The ability to jump into the shoes of your candidates, employees, managers, and leaders means that you’ll always be ready for the next challenge. I recently interviewed an HR professional who takes that very seriously, and it has brought her a lot of personal and professional success.
Meet Lynne Smith, Senior VP of Global Human Resources for staffing firm Robert Half, and recent recipient of San Francisco Business Times’ Most Influential Women in Bay Area Business 2020 award.
You were named one of the most influential women in the Bay Area in 2020. That’s exciting.
Yes. It was very exciting, especially when I found out at the very beginning of the COVID-19 crisis—after how much we had to adjust and change right away.
I mean, HR is so influential. And it has such an impact, and it’s often, at least from the outside world, the non-HR world, pretty much hidden. It’s nice to see some official recognition of the role, too.
I agree; we do a lot. That’s the nature of being in HR. You know that when you get into it, there’s a purpose around being in HR. There was something more than it just being a job, at least for me. I worked very hard to get into HR early in my career and have had many opportunities to grow professionally over the past 20+ years.
At what point did you decide you were going to get into HR?
When I graduated from college, I went into a retail management training program. These programs were pathways to advancement. You did a rotation for a year, starting in store operations, and then moving into corporate roles. At the end of the year, you decide your path. I chose to stay in retail operations in a leadership role.
After I was a leader in retail for years, I was gravitating toward leadership responsibilities like building teams, developing people, and watching how their growth contributed to business results. So I went and got my masters in psychology to learn more about human behavior.
I did that for a few years while I was working. As part of my studies, I held an internship with the police department in Menlo Park, California. I realized I liked the career development and consulting part of psychology. At the same time, in my work world, the leaders of my company recognized I was strong at developing talent and they assigned me new leaders to train and mentor. They would also involve me in succession planning activities. I realized that was my knack, and I found that I really wanted to get into HR.
When you got your degree, your master’s in psychology, was it in organizational psychology or human psychology?
I was going to be a therapist because I really liked helping people find their purpose. When I’m talking about the employee experience with those I meet, interview, consult with, and mentor, I will explain that I don’t believe people get up in the morning saying, “How can I hate my job? How can I have a horrible day?” I believe people wake up and start their day thinking about how they can be happy going to work and bring their best self. My journey and passion is helping others find that purpose and fulfillment that leads to their success.
Do you ask people how they feel about everything all the time?
All the time. My motto is listen, learn, and take action. We do lots of surveys at Robert Half to try to figure out what’s working and what’s not working for people at all levels, whether you’re an employee, a leader, or an executive. We all have different experiences and different things that are important to us. Over the years, I’ve learned how to help people focus on what’s most important by looking at things from many different perspectives.
I also feel like I’m a very approachable person, and I think because of that, I probably learn more from others than some might. People know that I’m going to take action; they know that I’m listening. Even if I can’t act on something right away, or perhaps ever, they know they’re helping to teach me something. I think people feel good knowing that about me.
I believe that organizational psychologists are trained to look at organizations like a mind or like an organism. I have mixed feelings about that. I think it can be very valuable. However, at that level, you’re going to be making a lot of generalizations that are maybe useful but perhaps not what I would be comfortable with. Human-based psychology always seems a little bit more organic to me. What do you think?
I believe in organic and pragmatic approaches. I do better when I touch, feel, see, and do. That’s how I can evaluate, analyze, and look at things with a more holistic lens when making decisions or putting together an action plan or program. I believe that looking at both research and different people’s perspectives leads to a better experience, a better service, or a better product.
Jumping into someone’s shoes to understand the person’s motivations, fears, and concerns before taking drastic action seems to be the hallmark of a successful, people-facing Human Resources department.
I would agree with you on that. I think that helps you better articulate your decisions when you are talking to people. It gives you a better story to help people understand the why.
I think a major challenge of being in HR is that it’s really hard to give every single person every single thing he or she needs. At some point in time, you have to be objective and look at what’s going to add value and solve the biggest challenges.
You have all these different components to take into consideration when making a decision. I think that’s a hallmark for me in HR. The best HR professionals, in my experience, are the ones who are looking at things with that broad, holistic viewpoint, open to hearing what others have to say, and understanding what’s important. Then, you objectively assess the situation with your organization’s guiding principles in mind and determine how you are going to get there.
I think employees, by and large, are a lot more perceptive than sometimes they’re given credit for. People automatically have a good sense of where a company stands and how they’re being treated. People will know the difference between you telling them what the company needs are and you coming to them and saying, “Here’s what we know you need. Here’s our new strategy. And here’s how we’re going to fit those two together.” The order in which you present things can make a huge difference in whether they’re saying “they’re considering us” or “they’re cramming this down our throats.”
It’s interesting you say it like that because one of the benefits for me of being with Robert Half for so many years is that I feel I know the people and culture of the organization really well. I think that in the past, you would maybe start with asking what HR programs are needed, and then develop them. But here, I’ve had an employee experience focus for many years.
Needs are first. What’s the experience you want for your employees at your company? And how does it fit into the organization? You then think about what the manager’s or the leader’s experience is. You look at all of those perspectives holistically as you’re building out HR functions, programs and services.
Over the years, HR has transformed. It used to be that maybe the local government would tell you to do X or a best practice was to do Y. You could stick to this prescriptive way of working. I think what we’ve seen now is this whole element of personalization. You need to understand how employees feel and what they actually need, and where that fits in their career journey. How are you going to take your organizational culture and fill employees in on it in a very clear way by saying, “This is who we are. This is why we’re doing X, Y, or Z from an organizational perspective.” But then also, “This is what you’re going to get. And this is how it’s going to help you.”
I think HR can do better by pulling together employees’ perceptions and experiences that make up their reality and also meet business goals. Of course, you’re not going to be able to satisfy everyone. But I think the more you know about your employees, by conducting surveys, roundtables, or one-on-one conversations and using data to understand what makes them tick, the better you will fill in those gaps.
This also allows you to identify the right talent because people know who you are, what their experience is going to be, where they fit in, and what’s in it for them.
There’s nothing worse than exploding in the hangar with a candidate. Something I’ve learned is that people don’t really move on rapidly. It might take them 2 years to figure out that this isn’t really the place for them or it isn’t what they thought it was going to be. That’s 2 years of confusion, disconnection, and employees maybe not doing the best work they can do because of it. It hurts them and the company.
When you’re interviewing someone, you don’t really know the person all that well, right? You are making decisions in a few hours that might impact the next 20 years. In every interview, I let candidates know that I can be transparent with them. I say, “This is the opportunity. This is what it’s like to work at Robert Half. This is what it’s like to work with our people.” But only you, as the person on the other side of the interview, know if this is going to be the right place and right role for your aspirations and skills.
One of my goals is to make sure that our hiring managers, our employees, and our leaders know that interviews are partnerships. This approach helps them build a connection with candidates and leads to more effective conversations to determine a good match on both sides. I feel like that’s led to great success when hiring people for my department.
Not every candidate is great at soft skills. People get nervous, and like you say, you have only maybe a couple of hours to truly get to know somebody. You might have a charismatic underachiever come in and seem great, and then it turns out he or she is not what you needed. Then you might have an antisocial genius come in right afterward who seems like a terrible fit because he or she doesn’t know how to talk to you. Do you have a system in place for correcting for that potential mistake?
I think a lot of that goes back to how you treat your hiring managers. One of the benefits of our organization is that we’re really good at putting together different types of interview strategies. That includes how we ask questions and how we help train people to interview.
We also value making sure that we have the right people on interview panels. Good inclusion and diversity of thought on the interview panel will help you get different perceptions and conversations.
I don’t suppose you would mind sharing one of your techniques.
I have my questions outlined in advance. But I’ll be honest with you: I always start by telling the candidate that this is a two-way discussion. I know what I need from a candidate, but I help the person understand that he or she is going to need to come to the table in order to create success for both of us. That is usually where I can start to have a dialogue with candidates and see how they talk and ask questions. Do they truly want to understand and know about the role, me, the company, or what’s expected of them? Or are they coming in thinking, “I can answer all your questions and I already know that I can do this job”?
I think that dialogue, that casualness of being upfront in the beginning of the interview process, helps me to start pulling out who candidates really are. I don’t have all the answers. I want to hire people who are going to show up and get into a dialogue with me as a partner.
Do you think your time in HR has shaped your personal life? Your outside-of-work life?
I do. Throughout my life, I have always been very career-aspirational. I’ve been very passionate about people and giving back in the way that was best for me and who I am.
I cannot say enough how much I love my job and the passion I have being in HR. Robert Half has been the perfect company for me to grow my HR career. Looking back at the opportunities and accomplishments I’ve had, I just love it.
In fact, while navigating COVID-19, my boss said to me, “You’ve been doing amazing holding it together and have been such a strong leader through all this.” And my response was, “I love my job. I love what I do.” And I think it shows up at home, too.
I have a daughter, who’s going to be a junior in college, and a son, who’s a senior in high school. They’ve been watching me work for the last 5 months. I don’t think they really knew what I did. They knew I loved my job because I’ve always been very vocal about that. But I think that because they’ve been watching me work, they see the passion.
I really care about people and the experiences they have in life, in the community, and at work—and balance. I’m very passionate about it. I think anybody who knows me would say that about me as well, whether it’s at work or at home.