A Gold Standard

Gayle Satchwell is continually redefining the kind of difference an HR leader can make in the public sector.

This article accompanies Piloting His Own Path: Jeff Shuman, the 2011 HR Executive of the Year, and The 2011 HR Honor Roll .

Sunday, October 2, 2011
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These have been challenging times for most HR leaders, but they've been particularly difficult for those in the pubic sector, where budget cuts and layoffs have become a much-more-common occurrence since the start of the latest economic downturn.

That's certainly the case for Gayle Satchwell, director of human resources for the County of Nevada (in California) and the sole public-sector professional named to this year's HR Honor Roll. But rather than let such pressures get the better of her, Satchwell has shown how HR can shine in the toughest of times.

"It's refreshing to be able to work with someone like Gayle," says County Executive Officer Rick Haffey, who submitted Satchwell's nomination. "I've run into [HR people] in the past who allowed the bureaucracy of HR to bring things to a halt," he says. But with Gayle at the HR helm, that hasn't been the case in Nevada County, which spans nearly 1,000 square miles of Gold Rush country in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

"Gayle is an extremely high-energy individual with a can-do attitude who is able to accomplish more than what's expected every year," Haffey says.

Satchwell -- who previously held HR posts in Sacramento County -- never gets "swallowed up in the tyranny of the urgent," he adds.

Considering the kinds of pressures the county has been under in recent years, that's saying a lot.

Partnering with Labor

At the top of Satchwell's list of challenges are several years of serious restructuring and downsizing. Faced with shrinking revenues and tighter budgets, the county was forced to trim its workforce by roughly 30 percent over the past six years. Of course, that can be onerous under any conditions. But when your workforce is 90-percent unionized and you're locked into labor agreements with all six of your unions, it can be especially difficult.

Soon after joining the county as director of HR roughly eight years ago, Satchwell co-led an interest-based bargaining effort that yielded seven bargaining agreements (two were with the same union). These agreements served the county well for several years, until the economy began to unravel in 2008 and revenues started to dry up.

Despite the fact that the county's labor unions were under no obligation to renegotiate their closed agreements, Satchwell and her team played a key role in convincing five out of six of its unions to sit down and renegotiate their contracts. (Management is scheduled to meet with the county's largest union next June to hammer out a new agreement.)

By getting the unions to forgo previously negotiated salary increases and agree to a lower tier of pension, the county was able to save millions of dollars and avoid an even-more-painful workforce reduction.

Like many HR leaders, Satchwell considers having to let people go the most difficult part of her job.

"Each of the affected employees goes through my office and sits down with a senior analyst -- then we do our best to place them," she says. At first, the focus was on finding other opportunities within the county. But as those internal vacancies began to dry up, Satchwell and her team began to reach out to surrounding counties in the region to identify opportunities.

Haffey says Satchwell is guided by a well-grounded moral compass, which was especially evident in way she approached, day-in and day-out, the difficult task of downsizing.

She's an extremely "ethical person" with a great set of values, he says.

Because of the high level of trust he has in Satchwell, Haffey says he regularly involves her in most key discussions. "She's pretty much in on everything," he says. "Because of her problem-solving abilities, I'll often include her on legal matters that may have nothing to do with HR, just in case it does touch on HR."

Even though Satchwell was brought on as HR chief during heady times, Haffey says, she put in place processes and systems on the front end that enabled the county to successfully navigate the difficult period that lay ahead.

"A few of the first things she did when she came to us was to create a succession plan, revise our entire personnel code, revamp our labor-relations policies and practices, and revamp our administrative code," Haffey says. "So when the downturn hit, we were already streamlined and ready to go in a lot of areas ... ."

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Revamping HR Processes

Asked what initiative she was most proud of, Satchwell quickly points to the creation of the county's first formal succession plan.

Aware that roughly 50 percent of the workforce would soon be eligible to retire, Satchwell put succession planning on the front burner not long after joining the county.

Part of that effort included building a set of core competencies for senior executives, mid-level managers and general employees that were closely aligned to the county's vision, mission and values, and then integrating those competencies into other processes such as hiring and performance management.

Despite operating today with a much leaner organization -- HR trimmed its ranks by roughly 20 percent during the downturn -- Satchwell's department continues to "overproduce," says Haffey, adding that Satchwell and her team have done an impressive job leveraging technology to improve HR's own efficiency and effectiveness.

Two years ago, for example, she worked closely with IT to replace the county's paper-based forms with an electronic personnel action form, which dramatically improved the efficiency of various HR-related processes.

She also spearheaded the creation of an "HR dashboard" for leaders throughout the organization, which contains customized performance data for a wide range of key areas.

No doubt, more challenges lie ahead for Satchwell and her team, including next June's labor negotiations. But if history is any indication, they will handle them successfully.

Donna Williamson, a partner at Liebert, Cassidy and Whitmore in San Francisco who assists the county on labor and employment-law matters, considers Satchwell one of the best HR leaders she's ever worked with.

Satchwell, she says, is a true professional who exudes tremendous credibility and has the highest level of integrity. Whatever the situation, she adds, "people always feel they've been treated fairly."

No doubt these traits have served Satchwell well in the past. So it seems safe to surmise they will continue to serve her well as she tackles whatever comes her way. 

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