Reaping the Rewards: A Faculty Spotlight on Gerry Ledford

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Gerald E Ledford

Photo: Gerry Ledford

Gerry Ledford has researched, studied, observed and brainstormed on nearly every aspect of the human resources industry. He is a powerhouse of knowledge and has worked with a number of Fortune 500 companies and smaller organizations.

Ledford is currently senior research scientist at USC’s Center for Effective Organizations. He’s also the president of Ledford Consulting Network, which has provided research and consulting services for companies such as Raytheon, Kimberly-Clark, Amgen, PepsiCo, and Weyerhaeuser.

“I’ve covered about every industry there is,” he said. “I have particular depth of experience in manufacturing which makes me one of the last of the Mohicans I think.”

An accomplished author, published dozens of times over, Ledford is also a leading expert in rewards systems and how they can promote employee engagement and effectiveness.

Below, Ledford talks human resource strategy and his plans for the future.

How did you get started in HR?

You never would have known I would have ended up in this field based on my undergraduate career. I started off expecting I was going to be a lawyer and initially was a political science major. And decided that actually sounded to be more boring than I thought and didn’t really want to pursue that.

I had an undergraduate BA in psychology. The class I took in college that I thought was the most boring single class was an industrial-organizational psychology class and, in retrospect, it wasn’t badly taught at all and the readings were a good set of readings. I just didn’t have the work experience to relate to it.

When I graduated, I decided to work for a few years before going to graduate to school to figure out what I wanted to do. Among other things I was a historian for a bicentennial organization. I was in charge of writing histories of the labor movement, histories of the work ethic.

After having worked for three years and begun thinking about these topics again …. I began looking at graduate programs into the area. And got into my preferred one which was Michigan and the rest was history.

What about HR appeals to you?

For me, a core interest is human motivation. And a lot of what I’ve done, particularly in rewards systems and work designs, really comes out of that interest. It’s one of those topics that is, to me, infinitely interesting. While there are things we know, there are always more things to learn.

And it just seems to be vitally important to organizational success. [It’s] one of those topics where I think social science has something to stay that organizations need to hear.

What is your expertise within the human resources industry?

Probably half of the work I’ve done in my career has been related to rewards in one way or another. And I’ve done a sizeable amount of work on work design.

But I have worked on about every topic in the HR area except for training. So, I’ve done some publication or studies on just about everything else and I know enough to be dangerous on just about every topic on HR.

What do you do best?

I think what I do best is have a deep understanding of academic research, but can translate that very well for normal human beings. So, I can help make complex ideas and data and theory accessible to people who aren’t PhDs.

That’s something that clients value and so I know enough about the field to speak with authority about what research has to say, but at the same time I’m able to do that in a way that isn’t full of jargon and convoluted language.

And then also, I think being able to see practical implications for research findings is something that I’m particularly good at.

What are the biggest challenges facing companies today, HR-wise?

I think the biggest thing that HR worries about is how it can play a larger role in the organization. There’s increasing realization that people make a difference in the overall success of the organization. Statements like “people are our most important product” and so on are pretty common these days. And sometimes executives even believe it.

But what that means in terms of how HR programs add value to the organization is less obvious to business executives. One of the things that my colleagues at USC have looked at over the years is whether HR activities have changed.

There’s an issue of how does HR play a strategic role in the organization, not just do functional things and carry out administrative tasks. Some far-sighted companies have HR organizations that play a much bigger role than others, but in general it’s a struggle for the field.

It’s more of a struggle because the challenges are becoming more significant anywhere you look. For example, one third of the people working for the typical U.S. company now are contingent workers. That means they’re part-timers, consultants, contractors, whatever – that’s a very different world than 50 years ago when almost everybody that worked for the company was a direct employee.

So how do you manage human resources differently when you have that kind of issue?

The technology is changing — that means that people can actively work even if they’re not physically co-located. One of my friends at IBM, recently, was charged with doing performance reviews for people he had literally never met except by online communication. And it was very odd to do performance appraisals for somebody he didn’t know personally.

But increasingly, technology is making it possible to work remotely. People work in constantly changing configurations of teams and we’ll see more of that in the future.

All of the challenges facing modern organizations have a human component to it. For the leaders in the HR organizations to anticipate those and figure out what that means for how to manage human resources is a major challenge.

What classes are you excited to teach and why?

I’ll be teaching the rewards class which I designed and I’m excited because that’s something I’ve worked on my whole life. I’ll be sharing the material I’ve used in Executive Education sessions for many years and covering a pretty wide range of topics.

What do we know about rewards that isn’t being used enough?

How to construct employee incentives for performance. There is a heavy use of incentives at executive level, and at the manager level to increasing degree. But for employees down in the trenches it is really pretty spotty.

Despite the popular belief that incentives don’t work, they actually do work and work quite well. If they’re constructed well they have positive consequences, not negative ones, both for employees and for the organization. Employees make more money and organizations perform better.

And if there’s anything that we do in organization that I think is a mistake, is focusing too much of the rewards pie on things like benefits that go to anybody regardless of performance and create sense of entitlement, and not enough on looking at the linkage of performance, either at the individual or organizational level and the rewards that employees receive. That’s particularly true in the last 10 years when the average salary increase has gotten smaller and smaller.

The opportunity is there to give people the chance to make more money by performing more effectively and that pays for itself– if the incentive is constructed well because the organization gets something in return for the higher wages.

What do you have coming up next?

The project that I’m working on now is a major project that will ultimately have at least ten companies, and possibly more, including some of the biggest companies in the country, that looks at performance feedback culture. Our point of view is that organizations — and researchers, for that matter — have spent the last 60 years rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

When it comes to performance management they worry about how many points on the ratings scale, or do we needs a ratings scale, and how many raters do we have of performance and who should they be, and what does the form look like or what technology do we use to manage it. And, ultimately, that doesn’t matter very much, we don’t think.

You can make things better or worse by your decisions on those things, but if you have the kind of organizational culture where managers feel compelled to give good honest, direct, partly developmental feedback then even crude tools will work. On the other hand, if you don’t have the right kind of organizational culture than the slickest tools in the drawer aren’t going to make a difference either.

What we’re trying to get at is what exactly is the kind of culture that leads managers to feel compelled to deliver that kind of feedback, and what can the organization do to create it in the way that they communicate.

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