Worth the Investment

Given the chance by his first post-graduate employer to try HR on as a career, Steve Fussell has more than proven that the move was a smart one.

Saturday, October 2, 2010
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As a 21-year-old college graduate, Steve Fussell flew from Baton Rouge, La., to Houston for a job interview with petroleum giant Shell. As he sat down to begin the interview, he assumed he'd spend his time talking about his achievements at Louisiana State University and how he could help the company.

What transpired next would shape his career.

During the interview, the Shell refinery at the site began to leak harmful phenol gas, and the HR executive conducting Fussell's interview was instructed to head up the crisis-relief effort -- and he took his young recruit along with him.

"A couple of minutes into the interview, the guy says, 'Look, if you want to work in this business, follow me, keep your head down and watch,' " says Fussell.

For more than three hours, the young college grad was thrust into the emergency, watching as the HR executive assembled a team of chemists, engineers and environmental experts; developed an action plan; monitored the wind flow; secured the area; deployed emergency equipment; and dealt with local authorities. (The leak was eventually sealed soon after and nobody was hurt, says Fussell.)

As the day wore on, Fussell was so intrigued with the HR executive and the task at hand that he couldn't bring himself to leave on time, and missed his flight back to Baton Rouge. A week later, Fussell got an offer to join Shell's management-development program, but he had other plans.

"I said 'I want to work for that guy!' " says Fussell, recalling that the company agreed to his request and gave him his first job. A budding HR career was born.

Now 52, and in his fifth year as the senior vice president of human resources for Abbott -- a healthcare-solutions company based in Abbott Park, Ill., with 83,000 employees in 130 countries -- Fussell has gone from being a wide-eyed HR novice to earning a spot on HRE's 2010 HR Honor Roll.

One of his most telling initiatives was to transform Abbott's costly and sometimes redundant HR function -- with a promise to self-fund the technological and organizational transformation. Starting in 2005, he asked Abbott for a "loan" of "tens of millions of dollars" to harmonize processes across 100 countries and create Business Advisory Councils in 60 countries, so leaders would have a forum where they could discuss people- and business-related issues. He promised to "pay that money back" by reducing headcount, streamlining processes and leveraging technology, he says.

He also took control of Abbott's global talent demand by developing a process to determine headcount, growth and attrition rates in each location.

The process includes interactive, electronic templates on which leaders from around the globe report their job openings, allowing HR to track turnover rates and work with business leaders to determine hiring in each location for the coming year.

"Just like a business needs to forecast its sales accurately to determine inventory, we were able to determine our hiring, staffing and talent needs accurately," he says.

His changes saved an aggregate of $100 million and the program was able to return Abbott's initial investment plus more than 20 percent, says Fussell. Turnover among the remaining HR professionals is under 10 percent -- well under the 25 percent seen from similar benchmarks at other companies.

"Nobody asked me to save money when we started this process. Nobody asked me to cut headcount . . . . We didn't do so because of the recession or because I had some target to reduce," says Fussell. "It was because we wanted to transform the employer experience at Abbott. We wanted to benchmark and understand other [companies] so we could distinguish ourselves as an employer, not to copy and be like other people."

He also knew that transforming his own function would give him clout if he ever decided to make changes in other parts of the business.

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"I knew that, if I wanted the credibility to consult from an organizational-development perspective or a change-management perspective ... we had to start with ourselves, then translate that with the others," he says. "It gave us a credibility we would not have had otherwise."

Fussell was also instrumental in bringing phased retirement to Abbott. Recognizing that 24 percent of the workforce was over 50, he designed the "Freedom to Work" program, which offered retirement-eligible workers a reduced schedule (at a reduced salary) while still accruing money to their pensions. Baby boomers can still work, young managers get a chance to step up into leadership roles and the company can transfer critical knowledge from older workers to younger ones.

"We're a scientific company based on integration; our ability to have a seamless transition can't be overvalued ... ," he says. "We have five generations of people in the workforce. We don't think that is a conflict. We think that can be pretty cool."

Fussell also implemented a pilot program for employees inflicted with diabetes, providing free drugs and doctors' visits to help them better manage the disease. Slowing the progression of diabetes stabalizes health and lowers costs, he says. Even with the cost of such care, he predicts at least four to five times return on investment.

Fussell also made strides in recruiting, reducing the average time-to-fill open jobs from 90 days in 2006 to fewer than 60 by mid-2007 and it has held steady ever since, according to the company. Hiring managers were pleased with the process as well, as their satisfaction rose from 57 percent to 90 percent during the same period.

His motivation to strengthen recruiting is simple: "We want to find our unfair share of talent," he says.

One part of his job that Fussell particularly enjoys is helping to shape employees' careers.

"I like to give people a crooked path," he says, "a series of experiences and different circumstances that help teach flexibility, help teach them the ability to think in interpolative ways so that they can get answers quicker than others."

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