Interview with John Hollon: The Evolution of HR, Leadership and Talent

Bill Banham recently got an opportunity to host a HRchat podcast interview with John Hollon, award-winning journalist and expert on leadership, talent, human resources and workforce practices. John is an associate editor with us here at the HR Gazette and he’s previously worked as vice president for editorial at ERE Media where he founded the highly popular HR and talent management website, TLNT. Before that, he was editor in chief of Workforce Management magazine, the nation’s oldest HR and talent management publication. In addition to his work as an editor and media executive, John is also a professor at the College of Communication at California State University.

Ahead of the podcast episode, read the edited transcription:

Bill Banham: I’m very excited to get you on as a guest, we met earlier this year .. You’re a great man with a fantastic story to tell. We’re going to look at your career and how you got into this space.

Let’s jump straight in. Firstly, what are your passions outside of work? What motivates you? Do you have a mantra?

John Hollon: Well, I love to travel and I’m involved quite a bit in my church. As you pointed out, I teach part time at Cal State Fullerton and enjoy working with students there. I teach opinion writing a lot, but I’ve also taught ethics and magazine management and various things.

If I have a mantra, it’s that it’s never too late. By that I mean it’s never too late to do things right, it’s never too late to heal a relationship, it’s never too late to do whatever that it is. I think in life, a lot of times people say, aw, I can’t do it, I’m too old, I’m too this, I’m too that. My feeling, my philosophy is it’s never too late. That is how I live my life.

I’m motivated by the fact there’s always something I want to do and something I want to do better. That pushes me to try to keep on going.

Bill Banham: Tell us a bit about your career. In addition to HR-related titles, you’ve also held editing positions at the late Los Angeles Herald Examiner, California Orange County Register, the Honolulu Advertiser in Hawaii, Fancy Publications in Irvine, and the San Diego Business Journal, just to name a few. Please tell us about your career and how you got up to where you’re at now.

John Hollon: I’ve always wanted to be a newspaper editor. I’m a journalist by trade, and I sort of grew up… I went to college through the Watergate era here which it was a time here in the United States where a lot of would-be journalists looked at what Woodward and Bernstein had doing and how journalism could really even go as far as bring down a President. I got into then and I achieved my goal. I was a newspaper editor of two different state-wide papers, one in Montana, one in Hawaii.

I went on and I was a magazine editor, I was editorial director, and I edited a business journal too. I did a lot of editing, and being a top editor is a hard job and a lot of fun. I certainly accomplished more than I thought.

If you’d ask me at the beginning, would I be doing something outside of print at this stage of my life, I probably would have said, oh no, I’ll be in print my whole life. Print has changed and, in fact, there’s not nearly as much print as there once was. It’s been a very, very interesting ride.

John Hollon, Journalist

Bill Banham: It certainly sounds that way. Let’s look at your early career for a moment. Who in your early career inspired you? Can you think of a couple of managers?

John Hollon: I can think of one, just jumps right off the top of my head. A guy named Tom Plate, and Tom was the editorial page editor at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and I was basically hired out of college there and I worked as his opinion page editor. Tom has continued to be a great friend all of my life. Tom went on and was editor of the editorial pages of the Los Angeles Times. He’s written a lot of books, he writes a column that appears in a lot of newspapers and stuff from like the far east.

Tom was a great person to work with at my earliest stage. He was one who believed that anybody who worked for you had value. Here’s this guy who’d written books and worked for Newsweek and various things, and he’s tossing me his editorials and his columns and asking me to read them. I’m just right out of college, so it was a great view into anybody can give you great insights and no matter who they are, no matter how inexperienced; they’re there to help you and they can help you. Tom was a great person to help.

I also had a guy who worked with me at the Orange County Register, Harry Graham, and when I started there, Harry was the news editor and worked there for forty years. I learned a lot from him on generational changes, where Harry knew he was on his way out and he viewed his role as mentoring a new generation coming in. That was one of the things, I think, that really, really drilled down into my mind is something that at some point you turn from learning how to do things, to passing the wisdom you have and the knowledge onto another generation coming up. In my teaching, I feel that I get a chance to do a lot of that.

Bill Banham: Is that a big motivation for you, why you teach?

John Hollon: It is, I find that it’s really easy to say oh this teaching stuff is hard, and it is, I grade a lot of papers and I do a lot of things there, but it is always so great when you see a student getting it. Near the end of the term, I always have a student or two, you see at some point that last third of the semester, the light bulb goes on, the switch get flipped and you can see, wow they’re really starting to get it. They’re really listening to what I’m saying, they’re applying it, and they’re growing. That is .. one of the reasons why I teach. When I have those moments, and you don’t have them a lot, it tells you this is why it’s all worthwhile.

Bill Banham: Let’s (look at) your role more as an editor and media executive .. in the HR. What’s it like to be a commentator within the HR, leadership, and talent space?

John Hollon

John Hollon

John Hollon: You know, it’s funny Bill, I like to think of myself more as an influencer, which is a term that gets thrown around a lot. It’s something that I never imagined I would be doing because when I was editing various places, I saw that you had a certain amount of power as like a top editor. In the HR talent management space, especially, there are tons of influencers, tons of people, many, many folks, who have things that’s worth hearing, worth reading, worth thinking on and I found that I had a particular knack for that.

I draw on my long-time experience managing people, hiring people. When I went to Workforce Management, I had never worked for a HR publication, but it seemed like a very natural and logical change because I had managed and hired so many people over the years, and I’d worked for so many HR people and so many managers, good and bad. To be frank, you learn more from the bad ones, I think, as you do you the good. It’s a very, very interesting thing because I’ve got probably more status now than I did when I was editing what I thought to be more larger, mainstream publications.

In the talent management space, .. with the rise of things like Twitter and Snapchat, and people posting things on Facebook, and here and there, you have a lot more places where people can gravitate to what you write and what you say. You almost get to be a mini-celebrity in a tiny space which is an intriguing thing. I think a lot of people are sort of still focused on, ‘how can I get the eyeballs, and getting people to read your stuff’. When you’re just worried about getting more eyeballs, sometimes I think you dip into writing about topics just to try to get a reaction out of people rather than writing from the heart or writing from what you know.

I have enjoyed it. Frankly, it’s something I never thought I would be doing but it’s fun and here I am.

Bill Banham: Where do you have a lot of fun? What are your favorite HR leadership and talent events to attend each year?

John Hollon: I think that the largest event in the HR space in the United States is the SHRM, Society for Human Resource Management annual conference. It always happens in late June. That’s one there’s a lot of people, but I find it to be boring. If you’ve gone to one, you know, you might as well as gone to ten of them because they’re all exactly the same. I find probably the most intriguing event is the HR Technology Conference, which kind of ping-pongs back and forth between Chicago and Las Vegas. My friend Bill Kutik at HR Executives sort of built that up, but that’s a great event because you see all the new cutting edge things that are going on in the HR and talent management space from a technological point of view. It’s also a pretty large event, they get 6 to 7,000 people there.

Outside of pure HR and talent management, I like the Great Place to Work Conference which was just held in the spring. It’s where they celebrate the best places to work and what you get into there is all of the qualities it takes to build a great place to work. It’s not easy, it takes lots and lots of time. It’s wonderful because you get to hear people from really marvelous companies that have figured out how to build a great business and treat people the right way and make them engaged and get more out of them. That one is good too.

Then probably one more would be the HR… What used to be called the HR Planning Society, they’ve changed what the initials go for. It’s HRPS, but that’s sort of a higher level event that speaks to HR vice presidents and people at that level and above. When you go to that, not so much the conference sessions or the speakers, but the conversations that you have in the hall are great because they are at such a higher level. You’re talking to people who are managing departments, and managing large groups of folks. Just when you start to bump into those kinds of folks and you chat with them much at all, you’re just talking at a much higher level about things sometimes you don’t get to talk about when you have an audience of people who don’t manage at that level. Those are probably the three, that I think if someone were to ask me, these are the three that you should probably go to if you’re looking at talent management and HR in the broad sense.

Bill Banham: From what you’ve seen over the years, what have been the biggest changes in the ways that employees communicate and collaborate as a result of the onset and gradual normalization, if you like, of the digital revolution? You’ve got a career spanning nearly 30 years. What have been some of those big changes you’ve seen since digital practices and online HR tech has become the norm?

John Hollon: I would say that just the rise of social media and the rise of people being able to communicate in ways that in the past you couldn’t communicate at all. I’ve seen companies try to hold down and to sort of keep inside what people say about their organizations. I can recall not that long ago, people working for Apple were talking about oh, I saw the new release of iPods on the dock and they’re going to be out soon and then they got fired for it.

Now it’s really hard to block that kind of thing. In fact,  some (companies) .. try to block employees on social media. You really can’t because .. they’ve got a smartphone and they’ve got tablets.

There’s a lot more discussion about what’s going on in the workplace, about what people are doing at work, about what’s good, about what’s bad, about what’s up, about what’s down, on social media. Whether it be Twitter, or LinkedIn, or Facebook, or Snapchat, or any of these other digital channels. It’s given more power to employees, it’s also made it much more difficult management challenge because how do you manage things when everybody knows everything? That’s not entirely true but it’s much more true now then it was 10 to 15 years ago.

If you had told me 20 years ago that print would be .. dying or near gone and everybody would be communicating in all these different ways, I would’ve told you that you’re crazy. It’s one of the things, to get back to your earlier question, that has driven this whole notion of influencers in the HR and talent management space. It is very easy for anybody who is motivated to start a blog, to get on Twitter, to get on LinkedIn, to get on Facebook and to reach a lot of people. That’s probably the number one change. It’s continuing to affect our workplace in lots of ways.

I think a lot that you see on the social media isn’t very good. A lot of it is nasty, but I think that the debate we have is much larger and more robust than it ever could have been in the past.

Bill Banham: What traditional HR management roles, do you think, may become more automated over the next few years?

John Hollon: I think that we are seeing more and more that a lot of the basic paperwork or background functions in the HR space that technology can help to handle those. Those kind of things that 25 years ago used to be a staple of what the HR department was, they got the forms right, you filled out all of the paperwork, that they managed all of that. The managing that has gotten to be a much more… I hate to say it’s a minor blip, because it’s a little bit more than that, but it’s not a lot more than that. There’s just not as much focus on that.

I think the real focus now for HR and for people managing talent is what Jack Welch, the former General Electric CEO said, that what his HR director needs to be, what his HR vice president needs to be, is like the director, a player personnel for a baseball team or a basketball team. Focused entirely on talent, focused on how do we get great talent, how do we train great talent, how keep great talent. That’s going to be more and more the focus. Getting better people, better people, better talent is the game changer between a company that’s great and one that wants to be great.

Just like it is for a team, although there’s a lot of people that will point out, oftentimes teams that have a lot of great players, don’t necessarily win the championship because they’re not focused on being a team. It’s a collection of great individuals, but they can’t work together particularly well as a team. Still, having the great talent and getting them to work as a team, that is the big game changer that I think. More and more are going to be focusing on. We are going to see less and less worry about make sure you got your I9 form done or make sure the tax forms are done, or make sure this person’s got their time card in or that we’re paying them right and much more about how can we leverage our talent to get more and to build the business more.

Bill Banham: You recently said in a Fistful of Talent interview that you believe that millennials get a bad shake from everyone ragging on them. Do you think that millennials are associated with negative stereotypes, John? If so, are they unjustified, talk to me about that.

John Hollon: I am amazed at how much I read people stereotyping millennials and it’s really hard to stereotype a whole generation of people. As a baby boomer, I remember when baby boomers were talked about in the same ways. Ah, the baby boomers are this, the baby boomers are that. I think millennials get the same rap and as I tell people, I’ve got three millennials in my own household, I have been teaching them in a college environment for ten years. Every generation has their own challenges. Every generation has their own strengths. Every generation has their own quirks and things that you need to manage for and that’s the role of a manager.

A manager deals with the different personalities and people they have under them. Not everybody is the same, you need to adjust how how you deal with people. This notion, that for some reason, millennials as a generation are so different than the generations that preceded them, I think is crazy. Millennials are just different and as managers we need to change our approach to dealing with them.

My take is they much more do not want to be dictated to, they don’t want a command and control management structure, they want someone to sit down and talk to them. To work with them, to view them in a much more collegial team setting. Which, by the way, I think is a better way to manage period. I think they just get a terribly, terribly bad rap. It’s just another generation that’s got a different way that they view life because of how they were raised, because of when they were raised. We need to quit griping about them and just spend more time working on how do we manage them, and how do we get the best out of them.

Bill Banham: Thank you, pretty inspiring words there John. We’re getting to the point where we’re going to be wrapping up pretty soon, but before we do that, how can our listeners learn more about you?

John Hollon: They can certainly look me up on the LinkedIn, they can go there and look at what I’ve done and various things. They can always drop me a note at my email address, which is I write for Fistful of Talent. I write for HR Gazette. Right now I’m kind of in between a job, or gigs, but I’ll probably be landing something else here soon. I’m writing and I am out there, I get people dropping me notes all the time. I’m always happy to engage with people, sometimes the most interesting things come in the most unlikely ways. I’m always happy to get an email, people asking me things.

The one thing that I get quite a bit, I get people asking me legal questions. What I have to keep telling them is I’m not like an attorney, I’ve managed people for a lot of years. Why don’t you go to these kinds of places and try to get a better answer here. I get people .. asking me about (for example) performance improvement plans .. Those are the kinds of things I’m always amused (at). I’m not an attorney and I don’t want to put myself at risk acting like one. Those are the kind of things, I really cannot spend a whole lot of time talking about, but I’ll be happy to point you to a place where you can get yourself an answer.

Bill Banham: Okay listeners, reach out John but don’t send him lots of legal questions. The guy’s not a lawyer.

John Hollon: (laughs) Yeah!

Bill Banham: Hey John, thank you so much for being our guest today. This has been a really good conversation.

John Hollon: Thank you Bill, always a pleasure.'

Author: Editor

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