HR Without Borders

Extensive global business experience has taught SHRM’s new CEO, Laurence O’Neil, that great HR practices have no borders.

Nov 1, 2008
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After Susan Meisinger announced her retirement, effective this June, as president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), more than 400 candidates applied for the job. On Aug. 11, Board Chair Janet Parker announced that the board had hired Laurence G. “Lon” O’Neil, who had served as chief human resources officer for Kaiser Permanente, America’s largest not-for-profit health maintenance organization, and for Bank of America, among other executive positions. Before his start date Oct. 1, O’Neil talked with SHRM Editorial Director Leon Rubis about his career, HR challenges and SHRM.

Q: Tell us about your experience before you chose HR as a profession.

A: My area of academic study was counseling and social work, which proved to be a phenomenally valuable grounding for working with people and improving their performance.

In the mid-1970s, the American School in Tehran, Iran, recruited me to work with the students and families of the expatriate community. Drug abuse was a growing societal problem, and the major U.S.-based companies represented in Iran helped create and fund a community program that provided both family counseling and counseling on drug abuse prevention and treatment. Since I had comparable work experience within the criminal justice system in New Mexico, I was asked to become the director of that new program.

It gave me an opportunity to work closely with CEOs and the heads of HR from U.S.-based corporations and representatives of the U.S. Embassy—a great introduction to the world of business and human resources.

Q: When did your career in HR begin?

A: In Tehran, I met my wife, Suzanne, who was there teaching French and political science. When the Iranian revolution took place, we returned to the United States. Originally, we had plans to earn graduate degrees, but we couldn’t afford to both be students at the same time. So, when Suzanne started earning a law degree, I used the business experience I had acquired overseas to land a job as an international compensation analyst with Bank of America. From that point on, I was hooked on what HR could do for people and their organizations.

Q: While at Bank of America, you acquired significant international experience. How important is a global perspective for HR professionals?

A: I can’t stress it enough. It’s among the most important elements of expertise that HR professionals can have, even if they don’t work for a global company.

Newsweek International magazine’s editor, Fareed Zakaria, recently wrote that not only are global markets here to stay, but they are completely interdependent. Clearly, it’s important for all of us to be comfortable operating in a connected, global environment. From a business perspective, we need to embrace the power of diversity within different cultures, countries and experiences.

On a personal level, my own overseas experience shaped my career, made me a better HR leader, and helped prepare me for a world in which every industry is looking beyond national borders. The current global financial crisis makes the point in “real time.”

Laurence G. ‘Lon’ O’Neil
Education: B.A., sociology, Villanova University, 1970; M.A., guidance and counseling, University of New Mexico, 1974.
Career: 2002-07, senior vice president, chief HR officer, Kaiser Permanente. 2000-02, managing partner, Northern California and San Francisco region, Heidrick & Struggles. 1993-2000, executive vice president/chief HR officer, Bank of America. 1992-93, vice president, HR services, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. 1983-92, various executive HR jobs in San Francisco and Tokyo with Bank of America. 1981-82, manager of international compensation, Wells Fargo Bank. 1980, senior international compensation analyst, Bank of America. 1975-79, director, Department of Social Services, Tehran American School. 1972-74, counselor/social worker, Mental Health Center, Bernalillo County, N.M.
Personal: Age 59; wife Suzanne; two daughters.
Diversions: Hiking, tennis, kayaking, and reading (voraciously) classic literature, poetry, business books and periodicals.

Q: How can SHRM promote the HR profession globally, especially in India and China?

A: SHRM has done a great job in identifying the most important areas of growth for our profession: India, China and the Middle East. Businesses that are expanding around the world recognize that growth brings with it a greater need for talent, interconnected compensation, leadership development, succession planning—in essence, HR’s special expertise.

And SHRM has the best and largest concentration of information around these issues. I don’t know of another organization that is as prepared to meet that global need as SHRM. I really believe that as more companies and practitioners become aware of our capabilities, SHRM’s influence will continue to grow in other countries.

There are no borders for great HR practices. The best policies and programs aren’t confined by geography.

Q: What did your experience at Kaiser Permanente teach you about possible solutions for the 47 million U.S. residents who lack health insurance?

A: I think there’s a very clear path ahead—the need for the broad availability of health care, I would argue, is no longer a question. And the solution will be built on the principle of absolute transparency in information about health care quality, cost and accountability. There must be concerted behavior on the part of U.S. employers to band together and seek a solution, and there’s been a great deal of progress on that in the last couple of years.

Q: What role do you foresee for employers and HR professionals to help improve access to health care and restrain spiraling costs?

A: The HR profession and the employer community are absolutely critical to this issue. Employers have a trillion dollars devoted to a budget item that goes up 10 percent a year with no end in sight. But they haven’t had the data they need to understand how the health care business works. There’s been no malice aforethought here; it’s just the way the system developed. When they have data, and when there’s transparency about who provides the highest quality at the lowest cost—and, in fact, highest quality and consistency tend to lower costs—then employers are able to make concerted buying decisions that accelerate change.

And HR has a unique voice that needs to be heard. One of our core areas of expertise is compensation and benefits. Even in the best-managed companies, health care is the only cost line that’s uncontrolled—making HR’s role that much more important. By providing data, training and ways to use that data, SHRM can play a remarkably important role in health care solutions.

Q: In addition to managing health care costs, what do you see as the major issues that HR professionals face today?

A: There are several key issues facing corporate boards and CEOs and, therefore, HR professionals. One is leadership—succession planning and leadership development. At its core, this speaks to diversity and talent management, which are themselves major challenges.

A second is the broad range of workforce readiness challenges—from school reform to special accommodations to keeping older workers employed.

A third issue is the management of pensions and employment security, because so many companies’ pension plans are being scaled back, eliminated or changed, and there are unfunded liability issues within both mature companies and governmental employers. With so much uncertainty and anxiety in the economy these days, this issue will become even more important for HR.

Another area of opportunity is managing organizational change as we increasingly become globally interdependent.

And I also believe we will begin to see more interest in labor relations and employee relations. During the past 15 years or so, interest in these issues has atrophied a bit. But the combination of a changing workforce and economic anxiety are likely to bring these matters back into focus. As a result, there will be a need for many HR professionals to acquire or reacquire the necessary expertise.

Q: How can SHRM serve the needs of senior HR executives, plus gain from their experience and C-suite perspective?

A: That’s an enormously compelling question for SHRM. Our association is the central and most respected source for information and networking among HR professionals, yet I don’t think all of the executive-level heads of HR think first to tap into SHRM. From my experience, many of these executives rely on an informal network that they create themselves.

But I’m convinced that as we increase our visibility, and as more people learn about the critical role SHRM plays, that will change. SHRM is perfectly positioned to strengthen the profession by providing CHROs and CEOs with the information they need to address today’s major workplace challenges. For the first time in my career, CEOs in all industries are not calling these only “HR” problems—they’re calling them “running-a-successful-business” problems.

Q: Can you share any of the items on your “to-do” list for your first 100 days?

A: There’s so much that SHRM does exceptionally well. We have talented, thoughtful members, a dedicated staff of professionals and a sound organization.

I want to begin my tenure by listening to people, learning about the aspirations and needs of our members, and exploring the untapped opportunities that lie ahead. It’s important to me that people not just feel they’ve been heard, but to know they’ve been heard.

One reason I’m so enthusiastic about my new role is that I know how much more important HR is destined to become in all organizations, particularly during challenging economic times. Companies are already turning to our members for help in new areas, and SHRM must always be ready to help meet these emerging demands. That’s our mission. As we continue to find new ways to serve HR professionals and to advance the profession, I know our greatest and most rewarding achievements are still ahead of us.

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