EVP of HR Liz McAuliffe explains how she carries the Un-carrier culture of T-Mobile through to the talent strategy.
By The Editors
Within one’s career, taking the biggest risk often comes with earning the biggest reward. Just ask Liz McAuliffe. While practicing as the in-house employment attorney at Starbucks, Jim Donald, the then CEO, asked her to take a risk by moving into the coffee company’s HR practice. And from that transition, she has been rewarded with a highly successful second career. McAuliffe is now the executive vice president of HR at T-Mobile, the self-proclaimed Un-carrier that is radically changing its approach to both its customers and employees, adopting a people-first strategy that listens first and acts second. McAuliffe has spearheaded this transformation, introducing a number of initiatives to better support employees in their personal and career growth—and drive business success as a result. Learn more here.
HRO Today: You are a former attorney who moved into HR. How did this transition happen?
Liz McAuliffe: I was a partner at a law firm in Seattle when Starbucks recruited me to join its legal department as an in-house employment attorney. I was ready for a change. In private practice, I’d been focused on employment law for several years and particularly loved the counseling aspect of the work: helping organizations with decisions, processes, and policies to prevent conflicts from escalating into litigation. When I joined the legal department at Starbucks, my primary focus was employment law counseling partnering with the HR team, but I also had the opportunity to manage a pretty big piece of litigation—a class action involving store managers in California. Through that, I got to work very closely with Starbucks business leaders, including the CEO and the head of the U.S. business at that time. It was great exposure and experience. I quickly learned that I had a passion for the HR business aspect of the work. Eventually, the head of HR and the general counsel both encouraged me to formally make the move to HR. Jim Donald, the CEO at the time, also approached me with some wise words. He said, “Not every lawyer can choose to take a different path, but you can—so why not?” And when the CEO suggests that you take a risk on yourself, you do it!
I transitioned into an HR director role at Starbucks’ corporate headquarters, followed by a field role leading HR for the Pacific Northwest retail region. I also had the opportunity to lead HR for Greater China as an expat based in Shanghai for a couple of years before I landed at T-Mobile.
McAuliffe: Being the head of HR at T-Mobile with John Legere as the CEO requires a non-traditional approach. It has prompted my team and I to constantly challenge ourselves to think differently about how we innovate and equip leaders and employees for success, and how we promote and protect a diverse and inclusive culture. For example, last year we launched “Insight Out,” an ongoing, experiential series of immersive workshops, conversations, and digital learnings to drive awareness of unconscious bias and, most importantly, generate conversations about inclusion and belonging across the enterprise. “Insight Out“ has turned out to be hugely successful and impactful, and I’m excited for the the next phases!
HROT: You broke and rebuilt HR from scratch at T-Mobile. The HR department is now called the “HR Crew” and is uniquely reorganized by three areas of HR services: “Talent Scouts,” “Career Agents,” and “Employee Success Partners.” Explain the thought process behind this, and how you reimagined HR to be more fun and friendly.
McAuliffe: It’s important to emphasize that we weren’t broken. We had a great team operating under a fairly traditional HR model with HR business partners and centralized talent acquisition, and we really wanted to disrupt that and innovate for the future of our Un-carrier culture, employees, and leaders. For example, we eliminated formal performance ratings and reviews. We also started a monthly pulse survey for employee engagement instead of an annual survey. Those were two big things out of the gate.
Then I stepped up into the role of CHRO three years ago, and it felt like I had a mandate to lead the team differently. We have 34,000 front-line employees in 17 call centers and hundreds of company-owned retail stores. So, we thought: How can we, as HR, best serve as advocates and stewards for every employee in their personal growth and career success? We took a hard look inward at ourselves, realizing that HR as a whole was too heavily staffed and focused on work that didn’t clearly ladder up to a good answer to this question. It was time to quickly pivot to a new frontline-first model.
In order to deliver on the mission of serving as stewards for all employees in their personal growth and career success, we needed more regular and positive interaction between employees and the HR team. Think about it: If a person’s first interaction with HR is about their personal career goals, that person is going to feel a whole lot more comfortable down the road reaching out to their HR support for help with sensitive questions or tough work-related issues. And when that happens, that person is a whole lot more likely to be happy in their job, more engaged, and will perform better, stay longer, and grow their career with T-Mobile. With this goal, we decentralized the key employee-facing HR roles (HR business partner, recruiter, and learning/leadership development consultant) and brought them together as “HR Crews” aligned to business leaders.
We also renamed these roles to titles that convey an employee-focused purpose. HR business partner became “Employee Success Partner” because that’s what they really are. Recruiters became “Talent Scouts” who look for internal talent as well as external talent. Learning/ leadership development consultants became “Career Agents.” With a 90 percent goal for internal promotions in retail and customer care, “Career Agents” strive to develop employees into future leaders. And they do: We’ve already hit our goal for internal mobility.
The last piece of the puzzle in reorganizing HR was “Employee Care,” and there is a great story there, too. A few years ago, T-Mobile created and transitioned to a revolutionary model of customer care in our 17 call centers. We created specialized communities known as “Team of Experts” where our employees work together in designated teams with a dedicated customer base and the resources to support any question that their customers may need assistance with. This model eliminated the customer pain point of being transferred from department to department. We wanted to give our customers a simple, seamless way to get the support they need, when they need it. With this “Team of Experts” model in mind, we set out to do the same when it came to T-Mobile employees and their interactions with the traditional HR help desk. In 2017, we redesigned our HR help desk and introduced our “Employee Care” team. Employees can now connect with “Employee Care” by phone, email, or live chat to get support on a wide array of topics: from questions related to pay, benefits, and timekeeping to providing guidance to employees and addressing more complex concerns. Our “Employee Care” team partners closely with our “Employee Success Partners” to provide seamless support to our employees when questions and issues require assistance from both teams. We want to make it simple for employees to get the support they need, when they need it, in the way that works best for them.
Not only does this approach better serve HR’s customers—T-Mobile employees—it also gives the “HR Crew” time to be strategic partners to business leaders and focus on helping employees with personal growth and career success.
HROT: This was a sweeping overhaul of HR and it was extremely risky, but T-Mobile has this entrepreneurial reputation. Was it difficult to get C-suite buy-in?
McAuliffe: It wasn’t a hard sell at all. The senior leadership team was eager to see what we could do—and frankly they viewed it as a bigger risk to NOT do anything! We knew we needed to shake things up. As the Un-carrier, our goal is to eliminate customer pain points. In fact, we were the first wireless carrier in the United States to eliminate contracts—our very first Un-carrier move. We took that same mindset for HR: identifying and eliminating pain points for T-Mobile’s 52,000 employees.
HROT: How are you preparing for a successful merger of T-Mobile and Sprint employees?
McAuliffe: Of course, I can’t comment specifically on the pending merger. But I can tell you my philosophy about change management in connection with large-scale organizational change. I’ve declared to my team that I don’t want to see a change curve anywhere. Change management isn’t about plotting yourself and your team on a change curve every week. Successful change happens with frequent and transparent communication. It happens with authentic leaders who clearly and confidently articulate a vision and a path forward. And it happens when employees understand the business reasons for decisions, even though some employees may not like some of those decisions, at least initially. Authentic, transparent, and organic communication—not forced or formulaic—that’s the key, especially for a company that is Un-afraid to innovate, Un-satisfied by the status quo, and Unapologetically unique in everything we do.
Beyond that, I think about what HR must do in any successful integration in buckets. There are cultural components to each of those buckets. Appropriate HR leaders and team members partner with senior business leaders to focus on key senior leadership initiatives: operating model, structure, and executive compensation. That group is thinking about the overarching culture. Another big bucket is the HR integration work managed by a group of HR leaders and staffed by HR team members, focused on system integrations, employee benefits, compensation programs, policies, procedures, and more for the new organization. Those are cultural decisions too. Compensation, benefits, paychecks—all table stakes in the employee experience and often the initial, very personal new company experience for employees from both companies in a merger. That experience must align with the intended culture of the new company.