Faces of HR

Leading Through Influence Can Save Jobs

Note: Nadian was an HR Works Podcast 5-Minute Friday guest. Listen to that here.

When HR is given an opportunity to lead through influence, it has a good chance to take a struggling organization and reshape it into a successful one. It takes a little faith on the part of leaders, but the effects can be remarkable. Today’s “Faces of HR” guest shares with us the story of how a people-oriented approach saved a paper factory from closing shop.

Meet Nadian Zak, Senior Vice President of People at Vertava Health.

How did you find yourself in HR? It looks like you went to school for it.

Yes, it was my major in college.

Where did you get that awareness of HR beforehand?

Truth be told, I actually gained this awareness by accident. What I have come to learn is that many of my colleagues got into HR in the same way.

Very true.

It was a total accident for me. I had originally majored in accounting in college. As it turned out, it was not the best fit for me. It was late in my junior year when I finally made the decision to refocus and dedicate myself to a course of study that would align more with my skills and genuine interests.

When I met with my college advisor, he said to me, “Nadian, you’re coming up on your senior year. You’ve got to decide, and accounting isn’t for you.” He gave me a list of all of these electives and said, “This is what I would do. Just start looking through these lists of electives and see if something resonates with you.”

One of them was Human Resources, and I go, “Huh.” At the time, I was completely naïve as to what HR really was, however, I was willing to explore this new path and try to further understand the basics of the profession and the role HR plays within an organization.

There you go.

After asking some questions, I learned that, essentially, HR is about helping people—helping people in organizations, helping recruit talent, and helping culture which ultimately impacts the performance of the entire organization. At the time, I really didn’t even understand what all that meant, but what I did hear is “helping others.” Then things just “clicked.” The instructor at the time recognized my lightbulb moment and recommended that I participate in an internship. I applied to and was selected for a position within one of the New York State agencies as a recruiting coordinator. This was my first exposure to HR, and I absolutely loved it.

State government, huh? That’s interesting.

State government. Very interesting and very different from private companies.

It’s a fascinating world. When I was really looking for careers, I got hit by the Great Recession, just like many of my fellow elder Millennials, and you start at the unemployment office, and the first thing they give you is a list of state jobs. It was an interesting world. Everything is very segmented. There are paygrades, kind of like the military. There are lateral transfers available in a way that really aren’t in other organizations. I had friends who worked for the state, and I had a friend who every day would come home and just apply to three more different state jobs because she had that option to be able to just move. And she did, and it worked out very well for her. But what a place to cut your teeth.

Absolutely. It was a great first-time experience in HR because I quickly gained an appreciation for where the different departments and teams within an HR department are. That’s where I learned there was a department for benefits, another for recruiting, another for labor relations, etc. I quickly gained an appreciation for how dynamic the profession was and could be. I feel incredibly fortunate that I was able to quickly identify where my passion lied within the profession; fully directing my time and energy towards pursuing this new-found purpose.

And what is that passion?

The passion I speak of is more in the HR business partner role, connecting people with a broader strategy; leading through influence; and ensuring resources are not just aligned with your broader strategy but that your people are informed, that they know the why, and that they know the how and the what; what is expected from them in order for the strategy to come alive.

When I was reading up and getting ready for this interview, I read that you had a goal, which was to get less-likely people into leadership.

Yes, that is correct.

Where did you start to get an understanding that this is what you wanted to do?

That comes from my personal background. In many of the roles, I have been fortunate to have served in numerous leadership positions; typically being the youngest, only female and only minority. It was and continues to be, a trifecta that allows me to showcase my unique skills and perspective. I was able to hold my own and help leaders drive decisions through influence regardless of what I looked like. Those same opportunities are something I really want many Millennials to be able to experience.

It’s really important. We always talk about the value of diversity and the diversity of thought. Those are clearly important, but it’s so often that you see diversity efforts being aimed at the lower ends of the organization, at entry-level jobs, and at jobs that don’t necessarily have any growth potential. A lot of work has been toward improving things, but without a dedicated effort, there isn’t an automatic path toward being on the C-suite for your average disenfranchised individual. It’s not there unless someone like you comes along and helps them get there.

Right.

What advice do you have for other HR professionals who have recognized this issue and want to help?

I think that’s a really good question. I think, for one, it really does start at the top. It starts with helping C-suite leaders understand the priority this should have and the importance this brings to the organization. Diversity in thought, diversity in experience, diversity in general, and giving people an equal opportunity to succeed and being intentional with those efforts are so important. Without having a dedicated plan that everyone has bought into, it makes it really challenging for you to accelerate your efforts in diversity. That is why I say it really does start with the top, from the CEO down.

I agree. In many ways, an organization is an extension of the CEO. I was thinking about this the other day, and either an organization is an extension of the leader or the leader isn’t effective enough to have that influence on the organization. The second isn’t particularly great, and the first can be very damaging because if that person isn’t dedicated to diversity, to inclusion, and to fairness, it doesn’t necessarily mean he or she is bad, but his or her world view will flow through the organization, and the organization will suffer because of it. That’s going to be seen in every one of that person’s decisions. He or she is going to hire people who are like him or her, and the person’s decisions will flow down and down and down.

That’s exactly right. I’ll tell you, I feel very fortunate. Two-thirds of our executive leadership team is comprised of women of all generations, and your voice is heard. We are very intentional about our diversity, equity, and belonging commitments. I feel very fortunate that we do have a CEO who really believes in that and who really does allow us to mobilize that commitment for the rest of the company.

What would you say to any individuals who are looking to enter that path who don’t know how to get started?

I would say start by educating yourself. Start by looking into the external world and looking for peers outside of your company to see how they started and how they’ve initiated, whether it’s been through a task force, a work group, or maybe an employee resource group.

There are so many companies that have started in different ways. Truth be told, there isn’t a right way. It’s going to be what works for your organization and where you’re at because some organizations are more mature. It means meeting the company where it is and informing yourself with what other companies have done. What are some of the best practices? Then, get your ideas and plans in front of your leader or your HR department.

What’s something you’re particularly proud of that you’ve done during your career?

I always go back to this, and it happened very early on in my career. When I was 23, I had the privilege to serve in a leadership position in which I was tasked to help with a plant turnaround. This was in Memphis, Tennessee. We were going to close a paper manufacturing plant if we could not turn that plant around in a period of 6 months.

Wow. That’s a little bit of pressure.

Pressure, right. I very quickly learned the power a strong leadership team has on not just the greater culture but also the performance of the organization. Here’s what happened. We heard every excuse under the sun in terms of why we were facing plant closure. There was no opportunity with talent, there were the slowest machines, there were old machines, the location was terrible—these were the excuses, but what it came down to was that we had the wrong leaders in the seat.

A big part of my role was to assess the leadership. Fast-forward 3 months, and we had assessed the leadership talent and quickly realized they weren’t leading through influence, through compassion, or through empowerment. They were actually leading with a very militaristic type of style that just didn’t work.

We did a leadership overhaul and brought the right leaders in. I’m really proud that within a period of 4 months, we were able to turn that plant around. We saved about 150 jobs, and at the end of the year, at our annual meeting, the plant manager and myself received the award for the most improved facility in the entire company. We were profitable. We were making money. Bottom line, it came down to culture. It came down to people. It came down to how you treat people. It was an awesome lesson to learn.

You should be proud of that because it would have been so easy to do what so many others have mindlessly done, which is blame the employees and fire them and close the whole thing.

That’s exactly right.