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Data- and Relationship-Driven

By building an HR function from the ground up, Michelle Link has implemented her own HR vision for PRA Group during a period of rapid international growth. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2015
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This article accompanies The Re-inventor and The 2015 HR Honor Roll.

Back in 2011, Michelle Link accepted a job offer as the chief human resource officer at an insurance company. But three weeks before she was supposed to start, a recruiter convinced her to interview for a senior HR position at PRA Group Inc., an American debt buyer based in Norfolk, Va.

"He [said], 'Why don't you just talk to this company? It's growing really quick[ly] and we think you'll have a great conversation,' " says Link, now senior vice president of HR at PRA.

Within 24 hours of the interview, she called the insurance company to say she'd changed her mind. Though relatively small and little-known, she says, PRA "was an opportunity of a lifetime" -- offering her a blank slate to create and implement her own HR vision for the organization.

At the time, the publicly traded company had about 800 employees. But there was no compensation function, only one outsourced brokerage consultant and no talent-management function, other than a handful of recruiters and trainers for the company's call center.

Since then, Link and her HR team practically built an entire HR function from the ground up. While handling the demands that come with rapid international growth, they simultaneously developed global talent and development functions along with career-development opportunities, revamped the company's compensation and benefits structures, expanded payroll and employee relations, and implemented an HRIS system. In just four years, Link developed a full-service HR department worthy of PRA's status as a global employer, which has secured her spot on this year's HR Honor Roll.

Today, PRA's HR department consists of 65 people in the United States, and another 10 throughout Canada and 11 European countries. The company's workforce has grown to 3,900 employees and its market capitalization -- the total dollar market value of its outstanding shares -- has more than doubled, growing from $1.4 billion to $3 billion today.

With a master's degree in HR management from Ohio University, and a bachelor's degree in finance and minor in business administration at Stonehill College, Link brings strong organizational and financial skills to the table. She even manages the process for producing the company's proxy statements.

"Throughout my career," she says, "the group I've always been able to relate best with are CFOs. I'm [now] highly involved in doing everything from [writing] the letter to shareholders all the way through [developing] the compensation tables and exhibits."

But what she's most proud of is building an HR department that uses and analyzes data to drive decisions around employee practices and policies. Under her guidance, data and analytics now help shape and develop employee-related decisions.

"It's very easy . . . to be the nice person in HR who is gentle, kind and loving," Link says. "It's hard to do all those things and also be data-driven and analytical. If you ask what fuels our momentum, in the areas where we [have] proven we can be data-driven and analytical, we've had our biggest successes."

Her repertoire goes even further. In addition to mastery over numbers, she also mentors six different employees across the organization. One of them is Alexandra Konikoff, counsel and vice president of business relations at PRA, who reports to Link.

Link, says Konikoff, has been instrumental in educating her about company finances and compensation. "She's fearless in sharing her knowledge [and] extremely generous with [it]."

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As long as HR employees perform their job duties and grow their skills, she says, Link "absolutely empowers" them to make decisions, build relationships and evaluate scenarios from the employee, management and business perspectives.

What seems to impress Konikoff most is Link's constant review of her decisions to better support HR, employees and the company as it evolves and expands into different markets.

"Most people would have their creation and . . . not want to change it," says Konikoff. "[Link] constantly puts things back into question to improve [them]."

Nevertheless, change -- especially massive organizational change -- can be intimidating to workers. In most companies, there are employees who embrace new ideas and practices, some who don't and others in the middle, the wait-and-see population.

Link says she spent a lot of time and energy communicating with the latter group. Since some may become the company's future leaders, she developed a unique professional-development experience by rotating them through different areas of HR so they could serve as HR's change ambassadors across the organization.

As the company expanded its business across North America and Europe, it discovered that many members of the HR team lacked global experience. Since Link worked overseas in previous jobs, she developed a "how to prepare for doing business globally" training program for staff to help them become better acquainted with global practices and country idiosyncrasies.

Looking ahead, she plans to identify talent gaps in the company and develop existing talent to fill those gaps, she says, letting "my financial acumen [help] create a data-driven strategic vision."

Read also:

Michelle Link: In Brief

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