What “HR” really means – perspective from Jose Davila, VP of HR for Levi Strauss & Co.

I have been working in human resources for over 25 years, but it still amazes me how many different views there are of the function. Yes, I hire and fire people. No, I don’t act as a snitch for upper management. Yes, I train and develop. No, I don’t decide what everyone gets paid. I struggle to explain what I do to most people, but one audience which I consistently find receptive and eager to understand are my own business partners.

Over the years, I have come to understand there are certain fundamental beliefs I adhere to in my role as an HR leader. Each time I share these beliefs with my teams, their response is that it really helps to clarify the role of human resources.

These beliefs are not only important to those of us in the HR function, but to anyone in a role responsible for managing and developing people. 

So here it goes!

Understand the business deeply.

It is a simple idea. The better you understand the business, the more effective you will be as an HR partner. Dig in and learn it from all sides – don’t just spend time with executives listening to them pontificate about their strategies. Go the plant, ride in the trucks, take calls at the service center. These visits serve multiple purposes. First it gives you perspective on the business that is real and tangible. It also shows your partners that you care enough to really know what they do. Those of us who have spent time in consumer goods know that this is easy to do and can be quite fun. One of my first HR bosses purposely put me in the office on the shop floor. If I was going to handle union employee grievances, I needed to learn the daily life of the employees making margarine.

Get to know talent at all levels and own the door.

When I first began working at Campbell Soup, I really did not understand the power of recruiting. I viewed it primarily as a transactional activity. My wise (and crusty) boss there drilled into me the importance of being the “talent broker” in the organization. His belief was that it was the one area where HR could truly grab the reigns and run, which makes sense. If you become great at attracting talent, you can ensure the success of the business. Many HR professionals view recruiting as a function that can be outsourced or run by the business itself. My experience is that left to its own devices, the business becomes selfish when it comes to talent. HR’s role is to ensure that talent coming in meets the needs of the entire company, not just one function or leader. 

Be conscious of each employee’s value proposition.

I spend a lot of my time getting to know the people in the business because I have always found that the more you know about individuals, the better you are equipped to help them thrive and grow in the company. Research tells us that individuals will work for more than six companies in their lifetime. It is more important than ever that HR leaders understand what is driving each employee’s retention and performance. Why are they at the company? Why do they stay? We tend to use exit interview data or employee survey results to answer these questions. What I have found is that this is a personal question where the answers vary widely. Sure, they may be some core cultural components that are common, but everyone has their own story. Our role in HR is to figure out how to make their story come to life.

Take risks on internals – the shiny new penny is not always the answer.

In HR, we spend a great deal of time doing succession planning and filling in talent templates. The idea is that we capture data and document it to prepare the organization for the inevitability of people moving up and moving out. This missing piece is putting this data into action. In my experience when a position opens due to a transfer or departure, HR rarely refers to these completed plans. Why does this happen? I suspect that most leaders never think their people are ready. Excuses vary, but usually it comes down to the individual never having the experience required of the new role. But consider this – she has worked for the company for five years, has a proven track record of performance and has observed her departing boss every day of those five years. Interesting you don’t think she has the experience! Of course, there are many reasons that someone may not be well-suited for a particular role, but we seem to think that another candidate from a different company with the right title will be a better fit. Internal candidates know your company. They have a track record and they want to stay.  Rather than spending the time briefing a recruiter and interviewing candidates, create a robust development plan for the succession candidate that ensures their success. Provide opportunities for external training or set up a peer coaching relationship to support her experience gaps. But give her the chance to make the succession planning work mean something.

Use data to tell stories.

Traditionally HR data has been overlooked within the function. We were used to tracking turnover and compensation information, but rarely do we use that data for anything other than to create annual summary reports. With the advent of data analytics, HR has been given a new opportunity to use data to create meaning within the business, just like the other functions. For far too long, HR has told upper management that investing in people is the right thing to do. Now we have data that tells stories about how investing in people programs and systems provides a valuable return on investment. We now have a seat at the budget table where we can not only prove that our investments work, but also contribute to shareholder value.

People want to come to work and love what they do.

Everyone deserves to work in an environment where they can thrive. They should be able to expect a good boss, fair wages and the opportunity to do work that has meaning to them. HR contributes uniquely in this space. We are the ones that ensure managers get trained, assist with job descriptions, and set compensation ranges. This work may not be flashy, but it is critical to creating the desired environment in the company. Managers need to learn how to be good managers, and then should be measured accordingly. A regular cadence around employee opinion surveys serves this purpose and creates accountability for managers to create a positive environment. No one wants to work in a chaotic department where the leader shows little care for the team, no matter how much you pay them. HR is responsible for making sure that employees feel cared for and see purpose in their work. 

We are delighted to feature Jose Davila as a guest author. Jose currently serves as Vice President of Human Resources for Levi Strauss & Co. Prior to this role, he was a partner with ArchPoint Consulting, specializing in organization design, talent, people development and change management. You can find Jose on LinkedIn.


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