Diane personally and on the process.

HRE: What one or two things are you going to emphasize to her as you hand over the reins?

RM: I like to keep things pretty simple, and I've told her: "Your skills, competence and experiences permitted you to be appointed to this role -- use them, apply them. But in the end, while those are important, trust your instinct. Instinctive leadership can trump experiential learning any day of the week."

HRE: What are the most significant changes you've seen in the HR profession in your tenure?

RM: Not too long ago, when reading the annual report from just about any company, you would find the same line in the last paragraph of the last page: "Our people are our most important asset." What pleases me is I now find that sentence showing up in the first paragraph of the first page. But beyond the annual report, I think companies truly believe that, just as we do at IBM. [That belief] is reflective of the importance of attracting, developing and retaining top talent as a differentiator of any enterprise.

HRE: Has there been any one catalyst behind this change?

RM: What's really happened is that, while delivering new technologies, or some new software functionality, or while rolling out a new process to help employees become more productive remains important, leaders have truly recognized the importance of talent in the algorithm of delivering superior results for the enterprise.

HRE: What would you say is the state of innovation and business leadership in the HR profession today?

RM: I tend to use the metaphor of business as the Olympics. If you asked me that question a decade ago, I would say that, while HR was a competitor in Olympic events, the profession never won a medal. Today, I think, more and more, we make it to the platform. I know we haven't won the gold yet; I'd like to think perhaps the silver, certainly the bronze. Winning medals is important, but the ultimate is the gold -- and I don't think we are quite there yet.

HRE: What does it take to, as you say, win the gold medal in HR?

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RM: To win the gold, we need more courage in our convictions, more sense of urgency and persistence combined with a level of practicality. Many in the HR profession espouse change, but they don't actually change themselves -- and that is just a shame. We can tell others what to be or do, but we don't change. In a sense, it is that feeling that drives me, to constantly innovate and transform -- change yourself, your function, your profession, your company -- constantly. So ... I guess you can say I am not sure I ever want us to win gold, lest we let our guard down and stop challenging ourselves, our profession and the enterprises we serve.

HRE: Was there a particular business event that you felt most significantly shaped your career in HR and approach to HR leadership?

RM: I wouldn't call out a specific event, but rather the people I've interacted with. I've been lucky enough to have a series of mentors and leaders who I've learned so much from. In each one, there are attributes I aimed to emulate -- and deficiencies I aimed to avoid -- in myself. Simply put, leaders shaped my career -- and my parents pushed me through their encouragement to always stretch beyond what is expected. That combination gave me the drive, the enthusiasm and the arrogance (yes, arrogance) to want to make a difference and to add value to the HR function, the enterprise and -- in some small way -- society.

HRE: Based on everything you've seen and experienced, what would you cite as the key attributes of extraordinary HR leadership?

RM: First, you have to have the operational understanding of the business and apply your functional expertise. You have to think like -- and be -- a business professional who happens to specialize in HR.

Second, you have to be solutions-oriented; don't just focus on identifying problems; get out ahead of what is happening in the world so your business can lead change and not become a victim of it.

Third, you need to get out of planning and into execution, and be accountable by delivering what you say you will deliver.

Finally, [extraordinary HR leadership] comes down to understanding that human behavior is dynamic, and HR must therefore be focused on continual learning. As a person responsible for a global population of people, you have to be collaborative and break down barriers to diversity. I am not talking about our traditional definitions of diversity -- but rather "cultural diversity." As the world gets smaller, the cultural divide will get bigger -- I am excited to see how the HR leaders of the future find new and innovative ways to close that divide. I know there are many leaders up for that challenge -- and that opportunity. In the end, their companies and institutions will be better for it.

HRE: What are your plans for retirement?

RM: I've learned something already about retirement. Everyone expects you to have a plan. Everyone expects you to be the same person, with the same energy, enthusiasm, commitment and loyalty.

When I started in the HR profession many decades ago, I knew someday I wanted to be the top person in a major corporation. I never expected it to be at IBM. And in some ways, looking back at my 42 years, I am surprised -- certainly grateful -- I ended up here.

As I embark on retirement, I look forward to new challenges, new opportunities and continued happiness. My guess is -- as I look back on my retirement in the next few years, just as I look back today on my 42-year career -- I'll know a little more about what all that means.

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