Meter reader, construction crew member, janitor — Roberto Llamas has had his share of blue-collar jobs. He never thought for a moment that he would end up in HR.
But as fate would have it, he went knocking on the door of Southern California Edison for a job in marketing — which he majored in — and when the possibility of securing a position looked bleak, he instead applied for an opening in the company’s HR department.
“In fact, a close friend at the time said, ‘I don’t understand this; you don’t even like people.’ I said, ‘I know, but that’s where they’re hiring,’” Llamas said.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Rise to HR Royalty
Having ascended to the top of the HR ranks at an array of companies — including TRW, three of General Electric’s largest businesses and Lehman Brothers — eventually Llamas became the epitome of a people person.
Following an ephemeral retirement — what he considers a pivotal point in his career — Llamas decided he was too young to retire and longed to get back to work. While managing his own consulting firm with clients such as Charles Schwab, Motorola and Bank of America, he was enticed by a full-time offer from The Cleveland Clinic that met his criteria.
“If I went to a big company as chief HR officer and if it’s a broken company, then it’s going to be a five-, six-year venture, and I didn’t want to do that. If it was well run, then it would be just a series of meetings,” he said.
He was hoping to work at a moderate-sized business with a compelling agenda where he could leverage his background and expertise to achieve something significant within a short period of time.
His tenure at The Cleveland Clinic was followed by a roughly three-year stint at The Nielsen Co. After that, two key considerations led him to accept the post of executive vice president, chief human resources officer for Univision Communications Inc. in March 2011. One, the company had a compelling commercial business agenda, and two, its business underpinnings rest on a rising demography and the culture in which he grew up.
“I believed Univision provided a platform to improve performance and leadership that would not only help the company, but also increase the supply of Hispanic leaders to fulfill other purposes — prepare them to better serve their communities, educate and mentor the growing Hispanic leadership core and even contribute to other companies if their careers eventually take them there. It really felt like a perfect marriage of my business, cultural and personal interests,” he said.
Ushering in Change
First, Llamas went to work reorganizing HR at the Spanish-language television network. He emphasized leadership performance and development, diversity and merit-based evaluations and compensation. He also changed the roles and responsibilities of company leaders. To support the changes, he moved the HR organization away from a regional coverage model to one where each executive had an HR leader assigned as part of his or her senior operating team.
When Llamas joined Univision, the company had approximately 4,500 employees and was highly decentralized, but during the past year he has worked to better integrate the workforce, resulting in cross-functional teams and enhanced teamwork.
“We developed company values like collaboration to encourage the behavior we most wanted to see among our leaders — this behavior and our ongoing assessment of it provides a glue or common language across our company, regardless of what division or function you’re in,” he said.
Llamas and his team also created P&L structures and formed fully complementary teams within them. Now members of various functions such as sales, production, content development and finance work and integrate their efforts inside of these structures as opposed to delivering their contributions from separate functional organizations.
Leading the Way
Whether it’s developing leaders internally or attracting heavy hitters externally, Llamas and his CEO share the fundamental belief that investing in high-caliber leadership will drive organizational success.
“I don’t care what company you’re talking about and which industry you’re talking about, the leadership and the personnel within any organization — developing that leadership from the overall organization is the single most important thing that you can do to become successful,” said Randy Falco, president and CEO of Univision.
Similarly, Llamas considers leaders to be the most important assets in a company because the leaders’ platform can influence change.
“Their job is to multiply their own personal effectiveness through the resources the company gives them, so the most important decision a company makes is to determine who it assigns to lead its people,” he said. “The difference is always going to be the way your leaders perform, behave and utilize resources.”
Llamas said perhaps the most basic leadership principle is to set high standards for employees and demand extra from them. An exemplary leader also must be proficient at organizing work and resource allocation — a leadership skill he said is often overlooked.
“Too many people let their organizations remain dormant, and the mix of talent and skills plateau or fall behind — this happens despite the fact that any honest review would determine that 15 or 20 percent of what you have in place is serving competencies or lines of business that don’t work anymore,” he said. “So you have to, [as] my boss says, cut the tail off of misaligned resources and reinvest in something more relevant.”
Whereas people’s natural tendency might be to maintain the status quo, leaders must summon the courage to continually prune and revitalize their teams — even if it’s painful — to ensure efficiency and performance.
“We talk a lot to our leaders about the reality that, ‘This is something no one else can do — it falls on you,” he said. “It makes all the difference in the world whether you choose to put an average team on the field or go with the best and freshest team you can develop or select.” Putting the best team on the field requires leaders to regularly evaluate, provide feedback and take action.
Llamas said high potential identification is another key leadership competency. If a leader identifies a young employee as high potential, the leader can appropriately pace development assignments so the employee realizes his or her full potential.
In concert with that is succession planning, which is key to maintaining business continuity, but organizations also stand to benefit from enhanced performance.
“If you have two people working for you who can do your job, not only have you fulfilled your responsibility to provide for succession but, more importantly, you will be the benefactor of the tremendous organizational performance this level of talent will deliver,” he said.
At Univision, the annual leadership review — a four- to five-hour session where leaders are accountable for addressing questions such as: How are you organized? What’s the quality of your top team? What actions are you going to take? What does your pipeline look like? — is a key tool to assess and improve leadership pipeline and performance.
Three other leadership development programs that complement the annual leadership review are under way. One program will be for the company’s highest-performing senior vice presidents, another for the highest-performing vice presidents, and a third for early-career high potentials. Llamas said each program will be taught by senior executives, have meaningful team projects assigned by the CEO, include plenty of personal feedback and, most importantly, wed the participants to the company’s vision and goals.
Accelerating Leadership Development
With a year at the Spanish-language media company under his belt, Llamas said he’s pleased with the progress that’s been made, but he already has an agenda for forthcoming leadership development plans.
The first item to better enable collaboration and integrate the company is talent export, where leaders will move some of their high-potential people from their organization into another Univision organization. This will require leaders to continually hone their people development skills. While leaders might be reluctant because they don’t want to lose their best people, Llamas said he expects to change that by providing rewards and visibility to leaders who excel in this arena; it’s their job to develop other leaders.
Another way to move the leadership development needle is to introduce academic partnerships.
“[We need to] build the leadership pipeline to fuel our growth by attracting the best from our evolving external university recruiting and relations program and selecting and developing our highest-potential leaders via our internal development programs,” he said.
To accelerate high potentials, Llamas highlighted the importance of measuring new manager performance. “Better tracking and assessing new managers early in their new assignments can reduce derailment and improve their time to productivity,” he said.
Lights, Camera, Cultural Relevance
Univision is in the unique position of serving a vibrant community that’s growing by leaps and bounds. Hispanics are not only the largest ethnic or racial minority in the United States, but also the fastest growing, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. At a population of 50.5 million as of April 2010, they accounted for 16.3 percent of the total population, and that number is projected to increase to 30 percent by 2050.
“That’s an enormous change in the United States — particularly for our culture. That growth is changing and influencing our culture, and Univision is at the center of that change,” Falco said. “For Hispanics, we represent a connection to the culture; we’re a brand that they trust; and we also connect other brands with the Hispanic-American.”
More than knowing the language, it’s crucial that employees at Univision understand and be connected with Hispanic culture. “We have to make sure that we understand the cultural relevance in everything that we do,” he said.
The key to success in the news business is contingent upon remaining relevant to the audience and the community for which the news is produced, according to Hank Price, senior director of the Media Management Center at Northwestern University and president and general manager of WXII-TV12 in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Merely translating English-language news into Spanish, for instance, hasn’t been a successful strategy for many in the past because it lacks cultural relevance, he said.
And cultural relevance is something Univision gets, according to Teresa V. Martinez, president of the Institute of Spanish Communication Inc., author of Success In Exile, and producer and host of PGTV “Comunidad Viva,” a local program in central Florida.
“We look to Univision as a source of information about what’s going on in our country, the different cultures, and it is a little piece of us,” said Martinez, explaining that “us” refers to Spanish speakers, who are a diverse group. “We have very different cultures, but Univision is the No. 1 media that unites us.”
A June 2011 article in AdAge Hispanic said the audience for Spanish-language networks isn’t just limited to new immigrants anymore; it’s increasingly drawing in younger generations of viewers — something Martinez said is partly related to the community’s family dynamics.
In addition to a news channel, Univision is well known amongst the Latino community for its “telenovelas,” or soap operas, a form of entertainment that Martinez said unites Latino families, who are traditionally close-knit, on a regular basis.
“Most Spanish-speaking families — if they don’t live together in the same home, they will live nearby, and if the grandparents or the parents are watching the telenovela, so will the younger generation,” she said.
Llamas said the company needs to grow with its community. “As the generations come and go, they will consume media in all kinds of different ways,” Llamas said. “We have to be sure that we represent ourselves as not just about language but also about a dynamic culture,” he said. “That’s the big opportunity for us — serving our base, but also moving with it and making sure our services, our products and the way we talk to advertisers, clients and customers keep pace with the way this dynamic community chooses to use language or media.”