Businesses Turn to HR to Spur Change

By Nancy M. Davis Oct 31, 2011
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NEW YORK—Transformations—moving from one business strategy to the next—emerged as a theme for HR​ leaders attending the 2011 Human Capital Leadership Forum here on Oct. 25. Some speakers described HR plans to align goals, behaviors and cultures to serve the visions of CEOs brought in to turn around recession-wracked companies. Others say they are facing changes resulting from consistent growth through innovation, merger or acquisition.

Maggie Timoney, chief people officer of Heineken USA, has a diverse background that includes a stint as general manager of the Canadian division of the international beer company. In the summer of 2010, she joined the U.S. headquarters based in White Plains, N.Y., to help the newly appointed CEO boost declining sales volume for the premium brand and dwindling energy from the employees who remained after layoffs in 2008.

Two-thirds of the employees were arranged on teams to create the change strategy, she said. They selected “must-win battles,” including:

  • Reinvigorate the Heineken brand.
  • Position the portfolio for upscale growth.
  • Win important upscale markets.
  • Build and maintain an open and “winnable” culture.
  • Develop a sustainable business model.

Timoney sent HR people into the field as business partners. They have sponsored activities to foster a “challenger” mind-set among employees, who must “be brave” and “fight back” to beat the competition. At the behest of employees, the corporate offices were dismantled and rebuilt to knock down walls and open up offices so employees can talk to each other more. Sales have seen only a “small uptick” from the beginning of these initiatives, she conceded, adding, “It’s going to take some time.” Yet: “I have learned,” she continued, that in HR, “We have the ability to make a measureable impact on our companies—and our time is now.”

At AOL, Dave Thornton, vice president of human resources, confronts change resulting from the New York company’s 2009 overhaul, reorganization and restructuring after the spin-out from Time Warner Inc. Restating the organization’s values in a way that emphasizes integrity and transparency has proven useful for attracting talent, he said. The values were created by a team of high-potential employees working with the leadership team.

To further transparency, managers and employees engage in an experiment: Every worker’s goals are “open, where everyone can see what everyone else has been working on at any time,” he explained. More than 8,000 comments were shared, and the majority of comments were positive.

To foster learning, employees participate in an “un-university” for peer-to-peer learning. Any employee can teach any kind of course. Forty percent of employees have taken one or more of 80 classes and have reported a 95 percent satisfaction rate.

Another experiment involves a “hiring review board” to improve the quality of candidates proposed by managers for employment. Similarly, “cultural ambassadors” brief candidates before they are hired to help the applicants determine whether they are a good fit for the AOL culture.

Thornton was guardedly optimistic about the changes, noting: “We have started to see growth in core businesses that were declining, but we have a long way to go.”

Nancy M. Davis is editor of HR Magazine.

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