John Walker recalls a vital lesson learned after he took over HR for Performance Trust Capital Partners.
he Chief Human Capital Officer for the Chicago-based investment firm came aboard with ambitious ideas, almost immediately introducing a five-year plan designed to upgrade the department toward better managing the firm’s recent growth. When he arrived, the company had a minimal hierarchy of management, an under-utilized performance evaluation system, and no overarching program for handling other elements of HR.
Walker, 55, was ready to tackle all that. But what he neglected to do was get a firm handle on company culture before introducing his ideas, which led to some pushback on the part of those attached to longstanding norms.
“I’ve learned some important cultural lessons,” he notes. “I challenged some of those norms … and it sometimes led to others questioning my understanding of ‘the PT way.’ Fortunately, I was aware enough to view these (concerns) as learning opportunities, and I embraced them.”
Ultimately helping him succeed, he says, was support from company leaders who took the view, “If the new guy we hired as CHRO can’t tell us what we need, we’ve hired the wrong guy.” A survey polling them about their priorities also helped him refine his plans.
Walker’s major takeaway from the whole experience was the following: “Give the business what they think they need before trying to convince them what you think they need. We all arrive in a new job with a head full of ideas, but if we don’t take the time to listen and understand what the business wants, we’re almost sure to fail.”
An Optimistic Future
Today, he says, he’s proud when someone points to him as an example of a PT employee who assimilated well despite taking on a new role in mid-career.
The six steps he outlined in his five-year plan were ultimately well received and are now used as the company’s HR roadmap.
“We’re 90 percent there,” he notes. “We have a culture that engages and attracts talent, and as a result we have really great people. People are generally bought in to what we’re trying to accomplish, and we have a core leadership group that inspires confidence and trust.”
Walker says much of his work has involved establishing infrastructure that allows PT to grow and scale.
“It’s not sexy work, but it’s vitally important,” he explains. “I believe leadership has come to understand the importance of having the plumbing and wiring in place before you start building the walls.”
His team has also spent “countless hours” working with a third party to redesign the company’s compensation program from top to bottom.
Another of his major goals? Bringing more professionalism to the company’s HR function by insisting managers set high standards when evaluating talent instead of just “winging it.” Walker also emphasizes the importance of maintaining quality in all elements of HR — recruiting, compensation, employee relations, and training and development — and viewing those elements as an integrated whole that must work together to create an optimal workforce.
One element he wishes to address further? A more diverse staff.
“People love it here — it’s a great place to work, very casual, relaxed, and informal,” he says. “But like many firms in our industry, we have some work to do in diversity.”
In the future, he hopes HR managers across the board can become more involved in corporate decision-making since they're so important to the bottom line.
“For the past 25 years, many of us have talked a good game about being strategic, having a seat at the table, and being a true partner to the business,” he notes of his professional colleagues. But making that happen may require a significant shift in mindset.
“You darn well better think of yourself as a business person first and a specialist second, and you better surround yourself with people who feel the same. If you’re not getting the time and attention of your business leaders, it might be time to ask yourself some hard questions about the value you and your department are truly delivering.”