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Career Lessons from Suzanne Zoumaras: Striking a Balance

The executive vice president and chief human capital officer for Arena Pharmaceuticals strives to do what's best for the business and what's right for its people.

A woman standing in an office cubicle.

​When Suzanne Zoumaras describes her role as an HR leader, she talks about other people—and about her teams.

There’s the senior management team, where, as executive vice president and chief human capital officer at Arena Pharmaceuticals in San Diego, Zoumaras serves as a trusted adviser to the CEO and the rest of the C-suite. There’s the human capital team, where she sets the organization’s HR vision and priorities and mentors her reports. And there’s the companywide employee team, where she “experiences the company as any other employee does,” she says.

Her focus on teams is intentional. “The 2020s will be the decade of the team,” she says. “More and more, we’re required to work as members of teams and it’s less about our individual success.”

Zoumaras knows that this idea goes against the grain of the highly individualistic culture of the U.S., where people are taught to concentrate on advancing their own careers. But she feels it’s an invaluable lesson for the HR leaders of today and tomorrow. As an increasingly mobile workforce changes jobs more frequently and without stigma, she says, companies and their HR professionals will need to look for people who do well collaboratively, not just individually.

“The more effective your teams are, the more successful your company is,” Zoumaras says. “If you look at the NBA, the best teams are the ones that pass the most.”

‘Coaches have a good sense of when someone needs a big hug and when they need a little bit of a kick in the pants.’

Zoumaras speaks in sports and music analogies that emphasize team dynamics. She says she’s less of a manager who oversees a team’s day-to-day transactions and more of a coach—someone who drives the entire team toward better performance. “Coaches have a good sense of when someone needs a big hug and when they need a little bit of a kick in the pants,” she says. And like many of the best coaches, she takes an active interest in her team members and their lives.

She also thinks of herself as a musical conductor. “You’re ultimately responsible for shaping the sound of the music, but it’s so much more than that,” she says. “You have to select the right team members and listen to each of them to make sure the whole thing is harmonious. If you don’t, even great musicians can sound like a rackety band.”

High Expectations

Zoumaras herself comes from a sizable team: a family with six kids in which she was the only daughter. She describes her real estate broker father and attorney mother as “very analytical people.” She learned from them to think critically and to ask the right questions. After her parents divorced, her mother—in her early 30s and with six children in tow—earned her law degree. Zoumaras considers her mother her most significant career influence. “She was a powerful individual and a force of nature,” she says. “I saw what a strong woman can look like.”

In retrospect, Zoumaras thinks her mother had higher expectations of her as the family’s only girl. “She expected more of me because she expected a lot of herself,” she says. “And she lived a little vicariously through me in my late teens and early 20s because she was having children at that age—which is the thing you did then—and I wasn’t.”

As the sensitive sister to her rough-and-tumble brothers, Zoumaras developed an interest in people’s behavior and motivations. She initially planned to become a psychologist. But after a “wacko” college professor made the psychology profession seem less than appealing, her mother suggested she go into finance for two reasons: She was an analytical thinker, and every company needs finance people.

After getting her undergraduate degree in finance at San Diego State University, Zoumaras worked at a boutique investment banking and venture capital firm. The company wasn’t big enough to have its own HR department so, as the firm’s most junior person, Zoumaras was tasked with working on human resources issues with an external HR consultant.

That experience rekindled her interest in psychology, and she found herself drawn to HR. She came to a realization: “I was good at finance but not great, and I wanted to be great at what I did.”

So Zoumaras shifted career gears. She went back to school and earned her HR certificate from the University of California at San Diego.

More Than a Job

When she first got into HR over two decades ago, Zoumaras found the profession had not yet fully matured. “People didn’t come into it as a profession; they came into it as a job,” she says. “And because it wasn’t perceived as a profession, it wasn’t attracting the best and brightest.”

HR was seen then as an administrative function, but she knew HR professionals should also serve as business partners. “I didn’t realize at the time that this was a radical approach,” she says.

Fortunately, times have changed. “Gone are the days when we show up just to hire people, pay them and complete transactions,” she says. “Now, HR is a reputable profession that’s expected to drive real business value and impact.”

It’s her appreciation for HR’s strategic value that sets Zoumaras apart, according to David Lyle, CFO, Airgain, an antenna technologies company in San Diego. “Finding a good HR leader who’s not just focused on the tactical but [who] also can think about the strategic side of the job is very rare, and she’s one of the few I’ve found who can do that,” says Lyle, who was CFO at Entropic Communications, a San Diego semiconductor developer, when Zoumaras served as that company’s senior vice president of global human resources.

Zoumaras has taken a strategic approach to elevating the HR functions at all of the companies where she’s worked. At Arena—a biopharmaceutical company she describes as a “small but mighty company in an industry that has been dominated by big pharma”—she’s leading the effort to shape a culture that operates on principles, not policies. “We want to build into the fabric of the company an expectation that we don’t simply follow rules, but we use good judgment and consider the facts and circumstances to make the right decisions,” she says.

“I’ve always believed that innovation, creativity and best-in-class aren’t limited to our colleagues in R&D or marketing, but should be the standard across all disciplines. We in HR need to bring original thinking, inspired solutions and imaginative approaches to our domain.”

Prior to Arena, Zoumaras led an 18-month overhaul of the HR department at the San Diego-based software company Teradata as part of a larger business transformation, spearheading an array of initiatives. For example, under Zoumaras, Teradata changed how it acquired and rewarded talent and created an employee experience that was consistent with the candidate experience. “So employees didn’t feel the organization was better on the front end than when they got inside it,” she says.

The department streamlined the interview and offer processes and extended highly competitive offers, which hadn’t been the practice in the past. Acceptance rates improved significantly (up by 12 percent), and the quality of hires improved as well.

For new hires at Teradata, “We knew we needed to maintain the positive, professional experience they had during the selection process,” Zoumaras says. Her team launched a new-hire portal, developed manager toolkits, a buddy system, and a two-day introduction to the company’s strategy, goals and rewards. “It was so impactful we developed a modified version for current employees,” she says. As a result, Teradata’s HR transitioned from a tactical, “tired and traditional” department, she says, to one that drove business value and influenced the evolution of the company.

“It’s like watching a child learn how to walk,” Zoumaras says of helping a company’s HR department to mature. “It’s very difficult when you see them struggling, but then all of a sudden they get it and they never look back.”

Balancing Act

Alice Carrillo has worked for Zoumaras at two companies, including Teradata. “Suzie is laser focused and has the courage to say what a business needs to do,” says Carrillo, director, global talent business partner, for ServiceNow, a cloud computing company based in Santa Clara, Calif.

Yet as an HR leader, Zoumaras knows she has to strike a delicate balance between doing what’s best for the business and what’s right for its people. “I’ve always seen my role as being able to flex between being pragmatic and being compassionate,” she says. That means focusing not so much on HR policies as on the principles behind them. For instance, when looking at employees’ promotion paths and timelines, HR leaders have to consider what makes both business sense and people sense.

“She’s a good human being with a good heart,” Lyle says. “She really cares for employees and their lives.”

Others have seen that in Zoumaras, too. “While she’s hard-charging and fast-paced, there’s a very caring, soft side to her as well. She’s genuinely interested in you as a person,” Carrillo says.

Zoumaras both imparts and hones her leadership skills at her alma mater, San Diego State, where she’s been an adjunct faculty member for 17 years. In the department of management at the Fowler College of Business, she teaches compensation and benefits to aspiring HR professionals. “It’s my way to give back and invest in the next generation,” she says.

She also gives back by serving on nonprofit boards, including one that focuses on caregiving for elderly people with Alzheimer’s (which her mother had). “It’s very important to use our expertise to benefit our communities,” she says.

For Zoumaras, compassion isn’t just nice to have for an HR leader—it’s an essential quality. For example, in 2014, Entropic, where Zoumaras worked for eight years, fired its its CEO months after he was accused and found guilty of assaulting a woman he was dating. The situation had legal, ethical, business and personal implications for the company and its people. There was no textbook for Zoumaras to consult. “It fell on my shoulders to navigate not only the executive team and the board but also our employees through that at a time when the business was also struggling.”

Balancing the need for confidentiality with the need for transparency, Zoumaras sensitively and confidently shepherded Entropic through that crisis. “The organization needed someone who had its back and who was going to represent the truth without sugarcoating it,” she says.

“In times of turbulence, you have to be both strong and compassionate,” Zoumaras says. “I pride myself on having the ability to toggle between the two.” That ability reflects her approach to being both a servant leader and a situational leader, modifying her style to fit the situation at hand. In some instances, she might need to delegate more; in others, she might need to push people out of their comfort zones. “I’m a good reader of people and what they need when,” she says.

For Zoumaras, the hard and soft skills of HR all support a greater purpose: “My job is to be a leader worth following and to build a culture that folks want to belong to.”

Novid Parsi is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

Photography by Rob Andrew.


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