A Blend of Both Worlds

HR leader Ann Denison combines business experience and human resource skills to foster a people-centered culture for her employer.

By Steve Bates Mar 1, 2004
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May 2004 HR Magazine It started as a friendly yet serious bet about a decade ago. Kay R. Curling, SPHR, director of work/life solutions at SRA International, a high-tech government contractor in Fairfax, Va., told her boss, Vice President and HR Director Ann W. Denison, that something was wrong with the company’s health care expenses. They began investigating large claims and found that employees were occasionally getting charged double or otherwise were stuck with inflated bills.

“It was nothing malicious, but it was just not carefully done,” says Denison. “We made the assumption that if we had someone monitoring those bills, everyone would save money.”

Curling took it one step further, advocating not just bringing in a professional to audit claims but also putting a nurse in the headquarters building to handle routine medical needs and thereby avoid some insurance claims.

Curling recalls telling Denison and top management: “Give me a nurse for six months, and I promise you we’ll do a better job than the insurance companies.” After much discussion, they took the bet. And, they are happy to say now, the gamble is still paying off—in lower insurance costs, reduced employee time away from the office, improved morale and retention, and an enhanced ability to attract top talent.

SRA’s Nurse Advocacy Program has on-site nurses as well as an off-site medical director. Employees and their families visit or call the nurses with all kinds of medical and wellness issues, from first aid to arranging home visits for those in need. A part-time case manager focuses on disability matters.

Although the clinic is nationally recognized, Denison is not. She seems more inclined to seek honors for her staff than for herself. She is an active member of the Society for Human Resource Management, and in 2002 she won an ethics-in-business award as part of the HR Leadership Awards of Greater Washington, sponsored by the Washington Business Journal, Marymount University, various consulting firms and other businesses. But it’s the company and its programs that have gained national attention. For five straight years, SRA has appeared on the list published by Fortune magazine of the 100 best places to work in the United States.

Denison is effusive in spreading around credit for good ideas, and she admits that she’s proud of what she and her team have accomplished in her 16-year tenure. Yet she adds that there are daunting HR challenges that have yet to be mastered. She works long hours, but she savors her free time at her home, a farm nestled in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

What colleagues say sets Denison apart from many longtime HR professionals is her ability to blend cultures—and not just people of diverse racial or ethnic backgrounds. Her duties include merging staffs of acquired companies, getting technical and nontechnical people on the same page, helping those with military and intelligence backgrounds to speak the same language as those with administrative or recruiting duties, and absorbing about 20 new employees every week.

It’s also Denison’s role to get the company’s HR and business people on the same wavelength. Although she doesn’t have a monopoly on that ability, she notes that it doesn’t hurt that her career track was primarily on the business side before she took on HR duties during the 1980s. She has become a complete HR executive, offering no apologies for the route she took to get there, a route to top HR jobs that is becoming increasingly common nationwide. Says Curling: “She’s not bogged down by ‘HR-think.’ ”

“Learning the science of human resources management is critical in today's market,” Denison says. “However, overlaying that textbook learning with experience gained by coming up through the business means that I've been able to craft solutions that meet both business needs and the demands of human resource management principles.”

‘Running a Business’

Those who have come to know Denison well say she represents the best of the business and HR worlds.

Tony Valletta, a senior vice president with SRA who is in charge of one of the company’s five key operations—sensitive military intelligence consulting—says he wouldn’t hesitate to put Denison in charge of a business. “She actually is running a business now, the business of human beings,” he says. “She really is a human relations expert.”

Denison sits in on Valletta’s staff meetings. “She jumps right in there,” he says, “bringing up issues such as polygraphs and clearances” for workers to be assigned under government contracts. Valletta says Denison has been particularly proactive in arranging the proper types and levels of insurance coverage for SRA employees working under military contracts that send them to war zones, such as handling the grim and dangerous task of finding mass graves in Iraq.

“Our people get shot at,” says Valletta. “We make sure that there are support mechanisms for these people. We make sure the families of these people are taken care of. The insurance issue is a tremendous burden. She and her staff have done absolutely unbelievable work,” he adds.

Denison and her HR deputies scrambled to assist six SRA employees who were injured in the September 2001 terror attack on the Pentagon. In addition to injuries, the six left with nightmarish visions of seeing a ball of fire, dodging flying debris and smelling airplane fuel. “Ann and her staff worked all the aspects” of healing for those workers, says Valletta.

Denison’s talents go beyond pushing the right buttons, notes Valletta, who adds that some HR people “can be so aloof.” Denison “acts as a true ombudsman between the highest and lowest levels of the company.” In addition, when anyone at the firm has a problem that isn’t resolved through a discussion with his or her immediate supervisor, it’s known that “the next person you go to talk to is Ann. Her door is always open.”

“She’s the most amazing facilitator,” says Curling. “If there’s a serious problem, she can actually talk the person into opening up. It’s a rare gift. She’s very disarming. Folks trust in her. And it’s a role very few people can play.”

Denison “respects each person as an individual,” trying to understand what makes them tick, says Curling. “She’s very confident about herself, and she’s a very inspiring person to work for.”

Mary Saily, senior vice president of consulting services for HumanR in Sterling, Va., who has worked with Denison, agrees. “She’s got a very complete knowledge of HR, while some [HR leaders] are more administration or legal or OD [organizational development]. It’s one of the reasons she’s been so successful.”

Moreover, Saily says, “She’s good at selling her ideas within the organization.” Denison is “very data-oriented. She’s not unwilling to look at the bad news as well as the good. She’s business-oriented, but at the same time she’s concerned about the people. She’s also just a very good person.”

Adds Saily: “She’s great at listening to ideas from her staff. She’s rigorous about making sure that it’s a really good idea. Then she lets her staff run with it.”

A Little ‘Out There’

The approach that Saily describes is the dynamic that played out in the development of the SRA health clinic program a decade ago. Curling spelled out the case for the program to Denison. Eventually, the two made the case to top management. Denison vowed to monitor and evaluate the costs and benefits rigorously. After all, a bet was a bet.

“We knew we were a little ‘out there,’ ” Denison says. “Other companies didn’t do that, and we believed very strongly that we needed to show the cost savings to our management. We needed to prove that this was a good thing.

“We kept very detailed records of lost time, time that people didn’t have to go to doctors, saved money in terms of claims adjustments, a whole series of things,” Denison says. “And we proudly presented at one six-month point to our chief operating officer at the time that the hard costs that we could prove we had saved were like five times the salary of the nurses. It was enormous. And we were so proud of ourselves.

“The CEO said: ‘You guys are wasting your time. The value of this is so much greater than the hard costs; don’t waste my time measuring,’ ” Denison recalls. Now, “we have the data but we don’t report it. About a year ago, the return was $3.31 to every $1 spent. Those are hard costs, provable.” And then there are the “softer” benefits.

“It helps in recruiting, but it’s not the key thing,” Denison says. “Where we really find it is in retention and company loyalty. That’s very hard to measure. But some of the testimonials are just shocking. These employees will do anything for the company because the company has helped them at this time of crisis.”

For example, a woman whose company was acquired by SRA wrote to clinic administrators that initially she had been skeptical about the need for on-site nurses. Then, when her young son had a worrisome feeding disorder and insurance issues arose, the woman says, she called SRA’s nurse case manager. The case manager mediated a dispute between a hospital president and an insurance company executive and cleared the way for treatment.

“I truly believe that [the case manager’s] efforts helped me save my son’s life,” the employee wrote. “I can’t tell you how grateful I am for her help.”

The program has been supported all along by top management because it is consistent with the firm’s culture, a culture that attracted Denison to SRA and has kept her there, even though, according to Curling, “she gets called all the time by headhunters.”

Numerous Talents Recognized

Denison’s reputation has grown steadily in the national capital area. When she was presented the ethics award two years ago, judges noted that under Denison’s guidance, SRA’s HR department had been recognized “for innovation and best practices in recruiting, benefits program design and management, and work/life balance issues.” In addition, the award sponsors noted, “an HR enterprise resource planning system has transformed the employee benefits open season into a paperless process. She is also a strong advocate of a diverse workplace.”

Denison is proud of the accolades. But she might be even prouder of some of the more intangible results of her work at SRA, such as “translating business strategies into actionable people strategies. I work tenaciously to understand internal and external business environments [and] provide thought leadership to lead, manage and influence change.”

Though she can’t take credit for her firm’s remarkable growth—she joined a 300-employee company that is now nearly 10 times that size—she does take some credit for blending potentially conflicting cultures.

“Our culture in SRA grew up from primarily a military mind-set. And, because we are a technology company, we have a lot of IT folks.” Those don’t always speak the same language when they sit down at the table, notes Denison.

There are diversity challenges. “When you come from a military, primarily male-oriented culture, how do you get the women and the minority candidates in the senior ranks? Those things keep me awake at night—how we do it. Our statistics are fine, but you can never put that battle down. It doesn’t end.”

Talent management is a constant challenge at firms such as SRA, where work is highly defined by projects. “It does take a lot of work” to find people’s strengths and find the best ways to employ them on a continuing basis, says Denison. “You can hire someone for a particular project and they are going to be a software engineer and have two software engineers that work for them. And that project ends, and sooner or later they have got to go on to the next project,” which might be quite different. “The people who succeed here are the ones that are very adaptable,” she says. “It does take a lot of effort” by HR to smooth out rough edges.

‘We Are Part of the Business’

One thing that Denison says she rarely feels she has to do is talk with top management to try to keep HR’s priorities in line with those of the business. “They’re so integrated that you really can’t even separate them,” she says. “We are right there” with leaders of the key businesses. “We are part of the business. Our recruiters work for HR but they sit in the business units.”

Those who work with Denison say she’s very good at shielding her staff when, as Curling puts it, “stuff starts rolling downhill.” But Denison works hard to give her assistants expertise, visibility and responsibility. “I made sure that there is no aspect that someone else couldn’t do,” she says. “If I walk out the door today, there will probably be nothing that someone else couldn’t pick up. There are things that I’m better at than others, but there’s nothing that couldn’t be picked up.”

One of her key messages to her staff over the years: “I want you to develop a practice that becomes a best practice.” And, Denison concedes, there are still mountains to climb in her operation. Training and development is good, but can be better, she says. Likewise, employee communications. However, one vital goal has been accomplished under her tenure:

“HR has helped brand SRA as an employer of choice, a company of choice,” she says. “I am very fortunate that the leadership of this company feels very, very strongly about the importance of caring for our people and the importance of being a good place to work for employees.

“I think it would be torture for an HR director to work for people who were only focused on the bottom line. It has got to be a good place to work for us to be successful,” she says. “I’m pretty proud of what we’ve done.”

Steve Bates is managing editor of HR News. He can be reached at sbates@shrm.org.

At a Glance

Ann W. Denison

Personal: Age 52. Lives on a farm in Bluemont, Va.

Current HR Job: Since 1988: Vice president and director of human resources for SRA International, a high-tech government contractor headquartered in Fairfax, Va. Responsible for recruiting, employee communications, learning and professional development, and HR administration and operations.

Previous Jobs: Was a business consultant for various firms, including American Management Systems, working with government agencies and other clients. Started her career as a data analyst.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in government from the University of Virginia. Numerous courses in employment law and executive effectiveness.

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