A Day in the Life of John Harvey Positioning HR for the Fast Track

June 1, 1998
Thursday, April 9

New York City—Author E.B. White once wrote: "New York is the concentrate of art and commerce and sport and religion and entertainment and finance, bringing to a single compact arena the gladiator, the evangelist, the promoter, the actor, the trader and the merchant." He didn't mention HR. But John F. Harvey fits the Manhattan profile. As vice president/relationship leader of human resources for Corporate Services at American Express Co., Harvey's a little bit of each. He has to be. If you can't sell HR as a business partner, why bother to board a train and ferry to work every day from Maplewood, New Jersey? "I love my job," he says.

Corporate Services, Harvey explains, is the business-to-business division of the company that helps mid-sized and large companies—and government agencies—manage their travel and purchasing expenditures. He assumed his current position in January 1997 and is responsible for HR management, supporting 12,400 employees who represent Corporate Services clients domestically. The company underwent a reorganization last year, he says, that better aligns the business units by customer segments, rather than regions. His mission is to get the right people on the project teams to achieve his division's business goals. Harvey reports to Bonnie Stedt, executive vice president/senior relationship leader—with a dotted line to Edward P. Gilligan, president of Corporate Services—and one of AMEX' top 18 business executives.

When I arrive at his office on the 40th floor of the World Financial Center, he greets me with a friendly handshake. Harvey seats me facing the Manhattan skyline, and begins to quickly articulate the company's recent reorganization. I joke with him to slow down, explain a few company expressions, such as "business utilities," or "centers of excellence"—to little avail. He's wired, and I'm thinking, "If only I knew shorthand." Thank God, I wore comfortable shoes. By the end of my afternoon with Harvey, I'm awestruck at the sheer size of this organization. I wonder how anyone really functions in such a maze. "That was one of my concerns when I interviewed for this job. But I discovered that AMEX isn't overly bureaucratic at all. We're given a lot of room to make decisions," he says.

6:30 a.m.
Early commute from the 'burbs.
An early wake-up. Says goodbye to his wife and four children; catches a train to the Hoboken ferry. Normally, he would read The New York Times. But this morning, he runs into a colleague on the train. "We got into a great discussion about the public sector." Upon arriving by ferry at the World Financial Center—downtown at 200 Vesey Street, near the Hudson River, Harvey stops at Minters for a blueberry crumb muffin and coffee (with milk and one cube of sugar).

7:50 a.m.
Arrival at the office.
Checks e-mail. Approximately 20 messages have accumulated since 6:30 p.m. the previous day. "I try to check in every two hours," he says. The drawings on the wall next to his desk show he's a proud daddy. His daughter Corinne has drawn him with a white face, yellow eyes, pink nose and gray lips. His son, John, on the other hand, has painted Harvey as a blockhead with a yellow face, pink eyes and a green mouth. He laughs at the contrasting images.

We spend some time reviewing the day's itinerary. On an average day, he says, he attends approximately five meetings. They include anything from big-picture planning to developmental projects. Meetings usually run between 30 minutes and one hour. He knows his objectives for every meeting, and hands a list of them to me before we're off and running.

9:00 a.m.
Leadership and development.
Brisk walk across the building's North Bridge toward the World Trade Center. We walk five minutes from AMEX headquarters to another building the company leases on Broadway. (He believes in going to his internal customers' office.)

His objective: To review service delivery and drivers of employee satisfaction, and finalize HR commitments to supporting business initiatives.

Harvey and two other colleagues review what Corporate Services refers to as "The Stand." This vision statement is based on an annual Employee Survey, which measures employee satisfaction in a number of key areas. Three key goals of "The Stand" include: Making people incredibly successful; inspiring intense customer loyalty; and continually transforming entire industries. These elements, he says, must be aligned with the "drivers for leadership and development"—what employees say they want most from an employer: "I feel I can grow and progress with my company," "My job gives me a sense of personal accomplishment" and "Management treats employees with respect and dignity.

"In the course of one hour, they discuss: how "The Stand" leads to capabilities, which in turn lead to competencies and behaviors; team training effectiveness; and relooking at the current reward structures. After engaging his colleagues, Harvey calls for the action/follow-up plans while tapping his pen on a notepad. "Remember our theme is coaching and giving feedback. Team leaders often get too tied up with administrivia."

11:00 a.m.
Competency models. Quick walk back to Harvey's office. One colleague already is in the office. Another joins in via conference call.

His objective: To update progress on deployment of the Corporate Services leadership model and determine linkage with competency modeling group.

Harvey keys in on talent assessments for mid-level managers. He observes that 10 years ago, "A good leader was a good leader." However, in today's business world, HR is challenged to meet that pace with a more multi-skilled workforce. (To the manager of quality services in Phoenix): "Greg, where are we? Is there any issue we need to work through?" "Peg, (Wagner, vice president of competency modeling) jump in." The three talk about "mapping up," moving competencies "across the Blue Box (AMEX' values statement). To shorten the cycle time, Harvey suggests designing a development model and implementing it at the same time in one unit. "Here's the approach: Develop, deploy, develop, deploy, finalize—then go out and apply."

11:45 a.m.
Mentoring a new director.
His objective: To orient an employee to a new role, review orientation plan, goals, expectations and "The Stand."

Since winning the U.S. Government account in 1993, American Express services more than 1.3 million federal employees who use the Government Card for official travel. Jackie Bennett has recently been hired as new director/relationship leader supporting government services and the corporate purchasing card group. Via conference call, Harvey reviews the orientation plan—a customized plan he has designed for her. It includes "action steps," "contacts to meet" (in some categories, as many as 13 individuals), their "job titles" and the "scheduled completed date." They review one of the action steps: "Spend time with each government service and corporate purchasing card direct report individually to gain an understanding of their business, gain an understanding of key HR challenges and to initiate the development of an effective working relationship. Harvey simplifies her tasks by explaining the benefit of talking to specific individuals. "Talk to Courtney. She's a good thought leader."

He also reminds her: "You have to prioritize day to day. And I'm also worried about work/life balance. You set the pace for others. So take immediate steps to post a job for administrative support. Send me what I need to sign off quickly."

"Sounds great!" Bennett's voice rings through the speakerphone.

12:30 p.m.
Marketing new technology.
His objective: Review the latest multimedia presentation developed by two senior internal business consultants from Learning and Development, Alicia Mandel and Greg Davis.

Harvey reviews a presentation of a new tool to sell Corporate Services products. Patting themselves on the back, the group says it's the best application of Lotus Notes™ ever applied in the company.

Davis is oozing with enthusiasm at the possibility of presenting the tools onsite or sending along the software to clients. "I'm so excited!" he says. What the group realizes is that they've created a product that can be used throughout the organization—and eventually outside the company. Harvey reiterates "The Stand": "We have the capability to develop internally. Now, we can market the learning and development capability to transform entire industries."

1:30 p.m.
His objective: To devour our sandwiches as quickly as possible.

We lunch in the company cafeteria and tour the corporate Fitness Center, where Harvey often spends his lunch hour. He walks up to the counter to check the computerized records of employee's exercise activity. Big smile. He's made it on the list of Top 100 calorie burners.

2:30 p.m.
Attends coaching session on team effectiveness.

4:00 p.m.
Reviews global service capabilities.

5:00 p.m.
It's a wrap-up: Checks e-mail and phone messages.

6:40 p.m.
Boards ferry to Hoboken, New Jersey.

7:06 p.m.
Boards train from Hoboken to Maplewood.

7:35 p.m.
Enjoys dinner with the family. Helps three older kids ages 7, 10, and 13, with homework—nothing as tough as HR.

8:45 p.m.
Plays platform tennis with friends.

10:00 p.m.
Watches evening news.

10:30 p.m.
Lights out!

Workforce, June 1998, Vol. 77, No. 6, pp. 64-68.