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Great HR Starts With Great Business Skills

February 1, 1998
Related Topics: Your HR Career, Innovation, Featured Article
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Workforce talked with Lou de Ocejo, senior vice president of human resources and corporate affairs, about HR. The highlights:

Q: How and why did you decide to get into HR?
A: I initially got into HR by chance. A great opportunity to be the manager of the benefits functions [came along]. Over time, I made a conscious decision that HR can and should play a major role in organizational performance. After all, it is all about people and financial resources.

Q: What's the best part of your job?
A: [Having the opportunity to] influence, shape and support the culture of the company, in support of our business strategy.

Q: What's the toughest part of your job?
A: For me, the toughest part of my job is identifying and then sticking to the right priorities.

Q: What are some of the best decisions you've made as an HR professional?
A: Selecting the right leaders. Unfortunately, this is also representative of some of my worst decisions.

Q: What advice do you have for people considering an HR career?
A: Early in your career focus on sound, core technical skills, such as compensation, benefits, selection, organization development and core business skills, finance, marketing, manufacturing and so on.

Q: What advice do you have for other established HR professionals?
A: Become a broad business person who brings excellent functional skills to the table.

Q: What sorts of changes were going on when you started at Pillsbury?
A: A lot. I arrived in 1992, along with a number of other senior managers. The company got a new CEO in the fall of 1991, and he put together a group of us. Before I was a gleam in anyone's eye, we went through a fairly extensive structural change in how we run the business -- we focused on competencies in food technology, brands marketing and that type of thing, and away from the old focus, which was on divisions within the company and functional silos.

Attend to what drives the business first.
Q: What effect did these changes have on the HR function?
A: Back then, human resources was considered a support function -- and we support functions weren't doing well in those days in terms of being a player at the table. That changed in 1992. Business contributions came first, and functional contributions became a given. So as opposed to how it was before, when HR only had to do HR -- that was tossed out. The mission became to attend to what drives the business first, and then [our department] would just happen to be great at HR.

Q: Were there any other changes going on?
A: There was nothing but change in 1992. Work was starting to be done in cross-functional teams. When we made that change it was very traumatic. Philosophically it was a good idea, but the lines of authority got blurred, and new things became important. People became discombobulated -- who's my boss? Where do I go? Couple that change with the fact that as a business we weren't growing -- it was flat. Then we were a fundamentally U.S. business. So we put our stake in the ground saying we wanted to grow outside the United States. So all of a sudden this organization in which all roads began and ended in Minneapolis had to look at things differently. Roads were beginning and ending in Argentina or Bombay.

Q: What was communication within the company like?
A: Prior to 1992, there was very little place for communications. In 1992 we started a business-focused employee newspaper. We started having CEO luncheons every month, and communication meetings with all functions at least once a quarter. We tried to do a lot of things to tell people what this new age at Pillsbury was all about.

Workforce, February 1998, Vol. 77, No. 2, p. 58.

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