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Human Resources

How HR Can Be Agile and Persist Through Any Crisis

Tara Wolckenhauer

Tara Wolckenhauer

Division Vice President of Global Human Resources at ADP

Tara Wolckenhauer ADP

The value of HR in an organization is centered around helping the talent be successful and reach their full potential. So naturally, an HR professional often juggles many different roles such as being a parent, a teacher and a therapist to their workforce, in addition to the functional roles.

Quartz Network Executive Correspondent Britt Erler sat down with Tara Wolckenhauer, Division Vice President of Global Human Resources with ADP to learn how to find balance in this field, especially during uncertain times.

With a career spanning more than two decades in HR, Tara offers insight on:

  • The importance of being agile and nimble in the HR industry
  • How to take a step back and look at the needs of others
  • Hiring the right talent for today, tomorrow, and the future

Quartz Network: Tell me a bit about your company and your current role?

Tara Wolckenhauer: ADP is one of the leading human capital management companies. We have about 60,000 employees all over the world. I have been delighted to be a part of the ADP team for almost seven years. Prior to that, I have had a more than 20-year career in Human Resources.

I am a Divisional Vice President of Human Resources at ADP. I support teams that support our small business services, so the associates that handle all our small business clients, as well as the associates who handle our HR outsourcing clients. It’s such a great pleasure to have those two business lines in my purview.

I also get the distinct pleasure of supporting our enterprise-wide functions. In market terms, that would be your corporate functions, things like strategy, transformation, finance, and many of our other corporate groups like legal. So I just have this wonderful job where I get to work a little bit with the business and a little bit with our corporate functions, helping to provide HR services that help.

Quartz Network: How has your role changed in this crazy environment that we’re living in right now?

Tara Wolckenhauer: I think the whole world changed probably almost a year ago when we started to see a semblance of a pandemic coming outside the United States. It started very much with what does that mean for travel? What does that mean for how we come together?

All of a sudden, I could see it unfold very slowly. It was unfolding that a lot was going to change in the world of human resources, because how we got work done was going to change. Whether or not we got the work done, and who was going to do the work, those aspects didn’t change. But the how was really starting to change.

All of a sudden, we couldn’t travel. I used to travel all around the world. If I was in the US for more than two weeks out of any given month, that would have been a lot of time. Since March, I’ve been homebound. Forget going outside the United States. I’ve been actually sitting in my house.

So it has changed the way we think about everything, from talent acquisition to compensation to benefits to strategic workforce design. As an HR professional, the whole world kind of stood on its head. How we care for our associates, who care for our clients, who make a difference in this world just changed in the blink of an eye.

Quartz Network: Was your department ready for something like this and did you have a plan in place?

Tara Wolckenhauer: Do we have a plan in place to handle a pandemic in the midst of social unrest? No. But I do think, and I’d like to believe many companies after 9/11, a lot of people took a step back and said, “We need to have business continuity planning. We need to know what that looks like across all facets of our company.”

So I think some of the larger companies had something in place. They knew who to go to for what. But what we really didn’t count on is the length of time. It’s a pandemic. We don’t know a lot about the impact, and the unfortunate social unrest that’s happening at the same time across the world. I don’t know that there were any plans that anyone would have anticipated.

What I do know is what our company had in place was the right talent to handle this at the very senior levels of the company, as well as throughout the HR workforce. It’s all hands on deck, and how do you care for the humans involved.

Quartz Network How did you put your talent in place and prepare them for this change once the industry started shifting?

Tara Wolckenhauer: I lead a team of awesome HR professionals and I was very honest with them. I said to them, “Guys, this is a moment now where you have to take everything you know as being a human being, as being a good person, and as being a professional, and bring it all to the table. Because what we’re dealing with. A space of humanity. We have to take care of people so that they can take care of people. Once that happens, and people are well, and we’re done taking care of people, we take care of the work.”

It was really about, who are you as a human? How do we care for people who are being sick? What are the benefits that we’re going to need to put in place? How do we surround parents like myself who have three kids? Oh, my goodness. I’m going to be a second grade teacher and a Divisional Vice President of Human Resources. How are we going to do that for people? I don’t know that it requires these crazy degrees. I have tons of respect for the degrees. But ultimately, this really requires taking a step back, taking a deep breath, and saying, “What do people need?” First, for them as humans, and then second, in order to care for some of our associates.

It starts to get easier, because you start to say, “What are the benefits people need? How are we going to pay people? Who do we need to get the work done? What does it mean working from home? Do we have the technology? What are the laws in each states? We need the attorneys, right?”

So you really have to go in, take the big picture and start to dissect it. Pull the puzzle apart, get all of the pieces to the right people and the right experts, and then start to make decisions from there. It’s a huge learning.

If you ever told me I was going to be teaching second grade at the same time I’m prepping for a board meeting, I’m not so sure I’d know what to do. What I do know is our company put in some flexibility factors. They put in some of the ability to get tutors for the kids and they started to flex how we spent our time.

A lot of colleagues said, “Hey, Tara, you have school going until this time. I’ve got you till 3 p.m. You pick up at 5.” So it’s about communication, it’s about patience, and it’s about taking the time to listen to understand, rather than just throw all these needs on people. That’s not very helpful. So how you ready the talent is you ask them to take a step back and start thinking about the impact of people.

Quartz Network: What advice would you offer HR leaders for putting a plan in place that will also work when the time comes?

Tara Wolckenhauer: You need to be nimble. We use that word a lot—agile, nimble. What does it really mean? If you spend your time staffing your organization with talented, good humans, anything that comes in front of you, especially in the HR space, is bearable and doable. We’ll put all of these things into place now that we’ve gone through a pandemic. It’s the same thing when we have the swine flu, the bird flu, and you know all these things. We’ll put all of these things in place, and here is what we’ve done on a retrospective. So we can go back and look at that.

The reality is, if you have the talent, and they are good humans, and they can analyze and assess the situation and come together as a team. Fresh eyes is also a very important piece of this. God bless my Millennial team, my Gen Z team, who had taught me how to do things I never knew how to do before. They weren’t even in the workforce, most of them, when 9/11 happened.

So, if I just used that plan, I would have fallen short to meet some of the basic needs that people need today. I think it’s all about hiring the right talent for today, tomorrow, and for the future. And making sure people understand and can analyze scenarios, whether they be human or technical scenarios, you need both.

Quartz Network: When COVID hit, a lot of HR jobs were on the chopping block. How did you prioritize HR within your organization, and make sure the other leaders saw how crucial it was for the success of the business?

Tara Wolckenhauer: I’m 100%, blessed to work for ADP. It’s an HR company. So what ADP does is provide HR services, technology, and payroll to HR professionals. Being an internal HR person in a company like that is a dream come true, because I’m held in pretty high esteem because of the people who we service.

That doesn’t mean we didn’t take a look ourselves and say, which are those most critical roles in this time? We actually did, which I’m super proud of. Because we serve as clients, we’ve actually taken some of the internal HR people, and put them in client-facing jobs. We actually got them on the phones.

So instead of taking those jobs, and maybe eliminating them or furloughing them, we said we have this talent capacity within our business because of what we do. We needed more HR people to help service our clients. So we started to shift roles to give people an opportunity to provide consultation to the client.

That was just a really fortunate part of being part of the human capital management company. We had clients calling us and saying they just wanted to talk, they didn’t understand all the legislation that was happening as a result of this pandemic or weren’t really sure how to help their associates. So again, our associates were able to help with that.

I happen to believe HR is a really important part of any business because you’re caring for the humans. I have a lot of people who mentor me, people just starting to mentor with me, people just starting in the career coming out of college. I say to them, “You get the gift of being with someone on their entire journey.”

You meet them as interns when they come to your company. They go through life experiences with you. They get married with you. They have babies with you. They have unfortunate things like pandemics with you. So who is more important to help you through that journey? Because all of that is about getting also work done. While you’re getting married, I still need you to focus here. While you’re going through a pandemic, I still need you to focus there. HR professionals do that.

So what I say to other companies is to really start to take a step back, and see how you’re using HR and what areas of HR are important. I think many companies have a new love of benefits people now. In the market, you see people are changing their benefits. They have a new love of HR tech people. How did you get all of that happening? Employment attorneys rock.

I make no judgment on other companies. They have to do what they have to do to survive and to thrive. I know that they’re making very difficult decisions, and I understand that. I would just encourage everyone to remember what the value of HR always is. That’s in making the talent successful. In order to do that, sometimes we have to be a mom, a dad, a teacher, a doctor, and a therapist. We have all these different roles on top of the functional roles we play, and just how important and powerful that is to accompany.

I don’t know that I fully realized that when I even started. I thought it was all about comp and doing the numbers, and here’s your package. Now, 25 plus years into this career, honestly, the technical pieces matter, but probably not as much as the HR professional that can weave the story together. We try very hard at ADP to do that.

Quartz Network: If an incident or event does happen that affects the worker personally, what are the first steps as an HR leader to handle that situation?

Tara Wolckenhauer: I think, in the virtual environment, you actually have an opportunity to connect even more deeply with people. If people are open to being on video, I try to encourage managers and HR professionals to get on video and to get to know people. If they have to bring their kids, bring your kids. I don’t care. Just get into their lives, however they will allow you to do so, so that you can earn trust in this new environment.

No one is going to tell you anything if they don’t trust you. They only tell you things because they have to. That’s not the type of relationship you want to build. You want to build it on trust.

Once you have that trust, you make yourself accessible to people. Whether you have a 1-800 number that people can call, they can report things that are going on. I had an associate on WebEx teams today ping me and say, “I think I might be positive for COVID.” I said, “Oh, my goodness. Well, let me help you.”

I can guide, direct, and do that. The reason they came to me because we established that trust up front. That’s how you bring people together. That’s how the pattern begins and how we’re best able to help people.

Quartz Network: What are some of the key takeaways you’ve learned throughout your career?

Tara Wolckenhauer: One of the biggest things I learned is to expect the unexpected, especially when you’re working with other humans. The reason why I say that is when I went into HR, I was fresh out of college. I knew everything, of course, because you do when you come right out of school. The textbook, I thought, taught me everything. If not that, then I had some key people in my lives, who definitely told me everything.

I realized incredibly quickly, if not that very first day I hit the ground running, that I knew nothing. The sooner I learned to ask questions, ask for help, and humble myself to what I don’t know, I became a better, more open, professional. It allowed me to grow.

So one of the biggest learnings I had was ask questions and be curious. What is given to you isn’t necessarily the full picture. There are a lot of things you need to understand before rendering a decision, giving consultation, or looking for advice. That’s probably the biggest one.

Then, the second biggest one is don’t be afraid to try something new. In our career, we’re always going after one thing, and thinking there’s one path. What I like to tell people all the time and people on my team is, “If someone gives you an opportunity to try something, you really need to dig deep into yourself as to why you would say no, especially if you’re going to be an HR generalist, because every experience allows you the opportunity to grow as a generalist.”

The other thing I learned in my career is that you can’t get stale. You have to read, you have to keep up with the market, you have to keep up with the trends, and you have to keep up with the generations. I like to say to my team all the time, I got old before I even knew it. I still feel so young. But I also realized that I’m really not when it comes to the influence of new technologies and the way new generations like to do things. In order to be a full-fledged HR person, I need to be able to incorporate all of those things. I need to bring teams together very differently. I need to understand how people look at things in a very different way.

Quartz Network: What trends do you foresee happening in the next year and even five years down the road, especially with all the new technological advances that we’re seeing?

Tara Wolckenhauer: I think one of the biggest trends that has been happening for a while but seems to continue to happen, and I love it, is that we’re bringing people from the business into HR. I think that is such an important thing.

You’re no longer just graduating with an HR degree and coming into the world of work. I think that’s a great way in, but what I love is that we have people on our team like our diversity officer who came from sales. Our head of talent acquisition was also someone from sales. Not traditionally trained HR folks taking a business lens onto HR issues. It’s really allowed this unification of the work because HR can finally show the business and the business can finally show HR. It’s been this beautiful gathering of intellect and curiosity in terms of moving work forward and I love it.

Then, from a tech space, pure tech development is really innovative HR information systems leaders and analytic leaders are coming into the world of HR, and taking that administrative work out of the equation. Allowing HR professionals to really start to weave together consultation for people so they can really be successful in their careers. Whether it be in the development of their careers or just in the performance of their jobs. So I think you’re going to continue to see that.

The last trend, which remains to be seen but it is no doubt a trend, is where will we work. There’s a lot going on right now. Are we staying home? Are we going back to the office? Is there going to be hybrid? How does that impact talent and talent acquisition? Will we be competing very differently with other people for talent because of where we allow people to work and how we allow people to work? How will that impact engagement? There’s just so much there.

So, as HR professionals, be you. Use this time to rethink about the work, and how it becomes more inclusive, more collaborative, and really yields growth for your associates and your company. You’re just going to have a stellar career, because from here, it’s all things possible.

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