Faces of HR

Sometimes Growth Requires Being Uncomfortable

If employees just did what made them comfortable, the opportunities for growth would be far and few between. Sometimes you have to push people into unfamiliar and somewhat uncomfortable positions to unlock real growth—at least that’s what today’s “Faces of HR” guest says.

Meet Frank Levesque, Director of HR Advisory Services at CliftonLarsonAllen (CLA).

How did you get started in HR?

Way back when, long before I care to remember, I was working for a small family business and wore many different hats. I was in charge of accounting, customer service, parts of sales, and then payroll and HR. I did that for about 9 years actually. As the company started to grow, I discovered areas of legal obligation as well as proper HR practices, whether it was the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) or having an employee handbook. I started to take an interest in these things and other areas like putting in a small Human Resources information system (HRIS) and really just felt like I had a sweet spot for my interests and skills. I eventually earned my PHR certification and outgrew my old role, and it was off to the races. My next role after that was a one-person HR department for about 250 employees in a couple of different states, and it kind of went from there.

A lot of HR professionals say they fell into HR, and I was no exception, but I loved it. I also obtained my master’s degree in management, with a specialty in HR. But again, HR wasn’t the kind of career I initially sought out. It just sort of happened. I gravitated toward it and felt this unique opportunity to help support both employees and the business. I think it took me a few years to fully understand and appreciate the role I had in actually driving the business, which I think happens with any sort of newbie in the HR world. It really is a special and unique kind of role and one I still enjoy to this day.

How have you found navigating the recent merger as a top HR person?

I have an appreciation for having done some mergers a while ago in my career, and I have an appreciation for how much work there is behind the scenes and how important it is to connect with employees and prospective employees and make them feel like this is a positive development for them in their careers and for the organization. I would just tell you that CLA has done a terrific job with that. The company basically had to onboard approximately 500 people in a very short period of time. I certainly look at it through a different kind of lens than maybe other employees do. But it could not have been more transparent and supportive and communicative throughout the transition. I give CLA high marks for that.

That transparency can be a real struggle because there are a lot of things you don’t know necessarily. There are some things you think you know but will change. And then there are a bunch of things you know you can’t share. What’s your approach to balancing all that from an HR perspective?

Well, I think you have to be honest with people. And listen, I don’t think people expect to know everything that’s going on behind the scenes, nor do they have a need to. This is a business. There are a lot of tough decisions that have to be made during transitions, whether it’s about ongoing resources or structure or roles. Transitions very rarely come without some level of change in the way you’ve been doing business or how resources are allocated and all that. I think employees understand that.

But employees expect you to be honest and transparent about what they do need to know. The first question employees ask themselves is how does this impact me? It’s important that organizations be transparent and honest but not sugarcoat things about how things might change, whether it’s now, 6 months from now, or a year from now, with the understanding that it is changing and everybody sort of has to adapt to that change differently and that these things take time. It’s a balancing act for sure.

Is there something about HR you just really enjoy more than the rest?

We work with a lot of smaller and midsize companies, where I spend a lot of time with the CEO or COO or a member of the management team, roles that can oftentimes be very lonely ones. I really enjoy the opportunity to serve as a sounding board, a guide, and an advisor on the people side of their businesses, even if it means just validating what they’re already sort of thinking and not necessarily coming up with these sorts of magical “aha” moment solutions for them. I enjoy having the opportunity to be that advisor and also to contribute to and advise on tough decisions and longer-term outlooks on where their business is going and how the HR function needs to adjust, adapt, or maybe be thought about a little bit differently. That’s probably the most rewarding part—having an impact on their business but also, ultimately, their employee population. They’re not mutually exclusive, but at the same time, if I have an employee who calls me today and says, “I’m having a problem with another employee” or “I thought I had health insurance coverage for my baby, but I don’t, and we’re freaking out because she needs to go to the doctor,” I find those moments when you’re able to help those employees and ultimately serve their families rewarding, as well.

It’s also rewarding when you see things before the clients see them and then bring that to their attention, sort of seeing the forest for the trees. There are times when leadership is so close to the day in and day out of what they’re doing that oftentimes, there is an opportunity for us to be able to come in and say, “have you thought about this” or “here’s something that’s coming—we need to rethink that.”

I’ve always thought that the most powerful insight consultants bring is the power of objectivity. It’s so much easier when you’re looking from the outside in to see where the problems lie, and it’s so hard to see them when you’re inside of it. And HR people are in a really unique role to really appreciate that.

Absolutely. Especially with close-knit teams and organizations, a lot of what happens from a sort of reactionary standpoint or even decision-making standpoint is oftentimes emotional. We’re able to keep them grounded. Like you said, we can see things objectively, keep things grounded in reality, and help them make better decisions, especially if you have a deep and long-standing relationship with the client. They know that they can count on us if they need to be, so to speak, “talked off a ledge” or if they need to be grounded; they know we’re there to help them walk through that.

Having seen the blind spots that other organizations have, how do you avoid those blind spots or others for yourself and your team?

It’s a great question. A healthy dose of practicing what you preach is really what I try and ascribe to. What does that mean? That means making sure that your expectations of your team are clear and that you are out in front of what’s going on out there in the business and HR world instead of finding out after the fact about new developments or best practices. It means always trying to push people out of their comfort zones because that’s where growth comes from; it comes from discomfort. Putting people in situations on our team in which they may not feel quite ready or not quite comfortable, or maybe they don’t particularly enjoy it all that much, positions them for growth. We have to constantly keep an eye on that because we have to make sure we’re always re-recruiting our team.

I tell that to clients all the time because you could look up and 6 months or a year has gone by, and you’re wondering “How did that go by so quickly?” And meanwhile, your team has been grinding it out and just killing it for clients. But you’ve also lost sight of the fact that this is somebody who maybe hasn’t had those opportunities to grow or you haven’t put the person in positions to gain new experiences. I mean, I think we’ve all heard the term “there are no more career ladders; it’s more career lattices.” That means allowing folks to have different experiences and to grow that way versus the more traditional ways of promotion because another employer will do that. So again, practice what you preach. That way, you can also use your team as a shining example to your clients, as well, or new clients and say that that is how you operate. We don’t prescribe anything, and we don’t advise on anything that we haven’t done ourselves.

It’s a good approach, but how do you do it? Cross-training, for example, clearly is important, but there never seems to be time for it.

Well, what’s the worst challenge to anybody? We teach time management. I just taught a class last week on time management and delegation. One of the first things I say in those trainings is “I am not here to tell you that I am perfect at it.” I think that it’s about forcing yourself, like with anything else, to just ask yourself whether something is important and urgent enough to commit to. There’s going to be pain initially. By that, I mean investing time you don’t think you have, allowing somebody to come in and make some mistakes, and not being perfect. Instinct might say, well, this isn’t worth it, so start pulling back on it. But I think we owe it to our employees, our teams, and our organizations to find a way, even if it’s in small chunks, to bring people along into new experiences and introduce them to new kinds of learning opportunities. That way, you’re not going to look up 6 months or a year later to see you’ve got a team that just hasn’t grown and you’re still the subject matter expert for whatever that might be.

You kind of have to power through it. And we’re a very collaborative team, too. I think we do a reasonably good job of pulling together periodically to share information and learn from each other.

What are you excited about for 2021?

There are two or three areas right now that I think are really exciting for us. One is what I would call the world’s largest HR experiment, which has been the how, where, and when people do work, knowing that there are a number of folks who cannot do that—for example, construction, fieldwork, tradespeople, and manufacturing employees. Not everybody is going to be able to be part of that experiment, if you will. Having said that, I’m finding there are a lot of employers that have been hearing for years now that having flexible work arrangements and telecommuting, and even full-time remote work opportunities, can be a huge benefit to the organization from both an engagement and a cost standpoint.

I’ve got some clients who have said, even once the pandemic is over, that they’re still going with this model because it’s working – but with the understanding that every organization, every culture, is different and so it may not work as well for some. Being able to play a part in that I think is pretty exciting. I also am very excited about the opportunities in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), which I think, for many years, we’ve seen as more of a compliance item or a way to check off a box or to file a required report. Now, clients are coming to us saying, “I want this to be who we are and what our culture is all about,” and that’s what we’re telling them, as well. We’re finding that employers are saying to themselves, “We don’t want to have to declare that this is who we are. We just want to be that.” We’re finding a lot of opportunities in the DEI space around where to start and what to do.

Certainly, training opportunities are out there now in a way that is not just the tried-and-true, check-the-box approach. Lastly, we’re also positioning ourselves as a resource for e-learning. This has come out of necessity for some of our clients we can’t get to in person, but they need the training. We have invested in an e-learning platform and are currently building content that is applicable to those clients and making that available to existing clients but really pushing that part of our business. We think it will serve us well and serve our clients long after the pandemic is over. We certainly have a million other things going on right now, but we are all very excited for what 2021 holds!