The Game Changers

Q&A with Nate Thompson: Reinventing the HR game

By Yasmeen Qahwash

Mar. 11, 2020

Nate Thompson, vice president of strategy and innovation at OppenheimerFunds, said that in order to be successful in the HR industry, letting go of traditional approaches and learning how to adapt to change is a must. In this Q&A, Thompson reflects back on his journey through HR while highlighting his accomplishments and the most important lessons that he’s learned along the way.

Workforce: How have you grown professionally over the course of your career?

Nate Thompson: The biggest theme in my career has been reinvention. I pay close attention to disruptive trends, external and internal, and try to stay ahead of the game. This approach naturally helps me expand beyond a single function or discipline, such as HR. By bridging multiple disciplines — in my case tech, HR and transformation work — I dramatically increase my value as the organization inevitably changes. In my view, ultralearning and versatility are essential in a world that is changing faster than ever before. Whatever you are working on now is going to change dramatically very soon, so we all have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

WF: How has your career changed?

Thompson: Over 20 years ago, I started my career in technology and loved it, but quickly figured out that tech is highly perishable and technologists routinely hit a glass ceiling if they don’t build strong soft skills. That realization led me to leave one of the top tech companies in the country, Qualcomm, to voraciously pursue a suite of skills that are essential to being a strong leader today. After spending a decade in HR and learning and development work, I was uniquely prepared to take that work back into technology, most recently strategy and innovation. It really doesn’t matter how good you are at your specialty if you don’t understand the disruptive forces changing your industry and can’t see or influence the bigger picture. This is why I created and speak on a model called the well-rounded professional to help people evolve beyond being a one-trick pony. Again, when the world and industry are in a state of non-linear change, you can’t take a traditional approach and hope to survive as a professional or as an organization.

WF: What are some of the changes you’ve seen in HR over the past few years?

Thompson: To put it bluntly, traditional HR and traditional learning and development are dead. Today, we need a dynamic, digital and data-driven HR that is deeply aware of the disruptive trends, rapidly experimenting, learning and stepping up to be a strategic thought leader in organizations. This is scary, hard and requires a lot of courage. This is about helping to co-create a new shared strategic narrative, driving the future of work, culture transformation, experimentation, innovation, enabling alignment, engagement and empowerment, reinventing talent programs to enable autonomy, mastery and purpose, moving to real-time immersive cohort-based learning and ultralearning in future skills. That’s why some business leaders don’t want to work with HR and create backdoors. Future leaders in HR are humble enough to release the old idea of control and establish a growth mindset of dynamic strategic partnership with their various business partners. Future leaders in HR are humble enough to release the old idea of control and establish a growth mindset of dynamic strategic partnerships with their various business partners.

Nate Thompson, vice president of strategy and innovation at OppenheimerFunds

WF: What do you foresee in the future of HR

Thompson: HR is fighting irrelevance and the path forward has to be a fundamental transformation. This will be deeply inclusive of the future of work and the new technologies reshaping all industries. Technology is amazing and powerful, the most powerful organizations in the world are technology companies. In fact, almost every company is becoming a tech company because tech is the backbone and universal language of business. The most valuable resource in the world is data. But let me be clear, this is not about the shiny penny of technology. People are still the heart and soul of our world, communities and organizations. Culture is still the operating system of our companies and culture is the output of leadership behaviors. This is still deeply about people, leadership and culture transformation. HR has a remarkable opportunity to step out of the shadows, lead this transformation, help their organizations surf the waves of disruption and thrive in the future.

WF: What are some things that you value most about your career?

Thompson: Making a powerful difference in people’s lives. That’s what matters most. Inspiring people and helping them to achieve their potential while co-creating transformation — especially now. Leaders and employees are scared. The future is uncertain. What is next for me? What is next for us? What does it mean to be human now in an increasingly digital and automated world? We are wrestling with huge challenges and the future is undefined. While it is scary, this new era is such a gift. I openly admit that I don’t have all the answers, but I know that if I deeply care about people and create a space where we can authentically and transparently talk about what’s happening, we can come to a shared understanding and vision of the future, lock arms and navigate this new frontier together.  

WF: What advice would you tell yourself five years ago?

Thompson: Nate, people are going to say you are crazy, just know you are years ahead of where everything is heading. Go fast and be courageous because when the third decade in the 21st century hits, it will be glaringly obvious how far behind most are and how vital these years will have been in defining your approach to fundamental transformation.

WF: What have you learned over the course of your career in HR?

Thompson: HR leaders and professionals are good people trying to do good things, but the traditional approach has fallen too far behind. It’s time for a reckoning and revolution. There is no time to waste, this conversation of reinventing the function should dominate the HR conversation for the next five years. Let go of old HR dogmas, cut the old waste and irrelevant programs now, look outside for new ideas and spend your time reinventing in alignment with the disruption reshaping your industry and business. If your current HR leaders can’t lead that, you need to hire some inspiring leaders who can — and they might not come from HR.

Yasmeen Qahwash is an editorial associate for Workforce.

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