Q&A: Brian D. Silva Is Ready to Serve

SHRM’s new board chair: Know your business and never stop learning.

By Bill Leonard Jan 7, 2015
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This month, Brian D. Silva, SHRM-SCP, starts his two-year term as chair of the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM’s) board of directors. As SHRM’s top volunteer leader, he says his primary role is to ensure that the Society continues to provide the support and services its members want and need. Silva spoke with HR Magazine about his career, SHRM’s mission, and how HR professionals can elevate their performance and become the business leaders their organizations need.

Brian D. Silva, SHRM-SCP

Education: Master of Arts in organizational psychology, Columbia University, New York City; Master of Science in human resource management, New York Institute of Technology, New York City; Bachelor of Arts in history, St. John’s University, Queens, N.Y.

Current job: 2009-present, chief human resources officer and senior vice president, administration, Fresenius Medical Care, Waltham, Mass.

Previous career: Senior vice president of human resources, Gentiva Health Services Inc., Melville, N.Y.; senior vice president, human resources, Linens ’n Things, Clifton, N.J.; vice president of human resources, The Guardian Life Insurance Co. of America, New York City.

Personal: Married with three children.

Diversions: An avid motorcyclist who also enjoys traveling, physical fitness (the workout P90X3 is his latest addiction), hiking, snowshoeing and spending time with family.

Do you have any mentors?

Yes, the last two CEOs I’ve reported to here at Fresenius Medical Care. My current CEO, Ron Kuerbitz, is the brightest mind I’ve ever worked with, especially regarding assessing strategic opportunities. He is able to see beyond the horizon and develop business strategies that address the opportunities and challenges we’ll face in the future. Before Ron, I worked for Rice Powell, who helped me to appreciate the power of relationships, trust and culture in driving an organization’s success.

How has your experience shaped your vision and perception of HR management?

Each of my jobs has added something to my portfolio of skills. During my 10 years at Guardian Life, I had hands-on experience with many of the same jobs SHRM’s core membership has today. My next position at Linens ’n Things was very different. It was a rapidly growing company, and the focus was on developing future leaders, retaining employees and building a new HR division in preparation for an initial public offering.

At Fresenius, we face a different set of HR challenges. Since we are in the health care industry, we need to make sure we’re prepared for change. We’ve also made several large acquisitions, so my team has focused on how to best integrate those businesses. Because of this rapidly evolving environment, the HR department has spent a lot of time developing our line leaders.

What are the most valuable lessons you’ve learned?

First and foremost, you must know your business. You should see yourself as a business manager who also happens to be leading HR activities. If you don’t understand your organization’s mission, vision, strategies, finances, clients and competition, you’ll have a tough time solving the most critical problems your organization faces.

Second, you need to build relationships. That has two foundations: trust and respect. People have to trust you to deliver on your commitments and trust you as a confidante. Respect comes from being competent. I believe that people respect HR leadership when we can prove our competence.

In addition, it’s critical that we as HR professionals keep developing our skills. Staying current and knowledgeable about the issues and challenges that HR and businesses face every day will help you succeed. Finally, you have to manage your own career. There’s no one out there who can do that better than you.

How have you used these lessons in your job?

In our industry, there is a severe nursing shortage, which presents a significant challenge to my employer. By understanding the nature of this problem and its effect on how we deliver care to more than 170,000 patients, our talent acquisition team has built a completely new recruiting model. Part of it includes insourcing, and part is outsourced. We spent a significant amount of time building a multiyear financial model that provides a great return on investment.

We’ve also tried to make sure that the HR department is structured such that clinical managers can focus on producing outstanding clinical outcomes. We have more than 2,000 clinical managers who help run our business, and they told us a couple of years ago that they were having a tough time managing HR activities, which they found to be cumbersome and time-consuming. With that feedback, we developed an HR service center that handled approximately 300,000 inquiries from our managers and employees during 2014.

Our organization spends billions of dollars in compensation every year. During the past 18 months, our compensation team analyzed the structure of our systems and redesigned it. We now manage those expenses more effectively.

Whenever we develop HR management solutions, we make a business case for that change. We do not see it as “Here’s an HR program that we are rolling out.” In fact, it’s quite the opposite. We present it as “We understand the business problem you have, and here’s an HR solution that we think can help solve the problem.”

What is the top challenge you face in your job today?

We need to relentlessly focus on improving the quality of our patients’ lives. To do that, I need to be sensitive to the needs of more than 60,000 employees in 4,000 locations throughout North America. We also hire more than 10,000 new employees every year. So the scale of my job presents its own challenges.

In addition, the dynamics in the health care industry are rapidly changing. For example, there are many human capital issues related to the nursing shortage. When the nursing shortage is combined with the aging population in the United States, we’re forced to take a more proactive approach to how we assess our workforce planning.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?

My brother, who is also a CHRO [chief human resource officer], told me to always be prepared for your next assignment. This means that you must challenge yourself to continually learn and improve your skills.

The SHRM Body of Competency and Knowledge and new certification program is a great example of an advancement that moves our profession forward and provides for continuous professional improvement. The relevant body of knowledge, which SHRM meticulously researched by working with a global group of 30,000 professionals, leading employers and several top universities, defines what skills and competencies HR professionals need to be successful.

As chair of the SHRM Board of Directors for 2015 and 2016, what are your objectives?

I plan to focus on engagement with the SHRM membership. I appreciate the unique relationship that SHRM has with its members and volunteers.

There will also be a continued focus on professional development and support for our core membership group.

At the same time, it’s important that we reach out beyond that group to engage all levels of our profession, both nationally and globally.

I expect to see the board and the SHRM staff focus on making the Society as inclusive as possible for all HR professionals. We also need to look at what’s next for our profession and ensure that we’re delivering the appropriate support for our membership to respond to those future challenges. To do that, we’ll need to reach out to those outside our profession.

Finally, it will be critical that SHRM’s new body of knowledge and competency certification moves forward. By achieving these goals, SHRM will continue to be the world’s leading voice of our profession, as it has been for decades.

Bill Leonard is a senior writer for HR Magazine.

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