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Keep Your Ears Open and Your Mouth (Slightly) Closed

Keep Your Ears Open and Your Mouth (Slightly) Closed | Human Resource Executive Online Dennis Zeleny is a true believer, not only in the positive power of change that the HR function represents for businesses, but also in the importance of stretching one's wings to reach new skills. In a Q&A, he shares advice on making a successful transition.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009
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Recently appointed senior vice president and CHRO for Philadelphia-based Sunoco Inc., Dennis Zeleny's career reads like a travelogue on the road to success: head of HR for PepsiCo, for Honeywell, for DuPont; and executive vice president of administration and services for Caremark RX, before its 2006 acquisition by CVS.

In each instance, Zeleny says he listened and learned effective ways to contribute to the business and the profession, regardless of the industry the company served.

You recommend staying within the HR function, but changing industries. Do you think everyone would benefit from such a shift?

Yes, but I think the reality is that there are a lot of people who kind of get into one industry and stay there.

How does multi-industry experience pay off for an HR executive?

I've had 1,000-person HR organizations working for me around the world, and when I look for somebody, sometimes you need someone with specific industrial experience that you're operating in, but more often than not, you're really looking at the person and their capabilities.

I've always believed ... that you can teach people the industry if they're smart. They can learn the industry if they have good critical thinking skills, if they have what we refer to as agility -- business agility. If they come with that, we can teach them the business. But the most important thing is to hire people who "get it," that it's all about the business first.

What are some key points that you think help to create a successful transition to a different industry?

The No. 1 predictor of success is not what school you went to, not what your IQ points are and not who you know. The No. 1 predictor for success in all executives is the capability to learn. When you cross industries, [the successful executives are] those people who are good learners, those people that figured out how to listen, how to ask questions, how to be observant and respectful to the culture and to the people who have 20 or 30 years in an area.

Take somebody that's come from any business, put them in another business and if they've got the right social skills and build relationships and are good learners, day one, they could be adding value, as long as they are respectful of the culture they're walking into.

It's always about what's the right thing to do for the business. Do the right thing for the business and do the right thing for what needs to get done. Everything else will fall into place.

But you can't be lazy; you need to be a learner. You need to be open to change.

How do you function with your staff, when you're obviously dependent on those who would likely know more about the industry and some of whom may have wanted the seat you're now occupying?

I think, when you walk into a situation, you try to do a few things. One of the most important things is learning from your staff. If a leader comes in and they don't take that approach, they get off to a bad start. You need to come in and understand their point of view, how they look at the business, at HR, what their concerns and priorities are and what motivates them.

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When I walk into a situation, I don't assume that I have the right answer all the time. I need to learn from them, and I look at this as a team effort, a partnership.

Unless it's a very specific situation, and that's what the chairman wants, or something like that, you don't walk in and say, "I'm the new sheriff in town, we're making all these changes." If you walk in and say, "Wait a minute, I was at PepsiCo, and this is the way we did staffing, and this is the profile of the person we're going to recruit, and these are going to be our training programs," I think that's a mistake.

So you create a more open atmosphere in the HR department to understand how things are done?

Collaboration is absolutely critical, not with only the HR organization, but collaboration with leaders. One of the first things I do is not only walk around and spend time with HR people, but ... walk in and ... talk with the business leaders. Say, "Hey, from your perspective, what's working well, and what's not working well?"

One of the most important things you can do when you walk into a place ... is, you show people respect by seeking out their opinions and perspective on things. A, you learn a lot, and B, it shows that you respect them and that you're listening.

You say you don't believe in "plug-in" HR -- that what works for one organization can work for another organization in another industry. Can you give an example?

At Taco Bell, when I was the HR VP there, some [employees] were teenagers with part-time jobs, some worked 20 hours a week. It was a very different employee situation than working in the aerospace industry, where we had maybe 30,000 aerospace employees, and all of them were highly trained, skilled, putting together jet engines and control panels for airplanes.

So, if you think, for example, that you can have the same communication strategy or training strategy at a Taco Bell than you would have at a place [like Honeywell] ... of course, you can't.

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