Tough on Results, Compassionate with People: HR Career Insights from Mark Griffin

by Alan Collins

We are pleased to continue our Superstars in HR Interview Series with Mark Griffin, Vice President of Human Resources at Valco Companies, Inc.

In Superstars in HR, we feature career advancement insights from HR executives who have distinguished themselves or those who have reached the top of the HR profession in their organization.

We’re excited that Mark has taken time out to share his HR career perspectives.

1.  Mark, congratulations on being selected as one of our Superstars in HR.  Tell us a little about you?  What was the path you followed to reach your current HR leadership role?

Thank you.  I am excited to talk to you today.  Let me start by saying I’ve had a wonderful career in Human Resources.  I would have not changed the past 20 years for anything!  I’ve been blessed to have worked for fabulous companies in both good and bad economic times.

On the personal side, my wife Gail and I have been married for 23 years.  Gail is a Radiation Oncology Nurse, and a wonderful Mom to our children.   Throughout my career we’ve been able to forge our fondest memories together when we explored the states we lived in as a family.

My career goal has been very direct and specific.  From the very first day I started in Human Resources, I aspired to become an HR Vice President, the “lead HR guy”, the one directing all aspects of Human Resources for an organization.

During my first HR job, a colleague with several more years of experience than I had gave me some great advice:  “Mark, if you want to attain the lead HR position, get the VP of HR’s job description, and do everything you possibly can to acquire the assignments in that description to round out your experiences.”

So, that’s what I did.

And, almost exactly 17 years later after that discussion, I accepted the position of Vice President of Human Resources for Valco Companies Inc.   Along the way, I’ve had the pleasure of working in a variety of HR leadership roles in Fortune 100 companies such as Merck, Kodak and Quaker Oats as well as privately held and employee owned-companies such as Woolrich and Townsends.  All of these organizations provided excellent career experiences in HR.

2.  You mentioned your variety of experiences as an HR leader.  Based on those experiences, what would you consider to be the two biggest priorities for HR leaders given today’s economy?

I believe the two greatest challenges are:  (1) motivating a tired, stressed-out and uninspired workforce that we have created and (2) retaining and attracting the right people at the right time.

In the past decade, employees have been inundated with mergers, acquisitions, closures, manufacturing transfer oversees, top grading, downgrading, downsizing, and rightsizing.  You name it; we in HR have done it or at least been involved in it.

I believe the human spirit cries out for consistency and stability. Unfortunately, as employers, have not provided the stability and consistency the employee spirit is yearning for.

Our challenge is to be able to articulate to our employees through our actions, not just our words, that it’s not their fault when business conditions change.  Changing business conditions often requires the business itself to change, and as leaders we must take action. Often the actions are not popular ones, but if we all stand by in shock, it is very difficult to make positive things happen.

As we attempt to motivate employees and provide some stability for the present, it’s paramount that we retain and attract the right employees for the future.

However, just offering generous salary, bonuses and benefits is no longer enough to attract the best candidates.  Candidates need to feel they are going to be part of something that will not only provide security to themselves and their families in the here and now, they need to know the leadership in the organization is committed to a strategic business plan to help advance the business well into the future.

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve interviewed in the past three to four years that have gone through situations where they accepted jobs that they thought would provide longevity, but ultimately closed, merged or divested leaving the newly hired employee without work, sadly sometimes in periods as short as 3 months!

3.  Describe yourself as an HR leader – what’s your leadership philosophy and the qualities that are important that HR leaders demonstrate?

Most of the people that I have led would tell you that I am compassionate with people, yet tough on results. Having dealt with so many employment and relationship situations in my career, I coach my team and leaders to approach issues with compassion, to truly engage employees at a professional and emotional level, yet be firm and consistent with delivering on results.

This is very important for HR professionals to do, and is something I frankly did not “get” in my younger years in HR. You can care and be perceived as caring, yet you must be firm on results to get employees focused and aligned to deliver real business results.

I value people with optimism and energy.  I truly believe there is nothing you can’t reasonably accomplish when you put positive thinking and the right resources together to accomplish it. I learned this lesson having put myself though college, while starting a family at a young age.

4.  Speaking of positive thinking, what would you attribute your own personal success and career progression in HR to?

Without hesitation, Gail, my wife takes all the credit.  Her support, her dedication, her desire to ensure that I succeed has made it all possible. Gail put her own career on hold to support my career and to be with our children through all the relocations I’ve made throughout my career in HR.  Not many men or women are willing to make that sacrifice for their spouse.

We’ve had to move often.  And it was absolutely necessary for us to relocate in order for me to get the HR assignments and leadership experiences that created the foundation for my current role. Without her support and unselfish dedication, I would have not progressed professionally to where I am today.

I also link my success to having really good coaches and mentors in my life. Coaches that cared about my career and saw a little bit of themselves in me.  I remember one of my first mentors in HR telling me that I needed to get labor relations experience working with unions if I ever hoped to attain an HR executive role.    He spent time explaining to me the rationale, his own experiences, and his idea of how I might go about accomplishing this.  Had he not encouraged me to add this experience to my career portfolio, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

This kind of encouragement, advice and coaching is something that I now feel obligated pass on to other HR professionals that are up and coming in their careers. I’ve had many former direct reports that have left my team and have moved on to successful leadership roles and careers in Human Resources.  That’s extremely satisfying.

5.  What two accomplishments in your career are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of negotiating a labor agreement that was essentially was worth millions to the company at the ripe old age of 29, and receiving my MBA.

You never really realize how important your actions are until several years later.  When I look back at my experience as the chief negotiator, I think:  “Wow, what were they thinking!   How could they have put such a rookie in the room with the Union?”

But then I remember the plant manager that hired me saying, “Griffin, I would have never put you in the job if I didn’t think you could do it.”  I also remember the support and guidance I received in the back room from our Director of HR.  She was crucial to our success, acting as my rock when I needed it.   Then I think about the team that was in place, my HR supervisor, the engineering manager, the operations manager– all there to support me — and I realized I was sure to succeed.

Receiving my MBA was an important moment for me.  It was lofty goal I set, and an important goal that I achieved that brought further credibility to my career.   Once again, it was advice I followed that made this happen, and led me to seek the degree.  It was someone telling me: “Griffin, if you want to be a partner with your managers, you need to understand your managers.”

6.  What were the biggest frustrations, disappointments or setbacks you’ve faced in your HR career?

I was in a situation years ago where I joined a team that I was very excited to join.  Shortly thereafter, the whole team including the SVP, VP and most of the Directors were reorganized out of the company.  I understand this is a common situation in HR circles!

This ultimately left me looking for work.  It was frustrating for me at the time and, of course, a huge disappointment.  I thought it was going to be a huge setback to my career.

But you know what?  It worked out.  It made me a better person and a more effective HR leader.  It taught and instilled empathy in me, a level of empathy that I did not have.  Before this reorganization and I hate to admit this, I did not fully empathize with employees that I let go, because I was never let go myself.  So it was only through being terminated myself that I could become better at what I do.   It is funny how God works.

Today, as a result, I am more compassionate when I close a plant.  I am much more able to coach my team on how to approach an employee severance situation, a downsizing or a facility closure situation in an effective, yet compassionate way.

I also dedicate part of my personal time as a leader in a career network ministry helping those who have lost jobs or are going through career transition. This is something I would have never done years ago, but my life has changed because of my experiences.

7.  What are the most important qualities or skills you look for when interviewing or promoting HR professionals in your organization?

The best HR job candidates or high potentials always focus on business improvement first. They concentrate on how to take costs out of functional HR areas while providing outstanding customer service.

I look for candidates that have been wounded by past leaders. Typically the best HR candidates have dealt with tyrants in the work place, leaders that have gotten results simply by manipulating and abusing employees.  HR professionals that have been exposed to these tyrants usually have the thick skin that will make them successful with dealing with difficult personalities.

I also look for candidates that can laugh at themselves, and for candidates that know their weaknesses and understand that they should capitalize on their strengths, because trying to fix all their weaknesses often times is frustrating and ineffective.

I once had a direct report years ago that was trying so hard to do graphic design and create a good looking newsletter.  He just did not have the talent!   When he was coached that it was ok, that we’d find someone to do that work, he flourished.  He was better at motivating people to write meaningful articles and driving the completion of the project than attempting to do the actual work of designing.

Leaders need to recognize that employees have weaknesses, and understand also that not all weaknesses can be strengthened. Often times it just does not make sense, and just frustrates the employee.

I also continually revisit David Ulrich’s book Human Resources Champions. Almost every HR Team I start up gets a copy and a book study program! Ulrich describes four areas in which I always seem to fall back on.  They are: HR being a Change Agent, an Employee Champion, an Administrative Expert and a Strategic partner.

8.  What suggestions would you offer to HR professionals to make sure their contributions get the attention of the people who can help them along in their career?

It is important for the HR professional to understand how to get things done, and how to get the buy-in to make those things work.

You must always get buy-in for programs, processes and policies.  HR professionals that go it alone are certain to fail if they do not have the buy-in of the people they support. I have seen many programs implemented, only to fail because no one knew what it was, why it was in place or why it was worth their time.

Not only do you need the buy-in, you need to be able to tie the program to measurable business results and outcomes. For instance, if you’re implementing a Health and Wellness program, there must be a financial payback or ROI.

Also, although many programs are “good” for employees, they are better if they are both wins for the company and wins for the employee. Several years ago we instituted a wellness program that immediately detected an employee with a tumor that was able to be removed, preventing chemotherapy.  Not only did the program help the employee in the best way possible — saving his life! — it cut the companies cost by having the employee treated faster, and less expensively.   That was a real win-win.

Mark, thanks again for your time and some great HR career insights.

Let’s quickly recap Mark Griffin’s Top 10 career insights for HR professionals from this interview:

  1. Clarify your career aspirations in HR early. The earlier you decide, the sooner you can focus your energies into attaining your career goal.  From day one in HR, Mark aspired to become an HR Vice President.
  2. To attain the top HR position, get a good, detailed VP of HR job description. Then, do everything you can to acquire the assignments in that description to round out your experiences.
  3. Be tough on results, compassionate with people.
  4. Support from your spouse and family is a key enabler in growing your HR career. In Mark’s case, his spouse, Gail chose to put her own career on hold to support his career, their family and the relocations he needed to gain critical HR experiences.
  5. You must have good coaches and mentors in your life encouraging you in your HR career.
  6. HR leaders are obligated to mentor and pass on their own experiences and lessons to other up and coming professionals in HR to help grow them and the profession — and also to help those who have lost jobs and going through career transition.
  7. If you want to be a partner with your managers, you need to understand your managers.
  8. The best HR job candidates or high potentials always focus on business improvement first.
  9. Some of the best HR candidates are those wounded by past leaders because they’ve developed thick skin.
  10. HR leaders need to recognize that not all weaknesses can be strengthened. Often, it just doesn’t make sense, and just frustrates the employee.

Mark Griffin can be reached directly by e-mail at MarkAGriffin@gmail.com and you can view his LinkedIn profile here.

Feel free to add your comments on this article by clicking here.

About the Author: Alan Collins was Vice President – Human Resources at PepsiCo where he led HR initiatives for their Quaker Oats, Gatorade and Tropicana businesses. He is now President of Success in HR, Inc. and the author of: UNWRITTEN HR RULES: 21 Secrets For Attaining Awesome Career Success in Human Resources with TWO FREE CHAPTERS that can be downloaded HERE.

© SuccessinHR.com

13 Responses to “Tough on Results, Compassionate with People: HR Career Insights from Mark Griffin”

  1. Al Duff Says:

    Mark:

    I enjoyed reading your article. Good insights on your journey as an HR leader.

    Best wishes my friend.

    Al Duff

  2. Barry Davis Says:

    Thanks, Mark, for your insights and demonstration of what it means to be a Good Steward of the gifts given you.

    – Barry Davis

  3. Eddie Ambrosia Says:

    Thanks Mark – As a fellow HR leader, I admire your commitment to our profession. I agree with many of your insights and appreciate you sharing your many personal and professional experiences. It was very enlightening.

    Regards,
    Eddie

  4. TK Herrin Says:

    Allen, thank you for sharing Mark’s interview. Very insightful! I appreciate Mark’s dedication to our profession.

    All the best,
    TK

  5. Yogish Says:

    Hi Mark,

    thank you for the inspiring and guiding words.

    Hi Alan,

    We look forward for more of this kind of interviews. really great job!

    Regards,
    Yogish

  6. hossam Says:

    Thanks for brinning the wonderful interview with us .

  7. Jim Gordon Says:

    Good perspective. It is so true HR professionals have to live the American nightmare of being unemployed while working for a great team of professionals to be able to grasp the impact of the responsibilities of this position. Too often the bottom line defines the company culture and HR’s role. It is encouraging to read there is a role in today’s companies for passion for people,toughness on results will equal a positive Human Capitaldream come true!

  8. Joshua Dixon Says:

    I just connected with you on Twitter and noticed that you were in HR. That is somewhat ironic, since I sold my half of a business that did HR marketing, I am now doing it myself…would you be interested in a conversation about a way we could help each other out? Appreciate it, and look forwarding to your tweets.

    Thanks!

  9. Rita Says:

    Read with interest, your article, Mark.
    Being in Network Marking, I find that many of the same issues exist for those building their business. When someone is essentially the sum of one in his company, he must act as the HR leader as well to those who ultimately join in the downline of his business. There is a need to address many of the same issues you mentioned early in your blog, like, “I believe the two greatest challenges are: (1) motivating a tired, stressed-out and uninspired workforce that we have created and (2) retaining and attracting the right people at the right time.”

    Good read for leaders in a wide range of business. Thanks!

    Rita Silic
    Xango Distributor

  10. Peggy Romano Says:

    Keep up the great work Mark! You are on the right track in your observation and implementation of strengthening people!I wish you much continued success! The world needs more of you! Blessings…

  11. Beatriz Vela Says:

    Many thanks for your insights!

  12. Cheryl Lagunilla Says:

    Congratulations on your accomplishments Mark. Your interview truly brings to light the insight needed by those who are on their own journey and need the encouragement to stick with it. It helped me to understand the “other” side of my own business.

    Thanks.

    Cheryl

  13. Upcoming Event: Managing Employees to Success (9/6/14) | Messiah College Business Alumni Says:

    […] for an international company. You can read more about Mark’s career in Alan Collins’ 2010 HR Superstars […]

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