I didn’t know it when I landed my first job after graduating from college, but there would be five words that would shape my destiny as an HR Strategist. Every position I’ve ever held has involved an element of significant RISK, required me to adapt to an unfamiliar CULTURE, taught me how to gather and utilize INTELLIGENCE critical to developing a success STRATEGY, and has reminded me – sometimes the hard way – that effective strategy execution frequently requires the BUY-IN of others.
Risk is a Four-Letter Word
I was relocating to Ohio to become a Labor Relations Consultant for the Ohio Education Association. It was the first time I understood in a visceral way, what “risk” really means. It was because I was one of a handful of women selected to integrate a male-dominated union culture. Unlike the other female consultants, as the first African American woman, I was doubly at risk of being characterized as “an affirmative action hire” motivated by the need of the corporation to change the complexion of the labor relations team.
My first assignment was to advocate for 11 teacher unions in Mahoning County, the majority of which had no labor contract. The two locals that had contracts had done such a poor job that, with the exception of the salary schedules, the contracts were unenforceable. I decided the best strategy for establishing my credibility would be to step into the role of chief negotiator for the Youngstown Education Association – with 1,000 teachers, the largest, most visible union in the county and among the 10 largest unions in the state. I was an untested female negotiator confronting a tough school district management in the middle of an economic recession. It was a recipe for disaster. I was given high scores for guts but, even with beginner’s luck, no one on either side believed I would emerge with a decent contract. That was the kindest assessment of the situation.
The Bullet-Proof Strategy
The teachers, who hadn’t seen a raise for three years, demanded a 10 percent wage increase. I was in need of a bullet-proof strategy. With thousands of steelworkers out of work with the closing of the steel mills, the school district superintendent determined there would be no sympathy in the community for a teachers’ strike. The school board adamantly refused to bargain over wages. After months of stalemate, the union took a strike vote. The board, confident if teachers elected to strike it could break the union, publicly threatened to start firing teachers.
Intelligence Reduces Risk
The district failed to take into account that the law required 180 days of instruction in order to meet the requirements for a school year. The timing of the strike date utilized that intelligence. Once the strike was initiated, all teachers had to do was stay on the picket lines. It was not feasible for the district to attempt to replace 1,000 teachers to keep the schools open. If the district didn’t settle, the entire school year would be “scrubbed.” When the teachers returned to work, they had achieved a 9½ percent pay raise and ratified an enforceable contract. One female negotiator had demonstrated that a woman who knew how to take a calculated risk and who understood the value of a strong strategy could get the job done.
Strategy Execution Requires Worker Buy-In
Three years later, a collective bargaining law for public employees in Ohio was passed. I was promoted to manage the statewide collective bargaining program for the Ohio Education Association. It was a huge risk for the organization. Although the law legalized the right to strike, it also required dramatic changes in what had historically been an unregulated process. The union was accustomed to taking its case to “the court of public opinion,” publicizing the unfair practices of school management. The new law provided that disputes would be adjudicated by the state employment relations board and both employers and unions were now subject to severe penalties if determined to be non-compliant. Most of the labor relations staff had years of experience in the role. They also belonged to a professional staff union. The law imposed restraints on the tactics that could be used to motivate settlement. Unless I could get the buy-in of the union negotiators, notorious for their “whatever it takes” tactics, labor relations between the professional staff and the OEA could become adversarial to the detriment of the OEA that had been a visible supporter of the new law.
More Risk, More Intelligence, More Strategy
Labor relations was about to become as much an administrative process as it was an exercise of collective power. The union’s failure to file the right form on the required timeline could defeat a strike action faster than a formidable board of education. A successful change management strategy demanded that my team of five collective bargaining specialists do everything possible to ensure the success of 70 professional negotiators and the 700 locals they represented. I immediately began to gather intelligence by building relationships with the members of the state employment relations board, attending board meetings, and training my staff on the board’s administrative procedures. In addition to providing staff training and summaries of all key relations board decisions, my staff and I brainstormed the challenges the law created for labor relations consultants and implemented administrative processes to keep them out of difficulty. Because we acted proactively, the collective bargaining consultants on my staff were viewed as subject matter experts who could provide valuable assistance to negotiators and local bargaining teams. The transition proceeded smoothly and unfair labor practices committed by OEA affiliates were rare.
Private Sector Risk Management
After 10 years on the OEA management team, I found myself in Houston, Texas. I was looking for a less “labor intensive” job and accepted a position as a training specialist with a small privately-owned HR company. At first, there did not appear to be much risk involved. After accepting the job, I learned the position had been vacant for a year, my training responsibilities would include redesigning the sales training program, all of the sales managers I would be interacting with were men, and the company’s strategy was to move into four new markets every year until it attained a national footprint. The sales training was essential to accelerating the timeline for the sales team in each market to become productive.
The real risk came a year later when I was promoted to manage HR service delivery to clients in each market and to implement the decision to decentralize the HR Services operation. Transitioning from a call center operation in Houston with all staff on site at headquarters to a model in which staff were housed in each market and could be involved in site visits at the client’s location was a major change in operations. But each of my previous positions had prepared me for designing an effective change management strategy. In this case, I would have the advantage of hiring staff to fit the profile needed to support the strategy.
M&A - The Perfect Fit
When I left the small privately-held company, it had grown into a publicly-held Fortune 500 company and I had served as a senior officer on the leadership team for four years. I decided to start my own consulting business and looked for a target market that would value change management services. When I read the research published by global advisory firms indicating that half of acquisitive US businesses fail to achieve their financial objectives and end up destroying value within a few years after deal close, I knew I had discovered a problem that demanded better intelligence. After I interviewed 100 M&A experts in varying deal roles and discovered a strong consensus that “culture clashes” contributed in a significant way to deal failure, I understood immediately what the risk management “numbers guys” were overlooking – the importance of employee buy-in. I decided that my consulting practice would specialize in business integration services helping clients to MITIGATE INTEGRATION RISK by providing TOP NOTCH INTELLIGENCE, clarifying the adverse impacts of CULTURAL MISALIGNMENT, showing them how to achieve EMPLOYEE BUY-IN with the objective of IMPROVED EXECUTION OF THE BUSINESS STRATEGY. It was a challenge with my name written all over it.