HR: Your Secret Strategic Weapon
Let’s be honest: Many executives don’t put much stock in the human-resources position. "There are a lot of CEOs who just see the financial goal and consider HR a nuisance and an expense," says Macy Fecto, senior vice president of human resources at Access Intelligence.
That attitude can be attributed in part to the fact that most publishing executives don’t have much experience in that area. "Most CEOs grow up in marketing and finance and HR people haven’t filtered into that role," says an HR manager at a major b-to-b publisher. "They fall back into whatever their original skill set was. In publishing, all you have is people. You’re at the whim of having great content experts, great sales experts, great designers. Why publishing is lagging in understanding that, and using it as a strategic weapon, blows me away."
From managing smooth transitions for a new acquisition to assessing a company’s strengths and weaknesses in the context of the CEO’s goals, the HR director should be a critical part of the executive team."It is the executive team that sets strategy, so human resources is part of the strategic discussion," says Clay Hall, CEO of enthusiast publisher Aspire Media. "At Aspire, the vice president of human resources is charged with a difficult right brain/left brain challenge. She is in charge of benefit planning and administration; organizational effectiveness; intra-company communication; recruiting; certain aspects of acquisition due diligence; training; and the most important part of acquisition integration;the human part."
The HR executive needs to know the business of publishing, not just the administration of benefits. "The key to having an effect is being a partner in the business. I partner with my CEO as much as he does with the CFO in terms of the direction of the company," says Fecto. "There’s a nice tension between putting on the financial hat and the HR hat, which is usually seen as this warm and fuzzy position where you just take care of the employees. HR in media is done best by someone who’s a media professional. I insist that my people have an in-depth understanding of the business."
Match Training To Goals
A good HR director makes sure training serves a specific agenda, not general themes. "Every HR department fights for and hopefully gets a training budget, but you can use it passively or actively," says Fecto. "I’m looking at what the CEO’s goals are, and right now that’s increasing revenue and profit on the e-side. It’s been hard to steer people that way since salespeople see print having greater revenue than online. There is a lot of handholding, networking and dinners you may have to do with your internal staff to get that buy-in."
Access Intelligence teamed with SRI Consulting on a program that trained staffers on how to be sellers. "It was a very expensive program, but it’s paid off well for us," says Fecto. "You need to actively use your training dollars to reach those goals. I think there’s a tendency to passively use your training by saying, ﾑWe need time management,’ or just falling back on the same old sales training."
And while the CEO may have an idea on where he or she would like to take the company, the HR director can help determine whether that plan is feasible, and if the resources exist to accomplish it.
"You need to figure out what strengths your company has," says a b-to-b HR director. "The HR person can ask those strategic questions: What are our strengths, how do we want to capitalize on that, what do our customers view us as? Are we about price, quality or total solutions? If they start asking those questions and get different answers from different executives, you’ve got a problem."
Keeping Talent in a Changing Marketplace
As publishers train their employees to work in both new media and traditional media, those same employees are becoming more attractive to online-only media companies. "We can replace jobs that typically pay $50,000 and under pretty easily;although that’s getting harder," says one b-to-b HR executive. "But when it comes to the Web people and the IT people, we do our best to try to keep them. We don’t want to replace them every five minutes."
Offering employees a sense of "ownership" can get them to buy into the CEO’s vision of strategic direction. "Today we see people rise on a dual career path that’s not the same path the print product once offered," says Fecto. "You need to have the ability to grow their career. There may be someone who hasn’t had a sales territory, but it turns out they’re tremendously talented selling on the Web. That’s how I’ve tackled retention;recognizing those bright spots among the staff, even if its not the traditional career path, so we can keep people challenged."
Publishing growth today is often driven by acquisition and the HR department can be key to determining whether your deal is a success or not.
"One of the most important things our HR team does is work with us when we acquire magazines," says Dan Galpern, chief operating officer at CurtCo Media Labs. "Not only from a process standpoint, but more importantly from a cultural standpoint. Our HR team is integral to making it happen."
Andy Goodenough, CEO of Highline Media, says HR helped make the difference in his acquisition of National Underwriter. "This was a company with strong brands but the employees had kind of an inferiority complex," says Goodenough, who added that prior to the acquisition, National Underwriter’s revenue had been declining about four or five percent per year. "The previous HR director was more like a benefits administrator. The employees wanted to be led, they wanted someone to come in and restore the luster to these great brands."
Goodenough recruited Kathy Schneider from F+W Publications to oversee the HR effort. "With Kathy’s help, we reinvigorated the culture and got the people to believe in themselves again," says Goodenough, who adds that since the acquisition, National Underwriter has grown about 7 percent organically and 26 percent through additional acquisitions.
And as job definitions change, HR needs to determine whether the publisher has adequate resources and if not, how to plug those holes. "Day to day, HR needs to think about where we have needs immediately and how to fill them," says Galpern. "A year ago, our events business was coming alive but our marketing teams were producing the events by themselves, and that was putting a strain on their ability to do that and everything else they were required to do. With HR as part of that, we went out to find the best people."