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0606 HR Magazine: HR Is Mission Critical at the FBI

By Ann Pomeroy  5/1/2006

HR Magazine, June 2006Vol. 51, No. 6

Thirty years of corporate HR experience helps the FBIs new HR chief revamp an organization that is changing to meet the challenges of the post-Sept. 11 world.

 “This job is a higher calling,” says Don Packham, SPHR, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) new assistant director and chief human resources officer. Though he grappled with many difficult business challenges during 30 years in the private sector, they “pale by comparison” to what the FBI deals with daily, he says. “If you have a bad quarter in the private sector, you can make it up the next quarter. Not so at the FBI,” he adds, referring to the life-and-death matters this agency deals with on a daily basis.

For Packham, the journey to the FBI came in what was supposed to be his quasi-retirement from an illustrious career in corporate HR.

After 21 years at global oil giant British Petroleum (BP), he retired but looked for a way to stay connected to the HR profession. He realized that the concept of retirement was being redefined by his generation of baby boomers, and he knew he wasn’t interested in spending all his time on the golf course.

As he looked around for “what I wanted to do next,” Packham founded BridgeHRO, an HR consultancy. Then, within a few months, he received a call from the FBI with an exciting job offer.

In October 2005, Packham took on the task of creating a state-of-the-art HR program for the FBI, becoming the bureau’s first professional HR head.

“When the director [of the FBI] asks you to do it,” he says, “how can you say no?”

A Corporate HR Background

Though Packham says his new job is “way beyond anything I’ve done in the private sector,” his industry experience is extremely valuable in his new public-service role. That experience includes such areas as mergers and acquisitions (M&A), outsourcing, global operations, and compensation and benefits.

When Packham graduated from college in 1975 with a bachelor’s degree in management, the HR field was expanding. With new federal laws, such as the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, on the books, he says, there was plenty for HR to do.

His first job, as a wage and salary administrator at Central and Southwest Corp., now American Electric Power, led to increasingly responsible positions at Pennzoil, NL Industries and BP, where he was hired in 1983 to manage compensation and benefits at the British firm’s Houston headquarters.

The early 1980s were an exciting time to be in the oil business, Packham recalls. He became an M&A expert as he worked on BP’s mergers with Amoco, ARCO, Castrol and Vastar, and the successful integration of HR in all these merger activities was one of his most satisfying accomplishments at BP, he says.

He also looks back with pride on BP’s decision in the 1990s to outsource HR, which Packham remembers being a difficult one. “We were pioneers at the time, and some people told me I was nuts,” he says, when he advised BP that the time was right to outsource.

Packham says he was right and “the prize” was the cost savings the company achieved. By outsourcing a full range of HR services in the largest countries served by BP, the organization was able to reduce the HR head count by half and cut HR baseline costs by $65 million annually.

“BP is very interested in how to derive value,” Packham says. “The leadership was visionary,” and it was an intellectually challenging place to work, he observes. The company was focused on corporate governance and ethics well before the

Sarbanes-Oxley Act was passed in 2002, says Packham. And the experience of working in a global environment and leading virtual HR teams remotely was an opportunity that was “too good to pass up.”

In hindsight, Packham says he wishes he had hired more college graduates with HR degrees at BP. Lamenting HR’s “stepchild” status in many organizations, he came to realize that people with HR training are “fundamental to the vitality of HR.” The function needs a common language, he says, and it needs to encompass the business dimension.

Not That Different

When Packham left the corporate world and went to work for the government, he made a switch that, at first glance, appears to be as different as night from day. In fact, he has found many similarities.

He has found that working for the federal government isn’t that different from working in private industry. The government faces many of the same challenges he faced in the private sector—challenges in organizational design, in finding and hiring talented people (and then training and keeping them), and in moving people around to different locations.

And the government is moving more toward the arena of shared services, Packham says, which he likens to a “within-government” version of outsourcing. For example, “We are preparing to move our payroll to the National Finance Center, which is located at the Department of Agriculture” and which handles payroll for many government agencies.

Packham views the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which designs policies and benefits programs for the government, as “our outsourcing partner.” OPM handles pensions and other benefits, says Packham, “so we don’t have to worry about them.”

The work of the FBI is, of course, unique in many ways, particularly since Sept. 11, 2001. The topic of the terrorist attacks is “still part of the daily conversations” at the FBI, says Packham, and the scope of the work has broadened in their aftermath.

Nevertheless, “in many respects, I look at the bureau and I say to myself, ‘This is a whole lot like the company I used to work for,’ ” Packham says. For example, the FBI has 56 field offices in the United States headed by special agents in charge, as well as legal attaches (called country managers in the corporate world) in 45 countries. The field offices and legal attaches are comparable to business units in a corporation, Packham says.

In the federal government, “there’s never enough money and there’s never enough people, just like in private industry,” he says. “And we never have the right IT stuff, or the IT stuff is too old.” Overall, says Packham, there are “more similarities than there are differences in this world I’ve come into.”

Some Unique Challenges

“What is different in the government,” Packham says, “is a complexity not required in the private sector.” Because of laws and because of the size of the federal government, “time and pace” are slower than in private industry, he says.

That’s particularly evident in the hiring process. It takes the FBI an average of 240 days to hire someone, he says. Although Packham found this frustrating at first, he has come to understand the reasons for proceeding slowly.

Unlike most other government agencies, many FBI jobs demand top secret clearance, which requires polygraph tests and extensive, time-consuming background checks conducted by special agents.

“If we had a problem finding employees, we’d make some changes,” Packham says. However, 400,000 candidates applied last year to fill about 1,800 jobs at the FBI.

“People are attracted to the FBI because of a sense of the purpose and mission of the organization,” Packham says, and not because of money. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the agency has hired 30 percent more special agents, bringing the total number to 12,500.

Recently, the FBI hired a number of MBA graduates from top business schools. “We made offers to maybe 20 candidates,” he recalls, “and received eight acceptances. That’s a better record than I ever got in private industry.” Packham notes that these new graduates could earn much more in corporations than the FBI can pay. (To make it easier for new graduates, the FBI recently set up a special program to forgive school debt.) They are there, like him, “because they believe they can make a difference.”

Budgeting, too, is more complicated in the government. “The FBI is driven by events,” he says, “and by the budget approved by Congress.” Unlike private industry, funds can’t be moved around at the FBI. Federal appropriations are earmarked for specific expenses and can’t be used for anything else without going back to Congress.

And performance metrics, which are simple in the private sector—“Did you make a profit or not?”—are “tough” in government, Packham says. “There is no visibility because so much is classified.” In addition, you can’t measure the absence of something. “How do you measure the effectiveness of antiterrorism measures other than ‘nothing bad happened today?’ ”

An HR ‘Triumvirate’

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the domestic law enforcement agency’s mission has grown to include protecting the nation from terrorist attacks and foreign espionage. “That means that we must have relationships with other countries and other organizations,” Packham says. To help the FBI deal with its increasingly complex responsibilities, Packham and other outside experts are being brought into an agency that has traditionally promoted from within.

In many respects, his is a new position, he says, since he is the first subject-matter expert to head the office. In the past, special agents rotated through the HR position on the way to other management roles. Special agents have a variety of backgrounds, including law and accounting, says Packham, but they don’t tend to have in-depth knowledge of HR.

Packham says he is fortunate to have two deputies who have the specific knowledge about the federal government and the FBI that he lacks. Since he has never been a government employee, much less an FBI agent, deputy assistant director Mary Hannagan gives him the federal HR perspective and “helps keep me on track,” he says.

Coming into the federal government and the FBI simultaneously as Packham has is a “double whammy,” Hannagan says, because there is so much to learn. She feared Packham might be “shell-shocked” when he arrived, but he has proved to be a quick study. He has credibility, because “it’s clear that this guy knows what he’s talking about,” she says, and he has the confidence of top management because of his background.

Although she, too, is relatively new to the FBI—she came in August 2004—Hannagan has worked in HR for the federal government since 1979 at the Department of Defense, first for the Air Force and then for the Army. “I know all the practical things” about what the government can and can’t do, she says, and she can cite specific federal regulations to back up her advice.

The third member of what Hannagan calls the HR “triumvirate” is Mike Ward, Packham’s acting deputy assistant director for operational support and section chief for the executive development and selection program. Ward, who has 18 years of experience as an FBI special agent, was promoted to his current role a year ago.

“What I bring to the table,” says Ward, “is 18 years of institutional knowledge.” He says Packham has quickly “picked up on FBI nuances. People have confidence in him because he has good, common sense ideas.” As a result, Ward says Packham has “won the hearts and minds [of employees]. During the next six months and beyond, the test will be to make the [planned] changes a reality,” he says.

Transforming HR at the agency is a top priority of FBI director Robert Mueller, says Hannagan, so it’s an exciting time to be at the FBI.

Hannagan says a change management team is in place and “Don is a great team leader.”

On the recommendation of consultants, they have implemented service-level agreements with their customers, and Packham has begun quarterly reviews with his direct reports and their staffs to examine the agency’s progress toward its goals.

There are “pockets of excellence” in the federal government, says Hannagan, and many good things are happening. “Strategic leadership requires the ability to “step out into the void and chart a path where none exists,” she says, and that’s what the FBI’s new HR “triumvirate” is striving to do.

In the coming years, Packham says, HR’s No. 1 issue, at the FBI as well as in the private sector, will be talent management. “We’re on a point of inflection here about whether we will allow this country to take a backseat in innovation to the ideas of others,” he says.

Packham says it’s critical for HR to align its work with the mission and priorities of the organization and engage the minds of employees in their work. When an FBI employee can say, “I protected this country today,” or “I got a criminal off the street,” that’s a powerful motivator, Packham says.

Serving the Profession and the Country

As Packham works to chart a new path of HR excellence for the FBI, he commutes between Washington, D.C., and Chicago, where his wife and their son and daughter continue to live. He moved often while growing up, as his Air Force father was transferred from one assignment to another, and his own jobs have taken him to Texas, Colorado, Alaska, London and Chicago. As a result, Packham says, “Home is not about a place. I have no notion of home except wherever I happen to be.”

In addition to their Chicago home, the family has a ranch near Fort Worth, Texas, where they like to spend time. Packham is involved in family-centered activities, he says, but he also finds time to work out regularly, run and play golf—but only part time.

“Why don’t I retire and lie on the beach or spend my days on a golf course?” Because, says Packham, “I need to continue to be intellectually challenged.”

He’s finding those challenges today at the FBI in a role that allows him to give back to the HR profession, and to his country as well. 

Ann Pomeroy is senior writer for HR Magazine .

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 At a Glance: 

Personal: Age 55. Born in San Antonio. Lives in Chicago with his wife and two children, ages 15 and 12.

Current Job: Chief human resources officer for the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington, D.C., 2005 -present.

Previous Jobs: President and founder of BridgeHRO (2004-2005) following his retirement from British Petroleum (BP). A 21-year career at BP (1983-2004) included stints in Houston; Denver; Anchorage, Alaska; London; and Chicago. He retired as senior vice president of HR Americas. Packham previously worked for NL Industries, Pennzoil, and Central and Southwest Corp. (now American Electric Power).

Education: BBA in management, Texas A&M University; MBA in general business, Corpus Christi State University.