Stewart CHRO Susan McLauchlan runs HR like a well-tuned race caravan.
By Nancy Flagg
Picture the Tour de France bike race and its bright convoy of vehicles supporting the racers. The race caravan anticipates every need of the riders and is beside them for each mile of the race. Susan McLauchlan, Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) at Stewart Information Services Corp. leads her HR team like a finely tuned race caravan. Her approach to HR is to understand a company’s vision and then align the HR team so that it seamlessly and effectively supports the company reaching its goal.
When McLauchlan joins a company, the first thing she does is conduct an HR audit. In 2011, she joined Stewart (also known as Stewart Title), the fourth largest title company in the world with more than 6,000 employees. And she launched into her new role as CHRO with her customary audit.
Each audit begins with gaining an understanding of a company’s direction and assessing how HR can best be strategically aligned to support that direction. In her audit, McLauchlan considers the following questions:
- What skill sets, processes and other resources currently exist at the company?
- Where are the gaps? For example, are different skills needed? Is more training required? Do processes need to be changed? Is more technological support needed?
- Do the people in the organization understand the core values and goals? What do they need to feel committed to the goal?
Once the audit is complete, McLauchlan develops a strategic, multiyear plan to build a new foundation and to position the team to support the company in reaching its goals.
McLauchlan’s HR assessment at Stewart spurred sweeping changes to better align the department with the corporation’s direction. After several years of a declining real estate market, Stewart’s workforce had been reduced significantly. As the market started to recover, the company needed to revise its focus and ramp up hiring.
McLauchlan realized that the recruiting process was an area that had to be changed meaningfully if it was going to help the company meet its goals. She identified the best skill set needed for recruiters in a growth environment and made the necessary staffing changes. McLauchlan also implemented benchmark measures, such as time-to-hire and cost-to-hire, so that they could gauge “the value of the change; the return on investment behind it,” she said.
Her blueprint for transformation can be adapted to many situations. McLauchlan has extensive international experience, including in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa and South America. Her assessment of HR operations in another country, or even in another city or firm, involves learning the history and culture of the environment and developing a custom-tailored strategy. “One size does not fit all,” McLauchlan advised, “a flexible model is needed.”
For example, when McLauchlan worked in the energy industry, her company was experiencing difficulty recruiting Chinese nationals to work on offshore oil rigs. The problem was not in attracting applicants, but in getting interviewees to describe their areas of expertise. McLauchlan says they found that, “the nationals tended to be humble and did not like saying that they’re great at something.” To adjust to the culture, McLauchlan’s team devised a testing procedure in which applicants could demonstrate, rather than describe, their skills.
McLauchlan joined Stewart as a result of meeting the company’s former Co-CEO. She learned that the company was searching for an HR chief, was encouraged to apply and landed the job, beginning to tune the HR team. A critical piece was appropriately staffing the HR team with the skills and talent needed to support the business strategy. Personnel changes were required both to meet business growth and to get the appropriate talent in place.
Nevertheless, change is a fact of life for companies that wish to thrive in an evolving marketplace. As a business and its goals shift, so must HR, explained McLauchlan. As a former licensed therapist with a graduate degree in psychology, she believes that family psychology theory is transferable to organizational development and uses some of its principles to help people deal with change. Two-way communication is the key to easing transitions. People must be given enough information to understand what the change will entail and why it is needed. The organization must hear and understand employee perspectives of the change as well. And, executive sponsorship always is critical to success.
A large change in personnel and changes in policies and strategies are bound to cause some stress in an organization. “Transitioning to new practices is always difficult,” McLauchlan said. “Change is leaving the shore of what is unknown. My job is to alleviate the fear of the unknown with clear communication of where we are going together on that journey. The people-side of transition is extremely critical to any change process.”
Effective communication, McLauchlan says, involves integrating similar messages into one unified package and sharing information with company employees using different modes.
In early 2013, McLauchlan’s team rolled out a new benefits program. To communicate the benefits to employees, they worked with their vendors to create an integrated communication plan that conveyed benefit changes and educated employees about existing benefits. Using webinars, site visits, videoconferencing and written materials, the communication plan reached the thousands of Stewart’s employees and proved to be highly effective, according to McLauchlan.
An example is the little-used Employee Assistance Program, which suddenly had more people tapping into it during a one-month period than had used it during the entire prior year. The increase was attributed to associates becoming aware of the program and its benefits.
HR Support for the Long Haul
A bike race caravan supports racers to the finish line, but an HR caravan supports an organization beyond the finish of a particular project and on through the next one.
When McLauchlan was working in the energy industry, it was not uncommon for her to be in a field meeting with 38 drillers. Her hands-on management approach continues today in the title insurance industry. Whether in the field listening to the needs of associates and adapting programs to meet them, visiting local offices, working at the home office strategizing on new ways to improve employee satisfaction and retention, or working abroad to align HR initiatives throughout the global operations, McLauchlan successfully supports the organization through each finish line.
Nancy Flagg is a freelance writer based in Sacramento, California.
Sharon's Key HR Partners:AON Hewitt (Benefits Consulting) | CuraLinc (Employee Assistance Program) | United Healthcare (Health Insurance Carrier) | ADP (Online Benefits Administration) | Wells Fargo (401(k) Recordkeeper)
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