How Senior HR Leaders Achieved Success, Overcame Adversity

SHRM Competency Model cited as driver of strategic expertise

By Stephen Miller, CEBS Jun 19, 2017

Senior HR leaders at some of America's best-known companies shared insights into their successes—and their mistakes—in a frank discussion at the SHRM 2017 Annual Conference & Exposition in New Orleans.

The session took place on June 18—Father's Day—and Michael Lorenca, SHRM-SCP, chief HR officer at Pepsi-Cola National Brand in Pennsauken, N.J., recalled a lesson from his father: "You are not your mistakes; don't let setbacks stop you." That message would resonate throughout the discussion.

Tim Young, SHRM-SCP, director of talent acquisition for AutoZone in Memphis, Tenn., began his career as a manager in training at Taco Bell. At the time, he said, he had "I need one more taco" nightmares. "If you haven't worked in fast food, it can be crazy, but it's also a great experience," Young said. "I learned how to manage a $2 million business at 22 years old, how to make a business work and to drive business results."

Lynn Mulholland, SHRM-SCP, senior vice president and director of learning and development at Wells Fargo Advisors in St. Louis, shared that "all jobs are a learning experience, setting you up to land in your next position. Look at every job opportunity as a learning opportunity."

Richard H. Johnson, SHRM-SCP, chief HR officer at Citizens National Bank in Meridan, Miss., pointed to the SHRM Competency Model, making the point that HR is not a narrowly focused discipline. "HR fundamentals carry over from business to business, but you have to take those competencies and apply them to help your organization excel. [And] you can't succeed in HR if you don't know the business."

Lorenca worked for many years in the newspaper industry, which, he said, has been struggling since the early 2000s as ad revenues started evaporating due to online competition from bloggers and niche websites. One response has been to develop new print and digital products aimed at targeted audiences. But "you can't create new products if you don't know what resources you have that are not being fully tapped," he noted, which again points out the need to be an expert in HR competencies such as business acumen, critical evaluation, and leadership and navigation.

"Top management often sees HR as a stumbling block" rather than as a source of expertise. 

"Top management often sees HR as a stumbling block" rather than as a source of expertise that can add value to corporate strategy, Johnson said. When, at a previous position, a leader told him "just tell me what I need to know and otherwise I don't want to hear about HR," his response was to discover what management needs and, drawing on HR competencies, show them how to meet the challenges the business faces. In other words, "be forward-thinking and proactive."

Overcoming a Corporate Crisis

"How many of you have worked for a company that has been in the news in a not-so-great way?" asked Wells Fargo's Mulholland.

As was widely reported, earlier this year Wells Fargo announced it would claw back $75 million in bonuses after it was discovered that branch workers had created millions of fake accounts to earn sales-based incentive pay. The bank has also refunded millions of dollars to its customers to settle a class-action lawsuit.

Mulholland pointed to a lack of accountability that, in part, grew out of the company's siloed culture. The firm's former management promoted the message "run it like you own it," without centralized oversight. That flexibility, laudable when balanced with a strong ethical culture and compliance safeguards, turned negative as "managers were allowed to incentivize their teams to cheat," she noted. "HR was part of the culture that was broken," she admitted.

In response to the crisis, the organization has centralized its risk, compliance and HR operations. "HR is part of the control function, and going forward major decisions must be funneled through us."

In addition, "every day we're coaching leaders. We know many of our people have been looking to leave," so the company is "giving people ways to feel good about their jobs."

New CEO Tim Sloan, she said, is "building trust by traveling the country talking to employees and answering questions." Other leaders are "doing a lot more communicating" as well, such as by holding video chats with employees.

Sloan worked with the board to conduct a thorough analysis and to report on the crisis and the company's response, "which really helped employee morale," Mulholland said. "We're not shy about talking about what went wrong, what we need to fix, what we need to do to make sure it never happens again."

As evidence of a changed and improved culture, Wells Fargo has been working to ensure that its investment advisors were ready to comply with the Department of Labor's new, controversial fiduciary standard rule, which took effect on June 9. The firm's advisors initially reacted to the rule with worry, since it requires significant changes in their business practices and fee structures. HR stepped in, and "we launched a microlearning curriculum that touched 40,000 people, training them to understand and comply with the rule."

She added, "We could never have done this under the old, siloed structure, putting practice changes in place by the time the rule took effect."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Introduction to the HR Discipline of Ethics and Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability]

Dealing with Setbacks

AutoZone's Young also talked candidly about inadvertently mishandling testimony during a class-action lawsuit—he mistakenly confused which year's employee handbook said what—which resulted in the headline AutoZone Says Exec Flubbed Testimony in Meal-Break Suit.

Pointing again to the SHRM Competency Model, Young noted that his work building solid relationships with management and having demonstrated a commitment to ethical practice helped him overcome a mishap that might have been a career-derailing incident.

The panel's moderator, Lyle S. Hanna, SHRM-SCP, president and CEO of the Hanna Resource Group in Lexington, Ky., summed up the discussion by observing that HR needs to be fully integrated into c-suite operations and that the competency model points the way for HR to "seize that ground" by become experts on innovative business and human resource strategy.

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