Nine Questions

The next participant in The Field Guide's interview series - "Nine Questions" - with HR thought leaders is Dwane Lay, Head of HR Process Design at Dovetail Software. Below, Dwane gives us his thoughts on everything from personal growth vs. career regrets, the role of Lean in HR and beyond, breaking not just into HR but building career opportunities for yourself, and much more...

Tell me why what you do is rewarding, challenging, and I suspect in your opinion (and mine) quite awesome?
I look at human resources differently than a lot of others, I think. There’s an ongoing hue and cry for more respect as a “business leader,” and I totally understand that. But I think in doing so, we miss a bigger piece of the impact we can have not just on our organization, but on society.
A significant piece of the HR world is dealing with pay, benefits, retirement, security and so forth. Those all break down to the same thing. They are means by which a person cares for themselves and their loved one. When they come to us for help in these areas, it is to address a concern they have outside of the workplace. And as most of us have long ago realized, those concerns trump anything happening in the office. If you have life issues to handle, work issues are suddenly not so difficult. We are in that special space that takes care of those problems. We make home more safe and secure.
That’s the part of human resources that has always appealed to me. Even as a process guy who masquerades as an HR guy, I can see the power in that mindset every day. When I work with clients, my goal is to make them more efficient and effective in handling those issues.
Do you believe in the notion of professional regret? Why or why not? If so, what's been your biggest professional regret?
Certainly. I think, though, there is a difference between a regret and a mistake. We make mistakes constantly, many of which we don’t recognize. But a regret, to me, is an indicator that if we could do something different, we would have. And I think most people have at least a few.
While I don’t regret where my professional path has led me, there are things I would do different in retrospect. Without getting too detailed, I can think of interactions with managers, peers and direct reports over the years that I would handle another way now. I suppose that’s an indicator of growth. If we don’t learn from our experiences, there’s no reason to ever want to modify past behavior. In that regard, I would hope everyone has a little professional regret.
What do you think has been the most significant game changer in your specialty area of human resources over the last 5 years? Over the course of your career?
If I think of my “area” as process improvement, I suppose it is that it exists at all. For a long time, HR looked at itself as being all about people, which is still true to some extent. The closest we came to being a true business function, in many ways, was using a shared services approach to gain economies of scale and reduce costs. But I think we are moving toward a more cooperative, innovative environment where we know there’s more to efficiency than just centralization. To get there requires taking a hard look at how we do our work, and where we can be most effective. I love being part of those conversations.
Where do you see your area of specialty heading in the next 5 years? Do you think that’s a good or bad thing?
Hopefully we will see more of Lean thinking applied in partnerships. One of the really interesting things about the Toyota approach that hasn’t yet been leveraged is the way they work with vendors as part of their design phase. They don’t look for the lowest bid to provide parts. Instead, they involve their vendors in early stages to design a system, be it steering, braking, transmission or whatever, to create the best total solution. But even after the vendor is selected, they tend to maintain relations with other vendors so they always have supplier options.
We too often look at vendors as interchangeable and strictly a parts provider, even in HR. When was the last time you involved an outside recruiter in succession planning or talent management discussions? Think about the impact they could have in sourcing candidates to fill needs not just for today, but long term. It’s a totally different way to look at them, but has massive implications.
In your opinion what’s the most important part of the talent management puzzle: attracting talent, acquiring talent, developing talent, or retaining talent – or something else entirely? Why?
To me, talent management includes all of those things. But the key, I think, is development. It’s rare you will find someone perfect for your current needs, let alone long term. So being able to find the right person for today is only half the work. Assuming you are planning to grow, your people need to grow as well.
We used to offer lifetime employment to workers. That’s obviously no longer the case. Instead, your best bet is to offer lifetime employability. Come to work for us, and we will not only challenge you and treat you well, we will make sure you develop so that if we ever have to part ways, you won’t have a problem finding a new home. That’s a pretty compelling story to tell for recruiting, it keeps your relationship with employees strong, and it makes you a better company overall.
What do you think is the biggest failure of most organizations when it comes to their talent management strategy? Is there an easy fix, a difficult one, or can it be fixed?
Failure to align talent development with the business plan. I like to ask HR people how many of them have read their business plan. So far, it’s about a quarter. How can you execute a talent strategy if you have no idea what your business will look like in three years? It’s a massive failure on the part of HR, I think. Reading the plan won’t fix everything, but is a huge step forward.
In your own words, define what it means to be a leader? Do you think anyone can become a leader? Why or why not?
Defining a leader is tough. It may be easier to define the traits I would expect to see. A leader should be trustworthy and loyal, decisive but inclusive, able to both take and give feedback, and able to remain calm under pressure. But even with all that, you’re only a leader if you inspire others to follow. And that’s usually the tough part. Too many people think leadership is a title, when nothing could be further from the truth in business.
Can anyone become a leader? I’ve had a lot of arguments over this one. I think that leadership can be developed, and anyone can learn to lead to some extent. But I also believe that great leaders have a few innate traits, including charisma, presence and personality, that can’t be taught. So anyone can learn to lead, but the great ones have a head start.
In your opinion, what’s the biggest challenge facing human resources related professions and professionals today?
Pressure to be smarter in the ways of business with inadequate training. Too many people end up in HR without a business background, so you have departments with little knowledge on the subject. Either that, or you get a leader who understands business surrounded with a team that does not. And as we all know, HR tends to be left behind when it comes to talent management and development.
We have to make sure we are devoting enough time to bridge our own gaps if we are going to be truly effective at doing the same for others.
What words of advice would you give to a college student considering a career in your field? To someone looking to transition careers? To someone in your field that is feeling burned out or turned off?
Don’t specialize in HR. Even if you really want to be part of it, focus on something more pertinent in business. I always say get an MBA, and if you really want to specialize in something, make it Finance. A Master’s Degree in HR can work in HR, but Finance can go work anywhere. Make yourself as marketable as possible.
For those already down the road a bit, don’t be afraid to move in and out of employee facing roles. I think a mixed background is a valuable one. Not only are you better at what you do, you can show a willingness to learn. If you aren’t getting that opportunity to do so at your job, take some ownership and go learn on your own. Nothing shows initiative like willfully improving yourself.
The most valuable skill you can bring to the market is the ability to execute. All else being equal, I’ll take someone with completed projects, even if they weren’t all successful. Make sure you can define your accomplishments in ways that will matter outside of your own organization, and you’ll never want for opportunities.

Dwane Lay is the Head of HR Process Design for Dovetail Software, a leading provider of HR case management and employee request management. With over fifteen of HR and leadership experience, he has helped numerous organizations overhaul their practice, processes and technology. He also presents a variety of topics to professional audiences and is the author at He is recognized as a leading authority on the application of Lean tools and techniques in Human Resources, as well as having a wealth of experience in applying business technology to improve HR processes. He is a well known presence on the HR social media landscape.

Dwane holds an MBA from Lindenwood University, as well as having earned a Six Sigma Black Belt and is a certified Senior Professional of Human Resources with HCRI. He can be found on a variety of platforms, including Twitter (@DwaneLay) and Facebook (

This entry was posted on and is filed under ,,. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response.

Leave a Reply