Magazine article Workforce

HR Turnaround: Tales of a Champion

Magazine article Workforce

HR Turnaround: Tales of a Champion

Article excerpt

Transforming the HR function from traditional to strategic calls for buy-in from the top-demanding that support takes courage.

When Sharon Smith joined the Orange County office of Cox Communications (then Cox Cable) in 1994, she walked into a 300employee operation with a small HR department (two HR generalists) with an "old school" reputation for setting policy and planning company events. At the time, Cox was a privately held, single-service cable company.

Since joining Cox, Smith has seen the company through an IPO, a merger with Times Mirror Communications Inc., and a major organizational change that's transformed the company into a leader in the broadband-communications business. In fact, the company's Orange County operation (Cox corporate offices are in Atlanta, Georgia), was the first in the nation to expand their business to include digital telephone service, high-speed Internet access and commercial voice and data services. As a result, the regional operation has doubled in both revenue and size.

Sharon's challenge

When Smith joined Cox, she knew the company had tremendous potential. But she was disappointed to find that HR's role in the company was really undervalued and underutilized. Smith's supervisor, Leo Brennan, vice president, general manager of the Orange County operation, is the first to admit that HR really didn't play a major role in the business. "HR was very `old school,' and was for the most part focused on setting policies and establishing procedures-not on supporting the business and serving the internal customer." But Brennan also says even he didn't know what HR could do for an organization. The concept of HR functioning as a strategic business partner really wasn't even on his radar screen-a reality that held true for most of the senior management team.

Moment of Truth

After about three months on the job, Smith realized the time had come for her to let Brennan know that all was not well. The conversation is still clear in his mind. "One day," says Brennan, "Sharon came into my office, shut the door and simply said `You don't value HR's role as much as you do the other departments in the organization.' And you know what? She was right. I just didn't realize it." Although confronting Brennan was difficult, Smith believes it was the best move she could have made. "I told Leo that even though I had a seat at the senior management table, I still didn't feel like a full partner. HR was stuck in a transactional role, and I really wanted him to understand the value the department could add to the organization:"

What Happened Next

Once Smith shared her vision of what HR could do for Cox, Brennan agreed to support her interest in repositioning HR's role. Smith says the turnaround came slowly, and started with other members of the senior management team. Initially, Smith spent a lot of time communicating with key people in the organization and demonstrating her ability to align HR's goals with the business agenda. But her interest wasn't in just fixing HR's image. Smith knew that in order for the company to succeed in carrying out Brennan's vision to expand the business and reposition the company, the entire HR function would have to be restructured. Because this would require, among other things, the investment of additional resources, Smith knew the restructuring wouldn't be successful without buy-in from the top.

Rick Guerrero, vice president of network engineering, says Smith earned her credibility by pushing the senior management team and driving change that was sometimes uncomfortable. …

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