A gaping Boeing 727 cargo plane sits about 25 yards from Rick Westbrook’s desk at DHL Airways’ Los Angeles Gateway facility at the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). From Imperial Highway, the auto-bound person’s approach to the building, an arriving plane’s wingtip seems almost to clip the structure. Work at this facility is governed by arrivals and takeoffs and time-sensitive deliveries, 24 hours a day and 365 days a year.
Inside, parcels from around the globe move through the hands of an equally diverse workforce as announcements blare from a public address system that reverberates from the high warehouse ceiling. Arriving guests must surrender their drivers’ licenses to acquire a visitors’ badge because of Federal Aviation Administration rules, an introduction to a workplace where the FAA, the U.S. Department of Transportation and U.S. Customs all set some of the rules. And they do check visitors’ badges.
As the senior HR person at LAX Gateway, one of seven DHL Gateway facilities in the United States, Rick appears to be in his element. His meetings are like refueling stops: short and busy, with a lot of information exchange and Rick’s clear, careful repeating of the key points at the close. He’s completely involved in every exchange, but when the meeting is over, clear the runway.
Rick’s been up since 6:30 a.m., logging on to MSNBC as his coffee is brewing to check local and international news, and to see how his investments are doing. Rick is acutely aware that events anywhere in the world can have direct impact on the company.
At DHL, HR is a strategic business partner, and Rick makes it his business to know the world news as one of his HR skills. He plans his day, including whatever trades he may want to make during his lunch break, grabs his cereal bar and yogurt and is out the door for a half hour in Los Angeles traffic and arrival just before 8:00. He had been out of town last week, so on Friday he stayed at the office until 8:30 p.m. responding to mail and signing paperwork so he could start fresh on Monday.
Today he leaves the office at 9:00 a.m. to drive north up the San Diego Freeway (Interstate 405) to Van Nuys for a sales meeting at one of his five field-service offices. At 10:00, he’s ready for the sales meeting. The field service office receptionist gives him a warm welcome, and we settle in.
Rick’s come to the field-service sales meeting to present the new "Drive to Deliver" program, an employee reward plan for extraordinary effort, good ideas and safe driving. His overheads, completed during his first hour at work this morning, reflect his pride in delivering a new reward program based on employees’ previous requests.
This year’s program redesign is based on an employee satisfaction survey, a feature Rick highlights. He closes his informal presentation by pointing out that the revised program is part of HR’s effort to align the culture with DHL’s strategic direction. Members of the sales staff, a productive, wisecracking crew of seven, appear pleased with the program changes.
Less than 15 minutes after it began, the sales meeting is over, and several agents remain with questions for Rick. They want to know when DHL will offer an insurance program for retirees.
Rick responds to them with empathy and honesty: It won’t be in the near future. DHL is financing a new hub and seeking to replace some of its older planes with Airbuses®. Those are the financial priorities. The agent who asked gets the 800 number for the retirement funds manager.
Rick fields questions about retention of sales staff and the cost of turnover, describing those issues as concerns that were expressed at the most recent regional meeting. He also writes down the questions and suggestions, promising to carry them to the senior vice president of human resources.
Rick and the sales manager discuss the draft of a letter terminating an employee who has been out on disability leave for a year, agreeing not to send the letter via DHL so they can avoid getting couriers involved in the case.
An employee has asked to meet with Rick at 11:00, so we wait in the open warehouse where DHL vans load and return. Rick describes how the employees’ concerns come to him directly because of HR’s open-door policy. During a training session Rick led recently, he learned that a couple of employees are frustrated with their supervisor. He wants to strategize with them about solving the problem.
Consulting—making recommendations rather than issuing orders—is the part of his job that Rick enjoys the most. He seems so well-suited to this work that his pleasure in it is unforced. More than once during the day, he says, "I find inspiration in my job."
As a senior human resource generalist, Rick is a corporate employee, reporting to the senior HR manager at network transportation in Cincinnati, with a dotted line reporting relationship to field services in Tempe, Arizona. Within DHL, human resources is only four layers deep: HR representatives, senior HR managers, director of HR and senior vice president for HR.
Rick has worked for progressive organizations that developed HR staff and gave them respect. His career ambition is either to become the senior HR person at a company like DHL or to consult, with a focus on employee relations, investigations and recruiting. "The jobs I’ve had the most reward from are those in which I’ve learned the most from my boss," he explains, citing an early mentoring relationship with an HR professional who recognized his talent when he worked in retail during college acquiring his degree in business administration.
And there’s been no career floundering for Rick: His first job out of college was as an HR assistant, and he’s been in the field ever since. He’s now 36. "I work in a diverse environment as an internal consultant. I love my job."
He has quarterly performance goals that must be achieved, goals set during quarterly one-on-one meetings with his manager. As we move through his day, his actions clearly reflect ongoing awareness of those goals. Rick can wait when necessary, but his gears don’t include reverse.
At last, the meeting with the concerned employee. At first, the employee suggests that he’ll just confront his boss. But Rick realizes that the boss intimidates the employee. "Okay, then that’s not the solution." He asks the employee to put his concerns in writing and plans an alternate course. Meeting’s over.
We head south on the freeway back to the LAX Gateway, Rick checks his voice-mail, then we head off to lunch and talk about his reading. He prefers to read business-related books—most recently he read Successful Manager’s Handbook: Development Suggestions for Today’s Managers, written by Brian Davis (Personnel Decisions International, 1996). He finds chapters that he can recommend to managers in his consulting role with them, and relishes the developmental gains they achieve when they follow through.
For his own development, Rick appreciates the choice DHL offers him from a catalog of courses. This Friday, he’ll take Fundamentals of Microsoft Excel®, with the goal of eventually providing all the mandatory training in that application for his region.
"Training is one of the reasons we have such strong leadership and such an effective organization," he explains. I’m becoming a believer. Next he’ll read Managers as Mentors: Building Partnerships for Learning by Chip R. Bell (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1998). He eats this stuff up.
Rick needs to meet with Lorna Martinez, import supervisor, to discuss a pending court case the company plans to appeal. Finding the key to the small conference room takes several minutes (only Security seems to have it), and as planes drone overhead, they agree on next steps. Total meeting time: 5 minutes.
We begin a tour of the Gateway, and Rick drops in on a supervisor who has an issue to discuss. They chat briefly about keeping the supervisor’s door locked because of some recent evidence of unauthorized weekend visits to non-business-related Web sites.
Rick runs across an employee who has married recently and wants to know when she can enroll her spouse on the company’s health plan. She has the information packet, but acknowledges that she hasn’t read it.
He tells her that she has 30 days. As they talk, it becomes clear that today is day 29. When she walks away, he reports empathetically that she can’t afford to miss that deadline and have to wait a year, so he’s glad he met up with her. I’m struck by his genuine concern.
We finish touring the facility, crossing paths with employees who all seem to know Rick, and although 300 people work at LAX Gateway, he seems to know all their names.
Rick checks voice-mail and explains that the papers in his in-box are there because they require his review and signature. That will consume the last hour or two of his day, and is his least favorite function. He’s managed to avoid the administrative detail by supplying field service offices with brochures and forms.
I notice that his office is remarkably uncluttered. The pictures of nieces and nephews that adorn his credenza don’t have to share the space with papers.
I ask him what challenges he faces as an HR professional. "To get employees to think internationally. We need more internal marketing on that issue," he says. "Employees need to learn how volatile the international scene can be."
His second concern is about the pending union vote among the airplane mechanics. "That one issue can absorb a day easily."
Rick calls his 4 p.m. telephone appointment—the colleague of this morning’s concerned employee—and he reaches voice-mail. We review his quarterly goals, which are remarkably detailed. "This is the most accountable I’ve ever been in HR. It’s neat."
His 4:00 appointment calls back. Rick advises the employee on meeting with his supervisor, stressing the importance of writing down his concerns so that he doesn’t get off track during the conversation. After the call, we return to the discussion of HR accountability and how it creates a context where Rick and his colleagues can thrive.
The week’s "slow day" is over. Rick typically heads for the gym, makes a healthy dinner of chicken breast, rice and steamed vegetables, reads, watches the evening news and calls it another productive, positive day. The man loves his work. Clear the runway.
Workforce, June 1999, Vol. 78, No. 6, pp. 82-87.