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Article by: John Bernatovicz — View more articles by John Bernatovicz

Posted on: November 5, 2020

HR Like a Boss: John Gallagher


It's a bit of John vs. John in this episode of HR Like a Boss. Join John Bernatovicz as he interviews John Gallagher. You'll find insights about financial literacy, how to be involved with leadership, and why people dislike HR.

JOHN BERNATOVICZ: How would you describe the purpose of Human Resources?

JOHN GALLAGHER: I don't want to knock traditional HR, but that's the bad rep. You're managing benefits programs, payroll, and you're responsible for many things in the organization that involve the companies' deepest resource: people. HR is not traditionally trusted with the financial resources of the company because that's a deep-rooted business function. Anything that impacts a major financial area of the business. You don't understand trends. You have to be integrated in all business lines to understand that stuff and know how it applies. I see that side of HR, where we're in a unique position to be involved in every aspect of the business. If you look at it from a business standpoint and understand who you work for and what you're doing, and where you're going then it allows you to help the company make sound decisions for the people side of the business. 

BERNATOVICZ: How do you describe success in what you do? 

GALLAGHER: There are big things that HR is responsible for that has a massive financial impact. If you are into those details, that is a direct measure. You have the ability to save the company a lot of money and make the company a lot of money. Certainly, I measure that in dollars and cents and so to executives in the business. It's very easy for an executive to look at something in HR if you're able to save money across benefits, ex. If you're able to do that, you're going to get attention and the ability to work on a lot of other projects and initiatives. That, to me, is directly measurable. 

The other way is strategy. Be involved with other leaders across the business if you are proactive in thinking through the business, and suggest ideas to better position yourselves five years from now. An example is pipeline building, development. You can start the conversations instead of being asked. I measure myself in far more ways that a manager would, and I think that's the best way to go. 

BERNATOVICZ: Can you point to a time in your career where HR had a profound impact or influence on the organization's growth or success during a portion of time (quarter, year, decade)? 

GALLAGHER: Going back, I worked with a couple of vendors to put us in a very aggressive medical benefits plan design and we moved into a reference-based pricing plan. It was very early on in that style of plan, but the costs were going in the other direction. It was my first year, so very risky, it's a newer style. A lot of work has to be done, how the market would react. It was very successful from a cost standpoint, it was a lot of work but that first year we saved 1.2 million, the second year 1.5 million. One decision that took a tremendous amount of planning. We're still in this type of arrangement. From a cost standpoint, that would get everyone paying attention. 

We were in a position where it was really hurting the bottom line. I would lay out multiple approaches. When you need to make changes, people are more open to innovation. We're in that scenario now. Getting into the details, we had been tracking it for two years at that point. So, I felt very confident and I have a lot of detail on the system, plant, etc. When you have that much detail, you can give the confidence that you have to anyone that you're explaining it to. If you believe it in and have done your homework, you can take that and any executive team would know you knew plan B, the anxiety comes down and people gain more confidence.  

BERNATOVICZ: What characteristics make for a stand-out HR professional?

GALLAGHER: You have so many disciplines that you have to know. To be effective, you really have to do your homework in all of those things. You can be in a specialist type role, but when you want to be in a management role, you have to understand those things to a level of detail where you are not being managed by a vendor or other folks who are giving you advice. That takes time. As a true HR practitioner, you have to really dig in and understand your craft. It's a craft. I'm in manufacturing, so I look at it like welding. These are folks that build on a knowledge base year after year after year. You understand the disciplines to pull it all together to make an effective decision. 

You've got to be a communicator. You have to be able to communicate with employees, whether it's telling them or helping them. You have to be able to communicate with leaders across the business. You have to be able to work across every functional area across the business and be seen as a trusted advisor, which is difficult. It has to be a lifelong journey where you're constantly honing that ability, not only to know something but to know how to communicate it.  

BERNATOVICZ: Why do you think some people dislike HR?

GALLAGHER: HR walks that line. An advocate for the employee and a representative for the company, so it's really tough. You have to always have the interest of the employees and business in mind. For an employee to have your trust, you have to have the empathy to listen, to respond. On the other hand, if they feel like you don't know what you're talking about or can't bring concerns or make changes, then they don't trust you on the business side. So you have to be effective coming to both of those areas.  

If you listen and you get back to people, that is 75% of the battle.  

BERNATOVICZ: Is there a particular question that you ask in an interview that single-handedly can spot great talent that fits organizational structure?

GALLAGHER: If you could be any animal, what would you be? No, I've heard a lot of different questions. The one question I like is what's your biggest accomplishment, most proud of. Let it sit. Tells you a lot about what drives someone. Is it professional, personal? If it was running a marathon, they will tell you that. Just to see where a person takes that question, why it's important to them, how they get there, etc. I'm a big believer in interviewing to ask as few questions as possible and the most amount of follow up questions as possible. A lot of people have these canned answers. How you get through that is you ask one question and then 10 follow-up questions behind it and you really start diving into the root of the things you want to know.  

BERNATOVICZ: If you could, what advice would you give yourself (knowing what you know now) when you first started your career?

GALLAGHER: I was hungry and shooting for that next thing. I would tell myself to be a student. Dig in as much as you possibly can. Learn from vendors, learn from those around you, read as much as possible. Just soaking up, there is so much you have to learn. If you can just get your mindset in a place to learn. Come up with the strategic plan of what books, certificates, etc. Be a student.  

BERNATOVICZ: How would you describe someone that does "HR Like a Boss?" 

GALLAGHER: Somebody who is able to communicate across all lines of the business. Someone who understands that line that they've got between being the employee advocate, being the business driver. Somebody who knows their stuff. They know the financial drives, the people drives and what their business does. Most HR people don't know what their business really does. You have to know it really well otherwise, you can't align what you are trying to do on the people side to the business drivers. They are a constant student of all of the innovation that is happening across all the different disciplines. They are pressing into that. You can't know all of it but you can stay on top of it. They are constantly thinking about what is right for our business. They are constantly thinking about the next thing. They are the person who is listening to the HR podcasts, reading the books, Twitter feed, they are a constant student to it. So you've got a good mix of the HR and the business side. They figured out a way to pull those two things together. 

For those doing HR Like a Boss, you're at the top of my list.