A Natural Fit

For Julie Wood, a career in HR has been the perfect proving ground for understanding her business and serving its people.

Saturday, October 2, 2010
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Although enrolled in a psychology program at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, Julie Wood had no intention of becoming a psychologist. In short, sitting in an office listening to a patient lying on a couch simply wasn't in her career plans.

So she took several business classes and, in 1987, earned a bachelor-of-arts degree in business psychology. But as graduation approached, she wondered who would hire her. Where could she apply her skills and education?

"I wanted to find a career where I could follow through on the passion I had for people and human behavior, and also the knowledge I gained about business," says Wood. "HR was a natural fit."

And so her journey began. After college, she held a variety of HR jobs at Liberty Mutual Insurance Co., Grand Victoria Casino and Ernst & Young. Five years ago, she joined the staff of Crowe Horwath, an accounting and consulting firm in Oak Brook, Ill., that employs 2,400 people in 25 states.

As the firm's chief people officer, Wood was initially charged with creating a strategic plan that outlined the firm's future growth opportunities and goals from 2008 through 2013. Not only did she help the firm attract quality talent and boost employee-retention rates, but she also helped HR evolve into a strategic partner that helps drive business results.

When she first came on board, she spent time changing the firm's recruiting infrastructure and processes. Under her leadership, HR implemented a summer intern program called SOAR (Success-Opportunities-Achievement-Results], which provides relevant and challenging work assignments, ongoing coaching and evaluation, and networking and team-building opportunities.

"We continue to focus strategically on our interns," she says. "They're filling our full-time needs and raising [our firm's] visibility on campus."

Under Wood, HR later formed People Resource Networks, affinity groups that help brand the firm as a diverse employer of choice while creating a platform for employees to network and address key workplace concerns.

Likewise, HR leveraged social-networking tools such as Facebook, enhanced employee-referral programs and bonus amounts, increased communication with business units to align recruiting with their business needs, and improved candidate reporting processes and tracking.

"One of the best things I've accomplished is having the foresight to understand who we needed ... and making sure we have the right leaders in place," she says, adding that employee-retention rates are at their highest level in the firm's history. "We brought in some great talent. If I walked away today, I would feel this ship would continue to move forward."

Save Jobs, Build Opportunity

A struggling economy often separates great leaders from those who've become complacent. When the recession hit, Wood's leadership abilities went into full swing.

Her HR team developed an alternate-staffing plan to help manage payroll expenses between May and December of 2009. Based on client demand and workload, the plan required many employees to reduce their work hours by 20 percent. Others took nonpaid sabbaticals or unpaid time off. Approximately 1,000 employees participated, saving the firm about $3.5 million in payroll costs.

"Our goal was to save jobs at a very difficult time," Wood says, adding that everyone regained full-time-employment status in January, except a handful who -- at least temporarily -- preferred their revised work arrangement. "We were trying to get creative and avoid further reductions in staff."

At the same time, Wood was juggling a number of other projects. She supervised the implementation of HR's new information system by SAP, meeting a very aggressive timeline. HR now processes payroll in-house and has developed a self-service portal where employees can check their paystubs and benefits, and enroll in benefits.

Wood also designed a leadership and talent-management strategy that aligns learning with service delivery, employee responsibilities and processes. Training and talent development now reflect the firm's business strategy. Courses have become more interactive, are marketplace-oriented and focus on interventions that help employees better understand how their interactions impact customers.

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Wood's efforts earned her a seat in weekly CEO/management-team meetings. As the CEO's brainchild, the six-member group addresses daily concerns, helping the CEO stay in touch with operational needs and make key decisions.

The CEO handpicked every member, including Wood, who is the first woman to serve on the team. Still, each selection was approved by the firm's executive committee, which she says acts like the firm's board of directors.

"As HR professionals, it's so important for us to demonstrate that we understand the business, how it works and what it means for our stakeholders," she says. "The ability for an HR professional to demonstrate the business side is critical to get a seat at the table."

Looking back, Wood says, she operates very differently now than she used to. She encourages her staff to simplify processes instead of "over-engineering" them, to understand the business needs of internal and external clients, and to address issues from multiple perspectives, thereby making the greatest impact possible.

The only thing missing from her resume is international HR experience. Since Crowe Horwath belongs to a global network of professional-service firms, she hopes to apply her in-house experiences across the world.

Despite her busy schedule, Wood never sacrifices spending time with her family, which has driven her to build a flexible and compassionate work environment. She recently introduced an inclusiveness/sensitivity optional training course and a Woman's Partner Gathering, a quarterly meeting where the firm's women partners discuss work/life issues.

All of these challenges have taught her a very valuable lesson.

"As HR professionals, when we're faced with something tough and challenging, we have to turn it into an opportunity and learning experience [so we can] be better people and do better work," she says. "That's the core of my philosophy."

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