Career Lessons from Shaunda Zilich: Find Your "Why"

General Electric’s global employment brand leader found her purpose in selling the employee experience.

By Desda Moss Mar 22, 2017
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In her "past lives," Shaunda Zilich held various roles in marketing that may have seemed largely irrelevant to HR. Now, of course, there is a growing understanding that being able to sell a company and its culture is critical to attracting top performers in a competitive talent landscape.

Leaders at General Electric Co. (GE), the century-old conglomerate founded by inventor Thomas Edison, certainly understood that when they hired Zilich to modernize the company’s recruitment strategy to appeal to a global workforce. She says the convergence of her background and GE’s transition to focus on its high-tech industrial businesses created the "perfect storm" for her to apply her expertise to a whole new area: talent acquisition.

"Marketing and recruiting are colliding right now," Zilich says. "The line between sales and recruiting is blurry, and the two areas often overlap. You are now dependent on your employment brand and your relationship with the marketing department—or maybe your own marketing skills—to recruit top talent."

Zilich, 37, manages a global team of employment brand leaders and a council of more than 35 members to build GE’s brand across all functions, regions and businesses.

She will be a presenter at the Society for Human Resource Management’s Talent Management Conference & Exposition, which is scheduled to take place April 24-26 in Chicago. Her session is titled "The Changing Nature of Recruiting: Things Are Not How They Appear."

"Recruiting is moving from brand-centric to people-centric," Zilich says. "Organizations have to encourage all employees to be recruiters and brand ambassadors."

Zilich was born in Detroit, moved to Iowa when she was 12 and now calls Louisville, Ky., home. A self-described "scaredy cat," she says she got a little braver each time she relocated or started a different job. Her experiences also helped her to forge a worldview that embraces diversity.

"It’s good to get out of your comfort zone," she says. "Early in my career, I decided I had to face my fears to experience the world. The understanding I gained—of myself and others—has helped me in every job I’ve had."

She recently spoke with HR Magazine about her career journey.

What Her Family Taught Her

I was a little bit sheltered growing up. We didn’t really watch movies and only listened to Christian radio. However, one thing that my parents, and even my faith, instilled in me is the idea that I exist for a reason. When people are able to find their inner passion and dig deep about what that purpose is, they live a better life. I love being able to help people with that. I advise them to start by asking what their "why" is.

Finding Her ‘Why’

I’ve known a lot of people who go to work every day, diligently put their time in, but can’t wait to be done. They look forward to the end of each day and, longer term, retirement. That’s how my dad was. He worked hard, but I didn’t get the sense that his job was something he loved. For me, it’s important to stop every now and then and think about why I do what I do. When I was in marketing, I enjoyed the work, but I must admit I sometimes felt like marketing had integrity issues. I feel like HR is a better fit for me because it allows me to positively impact people’s lives. What’s better than that?

Learning the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

My second job out of college was as the owner of a motorcycle shop that took in Harleys and made them into drag-racing bikes. I started the business with a partner who introduced me to motorcycle riding, which I found thrilling. In the process of running the business, I learned how to tear down a bike and rebuild it. Because I was kind of timid growing up, this experience forced me to get out of my bubble and into the world. It exposed me to different perspectives. It also gave me a ton of diverse work experience: I did all of the front office work including operations manager, bookkeeper, marketing expert, customer service representative, website designer and more.

Marketing Comes to HR

When I applied to GE in 2012, I was ready to work for a big company. I saw they were hiring a social media director. I had no idea what that was, but I knew I could do it if I set my mind to it. I’m a big believer in taking chances. I had a lot of experience on the marketing side. In the interview, I said, "I’ve sold products and services in the past, but in this job we would be selling life experiences. What we do is more than a job." I think that struck a chord with everyone.

The Changing Nature of Recruiting

The future of recruiting is in getting to know people and understand their true passion. It’s about having conversations with folks about where they’re coming from and how they want to grow and then matching them with work that is meaningful to them. You need to be able to ask people the right questions, listen to what they say and connect that with actual career opportunities. The result might be a lifelong relationship, but many times it is an experience for right now—for this chapter in a person’s life. You can play a role in helping them build for their next phase. My hope is to make it a win-win: the right experience for the employee and the right experience to advance the company.

What Recruiters Need to Know

People now choose companies based on their lifestyles and interests, including social issues and corporate responsibility. You have to catch them with the right message at the moment they’re most likely to be receptive to it. Sometimes people may not be looking for a job, but they become interested when you explain why the position seems like a good fit. Creating a framework that allows candidates to engage, and having the ability to track prospects and ensure they are receiving what they need when they need it, is the key.

Tap Into Your Network

One of the ways I have tried to grow in my field is by building my network through connecting with thought leaders who are doing awesome things. Even if we work in different fields, we may be going through some of the same challenges and we can learn together. People are so willing to share. Being open and transparent is a good thing, and I see more HR leaders embracing that way of thinking. Rather than being afraid someone is going to steal my secrets, I believe we can all benefit from sharing our advice and insights with one another.

A Comfy Leadership Style

I have a pretty fluid approach to leadership that is focused on results over process. I manage a global team of four or five full-time employees, including people in Australia, the Middle East and the United Kingdom. I have weekly one-on-one meetings with each member of my team, but I’m flexible about skipping them if there isn’t anything we need to talk about or any action items to pursue. Some days I leave the office early to pick up my son from school, but then I’ll jump on the phone for a work call at 8. To keep in touch with my team, I may send them a short video I made from home in my slippers. It might be related to work, or it could be something funny I wanted to share about my son’s basketball game. The point is to use technology as a tool for bonding as a team.

Learning to (Slightly) Curb Her Enthusiasm

My boss, Steve Knox, who manages solutions for the global talent acquisition team at GE, has been a mentor, and he has helped me work on being a more effective communicator. I’m learning how to provide the most useful information possible without overwhelming people. I like to talk and I’m pretty passionate, so I can get carried away. But I’m trying to tone it down. It’s better to leave people wanting more.

Her Favorite Business Book

Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action (Portfolio, 2011) by Simon Sinek. My friend Lane Sutton, an HR thought leader who works at Disney, recommended it. The book is about how before people buy into a product, service, idea or movement, they need to understand the "why" behind it. I know for me, being aligned with my core passion and purpose puts everything in life in perspective.

Desda Moss is managing editor of HR Magazine.

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