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HR Scouts Recruit, Develop, and Retain Talent At PR Agency

Optimas 2001 - Innovation: New initiative at Fleishman-Hillard stresses innovative thinking and a long-term strategic view.

February 28, 2001
Each day when Agnes Gioconda comes to work, her gaze wanders toward the view beyond her 20th-floor window. Below, barges slowly navigate the Mississippi River. Farther away in the distance, the Gateway Arch frames the city of St. Louis. Both symbols are an inspiration, says the senior partner and chief talent officer of Fleishman-Hillard International Communications, a global public relations firm, and this year's Optimas recipient for Innovation.

    Riding a tram to the top of the Arch helps her appreciate innovative thinking. The designer of the vehicle created a way to transport eight people in a capsule so when they reach the top, they're still sitting upright. As for the Mississippi River, Gioconda is reminded daily how central the river is to commerce. Fleishman-Hillard's HR practices, she says, share similar qualities - innovative thinking and strategic importance.

    Founded in 1946, Fleishman-Hillard began with two major clients: Anheuser-Busch and Emerson Electric. Today, it ranks as the second-largest public relations agency in the United States, and the fifth-largest in the world.

    With a staff of 2,250 employees, it has 49 offices located in 16 countries throughout North America, Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa. The company's expected revenues for 2000 were $300 million, according to CFO Fred Rohlfing. Estimated revenues for 2001 are expected to be more than $400 million.

    In the past two years, employee ranks grew by more than 60 percent. To help account representatives better serve global clients (such as Wal-Mart, Proctor & Gamble and Yahoo!), the human resources function had to be strategically institutionalized.

    That meant several key decisions: positioning Gioconda on the operating committee (Fleishman-Hillard's senior management team), solidifying the human resources group, codifying the recruitment process (key qualifications charts), establishing a company university, and reinforcing the company's 10 cultural "philosophy points."

    When Gioconda arrived at Fleishman-Hillard in 1993, there were 500 employees. The human resources function, she says, was mostly administrative. Hiring was decentralized through the regional offices, and there were no performance appraisals. Each office typically handled its own training.

    The previous HR director had been in the profession for only two years. By contrast, Gioconda came in with an undergraduate degree in education, an MBA in finance, and certification as an employee benefits specialist.

    Between 1993 and 1998, she recruited her core HR team: Lynn Oppelt, senior vice president and partner; Barbara Ruberg, senior vice president; Linda Leadbitter, senior vice president; and Lisa Moehlenkamp, senior vice president. Today, each has specific geographical and functional areas of responsibility. Several of her staff members also have MBAs or master's degrees in HR, which makes her team unusually savvy financially.

    "When we visit our regional offices, we know what their financial numbers are," says Moehlenkamp, who oversees the East Coast.

    As the company continued to grow, however, it was clear that the HR function had to be more customer-service oriented. By 1998, HR team members had begun to view themselves more as liaisons with the regional offices. HR's mission needed to be articulated into an overarching concept. The key word at Fleishman-Hillard became "talent."

    "Our chairman was the driving force behind the 'talent' concept," Gioconda says. "He didn't think the words 'human resources' reflected all that we do. Mainly, we recruit, develop, and retain talent."

    The name change in the year 2000 capped the HR initiatives that had begun two years earlier. It was more than a marketing ploy. The Talent Development Group rolled out its strategic orientation worldwide through a PowerPoint presentation entitled "Talent Development Support - How We Can Help." It outlined the human resources benefits of the talent liaisons: support for recruitment, training, employee relations, and compensation and benefits analyses. It also explained what the HR liaison is not: a replacement for the office manager or for account involvement.

    Managers also were shown how online recruiting strategies could actually save them money. The average cost per hire can typically be $5,404 for exempt employees and $2,328 for non-exempt employees. With newspaper ads, managers normally would have to pay 52 percent of those costs ($2,000-$7,000). With an Internet ad, it could cost 30 percent ($150 to $200), Rohlfing says.

    As the Talent Development Group established its strategic value to regional office managers, recruitment goals were met. Although Graham gave Gioconda the leeway to hire 25 internal recruiters, she hired only eight to meet the aggressive hiring goals. Retention figures have been impressive. One executive says the company has double the rate of the marketing industry in general.

    Dave T. Senay, a senior partner, executive vice president, and general manager of the St. Louis office, is committed to nurturing talent. A Razor scooter parked in his office exemplifies this commitment. It has a two-sided license plate that reads, "I brake only for ad account execs" or "I brake only for partners."

    Senay gave the Razors as gifts to all of his group leaders. "We've grown so big. I wanted them to get out of their offices and roll around.

    "We don't have a factory," Senay adds. "People who walk (or scoot) through these halls are our 'factory' and 'product.' We have talent that our clients pay for. So finding talent has become my number one issue."

    When promising candidates are found, office managers are better equipped to assess their talent and character. Most of the newly created positions have been for public relations account representatives. Creativity and writing skills are only part of the hiring equation. At Fleishman-Hillard, great emphasis is placed on its 10 "philosophy points." Among them: teamwork, respect for the individual, a passion for quality, and a commitment to high ethical standards.

    After a candidate is hired, the Talent Development Group continues to assist office managers by instituting performance appraisals. Advancements in the past were often conducted capriciously and without well-defined goals to accomplish, Senay says. Today, employees not only receive annual performance evaluations but also get three additional progress reviews. The career-mapping process looks at:

  • Where an employee wants to go.

  • Which skills are necessary to learn on the job, and which externally.

  • Which other intangible skills a person should acquire.

    Like many other cutting-edge organizations, Fleishman-Hillard offers many courses at its corporate university. For example, there are courses such as Finding Talent and Interviewing Techniques. Last year, it added a management series and a course called Courageous Conversations.

    For the management course, the Talent Development Group centered discussions around a book by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently (Simon and Schuster, 1999). Based on in-depth interviews by the Gallup Organization of over 80,000 managers in over 400 companies, it shares the results of the largest study of its kind ever undertaken.

    Courageous Conversations was devised by the Talent Development Group after the team attended several days of training at the Cramer Institute in St. Louis. "We were coached on how to have open, honest conversations in a results-oriented fashion," Moehlenkamp says. These are one-on-one conversations on sensitive topics, such as how to get an employee to lower his high-volume speaker phone?

    Another company innovation is The Fan Club. Former employees are offered a password to access a section of the corporate intranet. It allows alumni to continue networking with each other.

    Talent development requires patience and a long-term view, she says. Her daily reminder is the sound of water from a miniature fountain. It complements the movement of barges on the Mississippi and the parade of managers scooting around the building. At Fleishman-Hillard, nothing stands still.


Fleishman-Hillard's Guiding Principles:

  • Respect for the individual

  • Teamwork is everything

  • Quality service is first and foremost in everything we do

  • New business drives the firm

  • Results make us grow

  • Existing clients come first

  • Fleishman-Hillard requires a personal commitment

  • Entrepreneurship is a way of life

  • Personal success is measureable and attainable

  • We are committed to the highest ethical standards


Workforce, March 2001, pp. 46-47 Subscribe Now!