Citizens Bank’s head of talent management says skills will be the currency of the future

This story is part of Talent Pioneers, a series of profiles on leaders transforming the future of HR.

John Ferguson’s approach to HR at Citizens Bank was not shaped in the boardroom, but in space, on battlefields, and in his heart.

It started early when he was a boy who wanted to be an astronaut. He then witnessed the space shuttle Challenger explosion — in person. The experience taught him that successful innovation depends on implementation and communication.

When he was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, he experienced other tragedies that connected him to humanity, making him more selfless and sympathetic.

In both cases, Ferguson says he became more grounded while remaining optimistic about the future.

As the head of talent management for Citizens Bank, he now applies these lessons to people, believing that the purpose of HR is to support business strategy through people.

Learn how Citizens Bank is driving internal career mobility with AI

What were your career aspirations as a child? How has that shaped who you are and how you operate today?

Inspired by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon, I wanted to be an astronaut like many children of the time. Poor eyesight derailed those ambitions, but my fascination with technology and its potential to elevate humanity endured. Later, my unrestrained positivity was tempered when I witnessed in person the space shuttle Challenger explosion. These two events left indelible impressions that inform my current business perspective. I’m a technology optimist cautious about execution and unintended consequences.

Over the course of your career, how have you transformed as a person?

I’m more empathetic and resilient. In my younger days I was self-centered, but with age and life experience I became more mature and in touch with others. The biggest shift occurred when I deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Witnessing true self-sacrifice and the devastating impact of senseless terror on innocent people connected me to humanity in a profoundly deep and lasting way. As strange as it sounds, war made me a better person.

What changes in technology and the way we work are essential for businesses (and HR teams) to embrace?

AI, robotic process automation, 5G, and other technologies are fundamentally changing the nature of work. These advances will not only allow us to automate routines but help augment and amplify human capabilities. To take advantage of the digital revolution, enterprises must shift from hierarchical to adaptive structures, teams need to deliver work in a connected and agile manner, leaders should become orchestrators who unlock the potential of their diverse team members, and individuals need to focus on higher order innovation and problem identification. We must all remain constantly curious.

So how do you see HR changing or adapting to these new realities?

HR is changing with the environment and the world around us. HR has to change because the talents of our people have to change. Most companies are seeing people much more as the differentiator, as part of their strategy. I think that also gives HR the opportunity to come to the table as not only a valued partner, but really a strategic partner to the CEO and business leaders in the organization. Ultimately, how you differentiate and bring value to your customers and clients is going to be through the people in the organization, regardless of whether you’re providing a product or a service. I think all of that makes HR very exciting in the future.

What will be some of the challenges in getting to that future?

I think some of the challenges we’re going to see are around skills. People not only need to have certain skills when you bring them into the organization, but also the ability to develop skills that they’re going to need three, five, and 10 years into the future. The environment is morphing and it’s not going to be just good enough to do one thing well in your career; you’re going to have to do that and then learn something new.

It’s about hiring for potential and fit, and then being able to provide opportunities for people to grow in their career – learning within their current jobs, but always looking forward to the next one. Ultimately, it comes down to having the right portfolio of skills that you can build upon over time because skills are going to be the new currency within the workplace of the future.

How do you keep up with those skills? It sounds like a lot of change.

Skillsets are changing all the time. We try to project what the necessary skills are going to be and then, all of a sudden, there are new technologies, new ways of working that emerge, and everybody is rushing to try and meet that new demand. For us, it’s less about trying to be able to predict the future exactly, as it is to be prepared to have agile learners and a culture of learning in the organization, so you can make those shifts over time.

That’s where it’s key to have people who are agile, adaptable, and flexible. You want people who are really able to think about their careers – not as a constant game of trying to move up in the organization, but asking where you have to move to get the skills that are going to keep you relevant in your career over the long term.

Why do you think evolving the HR function is so crucial?

I believe the purpose of HR is to support business strategy through people. This has never been more important than in the digital age when uniquely human capabilities will further differentiate great companies from their competitors. Based upon that criterion, HR has a historically poor record. We created performance management processes that can decrease performance, reward systems that can incentivize the wrong behaviors, and employee experiences that can enrage rather than engage. All these efforts were well intentioned, but often based upon faulty logic or incorrect assumptions.

Fortunately, we now have better science drawn from fields such as behavioral economics, neuroscience, and psychology. It provides us with improved insight to completely reinvent HR using technology. We must now champion these new approaches, influence our business leaders, and drive adoption so that we can finally deliver on the promise of HR to propel business strategy.

What advice would you give to other organizations as they’re looking to improve in those areas?

I would give any company the same advice that we’re giving ourselves, which is: “Figure out how you can create the culture and environment that’s going to allow the learning to happen over time.” And also, “How can you leverage technology to make that happen?”

We’re talking about technology changing the world, so let’s use technology to change our culture and how we work internally to meet the new challenges of the future.

Do you have any advice for how to choose a technology partner?

What I tell everybody I talk to is that it almost feels like the Wild West out there with AI. There are so many companies – big, small, and start-ups – and they’re all saying sky’s the limit, they can do everything. If you actually dig a little bit deeper, which is what we did through some tests, you start asking who can be a trusted partner and who’s really going to sit down and tell it to you straight, warts and all, about what it’s really going to take to bring technologies like AI into your workplace.

Any final thoughts?

At Citizens, we’re definitely making an effort to think about how we need to shift our culture to be ready for the future, to be able to bring in these new technologies so that they’re accepted, that they’re used, and they really just become part of our culture. When you bring a new technology in, you have to make sure your culture is aligning to what you’re trying to do in the organization. We’re going to great efforts and pains to do that, to align our culture to the future that we want to create, and also to make technology a part of that culture.

Read the guide to building the workforce of the future