How Brooks Brothers uses SuccessFactors for their "bigger, bolder" HR mission

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed September 8, 2016
An on-site conversation with Justin Watras shed light on Brooks Brother's strategic approach to HR, and the continual art of managing change. Exhibit A: cloud-based HR self-service. Watras even gave me advice on men's fashion, specifically the fate of my tie collection in a business casual world.

Last year, SAP's Thomas Otter told me about a Brooks Brothers retail encounter that underscored everything HR software could be: mobile, intuitive, tied to employee fulfillment  - and even customer experience. At SuccessConnect, I got an inside view on these initiatives from Justin Watras, Director of Talent, Management and Organizational Effectiveness and Brooks Brothers. He also answered my all-important men's fashion question:  what should I do with my extensive tie collection?

Watras' HR challenge at Brooks Brothers goes beyond storefront employees. His team supports 5,500 employees in North America alone - 90 percent of which now engage with SuccessFactors at some point each year. Brooks Brothers managers access their HR system an average of 3.5 times per week. Employees frequently log on to check the company directory and org chart, matching names with faces and roles.

For Brooks Brothers, HR has to be flexible and mobile. Only ten percent of employees are office-based. Ninety percent are out in the field, selling or working in distributions centers. Watras:

We also are pretty unique as a company. Twenty percent of our workforce works in a manufacturing environment. We have a suit factory in Massachusetts; we have a shirt factory in North Carolina, we make our ties in New York. In no place does time equal money more than in a manufacturing environment.

Working towards a "bigger, bolder version of HR"

Watras is in his eleventh year at Brooks Brothers, mostly in HR functions. One big responsibility: talent management/development and operational effectiveness. That means working with business unit leaders to "enhance the employee experience," and connect human capital management to business strategy. I told Watras that didn't sound like the typical HR paper trail of paystubs and leave requests. He said:

My boss is a real strategist. She's somebody who has a bigger, bolder vision for what HR can be, both as a partner to the business, but also as a strategic function, and not just an effective executor of the people tasks that any organization has to do. Of course, we do those tasks, but we try to embed those things within a broader strategic purpose.

For Watras, that's been a key to employee engagement:

On my team, we talk a lot about fulfillment. To me, that's the litmus test for engagement. I'm in the job I'm in right now because I still feel fulfilled every day. Even members of my team who are doing pretty rote tasks, for the right person, there's a lot of fulfillment to be found in supporting people and supporting their families. Especially in the HR space, when you can connect your work to the higher purpose, that can feel pretty good.

Watras isn't under the illusion that work always feels that way:

In our best moments, it does. I won't sit here and tell you it's day-in, day-out.

The potential of modern HR - making exceptional moments the rule

Watras at SuccessConnect '16

That ties into the Brooks Brothers encounter Otter told me about, where Otter's terrific in-store experience resulted in Watras pulling out his phone, locating the employee in question on the org chart, and giving the employee "kudos" for a job well done. That's the potential of modern HR software:

It's not a piece of technology, it's connecting an incredible employee experience that enables you to have customer experiences that ultimately pay the bills.

The challenge Watras face is making the exceptional moments the rule:

That's not a dream, that's happening. The key is how you make that the everyday, not the exception - because the reality is those are still exceptional moments.

Choosing SuccessFactors - why cloud beats on-premise

A big engine for HR change at Brooks Brothers? Self-service via mobile/cloud. But to get there, we must rewind to the SuccessFactors install. 2.5 years ago, Brooks Brothers went live on SuccessFactors. Brooks Brothers now runs on Employee Central, Performance & Goals, Succession, Career Development and Compensation in North America. Subsequent rollouts are happening in EMEA and Hong Kong, with more functionality on deck in North America, including Recruiting.

Considering how the implementation played out, choosing cloud (SuccessFactors) definitely paid off:

Our original plan was actually to go on-premise for HR. I'm very pleased we didn't go in that direction.

At SuccessConnect 2016, Bill McDermott's keynote remarks made an impression:

I've long wondered about the official SAP take on SuccessFactors alongside on-premise HCM. It was neat to hear McDermott talk pretty transparently, along the lines of "We basically knew that on-premise HCM had a life span, and we wanted to be the first to what the next generation of HR."

HR self-service - "you're never going to see a piece of paper again"

The benefits of cloud came to the fore during the self-service implementation:

One of the reasons we didn't go down the on-premise route: employee self-service and manager self-service are really important... You don't want to tie people to their desks any more than they already are.

Cloud made a difference:

Our managers and senior leaders can interact with the tool anywhere... We have people 300-odd locations across the country. Our multi-unit leaders travel from one location to the other. Now, they can access employee data and action it wherever they are, on mobile or on a laptop.

Access to employee info was a win:

You move everything to the cloud and obviously you gain efficiencies. But the bigger win for us - or equally big win: not only is the whole thing paperless and safe and secure and all that, but our hiring managers now have access to their people's info in totality. From a change management perspective, we said to leaders, "You've long wanted information about your people you've never had access to - and [now you have it]."

This would only work if hiring managers embraced the tool:

We said, "Look, here's the deal. We're rolling out this tool, and you're going to be asked to do a lot of things in this tool. Manage performance, input new hire transactions, terminations, promotions, etc. But what we can promise you is you're never going to see a piece of paper again. It's going to be easily accessible. you had to do before are going to be much less time-consuming, and much less repetitive.

In focus groups, managers aired their frustrations at filling out paperwork "whenever someone gets married and has a name change, or a new direct deposit." Watras' team told them that was about to change:

We said to managers, "You'll never touch that again, because that's employee self-service. That's not your responsibility, and in fact, we don't even permission you to do those things, because that's also private data." We really re-tooled the whole ecosystem.

The final piece of the puzzle was no small one: would employees buy in? Watras:

That is one area where our mission was accomplished. One thing that continues to pleasantly surprise me: no one has come forth and said, "Thanks, HR. You shifted a whole bunch of work out of your function, and now I've got to do it." The managers and the employees see it as being empowered and having access to information. We in HR see it as being much more efficient.

Watras doesn't take that success for granted:

I'm not going to say every change management effort we've ever executed was a success.

So what made this one stick?

It was primarily because we packaged it within an umbrella of empowerment and accessible information.

The wrap - progress leads to more questions

Watras told me he's pleased to see the progress SuccessFactors has made. In particular, the different components act like a suite these days:

We've been with SuccessFactors long enough to see the evolution of how all these different modules increasingly function as one. If you and I were sitting here together a couple years ago, I might be scratching my head and probably showing more frustrations.

Given his love for automated workflows, I asked Watras for his take on SuccessFactors' much-discussed Intelligent Services. Consider him interested - but skeptical, until he gets a chance to kick tires for himself:

I'm intrigued, but I'm a resident skeptic on that.

But he does see potential:

During the presentation, I was thinking it further adds value to the HR function. I was thinking about going to my peer in IT and being able to say, "Look at all this cool stuff that we can trigger. We could trigger help desk tickets, we could trigger all this stuff, take if off your plate. And by the way, it's all going to be done by SuccessFactors."

Some vendors might be wary of the skeptical customer, but in my view, it's a healthy mindset that serves a customer well. Try for yourself and push forward.

Oh, and about those ties: Watras advised me not to throw out my elaborate tie collection just yet. Fashion, you see, is cyclical. Brooks Brothers isn't giving up on ties, and Watras thinks I should keep some handy.



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