Creating the Right Recipe for Transformation

Popular recruiting wisdom posits that hiring someone with a series of jobs under their belt, perhaps lasting no more than a year or two, isn’t a safe bet. When it comes to senior-level positions, turnover costs can be prohibitively expensive.

But there are exceptions to every rule. In the past decade, Mary Oleksiuk has held six jobs. She was actively recruited for each one to be a change agent and lead a business transformation. Solucient, later purchased by Thomson Reuters, recruited her to lead culture change and unify the company after a series of acquisitions. Orbitz hired her just after the company went public to lead the transformation from a dot-com to a “dot-corp.”

“I’m either really good at what I do or I can’t hold a job, because I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of terrific organizations that have undergone business transformation,” Oleksiuk said. “I’m passionate about being somewhere where I’m really needed, where I have a really good brain hurt because we figured something out … and showed some leadership courage that hadn’t existed before.”

It takes a lot of time and money to recruit a senior executive at Oleksiuk’s level, said Billy Dexter, a partner at search firm Heidrick & Struggles.

“The higher you go within an organization, the tougher it is to find that talent because the pool is smaller,” he said.

Many recruiters like to see at least a three-year job tenure, Dexter said. The first year is spent learning the organization and navigating the culture, and the second getting comfortable with the team and implementing a strategy. In the third year, that executive can count measurable results from that strategy.

In her role as senior vice president and chief human resources officer at Chicago-based Hillshire Brands, Oleksiuk is now in the beginning stage of that cycle. She joined in October 2012 shortly after the company formerly known as Sara Lee Corp. completed the spinoff of its international coffee and tea division and was renamed Hillshire Brands. “I was recruited to really help drive the business transformation through people and through culture,” she said.

To do that, Oleksiuk said the company has to be crystal clear about how it will win in the marketplace, what its financial promises to investors will be, what it values, and what behaviors and culture are needed to drive that transformation.

“It’s about fulfilling the hunger for a life well-fed,” she said. “The passion, the energy, the desire to really transform into this organization is our call to action.”

Brand and Deliver
Hillshire includes successful, iconic brands like Jimmy Dean sausage and BallPark franks, but Oleksiuk said the question is how to strengthen that core of well-known brands to new related products and how to fuel growth through efficiency and a constant cost focus.

“Mary has this really deep understanding of how to unify the culture we’re trying to create and the sourcing and placement of talent, the people who have the right capabilities, the right technical or the right personal skills in order to deliver against that culture,” said Sally Grimes, Hillshire Brands’ chief innovation officer. “That has really been critical in this transition to what we’re calling the most innovative meat-centric food company in the U.S.”

“When we use the word ‘innovative,’ we are innovative in all aspects of our business,” she said. “It’s not just be the one to turn out the most new products. We’re going to think differently. Mary led this effort. We spend a lot of time talking about what we value, who we are and how we’ll win. She is absolutely a personal example of our values and actions.”

Oleksiuk was a support partner as the company tested what it calls its “sprinter process” — how it gets products to market faster. The company launched its Jimmy Dean flatbread in January in record time.

“Never before had the organization been able to launch a product from start to finish in less than three months,” Grimes said.

That sort of product and process innovation requires a focus on end-to-end talent management. “We promise some lofty financial numbers to our investors,” Oleksiuk said. “We promise volume growth, MAP spend, sales, and from an employee or an employer value proposition, it really means being able to come in to do your best every day.”

Building Talent Intimacy
As part of a transformative approach to talent, Oleksiuk is examining how to improve the company’s leadership model. Her HR team benchmarked externally, came up with a model and brought it to the senior leadership team.

“I’ll politely say they threw up on it and said, ‘This is traditional, it may be best in class, but we really don’t need a leadership model,’ ” Oleksiuk said. “We’re all about behaviors and action, and what really powers our people to punch above our weight class and win in the markets.”

“It’s about being externally focused and agile. It’s about having unmatched expertise, and it’s about having the unshakable will to win,” she said. “We’re developing our own talent life cycle to be based on talent intimacy. I’m always so surprised that more companies don’t focus on their talent intimacy as we do on our customers. What do they want, what are they passionate about? What gets them motivated?”

While she didn’t reveal any results, Oleksiuk did say that “we’ve been very clear around it’s about our brand, it’s about our people and how there’s nowhere to hide. Everyone needs to deliver.”

To make operations more efficient, Oleksiuk’s team is streamlining talent review and talent assessment processes, going from a nine-box to a four-box scorecard and focusing on leaders throughout the organization who are delivering at expectations, exceeding expectations or have potential to grow.

“It’s really about raising your hand, volunteering for the toughest assignments, having a voice, sharing your point of view, giving others a point of view, whether it’s popular or not,” she said. “It’s getting over yourself, learning from your mistakes and moving on, really putting yourself out there, and always hiring better than you.”

Taking a Leap of Faith
Oleksiuk said she understands the idea of putting herself out there and volunteering for challenges. She spent most of her early career outside of HR in technical roles, including scientific programmer, computational chemist, total quality facilitator, Six Sigma Green Belt, and site leader and plant manager at AlliedSignal/Honeywell.

Her transition into HR came as a result of a series of well-timed events. She knew if she wanted to move up the technical ladder she’d have to get a Ph.D. — something she didn’t want to do. At the same time, her sister started a business and persuaded her that they should work together. “I went back to AlliedSignal and [asked to] work three-fifths time. No one asked me why. The leadership assumed that — I had toddlers at that point — I wanted to spend more time at home,” she said.

So, in addition to working part time for her employer, Oleksiuk took on the business aspects of her sister’s new company as well as how to hire, recruit and pay new employees. “I was passionate about all of those pieces. So when the HR manager role was posted at the location where I was a scientist, I applied,” she said. “When I interviewed I fessed up as to what I was doing in my spare time.”

Rather than being upset, the hiring manager saw it as a sign that Oleksiuk had a passion for and interest in HR and took a chance on her despite her lack of corporate HR experience.

She called herself a business-focused HR partner and said that same spirit that would prompt a leader to take a chance on someone with no formal experience is still a part of her HR organization.

“You can only be an amazing HR business partner if you know what it feels like to do the other roles,” Oleksiuk explained. “And the more you know about the business, the more you know what drives the business.”

Having the courage to embrace change seems to be a recurring theme in Oleksiuk’s life. As a first-generation college student from the Ukraine, she had a full-time merit scholarship to attend Wayne State University in Detroit and study computer science and biology. A master’s degree in biology genetics followed from the University of Illinois, but her career path could just as easily have been mapped out for her based on family expectations.

“You were to be a doctor, lawyer, engineer, maybe a teacher or a pharmacist,” she explained. “I started on the bio path and met my future husband who was in computer science, and I thought maybe I could understand him more and maybe we could get closer if I also got a computer science degree.” She and her husband will be married 30 years this summer.

Today’s Vision, Tomorrow’s Plans
At Hillshire, Oleksiuk plans to create an entire talent life cycle based on the company’s business strategy that will include a focus on talent acquisition and onboarding.

As the organization came to the end of its fiscal year in June, her focus heightened on goal alignment and setting up performance management for the new year.

“It’s going to be around continuing development and succession planning and really ensuring we create the winning organization and culture that we’re saying we’re going to and [ensuring] employees continue to choose Hillshire Brands every day.”

And like the scientist she is, Oleksiuk will keep tabs on that continued transformation through measurement and close observation.

“Every month we come out with metrics and reports. I know what kind of turnover we have. I know how many people we’ve hired. I know how many promotions we’ve had, how many internal moves,” she said. “HR always wants to be strategic, but HR always needs to count, too.”