Horacio Quiros, director of corporate HR at Grupo Clarin in Buenos Aires, Argentina, longs for quiet weekends at his remote island hideaway. But these days he has little time for rest. With more than 30 businesses—newspapers, cable news, radio, TV, soap operas, electronics, shared services and more—the media conglomerate experiences day-to-day HR challenges that are all-consuming. Each business unit has a unique character and culture that must be sustained beneath the Clarin corporate umbrella.
Faced with double-digit inflation in Argentina and the remnants of the global recession, Clarin’s leadership has plenty to worry about. Most troublesome are government threats and attacks against Grupo Clarin aired publicly and in the courts. President Cristina Kirchner’s government believes that Clarin holds monopoly power over the Argentine media, and it is attempting to dismantle the company’s holdings.
Clarin is fighting back, objecting to what it sees as suppression of free speech and attacks on free enterprise. More than 17,000 workers are in the cross hairs, not sure how long their jobs will last. Recently, Quiros shared his views about the HR profession and how he handles morale in an environment roiled by uncertainty.
Education: 1972, bachelor’s degree in industrial relations, Universidad Argentina de la Empresa, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Current position: 1997-present, director of corporate HR, Grupo Clarin, Buenos Aires.
Career: 1988-97, corporate human resources director; 1987-88, division HR manager; 1986-87, short-term HR assignment in Madrid, Spain; 1975-86, human resources development manager, Cargill SA (Cargill Inc. Argentine subsidiary), Buenos Aires. 1973-75, corporate HR assistant manager; 1970-73 plant personnel chief, HR trainee, FIAT Concord SA (FIAT Argentine subsidiary), Buenos Aires.
Personal: Age 64. Married, with four sons and three grandsons.
Diversions: Music, nature, photography, travel.
You are leading HR in an environment that some have described as a war zone. What prepared you for this extraordinary challenge?
I have learned through experience. Over the years, Argentina has been through several crises, some really critical—interruptions of democracy, wars, hyperinflation. The context is changing all the time. It’s like navigating a boat: You have to be alert to things that are happening around you. When things change, you and your organization must be able to rapidly change course as needed.
Grupo Clarin is challenging a law that would force it to divest most of its assets, while resisting sharp criticism and government actions that make it difficult to operate. How do you keep morale high in the face of this?
When attacks come, you have two possibilities: cave in or resist. We show everyone that the people at the top are resisting. We have strong leadership that is committed to preserving our organization. When you are in an airplane and experience turbulence, if the pilot says, "We will have 10 minutes of turbulence; it’s not going to be comfortable, but it will be all right," you think, "He’s taking care of it; I can continue reading my book."
But isn’t all the external pressure a serious distraction for everyone?
Yes. We’re facing government challenges to our existence and targeted attacks against our journalists, board of directors and professional management. We need to respond, but we can’t spend all our time defending ourselves. We needed to specify who is going to deal with these issues, so we created task forces with lawyers and other specialists while everyone else continues to concentrate on our businesses. And we did a lot of cultural management.
How important is appearing upbeat when under attack?
Absolutely essential. We try to transmit optimism. We walk around the corridors and smile, interacting, showing people that we are doing our jobs even though we are under stress. We tell our supervisors and managers to be with their people and let them see that you are not knuckling under the pressure. These face-to-face, in-the-moment contacts are more important than any formal communication we can produce.
What are your strengths as a manager?
My ability to see what’s happening in different places and know when to step in and when to keep my distance. There are risks in reacting before you know the whole story. Things are not always as they seem at first glance. Experience leads me to say, "Let’s wait a minute and see what’s really happening here."
How does HR want to be viewed by others on your senior management team?
It’s not an HR responsibility to manage people; that’s up to line management. But they can’t do it alone. We need to have specialists. Everybody can provide some first aid in an emergency, but if you need brain surgery, you go to a physician trained in that area. HR professionals are the specialists with primary responsibility for the human side of business.
What qualities do you seek in entry-level hires, and how do you develop these individuals?
I look for people who love HR. If you love what you do, you will make extra effort to learn and do things the right way. Understanding the business is important, but learning it through the lens of HR is what’s key. HR is law and administration, but it’s also commitment and caring.
Judgment and flexibility are also very important. You need to have the capacity to think outside the box and sometimes be willing to go beyond what the laws say.
As for development, we monitor people to see who is doing well and move top performers to other companies to see what they can do for them. Our structure allows us to create many opportunities. We work with individuals to have them pick the best placement. Someone may tell us, "I learned recruitment; now I would like to work in compensation."
What characteristics do successful HR managers share?
The ability to adapt what they know to the environment. The main HR ideas are the same, but the application is different. The capacity to observe, understand and apply to a particular situation is very important.
It’s like two doctors who studied at the same university, learned from the same books and had the same professors. Later, one works in a city and the other in the country. While the former must deal with disorders that are more common in cities—perhaps work stress or eating disorders—the other handles those seen frequently in country environments, such as animal attacks and tick-borne diseases. For each, the basic scientific principles are the same, but success depends on how they are applied.
How do you weed out poor performers?
There are times that we find people who are not performing well in HR may be a good fit somewhere else in the organization. In such cases, we arrange a transfer. But sometimes a person doesn’t work out. We have a saying: "If people don’t change, we change people."
What’s on the horizon for your company?
In 2015, there will be elections, and we hope the government will change. But the pressure is really day-to-day. We could be shut down tomorrow. For now, we are trying as hard as we can, holding on until something positive happens.
Robert J. Grossman, a contributing editor of HR Magazine, is a lawyer and a professor of management studies at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.