Profile: His True Calling

By Steve Bates Aug 1, 2002
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HR Magazine, August 2002His True Calling

Longtime AT&T HR executive Hal Burlingame is hailed as a pioneer in linking business and human capital strategies.

hen Harold W. Burlingame graduated from Muskingum College in Concord, Ohio, in 1962, and started a job as a commercial representative for Ohio Bell, his local phone company, he had little inclination of his true calling. Forty years later, Burlingame can look back on a career that took him to the top HR position at AT&T, one of the nation’s largest corporations, where he helped shepherd nervous executives, employees and stockholders through a series of giant corporate breakups and spinoffs. It was the sort of challenging stuff that many HR people see only in their dreams—or nightmares.

And Burlingame’s not done yet. He currently finds himself at yet another AT&T spinoff, AT&T Wireless, which became independent in July 2001.

Burlingame, 62, is a senior executive advisor with the new company. In addition to heading the HR operation, he recruited members of the board of directors and staffed senior positions. Not bad for a guy who had already been given a retirement party.

“It has been a wonderful trip,” he says.

Burlingame has been hailed as a model HR executive for his longtime emphasis on HR involvement in the business end of an organization. Yet those who know him say they are impressed not just by his resume but by the rock-solid, steady manner in which he has helped organizations and employees stay focused and productive in times of extreme stress.

It’s not just that he’s a people person, say Burlingame’s colleagues. It’s that he always seems to know how, and when, to apply the right amount of prodding and praise to help people succeed, without demanding or expecting personal credit.

“He’s got a very compassionate streak, but he also has a tough mind,” says John Petrillo, executive vice president of corporate strategy and business development at AT&T. “He’s well respected by the AT&T board” as well as by others in the HR and communications worlds, adds Petrillo, who once reported to Burlingame and has “enjoyed a running dialog with the man” for many years.

“If Hal saw something that required a change in people’s thinking, he always seemed to know when to do it,” says Michael Maccoby, an executive consultant based in Washington, D.C., who has known Burlingame for 25 years.

“He was before his time,” says Maccoby. A generation ago, Maccoby notes, “many HR people were more like policemen” than managers of human capital, but Burlingame “was always very strategic. He had a deep understanding of how to connect HR to business strategy, as much as any of the HR people I know. His model of thinking is an important one for the HR world.”

Adds David Ulrich, a professor of business administration at the University of Michigan, “He’s been a thought leader in a dramatic way. He’s had an impact on companies across the country.”

Up Through the Ranks

Like many HR executives at large corporations, Burlingame was not always an HR professional. He worked his way through Ohio Bell in the 1960s and 1970s, holding operating and public relations positions before being transferred to AT&T’s headquarters to manage its corporate policy seminar in 1977. He also served as corporate advertising manager before going back to Ohio Bell in 1979 as assistant vice president for public relations.

Burlingame returned to AT&T in 1981, and two years later he was named vice president of public relations at AT&T Information Systems. Next stop: senior vice president of PR for AT&T. In 1987 he came to the defining position of his career: executive vice president for HR at AT&T, a position he held for 12 years of volatile change in the corporation and the communications world.

It was time to break up the Bell System, and Burlingame was a key player, working to smooth out many of the ripples caused by the massive restructuring.

That was “the mega breakup and spinoff of all time,” says Burlingame. “I was part of the team that helped with the launch of Lucent. Now you see that AT&T is breaking up again” with the divestiture of AT&T Wireless.

“I’ve been through many restructurings and they were always different depending on the environment,” says Burlingame. But a common denominator was that “the people need to have a real sense of where the business is going, the purpose of the business, where they fit into it, so they can understand how they make a difference.”

“If you fail to communicate clearly and don’t put energy into those elements of the transition, it makes a very real difference as to how successful that new business will be,” Burlingame adds.

Making people comfortable with a new or modified job in a new business entity doesn’t just call for HR professionals to hold the hands of anxious workers, says Burlingame. “Usually, the comfort level came when employees saw that the organization was working for customers.”

People started dealing productively with change “when the organization was uncoupled from the mother ship and began to get a sense that it had more flexibility to do things than it had in the past, and people felt good about that new flexibility and freedom, but at the same time it was balanced with the enormous sense of additional accountability” in the new company.

“You can send out all the memos and hold all the meetings you want,” says Burlingame, “but until people see it working, that’s the point where they can have a comfort level and say, ‘Hey, I must make this thing work. My organization must make this thing work.’ They’re calling the plays and running the plays at the same time.”

Continues Burlingame: “You can’t control your way through” how people experience dramatic workplace changes. “It’s an employee’s job to be a professional. You give them the information they need and the freedom to do what they need to do. From the CEO down they’re connected in terms of a really clear alignment.”

Changing ‘Embedded Organizations’

While managing dramatic changes can be challenging, Burlingame concedes that even in a stable corporation it can be difficult for an HR professional, or any professional, to have a major impact. Over the years, “I learned how hard it is to change large, imbedded organizations. It was much easier sometimes to start up new organizations at some distance from the firm.”

He tells the story of a supervisor at Ohio Bell who was thrown into an underperforming operation about 30 years ago “and wanted to make a meaningful change.” With Burlingame’s help, the supervisor “went out and talked to 100 craft people and their supervisors and said, ‘What’s getting in the way of success?’ And they told us in candid terms: ‘Here’s what’s working; here’s what’s not working.’” One of the results was a video used internally to spur upper echelons to action. The video’s title: “What Killed the Bell System?”

“That was kind of heresy in those days,” recalls Burlingame. Headquarters officials heard about it and told him to stop using it, “so we took it underground. Within a year my colleague took his organization from the lowest to the top quartile in performance—not because of the videotape. It was really dealing in a very creative way with those people and their condition, what they thought had to be changed.”

Unfortunately, says Burlingame, it is often difficult to take such successes and implement them in broader ways in large organizations. But that doesn’t mean you don’t keep looking for opportunities to change things, he adds. “Anywhere you go in an organization, you’re going to find individuals who are doing extraordinary things and teams doing extraordinary things,” he says.

‘A Sense of Passion’

Perhaps the most effective way to effect change in any organization is by being involved in the business, Burlingame says.

“I have long believed that your job is to be at the leadership table. When I came to the senior [HR] job in 1987 it was with the assurance that I would always be at the table. I enjoyed that opportunity. I felt a sense of passion about the business and what we were trying to accomplish,” he says.

“I probably started every staff review of every meeting I had with my [HR] team telling them where their business segment was first, and then how we in HR related to that business segment. I felt that was just what we needed to be doing. I felt that’s what our job was.”

In return, says Burlingame, “I expected my team to give me a review of the business as they saw it and the HR dimensions of that, and most of them did a fine job. I was proud of the work they did in good and difficult times in that regard.

“You can’t simply be a strategist at the table,” he says. “Certainly you have to understand a number of fundamentals about HR. But you don’t have to be an expert in all of them. You have to make sure that you are an aggregator, meaning whether you bring in others to support you, whether you have it outsourced, whatever, you get it done.”

Burlingame concedes that some HR professionals are not comfortable with the term “business partner.” “I don’t care what you call it,” he says. “You have to be at the table with the team solving the problems of the business. You’re making sure that the people issues are addressed.

“If the top executive wants to lead the people discussion, that’s perfect. But make sure it’s done. It doesn’t matter who’s got what title and what the exact nature of the discussion is, as long as there’s openness from the CEO and the management to talk about people issues.”

Burlingame says the business partner role extends beyond senior management meetings. “You don’t do it all at the table,” he states. “I walked the halls and talked to the teams in their offices. I don’t care where you are in the organization, unless you’re in a very narrow functional role, HR managers expect people to be in that kind of relationship with their operating teams.”

He says that his background in public relations helped develop his communication skills for his executive HR work and that the two disciplines can support each other.

“I think they have different roles in a business, but they should partner a lot. If employees feel they’re branding the company, there’s an enormous sense of pride in that.”

Why would Burlingame, who is inching toward retirement, take his latest job, helping AT&T Wireless in its quest for critical market share in the highly volatile and risky telecom industry? He’s never shied away from a challenge before, and who has more experience in staffing this type of spin-off?

“I was part of the conversations about how this thing would go,” he says. “I’m helping with strategic staffing. I’m very excited to be a part of this.”

But the people he helps put in place will make the tough calls, such as how many billions of dollars to invest in signal transmission towers this year. “We’ve got a young staff, and I want to step back and let them do their thing.”

“People make the difference,” he emphasizes. “If you support them and extend trust to them and give them the tools they need, they will contribute beyond anything you’ve ever imagined in terms of performance. I’ve seen some incredible people” over the years.

“I hired some people early in my career, one who became president of Ameritech Ohio, another who was one of the vice presidents of public relations here, and so on.” Says Burlingame, “You really feel great when you see these careers developing.”

‘The Most Important Aspect’

Some of Burlingame’s former hires, including top executives who no longer work for AT&T, continue to seek his advice from time to time because they appreciate how much he still has to offer them, says AT&T’s Petrillo. “He keeps in touch with key people in the business. He mentors. He offers a sounding board. He’s a role model, with a complement of experience and a sort of wisdom about him.”

Petrillo recalls that when Burlingame ran HR at AT&T, he occasionally would invite a hard-charging executive into his office for a private discussion.

Burlingame “would quietly sit him down and subtly and not-so-subtly bash him in the head,” explaining how certain actions or statements were counterproductive for both the executive and the corporation, says Petrillo. The tough advice even went to some senior people.

Petrillo believes Burlingame did that because “character is the most important aspect” of his makeup.

“I believe values count,” says Burlingame. “They really matter. And anytime you find people not caring about or understanding that, you’ve got problems coming.”

He says recent business scandals, such as those surrounding Enron Corp., point out the need for HR leaders and all executives to uphold high standards.

“I am just saddened by what’s going on,” Burlingame states. “It calls for a whole rethinking of this role that you have. The sense of accountability, fiduciary responsibility, stewardship that you have in any senior position in a firm is placed in a new perspective by what has just happened.”

The HR profession has “this unique stewardship that I hope is shared. Perhaps ownership is felt even greater by the CEO, but you had better feel that also a​s an HR leader,” he says. “You had better be the person who always stands up for the people dimensions of every issue coming along.”

Despite advances in technology, “you still have to have some skilled staff members” to make crucial decisions.

“This is a profession that has evolved and changed. It has a worthy role in a business. It’s a more exciting role with the new technology and outsourcing if you know how to manage that right. I guarantee there is great opportunity to flourish in HR.”

Steve Bates is senior writer for HR Magazine.

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