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Sustainable HR

Joseph High, Owens Corning’s senior VP of human resources, explains his strategy for maintaining the materials and insulation manufacturer’s talent pipeline throughout the world.

August 31, 2008
Related Topics: Global Business Issues, Motivating Employees, Candidate Sourcing, Staffing Management
Owens Corning pitches the value of sustainability to its customers. The Toledo, Ohio-based provider of building materials and insulation prides itself on helping clients be more energy efficient.

But for Joseph High, "sustainability" has a different meaning. As Owens Corning’s senior vice president of human resources, High is focused on maintaining the sustainability of the company’s talent pipeline throughout the world. That means that despite a difficult economy and a dismal housing market, High and his team have to continue to find and develop talent at a rapid pace.

With 19,000 employees in 26 countries, this is no easy task. But High, who has been with Owens Corning since 2004, has developed a strategy to keep his 200-person global HR team focused on the results of the business.

"I have seen HR people get so enamored with the function of HR and they act like that’s the end," he says. "But it’s just a means to the end. The end is achieving the business results."

To make sure his HR team understood its mission, last year High developed six priorities for HR. These goals center on the idea that everyone in HR has to continually focus on what they need to do to support the business of the company.

The goals include such traditional HR priorities as succession planning, recognizing and rewarding talent, and leadership development. But High also emphasizes the need for his HR team to go beyond just thinking about what they need to do today and anticipate what the company is going to need from them tomorrow, next year and the year after that.

He says HR managers need to know not only where there are skill gaps within the organization, but they also should have a plan for how those gaps will be addressed. HR should constantly be asking itself if the right people are in the right jobs.

Despite those requirements, HR managers still must stay on top of the administrative part of their jobs, High says. In fact, he expects HR managers to be as efficient as possible at transactional processes, with the goal of bringing HR back-office costs to zero, he says.

Every month, High holds a global HR town meeting. During that webcast, he and a few others on his team talk about one of the priorities.

High’s HR agenda isn’t quite complete, though. He says HR also needs to make sure that the company’s business managers are focused on the needs of customers—an element that too often companies miss.

"HR has to go look for people with the right marketing and research capabilities," he says. "But they also have to examine whether our current general managers are people who are inquisitive and curious about their customers’ business."

To stay on top of all of this, High and Owens Corning CEO Mike Thaman are intent on ensuring that all employees are clear on their goals and that there is goal alignment throughout the organization.

High says he has to make sure he understands each and every business manager’s needs. And that means open communication. High says he is on the road about 10 days a month meeting with business and HR managers around the globe.

High’s efforts have been gaining recognition. This year Owens Corning advanced on Fortune’s list of America’s Most Admired Companies, moving from fourth to third place in its industry category: building materials and glass. High recently spoke to Workforce Management New York bureau chief Jessica Marquez.

    Workforce Management: What are the top three challenges that you and your team face today?

    Joseph High: Talent is one challenge. That translates into us being very clear on the success factors for a given role and that we get the right people. The second major challenge is being effective at leading change. That means getting managers to be clear on where they see their markets going and what that means for talent. No. 3 would be leadership at all levels. One of the big things at Owens Corning is that we focus on helping every single employee understand that they are leaders, and that requires different expectations and different competencies, depending on what their job level is.

We have put together a document around leadership accountability, and in that document we lay out attributes for leaders on the executive level, the management level and the team level. We are clear about expectations and competencies and we continue to refine it. We just updated it in the past year.

WM: How do you keep managers looking at where their businesses are going as opposed to just being focused on the present?

High:Part of it is about understanding the customer’s business. But that’s not even good enough. We have to do research and surveys, and we have to build a relationship where managers tell us about our customers. We can’t just react to customers’ current needs; we need to understand how those needs are evolving.

    WM: What does that mean for HR?

High:We have to make sure we have the right people in place to lead these efforts and that we are evaluating them based on the right competencies. And we need to be sure to review those competencies on an ongoing basis.

    WM: Tell me about the monthly global HR town halls you hold. How do they work?

High: These meetings are designed to focus every HR person in the company. Usually I broadcast them from our headquarters. I make opening comments so that everyone understands the state of the business. Then we focus on one element of the six priorities that our HR team needs to be good at. For example, at yesterday’s meeting the focus was on organizational effectiveness and organizational development.

Around the world, HR has to be good at knowing the capabilities we have and don’t have. [Managers] need to focus on assessing operational performance and effectiveness, designing roles and interactions to win, and filling those roles appropriately.

So at the last meeting, we spent a lot of time with two of my people sitting on the stage talking about what they have learned and the challenges they have faced in this process.

It’s a fishbowl kind of approach where we really talk about things that work well and things that have failed.

    WM: How do you make sure that HR doesn’t get bogged down with administrative work and stays focused on the business?

High: Actually, we feel that our HR members have to be good administrators. That speaks to one of our top priorities, which is bringing HR back-office costs to zero. We are focusing on increasing our efficiency and improving our productivity. For example, we are trying to reduce the number of errors made when inputting data because someone has to correct those errors and that takes time. We measure these processes and assess them.

WM: Why not just outsource all of the HR administrative work?

High: We do some outsourcing on the administrative side. We are constantly asking ourselves if we should buy or build a solution. For now, when we look at our business model it has not made sense to sign an HR business process outsourcing deal. As part of our continued-improvement mind-set, we will continue to evaluate it.

    WM: Last year Owens Corning acquired Saint-Gobain’s reinforcement and composite fabrics business, adding 5,000 employees to the company. At the same time, the company had to divest two of your plants in Norway and Belgium, which included 2,000 employees. How was HR involved with these transactions? What was the strategy behind it?

    High: Last year we had the largest acquisition and the largest divestitures so that we wouldn’t be so dependent on North American housing. We had to be very good at divesting businesses, and that took a lot of HR’s time to help with that. It’s really detailed work in working with the business leaders to put the right books together to describe our business to potential owners.

It also means that we had to help decide which talent would stay with Owens Corning and which would go. It also included a lot of decisions about how benefits would be handled for people who stayed and for those who left.

For the acquisition, we had to figure out how to redeploy the people that we acquired. There was a lot of due diligence on employment contracts. We had to understand the relationships with the works councils and the benefit plans and figure out how to merge them with our current structure.

With the acquisition, we became a much more global company and our workforce profile changed dramatically. Five years ago, 30 percent of our workforce was outside of the U.S., but today it’s 50 percent. And that is a very significant change, which means that we need more global-minded managers and a pipeline of people who are willing to live and work all over the world.

WM: How do you create that pipeline?

High:We make sure that there is a regional approach. We need talent by region and by country. While we are working on that process, we also make sure that we are identifying leaders within the company that have aspirations to work in a global business environment and have the business acumen.

The third strategy to create this pipeline is through acquisition. Through the acquisition of Saint-Gobain’s reinforcement and composite fabrics business, we gained a lot of good people and that has helped us strengthen our succession planning.

    WM: How have the housing market troubles posed a candidate recruiting challenge for HR at Owens Corning?

High: Getting people interested in a sector that is at the lowest part of its business cycle is very difficult. We have to help prospects see that all businesses run their cycles and that there are peaks and valleys.

We overcome that by helping people understand our business strategy and our history. We introduce them to our leaders so that they can get a sense of who we are. Getting candidates to see that we have strong leaders who will give them challenging work is key, so all executive candidates will meet with me and our CEO. But also, we will go to recruiting conferences and have Mike [Thaman] come and speak.

WM: "Sustainability" is a buzzword at Owens Corning. But what does HR do to make sure that employees are focused on being more environmentally conscious and coming up with products that are better for the environment?

High: Sustainability is one of the long-term goals connected to our incentive program. It’s a very specific goal that looks at our carbon footprint, and we have specific objectives for each business on how to reduce their environmental impact.

Now, this doesn’t apply to every employee. But for example, we have goals about reducing the amount of material we take to the landfill. Another thing is, we try to get employees to think about how we can design products differently so that they are reusable.

All of this goes to the heart of our corporate purpose, which is to enhance lives and transform solutions. So the fact that I am involved with a company that is making a difference with regard to two major issues in the world—energy and housing—makes me and our employees proud to work here. And that also means we are able to attract people who want to make a difference.

WM: How do you measure HR’s success?

    High: I measure my success by [whether] we are hitting our business objectives and if we are creating stronger talent year over year. Do we have the right people for the right roles when we need them? Having said that, I can have the greatest succession planning ever, but if we don’t make our business results, then I have not met my objectives.

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