Career Lessons from Manos Avramidis: A Disciplined Approach to Leadership

The CEO of the American Management Association brings his HR experience to bear in his leadership role.

Desda Moss By Desda Moss January 23, 2018
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Career Lessons from Manos Avramidis: A Disciplined Approach to Leadership

Manos Avramidis

Manos (Manny) Avramidis believes there's never been a better time for HR leaders to shine. He should know. Avramidis, who holds a SHRM-SCP credential, moved up through the HR ranks to become chief executive officer of the American Management Association International (AMA) last June. He was appointed president and CEO of the 94-year-old institution after serving as senior vice president of product development and chief human resources officer, where he led a 20-person team responsible for the strategy and direction of the company's international HR function.

In his current role, he heads a global organization that provides professional development solutions to individuals, organizations and government agencies in more than 80 countries. He says his HR background has been an asset in preparing him to take the reins as the organization's highest-ranking executive.

"It's been quite a ride," he says. "Helping organizations succeed through effective people management has definitely given me a strong foundation and a deep understanding of business issues. It's been very advantageous to grow up in the HR ranks."

Avramidis credits his CEO predecessor, Edward T. Reilly, with giving him opportunities to develop his talents during the 16 years they worked together to strengthen the AMA's position as an education and leadership training provider. He strives to do the same for others.

"If you want to measure yourself as a leader, look no further than the people you surround yourself with. It's important to lead by example and to give people the resources they need to do their jobs—and then to get out of their way."

He recently spoke with HR Magazine about his career journey.

Early Influences

I grew up in North Bergen, N.J., the youngest of five children in a very disciplined household. My dad was a lieutenant in the Army, and my mother was a seamstress. They immigrated here from Greece. They preached about the importance of having ethics, integrity and accountability—values they lived every day. Their example made me grow to truly believe that one's actions today influence your choices in the future.

Learning on the Job

I got my first job was when I was in college, working part time at a restaurant a few blocks from Times Square, not too far from where I work now. It introduced me to people from a multitude of cultures and gave me an appreciation for the demands of long hours and hard work. It instilled a work ethic that has served me well throughout my career.

Building Blocks

I fell into HR by accident. I was working as a claims customer service representative at a health insurance company in New York City when I was promoted to trainer. My role was to train other claims customer service reps. From there, I was promoted to training manager, reporting to the head of HR. After that, I moved into roles in talent acquisition, compliance, compensation and benefits, and human resource information systems management. It gave me a well-rounded HR background.

I joined the AMA almost 20 years ago to run the organization's HR product line. In 2002, I became CHRO. I've had an opportunity to assume a variety of roles and to gain quite a bit of experience with governing boards of directors. I've been challenged both as an HR professional and as an executive.

What He Looks For

The three questions I always ask when hiring someone are:

--Can they do the job?

--Will they do the job?

--Are they the right fit for the organization?

I want to hire people who are smarter than I am in their field. I'm seeking positive, independent thinkers and innovators who support change and can exercise a strong degree of agility and adaptability. I also place a high value on a candidate's level of curiosity and their willingness to take smart risks.

On Being a Servant-Leader

I've been fortunate to have had several people throughout my career who have inspired me to give back to others in a meaningful way. Helping people gives you balance and satisfaction in life. That's something I've tried to teach my children: Do well for yourself so that you can do well for others. My oldest son, who is 18, gets up on Saturdays at 7 a.m. to work with children with disabilities coaching soccer and basketball.

New Workforce Realities

I think project management has become a reality in every job description—and, unfortunately, not everyone is trained to do it well. It's not unusual for managers today to be asked to oversee a project that spans divisions. With today's sophisticated technologies, there are tools and techniques that can help them keep everything on track and organized, but the effort still requires a person to leverage them in the right way. If we were to think back to 20 or 30 years ago, managers' roles were largely limited to supervising a staff. While they knew their job very well, they weren't asked to take the lead on projects or people outside of their immediate area. That's no longer the case.

What Will Take You to the Top …

HR professionals who aspire to become CEOs must develop knowledge of their business and their organization. They should question how every initiative can help the company move closer to its goals. Executives have very little tolerance for conversations that don't make that connection. If you don't show how HR's actions tie into results, the boardroom is unforgiving.

… And Keep You There

No one has the answers to everything, so surround yourself with smart, capable people and share with them as much as you take.

Live and Learn

I'm a big believer in continuous learning. I belong to several CEO networks and executive groups that provide learning opportunities both formally and informally. In 2017, I earned my SHRM certification. Even after spending more than 20 years in HR, I learned a lot going through the process. It was a great refresher and made me think about HR concepts through a different lens. Having received certification myself, I would certainly require it of all my new HR hires. For me, it validates that someone is well-versed in all areas of HR management. Being able to demonstrate one's knowledge and application of HR principles through certification will become a rite of passage.

Favorite Business Books

The first one is What the CEO Wants You to Know: How Your Company Really Works (Crown Business, 2001) by Ram Charan. It's a practical guide to how business operates that explains the basics of corporate finance. It also addresses how to put sound business and leadership practices in place. Charan suggests that good leaders harness the efforts of other people, expand their personal capacity and synchronize their efforts to get results. Leaders who consistently deliver results recognize what people do best (their skills, attitudes and aptitudes), link the business needs to people's natural talents, and take the time and effort to place individuals where their strengths can have the most impact.

The second is Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands (Adams Media, 2006) by Terri Morrison and Wayne A. Conaway. It's a concise overview of how people from various cultures perceive information and how business is conducted around the world. I've used it many times as a reference, and I've given copies to colleagues who found it extremely useful. I learned about the book from the former head of HR at Deloitte. We were having a discussion about global HR practices, and he recommended it.

The Way Forward

HR will continue to be critical to organizational success. No function is better suited to impact business outcomes. HR's effectiveness is critical to any organization. That's because without the right people, it is very difficult—if not impossible—to achieve desired business results. I've been fortunate to work with CEOs who valued HR, but there's still more to be done. A lot of organizations don't provide HR leaders the type of development opportunities they need to step into the CEO role, or they don't do it effectively. The way HR professionals approach their work and how seriously they discharge their duties can go a long way in proving HR's value.

Desda Moss is managing editor of HR Magazine.

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