CHRO Michele Hamill on why now is the time to make big and bold transformational moves

5 minute read

If you can invest now it's a great time to do so...and culture is the secret sauce, says Michele Hamill. She should know. As CHRO at the world's largest procurement software company JAGGAER, she has been involved in a number of mergers and acquisitions during downturns. She shares how HR can learn from M&A to help it navigate these difficult times



About Michele Hamill

Michele Hamill is chief human resources officer at JAGGAER, the world’s largest independent spend-management company. She joined in October 2019 and has over 25 years’ experience in all aspects of human resources management and has led major business transformations. Before joining JAGGAER, she was CHRO for Distinguished Programs and, prior to this, she led the North American talent function for Willis Towers Watson. She has previously held several leadership roles with Thomson Reuters, including vice president, global head of HR, corporate and vice president, talent & organizational effectiveness. She was also an executive coach to several high-potential executives at Under Armour. Earlier in her career, Michele held leadership roles with TAC Worldwide and Computer Sciences Corporation. She has held several board positions including Literacy Volunteers and holds a BS in Sociology from Charter Oak State College.

Edited transcript

Michele Hamill: Many companies are looking at cutting costs right now in response to the pandemic. And some companies don't have a choice in the matter. Depending on the industry, they might've been so greatly impacted, that's the only alternative to really surviving in this period. However, if you are in a position where you can invest in growth, it's an ideal time to invest in growth and apply some of the lessons learned. As I think back, a lot of the things that were challenging in previous acquisitions you have an opportunity to do differently now because we're driving more agility in the marketplace. We're attending to culture differently now. We're communicating differently now. And all of those are key enablers of successful acquisitions. So the climate, even as unfortunate - that's probably a soft word - but as unfortunate as it is, there's a silver lining in all of that because we're building skills, organizational capability, as a result that are tied very directly to some of the key learnings from previous acquisitions.

Just going back in my background a little bit, I spent 13 years with Thomson and led change and transformation for the Reuters acquisition. And Thomson primarily grew over that period of time through acquisition and divestiture. So it was a key growth strategy. And over that period, over a decade, we saw upturns and downturns in the market.

And one of the lessons learned from that I think we've been able to continue to apply at Jaggaer is that even while there is a downturn, it's an opportunity to make very big and bold transformational moves There's possibilities around, better valuation in the market, rebalancing your portfolio.

And so in fact I have seen the data that shows holistically that M&As have slung down. I think it's somewhat dependent on the space that people are in. So in our particular space, we've been less impacted by the pandemic because we are involved in supply chain. And in that particular space, the M&A activity has been quite dynamic. Some large acquisitions were announced last week. I know Jaggaer has consistently identified and are evaluating targets still. So I feel optimistic, not only for the macro environment but for Jaggaer as a whole and people in the procurement space that companies who are able to do acquisitions now will come out of it faster and accelerate the upturn.

When I think about what lends to success in an acquisition, culture is in my view probably the secret sauce. The key component. When I've seen acquisitions fail, it's almost always because culture wasn't attended to and it's not just with acquisitions, it's with any change. And so if you think about good change management practices, culture should be first and foremost, and there's so many dimensions to culture that we've learned along the way.

And Jaggaer's position has been to really develop what I would call a very deliberate and precise playbook with the elements of culture identified, even in the identification of the target phase to assess the likelihood of the cultural integration. And so we have a framework to look at things like what's embedded in the organization around risk taking or decision-making, how they communicate with each other, talent assessment, how they organize, their values. Jaggaer is a very values-based organization and we use that in every meeting, every interaction and to be able to use that as a framework allows us to then understand how close we are or how far we are, but more importantly, what we have in common.

So Jaggaer came together really as the result of three acquisitions itself. So there was SciQuest, there was BravoSolution in Italy, and then there was Pool4Tool in Vienna and looking back, in our previous private equity owner there wasn't a lot of attention paid to the cultural integration. So we've learned strongly that paying attention and attending to that in the acquisition phase is much easier than going back later and trying to push it back in. And so it now has a very prominent role. Typically it would have been what are the synergy targets and what are the revenue possibilities and how will the processes and technologies integrate? I think now there's a strong understanding and value in the fact that all of that has to be wrapped up with people and culture.

When you think about when HR should be brought in during the acquisition phase, there are distinct phases in an acquisition. There's the pre phase, which is where you're looking at targets and evaluating targets. And then the multiple phases of that playbook. So what is the strategy around the acquisition? What are the desired outcomes of the acquisition? Then you get into the how and the what and the who. A lot of companies involve HR in the last phase, which is that internal execution phase. So it's, oh my gosh we need to change over their benefits scheme, for example. or should we do title harmonization - things like that. That's really so far after the fact of where HR can add value.

At Jaggaer we're involved even in the early phases of the identification of targets. So we look at things like structure, their talent assessment, their role framework, their compensation framework - because as much of that you can harmonize in the early phases the faster you're able to integrate. And the faster you're able to integrate, typically your engagement and retention goes up.

Jaggaer has been quite clear about the values-based behavior that we feel is not only important in this climate, but to who we want to be as an organization. I had the good fortune to join Jaggaer in October of 2019 as we were changing over private equity owners. So it was an amazing opportunity to work with Jim Bureau, the CEO who was newly appointed to his role, to not only shape the executive team but to decide how we want it to shape the culture and shape the values and for us. And then we ran right into COVID. t became even more important.

We have, I would say, some of the typical values you would hear, accountability certainly being one, but there's three that really, for me, come to mind very strongly: one being empathy, the other being humility and the third being transparency, and with transparency comes ways in which we communicate differently. But we believe if you enter every meeting or every interaction with empathy and a sincere desire, whether it's your customer or colleague, to understand where they're coming from, that it's going to lead to a better outcome.

And humility creates that foundation for listening. and I believe that the company is seeing the consistency in our behavior, and that's where we're experiencing some of that trust being built. Trust has to underlie every culture. And if the behaviors aren't consistent with that, so there's even a member of policy changes that we've made to demonstrate that we are empathetic, even where we've had to move positions to save money, to lower cost locations. We've changed the way employee transitions are done knowing that it's going to be hard to get a job, knowing that there's a lot of uncertainty. So we've tried to create certainty even amongst all of the uncertainty.

And then the transparency piece, and this goes back to acquisitions, I don't think you can emphasize enough how important it is to communicate openly and as often as you can. And trust people that they too can handle difficult messages. Be honest with people and share what you can when you can in an authentic way. And I think that leads to the other leadership behaviors I believe will become more important, which are adaptability, agility, and resilience. If we, as leaders can't be resilient, it will be very difficult to bring other people through what is a difficult time.

Along with the communication piece, one thing we are doing with acquisitions, which came from a lesson learned but it is another emerging best practice, is to actually assign an advocate. So we have a dedicated advocate assigned to the company that we're acquiring because we're empathetic. We get it. It's hard. People don't know if they're going to have jobs. They don't know what this means. They don't know Jaggaer. T hey don't know if they're going to have the same manager at the same job. That's a lot to take on.

So if you can assign an advocate, they can also be the voice and the bridge to help them affiliate with the organization and provide ways for them to learn and connect. We feel that's very beneficial.

Published 26 November 2020
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