The knowledge Lea Soupata has gained through a number of roles in more than three decades at UPS helps her protect and nurture a vast and growing corporate culture.
Atlanta-based United Parcel Service, now approaching its centennial, is a fixture in the business world, a reliable component of workaday life. The arrival of the "UPS man" (or woman) is as routine an occurrence as a morning cup of coffee.
But behind that delivery person in brown is a complex global business that has gone through some tremendous growth and changes in the last decade.
After 90-plus years of being privately held, the company took its stock public in November 1999. Since that offering, UPS has acquired nearly 30 companies around the globe. In the face of such change and growth, it was the job of Lea Soupata, senior vice president of human resources, to maintain the fundamentals of its corporate vision and culture.
"Those two items -- going public and then incorporating thousands of new management employees as a result of acquisitions -- could have been insurmountable hurdles to preserving UPS' strong culture," Soupata says. "But, because human resources at UPS is integrally involved in all aspects of the business, we have been able to help the 384,000-employee company successfully preserve our culture."
HR's presence makes a difference in acquisitions, she says. "Human resources is embedded in the M&A team. Among the many evaluations HR makes as part of the acquisition is an assessment of the cultural fit of the potential acquisition," Soupata says.
UPS went through an extensive cultural audit of its top managers and uses it as a benchmark against a similar questionnaire given to the employees of the acquired company. Questions cover topics such as trust in leadership, perceived levels of decision-making authority and other "how the company works" kinds of questions, she says.
Once the acquisition is made, HR leads communications on benefits and culture, delivered through meetings, e-mails and the company's Web site.
The results speak for themselves: Despite such rapid growth, UPS still primarily promotes from within and the average manager has nearly 15 years with the company.
Asked what's paramount to the HR profession, Soupata says: "The one skill, above others, that makes an HR person exceptional is knowledge of the business."
She can certainly claim that. She joined UPS in 1969 and worked her way up through the ranks in a variety of customer-service and operations functions, including district manager in the New York area from 1990 until 1994.
"I spent a good part of my career in operations, doing everything from being a UPS package car driver to running large pieces of the UPS small-package network. Having that firsthand knowledge of the business has made me a much stronger executive, because I can see the impact of decisions from multiple points of view."
Andy Hiles, lead total benefit strategist at Hewitt Consulting in Atlanta, says it's Soupata's ability to communicate on many levels at UPS that adds to her strength and the strength of her department.
"Lea's style with other leaders in the business helps keep human resources informed and on the agenda of all major issues," Hiles says. "Lea is well-known and respected throughout the global UPS network. When she travels, whether on company business or to give a speech to an outside organization, she always stops by the local UPS facility to meet and talk with line employees." Soupata calls this "management by walking around."
"Our business success is based on the quality of our people," she says. "Walking around and talking with employees is a listening skill every HR manager should have. On average, I'll spend about two weeks out of the month out in operations with our people."
As she does, she is aware she may well be speaking to a future top leader, thanks to UPS' succession-planning system. "All of UPS' CEOs have come from entry-level jobs at UPS. Right now, some future CEO of UPS could be working in our facilities," she says.
"There's a real challenge to tracking the performance and careers of nearly 50,000 part-time and full-time managers so that we do select the very best candidates. We use a variety of tools to manage that process, including our own custom software."
Soupata's HR team spearheaded the creation of the Employee Relations Steering Committee portal, which solicits new ideas to help make the company stronger. One success story that came out of the site is UPS' Web-based employee portal, which enables employees to manage benefits and important personal informational needs, along with enabling management to deliver key messages.
Also from Soupata's team came the Earn and Learn program, essentially tuition assistance kicked up several notches. UPS created partnerships with the colleges near selected facilities to create a program in which students are eligible to receive tuition assistance and forgivable student loans.
"[Earn and Learn] has helped eliminate some of the hiring pressures and provided greater stability to our operations since employees who are Earn and Learn students stay with UPS longer than other employees," Soupata says.
Soupata serves as chair of The UPS Foundation, the company's charitable arm; is a trustee of The Annie E. Casey Foundation; and is a fellow of the National Academy of Human Resources. Lea also serves as a board member of Junior Achievement of Georgia, the HR Policy Association and St. Basil's Academy, and as a member of the President's Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations.
The term "seat at the table" has become a cliché in the HR community, but at UPS it's a reality. Soupata is a member of the company's management committee, composed of 12 executives from different disciplines, that makes the day-to-day management decisions about running the business. She has also been a member of the UPS board of directors since 1998, one of only three inside directors.
"As the chief people officer, Lea adds the employee perspective to many of the key decisions made at the leadership level," says Hiles. "As Mike Eskew, the CEO of UPS says: 'We pride ourselves in trying to take care of our people. We think our people return that to us in lots of ways.' "