Episode 1

Obed Louissaint

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Season 3

The Importance of Skills Based Hiring with IBM’s Obed Louissaint

Hiring is competitive, now more than ever, and People Leaders everywhere are facing a skills gap. On this episode, Katelin Holloway sits down with Obed Louissaint, Senior Vice President, Transformation and Culture, to open IBM’s “skills based hiring” playbook. IBM has re-invented their hiring pipeline to attract a passionate, curious, and diverse talent pool from a wide range of experiences. Obed shares how IBM eliminates unintelligent barriers from job descriptions and trains managers how to hire more effectively, all while inspiring innovation and agility at IBM.


"As we got the results and started to gain more and more applicants by removing the degree and then the diversity of the applicants increased. And then after we hired, the performance overall was increasing, the diversity was increasing, the retention was getting better, we said, hey, there's something here."

Katelin: Welcome to All Hands. A podcast brought to you by Lattice. Where people success is business success. I’m your host Katelin Holloway. 

One challenge we can all relate to is hiring. How do we attract talented workers in today’s extra competitive market? How do we discover talent with the right skillset? And most importantly, how can we hire inclusively?

We all ask ourselves the same hiring questions. And today we’re talking with a People Leader who came up with a different answer: skills based hiring.

Obed Louissaint (Oh-bed Lew-saint) is the Senior Vice President of Transformation and Culture at IBM. He has re-invented IBM’s hiring pipeline to be more inclusive and inspire more innovation and growth at this iconic company.

Katelin: Obed, I cannot tell you how happy I am to have this conversation.

Obed: Thank you so much for hosting this topic. I think it's really important that organizations and leaders think broadly about skills and how to fill talent gaps to build a more inclusive economy. Personally, thank you.

Katelin: I don't think there's a soul alive working in the tech space today that is not keenly tuned into the fact that hiring is more competitive now than ever. And when I was doing my research on IBM and your approach something that stood out dramatically is this idea called skills based hiring. I think this is absolutely fascinating, and I need to know every single thing about if you will allow. Well, we'll start with the high level. What is skills based hiring or what does that approach look like?

Obed: Great. We're going to have to spend a couple of days if you want to know everything about it. What do we mean by skills based hiring? We have an approach, which we prioritize the right skills of in demand skills over specific degrees when looking at talent. Prioritizing skills is so important, especially when you consider that in this country, so in the United States, 67% of people don't have a degree. If you focused on degree populations, you are taking out two-thirds of the workforce. Today, 50% of our jobs do not have a four year degree requirement. And it forced us to, and our managers and our leaders, to say what's the real specific requirements of the job versus putting on lazy criteria?That creates dumb barriers for a lot of great talent that could help us to close our talent gaps more effectively.

Katelin: That's amazing. They're not intelligent barriers. They're lazy. And I think that's really important as our listeners are thinking about writing their job descriptions, which is something that I think is very undervalued generally. You copy paste, you grab a template, but to really put it through that filter of is this intelligent? What is really necessary to get the job at hand done? And so to say very critically, what do I gain from this person having a specific degree from a specific university?

Obed: That's right. And sometimes it's helpful to use experiences outside of your particular industry. Through programs like One10, the New York City CEO Jobs Councils, the Business Roundtable, we're operating as consortiums of companies that is trying to address this issue. // The example that I loved is of an airline challenging themselves on skills versus degrees, they said, "Why do we have a degree requirement on pilots when so many of the world's best pilots come from the military?" our normal bias would say, "Why don't you want a degree for a pilot?" But when you are flying, do you want a certificate or experience?

Katelin: Yes, sir. I know my answer.

Obed: I'm just saying, when I'm up there I'd rather somebody who've experienced this than read about it.

Katelin: So I want hours on the clock, baby, hours on the clock

Obed: I think it's helpful to pull example that challenge our bias and our assumptions. We do have to challenge ourselves about this because if you look at it from the candidate's perspective, so the candidate who has all of the qualifications to do the job well, it puts them in a challenging mindset when they see this requirement. They say, I could do this job. I could be successful at this job. But then here is this one requirement that isn't necessary in order to do it. The candidate knows it. We've created an environment so that we're not inclusive. And it's preventing our organizations from being inclusive and getting the insights that could be extracted from that phenomenal talent.

Katelin: I love this so much. And tell us that stat again. What percentage of the population in the US does not have a degree?

Obed: 67%.

Katelin: That is significant.

Obed: It's significant. And then it gets higher when you start taking it to really underrepresented minority groups. It's 70% for Latinos. 73% for indigenous people. 77% for Black people. When you start to look at those demographics, you are excluding significant parts of diverse populations. And we know, right, we know in our profession and as business leaders that having diverse and inclusive teams just challenges the mindset of the organization. It drives greater levels of innovation. It drives greater levels of inclusion into the organization and that causes us to perform more effectively.

Katelin: If we were to take it one step further, just for fun. Being a candidate and reading the qualifications, like you said, putting someone in the right mindset, so establishing that safety, that feeling of psychological safety to read through and say, "Do I meet all of these expectations?" When you look at the stats, oftentimes it's the cisgendered, straight white males who say, "Eh, most." Everyone else says, "Well, I missed one of the 20. I probably shouldn't apply." So it's meaningful. It really is meaningful, especially as we focus our hiring strategies around reaching and in addressing diverse population. So focusing on that top of funnel to start from literally jump to say, "Hey, we're here and we're open.” Do you sometimes require a college degree for some roles?

Obed: We do, and 50% of our jobs do require them. So there's a place for it but we just have to put it at the right places. Right?

Katelin: Yes.

Obed: The other thing is what we find is a number of people who don't have degrees may go and continue their education after to continue to progress their careers and for jobs where it may require it and it's necessary or needed and being able to perform the jobs well over time.

Katelin: I want to call out the fact that IBM is not a young company. I'm a sucker for fun facts and I thought that this tidbit was not only interesting, but it really helps put all of this in context. IBM was founded in what, 1911. Right?

Obed: That's right.

Katelin: So if IBM has been around for more than a century, that's before the Titanic sank, before World War I, and of course, before we had personal computers, which IBM invented. And so, now that we are here in 2022, you are leading the skills-based approach and strategy within your hiring. What problems were you facing that led IBM to adopt this strategy or approach?

Obed: It's a great question, but let me also start by saying I was not here for the whole 111 years.

Katelin: Fair. Thank you. Let's put everything in context.

Obed: But if we were to step back and say, hey, what was the problem that we were trying to solve? In our industry, we have been experiencing shortage of skills for quite some time. Right? And very specifically, we were looking at... about seven, eight years ago, we were looking at the profession around cybersecurity, We just weren't finding enough individuals with the skills in order to perform the job. And then we started to say, okay, what do we really need in order to fulfill this demand? And as we went back through the role descriptions, that's where we started to look at them and say, hey, look, we're asking for things that aren't necessary, or we are asking for capabilities that we can build as individuals come into the organization and then makes them great for jobs.

So it was very specifically skill shortage, very specifically. We started in our cybersecurity environment, As we got the results and started to gain more and more applicants by removing the degree and then the diversity of the applicants increased. And then after we hired, the performance overall was increasing, the uhm diversity was increasing, the retention was getting better, we said, hey, there's something here. So it was good for business, right? So I think it's important that we distinguish. Sometimes people think that these are philanthropic efforts, right?

Katelin: Right.

Obed: So while it does have social good, it really was what drove us was a business need and a business gap. This is with a proof point around how intentional inclusive efforts drive business result, and it was a business case for us that caused us to double down and scale.

Katelin: Write that down, listeners. What you want and your job is to drive business results. And guess what? When we can have our cake and eat it too, when our numbers and our key metrics start moving needles on things that also we feel are potentially even a moral imperative, that is the good stuff. That is when you know that you're doing the right thing and that you are in the right place at the right organization doing the right work. So these two things do not need to be mutually exclusive.

We talk a lot on this podcast about how good people strategy is good business strategy. // I'm wondering how skills based hiring has benefited the overall products at IBM. Are you seeing more innovation? Are you rethinking other, maybe, out of date systems? How has this really impacted the output, your products?

Obed: One of the ways in which we've been able to look at the outcome of our work is just being able to say, "Okay, a year after hiring individuals, how do we evaluate them?" We have our performance development systems, historically have measured business performance, innovation, client success, responsibility to others in skills, and what we found are teams that are more inclusive. They have higher performance assessments in the innovation bucket, individuals, and then we've looked at this using our engagement data, our inclusion data, and then put it with our financial data on quota attainment and silos.

And then we find individuals who feel like that there are a more in diverse and inclusive teams generally hit five points greater of target incentive than an individual who answered neutral to not. And then so we're seeing the power of the teams executing better together, the individual being able to share ideas that would not otherwise be heard. I often say to our own team that it's not enough for us to look different if we sound the same. So one is diversity, the other is about inclusion. So if we look and sound different, that's where you get the power of inclusion is in our innovations. We've also seen in the past five years is new revenue streams. So as a result of these, 45% of our revenue comes from things that's been innovated in a short term, so it's about getting new teams, diverse teams, pushing each other to find new sources of income, new ways of working and reinventing the way in which we operate.

Katelin: You are so speaking my language. I advise a number of founders now and I put up a little diagram that is similar to Maslow's hierarchy of needs. // So if you have diversity, equity, then you can start focusing on inclusion, those are your behaviors and your values and all of those good things. Only then can you achieve that feeling of belongingness, that engagement that you really, really need so that you can then... Guess what sits at the top? Innovate.

You cannot get to the most creative space within your organization if you do not pass through those other gates first. It is simple as our most basic human needs. But we have conditioned ourselves to think and feel that our talent pools are very small. But the reality is that this world is filled with incredibly talented people whose resumes and journeys might look a little bit different than having been immersed in one particular geography or being a part of a certain demographic or working within a certain industry. And we are just writing off some incredible talent.

One of the very best hires I ever made I plucked out of a Target store in the Bronx. He was working at and leading a store there. but I got a few side eyes about, well, this person doesn't come from tech. Well, guess what? That person is incredibly successful today, and I am so proud of his path and his accomplishments. And so that's the question I'd like to ask you, which is, can you tell us a success story of one of these incredible humans that came through the funnel and is now thriving?

Obed: It gets me excited and it just gives me the chills when I think about some of these individuals who really made a transformation in their career. So I'll talk about even a personal friend of mine who is with us now. She was in the retail industry for decades and was really into retail and then was super curious around technology. As the pandemic hit and particularly hit retail hard, it gave her an opportunity to rethink what she was interested in. And not even a conversation with me, but she found our new collar website and started taking a couple of the micro credentials around data science, and unbeknownst to me, applied and then went, got accepted into the apprenticeship program and is now doing data science for the retail industry and is killing it.

Katelin: Amazing.

Obed: There is a story of an individual who is in our Raleigh office, and then he was working as a barista and just across the street from our offices and would see IBMers come in there all the time. He would hear them talking and was curious. And then he said, hey, I'm working on an app. And then they said, oh, and started talking, and one of our managers started to mentor him. And then he applied to our apprenticeship program, and then now he's on, I think, his third promotion in the last several years.

So there's incredible stories. Individuals who were in tech and then they left the workforce to care for family, either a new family or aging parent. They may have been certified in a whole other profession. We had individuals who were baristas, who were truck drivers, who were nurses, who were teachers, all who were redefining who they were and had a tech curiosity. And then that's all it takes. It starts with curiosity, right? That is so much more effective than having the skills today, especially in tech. You may have been deep in an area now, but a couple of years from now, that's obsolete. So you want the individuals who've got that curiosity, that passion, that drive to keep learning that hunger. We have them working in analytics, in automation, in AI, in quantum. All individuals who came in through our tech reentry program. So there's some exciting stories.

Katelin: I'm nodding my head furiously because yes, yes, yes. It is so much of that. Not only you have individuals who are deeply curious, and committed, to lifelong learning who are attracted to your employer brand, because you are creating these safe spaces by having programs where someone can specifically read a job description or read a program description and say that I could do that and then they can shoot their shot. Shoot your shot.

Obed: That's right.

Katelin: Now let's shift it a little bit to the pragmatic. So for our HR leaders out there who are listening in, these are all really incredible programs. And IBM being a larger company with presumably a lot of resources to be able to build very robust programs, I know that there's a translation to every size and stage of company here. I'm wondering if you have any advice generically or specifically for HR leaders or folks working on HR teams to be able to present a program like a tech reentry or by simply reimagining their archetype for talent.

Obed: Sure. I'll share our approach then I'll go to where you might start. What was the game changer for us was really focusing on changing the conversation at the company to focus on skills, because that was the problem that we were trying to solve. We were trying to close skills gaps. Give people the skills that was necessary in order to drive progress and change. Now, I think if I was a people leader starting brand new at this particular concept, I'm like, "What is the problem that I'm trying to solve? Is it a skill shortage? Is it an inclusion issue? Is it a retention issue?"

So going to the heart of the issue that is causing the executive team the most angst or your clients the most angst, and then going and creating the business case from that perspective. So our focus on skills is what drove us to the programs around apprenticeships, our reentry program, it caused us to then take a long term view. And 10 years ago, almost 11 now, we created a program which was a six year high school. This is another form of our new collar initiative, which is what we call P-TECH, which is Pathways to Technology, Education and College. We create these schools, now there is almost 300 of them around the world, where leaving from middle school going into high school they graduate with a four year high school diploma, but also a two year associates degree, and then go into the workforce and then that helps to close those skills gaps. But I will start very specifically on what's the most significant business problem that we're trying to solve and then build the approach around talent management that addresses that challenge.

Katelin: This is about outcomes And so if you keep going back to the problem, what they're ultimately telling you, if you do face resistance, is that is not the right problem or we don't agree on the problem that we're trying to solve.

Obed: I think it's important to talk about techniques, how do you actually get from point A to point B. And then one is identifying. I think the change management is huge. And in some of the ways in which you could run the change is identifying a small cohort of individuals who you can get as champions behind this in the corporation. So we had a couple of individuals who raised their hand and we worked with, and so starting with the cybersecurity it proved out that it was working and then we showcased the talent. And then that got the flywheel going.

So pick a place and then get the flywheel going, and then that drives the change. The second thing I'd say is that we had to realize that we underestimated how much change management would take with managers and with recruiters, so we created a program around hiring training and then created a license to hire. So license to hire for a manager and for our talent acquisition professionals so that it helps them to rethink selection, sources of candidates, how to screen candidates, et cetera. So really taking them through training on what it means to hire in a skills first role. So just a couple of things. So really focusing the how on start, start somewhere, start small, scale out, pick a couple of champions showcase the talent, and then reinvent the way in which you train individuals so that you can get to the right selection principles.

Katelin: I love that. I can start on that tomorrow. You got a baby step your way to change. Now, practically speaking, I'm just curious, who led the trainings, your new hiring training. I'm assuming there was also then a revisit to your management training and talent development.

Obed: We put a team together around selection. Really hone in, how do we better select for IBM? And so, this team with some data scientists, some behavioral scientists, and then we really looked at what's the best way to more effectively train our managers to do better selection. So, personally, so I was involved with this small team and then-

Katelin: I had a feeling.

Obed: Yeah. And what we did, we created training for three cohorts. The cohorts were managers, it was the recruiters, and then the third was individuals who interview but may not be a manager or a recruiter. So, we might have a technical SME who you have involved, but if you didn't train them, they could bias the selection process. In the interview, they could stumble a candidate with the way in which they react, that could rock their confidence for the next interview. So, you have to think about everybody that is in the recruitment process.

Katelin: That's amazing. the assumption is that you can't just hire folks from potentially different backgrounds than you had previously and then just throw them into the existing framework or structure for performance management, talent development, all of those things. So, again, here, the assumption is that then, you domino into then. First, we start with selection, then we move into these other trainings.

Obed: That's right. It was, so selection onboarding and then what I would describe as wraparound services. So, what I would say around wraparound services is services for the candidate and themselves. So, support education to help them with their first 90 days, with their first 180 days, and then thinking about the 180 to the 365, giving them access to stronger education. What we found was that the employees who applied and joined us from the new collar jobs were doing twice as much. Our average employee was doing about 88 to 93 hours of learning on our platform annually, whereas these individuals who were coming in through apprenticeships and our new college program, were doing about 200.

So, going back to that insatiable appetite for learning and then building the wrap around services around it, helped them to really drive and be successful. And then, so it was just ensuring that those wraparound services for the candidate, for the manager, and mentors were built during the onboarding period in the first year, a year to two for our candidates.

Katelin: I can tell how thoughtful you and your teams have been about this. It feels very intentional. And I guarantee you that your candidates and your employees are feeling that too. So, I think it's probably is very, very good energy and time well spent.

Obed: Hindsight is 2020. So, part of it was a creation and an agility and a change along the way. So, as we trialed and error, because we goofed on a couple of things, but then-

Katelin: Hey, if you didn't goof, it means you weren't trying hard enough.

Obed: That's right. That's right. It was learning from them and then reinventing the processes. And then that's why now we're so proud to be working with so many organizations it's helpful for organizations to consortiums and operators like yourself, to help to amplify these stories. So, it doesn't have people in roles like mine shy away from this tremendous talent pool that will make our organizations perform better, but it's to learn and to benefit from the great talent that is available in our markets.

Katelin: I mean, that's it, you've nailed it again. It's, people strategy is good business strategy. And if you can align the right folks at the table to build and support and sustain these programs, and to really challenge the way we have done things for so very long, there could be some very beautiful results. And I love that you are able to do so and are continuing to do so at IBM. That's a beautiful thing.

Obed, it is time for rapid fire. I'm assuming you know what rapid fire means. It means I'm going to say things very quickly and I want you to not think and just give your first blush answer first. First one's a layout, you're ready? Let's go. Okay. In a world of Zoom, virtual background or real background

Obed: Real.

Katelin: I'm so glad you said that because your background is gorgeous and deserves to be real. Next question, what item on your desk right in front of you or whatever is in your environment sparks joy and why?

Obed: My AirPods because I love to walk and talk. So, from that standpoint, I could take a walk, get fresh air, still have a conversation or a meeting. So, that brings me joy because it could get me outside.

Katelin: Great answer, great answer. so, tell me, what's the one thing you do at the end of the work day to signal that you are off duty?

Obed: Oh, well, right now, it's been putting on a fire because it's still cold.

Katelin: Yeah. That's a beautiful tradition.

Obed: Yeah, I put on a fire. Libby loves to put on a fire and to snuggle and start a movie. So, that is a great experience that I won't trade.

Katelin: Oh, I love that. I love that. Okay, next rapid fire. Did people operations find you or did you find people operations?

Obed: It found me. I started my career thinking that I was going to be an investment banker and then I realized, I wanted to make a lot less money, so I moved to HR.

Katelin: Yeah. " No thank you, I'm not interested."

Obed: I love the complexity of people. There is nothing that is more complex than the human. So, trying to solve people problems or challenges and dilemmas is just so fascinating and you're never done. So, it's cool.

Katelin: True. It is lifelong work, truly.  Next rapid fire question, what's one skill that all great people leaders have?

Obed: Listening.

Katelin: Says the man whose AirPods spark joy. What is your favorite productivity hack?

Obed: Focus. I think way too many people try multitasking. And if you just stay in the moment and stay in the zone, you'll get far greater done and it'll have greater impact, is my opinion.

Katelin: I literally wrote that down this morning. I said, stop multitasking. I need more mono-tasking in my life for sure. Last rapid fire question, when was the last time you were deeply proud of something you had accomplished?

Obed: Today. Today, just this conversation and in talking about skills first hiring and how it was creating a more inclusive environment. And not me personally, but the company and the journey that we have traveled in the past eight years makes me humbled and deeply proud of the colleagues who have made this possible, but also the colleagues who trusted IBM, applied for these jobs and have made us better.

Katelin: I love that. That's my favorite question of the podcast. It's getting to the end and having a little bit of reflection. And from where I sit in my seat in this conversation, you have so very much to be proud of. and I am so grateful for your leadership and your authenticity and how you show up to work every day, and how you share that work. Not only internally with your colleagues and sharing just so gracefully the credit for building something together collaboratively, but also sharing this with the world. So, thank you from the bottom of my heart and our listener's hearts. Thank you for being so open and sharing. And please, please keep leading authentically.

Obed: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me and for having this podcast and amplifying this tremendous story. Thank you so much.

Katelin: And to our listeners: Thanks so much for joining me on this week’s episode of All Hands, brought to you by Lattice. I’m your host, Katelin Holloway.


Join us next time on All Hands to hear how CEO Simmone Taitt encouraged half of her staff to take parental leave…
We have lots of great new episodes coming up this season. I talk to People Leaders at Calm, Vice, and Envoy about mental health and resilience… re-inventing an organizational culture… and building the very best hybrid workplace.
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Learn more about how Lattice can help your business stay people focused at Lattice DOT com or find us on Twitter @LatticeHQ.
All Hands is produced by Lattice in partnership with Pod People. Special thanks to our production team: Christine Swor, Annette Cardwell, Rachael King, Aimee Machado, Danielle Roth, Jessica Pilot and Carter Woghan.
Until next time, keep leading authentically!

About the Guest

podcast guest

Obed Louissaint

Obed Louissaint is Senior Vice President, Transformation and Culture at IBM. In this role, Obed leads the areas of Leadership, Learning, Diversity & Inclusion and Transformation. He is responsible for reinventing people systems and culture to enable innovations to the marketplace quickly, ensure IBM clients succeed, and identify new areas for growth.

Obed has experience in multiple HR and operational specialties and business units, as well as geographies from developed to emerging markets. He has held positions in the areas of leadership development and competency models, global site selection, HR generalist, and talent management and delivery. Obed holds a bachelor's degree in Industrial and Labor Relations from Cornell University.

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