High Touch Human Resources

Jill Yarberry-Laybourn Executive Features, Human Resources Leave a Comment

Tracey McKenzie, Chief Human Resources Officer at Harsco Corporation, discusses the importance of building a high touch HR organization and the impact it has on the bottom line

“The outback “conjures up images of never-ending vistas and isolated farms, of fiery soil and unique characters.  It was that, off-the-grid, intrepid upbringing in Australia that guided Tracey McKenzie, Chief Human Resources Officer at Harsco Corporation, on the pathway to becoming a global businesswoman. She has blazed her way across the world with companies like JLG Industries whose employees are located in 26 countries, to Danaher Motion whose workforce is on four different continents, and most recently, Harsco, a global industrial company that employs 12,000 people in some 35 countries.  Instead of encouraging her to stay in her comfort zone, her “outback” upbringing lead to a desire to see and experience the world. Likewise, it demonstrated the importance of community and the need for self-sufficiency, and it also inspired a global sensibility that has served her well.

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Island Influences

“Australians grow up on an island in the middle of nowhere.  We all understand from a very early age that the world isn’t coming to us; we have to go to the world.”  And go she did.  She thought as a young girl, she would go into an artistic field.  She laughs, “Unfortunately, I thought I was more artistic than I really was.”  Instead, McKenzie went into business and admits that she was heavily influenced by everything around her.  “I grew up on a farm, and we ran our own business. We milked our own cows, made our own butter. We grew up 30 miles from anywhere, so we learned self-sufficiency early on.”  McKenzie also took from that upbringing the realization that “you have to take care of yourself, your family, and the people around you.  There was a sense of community.”  Human resources in a nutshell.

Harsco_Tracey_001Baptism of Fire

“I always knew I was going to do something more; I just didn’t know what more meant.”  McKenzie was right.  During finals at University, she and other students were offered an opportunity to apply and complete an internship.  While most students opted for more study time, McKenzie thought it was important to “offset academics with experience.”  She was the first person interviewed and quickly hired.  That internship not only lead to a permanent job, it lead to a fast-track management program. “Every six months, I was sent to a new business, new assignment.  It was a baptism of fire. But, you know what, it was a fantastic learning ground.”  They eventually allowed her to develop the HR component of a bid to build ships. “We won… … a 1.2 billion dollar project.” Not bad, for her first job out of college. And, now, McKenzie advises professionals to look for such opportunities; “You can’t manufacture experience.”

While McKenzie had completed a business degree at University (with a personnel management emphasis), it hasn’t stop her from reaching the top of the Human Resource ladder. Part of that success can be attributed to early lessons she learned as a professional services provider with her own business.  “The criticality of customer expectations being met and exceeded was born out of that experience, and it has served me well.  If you don’t serve your customer, you don’t succeed.”

High Touch Mentality

That customer service sensibility is one of the reasons she is so accomplished in helping companies “grow and win.”  At Harsco, “they were looking for operational executives, and that was what I was looking for.  You can’t just be a person at a desk; I am very hands-on and involved.  …I want to stay in touch with my employees.”  McKenzie takes staying in touch to a new level and has even given her approach a name, ‘high touch.’  “You can’t know your audience by sitting in an office.  Not being high-touch is such a lost opportunity.”  That high touch approach is used with, not only her team, but all levels of the work force because she recognizes that a company’s “greatest commodity is its people. You must care. You must be involved.”  She adds that it is equally important to care not just for salaried employees but those in production as well.  “In manufacturing, it is always about the people on the floor. Engage at all levels.” To stay involved, McKenzie often has to travel to the many countries where the Harsco team members are located and is constantly interacting and engaging her workforce.  “People are happy to tell you what makes them happy-there are not many mysteries-someone just needs to ask.”

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Helping the Bottom Line

McKenzie’s ability to transform and improve the HR function within a number of companies, can also be attributed to her recognition of HR’s need to have a business approach and global agility.  “We (HR) have to be able to contribute to the bottom line.  We need to be business people that happen to specialize in HR.   …We need to make decisions in a holistic and thoughtful way that appreciates global perspectives and core business needs.”  When it comes to managing the diversity that must exist in a corporation that spans 35 countries, McKenzie says the most important thing is respect–”respecting their culture, their cultural needs.”  To make sure that global understanding is a priority, she first makes sure that her leadership team is diverse.  Moreover, McKenzie ensures that Harsco’s workforce has a “multidimensional perspective” by “looking at everything–social, political, labor practices…”not to mention the cultural norms.  McKenzie enlists the help of RW3, a company of experts in international HR, who have created specialized learning models to assist corporations in developing cultural understandings and assessing areas of need.  The assessments, “help us understand where we are going to be similar… …and maybe helps us understand some cultural differences that might make communication difficult.  It enhances our awareness and understanding of cultural differences.”

Along with cultural understanding, McKenzie strongly believes that being globally agile is an essential part of helping the business meet its goals.  She defines global agility, as the ability to effectively deploy resources around the world.  “Do you have the right people?  Do you have the right people trained?  Are they in the right location with the right experience?  If not, what do you plan to do to get them there?”

From China to Brazil, from kangaroos and empty highways to urban jungles, Tracey McKenzie is well-suited for any environment, any culture, and any situation.  And simply put, McKenzie is a “trailblazer.” like the red dust storms that often blanket the “outback,” she is a force to be reckoned with in the Human Resource arena. ♦


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Good managers can evolve; great ones are innate

“Great managers, I suspect, are born. Good managers can evolve; great ones are innate.”  According to McKenzie, part of what helps elevate or foster greatness is “knowing what greatness looks like and replicating it.”  Likewise, she believes that setting and managing expectations as well as demonstrating to your team what success looks like is critical.  Other criteria, “be decent, passionate, and humble!  People deserve our passion.”

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