Dave Ulrich: Transforming the Lives of Many with New Ideas and Innovations


              Dave Ulrich

Dave Ulrich is the Rensis Likert Professor at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, and a partner at the RBL Group a consulting firm focused on helping organizations and leaders deliver value.  He has published over 200 articles and book chapters and over 30 books. He edited Human Resource Management from 1990-1999, served on the editorial board of 4 Journal and on the Board of Directors for Herman Miller (16 years), has spoken to large audiences in 90 countries; performed workshops for over half of the Fortune 200; coached successful business leaders, and is a Distinguished Fellow of the National Academy of Human Resources. He is known for continually learning, turning complex ideas into simple solutions, and creating real value for those he works with in three fields.

With co-authors, he has influenced thinking about modern organizations (Reinventing the Organization) by empirically showing how organizations deliver 4 times more business results than talent (Victory Through Organization), defining organizations as bundles of capabilities (Organization Capability) and worked to delineate capabilities of talent management (Why of Work; Talent Accelerator), culture change (GE Workout), learning (Learning Organization Capability), and collaboration (Boundaryless Organization). 

With colleagues, he has also articulated the basics of effective leadership (Leadership Code and Results Based Leadership), connected leadership with customers (Leadership Brand), shown how leadership delivers market value (Why the Bottom Line Isn’t), shaped investor expectations with an ability to measure leadership (Leadership Capital Index), and synthesized ways to ensure that leadership aspirations turn into actions (Leadership Sustainability). 

 He and his colleagues have shaped the HR profession and he has been called the “father of modern HR” and the “HR thought leader of the decade” by focusing on HR outcomes, governance, competencies, and practices (HR Champions; HR Value Added; HR Transformation; HR Competencies; HR Outside In).  He spearheaded a “gift” book on the future of HR (The Rise of HR) distributed to over 1,500,000 HR professionals), in which 70 thought leaders freely shared their insights.

Success: Adding Value to Others’ Lives

“Most of us have been through or facilitated some version of a values clarification exercise where we identify our core values, what we want to be known for, or how we define success,” says Dave. His core values, or definition of success, are learning to add value to others.  It’s important to keep learning in order to stay fresh and alive, and it’s also important to offer value to others in order to create connections.

Dave’s passion is for ideas.  He finds that ideas are often his best friends. He says, “They keep me company during the day, are readily available when I am in a quiet zone, challenge me to improve, keep me awake at night, and wake me up in the morning. One of my challenges is turning ideas into impact, which is why he created a company to co-create ideas that will deliver impact to others.

Difficulties inspire innovation

Dave refers to the quote, “I’m not failing, I’m learning.”  Learning means stepping outside of comfort zones to explore unexplored ideas.  He likes to step outside his comfort zones with new clients, industries, challenges, and settings.  Dave thinks, it is “fun” to take on a complex, innovative, unexplored challenge and use theory, research, and insight to discover a new solution.  He says, “For example, during COVID, we had to redefine the boundaries of work from place to values; we had to create employee experiences through digital connections; we had to help leaders harness uncertainty and all new challenges that require innovative thinking and actions.”  

The RBL Group Inc.

At RBL, the team’s passion is to co-create with clients solutions to human capability challenges (including talent, organization, leadership, and HR).  The team explores new ideas in each of these four pathways and helps clients find solutions that create value for all stakeholders inside (employees and strategy) and outside (customers, investors, and communities).  Dave says, “We encourage clients to adapt and create, not adopt and implement our ideas, so that clients do not just benchmark or copy best practice, but get guidance on their unique opportunities.  Our firm is called “results based” and we obviously focus on “results” or value added to clients. ”   

The company is accounted to bring three innovations to the “HR” industry:

  • HR is not about HR, but helping an organization succeed in the marketplace. The company focuses less on the HR process or activities and more on how that HR agenda creates value for customers, investors, and communities.  Employee experience without it leading to customer experience is insufficient.
  • HR contributes to four pathways of human capability and RBL tries to create new groups in each pathway with the latest books based on research: talent (Why of Work; Talent Accelerator), Leadership (Leadership Code, Leadership Brand, Leadership Capital Index), organization (Organization Capability, Boundaryless Organization, Reinventing the Organization), and HR (HR Champions, HR Transformation, HR outside in).
  • HR innovations in the HR department purpose, structure, and working relationships, and studies of competencies for HR professionals.

All this work is based on theory (why things happen), research (what happens), and practice (how to improve things).  The company has built large data

Adoration for New and Innovative Ideas

Dave has always been and still is a professor at the Ross School at the University of Michigan; Professors generate new ideas through theory and research and generalize those ideas through writing and presentations. He finds it exciting to discover solutions to old and new challenges.

He says, “I have always had a passion for ideas about how to observe, think about, and improve organizations. When I was introduced to the “organization behaviour” field decades ago, I was afflicted with OCD (organization compulsive disorder) and I still have it. “  Dave recognizes the profound impact of organizations on everyone’s lives today and works to improve how organizations shape how people think, act, and feel.

Embracing the New Approaches

At RBL, Dave’s primary focus is on growth and on ideas.  The management wants to discover fresh and new ideas in all its areas of work.  The team puts these ideas into writing (books, articles, blogs, posts), speeches (inside a company or to large groups), workshops or academies, coaching, and consulting.  Also, the company tries to have 20 to 30% new ideas every year to stay ahead of the knowledge curve. Dave opines, “Our customers/clients have fresh and innovative approaches to the yet to be determined challenges they ave.”  

Dave sees himself as fortunate to have a fantastic co-founder and partner. While their abilities overlap and their beliefs are similar, he says, “If, I focus on “ideas” and Norm Smallwood on “impact,” we’ll be a stronger team than we’d be separately. ” 

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