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Reshaping workplaces

Human Resources

Johnny C Taylor, Jr: Reshaping workplaces for a thriving future

Published 31 August 2023 in Human Resources • 5 min read

The leader of HR association SHRM on why you shouldn’t stifle AI’s progress – and how to prepare your workforce for coming seismic change.

In the 1990s, Johnny C Taylor, Jr was a rising star within the legal division of a prominent entertainment corporation. He notched up an impressive streak of courtroom victories against a multitude of employee claims against the company. However, behind this success lay a growing unease – these cases, while lacking in legal merit, illuminated ethical shortcomings at the entertainment giant he represented.

“Many of the people I was defending … I’d walk away saying: ‘What a jerk, what a bad person…’ but my job is still to win,” Taylor recalls. This tension between his legal obligations and moral compass would ultimately lead to a radical career shift from law to human resources. “It dawned on me one day, is it all about winning? And what if we could prevent some of these situations and give people fairer workplaces where people are not mistreated? It was just an ‘aha’ moment,” Taylor says.

Despite having zero prior experience, he was personally selected by the entertainment behemoth’s CEO to help lead the HR division, recognizing ethical gaps in the corporation’s culture. This appointment marked the beginning of Taylor’s journey toward shaping better workplaces.

Fast forward to the present day, he is President and CEO of Virginia-based SHRM, the world’s largest HR association, with nearly 325,000 members. A part of that role is addressing the apprehension around the rapid evolution of AI, a fear Taylor believes “fundamentally is scaring the employee population to death.”

Although AI’s potential benefits have sparked enthusiasm, industry leaders, even those at the forefront of AI development, have voiced concern about its inherent risks, comparing them to existential threats like pandemics and nuclear conflicts. However, Taylor, recently recognized as one of the most influential figures shaping public policy, firmly opposes attempts to stifle AI’s progress. “We [cannot] avoid, kill [or] legislate away AI, because, when in conjunction with HI [human intelligence], it can absolutely be an incredible, powerful force for our economies for the next century,” he asserts.

Taylor says that business leaders and policymakers should thoroughly evaluate AI’s pros and cons, recognizing that no technology is flawless. Rather than waiting for perfection, he champions the creation of policies that harness benefits and mitigate negative impacts sooner rather than later. “This thing could be a force for good in our society,” Taylor claims, highlighting the need to adapt to the changing landscape.

Leaders: How to steer positive cultural change

Drawing insights from his bestselling book, RESET: A Leader’s Guide to Work in an Age of Upheaval, he underscores that the COVID-19 pandemic, which served as his inspiration, offers a chance to reimagine the future of work rather than view it as a mere pause. “The biggest takeaway is don’t long for the good old days,” he says.

Taylor distills three critical takeaways for leaders striving for positive change within their organizations. Firstly, he challenges the usual classification of cultures as universally good or bad (save for illegal, immoral, and unethical cultures) asserting that each culture is distinct and should align with the organization’s identity. Secondly, he emphasizes the importance of achieving “cultural clarity”, suggesting that organizations must define how they operate and be intentional about their methods.

Lastly, Taylor advocates for putting cultural alignment on par with technical skills during the hiring process, encouraging unapologetic authenticity. “Start with no judgment, just be who you are,” he says, adding that you should be prepared to part ways with individuals who don’t fit the cultural framework.

Workplace reshaped by AI
“If you’re not going to do this the right way, you will do more damage to your workforce, your workplace, and to your reputation.”
Johnny C Taylor, Jr, President & CEO, SHRM

That said, Taylor champions the advantages of diversity and inclusion, having been honored as one of the Women Business Collaborative’s Trailblazers in Gender Equity and Diversity earlier this year.

Within this context, he underscores the importance of asking “why” and being honest about the motivation behind initiatives related to diversity and inclusion, from business benefits to legal compliance, corporate goodwill or moral convictions. He also stresses the pivotal role of selecting the right leader to guide these efforts, someone who has experience with the problems you’re tackling. Furthermore, ensuring adequate resources is a critical aspect, as making statements without tangible action undermines credibility.

Taylor cautions that without clear motivations, the right leadership, or proper resourcing, it might be wiser not to embark on the journey at all. “If you’re not going to do this the right way, you will do more damage to your workforce, your workplace, and to your reputation,” he says.

Creative resilience: What is it, and why does it matter?

He further advocates for embracing the concept of “creative resilience” – something he will be speaking about at the upcoming Global Peter Drucker Forum. Instead of merely surviving, he urges organizations to empower employees to seek creative solutions, fostering societies that thrive. Taylor acknowledges that failures are a natural part of this process, encouraging a mindset that views setbacks as opportunities for growth. “There’s no such thing as avoiding failure; it’s going to happen,” he stresses.

As the head of SHRM, he underscores a pivotal role for HR leaders in this context, in an era where a company’s success hinges on attracting and retaining the best talent. Yet, he presses the need for HR professionals to upskill and transform their mindset, positioning them as catalysts for business growth rather than mere service providers.

This shift calls for HR roles to be considered on a par with other C-suite positions like CFO or CMO. “We’ve got to evolve from being a business partner to being a part of the business,” he says.

This article was developed in collaboration with the Global Peter Drucker Forum. This year it will be held on November 30 and December 1 in Vienna.


Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.

President & CEO, SHRM

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, is President and Chief Executive Officer of SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management. With over 300,000 members in 165 countries, SHRM is the largest HR trade association in the world, impacting the lives of 115 million workers every day. As a global leader on the future of employment, culture and leadership, Mr. Taylor is a sought-after voice on all matters affecting work, workers, and the workplace.


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