SVP and CHRO Fred Newton shares simple lessons culled from a complex organization: University of Phoenix parent company the Apollo Group.
By Stephanie Harris
Since joining the Apollo Group in 2009, Fred Newton, Senior Vice President and Chief Human Resources (HR) Officer, has completely restructured the HR organization function, from top to bottom. And he has done so by focusing on the business’ most crucial asset: its people.
“Every organization only has three assets: the physical, fiscal and the human assets,” he said. “But it is HR’s responsibility to facilitate the human aspect and make human capital its top priority. Making human capital your top priority means the business provides the people, processes and systems that allow you to get more out of your staff.”
The Apollo Group and its subsidiaries—University of Phoenix, Apollo Global, Carnegie Learning, College for Financial Planning and the Institute for Professional Development—is a leading provider of higher-education programs for working adults, and is comprised of roughly 12,000 staff and 29,000 faculty members.
Even with a large number of personnel, Newton’s HR strategy is simple: “Attract, develop and motivate the talent necessary to run the business,” he said. “And if you do that right, you will retain your talent as well.”
Form & Function
Newton always has gravitated toward, and excelled in, the HR function. And with a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and an MBA in Labor Relations, his career had an early design.
After serving for seven years in the US Navy, Newton began his career with PepsiCo/Frito-Lay Inc., where he developed his HR skillsets. From there, he served in various roles and worked in different areas of HR, including merger integration and change management and transformation.
“There’s HR from a function standpoint and then there’s HR from a business standpoint, and I work in both,” he said. “I strive in both, I enjoy both, and I understand the roles of both.”
Newton compares the various components of HR to the parts of a pyramid. At the base sit the functional elements—employee benefits, performance reviews, payroll, information systems, etc. All of these are important to the business operations, according to Newton. “The business expects us to deliver consistently on functional excellence issues, even though they don’t necessarily generate revenue.”
The next block on his HR pyramid is what he calls “building organizational capability,” and it is comprised of issues that make the company a good place to work and, ultimately, an employer of choice, he said.
“How do you align your staff with a business strategy and let them know where they fit in? Are we aligning our people to defined, organizational outcomes? How are we motivating employees to drive their piece of that strategy in the work they do and be rewarded for it? Is there a clear career path in place? Are you helping the business recognize and manage high-performing employees?” he asked. “All of these things fall under HR management’s responsibility to build organizational capabilities. Delivering for the business here is more complex than what we do around functional issues.”
At the top of the pyramid sit the high-level ideas that help facilitate organizational change. “It’s about managing change and instilling in the culture of our organization the core values that make us successful, then helping the business live those values at every level.”
When Newton joined the Apollo Group, the HR Department was successful for the most part. “We were growing, unbridled growth,” he said. “But unbridled growth can mask inefficiencies.”
So Newton embarked on an initiative to restructure the HR organization, and he did so by focusing on the business’ needs, as opposed to what HR presumed would be important. To accomplish this, he broke the department into what he has dubbed “HR business partners.”
“HR business partners are out there embedded in the business, they are assigned to part of the business. They support our business leaders, and they are a resource for their respective business units,” Newton explained. “They have to be at the table to weigh in with their functional excellence on business issues.”
For example, if the business is discussing its desire to grow in a particular area, according to Newton, the HR business partner would be at the discussion table as well, anticipating business HR issues, such as obtaining the talent needed for that sort of growth and analyzing the best solutions.
“Where the HR business partners get their resources to get the detailed analytics is where it gets interesting,” Newton noted. “Behind the HR business partner are ‘centers of excellence’ within the HR function. Those would be total rewards, talent acquisition, organizational development and effectiveness, training, etc. These are essential services you should commoditize, standardize and even outsource. They maintain the processes that the business uses.”
The HR business partner essentially brings the centers of excellence into the business to solve an issue that the HR business partner and the leaders of the business feel they need further analysis and discussion on.
The Glue That Holds it Together
At the center of all of Newton’s initiatives is the human asset of the organization. “The human capital is the glue that holds the other assets [physical and fiscal] together,” he said. “An HR function should be taking that human capital piece of the equation and enhancing it to be competitive or differentiated in the environments in which you compete for business.”
As part of his incentive to attract, develop, motivate and maintain talent within the Apollo Group, training and development is essential, and it is provided to all staff members. In fact, every employee has free access to an associate’s, bachelor’s or graduate degree, and up to 80 percent compensation for a doctoral degree.
What attracted Newton to his role in the first place was the mission of the organization and what it is capable of accomplishing. “If we do what we’re supposed to do and we do it right, and we care about the students, their wellbeing and persistence in graduating,” he said, “then we create an environment where they have ease of access and the support they need to work and grow. It’s been a rewarding five years.”
Stephanie Harris is a freelance writer based in Chicago, Illinois.
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