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In this all-new, start-of-summer edition of our “Career Corner” series, HR Leader sits down with Dr. Stephanie Smith, who is the vice president and Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) of DePaul University. Read on to hear Smith discuss her favorite parts of her job, insightful advice for aspiring CHROs, must-reads and more!

When you are in a leadership position, you must not be afraid to speak the truth and say the things that need to be said.

HR Leader: Was human resources always a career that interested you? What have been some of your favorite parts of your job? What have been some challenges you’ve faced/overcome?

Dr. Stephanie Smith (SS): Honestly, I was not cognizant of Human Resources as an occupation or career path when I entered the working world. My first job was working in the marketing/advertising department of the retailer Montgomery Ward as a copywriter when I received a call from Personnel, as it was called at the time, to interview for a job in Training and Development. They were looking for someone with the ability to write and develop training programs across a variety of media. That was my orientation and first step into HR.

I have always loved being a business partner in concert with line management. My favorite part of the job is talent management. It is gratifying to see people grow and achieve their career aspirations while contributing to organizational goals and objectives. Specific interests are management and executive development and succession planning because leadership matters.

There is a common fallacy among some leaders and managers that, because they’re “human”, they automatically know how to manage or handle human resources issues. It can be challenging at times to get some leaders and managers to appreciate and respect the fact that human resources is a multi-faceted discipline that is learned, developed and improved upon with experience and over time.

HR Leader: Do you have any tips for professionals who aspire to become a CHRO?

SS: Obtain meaningful experience in as many HR disciplines as you can: employee relations, total rewards, training and development, labor relations. Learn the business of your organization and how it works which often requires that you get experience in various parts of the business: sales, marketing, operations, etc. I am a big proponent of a career experiences model of development.

HR Leader: CHROs help shape the talent of an organization. What are your top tips for addressing talent needs and desires given the tight labor market?

SS: I had the opportunity to hear Malcolm Gladwell present to a small group of elite CEOs and he challenged them to understand that there really are no talent shortages, but rather a shortage in our thinking about talent. Organizations tend to rely on the same sources and methods when identifying and recruiting talent. We need to be more innovative and willing to broaden our view of talent, such as leveraging diverse sources (HBCUs, veterans, the disabled) and we must find multiple ways to develop talent such as building a pipeline through educational partnerships or internships or retooling/upskilling existing workforces.

HR Leader: Are there any particular considerations HR departments should take into account with more staff working remotely, or – if not remote – under extraordinary circumstances, during the COVID-19 pandemic?

SS: I think COVID-19 forced many organizations to confront the reality that many jobs can be done productively from anywhere. I have often counseled managers not to equate presence with productivity. We have long known that workplace flexibility is meaningful to building employee engagement. Even if organizations or departments do not establish fully remote workforces, it likely helps to provide employees with the ability to have more flexibility in their schedules, when needed or desired. Beyond that, I think it is important to ensure that communication (e.g., one-on-ones, staff meetings) and keeping up with HR systems and processes (e.g., performance management) becomes even more important.

HR Leader: How has technology changed the role of HR? What are some important technologies that all firms should consider?

SS: Technology has definitely allowed HR to function more efficiently and effectively. I can still remember calculating annual incentive payments on Lotus 123 in the early 90’s. Thankfully, those days are gone. The most exciting thing that technology has accomplished is the opportunity for HR to make data more accessible for managers and employees. For example, managers no longer have to rely on HR to give them basic employee data. Rather HR can have much more in-depth interactions with managers around employee development and organization effectiveness. Employees can also access data when needed or when convenient. A few years ago, my team implemented a virtual benefits platform that interacts with employees to guide them in their decision-making about benefits.

HR Leader: Are there specific tech challenges you’ve discovered during the pandemic? How did you handle them?

SS: I think this pandemic has made everyone appreciate the technological advances that have been made over the years. I do not know where we would be without them. Surprisingly, the technology has worked well…no complaints. That said, in some cases, there is no substitution for person-to-person interactions. There have been times during the pandemic that my HR team has had to meet face-to-face with individuals while ensuring the proper safety precautions.

HR Leader: What is the best career advice you ever received?

SS: When you are in a leadership position, you must not be afraid to speak the truth and say the things that need to be said. Otherwise, you’re ineffective.

HR Leader: What is one podcast you highly recommend?

SS: The Daily (NYT)

HR Leader: What are 3 articles you think HRMAC readers should check out / save?

  1. Change or Die” by Alan Deutschman for Fast Company
  2. Strategies for Responsible Restructuring” by W.F. Cascio (2002), published in the Academy of Management Perspectives journal
  3. Toward A Racially Just Workplace” by Laura Morgan Roberts and Anthony J. Mayo for Harvard Business Review

HR Leader: Share 2-3 things you must keep at your desk when working in order to maximize productivity.

  1. The Serenity Prayer (about)
  2. A photo of my family
  3. My Levenger portfolio notebook (shop)

HR Leader: What is your favorite place to visit in Chicago?

Steppenwolf Theatre. I have been a board trustee for 13 years; the ensemble and the stage work are spectacular.