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Shaping People's Lives

"When you have someone's heart and mind committed to their work, you will get a different outcome" than otherwise, says the senior vice president of HR at Corning Inc. "While people technically work for companies, what shapes their experience is the people they work for," she says.

Monday, January 3, 2011
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Christine Pambianchi's interest in the things that shape people's lives has led her to a position where she can now do the shaping.

She was recently elected senior vice president of human resources at glass and ceramics maker Corning Inc., based in Corning, N.Y. She became vice president of Corning's human resources function in 2008.

As an undergraduate at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, she "was interested in business and potentially law, and was very intrigued by history and how people lived, and the things that shaped people's lives."

But it was during a summer internship at General Electric that, she says, she was "compelled to pursue a career" in human resources.

"The thing I find interesting about HR is that people spend most of their lives at work, and companies spend a significant amount of their resources on people, so it seemed like a pretty significant optimization problem," she says.

"It is an interesting challenge to try and pursue in the business world because, when you have someone's heart and mind committed to their work, you will get a different outcome" than if they aren't committed, she says. "While people technically work for companies, what shapes their experience is the people they work for."

After graduating in 1990, Pambianchi went straight to PepsiCo's HR department, both because of the soda maker's reputation for giving large assignments to employees early in their career, and because of the autonomy and independence given employees for completing those assignments.

"What's so wonderful about starting at Pepsi, it's very clear who the competition is," she says. "Everyone is completely aligned around 'Beat Coke.' It's a very clear corporate mission, and it's a place where you can clearly apply that goal."

On the job, she immediately noticed the strong emphasis Pepsi placed on succession planning and the strength of that process.

"You were expected, as an HR professional, to know your talent and make the right choices to grow the business," she says.

After a decade at Pepsi, Pambianchi moved to Corning in 2000, as division human resource manager for Corning Optical Fiber division, and went on to be director of human resources for Corning Optical Communications and director of business human resources.

She was named division vice president of business human resources in 2004 and elected vice president in 2007.

With six different business lines, covering everything from ceramics to fiber optics, she says, one of the main challenges of her job is staying ahead of the technological curve. The recent explosion in popularity of flat-screen televisions has had a "significant impact" on the HR function's job, she says.

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"What are going to be the next industries we can sell into? That has a lot of talent implications," she says.

As for advice that could help younger HR professionals on their ascent up the corporate ladder, Pambianchi says it's vital "to really know your business and understand the strategic drivers of growth, profit, etc. Know it as well as your line managers do."

She also thinks it's important to work in operations and manufacturing if you want to be a senior executive.

"Go where things are made and get a sense on the most fundamental level," she says.

To that end, Pambianchi says she spends approximately eight weeks a year traveling the globe to check in on the company's 45 factories.

"You get a lot more out of those kinds of interactions, as opposed to when they come to HQ," she says. "I don't believe in doing this as a desk job," she says. "I view myself as the organization's chief talent officer, so I'm always trying to get to know the top 200 employees in the organization."

But perhaps most importantly, she says courage is key to an effective career in human resources.

"Always have courage," she says. "For HR professionals, it's important to balance [the fact] that you work for the institution with [HR's] unique responsibility to represent the best overall strategies as well. Sometimes you have to take a tough stand or take a point of view that isn't very popular.

"To be a real, true HR professional, you have to be willing to lose your job in order to do the right thing," she concludes.

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