Unlocking HR Through Understanding HR With Jay Sunderland

Skot Waldron:

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Hi, welcome to another episode of Unlocked, where we talk about unlocking the potential of our people and ourselves so that we can unlock the potential of our organizations. I am Skot Waldron. Today I have a guest, Jay Sunderland, the CEO of JKL Consulting Group, who has a very interesting story to tell you at the beginning of this interview.

Jay was homeless and Jay is no longer homeless. He's happily married after 33, 34 years. He has a story to tell, a journey that's going to help enlighten us into where he is now, which is in HR consulting. He's built HR teams multiple times, has a lot of experience in that world, and can shed some light on the HR perspective and what we think of HR, and also some tips about using something called the performance pyramid.

Then he's going to drop something on us that's very, very important at the end. So I want you to listen to that, and why we need certain components in order to help us perform and become profitable. We all want to be profitable, right? So let's get into this interview, and I hope you enjoy. All right, Jay, welcome to the show. It's so good to have you.

Jay Sunderland:

Well, thank you, Skot. It's a pleasure to be here this morning.


So I want to start out with your story, because your story caught me a little off guard. I would love to hear about how you ended up where you are. So start back to your military days and what happened right after that.


Well, sure. Right out of high school, I joined the US Air Force, where I was working in their human resources. Actually, back then it was called personnel department. I did things like military payroll and travel pay. Then I was moved into records management and created there actually a cross-referencing management system that was used by the Air Force for 11 years. I won an award for that and got some cash out of it. My youngest brother went into the Air Force shortly before they went computerized and saw that they were still using the same system that I had created, which was cool.


That is cool. That is cool.


Well, long story short, I did one tour in the air force. I really didn't like the work that I was doing. So I went out into the civilian world, got a job, worked there for a week and suddenly they closed their doors. Nobody knew what was going on, but it turns out the company had gone bankrupt and wasn't paying any of us for the time we had worked.

Well, being a young male in the United States, I was drinking most of my paycheck back then, and I ended up living in my car. I didn't have any cash flow. Pretty soon I had to sell my car for food. When I ate that, I was forced to start eating out of dumpsters and that kind of stuff. Lived in a park for a while.

One of the things I did, there was a Jack in the Box nearby on my route, as I called it, and I would go there and clean up the lot and pick up garbage. Nobody asked me to do this. I just figured it was something to do. Well, one day the manager saw me doing that and started throwing out bagged leftover food. And so, I started eating that. I was grateful for that.

But what I would do Monday through Friday ... Because I really didn't like sleeping in the park. I got to say that was something that I really didn't want to be doing. One of the instances that happened there was I saw a man get shot. I don't know if he died there or not because I ran, but I did see him get shot. I think they were after his shoes.

Well, I used to go up the street and down the street a mile each way, knocking on every business' door saying, "Hey, I'm willing to do anything. Do you have any work for me?" Finally, somebody got tired of seeing my face at their door every morning, gave me a job washing and moving cars around the parking lot. When they went to pay me for the first week's work, they asked where to send my paycheck. I said, "Well, can you give it to me in live check? I don't have any place to call home."

They asked what was going on. I told them what was happening. There was what they call a fleabag motel that rents for $25 a week kind of thing. So they put me up in the room next door to the car lot, and that's where life started to get a little bit better. From then on, I tried to get back to my family in Montana. They told me, "You're either going to die down there or you make your way up here."

So I did get back to Montana, got hired on as a bouncer at a bar. Then they took me from the bar and gave me a job learning how to manage a 250-seat German restaurant and casino. I did that for four years, had a good time, trained 125 bartenders and countless waiters and waitresses.

Started school there. First time I went to school, I was going in for business. So a requirement to take the HR management course is one of the classes for that program. Fell in love instantly with HR. I realized from that class that it's the one position in a company that touches every part of the organization and helps everybody from the CEO down to the brand new employee. I know that people don't really see HR from that perspective, but that's how I saw it, and that's how I've built my career.

And so, fast forward a couple of years, I'm getting through college and meet my wife. She's had just a fantastic impression on my life. We've been married now for 33, 34 right in there. I finished college the first time, worked for a while.

I started out in my HR career right after college. I started as a clerk, worked my way up, all the way up to vice president for people on the west coast, for Washington Mutual, which, of course, doesn't exist anymore. Then once Washington Mutual went under, I hung my shingle out as a consultant.

That went really well because my first couple of clients were other branch managers. The first one was in Los Angeles and then there was one in Portland. Then there was one in New Jersey and other places. So word of mouth got really good. My results spoke for themselves. And that went on for a number of years.

I just closed my business, finally, here due to COVID. We were at 33 people before the 2008-2009 great Recession. When that hit, of course, consulting went out the window. Nobody's hiring consultants when they can't make payroll. And so, I went down to become a sole proprietorship for the next several years.

Now with COVID, once again, consulting went out the window. This time I just decided, you know what? I really want to get to where I'm doing this on a regular basis and not just sporadically solving problems, which is fine. You solve problems all the time in human resources, but they were far and few between as a consultant.

So I'm looking again to get back in the ring and be an active participant, contributing in a lot of different ways as opposed to just a single way here and there. So that's it in a nutshell.


That is a journey that. I mean you don't hear about that every day, right? I don't think I've interviewed anybody yet, that I know of, that came from homelessness through that journey of job and exploration and placement and finding the education they wanted and were passionate about, and then pursued that career in HR, finding a wife that you're with for 30, 34 years. I mean that's success, right? That is being able to turn something around for yourself. That's really empowering. So congratulations to you.


Thank you.


That takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of positive mindset to get out of that too and overcome the things that you overcame. What is the thing that you would take away most, I guess, from that journey that deals with HR, that deals with developing people, that you could apply to that world of HR? What has your journey taught you?


Well, the first and foremost lesson that I've learned throughout all of my career is that every person has value. Whether you agree with their stand on things or not, that person is still a human being with intrinsic value.

One of the things that I did back in the days when I was homeless is I found Stephen Covey's book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. His first rule is seek first to understand and then to be understood. And so, to me what that said was that I can't really speak to solving a person's developmental problems if I can't understand where they're coming from.

And so, in the world of HR, the way that that comes in is the way I do employee development programs, the way I write policies, the way I coach and counsel employees, and managers for that matter, whenever I'm dealing with people, I believe that they're going to succeed, because I realized that everybody wants to succeed. It's a matter of do they know the right processes and do they have the right resources and do they have the motivation to actually do that? And so, part of my role in HR is to provide those things.


Okay. I love that. Everyone has value.


That's right.


And it's hard for us to understand that sometimes because we're so stuck on what we value. When somebody else doesn't value the same things we value, we think that person doesn't have value, if that makes sense. We sit there and go, "Well, they don't value that thing." But of course it's important because I think it's important. So there's some misalignment there.


Well, and you see it today in society really apparently. I mean look at the Trump versus the left argument, right? There's this side and there's that side. But I see a bigger picture. Both sides of that issue, they're contained by people, and people, yeah, they might be swayed to one opinion or another, but, a, I'm not their judge, b, I believe that they want to succeed. They want to enjoy life. They want to have families. They want to be somebody of note.

People just have a need to be good and successful in their lives the way they define it. And so, when I see these societal kinds of decision-making processes, I question whether they're really thinking large picture or small picture. As an HR person, I can't afford to think small picture because I represent everyone in an organization, and that includes not only the two major sides, but all of the ancillary kinds of opinions that are in that. [crosstalk 00:12:36].


That's a really interesting perspective when you look at that from an HR standpoint, is that it's not your job to take sides. It's not your job to look at the micro. You've got to look at the macro and understand the bigger picture and what's going on and help people feel aligned to that bigger picture. So that's really interesting.


Yeah. The truth is as an HR person, we're never truly the decision maker. We advise managers, we advise employees, we coach and counsel. But typically speaking, unless it's someone in our direct line of authority, we're not making decisions for the organization. We're offering guidance, we're offering expertise, we're offering information, and then helping them make wise decisions.

So really we're a counselor most part, I think, which is why the consultant role fits so well in my lifetime is that I never came in as a consultant and say, "You're going to do this, this, and this," because that's not how it works. You've got to understand first before you can even talk about how they can fix the challenges that they face.


That is right.


That's just my philosophy through life.


That's really good. I like that. Thinking about that world of HR, and we're talking about that a little bit, is the perception of HR versus what we believe HR really does. What do you believe is the perception of HR versus in your core? We've heard a little bit of it already about what you feel HR's role really is inside that organization.

Well, the truth is I've been in a number of organizations where HR was considered a necessary evil. What I mean by that is they don't want an HR person, but they've either been sued for their employment practices so they need some help or they're growing and can't keep a handle on the things that are happening in terms of employees and attrition and motivation and morale and all those things. So they need somebody who can come in and corral all of that. But they don't really want that person there. They wish they didn't have to have that person there.


So, consequently, in an organization where HR is considered a necessary evil, I've had to ... Kind of a bad word for ... But I've had to fight for every square inch of progress. I had to come in with guns blazing and showing, "Here's what the law says. Here's how it applies in this situation. Here's what I recommend." Sometimes they'd take that, sometimes they don't.

Now there have been other organizations that I call are more enlightened about HR and realize that their employees are really value-added people. I mean they're the ones who create value for the organization. When a company has that kind of an attitude, it's easier to come in and help them develop their employees, do things like help lower their turnover, that help progress people through whatever career ladders or pay scales that they need to go through to become more valuable employees.

And so, there are two sides to that coin. I mean obviously I would prefer to go into companies where they just loved having an HR person, who knew what they were doing, come in and fix the problems that they're facing, but then realized sometimes that's just not how it really is. Sometimes they just don't want the HR person there, but through either a legal situation or a morale situation, they've decided that they have to have somebody in there. So that's how I see it as a whole picture.


Yeah. I've always looked at that as coming from the brand strategy world and perception and reputation of a company from the external side, from the customer-facing side. Now I do more internal brand management of helping reputations inside of companies, and that all is in employee engagement and morale and leadership and communication with teams. I've noticed that HR is seen as the babysitters. HR is seen as the, "Oh no, HR is here. What do they want now?" or, "Oh no ... "


"Oh, you've got to go to the HR office."


I know. It's like being called to the principal's office. Right. It's like, oh, some policy or something I did wrong, or they're always the naysayers or they're always the ... But the thing is that HR is there to enable our organizations to function and to enable ... I put it this way, along with the show, unlock the potential of people so that we can be thriving organizations, if you have the right mentality and the right people and the right leadership in place to make that happen.


Well, and one of the ways I make sure that happens is to be out in front of the employees. I've never been the guy who sits in an HR office and is never seen by people, because that does promulgate that going to the principal's office kind of feeling. Instead, I like to be out amongst the people, talking to them. They know who I am, they know what I'm like. They know if they pull something like not showing up and not calling in that I'm going to be talking to them the next day.

And so, it works in my favor quite often as the HR person to have that kind of relationship with the people. I may actually talk to them on the floor for a couple of minutes. I may wave at them in the hallway. I may have lunch with them. But there's a lot of different ways I integrate myself into the workforce so that they don't feel there's a big bugaboo about coming into the HR office.

The result of that is people often come into my office, managers often, to just vent their frustrations, employees to ask questions, typically around benefits or career development kinds of things, sometimes family issues, sometimes other things that come in. But then the key element that I like about having that kind of a relationship is that people feel they can trust me and come to me with their challenges.

Anything that keeps them from being a top level performing employee should be addressed. When you have trust with the person who is in that role, it's a lot easier for you to come forward as an employee and say, "Hey, I've got this problem." And so, as the HR person, that's where we should be.

Now I can say as a longtime HR professional that's not where all of us are. HR people are cut from every kind of cloth and we're not all equal.

I took an advanced course in human performance improvement. One of the things that it taught me was that when somebody comes to you with a challenge, how you respond to them, whether you solve their issue or not, but how you respond to them, does more for that person than just actually solving the problem.

If you come in to me as an employee and say, "Hey, I've got a headache," and I give you an aspirin, well, it may solve the problem temporarily, but maybe you have a brain tumor. If we talked a little bit longer and I learned that you had a history of these things and you've been to doctors and you've had these other kinds of things, we may have had an ADA discussion instead. That's the difference, I think, between somebody who sits in an office and solves a problem and somebody who's out amongst the workforce and understands the issues.


I love that. So understanding the problem, or fixing the problem versus understanding the issues. We talk about that with medicine. My wife's in really into medicine and she always talks about doctors, how they just want to prescribe a pill for everything. Just give you a pill to cover it up. Then we'll give you a pill to cover up the side effects of that pill. Then a pill to ... Instead of really understanding the core issues and the core problems.




That can cause a lot of problems, ongoing issues. Tell me a little bit about the performance pyramid. So this is something that's, I think, new. It's new for me. I want to hear a little bit about the performance pyramid. Teach us about that.


Certainly. Well, the performance pyramid is an idea that's been around since the 1950s, but it has many different applications. When I apply it to HR, what I'm primarily talking about are the three elements that every functioning company must have if they're going to be a thriving organization.

You can make money and not be a thriving organization. I watched my in-laws do an appliance business for 30 years. They struggled the whole time. I watched another company, same business, that I helped out and they've sold now for five times their price.

So this really makes a difference, and it comes down to three things. First are ADA-compliant job descriptions. What I mean by that is simply that they're written down in a format that can be compared from company A to company B, so that you can do a salary analysis, and that they list out everything that the employee is supposed to do, and particularly important are those essential functions.

Now if you've ever looked at a job description, they typically have an essential functions element to them. Second leg of that triangle, the performance pyramid, is the compensation structure. When you come into an organization, typically they've got a payroll, they've got the hiring paperwork. They know what they're doing in terms of paying people every payday. But what they don't have is a way to look forward down the road, to plan and project what their payroll costs are going to be, especially if you start developing employees who want to grow in the organization.


So I helped them to not only do the salary analysis so that they make sure they're paying their people according to whatever strategy they pick, whether they're going to pay higher than the market and get better people, are they going to match the market, or whether they going to pay for low market and just get the lower end of that skillset.

Finally is the performance management piece. The performance management tool is something that I don't think most HR people do well, because to really make that work, you have to measure performance based on the essential elements of the job description, tying it back into the job descriptions, because if you're not measuring what you see is most critical about that job, why measure anything?

When I say things like that, I'm really talking about two different kinds of measures. There are the data measures. How many days were they absent? Did they get their widgets produced by the hour as the objectives were set? Those kinds of measurements are easy to do.

What's harder to do are what I would call performance dimensions. These are the soft skills areas. How are they progressing through teamwork? What's their attitude like? Are they cooperative?

Those kinds of things are soft skills often harder to measure for managers and HR people, unless they understand that those three legs, the job description, the compensation plan, and the performance management piece all must be tied together.

Now when you've gotten all these things done, it takes typically, in my experience, anywhere from several months to two years to do this properly. Once you've got all those pieces in place, then other programs can be added.

We did, for example, a wellness initiative. Well, we tied the wellness initiative into the job description, which jobs are going to be a higher priority for this, and into the compensation structure. If you did these things for this health and wellness initiative, you got a bonus. But we knew about that a year in advance. So the compensation and payroll people could plan that out.

When you have a compensation plan that's formalized and productive, you can tell five years down the road what your payroll costs are going to be, including sales commissions and bonus structures and all kinds of things.

And this is particularly important if you're going to be a company that wants to sell to another company or become public. Both of these things I've had experience with, and both cases they want you to do projections forward on your costs. But if you don't have a way to project your payroll costs, which are typically 40% to 60% of your budget, how do you do that?

And so, even though I'm not in the compensation and payroll part of the company, HR is everywhere. We affect everything, and the performance pyramid shows that, from job descriptions, compensation, and performance management. Our customers are everyone in the organization.

When I create HR departments, which I've done a couple of dozen times, you have to have the same pieces of the puzzle in place each time before you can affect morale and before you can lower turnover, and all of the things that come out of having those systems in place. It really does come down to that.


Which, at the end of the day, increases profit, right?


Exactly. And that's why we're there. We want the company to be profitable, because if it's not profitable, nobody's going to be working there. We want the company also to thrive. We want it to be a healthy organization where people want to come to work for you. How do you become, for example, an employer of choice if you don't have all of the pieces in place?

That's a key if you're ever going to become a viable candidate for angel investors or going public with a large opening. These things have to be in place.

So it makes sense at any level of an organization. I've employed this in organizations as small as 15 people and as large as 50,000. So it really just is a matter of complexity at that point, but it's still the same pieces of the puzzle.


Really, really good. So it combines the hard stuff with the soft stuff, because there's a lot of people that just focus on one or the other, and it's really important to focus on both to make sure. What's interesting is that all of this comes around to being profitable.

If you're not, like you said, then nobody's going to have jobs, which goes back to the beginning of your story. The beginning of your story, homelessness began because that business was not profitable, closed their doors, which sets you on your journey to being who you are today. Maybe that was a good thing, because it caused you to learn what you learned and you journeyed and you overcame, and you're here with us today.

So I really appreciate that. That was really, really good. What is the last word of wisdom that you would drop on us? What is it about this conversation that you want the audience to take away?


What I really wish people would understand about human resources in a general sense is that we are problem solvers by nature. Depending on how well a person has gained education, experience to solve those problems, the better they're going to be at the role.

I strongly suggest in every organization mission, vision, and value. Without a mission, you don't know what you're trying to achieve. Without a vision, you won't know if you achieved it or not because you won't know what it looks like when you get there. Values are how you actually go about working. If you don't measure both the hard set data and the soft skills of people, then you're never truly going to be able to achieve the values that you set out for your organization.

When I talk to my clients, I tell them all the time, if you don't have those three pieces before we even get started, that's where we'll start. Before we even get into the performance pyramid, if you don't know where you're going, we're going to fix that first.


That's so good. From the brand strategy world, working on external communication, I realized that a lot of the things that were missing were a real, firm belief and understanding of the vision, mission, and values. I myself came from the mindset of, ah, that's just words and fluffy stuff that goes on a poster in a break room. Until I understood-


Which it was a lot of the time.


I know, until I understood the true purpose of why they were there. So that brings it all home, and that is amazing. So thank you. How do people get in touch with you, Jay? If they want your help with this sort of thing, how do they get in touch with you?


Well, they can contact me directly. I have a website it's jaysunderland.com. That's J-A-Y-S-U-N-D-E-R-L-A-N-D, my name, dot com. There I have a teaching materials, I have videos, I have a blog that I've written, a podcast that I do. All there. They can reach me through that way or send a direct email to me at jayspeakslive@gmail.com.


Very cool, super valuable. I hope people check out those resources. I checked them out. I listened to a few of your podcast episodes. That's how I was really interested in this performance pyramid and what you're talking about. I think there's some good insights in there. So thanks, Jay. I'll put those things in the show notes. Hopefully people can see this and get exposure and contact you for the future. So thank you for being here and keep fighting.


Well, thank you, Skot. It has been a real pleasure and I wish you all the best of success.


Thank you, sir. So at the end of the interview, I really loved how Jay brought together this whole idea, the mission, vision, values, and having that as a foundation first before you can go forward with anything you do. We have to know what we do day-to-day. We have to know what we stand for. We have to know where we're going. That all has to do with your mission, your vision, and your values.

Then when we talk about the performance pyramid, job descriptions, compensation plans, and what that structure looks like, not just you're going to get paid this much per hour but really what that looks like for the whole spectrum of how the organization functions and the competitive understanding of what that means for that employee.

Then performance metrics, not just the hard stuff, not just the widgets per hour, but how are we performing as a team through communication and relationships and all those things that we want to engage with to make sure that we are functioning, reducing turnover, creating more engagement, more performance out of our people.

That is what's key. Those people will be happy. The happier they are, the more profitable we are. Let's make sure we invest in our people. Thanks, Jay, for being here.

If any of you want to find out more information about me, about the show, about anything that happens here, you can go to skotwaldron.com. I have all these interviews posted there. You can go to my LinkedIn and link in with me there. You can go to YouTube. That's where most of these are housed. Like, subscribe, share. I would love feedback on any of these shows that you enjoy, and I will see you next time on Unlocked.


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