As SVP of Shared Services at Texas Medical Center, Larry Stokes applies the conflict management and analytical skills he cultivated early in his career in law enforcement as an HR executive today
Larry Stokes, Senior Vice President (SVP) of Shared Services at Texas Medical Center (TMC), began his career as a police officer. This background helped prepare him to pursue a career in human resources (HR), and he says his biggest learning had to do with conflict management.
“As a police officer, you spend a lot of time deescalating situations and deescalating emotions and so forth, so I think the No. 1 transferable skill is really conflict management,” he said. Stokes also honed his analysis skills, spending a lot of time “gathering facts and information, analyzing that information, and making a recommendation or a conclusion based upon the information gathered.”
TMC is the world’s largest medical complex, and as SVP of Shared Services, Stokes is responsible for oversight and leadership of HR, Facilities Maintenance and Management, Information Technology, Campus Security and Safety. Before joining TMC, he worked as Vice President of HR for the Houston Astros, Corporate Director of Employee and Labor Relations at Warner Bros. Studios, and Senior Employee Relations Representative for Riverside County.
He learned early in his career that it is important to “bring range to the table,” and advises young professionals not to turn down opportunities to learn, even if it does not seem like it is related to their immediate or long-term goals.
“You don’t know where your career might take you or where you might end up, so what on its face might seem to be unrelated or unimportant or not something you’re really interested in today, could end up being a huge piece of your career in the future, or ultimately it just enhances your resume,” he said.
Stokes learned this when he realized the skills he’d acquired as a police officer were transferable to “this other field that I didn’t even realize was available or open to me.” The investigative know-how, interviewing skills, logical reasoning and analytical thinking he’d perfected as a police officer made him a prime candidate for the career path he’s followed.
“I like to say to people it’s good to be a jack of all trades and a master of few,” Stokes said, “and I think that’s a good position to try to put yourself in.”
The Bottom Line & the People Supporting It
In his previous roles, Stokes learned how to work in a profit-driven environment and how to excel at change management. When he was at Warner Bros., the metric for decision-making had much to do with the bottom line.
“I really started to understand metrics and analytics and supporting initiatives from an HR perspective,” Stokes recalled, “which can be a challenge because sometimes people think of HR roles as primarily people management. But the people management supports the business objective.”
While Stokes worked for the Astros, the club was sold to a new owner. It was a culture change, he acknowledged, and inspired many internal shifts. “Not just the structure of the organization, but also how we functioned and operated,” Stokes said. “It gave me an opportunity to really learn a lot more about people dynamics, what motivates people, what drives people, what scares people, and how to support them through that change process.”
Together We Can
Stokes discusses the importance of collaboration across the organization, explaining that TMC is a unique organization because it’s made up of 55 member institutions, all on one 1,300-acre campus.
“Many of the leaders of these institutions realize that we are made up of some of the greatest minds in medicine, health care and research, and that if we can get together and collaborate on those things as a group, we are then stronger as the TMC versus any one of those member institutions or entities alone.”
This model is very similar to what he experienced when working in Major League Baseball (MLB), where off the field, teams collaborate quite a bit. “You might have marketing execs from several teams get together to talk about best practices and programs that work, or HR groups that get together and talk, so it was a collaboration that made MLB stronger as an entire organization.”
Advisory Council Revamp
One of the first things Stokes did upon arrival to TMC was meet with some of his peer groups to find out where the HR Advisory Council was helpful and where it was lacking. He found it needed to be a bit more “boots on the ground,” so he made it more inclusive than exclusive, inviting not only SVPs and upper-level executives but individuals across all levels of the organization. Attendance and activity increased, as well as “our proactive approach to initiatives.”
One initiative that worked very well was called Red, White and You, and it focused on hiring veterans. Stokes chalks its success up to the fact that it was very hands on, with a specific plan and a desired outcome.
Learning from this, he has taken the HR Advisory Council from a conceptual, theoretical type of group to something collaborative that forms programs and initiatives. Going forward, the team has a few big recruiting initiatives they are going to take nationally, not just locally—an idea that came from a staff member at one of TMC’s member institutions.
Empowering & Engaging the Team
Stokes stresses the importance of professional development, especially as an aspect of change management. “I think the advantage to promoting professional development during a change is a subtle way of communicating to staff members that they’re valued and that they’re important,” he said. Because one’s roles and responsibilities can change, “you’ve got to leverage yourself or position yourself so you can be a cog in the wheel.” This way people can be a part of the team going forward, instead of being replaced.
During his time at Warner Bros., Stokes learned ways to create an engaged team from Kiko Washington. “It was the first time in my career that I got to work really closely with someone on his level,” Stokes said. “What I learned form him had a lot to do with his thoughtfulness as he approached leadership. He was very engaging and had an open-door policy that he reinforced by not only having people come to his office, but going to other people’s offices to discuss what they were working on.” Stokes says everyone knew Washington was very approachable, and he has tried to emulate that as a leader.
Stokes makes a point of focusing on his team and remembering they are more successful as a group than as individuals. “I think it starts with always asking people what they think,” he said. “I worked with someone very early on in my career who said he felt ‘What do you think?’ were some of the most important words a leader could ask.”
Another thing Stokes tries to keep in mind as a leader is to make sure credit is placed where credit is due. “If someone on the team comes up with a great idea or launches a program or is successful in a particular recruitment effort or whatever the case may be, I make sure that I tangibly give them credit so they realize that I appreciate and respect their performance,” he explained.
As a way of keeping collaboration at the forefront, one of Stokes’ catchphrases is “one team.” He’ll often say it or add it to the end of emails as “a constant reinforcement of the concept that we are a team, and that we can be successful if we all work together.”♦
From ‘Camera Nerd’ to Compiling Company Collateral
Stokes loves photography, and was able to bring that hobby to work during his time with the Houston Astros.
“I never really realized I was so enamored with it until the last couple years that I was working with the Astros,” he said. “I’ve been taking photographs since I was in high school, and I’ve always been kind of that nerd with a camera in his pocket. I’ve just always enjoyed capturing images, more for the memories’ sake than anything else. You look at a picture and it evokes a memory, an emotional feeling of what was going on at that time.”
“When I was working with the Astros, I had an opportunity to see a whole different range of things on the field and off the field—events and interesting people and so forth. And probably the first time I had an opportunity to use my camera in a different way was when the Astros went to the World Series in 2005. I took my camera and basically documented the entire thing—all the series games, the travel and everything associated with it—because I had insider access. It exposed me to a whole different element of photography that I hadn’t thought about or planned for, it just kind of happened organically.”
“The club was great about it and gave me a lot of opportunities, and actually even asked me to photograph events on occasion. We would have concerts at Minute Maid Park, and during that time I was actually able to take a lot of photographs of things I’d never planned for or anticipated.”
“I also decided to start taking photographs of employees just being employees, just having fun and doing things, so I would take my camera to employee events. For example, we did a Habitat for Humanity build and I took a ton of photographs of employees working at this event on behalf of the organization, and then we utilized those photographs in our monthly employee newsletter.”
“We had very robust internship program, so I would take tons of photos of the interns and then we would use them in our marketing collateral as we went to schools and presented the team’s internship program. We were able to use those photos as kind of a ‘the life of an Astros intern’ or ‘day in the life of an Astros employee,’ so I think ultimately it ended up being a great communication tool and employee relations tool, which was kind of an unintended consequence of me just being a camera nerd.”
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