Listening to Her Inner Voice

Aine Cryts Executive Features, Human Resources Leave a Comment

By following her intuition and leaning on her natural talents Shelley Tam found a career in human resources and a home as CHRO for Opus Bank

“Picture a twenty-something professional with all her worldly possessions packed in a trailer and on her way to another country, only to be denied a work visa at the border,” says Shelley Tam, today Chief Human Resources Officer at Irvine, CA-based Opus Bank.

Tam had done all of her research: she had secured a job and had all the right paperwork lined up for her work visa. The only problem was the border official had never dealt with her particular situation before, and he wasn’t going to let her into the United States from Canada as a result. At the mercy of a U.S. border official, Tam knew she had to do some quick thinking.

Tam not only knows how to think quickly, she also knows when to listen to her inner voice which told her to drive to another border crossing about three hours away. She crossed the U.S. border there, with her approved work visa in hand.

A career in HR?

Like many in HR today, Tam didn’t have the straightest career path. When she was in college, where she majored in Chemistry, HR was synonymous with personnel. She determined that a career in the sciences wouldn’t be for her after spending two summers interning at both a chemical waste site and an oil and gas refinery. She discovered during these internships that she would need a PhD in order to do the really interesting research.

”I had clarity of vision and knew I had no interest in pursuing a PhD in Chemistry,” says Tam, who also discovered that she didn’t like spending more than seven hours alone each day in a lab environment. She paid attention to these insights and focused on graduating and securing a job post-graduation.

That’s what led her to a part-time job with CNC, an IT recruiting firm, which was then expanding its reach in Canada. “I’m pretty social, and I can strike up a conversation with just about anybody,” says Tam, who soon found herself attending job fairs on behalf of the IT recruiting firm. “Helping people land a dream job, that appealed to me,” she says. It turns out that her timing was perfect, too; she graduated just as the Internet was really taking off, which meant great opportunities for the IT professionals she recruited.

The team at CNC saw promise in Tam and offered her a full-time job as a recruiter. She accepted, and then spent a week of intensive training at their corporate offices where she learned recruiting skills that she uses in her job today.


Continuing to listen to her inner voice

From there, Tam grew her career to focus on the broader world of HR. During this time, she worked for a variety of organizations, including professional services, utility providers and non-profits. After a few years in the non-profit world, she accepted an HR role at Indymac. That was in 2006, when the country was at the height of the mortgage market. During that time, Indymac experienced unparalleled growth. Tam was able to help grow the HR function as the company entered new markets and she loved it.

“Although Indymac was a large company with 12,000 employees at its height, I was impressed with the company’s entrepreneurial spirit and how quickly we could change our strategy given market factors,” says Tam. As change swept the housing market a few years later, Indymac taken over by regulators and then the assets sold to investors. Tam sought again the type of culture she had found at Indymac, one where initiative was rewarded and encouraged.

She found that culture at Opus Bank, but she was at first hesitant because the company’s headquarters is a 45-mile drive from her home. Once she heard Chairman, CEO, and President Stephen Gordon’s vision for growing the company based on employees taking entrepreneurial initiative in a true meritocracy, she felt like she was “coming home.”

Her advice: Listen to your inner voice

“You spend so much time at work. You’re often more engaged at work than you are at home. And if you’re not working within a culture that you resonate with, it just becomes a job,” says Tam.

She advises job seekers to learn about a company’s culture by checking out the leadership team’s LinkedIn biographies; the “nuggets” they provide in their online profiles often signal the type of culture they encourage at their companies. Getting the “real deal” from connections working at the company is also important, as are the questions candidates ask during the interview process. Then she encourages job candidates to listen to their inner voice for direction.

“I always tell candidates: You’re interviewing the company as well. It’s so competitive. That means that companies also need to provide an attractive value proposition. It’s the responsibility of hiring managers to tell candidates how interesting the work is, the impact of the work, and the career path it holds,” says Tam. ♦


HR: Bridging the gap between employee productivity and strategic goals

“It used to be that HR was about intake and outtake: processing new hires, getting people on benefits, processing terminations,” says Tam, who contrasts that with the HR world of today. “These days, the HR team needs to take a numbers-oriented, analytical approach to the value employees bring to the organization.”

“As organizations are becoming more sophisticated and the marketplace more competitive, managing the people strategy is of utmost importance as the cost of employees and benefits are two of the business’ greatest operating expenses,” she says. “You need to manage your human capital properly. Hiring and retaining the right people can make the difference between a company that’s able to continue on their growth trajectory or become unable to change with the market and even become a target for acquisition.”

Tam’s advice for HR professionals: Don’t just focus on the administrative aspect of what you’re doing; you don’t get gold medals for managing daily HR tasks well. HR can bridge the gap between employee productivity and the achievement of strategic goals, help employees hit the ground running, especially in sales, and help employees understand how they contribute to the company’s growth and success. And HR can help sell the firm, the impact of the work and the prospective career path.

HR at Opus

When I arrived at Opus, given how quickly the company has grown and the future anticipated growth, it was clear that there were opportunities for HR to help build an infrastructure to support Opus Bank’s growth trajectory and goals. At the time I joined the organization, the HR department consisted of seven other individuals operating in a generalist capacity. Since then, I’ve been able to reorganize our talent to provide expertise in the verticals within an HR function and add on subject matter experts where needed. We’ve been focused on streamlining our processes while leveraging technology, providing improved client service to our team members and partnering with executives to help them manage their human capital. There’s also been a number of interesting projects including M&As.

As an HR leader, the organization looks to me to drive the strategies to effectively manage our human capital. The great thing about this field and as the HR leader is this can encompass any HR vertical or topic on a daily basis. On one day, my focus may be the overall benefits strategy and cost containment. On another, I may be developing and deploying an internship program and partnering with local schools. Every day is different and I am able to work on a variety of projects to continue to drive our strategy and growth. The greatest challenge is in quantifying our contributions in a measurable and impactful fashion which is the part of the job I find most interesting and fun. I’m all about data and looking at various metrics to see what works and what doesn’t. Analyzing our recruiting metrics or turnover drivers allow us to fine tune our methods in attracting and retaining our talent.

Shelley's Key Partners:
Employers Unity (Verifications of Employment & UI Claims) | ESIQ (Background checks) | Willis Group (Benefits Broker)

Aine Cryts

Writer at Forefront Magazine
Aine (“ONya”) Cryts is a freelance writer for Forefront Magazine. A political scientist by education, she’s a marketing consultant and freelance writer/editor by trade. Aine has served as a marketing director at a number of software companies in the Greater Boston area. A former volunteer tour guide and a current long-distance runner, she loves Boston and is an enduring fan of all of its sports teams.

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