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Strategic HR Risk Taker
Vol. 57   No. 11
 

Interview by Nancy M. Davis   11/1/2012
 

Risk, risk, risk. Karen Abernathy, CPA, PHR, GPHR, says she is not inherently a risk taker—and previous career choices bear this out.

As a certified public accountant, she worked her way up the ladder in an international accounting firm and was so well-regarded that the chief executive officer invited her to launch its human resource operation. After scoring hits with benefits, training, corporate social responsibility and employee engagement initiatives, she earned the rank of vice president of HR.

But after 11 years at the firm, Abernathy got this advice from a colleague she admired: "Challenge yourself more." And she did: Abernathy now serves as HR director for a maverick energy startup in Centennial, Colo. As its sole HR professional, she faces the following risks:

Every startup survives at the whim of financial backers and a precarious global economy.

Ciris Energy Inc. embraces the mission of turning coal into natural gas—either above or below ground—via proprietary new and unproven biotechnologies.

Developing and testing those processes requires scarce human resources, including top chemists, chemical engineers, petroleum engineers and biologists—and business executives who can manage the financial risks.

Since 2007, the board of directors of this tiny startup, now with 35 employees, has asked the company's owner to depart, deflected a lawsuit over trade secrets and alleviated some environmentalists' concern about the long-term effects of the technology.

Below, Abernathy explains her HR—and career—strategies.

'Part of me likes to develop and create.  I build and fix. And ... this company will help us gain [energy] independence.'

Why did you move to Ciris Energy?

I was at the top of my game. What else was there for me to do—improve this or that? Part of me likes to develop and create. I build and fix. And, I like the premise: This company will help us gain independence in natural gas production. Yet I am so risk-averse—I am an accountant at heart.

I liked the personality of Ciris' Chief Executive Officer Jay M. Short. I could just tell he was not a micromanager and that he would put his trust in you if you gained it. He talked a lot about HR, bringing the right people in and making sure the culture is a good fit.

What challenges did you face learning about this industry?

The technology piece is so hard for me. I'm not accustomed to the arcane scientific language. This is not language you would find on the street. Now, I will write down some terms each day and look them up online.

Are you happy you made the move?

I'm glad. After the first four weeks, however, I asked myself "What have I done?" The enrollment period for health insurance opened the first week, with no analysis and no going to market for a plan developed in 2007 for three employees. Now the plan covers 35 employees.

I was comfortable in my last job, and I got the challenges in line there. I will make this company happen. Yes, I had to leave my old job, with my old friends and trust. But you get over difficult situations, and I just jumped into this one. On my first day, the CEO wasn't there to meet me, no one said "hi," and there was no computer in my office. Awful.

How has onboarding changed since that first day?

I now have a complete orientation package. I personally meet with new employees to go through the benefits package. Then I make sure the team members take over in making sure that the worker has equipment and a place to sit and that the new employee is taken out to lunch.

What are your HR priorities?

We're hiring a new chief operating officer with oil and gas experience, scheduled to come on board in September, and planning two new hires a month. In 2013, we expect to roughly double our workforce of very senior scientists. I'm bringing in recruiters and still getting a handle on who knows the scientific space and how to find good people. Engineers of all kinds are impossible to find.

What is the biggest HR challenge?

Culture. Ensuring that members of every department are not working in silos and are working across party lines. All the scientists want to do is work on their own things. It's hard for me to get them out of their shells and talk at monthly company meetings. I did roll out a brainstorming and continuous innovation process called the Idea Squad in June.

Karen Abernathy, CPA, PHR, GPHR

Education: 1987, Bachelor of Science, accounting, University of Colorado, Denver.

Current job: January-present, HR director, Ciris Energy Inc., Centennial, Colo.

Career: 2000-11, vice president of human resources; director of human resources; director of special projects, RGL Forensics Inc., Englewood, Colo. 1987-2000, auditor for KPMG, financial analyst for Beecher Carlson and an independent accounting and auditing consultant, Denver.

Personal: Age 49; born in Yakima, Wash.; married; three children.

Diversions: Public speaking, writing, travel, professional associations, hiking, skiing, cycling, two cats.

Connections: kabernathy@cirisenergy.com.

How did you negotiate your compensation so you benefit from the risk to your career?

I asked for and receive stock options. Sometimes, HR people are overlooked when stock is doled out because they may be considered administrative staff. I made sure my position is ranked on a par with other executives. At some point, I will ask that my title be reconsidered. Meanwhile, I receive a salary, stock options, a bonus, vacation and other benefits.

What are all the new employees going to be doing?

We just moved into a huge new lab. We are going through a long legal process to allow for our technology to be rolled out underground in Wyoming. This is not fracking [hydraulic fracturing]. It's a natural process. During the rollout, we're contracting out for drilling and traditional mining operations.

How has your world view changed as a result of your work?

It is important for us to consider what we are doing to the earth. The degradation is distressing to see. We should go back to spent gas wells and bring them back to life.

What do you want to accomplish at Ciris?

Taking this technology and bringing it to other countries will be pretty exciting. I look forward to working on this with a global HR team.

The interviewer is editor of HR Magazine.

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