Some might say that David Stafford has taken an unusual path to his current position at Michelin North America, where he holds a leadership position in human resources. The so-called "unusual" component is that Stafford's background is engineering, not HR, and the majority of his 30-plus year tenure with the tire manufacturer has been in engineering and research and development.
But while "unusual" may hold true among many companies, Stafford suggests the descriptive doesn't quite fit Michelin. "We encourage cross-discipline learning and cross-discipline career paths, and it's been very fruitful for us," he says.
This editor first heard Michelin's CHRO speak at the International Tire Exhibition and Conference in September. We recently caught up with Stafford to learn more about his personal cross-discipline career with Michelin, as well as how the company addresses the people side of its business. Here are excerpts from that conversation.
IW: How would you describe your role at Michelin?
I'd sum it up by saying it is to make sure that we succeed in serving our customer through releasing the skills and energy of our great people.
IW: Your background is engineering and R&D. Now you are in a human resources role. How do you go from R&D to human resources, and was it a planned trajectory?
There was a plan. Previously I was the head of our R&D division here in North America, our research center R&D division. In that role I had learned very quickly that in order for us to succeed with our passion to deliver great product and services, to deliver great innovation, if we want to succeed the first thing you've got to worry about is people.
It's people first. I could talk about key technologies and I could talk about R&D processes and innovation processes and all of those things. Those are all necessary, but they're not sufficient. The only thing that is sufficient is to have people -- the right people that are well skilled, that are growing, that are engaged and motivated, passionate -- and if we can help them overcome challenges and obstacles, that was the No. 1 thrust for me as a leader of R&D. So it was always people first.
I began to say, 'you know why not a stint, why not a career plan, a career path through human resources or through people at some point?' And then as time went on it became a natural fit with what the company was looking for as well, which was a great opportunity.
In our company we have a lot of the people with long tenure. I've been here for 32 years. You will find people, many people like myself, who have had multiple stops on that journey that are not always in the same core discipline. If your skills allow and your interests are there and the company has a need, our career management, our career growth system, allows that--in fact encourages that.
IW: How does not having an HR background impact what you do today? How does it help or hurt?
It helps and it does present challenges. Where it helps bringing in someone who has a business background into HR -- my business was R&D but it could have been a P&L business, it could have been in commercial whatever – it brings in that business focus so that we complement the success with people with success with business. You don't neglect at all the people because we're very much a people-focused company, but business success, serving our customers -- it brings that focus.
The other thing is any time you stay within a certain area for a long time, you start to become a bit blind to things, new ideas. You can become a bit myopic.
And a third thing: I think it really helps because if you come from outside and you're not the subject-matter expert on topics, it forces you to rely heavily upon other experts within your team or outside the company. It forces you to rely upon these experts for their leadership and for their vision rather than me imposing my own. It really forces me to rely on others, which is a good thing for a leader to not always think they have all the answers.
IW: And the challenges?
The challenge that I have encountered in this role is that not having had 10 or 15 or 20 years in HR growing up through a professional path like that, I don't know all of the pitfalls and all the small mistakes you shouldn't make -- what I call the rookie mistakes -- so you have to learn very quickly to ask for help. I don't hesitate to ask for help from other people in our organization but also from outside the company. I use a network of other HR leaders a lot to make sure that what we're doing is well-rounded.
IW: How do you keep your hand in the innovation/R&D and engineering side of things, if you do?
I do keep my hand on innovation a little bit. I actually have a leadership role for the company worldwide to try to help enhance what I call our innovation culture. We have a strong culture for innovation already, but we know that we can push that further. I work with a group of people from Asia, Europe and North America who are doing some very specific things to try to promote our culture, our innovation culture, so that we remain healthy for the future.
One area where we would like to be better, like a lot of companies, is we would like to be better at the ability to take risks. When I say take risk I mean specifically risk not with our products, we don't mean that at all. But take risk with new businesses, because we're moving into services. We're moving boldly into not just product but service delivery. When you deliver services, you need to be able to take some risk -- try something, learn from it and do it again. We call it do, learn, do ... or try, learn, try again because you're not going to be perfect the first time. And that culture to do that is running against what we had been deeply, deeply built on.
So you've got to have a culture that allows risk at the right time. It allows learning.
How do we do that? We do it through things like organizing events where we bring together people, and we do things like hackathons. Or we bring together people to propose new business solutions... Or in the plants -- I recently saw an example at one of our plants ... where they had a certain issue of worker ergonomics. They put together a small team that worked hard during a four-day [time frame]... and at the end of the four days, they had a solution to fix the problem.
The plant example was interesting because I think they failed four times. The first four things they tried didn't work, but they learned from the first four and the fifth one was a home run. In the land of zero risk, you wouldn't even have gotten to the fifth idea because you wouldn't take the first three or four risks.
IW: During a recent presentation, you said that given the growing variety of needs that manufacturers must address to succeed at innovation, “we must think differently about people.” What does “think differently about people mean,” and can you share an example of how Michelin is following that mantra?
If you look at the number of skilled workers and the number of skilled jobs, there is a mismatch. There are a lot less skilled workers than there are skilled jobs. ... For us that is exactly true.
[In my recent presentation] I talked a little bit about our program to make sure that we will help people, help communities and insure that we have a pipeline of skilled workers for the future. A very concrete example of that is a program that we have with community colleges and what we call technical schools, called Michelin Tech Scholars. The Michelin Tech Scholars has a goal. The goal is to be sure that we supply our manufacturing sites with a steady pipeline, a steady supply, of skilled reliability technicians.
If we do not do this, there are not enough skill-set ... people on the market today to run our plants. So we've had to step in and create a pipeline with, generally, young people who have an aptitude for this. We work with our community college partners and our high school partners to identify people who are interested in this career and have the aptitude -- meaning mostly mathematical and mechanical type skills -- to be able to succeed in our program, and then they become a Michelin Tech Scholar. They attend the college, the community college tech school. We pay for their tuition, we pay for their books and they work in our manufacturing sites as an intern for a certain number of hours every month. And then at the end of two years – it's roughly a two-year program -- we hire about 95% of those people.
It's been a big success for us and it's a big success for our communities because we are providing jobs and training and opportunity to people they would otherwise not necessarily have had.
The other [way] we have to think differently about people is as we are moving into innovation and offering new services. We have to think differently because the skills of people who come in and innovate for services may not be the same as we've had traditionally for product innovation... So we are bringing different types of people who have perhaps different skills, such as data analytics, a mindset for the customer, passion for the customer. And this ability ... to try things and learn, and try again ... and moving very fast. Because you've got to move very fast in the service offer, much faster than the product offer.
IW: If you had one piece of wisdom to share with manufacturers -- about anything -- what would it be?
Change can be scary, but I don't think you get scared by change. You need to embrace the change that is coming. You embrace the change and then as a leader, and significantly if we are talking about manufacturing, you need to figure out how are you going to react to that. What needs to change in your area, your industry, your company, your market? And then I think you need to go big and go bold.
Go big and go bold is key for me because the small changes are going to happen incrementally by themselves. But if you want to lead the change, you've got to go big and go bold.