Q&A

Josh Bersin has studied HR for over 25 years—and has over 850,000 LinkedIn followers. In his new book, he shares the secrets to success

Bersin makes the case for putting people over profit, telling HR Brew, ‘when the people feel empowered, the company grows, and good things happen.’
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Grant Thomas

· 4 min read

Josh Bersin has spent the past 25 years meeting with hundreds of companies and analyzing their HR practices—often sharing his observations with his over 850,000 LinkedIn followers. Along the way, he realized he was creating, what he called, a “manifesto on how to manage organizations.” After almost a decade of working on the book, he’s finally ready to share it.

Bersin’s new book, Irresistible: The Seven Secrets of the World’s Most Enduring, Employee-Focused Organizations, shares seven steps to creating lasting organizational success, including people management concepts ranging from how to structure teams to why it’s vital to put people over profits.

It’s strikingly pragmatic: Each chapter includes guidance on “how to get started” and “how to get it right.” He recommended to HR Brew that readers scan his book, then tackle the one principle they deem most pressing—HR can’t do everything at once.

"You’re going to be a craftsman as an HR person,” Bersin told us. “I don’t tell people to copy what somebody else did—I tell them what somebody else did as an example for them to decide what to do…This book should empower you.”

This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.

Why did you decide on this subject for your book?

[Irresistible] is an idea of building a company that people really want to be a part of and is always reinventing itself to be better and better and better.

If you look at the top 10% or 15% [of companies], they’re all recognizable brands…what we call “enduring companies.” They’ve been through a lot of reinventions, they’ve been through a lot of business cycles, and they’ve come back, and they’ve learned in the process that they have to focus on their people; they have no choice.

There’s a quote in your book that I really liked—“your company grows into your people, people don’t grow into the company.” How is that related to the enduring companies concept?

In the early stages of the company, the founders [usually had] an idea: a problem, a mission, and something they really wanted to do. If you know what that [founding idea] is, and you constantly look at it and talk about it, you can hire people that reinforce and believe in it—and that makes the company grow because everybody is aligned.

When companies don’t think about that—when they only think about profit, market share, and revenue—they drift. A really good example of a company that drifted for many, many years is Wells Fargo. I talked to lots of people at Wells Fargo [and] every time, it’s like they’re working for a different company. I don’t know what the culture of that company is. I don’t know if anybody cares about it.

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There are examples of companies throughout the book. What do you think is the most surprising industry that’s represented?

I think the tech companies are not that well-run for the most part. Some of the best run companies are Unilever, General Mills, Procter & Gamble…Shell Oil is a really well-run company…Chevron has, like, a 97% retention rate. Nobody ever leaves. Some of these are sort of boring industries—or maybe they’re out-of-favor industries—but they’re great organizations.

I think the big, high-tech companies that everybody admires [are] kind of driven by their technology and their market innovation—not their people practices.

Let’s talk about the people practices that go into being a good company. Your seven principles are your seven chapters: Why did you order them the way you did?

They start with [principles related to] structure and they go to cultural things later. What I found as a researcher is that structure gets in the way and holds companies back. The other reason is that the first chapter on teams is really the fundament…I was just at a conference in Florida yesterday, and every company we talked to is deposing their hierarchy and trying to figure out how to be more agile, more creative, [and] move faster…… [The] org chart…is really being reinvented.

Your book comes from a lifetime of work, but is there one conversation, one data point, that really sticks out for you?

One is what I call the unquenchable power of the human spirit—your job as a manager, as a leader, as an HR person, as a designer of companies, is to find a way to unleash the desires and passions and energy of the people…And that’s really the theme of each of these chapters, because when the people feel empowered, the company grows, and good things happen.

The second thing is that HR as a discipline is now a profession of design. When I joined HR in the early days, it wasn’t like that. It was like, “Let’s just copy what GE did...” That doesn’t work anymore. Every company gets to design their own way of dealing with these issues.

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HR is challenging. HR news doesn’t have to be.

HR Brew keeps you effective in the fast-changing business environment.