Five Who Made It

By Susan J. Wells Jun 1, 2003

HR Magazine, June 2003 Five top-level executives discuss how HR helped them rise to the top levels of corporate managment - and how other HR professionals can follow suit.

Proving that HR management experience also is valuable business experience, many human resource executives are finding that an HR background is helping them move into the highest echelons of corporate management. These individuals offer an encouraging example of what’s possible for others in the profession. They also offer a unique perspective on HR, both from the inside and the outside.

Here are the stories of five such HR executives. All of these accomplished members of the business world either got their start in HR, spent considerable parts of their careers in the field or merged their HR oversight with other corporate responsibilities at the very highest levels of their companies.

In short, they cut their corporate teeth on HR issues, then became senior executives with wide-ranging responsibilities.

Note: The attainment of HR leader and corporate leader are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Three of the executives profiled below either continue to oversee or share in directing the highest-level HR functions at their companies.

Lisa M. Weber
Senior Executive Vice President and Chief
Administrative Officer (CAO)
MetLife Inc., New York

Current responsibilities. As CAO, Weber is responsible for promoting the MetLife brand in the market and setting the direction for the company’s worldwide communications programs, including advertising and public relations. She leads the company’s Corporate Ethics and Compliance, Human Resources and FacilitiesLisa Weber & Services arms and also directs MetLife’s philanthropic activities through her oversight of the MetLife Foundation.

She is one of nine members of the senior leadership team that sets the strategic direction of the publicly held company.

Path to the top. Weber’s HR background includes 15 years of experience directing HR practices and strategies at PaineWebber, Merrill Lynch and Manufacturers Hanover. In 1998, she was hired at MetLife as senior vice president (and executive vice president and head of human resources from 1998 to 2001) with one goal in mind: positively impact corporate performance.

“The only way to improve financial results is through people,” says Weber, so she centralized the company’s HR function to get everyone aligned with the company’s top goals.

The HR changes she instituted were vast: Chief among them was a strict performance measurement system that rates and rewards employees and managers based on their job-performance data. The company now retains 96 percent of its top performers and 93 percent of its middle performers. Weber says 44 percent of the company’s lower-end performers are gone.

In 2001, she was named CAO and in 2002 took on additional responsibility for the company’s Corporate Ethics & Compliance function. Weber also serves on the boards of directors for several financial services companies.

How HR background helped. Weber believes HR professionals are in a great position to become the respected players they strive to be. One reason: They have a prime vantage point to observe both the people and business perspectives—and to see the impact of policies and programs on performance. “When you head HR, you have the clear benefit of seeing it all come together,” she says.

Weber acknowledges her career’s good fortune; early on she was involved in strategy—at the business table. “Even though my job was HR, my role was more strategic.” That, she says, enabled her to “seize diverse opportunities along the way and every one of my experiences brought on the next.”

But it’s not about being aggressive, she notes. “It’s more about tenacity in a positive sense—of selling your ideas and being a driver to make change happen.”

How is HR viewed by CEOs and other top executives? And what should the HR profession be doing differently? Most companies today recognize how important HR is to their organizations, Weber says. “Part of the reason is the high cost of not ‘getting it.’ ” Such costs can include high turnover, poor morale or weak succession planning. “Executives today, for the most part, realize they couldn’t be successful if they didn’t ‘get it.’ ”

Yet, there’s still more work to do to strengthen the bond between HR and the business, Weber believes.

“Having a fine HR program is table stakes,” she says. “It’s the success with which you implement your ideas and plans that really sets you apart.”

If hiring a top HR pro, the perfect candidate would be “Someone with significant business and HR experience, along with financial aptitude, who’s demonstrated strong followership and who ‘gets it’—understands all the perspectives and knows how to drive things forward,” she says. “Having courage and conviction also would be assets.”

Based on your experience, how would you handle HR now if you went back to it in a direct function today? “My approach to HR would not be any different than what it was or what it is now,” she says. Ask any employee what they want to know about a job or a company, she says, and they’ll likely ask “Do the managers care about people’s needs?”

The key, she believes, is “discovering what makes individual employees tick, addressing those needs and building a work role that lets them do their best.”

Best career advice. “For every HR person, ultimately the thinking always needs to be about advancing the company—a focus on the larger game plan,” says Weber. “To do otherwise means you’re taking the short view—looking at things day-to-day. That won’t elevate you strategically.”

Such strategic elevation, which is vital, can be facilitated by working outside of HR, says Weber. “I moved up straight through the HR track, but I was able to address larger organizational issues and strategic direction—and that was key,” Weber says. “But,” she admits, “I do wish I would have stepped out and gotten additional types of experience. In many ways, I think everybody should go off and take a line job; it has value.

“The best HR people also have a broad business perspective; you can’t just do only the ‘HR-speak’ thing and expect to win broad acceptance,” she says. “It’s all about partnership—both above and below you.

“What certainly made it easier for me is that the CEO really cares about people—having that interest and believing fully that it’s going to make a difference. Well, that’s HR’s dream,” she says.

While developing a supportive relationship with the CEO and executive team is important, it’s not all there is to it, she says. “Don’t be so focused on managing up. It’s more important to get followership, to manage down and sideways” as well.

“There’s no magic, no silver bullet,” she says. “If you do the right things for the right reasons, and deliver results, you’re going to win.”

Daniel M. Dressel
Chief Operating Officer (COO)
Pro Financial Services Inc.
Schaumburg, Ill.

Current responsibilities. As COO, Dressel develops the marketing plan and strategic direction for the company’s products, with particular emphasis on new product development. Pro Financial Services Inc., a 20-year-old company with 15 employees, specializes in high-risk, high-limit disability and life insurance for highly paid professionals, such as athletes, executives and entertainers.

Path to the top. Dressel spent nearly 33 years in HR, 22 of them at Kraft Foods. There, he held progressively responsible jobs, rising from personnel assistant to senior vice president of HR. He also served for eight years as Baxter International’s vice president of HR and spent three years as vice president for HR at Dean Foods Co. in Franklin Park, Ill., one of the nation’s largest food and beverage companies.

But when Dean merged with a major competitor in 2001, the combined company moved its headquarters to Dallas from Illinois. Dressel wanted to stay in Illinois, so he looked for a new opportunity. “I had been in large Daniel Dresselcorporations my whole career,” he says, “so I wanted to try a more entrepreneurial environment.”

His quest landed him in a new industry and function, as COO of Pro Financial Services in April 2002.

How HR background helped. “One thing is true about staff functions in any company: You’re constantly selling your human capital ideas and objectives internally and you’re dealing with high-level executives all the time,” Dressel says. “You’re getting everyone on board with support and demonstrating your ability to execute. That expertise from my HR background plays very well in my current role.”

Generally, Dressel believes, there are two ways to execute any plan. “One way is to essentially jam something down peoples’ throats because the boss said so; another way is to work to convince people of the value and validity of what you’re doing by getting them to fully understand and support it,” he says. “I’d always want to approach it the second way” through a common consensus building—a very important skill for human resource professionals to master to advance in a leadership role.

How is HR viewed by CEOs and other top executives? And what should the HR profession be doing differently? From a historical perspective, Dressel believes HR has had an average reputation at best because a lot of HR leaders “didn’t embrace the business sense of the enterprise and didn’t justify their plans through the eyes of the business.”

However, in the past 10 to 20 years, much of that has changed and the business focus has improved—partly, he believes, because of what’s happened to the business environment.

“A climate of mergers and acquisitions, downsizings and reorganizations really has forced more HR involvement. Companies needed HR when these things occurred, and as a result, those situations built relationships,” he says. “When those situations happened in my experiences, I found myself able to do a lot more.”

Today, he sees HR leadership as much more business-oriented, and that bodes well for the future of the profession. “Where that happens, you’ll find HR has a very visible role,” Dressel says. “You want your role to be that of a proactive player, not a reactive player. You can’t provide leadership if you’re only reacting.”

If hiring a top HR pro, the perfect candidate would be “Someone with a good business sense of how the company operates and demonstrated ability to provide solid HR leadership to support company goals. A good business mind is an automatic thing today—those that don’t have this won’t likely have a successful career.”

Based on your experience, how would you handle HR now if you went back to it in a direct function today? Dressel maps out a plan of assessment and action: “I would put together a list of key players in the organization and interview each one about the HR function. Then I’d interview the HR team to get the same opinions. After that I’d make my own observations and come up with the three scenarios to develop a summary of the current state of the function,” he says.

“And then I’d present the things that needed to be done, get the buy-in I need and put together a defensable HR plan to move the organization forward.”

Best career advice. “Too many people in HR today come into the corporate environment and stay in the corporate environment,” he believes. “That can create a large gap in growth and development.”

At Kraft, for example, Dressel moved four times, taking on three different field assignments within the company’s manufacturing operations where the largest number of Kraft employees work.

“I came forward and asked for each one,” Dressel says of the jobs, which had responsibility for managing the HR function at field manufacturing sites and really showed him how the front line works. He also spent time with the company’s sales force.

“I think the lack of that experience is a vacuum in many HR career paths. If you’re really looking to expand your career, you’ve got to have this type of experience under your belt,” he says.

The reason: Your contributions to management will be all the more valuable. “Say I’m sitting in corporate and we’re discussing a labor negotiation or some other situation,” he says. “By having been in the midst of that world, I’m going to be in a much better position to have and contribute a credible point of view to the executive team.”

In addition, the importance of securing support from the top and following through on solutions can’t be overstated. “When I was head of HR, the most important thing was getting my CEO’s support; without it, I would have gotten nothing done. You have to be a strong HR person with a strong relationship with the boss,” Dressel says.

To do that, he advocates getting close to the people around the boss. “Build as strong a relationship with them as you strive to with the boss,” he says. “If subordinates are telling the CEO that they buy into what you’re doing and trying to accomplish, you’re more likely to get that top-level support you need. Plus, your boss will probably want to know what others think of your plans.” If you can show support at multiple levels, you’ll be all the closer to your goals.

“Then, once you have that support,” Dressel says, “make certain you do what you said you were going to do and deliver on your promises. You must have a reputation of effective execution.”

Michael Stark
President and COO
Weber Distribution
Santa Fe Springs, Calif.

Current responsibilities. As president and COO, Stark oversees transportation and warehouse operations, in addition to business development, for one of the nation’s largest providers of third-party logistics services. The privately held company employs 500.

Path to the top. Stark began his HR career as director of labor relations for Vons Cos. Inc., a large retail grocery chain in California, where he also held a number of management posts in HR and store operations for more than 23 years.

Michael StarkHe spent more than 14 years with Exel, a large United Kingdom-based global supply chain management company, where he held senior executive roles in Exel’s global HR organization for many years, as well as in corporate administration and the consumer, chemical, electronics and paper sectors. He was most recently vice president for the company’s Western region, overseeing operations.

While “my eyes were always on the type of role I have today,” he says the likelihood of a relocation to London also weighed heavily on his decision to leave Exel, joining Weber Distribution as president and COO in 2002.

How HR background helped. “In different ways, all of my roles have prepared me for my current role,” Stark says. “My operations roles have provided me with a better understanding of the business and systems and helped to develop more attention to detail. HR has provided me with a better understanding of the role of an executive and how to influence and bring out the best in my team.”

In both roles, he says, he was able to manage profit and loss (P&L), and establish and meet business metrics.

Stark also paid attention to the leadership skills he saw around him, both in human resources and in operations. “I saw things in people I worked for over the years that I looked back on and liked. So I tried my best to emulate those things,” he says.

How is HR viewed by CEOs and other top executives? And what should the HR profession be doing differently? HR needs to be a strategic partner to the business, but this is “much easier said than done,” Stark says.

He sees four levels of HR involvement and advancement in the business:

  1. Administrative

  2. HR management

  3. Business partner

  4. Strategic partner

There are many good small companies where HR can play an important role that may never need to rise above a level 1 or 2 function, he says.

However, in a larger company the role should be a level 3 or 4 and “the HR leader should be considered an executive.” At level 3, “line management is responsible for HR and the HR executive is expected to provide strong influence to the management team.”

At level 4, which he believes is the most rewarding and productive, “the HR exec and the function are given the opportunity to influence business strategy and really drive company performance.”

If hiring a top HR pro, the perfect candidate would be “Someone with a strong HR background, but with operations experience and demonstrated strategic agility in the business. [Someone who is] very organized, with the ability to think on his feet and take a stand to support our business plans.”

Based on your experience, how would you handle HR now if you went back to it in a direct function today? “If I went back to it today I would want to make sure that my CEO and I were in sync on the role that HR was to play,” Stark says. “If the CEO was open to at least being a business partner [level 3], I would look favorably on my contribution but would want to move toward the next level over a 12-18 month period,” he advises. “This would provide me with the time to align my team and gain the trust of the CEO and executive management team.”

In contrast, if this role was not being achieved, “then it may be time to move on,” he says.

Best career advice. “Learn as much about the business of the business as you can. Understand why it exists and why HR’s role is what it is,” Stark says. “Go out and meet your managers to find out what they’re doing and what they need to do it better. Then go to the CEO and say, ‘Here’s where I think we’re heading and here’s what I think we need to do to keep moving our people and our company ahead.’ If my HR people came to me and did that, I’d feel really great,” he says.

“A powerful HR person has to get very close to the CEO and partner with them,” Stark advises. “It can be hard to do, but everyone should aspire to be that strategic business partner.

“The key is to develop trust with the CEO, and you can do this by being aligned with the goals of the company and working toward those goals from an HR perspective. In a sense, the CEO is your customer, and you need to understand his or her needs and meet them.”

He also feels that being viewed by the CEO as a reliable counselor—even a mentor of sorts—helps build this necessary bond, “and this is where the trust really is critical.”

To become that partner, “first, get your HR team fully aligned behind you and all in sync with the company’s longer-term goals. Develop an HR strategic plan that maps out how you are going to support the company’s activities and report on them on a regular basis to the CEO and executive team,” he says. “Be viewed as a contributor and as one who helps others to contribute.”

And be sure to maintain your performance. “Just because you are a ‘strategic partner’ to the business doesn’t take you off the hook for managing the basic business process that keeps the business profitable,” he says. “Fail to do that and the trust you worked so hard to earn from the CEO will disappear.”

Anne Szostak
Chairman and CEO, Fleet Rhode Island, Providence, R.I. 
Executive V.P. and Director, HR and Diversity, FleetBoston Financial Corp., Boston

Current responsibilities. As head of Fleet Rhode Island, Szostak is responsible for a 48-branch banking operation that employs 4,000. She leads Fleet’s business, government relations and corporate giving in the state. At the same time, she leads HR and diversity for parent company FleetBoston Financial, the nation’s seventh-largest financial holding company.

Szostak is currently Fleet’s highest-ranking woman and the first HR person to combine dual titles in staff and line positions. As the HR and diversity leader for Fleet, she is one of 15 corporate officers at Fleet and a member of the Office of the Chief Executive Officer. The company employs 50,000.

Path to the top. Szostak has come a long way from her first job, as a corporate training director for a retailer. During a 30-year career at Fleet, Szostak has held several executive posts, among them chairman, president and CEO of Fleet Maine; executive vice president of consumer banking; and senior vice president of bank operations.

She was named director of HR in 1994 and took on the CEO spot at Fleet Rhode Island in 2001. Since that time, FleetBoston Financial has grown tremendously—chiefly through a series of acquisitions. In 1994, the year she was appointed executive vice president and HR leader, Fleet had assets of $30 billion; today it tips the scales at $190 billion in assets.

How HR background helped. Having two high-level jobs—one in HR and one as CEO—gives Szostak a unique perspective.

Michael Stark“I understand the people equation,” she says, noting that “being in the CEO role also helps me in my HR role.”

For example, she says, “I have a better appreciation of the pressures that the CEO faces,” such as financial performance, industry competitiveness and corporate governance issues. “And this understanding helps me help my boss in directing the goals of the [parent] company.”

Szostak says her CEO role also has allowed her to understand how important it is for HR to be a true strategic business partner. “HR needs to understand the lines of business they support—their strategies, goals and objectives,” she says. The next step is to help those business lines “achieve their goals by effectively investing in and managing their human talent.

“As a CEO, I also see the importance of employees having the skills needed to positively impact the bottom line through cross-selling products and services, as an example. As an HR executive, I understood that skill matching was a critical element, but, as CEO, I see the end result and how important it is to the corporation’s success.”

Looking back, she believes that serving in various line-management roles over the years “really helps you to be a better HR person—to experience the people and the issues in the field.”

When Szostak began her HR career at Fleet, she had a manager who encouraged her to try new things. So she took a post as senior vice president of bank operations, something she admits was very different from her prior duties.

“I was on a steep learning curve, but I learned a lot and was able to do a lot. It was here that I learned the impact of P&L, and that served me well as I continued to grow” in leadership positions within the company.

“My HR experience helped me understand that, as I focused the business on the customer experience and revenue growth, it was critical to marry that with working to improve the employee experience,” Szostak says. “Our employees need to feel good about the company they work for to project a positive image and have the passion to best serve their customers and drive revenue growth.”

How is HR viewed by CEOs and other top executives? And what should the HR profession be doing differently? “There is some inconsistency in how CEOs view HR, but that’s changing,” she says. Szostak points to her own company’s example as a model of what current thinking should be.

“HR at Fleet is seen as an important unit, a key element to the corporation’s success. In fact, one of the key tenets of Fleet’s corporate strategy is to always improve the employee experience,” she says. “The link of human resources and diversity’s importance to the well being of the organization and to profitability has been made in the minds of our executives. That is a model that I would encourage the HR industry to emulate.”

If hiring a top HR pro, the perfect candidate would be “It depends on the strategy the business is going through, but, assuming that the required HR skills are there, the ideal person would have to have passion, take risks, be creative and demonstrate resiliency,” Szostak says.

Being a good learner and coach to others also is important, as is being able to make a difference in an organization.

Best career advice. “Understand the business inside and out—talking the language is terribly important.” She also advocates developing multiple mentors, “almost like a little advisory board for yourself,” she says, adding that she has a set of a half-dozen people whom she regularly taps as sounding boards and advisers.

Szostak also recommends taking initiative. “Sure, you need CEO support, but I think we generally have more permission in leadership than we tend to grab.”

For example, when Szostak became the human resource director at Fleet, she quietly benchmarked other companies on her own, without any directive from above, and started building employee programs for two to three years to prepare the company to apply for—and win—a spot on Working Mother magazine’s annual list of the 100 best companies for working mothers.

“Achieving that was a turning point for us; 75 percent of our employees are women and I was determined to make it easier for employees to be able to combine work and family,” she says.

Her tips to HR colleagues who interact with corporate executives? “Create your opportunities, position yourself and place yourself in the right place at the right time. Stay ahead of the curve, be cognizant of industry and national trends, know the business and ‘talk the talk.’ Be credible, have something to add and take risks. Trust your instincts, work hard but work smart, keep criticisms to yourself, get a mentor—be a mentor and be a part of your community.”

Lastly, she says: “Keep a sense of humor; and don’t believe your own hype!

“The HR field is terribly important and it’s one in which we don’t have an overabundance of top talent. If you’re good, you can be great,” she says. “Show it, experiment and take the risks. Be passionate about HR because it can truly make a difference.”

Leonard A. Schlesinger
Vice Chairman and COO
Limited Brands, Columbus, Ohio

Current responsibilities. Schlesinger manages the operational activities and financial leadership of the functions that support the retailer’s brands—including the Limited Stores, Victoria’s Secret Stores and Bath and Body Works. A five-person HR senior leadership team reports to him. The publicly held company has 4,000 stores.

Path to the top. Schlesinger’s experience in HR has its roots in academics. With the exception of a three-year stint spent outside the halls of academia, Schlesinger was a member of the Harvard Business School (HBS) faculty from 1978 to 1998. During that time, he taught M.B.A. and Executive Programs in the areas of HR management, organizational behavior and service, and general management.

From 1985-88, Schlesinger ventured outside his academic appointments to serve as executive vice president and COO of Au Bon Pain Co. Inc., a chain of French bakery cafes, and as a director of Limited Brands, Borders Group Inc., GC (General Cinema) Cos. Inc. and Pegasystems Inc.

In 1999 he joined Limited Brands as executive vice president, organization, leadership and HR, and was promoted to COO—the first in the company’s history—in 2001. He took on the additional role of vice chairman in February 2003.

How HR background helped. Transitioning from his academic background to the corporate environment allowed him to put his years of teaching, HR consulting and organizational management research into play. “I came with a view of theLeonard Schlesinger world and how it worked—and stated it in my writings, teaching and consulting,” he says. “Obviously this framed any assessment I had of the problems I was facing and their possible solutions.”

Upon joining the company, he realized that there were many HR-related issues that needed a more comprehensive and integrated approach. “The question for me became how do we leverage HR from just a functional approach to our whole enterprise,” he says. So he adopted a new HR “mantra” he called “Talent, Teaming and Technology.”

This strategy “represented a replacement of a plethora of disconnected HR agendas. It was designed to simplify and focus,” he says. “It served to take much of the work off the table so that people could focus on a more limited, impactful agenda. It also served as a basic explanation for all of our work and its connection to business strategy. I believe it has served us extraordinarily well, most evidently by the fact that it hasn’t changed.”

How is HR viewed by CEOs and other top executives? And what should the HR profession be doing differently? “I have little evidence that it [the perception of HR by the top] has improved materially,” Schlesinger believes. To improve the relationship between HR and top executives, HR must advance in the capabilities of the function across the board.

“It starts with an orientation toward serving and with an appreciation of the broader business context,” says Schlesinger.

The business context—not the latest trend in the profession—should drive HR decision making, he says. “There is still much too much ‘fad du jour’ in the HR profession—a collection of underdeveloped solutions that are not rooted in data or useful research” such as trendy but fleeting methods or perks that may make a splash initially, but fade away quickly.

If hiring a top HR pro, the perfect candidate would be “Someone with basic mastery of HR functions and the ability to prove to what extent you can be a change partner for the company.” Ultimately, he says, “these skill sets need to be connected to a basic service orientation and an obvious and unquestioned trustworthiness.

“I fully expect my HR executives to distinguish themselves in their ability to assist me in conceptualizing and executing change agendas for the organization,” he says.

Best career advice. “The fact that I spent 20 years in general business and education was probably the best thing I could have done,” he says. “Without a general understanding of business it is hard to connect the dots when trying to build an impactful HR strategic agenda.

“Business language is finance and accounting, and HR must be fully conversant in both. Customer orientations are essential preconditions for success in marketing—and HR.” Bottom line: The more you make HR “of the business,” the easier it is to make a difference.

To round out their experiences, HR professionals must be prepared to tackle new and challenging assignments, he says. “HR better be raising their hands for assignments outside of their comfort level.”

Schlesinger also emphasizes the importance of HR developing a close relationship with the CEO. “If you can’t get in the door, you’re not going to get anywhere,” he says.

The reason: “Without an explicit objective of assisting the CEO in carrying out his role, there is little chance that you will get to the table (or even be thought of) when big issues hit,” he says.

“It was extremely important for me to assist with an array of issues up build awareness and reciprocity ‘points,’ ” he says. “It is also imperative to demonstrate that you care through speed of response.”

In fact, when Schlesinger first joined Limited Brands with the responsibility for HR, one of the most important and immediate—albeit simple—things he did was get a pager. “I recognized that half of my success was about being available and responsive,” he says.

Susan J. Wells is a business journalist based in the Washington, D.C., area, with more than 17 years of experience covering business news and workforce issues.

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