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HR AdministrationBeing Light on Your Feet a Big Help in HR

Taking risks, taking action and taking control of her own decisions are qualities that make Alison Quirk an effective HR leader.
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Alison Quirk, Executive Vice President, Chief Human Resources and Citizenship Officer, State Street Corp., Boston

One of the enjoyable aspects of watching a dance routine is how something that looks so seamless requires so much strength, flexibility and preparation. Dancers memorize their routine, but while preparing for the next step they must remain in the present. Each small movement contributes to the dance holistically. There is also a degree of strategy, mental capacity and intelligence along with the creativity, flexibility and pure strength.

Alison Quirk — who took dance classes recreationally through college and is the vice chairman of the board of Boston Ballet Inc. — brings the same mental and creative stamina to her role of chief human resources and citizenship officer at financial services company State Street Corp., where she’s worked for 14 years.

“I never thought I’d be as involved in an arts organization as I am, but I love being involved in it. It really stretches me in ways I’m not used to,” said Quirk, 54. “Working with artistic people is a lot different than working with people in the financial services. It helps me think differently and helps my innovation and creativity in my day job.”

She began her career at Boston Financial Data Services as a compensation and benefits specialist. She remained for 16 years, attaining functional experience in every area of HR and ending up as head of HR. She continued on to Liberty Financial Cos. and FleetBoston Financial.

When she had been at her first company for 15 years, she was getting itchy to do something else. She had to decide between “the devil you know versus the devil you don’t. Why would I give up everything I put into this to take a risk to go do something new? I had a young family, and [there’s] a lot of uncertainty with moving to something new.”

Some advice from her father, whom she described as the biggest influencer in her career, made her decision easier: Treat your career like you’re making strategic decisions for a business, he advised. Is a career move now good for that business? The advice has guided her throughout career junctures since then.

That willingness to make hard admissions and necessary change is apparent when talking to her, whether it’s admitting she needs to move on to the next career opportunity or admitting her own shortcomings and improving on them.

wf0117_womenofhr_200pxwideShe’s always enjoyed multifaceted roles that have a level of complexity to them, and big, general management jobs are her sweet spot. Persuasion, though, is a skill she’s focused on and improved.

“One of the skills that I have that makes me effective there is I can see broad landscapes and the implications of decisions into the future pretty clearly,” said Quirk. But she’s “had to learn how to articulate a vision of what it is I actually see. I’ve had to learn how to articulate that so that other people will follow.”

Several years ago, State Street was going through a major transformation across the entire organization, which has 32,000 employees in 28 markets. To deal with the confusion involved, Quirk realized they had to change the way State Street was communicating the company’s strategy to employees. She led a team, and together they developed a new way of talking about the future of the organization called The Way Ahead, which was based on the foundation that people don’t follow what you want them to do unless they understand why you’re doing it.

“It was a big departure from the way we talked about the strategy in the past,” said Quirk, adding that ideally it results in improved communication across the company. The CEO originally wasn’t keen on it but gave it a shot. “It took a lot of time, persistence and personal risk, but I really believed it was worth the risk because we needed something different,” she said. “We needed something disruptive to get employees’ attention and [have them] understand what it means to move through this change with us.

Taking risks, taking action and taking control of her own decisions are qualities that make her an effective HR leader, such as when communicating a disruptive strategy to employees.

“There have been junctures in my career where I felt like I was running out of opportunities, therefore I had to take it upon myself to do something about that,” said Quirk. “The trick there has been to recognize what it is I’m wrestling with.” At times like this, she added, it’s important for people to realize that no one else will fix their problems. They should take action themselves to do something about it.

“It could mean something outside work, like joining the Boston Ballet board, or it could mean changing jobs and going in a different direction,” she said. “The trick is to recognize when you’re there, and not keep spinning and expect someone else to solve for it.”

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Andie Burjek is a Workforce associate editor. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.