An Action-Driven HR Leader

Lisa Benders psychology expertise helped her restructure HR and improve systems that affect employees at defense contractor the MITRE Corp.

By Ann Pomeroy Oct 1, 2004
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HR Magazine, October 2004

When Lisa Bender arrived at the MITRE Corp. eight years ago to head the defense contracting firm’s HR department, she was something of a curiosity: an extrovert in a company of introverts.

MITRE is “a very formal organization,” says Bender’s deputy, Carolyn Brownawell, executive director for HR integration and operations. “It’s a very male organization. All those things don’t necessarily add up to an organization that revels in feedback or confronting behavioral issues or difficult people issues.”

Says Senior Vice President Al Grasso, an electrical engineer by training and a director of one of MITRE’s three federally funded research and development centers (FFRDC): “We [engineers] go out of our way to avoid people.”

Bender, on the other hand, was trained to confront behavioral issues head-on. She has a doctorate in social psychology and has also done post-doctorate work in clinical psychology. When she arrived at MITRE, however, she had no formal HR training. “I’d not been the head of HR,” she says, and she had warned her interviewers: “I don’t know compensation. I don’t know benefits.” But she says they told her not to worry because “we have a really good team” of specialists who do know those areas. “But we need somebody to bring it all together.”

In 1996, MITRE split off part of its operation into a separate company—Mitretek Systems, which is no longer connected to MITRE. The executive team at the newly organized company then looked around and decided that “HR was too ‘stovepiped,’ that it wasn’t working as an integrated team,” says Bender. They wanted to professionalize and modernize the company, and they decided that Bender was the person to help them do it. “I don’t think they knew what they were getting,” she says, adding that now “I think they like it.”

Passing the ‘Smartness Test’

What MITRE got in Lisa Bender was an HR director whose background in organizational development helps her exercise crucial HR skills—the ability to assess and diagnose problems quickly, see the big picture, communicate effectively with others, and win their support for necessary changes. MITRE also got a person with, as she says, “a proclivity toward action.”

As she proceeded to revamp the HR department, Bender decided she had to begin by building credibility, and she took great care not to “[harm] the culture that I very much admired.”

MITRE, based in Bedford, Mass., is a private, independent, not-for-profit organization of about 5,500 employees. Chartered to work in the public interest, MITRE’s scientists and engineers advise the federal government on applied systems engineering and research and development issues.

Bender says scientists and engineers believe “if they can think about it, then you should be able to do it.” Also, as experts in their own fields, they expect to be experts in everything else, including HR. “I was told to expect to be undermined” at the beginning, she says, to expect that people would try to tell her how to perform her HR responsibilities. In short, she was walking into a very intimidating culture.

“People here are very smart,” Bender says, “so you’ve got to pass the smartness test. I would say they looked at me [at first] like I look at them. I can’t differentiate between a chemical engineer and a mechanical engineer. They all look like engineers to me.” Similarly, she says she believes that, in their eyes, “I looked like every other personnel person.”

Realizing that she had to show the engineers she knew what she was doing, she started talking to them about their business and asking them what they were trying to accomplish. “I guess they weren’t used to interacting with HR,” she says. “They expected HR to … service them, but not partner with them.” They didn’t expect her to ask questions, she found, but instead expected her to “just do as you were told.” Smiling, Bender adds: “I’m not a do-as-you-were-told kind of person.”

Martin Faga, MITRE’s president and CEO, says he saw early on “that she was going to be an activist.”

Bender took over an HR department that had functioned mainly in an administrative support role in the past. Faga says that because MITRE “sells the brain power of our people—we have no products—and the people we need are scarce,” the HR function needed to play a much larger role in the future. “Our workforce needed an ‘ombudsman,’ and Lisa became that.”

The Business Partner Model

An important piece of Bender’s comprehensive reorganization of the HR function was the introduction of the “business partner” model. Tricia De Blander, SPHR, who manages HR for one of MITRE’s six business units, says, “Lisa had this vision of teams of HR professionals who really could get to understand the business part of the corporation you’re supporting, really would become a partner.”

As the HR business partner manager for MITRE’s Center for Enterprise Modernization, De Blander heads a mini HR department co-located within her unit rather than sequestered only in the corporate HR department. Each unit has a manager like De Blander to handle its day-to-day HR needs.

A survey of the senior executive leadership revealed strong approval for this model. Grasso, who runs MITRE’s Department of Defense FFRDC, says he can see that his HR business partner “knows what’s keeping me up at night, and, as a result, he gets his whole organization to help me.”

Grasso says the new model allows him to go to one person for all of his HR needs, and that person “is as much a part of my organization as he is part of Lisa’s organization.” So impressed was Grasso with the success of the new system that he adapted it for his own use, creating a financial partner model for his unit’s business activities that is “completely modeled after what Lisa did with HR.”

Faga says these business partners help Bender, too. “When she meets with all of them, she gets to understand what are the trends, what are the specific needs of this year.” That, in turn, provides her with ammunition in meetings with company officers “to push for a different kind of recruitment effort, training initiatives … whatever it may be.”

Developing Healthy Systems

As a social and organizational psychologist, Bender had learned that “the ills of the world” are caused by systemic problems in the organization. “You have to have a healthy system in order for people to behave in a healthy way,” she says. “You have to have a system that treats people like adults if you want them to act like adults.”

With this background, Bender was horrified to learn that she had to sign a time card at MITRE. “It felt unprofessional to me,” she says. She learned, however, that they “weren’t trying to check up on me to see if I had done my eight hours.” The time card was necessary because MITRE’s government contractors required the company to bill the federal government according to the number of hours spent on each project. Nevertheless, the card was cumbersome, with about 13 different “action codes” in use, many of which required employees to ask their supervisor for permission to take sick leave, vacation, a holiday, etc.

In addition, employees were required to work a 40-hour, five-day week and do it between 7:45 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. If employees had worked 40 hours by the third or fourth day and then wanted to take an hour off on Friday afternoon, for instance, they were charged for a full vacation day. Bender says that struck her as “just being mean to people.” She adds: “It was a ‘Mother MITRE, may I?’ situation.”

Bender says she decided that since the company’s employees were professionals, they should be treated as such. The result was what she describes as a “mind-set change” in how work hours are viewed that “put people in charge of their own time.”

She began by asking the CEO to send out a memo suggesting that employees avoid scheduling mandatory business meetings on Friday afternoons during the summer. “Within three seconds, he said he got 150 e-mails back from employees saying, ‘Yea!’ ” The new flextime policy initiated in 2001 suspended the five-day rule, “so if somebody put in their 40 hours and didn’t need to be at work on a Friday, we didn’t charge them a vacation day.”

The flexible work program also permitted telecommuting for some employees, depending on the type of job they were doing.

“This was really a hard one,” according to Bender. MITRE is very customer-centered, she says, and anything that might cause employees to be unavailable to their customers “sent shivers up people’s spines here.”

Faga agrees. “I have never had to ask a MITRE employee to work harder,” he says. “I have had to ask a MITRE employee not to work so hard!” He says MITRE’s employees are professionals with a strong sense of mission, and they’re attracted to the company because they get to do interesting, important work—provided by government sponsors. Once it became clear that flexible hours could improve employee morale and job satisfaction without shortchanging the company’s sponsors, the new program was very popular.

Another successful change was Bender’s new performance management program. Information collected by a Gallup “work climate” survey of MITRE employees is given to managers, who are expected to take the survey findings and develop action plans to improve the team dynamics in their individual units.

The place “where the rubber meets the road,” says Bender, is in the interaction between managers and employees. “Everybody’s life is made up of who they interact with every day and what kind of place you make [the organization] for that employee.” These performance “interventions,” as Bender calls them, give managers tools to help them become better managers, she says.

Not every new program met with instant approval. One that generated much discussion at first was the elimination of the division between vacation leave and sick leave and the establishment of one “pot” of paid-time-off days. Bender had noticed that many employees saved a large portion of their vacation time. In a series of focus groups, employees were asked, “Why don’t you take vacation?” The answer: “We have it there as an insurance policy in case we get sick.” The new program allowed employees to use their time off as they chose. Initially, though, “people thought we were taking benefits away from them,” Bender says.

She also introduced a “cash-out” of unused leave time. Each November, employees with unused time can choose to get paid for a portion of that time—“sort of like giving yourself a bonus,” Bender says. As expected, this program met with immediate approval. Also popular is the leave-sharing program, which allows employees to donate a portion of their leave time to be used by others who face an emergency situation and have used up all their paid time off.

Strength In Psychology

Despite the concerns raised at the outset, implementing programs such as the paid-time-off bank, the flexible work arrangements and the institutionalization of the Gallup work climate survey was “probably the best thing we ever did,” Bender says. “They got us on the Fortune list.” MITRE is one of only seven companies in the United States to make Fortune Magazine’s 100 Best Companies To Work For list for three years running—since 2002.

So successful were Bender’s changes that in 2001 she was promoted to vice president and chief human resources officer—making her an officer of the company—at the recommendation of CEO Faga.

Faga says Bender’s psychology training is one of her main strengths. Although his inclination, when the focus is on him, is to say, “Turn off that psychoanalysis right now! Analyze those other people,” he recognizes Bender as “a world-class expert at this; none of the rest of us are.” (In fact, as if to underscore that MITRE’s professionals are not psychologists, Faga—an electrical engineer himself and former assistant secretary of the U.S. Air Force for space—says there’s a joke about engineers “that we repeat a lot around here. Question: How do you tell an extroverted engineer? Answer: He looks at your shoes.”)

Faga says Bender’s “ability to assess individuals in certain situations has been legendary here.” He recalls a time when he talked to Bender about something he had been unable to accomplish, and she said, “You know, I think if you just went back and restated it like this …” He tried her suggestion, and it worked. “So I said, ‘Thanks, coach!’ ”

Introduction to HR

Although Bender lacked formal HR training when she joined MITRE, she did have plenty of experience in human resources. After finishing her doctorate in 1979 and discovering that “nobody was hiring social psychologists,” she and her husband, Bruce, also a psychologist, made a deal that “whoever got the first job in either Boston or San Francisco, that’s where we would go,” Bender recalls. Her husband landed a job at a mental health center in Boston, and they’ve lived in the area ever since.

Bender took on a consulting project for Digital Equipment Corp. in Maynard, Mass., and subsequently was offered a full-time job as an HR consultant. In fact, she says, it was really an HR generalist position.

Bender was soon promoted to a position teaching generalists about organizational development. “That was really a fun job,” she says, “because I like to teach.” It was there that she learned the importance of doing the basics well. “The organization has to deliver well before you really can deserve a place at the business table,” she says. “Your credibility is really linked to doing that.”

Bender spent 16 years at Digital, which was “a wonderful place to work,” she says, “and so innovative in the human resource practice. I feel like the rest of the world is just now catching up to it.”

Digital’s family-friendly environment offered Bender the flexibility to take six months off work after the adoption of each of her children (Rachel, now 19, and Michael, 16). She “bounced back and forth between line and staff positions” during this time, taking staff jobs because they offered more flexibility to be with the children at critical stages.

As her children got older, she began to take line jobs. “I was called the domestic,” she says, “because I would never take jobs that involved travel.” She preferred to stay at the company’s headquarters, which was a 15-minute drive from her home.

When she returned to work after the adoption of her son, Bender proposed a job-share arrangement with her colleague, Carolyn Carder. “It was a unique and different kind of model,” she says. There was enough work for two people, so they became co-managers of corporate organizational development, with each working full time and fully in concert; each could pick up on any task where the other had left off. “We were called the Bobbsey Twins,” she says, “or sometimes Frick and Frack.” They worked together successfully for seven years.

As she found herself dealing with higher and higher levels of management at Digital, Bender says, it became clear that an individual’s decision-making style and “who they are as a person” have a large impact on their organization. A licensed psychologist who has maintained a clinical practice and worked in a psychiatric hospital, she decided to go back to school for post-doctorate training in the mid-1980s. “I did the clinical training to inform my organizational work,” Bender says.

The Piano Lessons

Bender says that as the years pass, she sometimes feels that she knows less and less. She admits, however, that at the career stage she has reached, “you get very well-practiced at something so that it becomes sort of second nature, and you don’t get the same pleasure that you did when you were learning.”

To counteract this, she took up piano lessons two years ago. It was an “amazing” experience to be in the beginner’s role again, she says. “I’m so in control all the time. I know what I’m doing. So to let myself be vulnerable to being a [beginner] is probably the hardest thing about learning how to play the piano.”

The experience brings back youthful anxieties, Bender says. “Am I prepared enough for my lesson? Is he going to yell at me?”

Of course, Bender continues to learn in her job as well. She currently works on leadership development with a coach as she prepares for “the next stage” of her career. But that kind of self-exploration “feels like familiar territory,” she says, so it’s quite different from being a complete beginner, as she was at the piano.

Bender feels fortunate to be working with Faga, whom she describes as what management expert Jim Collins calls “a level five leader,” or one who leads with humility. That means “it’s never about them as a person,” says Bender. “It’s about the organization. It’s about the people.”

For Bender, it has been very satisfying to be able to try out her ideas and discover that they work. Perhaps the most telling evidence of their success can be observed in discussions with Bender’s colleagues as they talk about “our” programs. No longer are they identified as “the HR program,” she says. They belong to the managers and the employees now.

Bender says she expects to be at MITRE until she retires. “I have wonderful colleagues here, and they have allowed me to be a salesperson. And they bought!”

Ann Pomeroy is senior writer for HR Magazine.

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