Grace Under Pressure

With the belief that HR should have both "a head and a heart," Sharon C. Taylor has helped guide Prudential and its employees through challenging times.

By Scott Flander

When Sharon C. Taylor took over as head of HR at Prudential Financial in June 2002, she had her work cut out for her.

Newark, N.J.-based Prudential had recently gone public, and CEO Art Ryan was promising Wall Street that the company would show a 12 percent return on equity by the end of 2005.

One of Taylor's first tasks as senior vice president of corporate human resources was to help reduce Prudential's health-insurance costs -- a difficult proposition, considering the fast-rising cost of health care.

Taylor led an effort to develop two new consumer-driven health plans to save the company money in the long term. The new plans took less out of employees' paychecks, but also required them to take more of a role in managing their health care.

At the same time, the company kept two of its previous options, HMO and point of service, but in most cases raised the cost of those to employees.

At first, it was not an easy sell.

"We had very generous plans we were subsidizing," Taylor recalls. Those current plans were far better than Prudential's competitors, she says, and some employees "felt it was an entitlement, and almost a breach if we were to change them."

Many workers were upset that they'd have to pay more, and didn't know quite what to make of the additional choices they were given, says Taylor. They asked, "What's the catch here? They're trying to trick us."

Taylor and her benefits team launched a multimedia campaign to explain the new programs to Prudential's employees ... not just the how, but the why -- in an honest and forthright way.

"We took the show on the road," says Taylor. "We met face-to-face with thousands of employees."

Adds Taylor: "We were honest in our communications," and told employees "in very transparent terms how much the company was spending on the program and how that compared to others in the market."

That transparency typifies Taylor's approach, and her belief in treating her fellow employees with respect.

"Even if they disagree with you," she says, "at a minimum they can walk away from that session saying, 'I may not agree, but at least I was treated like an adult.' "

The new consumer-driven health plans were a success, both for employees and the company. By late 2005, a third of Prudential's employees had enrolled in the plans -- more than double what had been hoped for. And in 2006, Taylor's health-care initiatives saved the company 6 percent in insurance costs.

For those and other accomplishments, Taylor, 53, has been named to the Human Resource Executive® 2007 Honor Roll.

Successful Longevity

Taylor is a career employee of Prudential -- she's been with the company 30 years. She started at a management-development program, and her first rotation was in human resources. She was hooked.

"The diversity of human resources is what appealed to me," she says. For her, each aspect, such as compensation, employee relations and staffing, had something different and interesting about it.

Under Taylor's leadership, Prudential also launched an employee stock-purchase plan in November 2006. Enrollment during the first offering period was 27 percent -- 12 percentage points above benchmark standards.

She also introduced a program that provides employees with backup care for a sick child or elderly parent when the usual caregiver isn't available -- and the employee needs to be at work.

A large part of Taylor's success has been her ability to get buy-in for such programs from senior management.

"She is very methodical, and does a lot of research," says Lori McDonough, vice president of communications. "She gives thorough explanations. She is very much into consensus-gathering. That's how you influence people, because they feel like they have a say."

Although the decision to outsource many HR functions was made by her predecessor, Taylor provided oversight for the project. In 2002, 11 administrative and tactical services were outsourced, including payroll, benefits and administration.

"She was very deliberate and hands-on with the firms we had outsourced to," says McDonough. "She's not a micromanager, but she's not one to wash her hands of things. She gets actively involved -- 'Are we meeting deadlines?' 'Is everyone going to be paid when they're supposed to?' She was seeing it through."

Adds McDonough, "Outsourcing is big now, but she was one of the pioneers."

Taylor is chair of the HR Outsourcing Association, and, for the past two years, has delivered the keynote address at the group's annual conference.

Taylor is the highest-ranking African-American at Prudential, and has done much to champion diversity and foster an inclusive workplace.

She was an adviser to a group of employees that developed the company's Black Leadership Forum, and she helped create the Senior Women's Group, which consists of women at the level of division vice president or higher.

Taylor says she understands that HR has to be managed like a business, "but, at the same time, we carry the ombudsman role. We have to be an advocate for our employees as well."

HR, she says, should have "a head and a heart."

McDonough calls Taylor a true leader.

"Sharon is calm in a storm," she says. "She understands the urgency of a situation, but she doesn't behave in a frenzied way, because that might escalate someone else's frenzy. She is grace under pressure."

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