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HR's 'Perpetual Spark'

Lesley Elwell is one of HR's Rising Stars for 2011.

Her greatest challenge: Improving customer-satisfaction scores for more than 20,000 Sprint call-center representatives.

Her greatest achievement: Creating Sprint's Human Performance Technology framework, which all HR executives are now trained in.

Monday, July 11, 2011
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With an educational background steeped in engineering, Lesley L. Elwell might seem, at first glance, to be an unlikely choice for inclusion on this year's list of HR's Rising Stars.

But colleagues and supervisors confirm her status as a true HR leader with a very bright future. Indeed, phrases such as "perpetual spark" and "a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis" point to just how bright that future is.

From helping to drive a consistent uptick in the ratings of thousands of customer-service representatives, to her work in developing the company's Human Performance Technology consulting framework, Elwell is using her education and experience to actively re-engineer the way the Sprint views -- and values -- its HR function.

After being asked to serve as the performance consultant on a cross-functional HR team tasked with improving the customer-satisfaction scores of Sprint's 20,000 customer-service representatives, Elwell became "a leader among leaders," says her supervisor Sandra Price, Sprint's senior vice president of human resources.

By focusing on improving first-call resolutions and reducing both the average "handle" time and the number of call transfers, the team's approach translated into 12 consecutive quarters of measurable improvement.

In an effort born out of Sprint's desire to replicate that performance-improvement methodology across other business units, Elwell was then tasked with developing and implementing the Human Performance Technology consulting framework.

The framework is based upon finding the root causes of problems, such as the low customer-service scores mentioned above, and then developing solutions applicable to specific business units' challenges or problems -- be they decreased "handle" times for call centers or improved communications in other departments.

Today, all of Sprint's HR executives, managers, performance consultants/relationship managers and account-team members are trained in the HPT methodology developed by Elwell and her team, says Price. "Our focus now is on increasing the use of HR analytics to isolate variables that impact performance and that, when addressed, will rapidly increase the probability of employee success," she says.

A native Venezuelan who now holds dual citizenship, Elwell received a degree in industrial engineering from a national university in Venezuela before being awarded a Latin-American Fulbright scholarship to complete her master's degree in engineering management at the University of Kansas. She says her educational background in engineering topics such as Total Quality Management has provided a firm base from which to launch an HR career.

"The advantage has been [my] ability to create frameworks, to not only address the 'what,' but the 'how,' and that's been a huge benefit," Elwell says. "The ability to translate performance management and process improvement into HR ... and [know] how to integrate it into the operational aspects of the business has also been a key for me and my team."

Such perspective allowed Elwell to help create Sprint's HR Scorecard, which measures, among other components, total labor costs as a percentage of revenue, time to productivity and HR efficiency.

Price says Elwell's scorecard now gives HR workers "a common language" to discuss both their effectiveness and opportunities for improvement.

Elwell's experience in comparing differing systems and frameworks also allows her a greater appreciation of the opportunities in the United States that she could never dream of having in her native Venezuela. "Here, I have the right and the duty to give the most of me, because I live in a country of freedom and work for a company of opportunity, and I have a home that provides a wonderful way of life for me and my family, and that's not the case in Venezuela," she says.

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While Elwell freely extols the virtues of her adopted homeland, she has not forsaken her roots, and, to that end, she also serves as president of Sprint's Hispanic employee resource group.

She was partly motivated to join the group, she says, by "the curiosity to understand how an employee-resource group is a microcosm of the overall employee experience at the company."

A desire to share of herself also motivated her to join the group.

"I think I bring my personal story as an example, like many others, that show many ways and definitions of career development and growth," she says.

But she also looks forward to countering the notion that such groups often spin their wheels when it comes to making progress for a specific group because of siloed thinking.

Employee-resource groups often "tend to do their own thing" and create totally new initiatives that don't gain much traction or support, she says, but "it's amazing how much we could leverage and create momentum [in these groups] by integrating to what the company does," she says.

When asked to look ahead, Elwell envisions a future where she plays an integral role in Sprint's HR function. "I would love to be among the thought leaders who will be able to evolve HR and understand, segment and create specific products and services targeted to employees' needs and wants," she says.

Colleague and Sprint Performance Consultant Jeffrey Wilson says Elwell's intellect and natural disposition will carry her as far up the corporate ladder as she wishes to go.

"She is possessed by a sharp and infinitely inquisitive mind, a natural curiosity and an insatiable drive to never let 'good enough' get in the way of 'best,' " he says. "She constantly questions both herself and others; not in an intimidating way, but in a way that stimulates and fosters dialogue and, ultimately, innovation. She is a perpetual spark for higher-order thinking and action."

See all of the 2011 HR's Rising Stars.

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