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iThe Leading Edge-i-Be an HR Advocate

December 1, 1998
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As vice president of human resources for VF Corp., the world’s largest publicly held clothing manufacturer of such labels as Wrangler®, Jantzen® and Vanity Fair®, Susan Larson Williams heads the entire HR function for the firm’s U.S. and international operations. Williams had worked as an attorney for Blue Bell Inc., specializing in employment and labor law when VF acquired the organization in 1986. Williams went on to hold several key HR positions at some of VF’s divisions before being elected to her current position two years ago. Here, Williams describes her transition from law into HR, and how she leads her HR team with a sense of diplomacy and team cohesiveness.

How would you describe your leadership style?
I have a very diplomatic leadership style, meaning I try to listen closely to different perspectives and ideas, and build consensus with regard to HR decision making. And if that’s not possible, I’ll make the tough decisions. But I believe that leading by consensus and with diplomacy, you really get the support of the people who are involved and they feel like they own part of it.

What’s your vision of a good HR leader?
To be a good leader in any area, but particularly in HR, you have to be trustworthy and respect the confidentiality of everyone -- from senior people to lower-level people. And a leader should be a positive, enthusiastic individual because there are a lot of issues that can drag you down day to day in our quickly changing world. So I think an HR leader needs to be more positive than your average leader, and be able to maintain that optimism for the future -- especially when you’re downsizing or closing plants or things like that which negatively impact people.

Do you think you measure up to your ideal?
I think I have a good aptitude for prioritizing the HR issues, involved with moving production offshore, closing plants, change and growth issues. I’m also able to hire and retain the right people for key positions in a new, skill-set type of world. As a leader, they look to me to set the HR organization’s priorities.

How do you set priorities for your HR group?
I’ve committed to my HR group that I’m going to be a human resources organization advocate companywide. I think the importance of the HR organization is often underestimated in companies. The senior HR person should be an advocate for the whole organization, meaning the person will promote the accomplishments of the organization. I sit on the company’s senior decision-making committee. So there’s support there, but I always make sure I’m an advocate presenting to them with people throughout the organization.

How do you cultivate yourself as a good leader?
Every six to eight weeks, our senior HR leadership group meets at different sites throughout the company. We make sure we’re away from phones and faxes and all that, and we spend two days just prioritizing HR issues. One of my big questions a year and a half ago was how could we be more strategic -- not just talking about merit increases, comp. stuff and basic benefits, but seeing how we could support the changes that are going on here. We set the dates together and it gives us six times a year to focus on senior HR leadership issues.

When did you decide you needed more focus on HR leadership issues?
We started these meetings in April 1997. I had been in this position about a year, and was struggling with the fact that the HR group didn’t report to me directly. [Most of the HR leaders in each of VF’s divisions report to leaders at their own locations -- although Williams is responsible for the overall HR organization and direction.] And although many of us have worked together for years and I can be a leader and drive decisions, I wanted VF as an organization to know that there’s this senior team of HR people that leads HR decisions.

It has been really great. We set up task forces to work on the issues we identify. Senior managers will say, “Will you present this to the HR council?” They like the fact that the senior HR people are in agreement on all these issues and that we apply programs throughout the company. Previously, there was a lack of coordination in the HR organization at the higher level, and I just felt like it was needed.

Can you describe a leadership challenge you’ve had that strengthened an area you didn’t realize you were weak in?
I think it’s learning to delegate. If you’re an achiever and a leader, you’re used to driving things and making things happen. But sometimes in team environments, things don’t happen as fast as I’d like to see them happen. I think sometimes I can be impatient. Knowing that, I just watch for it to make sure it doesn’t come through. Sometimes I’ll just do things to get them done. So maybe I could be a better delegator. It has been a weakness in this senior position because I can’t do everything, but sometimes I try to.

Can you describe any leadership challenges you’ve had?
What’s a huge challenge in both positive and negative ways has been the movement of our production offshore. The signal that sends to domestic employees, having to close domestic plants, isn’t easy. Conversely, having to start a plant in Mexico literally from the ground up was a huge HR challenge, and it was a time when HR was looked upon as being the experts. Yet we had only domestic-based HR people initially. So it was a gap in our skill set to have international experience. Having pressure on the organization to downsize in one area and then grow in the other hasn’t been easy in a lot of ways.

What have you learned from those experiences?
It may be a common thing, but just be prepared for change and realize that change is here to stay -- no matter what that is.

What do you think is important for HR people to think about with regard to HR leadership?
Lately, I’ve been comparing the HR leader of 10 years ago to the HR leader now. Going back 10 years, you see an entirely different kind of HR leadership. That’s positive for the HR organization because I think employees today are more demanding, and therefore, it’s given HR an opportunity to get closer to employees and be recognized by senior management as having a key role. Whereas 10 years ago, HR leadership was just kind of a paper-pusher role, but the new HR leader today has to be much stronger in leadership. I don’t think a senior HR person had to really lead 10 years ago. So maybe HR leadership in the past was kind of a misnomer. I feel like senior HR people really have to lead today. And that’s a challenge I thoroughly embrace.

Workforce, December 1998, Vol. 77, No. 12, pp.21-24.

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