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How Change Management Helped Me Optimize My HR Division

By Sara Lester, ETS VP - HR & Learning

Sara Lester, ETS VP - HR & LearningSara Lester, ETS VP - HR & Learning

Less than a year ago, I left my role as in-house counsel to become the Vice President of Human Resources. While HR was a new field for me, I had spent several years supporting the division with legal counsel so I was familiar with the people, the opportunities, and the challenges that my new role would bring. I realized immediately that I needed to take a change management approach in order to execute my plans to ensure that we were being strategic partners to the business.  My division has dedicated and talented professionals, but our alignment to the business was not always evident.  The leadership in HR had changed several times in a short time, and staff understandably felt destabilized and unsure of HR’s place in the organization. Moreover, HR was viewed as effectively transactional, but not always the strategic partner that our company really needed, especially as the market in which ETS operates becomes more competitive. We needed a new organizational structure, an alignment of our HR functions to business strategy and priorities, and an HR team that was engaged and committed to the change that I was seeking and that ETS needed.

I wanted my first-year efforts to be targeted and strategic.  I know that change is hard for most people—perhaps especially for my new team of leaders and staff as I asked them to work together in new ways—but the concepts of change readiness, management, and reinforcement were instrumental in the success of our reorganization. 

There are a few tips that I can share with you that I found helpful as a new HR leader trying to initiate a change management approach at both the divisional and organizational levels:

1. Find Strategic Partners: While I was planning for changes within HR, our organization was also undergoing a transformation as part of our corporate strategic goals.  What I found was that some of the divisional changes I was planning for HR would also support some of the business priorities in other divisions.  This awareness created opportunities for meaningful partnerships with other C-suite leaders in key areas including technology, employee engagement, compliance, and diversity, equity and inclusion. The mutually beneficial results have been rewarding.

2. Know the Business Needs and Pain Points: In my new role, I actively solicited feedback from other division leaders so that I could truly understand what they needed from HR.  I really listened, consulted with my HR leadership team, and worked collaboratively with those business leaders to generate solutions. Taking the time to deeply understand our business was absolutely essential to the success of our reorganization — we needed to meet the needs of business unit leaders to support their own varied work, and to cement HR’s role as a strategic partner.

3. Start with the Fundamentals: As I considered HR’s role in our broader strategy, I knew that I needed to start at the most fundamental level—the organizational structure of my own division.  Some new leaders shy away from making major changes in the first year—particularly staffing or structural changes.  I had an advantage in that, although I was new to leading the HR division, I was not new to ETS, so I felt I could take action more quickly.I engaged my leadership team to help me analyze all of our respective functions, and the highly collaborative way we approached that task simultaneously worked to build trust with my new leadership team.  I believe we landed on a structure that works because we remained focused on clear goals, and we constantly engaged in open and honest communication. I continue to reinforce the changes that we made by soliciting feedback from my own staff and others across the organization to ensure that we are meeting our goals in the right way.

"Taking the time to deeply understand our business was absolutely essential to the success of our reorganization — we needed to meet the needs of business unit leaders to support their own varied work, and to cement HR’s role as a strategic partner"

4. Humor and Transparency: Since I do recognize that change can be a significant challenge, my approach has always been to always be as open as possible with my team and others about what I am thinking and my decision process.  Although everyone may not always agree with me or with changes we plan to make, I find that people appreciate my transparency and willingness to consider their points of view. I also try to remember that as an HR leader, my work is focused on human processes and those are not always easy or simple— I try to get to know my staff as people, and find the humor and learning in every encounter. 

Now, as I am approaching my one year anniversary in this role, I can tell you that I am still learning and change management is a part of that growth.  What I’ve learned for certain is that HR is constantly evolving and I am looking forward to embracing whatever changes come my way.

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