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Ian Ziskin has created a human capital strategy at Northrop Grumman to help the defense contractor in the war for talent.
Thanks to pre-dawn trips to the gym, Ian Ziskin, chief HR and administrative officer at Northrop Grumman Corp., is trim and taut at age 50. His boss, however, thought Ziskin had gone flabby between the ears when he floated some ideas for his strategy to make the defense contractor a friendlier place for the science and engineering talent it needs.
Among the ideas were flextime, telecommuting and satellite offices to relieve the commuting grind for the 500 employees at the Los Angeles headquarters and those at other sites.
“The satellite office idea was initially way out of my comfort zone,” Chief Executive Officer Ron Sugar recalls. But Ziskin convinced him it was worth a pilot test. “The jury’s still out, but the results so far are favorable and I’m impressed,” Sugar admits.
If elements of the flexible workplace strategy prove successful in pilots, they could be extended to many of the other 122,000 employees, the vast majority at U.S. sites.
The flexible workplace strategy represents just one part of a transformation Ziskin leads. Since 1994, when Northrop and Grumman merged, the company has acquired about 20 businesses with annual sales of $32 billion from high-tech services and products that help the nation defend itself on land and sea, in the sky and space, and in cyberspace.
With Ziskin at the helm, the 1,600-person HR staff has created a human capital strategy to recruit and retain talent. Among other initiatives: migration to a single human resource management system, harmonizing policies, consolidating leadership development, encouraging transfers among units, and promoting science and math education in schools.
The company’s most pressing need is scientists, engineers and technical talent. For security reasons, its employees must be U.S. citizens. It cannot send work offshore or hire foreigners. Only about 15 percent of college graduates in America work in the sciences and engineering, and only about half of those are citizens.
Hence, his human capital strategy focuses on four or five core elements necessary to “build the best workforce and best workplace,” Ziskin says during an interview at his office, an 18th floor suite with a view of the Los Angeles basin. His duties, incidentally, also include oversight of facilities administration and about 2,000 employees outside HR.
Ziskin began his career in 1982 at Cleveland-based TRW Inc., an industrial conglomerate in automotive, electronics and defense. Years later, he became the top HR executive in a TRW unit run by Sugar. “Ian works hard to develop a clear understanding of corporate objectives—and influence them,” Sugar says.
Ziskin has Sugar’s full support to turn Northrop Grumman into a talent magnet for all, including women and people of color. “We especially have to work hard to allow women of childbearing age to be successful members of our team and still have a life outside work,” says Sugar.
Ziskin set the example for diversity on the HR Policy Council, made up of 14 senior HR executives. They were all white men when he joined the company in 2003 as vice president for HR and leadership strategy. When he became chief HR officer in 2006, he set out to change the council; it now has seven women and four people of color.
The council changes were necessary, he argues, in part because his HR workforce was already diverse: “About half the people in key HR jobs are women, and we have a fair number of people of color,” he says.
The council makeup gives Ziskin something he values: viewpoints different from his. He learned their importance from Howard Knicely, a longtime mentor who hired him at TRW. “Howard had an effective way of causing people different from him to influence his thinking,” Ziskin explains. Diverse views were especially useful in formulating the flexible workplace strategy at Northrop Grumman.
Ziskin, who was recently inducted into the National Academy of Human Resources, knows HR must serve business objectives, a value he promotes in professional articles and as a conference speaker. It is an idea he acquired in grad school. “It intrigued me that HR was often maligned for not being connected to the business,” he says. “I wanted to help change that.”
A chaotic two-year stint at Qwest Communications International Inc. in Denver exemplifies his dedication to that cause. In 2000, he left TRW for Qwest and his first top HR job, expecting to lead a cultural integration of a fast-growing company. Within months, the telecom bubble burst and he was in the midst of the biggest downsizing in his career.
Because he hadn’t been there long, colleagues outside Qwest urged him to leave. Yet “I was there, part of the leadership team, and I had to do what I could to help,” he reflects. “Someone told me early in my career that you never know what your values are until they cost you something.”
What he valued was what he always values: managing the workforce with compassion and understanding, but balancing that with the needs of the business. In this case, that meant making sure Qwest layoffs were handled as well as could be and helping the company survive.
Qwest eventually hired a new CEO, who cleaned house of 20 top executives, including Ziskin.
Knicely says it was a test of Ziskin’s character: “Being forced out was the first big disappointment of Ian’s career. He could have taken it personally, but he was careful not to. When he went to Northrop, it was a step back. He was not the top HR executive. Now he’s a perfect match at Northrop.”
Looking back, Ziskin reflects: “It toughened me up, and it taught me about the importance of standing up for what you believe in.”
Bill Roberts is a contributing editor of HR Magazine.
Ian V. Ziskin
Education: 1982, master’s degree in industrial and labor relations, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. 1980, Bachelor of Science in management, Binghamton University, Binghamton, N.Y.
Current Job: January 2006-present, corporate vice president, chief human resources and administrative officer, Northrop Grumman Corp., Los Angeles.
Career: 2003-05, corporate vice president, human resources and leadership strategy, Northrop Grumman Corp. 2000-02, executive vice president and chief human resources officer, Qwest Communications International Inc., Denver. 1999-2000, vice president, human resource strategy, corporate headquarters, TRW Inc., Cleveland. 1996-98, vice president, human resources, automotive electronics group; 1993-96, vice president, human resources, steering suspension and engine group; 1991-93, director, leadership and organizational effectiveness, corporate headquarters, TRW Inc. 1989-91, director of human resources, TRW Information Services, Orange, Calif. 1987-89, director of human resources, TRW Systems Division, Fairfax, Va. 1984-87, director of human resources, TRW Motor Division, Manhattan, Kan., and Dayton, Ohio. 1982-84, human resource management associate, TRW Management Associates Program, Cleveland and Redondo Beach, Calif.
Personal: Age 50; born, Brooklyn, N.Y.; married; three sons. Diversions: Family activities, watching and participating in sports, movies, working out at the gym, playing guitar and writing songs.
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