A Clear Connection

Through an assortment of innovative programs, Bill Blase and his team are successfully aligning HR with the business' strategies and goals at AT&T. 

By David Shadovitz

This article accompanies A Perfect Cure and The 2014 HR Honor Roll.

If you'd like to get a glimpse of the kind of leader Bill Blase is, just ask AT&T Senior Vice President of HR Cynthia Marshall to share her own personal experience after learning she had Stage III colon cancer.

Even though the two hadn't worked together for more than 10 years, Marshall says, Blase repeatedly called and left her messages upon learning of the diagnosis. Distraught and preoccupied with getting "a handle on things," Marshall says she didn't return Blase's calls. Finally, she says, she received the following message from him: " 'Lady, I need to know you're OK.  Right now, you're the only thing that matters to us. I need to know you're getting the best care in the country.' 

"I was in North Carolina and he obviously had a lot on his plate," Marshall says. "But that day, that week, I was the only thing that mattered [to him]."

Blase, AT&T's senior vice president of HR, doesn't think of himself as a people person, but he truly is, says Marshall, who did call Blase back after receiving his last message. "He cares about the employees in the company," she says. "He cares that the right things are done from a compensation standpoint, a healthcare standpoint and a training standpoint."

It's no coincidence that Marshall's colon cancer was detected as a result of a wellness initiative Blase helped spearhead at AT&T that encouraged employees 50 years and older to undergo screenings.

Ask Blase, one of this year's HR Honor Roll winners, what competencies are most needed by HR leaders today, and he cites the following three: understanding the business and its strategy, strong financial acumen and finally, having a heart.

Marshall and others point out that these abilities and qualities describe Blase to a tee.

Harry Kraemer Jr., a clinical professor of management and strategy at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management who has worked with AT&T on some of its leadership-development programs, describes him as one of the best "value-based leaders" he's come across in the last 35 years. "Bill has figured out that leadership isn't about titles and org charts, but about your ability to influence people," he says.

It also doesn't hurt that Blase brings to his HR job significant operating experience, including spending two years in Connecticut running Southern New England Telephone Co. and three-and-a-half years running Southwestern Bell Telephone Co.

If AT&T is going to continue to innovate and provide value to its clients, it's imperative that it have the right talent in the right places with the right skills and competencies.

To that end, Blase and his team have put in place a series of programs and tools aimed at ensuring that AT&T's workforce is properly trained and engaged in the business.

One such tool is MyCareerProfile, which was introduced to AT&T's employees two years ago and enables them to showcase their business skills, work history, education and certifications, and thereby position themselves for internal job opportunities.

If a supervisor needs 10 data scientists in Dallas with certain skills, Blase says, he or she can visit with HR, enter the request and find 20 people with the characteristics he or she is looking for before "going to the street."

Another tool is Career Intelligence, which was unveiled in April and allows employees to learn more about specific management jobs and the skills and competencies needed to move into those positions.

AT&T is also committed to making sure that everyone, from the top down, knows where the company is going, and why, through a program called Leading with Distinction. Launched in 2007, the program is rolled out on annual basis through either in-person meetings or live webcasts (including, for the first time this year, employees who are part of a bargaining unit) over a five-month period.

Great strides have also been taken to ensure that the company's compensation and benefits are properly aligned with the realities of the business and today's healthcare environment.

Back in 2007, Blase and his team worked with Towers Watson to consolidate four disparate compensation approaches into a single template that took the best aspects of the plans and linked them more closely to performance. (Blase notes that AT&T is one of a handful of companies that incorporates diversity goals into its executive-comp plans.)

Meanwhile, on the healthcare front, they have made consumerism a top priority and strengthened the company's commitment to wellness, including the introduction in 2007 of the Chairman's Challenge, in which AT&T's chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson formally challenged employees to pursue a health and wellness goal for a chance to win a $1,000 prize and a $5,000 donation to the charity of his or her choice.

In a letter supporting Blase's nomination, Stephenson (who Blase describes as someone who's been extremely supportive of HR's role) notes that Blase successfully manages one of AT&T's toughest challenges: providing great benefits to the nation's largest full-time, union-represented workforce while also controlling costs.

"Once again," he says, "Bill has written the book on how to get the job done right."

Read also:

William A. Blase Jr.: In Brief

Oct 14, 2014
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