Executive Insight: Q&A with Randy Patterson, Chief Human Resources Officer for BlueLinx

Gerald Mathews Executive Features, Human Resources Leave a Comment

Randy took his early passion for talent management to build a career in HR. He discusses how he brought that enthusiasm to BlueLinx to help the company attract younger talent and work through change management.

Forefront Magazine: Your advice to young professionals is to explore yourself as a person and find what you love and turn that into a career. What did you love about the HR profession and how you have taken your own advice to lead you down a career in HR?

Randy Patterson: I learned early in my career (at the young age of 19) that everyone can bring something special to their organization. I personally discovered while working for a fast growing movie theater chain that I had a passion and innate ability for creating processes to recruit, assess, and lead front-line talent in a way that made the business run better. I learned quickly that this ability didn’t come naturally to most leaders and was often the hardest competency for them to master. I also realized that almost every strategic or operational problem an organization faces seems to always boil down to a people challenge. Therefore, I knew I could have a challenging and sustainable career by simply helping leaders and companies better manage their talent, and thus, my career in HR was born.

FM: You spent time working with organizations like Home Depot, SunTrust, and Recall which gave you exposure to different industries and also provided you with different HR experiences. What were some of the key takeaways from each role that helped prepare you for your current role with BlueLinx leading an HR organization?

RP: Home Depot developed my appreciation for the importance of your front-line associates and operationalizing your company value system in a decentralized service delivery model. SunTrust showed me how to effectively drive an HR transformation for a business in a highly competitive and mature industry. Recall taught me how to think like an entrepreneur and develop an HR team that could be nimble, resourceful and assertive. All in all, I feel that my current role with BlueLinx is the perfect blend of my different industry experiences from Home Depot (building materials), SunTrust (business-to-business banking), and Recall (warehouse and logistics). In other words, package them together and you have a building materials distributor.

FM: What did your experience working internationally with Recall teach you about the importance of earning credibility and respect and how did you go about doing that by listening and allowing people to teach you?

RP: I’ve experienced that one of the quickest ways to build a relationship with a diverse group of people is through the two-way sharing of knowledge. In my international leadership role for Europe, my individual country HR leaders were able to share their nuances in HR management practices and law with me. I was then able to compile this knowledge and find ways that everyone could help each other. I found that despite the differences in culture (across the Atlantic or within Europe), many of our HR challenges and solutions were very similar. I then spent time analyzing each HR leader’s strengths and enabled them to “captain” a particular HR function across the region. Not only did this help improve each country’s performance, it helped to develop each of our HR leaders across a geographically dispersed territory.

We have used a similar approach here at BlueLinx with engaging and developing associates across multiple generations. We are faced with the business imperative of helping our multi-generational staff to effectively exchange knowledge with each other. This often includes the skipping of one or more generations in the transfer of knowledge or experience. For example, baby boomers, with knowledge and experience with product offerings and customer relationships, will share knowledge with millennials, who bring new approaches and ideas for leveraging technology and social media. At the end of the day, both of these generations simply make the other better.

When you joined BlueLinx it was at the time when the organization had just brought on a new CEO who knew that talent management was important and people management was a priority. Can you talk about the evolution that has taken place in HR to focus more on strategy and talent management and why was this so important in your industry where the talent pool was aging?

RP: We started with the business strategy, which calls for the availability of ready and capable talent to drive our business over the next decade. We then conducted multiple assessments of the pipeline of talent and its readiness against our forecasted talent needs. The need for bench strength quickly elevated as one of the most critical factors to our success as many of our associates will approach retirement age in the next 10 years.

We have since invested in several strategies and programs aimed at improving our talent management practices and building our bench. We have provided additional skills training to 100 of our key sales associates (e.g. selling skills), conducted multiple talent and succession planning reviews with our leadership teams, launched a targeted leadership development program for some of our key leaders, refreshed individual development plans and process, and created multiple affinity groups including women in leadership and young professionals. Although I have personally experienced great success with alumni groups helping to bridge the gaps between generations, we have yet to deploy that tactic here at BlueLinx.

All in all, we recognize there is no magic bullet for solving our talent needs, but rather a strategic array of programs and processes that help us to slowly (but surely) chip away at our needs and create a culture of effective talent management.

How do you go about making your industry more appealing to younger professionals to build a pipeline of talent that reaches outside of the industry?

RP: First off, I must say that selling our careers to young professionals is more than just a hobby, it is a business imperative for us as we look to build a supply of talent we will need for the next 10 plus years of our growth.

We started by focusing on learning more about our existing millennial workforce by starting a young professionals group within the organization. This group was provided with an early opportunity to discuss the business directly with our CEO. Our CEO took the time to truly listen to their concerns and answer their questions, reinforcing their importance in the future of our organization.

We then focused on reinventing and communicating our values, which include continuous improvement, teamwork and integrity. We targeted in on teamwork and asked our associates to help us direct our company-wide volunteer efforts towards two themes beginning in 2015. Our associates, not our executive team or leaders, selected housing and health as our two priorities. Our associates even helped identify two non-profit partners in our home city of Atlanta, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and the Atlanta Community ToolBank.

Lastly, we have focused on talent management processes. This includes sharing with younger professionals how our industry has produced so many great careers, with many of our successful senior leaders starting their careers in front-line roles, such as sales associates. We have found that the potential for upward mobility, opportunities to learn, and challenging roles really resonated with our millennial job seekers.

We also spent some time discussing the change management aspect and you talked about the fact that the HR team had limited experience with HR transformations. How did you go about creating a vision and connecting people to that vision so that they could see where things were going?

RP: I initially used the analogy of building or renovating a house when selling the need (and the process) for an HR transformation. I believe this analogy conveys a compelling vision, even if you aren’t a building materials distribution company. The full HR team then worked together to develop a roadmap for our transformation over the next 3 years that focused on building a strong foundation with the goal of reaching a level of excellence in several critical areas by the year 2017. Our foundation started with the structure of the HR team and its alignment to the work that was needed, realizing the structure would need to change throughout our transformation. This included the need to serve as strong subject experts, advisors, change agents, and culture champions. We then focused on making sure we had the systems we needed to manage our HR data and processes, so we selected Ultimate software and implemented its core systems within the next 6 months. We are now focused on improving and enhancing several key HR processes, including our HR business partner model, talent acquisition engine, and our talent management and development programs.

How did you help your team become more strategic and collaborative and how has HR become more a business partner to the organization?

RP: We first needed to take a step back and define what it means to be strategic, and why HR functions need an HR strategy. For example, you often can’t make significant improvements to service levels if you are constantly reacting to what is right in front of you. We spent time talking about the need to listen and learn first, and building our strategic plan and taking action second. We then identified 5 key roles we would serve for the business over the next few years. These roles included talent architects, business strategists, capability enablers, performance assessors, and workforce planners. Although we had read of dozens of different strategic roles HR could play, these were the most aligned with the needs of our business.

Most recently, our HR team took a leadership role in creating the organization’s first corporate support survey. This survey helped BlueLinx assess the effectiveness of our company’s corporate functional departments (not just the HR department) around 5 key expectations and to help the full organization to improve in each of these 5 areas. These 5 areas included functional knowledge and expertise, team attitude, effective communications, responsiveness, and continuous improvement and innovation.

Another part of the transformation was role clarity and prioritization. Why are these key and how did you work with your team to assess their skills and talents to get them into the right roles?  

RP: Our HR team was accustomed to everyone pitching in and doing what was necessary to get the job done. Unfortunately, this resulted in a significant overlap in responsibilities and a lack of matching up job responsibilities with the personal passions and strengths of our team. We started with building the right initial HR structure for our first year of transformation, a blend of the traditional HRBP, COE (Center of Excellence/Expertise), and shared services model, and then worked to best match our current and new HR associates to the right roles. However, we had to be careful we remained nimble and that we didn’t create gaps where there used to be overlap. We also had to be certain that we didn’t create a rigid structure that wouldn’t allow us to flex and evolve throughout our multi-year transformation as we assessed our progress and learned more about the evolving needs of our business.

The second aspect of the transformation is prioritization. We are currently one year into our three year HR transformation. We have initially focused on foundational needs such as systems, reporting, and recruiting during our first year. Despite the temptation, we have sequenced other HR processes and programs, such as engagement surveys, 360 assessments, and broader leadership development programs, for years two and three. By getting the basics right first, we essentially avoid the need to have a “back to basics” strategy down the road that typically slows down or derails HR’s transformation.

How do you evaluate emotional intelligence and the ability to be a change agent?

RP: I see emotional intelligence as one of the top competencies the business looks to HR to lead by example. The HR team often serves to calm any storms in the business as stress and chaos can often lead to poor decision making and mistakes by our associates. I spend as much one-on-one time as possible with each member of the HR team to help establish their current emotional intelligence levels and to help them to grow through tackling stressful or challenging situations in the business.

As for their ability to serve as a change agent, in addition to the ability to establish general credibility for their functional expertise, I look for my HR associates to persuade and influence others when needed. No matter how good you are at identifying a vision and assessing a gap (i.e. a need for change), it’s all for nothing if you can’t persuade others to follow your advice or vision.

Comments, thoughts, feedback?