HR Magazine - January 2002: Interview: ‘Courage’ for a New SHRM and a New World


By By Bill Leonard Jan 1, 2002

HR Magazine, January 2002

Vol. 47, No. 1

HR professionals have answered a higher calling, and she wants them to be proud.

Ommy Strauch, SPHR, brings an interesting perspective to the job of chair of the Board of Directors for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). She is the first HR management consultant to be elected to serve a one-year term as the Society’s top volunteer leader. Strauch has had a distinguished 21-year career as an HR practitioner and consultant. She was employed for 18 years as an HR executive with the Valero Energy Corp. in San Antonio and now operates her own HR consulting business (Ommy Strauch & Associates, which also is based in San Antonio).

In addition, Strauch is the first SHRM chair who was born and grew up outside of the United States. She spent most of her youth in Northern Mexico and moved to Texas with her family when she was 15. She says that growing up just south of the border helped to heighten her awareness of international and free trade issues.

By representing two of the fastest growing minority segments of the U.S. workforce—women and Hispanics—Strauch is keenly aware that her term as SHRM board chair provides her a unique opportunity to have a positive and lasting impact on the HR profession. She recently spoke with Bill Leonard, senior writer for HR Magazine, about her new role as chair of the SHRM board and how HR professionals like herself are ready, willing and able to take HR to the next level.

HR Magazine: How do you think your experience as a consultant will help you in the position of SHRM board chair?

Strauch: When you become a consultant, you really have to work harder at what you do because people look to you to have all the answers. When I was the internal HR person, I could call a consultant if I didn’t have the answer. So now my clients are looking to me, and they’re literally saying “Tell me what I need to do.”

All HR practitioners are consultants in a very real sense. You are either an internal consultant or an external consultant. The real key to being a successful HR professional and a consultant is that you have to add value. If you don’t do a good job and can’t prove you’re adding value, then, as an internal HR person, your top management will probably decide to outsource your job—to another consultant. And if you’re an external consultant and do the same thing and don’t add value, then you end up losing clients.

One thing that is extraordinarily rewarding about working on your own as a consultant, and especially if you have the luxury of picking and choosing your clients and the kind of work that you want to do, is that the people who call you are really interested in making something happen and are eager to listen to your advice. Frequently, when you are an internal person, you have to really push and promote what you want to do. I now typically work with the executive team of my client companies, and since they have called me in as a consultant, they already have made the decision for whatever reason that something needs to change. I don’t have to convince a CEO or a CFO that we need to take a new approach. I believe that my consulting work with executive teams and team building also has helped me to succeed as a volunteer leader within SHRM.

HR Magazine: Many people who read this might think to themselves: “You know, I’ve thought about becoming an independent consultant, but I’m not that sure how to go about it.” What would be your advice to them?

Strauch: Well, I think that the first thing that you must have is credibility. And having worked with one employer and within one community for 18 years has given me a lot of credibility. Back in 1998, when Kathleen McComber was the SHRM chair, her theme was that you had to have heart. She talked a lot about volunteering in the community, and I have always done that, just because I thought it was the right thing to do. I’ve been board chair of a battered women’s shelter in my community. I’ve worked with United Way fundraising campaigns, and I’ve also been very active in my church. So when I sent out a notice to my friends and colleagues that I was leaving the formal corporate environment and starting my own consulting business, I had so many phone calls from people who said: “I’ve always wanted to ask you to do this, can you do it for me?” So what really seemed to work and make me successful was that I had established credibility in my community and also demonstrated that I had integrity and was reliable.

To build credibility within your profession, you also have to perform at a certain level and to build and develop your skills and knowledge for all the right reasons. Gov. Bush [now President Bush] appointed me to a state board of the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services, whose mission is to protect children [and] older adults, and implement preventive kinds of programs. They wanted someone with experience and knowledge in HR management. And I was selected because someone valued my expertise and what I had to contribute.

Also to succeed as an external consultant, you must have some kind of technical functional expertise that you can sell to potential clients. A successful consultant really needs to be focused as to what it is that they want to provide.

My professional growth and development closely parallels my experience as a volunteer leader within SHRM. I started on the chapter level and then moved up to work with the state organization and then became involved on the national level. My experience as a volunteer with SHRM has taught me quite a bit about leadership and what it truly takes to be a leader. I believe both my professional and volunteer leadership careers have been very closely linked.

HR Magazine: You mentioned that your expertise was in team building and executive development. How did your career move in that direction?

Strauch: I work with executive development and executive coaching and whole team development. When I first started in HR about 21 years ago, I was responsive to everything that people wanted me to do. Since establishing my own practice, I have gradually come to work almost exclusively with these types of assignments, working closely with the CEO and the internal HR person in assessing strengths and weaknesses, and helping the individuals overcome those gaps.

Even though the economic situation is on the downturn, we still face an acute shortage of skilled workers, so I know it’s very hard to recruit and to place people. I also know that from an employee relations viewpoint, employees are taking note of what the organization is doing in working through change: Are they just summarily getting rid of people? Are they supportive of the development of new skills? Are people being treated with respect? So now I perform organizational assessments to pinpoint what the company truly needs to get to the next level and what kind of individual development plans the work teams need to succeed.

The other work that I do that is so important is managing diversity in the workplace. I have a sincere commitment to this work and enjoy some credibility because of success in past efforts. I frequently talk to groups and employers about recruiting employees from diverse sources, understanding the cultural differences and tapping into those differences to make your organization stronger.

HR Magazine: What do you think HR professionals truly need to succeed in today’s workplace?

Strauch: I think all of us must have a strategic outlook. There are many people who belong to SHRM and do not think and act strategically in their jobs because they work for organizations where the majority of what they do is administrative. While I think administrative work will always be one part of being in HR management, it should not be the primary focus of your job. HR professionals have to discipline themselves to develop a strategic outlook.

Even if you perform a lot of administrative work or are a one-person HR department for a small company, you can still develop a strategic outlook. This means being able to evaluate and ask good questions and then be prepared to offer suggestions to solve problems or strategies to address workplace trends.

I believe to succeed and ultimately excel as an HR professional, you must develop this type of outlook for yourself and your organization.

HR Magazine: Are improved strategic skills all that HR professionals will need to succeed and thrive?

Strauch: There is another area where I think that we as HR practitioners need to do a better job. It seems that we are good at designing programs and providing opportunities for others to obtain some semblance of work/life balance, but like the proverbial cobbler, we don’t take the time to practice what we preach.

Like everyone else in our organizations, our lives comprise many different aspects: professional, personal, family, physical well-being and spiritual well-being. The demands on our attention, our energy and indeed, our lives, are many, and they are different, of course, at different stages of our lives. Often, they are conflicting. I have found, through the years, that if I neglect one of these major aspects of my life for any length of time, I do so at my own peril.

HR Magazine: The slumping economy and the terrorist attacks of last September have raised the anxiety levels of the U.S. workforce to new heights and have fundamentally changed the way many people perform their jobs. How should HR professionals respond to these new and complex workplace challenges?

Strauch: I think that whether we want it or not, HR has been placed in a position of leadership because people look to us. People look to us to lead the way. People look to us and ask “What are we supposed to be doing? How am I supposed to be acting? How can I deal with this?” And so whether we want it or not, HR professionals are in a position of leadership. We’re in a position where we have to provide some courageous actions, which will sometimes be based on incomplete information. And the challenge for us is that we are going to have to operate and work within a level of hectic and accelerated change. To get through this, we’re going to have to display some poise. We’re going to have to display some confidence, and we’re going to have to display some courage in all our actions. People will pay close attention to what their CEOs have to say, but when the CEOs are finished speaking, the employees will come to the HR professionals and ask “Is that really true?” So, we really are the ones who put the plans into action because we’re the ones that have the policies and the influence that really affect the way people work.

HR Magazine: The poor economic outlook, which was worsened by the Sept. 11 attacks, will obviously also have an effect on SHRM. What needs to be done to ease the minds of the members, staff and volunteer leaders that SHRM will continue to move in a positive direction?

Strauch: I think that the first thing that we need to do is give people confidence. As SHRM leaders, we have to say, “This economic situation is not taking us by surprise. We have anticipated that there eventually would be a downturn, and we have thought about this and have a plan to work through this situation.”

It is not like we thought the economy would go on expanding at such a rapid pace forever, and we would continue to have these unprecedented increases in membership. I feel good that the board and the staff have been proactive in anticipating and having some ideas about what effects an economic slump would have on the Society. The aftermath of the terrorist attacks does add complexity into the situation, but I think the U.S. economy is resilient and that the federal government is also taking steps to keep our economy strong.

The board has been carefully considering a strategic plan for SHRM, which begins implementation this year. The challenge for all the leaders of SHRM is whether we should stay with the tried and true, which obviously has worked for us, or consider a new path that may be more viable, but less familiar, and thus likely take us way out of our comfort zones. I think that by taking on this new and risky challenge, the Society will be sending a message to the HR profession that says, “We need to be courageous about how we evaluate who we are and how we decide what we need to be in the future.”

HR Magazine: What do you see as the role SHRM serves now and in the future for the HR profession?

Strauch: I think that we look to SHRM to provide HR professionals with the best and most current information available.

As an HR professional, I look for SHRM, first of all, to help me find the resources that I need to do my job, such as white papers, books, research or training seminars. But I’m also looking for SHRM to give me a heads up on trends or legislation that are coming my way. SHRM also provides the opportunity for me to connect with colleagues who have the same professional interests and experiences as I do.

HR Magazine: What goals have you set for yourself as chair of the SHRM board?

Strauch: One of the goals that I will be focusing on is to examine the structure and the role of the SHRM board. So next year, when I will be the past chair and heading the volunteer leadership nomination process, I would like to see a new model on the board’s structure and function in place. I don’t know what those changes will be right now, but we have to have some real measurable results in place. While it will be up to [SHRM president and CEO] Helen Drinan, to make sure that the SHRM staff has the resources and the tools they need to do their jobs, as chair of the SHRM board, I need to make sure our board members also have the tools that they need to succeed within the SHRM business model.

HR Magazine: There are many different angles of this business model that leaders of SHRM have to consider and ultimately decide what the Society truly needs to focus on. Can SHRM be all things to all people within the HR profession?

Strauch: HR people are notorious for trying to be everything to everyone. And I think that we as a Society need to exercise some discipline as to what it is we can and can’t do. Once we focus on what direction we want to take, then we need to make sure we do it well and provide the best support and resources possible to our members.

HR Magazine: Does the HR profession, like SHRM, also need to refocus its position and role in the workplace?

Strauch: I think all of us in HR can look back and say we have suffered from the inability to say no. You don’t want to turn someone down. And frequently, HR professionals tend to be a bit wishy-washy by either not providing adequate support or not coming out strongly against something, just because they don’t want to offend—and that’s just not a good business model to follow.

On the one hand, when you’re administratively focused, your job almost is to quote chapter and verse and policy and say “No, we can’t do that because of this list of reasons.” But as you go higher and higher, you begin to empower people to make their own decisions. Your job as an HR professional really is to try to ask questions like, “Why are we trying to do that? What do we want to accomplish? What results do we really want to achieve?”

I think that being in a position of leadership is sometimes showing courage and being able to say “No. We’re not going to do that. I know that it disappoints you, but we’re just not going to do that.” I think the key question we have to ask ourselves is: “How am I serving the mission and meeting the expectations of my organization?”

First and foremost, we have to exercise the discipline that keeps us really tied to the mission and the vision of the organization. I tell this to my clients when they start going off in a hundred different directions. I always try to bring things back into perspective by asking: “What does that really have to do with what you do here?”

I think that within SHRM and the HR profession, it is crucial for us to keep equally as focused. My focus this year is to promote the HR profession and make people realize that it’s the greatest profession in the world. I believe that truly dedicated HR professionals have answered a higher calling, and I want all HR professionals to feel proud about the career and the profession that they have chosen. I know that I do.

Bill Leonard is senior writer for HR Magazine

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