Delivering Executive Potential

By Patrick Mirza Sep 1, 2008
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At mail-services company Pitney Bowes, the HR leader helps turn prospects into effective business leaders.

Significant, dramatic change—the kind that can make even a strong executive’s head spin—has been a constant at Pitney Bowes for most of this young century. An ongoing course correction that began in 2001 has seen the company refocus on its core competency—mail finishing—by divesting peripheral business lines and acquiring more than 80 other companies in relevant operations.

This fundamental transformation has been “one of the most challenging in the company’s history—and it has been largely successful,” says Chief Executive Officer and President Murray Martin by e-mail.

From 2000 to 2007, revenue at the Fortune 500 corporation increased more than 56 percent to $6.1 billion, while staff increased roughly 27 percent to 36,165. The company has not been immune to hard times, announcing plans last November to achieve a net reduction of 1,500 jobs, but its leaders remain confident: In the 2007 annual report, Martin noted that Pitney Bowes is “encouraged by our ability to achieve a solid performance despite the difficult economic environment.”

A key factor in that performance, says Martin, lies in the strong leadership and adaptability of his executive team, based at headquarters in Stamford, Conn.

That suggests that the person who has been developing those executives for the past 15 years must have gotten it right.

That person, Johnna G. Torsone, has a strong personal commitment to learning and adaptability. She defines those qualities as increasing your own store of knowledge and skills, and understanding when to give credence to those around you who possess skills that you do not.

In today’s business environment marked by rapid change, executives cannot personally know all they must to make key decisions, so they must be able to learn—and learn whom to depend on, says Torsone. As a result, learning skill emerges as an important factor in Pitney Bowes’ assessments of executive potential.

Human Resources: Calculated Risk

This commitment to learning and adaptability reflects Torsone’s own career path and personal penchant for growth. She excelled in school, graduating from Vassar College with honors and from Albany Law School in the top 5 percent of her class. After clerking for a judge, she joined Parker, Chapin, Flattau & Klimpl in New York, where she practiced employment law for 14 years, rising to the level of partner.

As a young attorney, Torsone “was pretty risk averse because I thought that was what my clients expected,” she recalls. “What they needed from me was judgment” and a partner who could help them achieve their goals—within legal limits. “You had to be willing to put yourself on the line.”

Now, she says, “I am prudently risk averse. I don’t go overboard because at the end of the day you’re really there to get the business done, treat people appropriately in the process, and then move on.”

In 1990, Torsone took a calculated risk by becoming Pitney Bowes’ director of corporate employee relations and labor relations counsel. Focusing on practical business issues offered Torsone intellectual freedom: “I felt like my brain was opened up.”

After two years, she moved into the role of executive director, human resources planning, development and training, and employee relations. She kept her duties and assumed new ones, focusing on senior management succession. A year after that, she became Pitney Bowes’ top HR executive.

Throughout her career at Pitney Bowes, she has constantly taken on new challenges. In 1993, she launched a strategic review of the company’s diversity efforts, resulting in a plan that Catalyst—a New York-based organization devoted to equal opportunity for women—cites as a role model. She has overseen efforts to completely remake HR operations, reducing HR’s cost structure by 30 percent and streamlining the task of adding Pitney Bowes’ corporate acquisitions. Such changes, for example, help managers evaluate each acquisition and identify and address potential problems in assimilating companies with different HR systems.

Early in her career, Torsone focused on reducing health care costs and improving employee health through such measures as on-site health clinics and health screenings—a novel approach at the time. More recently, she has become involved in health care issues in her state, serving, for example, as co-chair of the Health Policy Committee of the Fairfield Business Council.

And, of course, she has keyed an approach to executive development that reaps results: Leslie Abi-Karam numbers among the executives who have risen through the ranks—and gives some of the credit for her development to Torsone. Abi-Karam, a Pitney Bowes executive vice president, and president of the company’s Mailing Solutions Management unit, says, “What Pitney Bowes values is the ability for an executive to continually grow and learn through multiple avenues.”

Yet true to Torsone’s dual vision of learning and relying on others, the company has not been shy about hiring outside executives when their skills and experiences prove a good match. Case in point: Roughly a year ago, then-CEO Michael Critelli moved to the board and was replaced by Martin, an internal candidate. At the same time, the company hired outside executives to fill other needs, points out Kurt Potter, research director for Information Technology Services and Outsourcing at Gartner, a Stamford-based company that analyzes technology businesses.

“They are willing to learn from others and get best practices from the marketplace,” while also looking to internal candidates, says Potter.

One would think that combination is exactly what Torsone wants.

The author is SHRM’s online multimedia producer. He previously served as editor and managing editor of HR Magazine for 10 years, and has covered human resources since 1993.

​Johnna G. Torsone

Education: 1975, juris doctor, Albany Law School, New York; 1972, bachelor’s degree, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Current Job: 1993 to present, executive vice president and chief human resources officer, Pitney Bowes, Stamford, Conn.
Career: 1992-93, executive director, human resources planning, development and training and employee relations; 1990-92, director, corporate employee relations and labor relations counsel; Pitney Bowes. 1976-90, employment law attorney and partner, Parker, Chapin, Flattau & Klimpl, New York, N.Y. 1975-76, clerk for the Chief Administrative Judge, State of New York.
Personal: Age, 57; born, Poughkeepsie, N.Y.; married, two children.
Diversions: History and current events, religion and music.

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