HRs Top Earners Fiscally Fit for HR

Chesapeake Energy people chief Martha Burger, the top-ranked woman on Workforce Management ’s annual list of the 30 highest-paid human resources executives, says her background in finance has helped raise HR’s standing in the company.

September 30, 2008
It’s not often that a finance manager enters the world of HR. But 12 years ago, that’s exactly what Martha Burger did.

At the time, Chesapeake Energy had just surpassed 100 employees and the CEO felt that the company needed a full-time HR person.

"I think our CEO was a little leery about finding someone who would be able to understand the company and how it worked," Burger says. At the time, she was treasurer at the Oklahoma City-based company, the second-largest independent natural gas producer in the U.S. "And so he asked me to take the job."

For Burger, having a finance background has helped in her current position as senior vice president of human and corporate resources at Chesapeake, which now has 7,150 employees and is No. 61 on Fortune’s 2008 list of the best companies to work for. She says it gives her a better understanding of the nuances of compensation and benefit design and has helped elevate how HR is perceived within the company.

And from looking at Burger’s 2007 pay package, it’s clear that Chesapeake Energy values her. Burger is the top-ranked woman on Workforce Management’s list of the 30 highest-paid HR leaders, making more than $7 million last year. She is third on the list overall.

Burger declined to comment on her compensation. But she was happy to talk about the HR challenges facing Chesapeake, and about how her finance background has helped her approach these challenges in a more creative way.

Burger recently spoke to Workforce Management New York bureau chief Jessica Marquez.

Workforce Management: You have said that one of the biggest challenges you face is that Chesapeake is missing a generation of workers. What do you mean by that?

Martha Burger: It’s interesting. In our industry, there is no midlevel group. No one went into the oil and gas business 10 years ago. They all went to dot-coms. So we don’t have a lot of people with 10 to 15 years of experience. We have a lot of older workers approaching retirement and a lot of younger people. So our challenge is getting the knowledge from one set of heads to the next.

WM: How are you going about doing that?

Burger: We have rolled out one program with our geoscience department of 250 geologists and geophysicists called "How to Start Your Own ‘Rock’ Group." The play is on the fact that these people study rock formations. The program is designed to pair everyone as mentors and mentees. It works to combine personal development with work development. We developed a substantive measurement system and formal curriculum. It entails a two-hour introduction and a half-day workshop and then you are paired with someone. We provide training for the mentors on things like how to be constructive and give feedback

WM: How do you gauge the success of a men­torship program?

Burger: This is the first year of the program, and so far we have good feedback. And the new employees are getting up to speed quickly —which is our goal. We also have begun to do hourlong training sessions in other parts of the company about the benefits of mentorship, and we are starting to get interest from other departments about how the program can be tailored for them.

WM: What are your top three priorities currently?

Burger: Training and development is one. Continuing to recruit ahead of the company’s growth is another. When you are growing at the same time that the demographics are showing a shrinking talent pool, we have to be a lot more creative in recruiting. The third priority is designing compensation that works—which can be challenging since we have a very highly educated professional workforce as well as a population of field workers.

     WM: How has your experience in finance helped you as head of HR?

Burger: I think the main difference is that since I came from finance, I was always going out to get money and asking business division leaders, "How can I help you get to where you need to be?" Too often HR professionals have a police type of mentality and they are always looking for ways to say no.

WM: How are you being more creative with your recruiting?

Burger: One example is that we have started going to law schools. We have found that there are a great number of law school students who don’t want to go work for law firms. We hire them as "landmen." Their job is to negotiate with landowners to allow us to drill for oil or gas. It’s a very key position and hard to find. Currently 50 of our 250 landmen are lawyers. Another example is hiring for rig hands on our drilling rigs. There is high turnover among this group, and it’s hard to find drill hands because the competition for talent is fierce. We have hired 10 employees from the Carver Center, a [half­way house] for individuals coming from prison. These are very loyal employees to the company, because not a lot of companies would give them a job and they have great safety records.

WM: How has the energy crisis affected HR at Chesapeake?

Burger: Clearly people are always talking about gas prices and the need to produce natural gas. So suddenly our product is being viewed as a solution to a real crisis that our country is in, and that gives our employees a real sense of pride and has caused more applications than we have ever seen. In the last year the number of résumés we have received has doubled and we are getting 11,000 per month.

WM: What are you doing to make it easier for employees to weather higher gas prices?

Burger: We are discussing building a natural gas fueling station on our campus. Right now Honda Motor is the only company in the U.S. that makes a car that runs on compressed natural gas. We are looking at doing a bulk order of compressed natural gas vehicles and providing a $5,000 incentive for employees to buy these cars. Also by using natural gas, they could shave off $2 a gallon. We think it could alleviate a financial burden for employees, but also contribute to a great work experience.

Workforce Management, September 8, 2008, p. 36-41 -- Subscribe Now!