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Kūlia I Ka Nuu: Sarah Guay at HEMIC Focusing on the Humanity in Human Resources

Posted Tuesday, August 13, 2019 6:28 am

This column of Kūlia i Ka Nuʻu features Sarah Guay, Vice President of Human Resources at Hawaii Employers’ Mutual Insurance Company (HEMIC).  Sarah is keenly aware of the importance of the operational and transactional side of HR.  Her passion, however, lies in cultivating the humanness in human resources through understanding people’s different needs and motivations, individualizing the employee experience, and ensuring that employees feel valued for the skills and knowledge they contribute.

How would you describe your current role at HEMIC?

My role at HEMIC is really exciting.  The opportunity to work for a CEO who fundamentally understands that people play a critical role in the growth and evolution of the company is every HR leader’s dream.

HEMIC has been serving Hawaii’s businesses for over 20 years in a relatively stable industry. We’ve recently launched our TDI subsidiary, which puts us into kind of this cool, almost start-up phase, but built on a mature foundation with incredible employees who’ve been loyal to the company for a long time.  So my role is to grow a strategic HR function focused on strong talent management, leadership development and an incredible employee experience.  All the “frosting on the cake” stuff – but the cake is a really stable, strong cake.  It’s an amazing opportunity – I love it.

Can you share some programs you’re working on at HEMIC?

First, we’re transforming the way we think about performance management.  This is the last year we are going to do formal, annual performance appraisals.  We are shifting to ongoing performance discussions, which include monthly one-on-ones and quarterly goal check-ins.  It’s exciting to help our managers see themselves as coaches – balancing performance feedback on a short-cycle basis with longer term goal setting to help drive the business forward.

We’re also rolling out two development programs to grow our leadership capacity.  We want to support our middle managers with the essential “blocking and tackling” skills needed to lead a team because I genuinely believe middle management plays a pivotal role in driving engagement and employee connection.  So we’re meeting all of our managers monthly to ensure they have the training and support needed to be outstanding coaches and managers.  In addition to building great managers, we are also piloting a more structured leadership development program designed to grow our next line of senior leaders.  This curriculum is focused on the industry acumen, financial skills, and leadership fundamentals needed for senior level leadership.

Do you focus solely on the strategic/organizational development side of HR?

Organizational development is where my passion is.  I believe strongly that the issues addressed in OD work (change management, strategic planning, conflict resolution) are critical to ensure sustainable, long-term business success.  However, you can’t overlook the operational side of HR.  The honest truth is no employee cares about their growth and development, career pathing, or engagement levels if their paycheck isn’t accurate or they take their kid to the hospital in the middle of the night and their health coverage isn’t correct.  The strong operational HR is non-negotiable.  So while I’m not especially good at (and don’t particularly enjoy) the operational side of HR, I’ve developed a huge appreciation for those who do!

Over the last 3-5 years, there has been so much talk in the HR profession about the strategic role of HR that some may have inadvertently sent a devaluing message to the operational/transactional side of the HR house.  I see recent graduates or early-career HR folks who don’t think the operational skills are important or haven’t learned them because they’re so focused on the strategic side.  The strongest HR functions are going to have a strong balance of both the operational side and the strategic perspective.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

What is most rewarding is seeing individuals grow professionally, stretch themselves and achieve more than they believed they could when they started with us.  This requires strong leaders who know the people they work with, have the courage to delegate and empower their people to do important work and stand back and watch the magic happen!  I love watching that process unfold . . . there’s something really cool about the exponential impact that great managers can have.

What is the most challenging part of your job?

I mentioned that this is a unique opportunity at HEMIC because we’re growing and we have a very strong, experienced workforce that’s been with us for a long time.  One of the most challenging things for us is to balance the needs of a tenured, experienced demographic with a less experienced, earlier-career workforce.  Both of those audiences have very different needs and motivations for working, but at the end of the day both need to feel that they matter to our organization and have an opportunity to contribute to our success.

A recent example is our implementation of the Microsoft Teams application.  One set of employees shared with me recently that they’re struggling with the chat feature of Teams – they find message pop-ups distracting and feel the abbreviated nature of instant messages hard to digest.  Less than 10 minutes later, I was riding in the elevator with an employee who recently joined us straight out of college who shared how excited they were about the chat feature in Teams and how easily they were able to collaborate with their teammates on a recent project.  That’s a real and recent example of the challenges of balancing both of those experiences and perspectives in our workforce – it can be challenging.

How do you balance the different needs and motivations of people who have different experiences and perspectives?

We work to individualize the employee experience as much as possible.  For example, we’re designing a benefits strategy that flexes to employee needs.  So an employee who is preparing for retirement in a few years is able to take advantage of programs that gives employees as much flexibility as possible.  For example, how can you build something that works for people whose biggest focus is planning for retirement while also providing more cash in hand for those earlier in their careers with more demands on their monthly cash flow?  If you have the same number of benefits dollars, how can you build a system that provides meaningful benefit choices for their unique needs?

You also look for opportunities to bring together groups of people who don’t interact naturally and encourage those “collisions.”  Whether formally through collaborative projects and cross-functional committees, or less formally through breakrooms and employee events, bringing people together is important.  Having these individuals work together to talk about the value and the strengths of each group – whether it’s men, women, millennials, or boomers – is important.  And try to avoid some of those labels; I talk about it as a more tenured workforce and earlier-in-their career workforce because so many of those labels bring with them judgments.

What is the most important leadership lesson you have learned and how has it shaped you into becoming the person you are today?

While it’s important to know your strengths and own them, as a leader, it’s even more important to know the things you’re not good at and surround yourself with people who are good at those things.  The higher you go, the harder it is to get honest feedback about what you’re good at and where you’re not so good . . . find folks who will give you that honest feedback and LISTEN when it’s given.

For a lot of us HR leaders who came up through the ranks during this focus on the strategic seat, we have to balance ourselves with strong tacticians who can get the operational work done.  When I hired my “right arm,” I interviewed some great candidates, but it took me a while to find the right person.  I needed someone who loves benefits administration and is excited about open enrollment.  Those are not my strengths, so I needed someone who could master the operational aspect.  I was so fortunate to find someone who is awesome at it and we make a great team.

What do you think makes someone a good manager?

Managers have to genuinely like people.  Often managers are promoted into their seat because they were the best widget maker – the fastest, most efficient widget makers get bumped up in the hopes they’ll rub off on others to increase everyone’s output.  But the fact of the matter is, in order to lead people, to ensure they’re inspired to do their best work, you have to care about them, not just care about the widgets.  Don’t promote people to a management role where they have the obligation of taking care of people if they don’t like people.  To manage and lead people, you have to care; it’s non-negotiable.  That doesn’t mean you don’t hold people accountable for results.  A good manager cares enough to see others’ potential and hold them accountable for bringing their best to work every day.

What are your thoughts on work-life balance?

When I was growing up, we camped a lot and we had this old rusty green propane stove we inherited from my grandparents.  You would take one propane bottle and screw it on and it lit up both burners.  If you turned up the gas, the burner closest to the propane burned hot, but the burner farther away would burn out.  You could not have both burners running on high.  To me, that’s the perfect analogy for work-life balance – there’s no such thing.  You’re running a stove with multiple burners – whether it’s your wife burner, your work burner, your mom burner, your sister burner, your church burner, whatever it is, those burners simply cannot all run at high.

So the trick is to be mindful of the season you’re in – what needs to burn high right now – and recognize other things are going to have to burn lower for a while.

If you had to give a presentation to a group of HR practitioners next week, what are you going to talk about and why? 

Our role as human resources executives is to guard the humanness of the workplace.  Our peers have accountability for bringing the financial perspective, or the sales strategy, or the technology angle – we are responsible for the human viewpoint.  We know high levels of engagement are going to drive productivity.  We need to connect the dots between results and the people who drive them.  While we continue to push accountability for business performance, we as HR leaders need to be the ones protecting the humanness in that discussion.

My current challenge around individuality is an example of that.  It’s remembering that at the end of the day, we are an organization made up of people.  Our people differentiate us from everyone else.  Why wouldn’t we pour our resources into that asset?  Why wouldn’t we make sure that this is a place where they can bring all their skills and talents and grow and nurture that so we can get the best business results?  That’s the perspective that I think we, as HR leaders, have to continue to bring to the table.  It’s our obligation to continue to make sure that the humanity of human resources remains at the table.

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