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A Day in the Life of Sibby Curtis HR in the Drivers’ Seat at AirTouch Cellular

June 1, 1999
Related Topics: The HR Profession, Growth, Featured Article
Monday, April 26
Irvine, California

Some things in life are easy to count. Like the number of people you know who say they love their job (and are perfectly suited to the work they do). Or the number of people you work with who have the energy and willingness to get up every morning at 4:30 a.m. to commute two hours to the job they love. What about the list of people you’ve met who have stayed in one marriage for more than 30 years (and appear to be genuinely happy)? I bet that list is pretty short. Most of us know someone who fits one, maybe two of these descriptions, but few of us meet someone who fits them all. Enter Sibby Curtis, vice president of human resources for AirTouch Cellular’s Irvine, California-based Sierra Pacific Region.

Sibby’s one of those intriguing people who after one meeting leaves you wondering, "How does she do it?"—"it" being the schedule, the work, the pace, and the ease with which she appears to balance it all.

Sibby does, in fact, get up at 4:30 a.m. every morning of the week (with the exception of Fridays when she works in the San Diego office), and makes the 80-mile drive from San Diego to the AirTouch office in Irvine. She says her husband helps make the schedule more bearable by also rising early to read her The Wall Street Journal as she gets ready for another busy day at AirTouch. And the days are always busy, especially in light of the fact that AirTouch has recently merged with Newbury, England-based Vodafone, another telecommunications company that, when combined with AirTouch, will create Vodafone AirTouch PLC, the world’s largest wireless communications company—an almost $10 billion enterprise.

The Sierra Pacific Region has close to 3,000 employees from Sacramento to San Diego. Sibby has a staff of 40 HR professionals that include senior HR consultants, employee relations specialists, compensation consultants and analysts, staffing consultants, a training and development manager and multiple trainers, a communications specialist and several administrative staff. She reports locally to Nancy Hobbs, executive vice president and general manager of the $5.2 billion region. Hobbs is the second highest-ranking woman in AirTouch and the person Sibby credits for much of her own success at AirTouch.

Sibby says she really doesn’t mind her early morning drive because she truly loves her job. She said it also gives her time to check her usual 20-plus voice-mail messages in the morning before getting into the office. When I called Sibby to set up our day together, she told me things were hectic, to expect a full schedule that included multiple meetings. She told me her day usually started at 7:30 a.m. I graciously (hopefully) offered to meet her at 8:00 to give her some time to get settled before I arrived—and my body time to absorb some caffeine on my wimpy 2.7-mile commute to her office. But no, Sibby wanted to jump right in at 7:30, bright and early—so that’s when our day began.

7:40 a.m.
Sibby meets me in the lobby and offers to buy me coffee at the kiosk outside. I follow behind her and she immediately sets this brisk, purposeful pace. I’m wondering if the heels I’m wearing are a mistake. She orders a decaf nonfat latte, which surprises me given her early morning schedule and a demeanor that radiates high-octane energy. We quickly grab our coffees and head up to the 11th floor of the AirTouch building.

7:50 a.m.
We settle into Sibby’s office, which overlooks the expanse of Irvine and the surrounding foothills. I make note of a framed saying on her bookshelf that I think captures some of Sibby’s spirit: The most effective way to cope with change is to create it.

I mention the lovely view to Sibby, and she briefly looks up from the Palm Pilot® she uses to manage her busy schedule and gazes out the window. "Oh yeah—it is nice," she says, almost as though she forgot (or never realized) she had a view.

Within seconds, Kathy McCann, Sibby’s assistant, scoots into the office and gives Sibby a few updates, reminding her of a hiring decision that needs her attention.

8:00 a.m.
Two staff members bustle in with purpose and energy. I get the feeling that Sibby sets the tone for a vigorous pace, and I start to wonder if I’ll eventually run out of adjectives to describe how quickly these people move. Parish Pullen, senior compensation consultant, and Tony Flores, compensation analyst, get right to work on the numbers. Parish is in the middle of implementing a new HRIS system, and Sibby has asked for an update on the metrics the new system will measure for the management reports.

Parish says a few words about their progress, and passes the meeting over to Tony, who’s only been with AirTouch for three weeks. Tony walks us through the management metrics which will capture turnover, productivity, headcount, new hire and training ratios.

The three discuss benchmarking possibilities and other national norms they want to look at to gauge their progress in critical areas. They also talk about how they’ll disseminate the information to management and decide to put the info on one shared drive that management staff can access through the network system, versus HR e-mailing or printing out the data.

One of several themes begins to emerge and is carried throughout the day: All decisions appear to be made with two goals in mind: improving efficiency in operations and encouraging management self-sufficiency.

9:00 a.m.
The meeting wraps up and I take a minute to check out Sibby’s bookcase, which is bursting with top reads from all the management wizards: Peters, Block, Drucker, Ulrich, Booth and more. Knowing Sibby, I make a guess she’s probably read them all—she confesses that a couple of them have escaped her attention. Sibby takes a minute to check her e-mail, which she said was caught up when she left on Friday. She scrolls down a screen of red messages (indicating urgency), and calmly notes that about 31 messages have already come in. We chat about the challenge of managing the daily e-mail deluge.

9:10 a.m.
Michelle Watts, senior HR consultant, comes into the office toting her tissue box (which explains why she’s not moving quite as spryly as her co-workers).

Michelle has HR responsibility for 1,250 employees in customer care and engineering. She and Sibby discuss the HR implications of outsourcing one of their business areas. They talk about potential adverse impact issues if they can’t reassign all of the employees and review severance packages, retraining options and potential legal glitches.

Sibby’s approach with Michelle is very consultative; she listens a lot and mostly asks questions. They both agree the plan Michelle has recommended makes sense. After two meetings, I already get a strong sense of Sibby’s management style.

9:30 a.m.
Out goes Michelle, in comes Maria Powers, director of training and development. I start to think that what Sibby really needs in her office is a revolving door to manage the traffic flow brought on by these back-to-back meetings.

Maria has come in to discuss the revamped new-hire orientation, which accommodates approximately 50 new hires every two weeks. She outlines her vision for the three-day orientation which includes among other things a role-play exercise to reinforce corporate values, and a diversity exercise that has the employee draw a picture of a person based on a profile described by the trainer.

Sibby and Maria talk about the value of extending the orientation beyond three days, and agree to leave it as is for now.

10:00 a.m.
We leave the office with Maria and follow her down the hall for another meeting. I look at my watch and am amazed it’s only 10:00 a.m. and we’re already on to meeting number four. We meet in the conference room with Maria, Michelle and Claire Burns, also a senior HR consultant, to discuss ongoing training for the senior HR consultant team.

They look at a two-day training session that builds skills and competencies for functioning in a consulting role. The discussion eventually turns to the upcoming merger with Vodafone and the fact that AirTouch is currently on a different fiscal calendar. Sibby tells them they’ll have to move all their planning, budgeting and so on to accommodate Vodafone’s fiscal calendar. The team groans at this and asks if Vodafone would reconsider this decision. Sibby makes it clear that it’s not likely, and argues the benefits of moving to a different schedule.

11:00 a.m.
I’m ready for a quick break, but Sibby’s got other plans for us. We stop by Jacqueline Walker’s office. Jacqueline is senior employee-relations consultant for the region. She just returned from maternity leave a week earlier, and Sibby takes time to coo over a stack of new baby pictures.

We quickly move to the purpose of the meeting, which is to discuss the upcoming affirmative action audit. Jacqueline is proud to announce the preliminary numbers look good—no underutilized areas, meaning the AirTouch workforce reflects the demographics of the area. Sibby takes a minute to boast about the diversity of their workforce and the number of women in executive level positions. When I ask about women executives at the very top of the organization, she concedes that some imbalance remains.

Our discussion with Jacqueline turns to the Vodafone merger. In just two days, Vodafone’s chairman of the board, Lord Ian McLaurin, will make his first visit to the Irvine facility. Sibby will be part of the management team that meets with McLaurin. Sibby asks Jacqueline, who grew up in England, for some guidance on protocol. "What do I call him: Mr. McLaurin or Lord McLaurin?" Jacqueline gives her a brief lesson in British etiquette, explaining the appropriate way to address him is either "Lord" or "Sir."

12:00 noon
Finally, a short break allows us to make a quick (there’s that word again) visit to the restroom. I decide to freshen up with some lipstick, but as I look in the mirror, the reflection I see is Sibby holding the door open, ready to leave—forget the lipstick.

I follow behind, but have to work at keeping her pace. I’m starting to see how she gets her exercise. She indulges me with a quick stop by Juan Rameriz’ desk. Juan is their HR assistant and an avid runner. We chat briefly about his numerous marathons and the fact that he placed 58th in the Los Angeles marathon last month. (I start to think that "fast" must be a job requirement at AirTouch.) He was going to run in the Boston Marathon this year, but had to pass because AirTouch sent him to Hawaii for an all expenses-paid trip, which he earned as a "Service Legend Employee," a designation awarded for maintaining exemplary performance and living the AirTouch values.

12:10 p.m.
We make a brief stop by Sibby’s office, where she takes a minute to check messages and scan her e-mail. She reviews the file of a potential hire that one of the VPs wants to make. Sibby chuckles and sighs as she notes that the candidate has had 17 jobs in five years. She says the VP has final say over the hiring decision, but she plans on making a strong recommendation against the hire. (The VP takes her advice and agrees to continue the search.) We talk a few minutes about the labor shortage and the difficulties of finding good people, particularly for their Customer Care customer service area, where they’ve had to add 300 new people.

12:40 p.m.
I feel like a kid in school when Sibby tells me we actually have time for a "quick" lunch break. We head across the street to a little deli, and I scan the place for an open table, but I hear Sibby placing her order "to go" and I do the same. "We’ll take our lunch back to the office so we can get in some work." Of course we will. I’m starting to feel like such a slacker.

1:00 p.m.
Parish Pullen sticks his head into Sibby’s office and reminds us we have a 1:15 meeting with some vendors who are here to provide an update on their services. Parish says he wants to do a "Plus Delta" (a list of pluses and minuses) on their handling of one of their major projects to date. So far the minuses win out. I wonder for a minute how these supplier folks are going to feel about my presence in the meeting. Sibby says they don’t know I’ll be there.

1:15 p.m.
Sibby and I join Parish, Tony and the two gentlemen from the service company, who appear to be happy with my attendance. "Oh, what a perfect opportunity—we couldn’t have planned this better," the account manager says. I’m thinking he’ll be eating those words in a few short minutes.

Parish proceeds to list the issues that have come up as a result of the project being 20 percent over budget and behind schedule. I can see the sales manager and his account rep begin to sweat. Sibby asks a few questions, and tells the two that she had put effort into talking up the benefits of this new program to the workforce. It’s clear her credibility is on the line if the program is delayed and/or mismanaged.

1:45 p.m.
We’re still in our meeting with these two sorry souls. Sibby told Parish upfront that we have exactly 30 minutes available for the meeting, and out of the corner of my eye, I see her look at Parish and point to her watch. Parish picks up the cue immediately and, even though the group is engaged in a "passionate" discussion of who did what and where things went wrong, Parish abruptly interrupts the conversation, announcing that Sibby and I need to leave.

1:50 p.m.
Back in Sibby’s office we make plans to meet at 5:00 p.m. after she gets out of a "confidential" meeting with her boss Nancy and others on the senior management team, which Sibby is a part of. The meeting agenda includes a discussion about how HR can put their "best foot forward" with their new owners and a plan for Lord McLaurin’s arrival in just two days. This is the only meeting of the day I’m not invited to.

2:00 p.m.
I make the 5-minute commute to my house to catch up on calls and paperwork.

5:00 p.m.
Back at AirTouch again. As I arrive in the lobby, I feel as if I’m about to start my second day at AirTouch. It’s hard to believe it’s just the continuation of Monday. If I’m feeling it’s been a long day, then I think Sibby must really be tired, given the fact that she’s been up and about since 4:30 this morning. Kathy meets me in the lobby and brings me back to Sibby’s office.

Sibby bounces in looking as fresh as a flower, and again I find myself thinking, "How does she do it?"

5:15 p.m.
Sibby and I catch up on the meeting, which she said ended at 4:00, giving her time to check her e-mail and spend 15 minutes with Executive Vice President/ General Manager Nancy Hobbs discussing an upcoming organizational move. We talk a little more about all the changes taking place at AirTouch and the concerns she has about the merger, which are surprisingly few.

Her main concern for the moment is the new corporate vice president of human resources in San Francisco, a Harvard MBA grad who has been in the role for about four months. He’s responsible for an HR organization that supports a worldwide base of 13,000 employees. While he has spent the last 10 years in operational and staff jobs at AirTouch in cellular, paging and international operations, he has nobackground in HR. I see Sibby, for the first time of the day, showing some signs of stress. "I just hope he’ll value and support the strategic business role that HR currently fills at AirTouch." End of discussion.

6:00 p.m.
Margaret Jordan, communications specialist, arrives with a digital camera to take a few shots of Sibby for our article. She tells Sibby how photogenic she is and clicks away in her office, and we move to the lobby for a couple of different shots.

6:20 p.m.
Marie is back for another meeting, which I think marks meeting number nine for the day. I’m betting we’ll make it an even 10 before I walk out. Sibby and Marie discuss a management training outline that Sibby wants completed for the upcoming HR strategy meeting. Marie was planning on having it complete by next week, but Sibby tells her it has to be in the corporate VPof HR’s hands by Friday.

6:40 p.m.
Bingo! We hit my predicted tenth meeting of the day with Parish. He and Sibby meet to talk about him pulling together information that Lord McLaurin has requested for their meeting on Wednesday. He apparently wants to look at employee info for their division, average length of service, education, etc. He’s also interested in turnover info, local unemployment stats, average household income, etc. Parish makes his notes and heads out about 7:00 p.m.

7:20 p.m.
Sibby and I discuss the day, which she says is for the most part pretty typical. We part company in the parking garage, where Sibby heads for her car to make the truck back to San Diego. I pull out of the garage, thankful that I’ll be home by 7:30. (Sibby e-mails me the next day to tell me she had 25 new voice-mail messages to respond to on her way home—a very productive ride.)

8:50 p.m.
Sibby arrives home and is greeted by her golden retriever, Kelsey, and her husband, Ken, who is placing dinner on the table. "Yes, I’m spoiled," she confesses in her e-mail message to me.

9:00 p.m.
Sibby and Ken watch her favorite show, "Ally McBeal."

10:00 p.m.
Sibby dozes off, resting for six and half hours before she starts all over again on Tuesday.

Workforce, June 1999, Vol. 78, No. 6, pp. 60-66.

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