After three decades in the HR field, Avaya’s SVPâof HRâRoger Gaston continues to champion continuous improvements.
by Debbie Bolla
Unlocking the key to the human psyche has been quite beneficial for Roger Gaston during his 30-year career in corporate HR. Having studied behavioral knowledge as part of his psychology major at Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio, the senior vice president of HR for telecommunications provider Avaya has continuously tapped into his learnings.
“There are pieces of psychology I use everyday,” said Gaston. “The HR world is a combination of listening to people, gathering relevant information, understanding the situation and making a decision from a business standpoint.”
While a background in psychology may have given him insight on how to succeed on the personnel aspect of HR, his business sense—he minored in that, too—has provided him with the ability to helm multi-million-dollar outsourcing deals with blue-chip brands such as Toys “R” Us. During his three decades in the industry, Gaston has played a role in nearly every facet of corporate HR, from overseeing compensation and benefits to talent acquisition and labor relations. And it all started from a coveted internship he obtained in his senior year of college.
“I received an internship with NASA in the HR department, and I had the chance to see the people side of it,” recalled Gaston. For four months, he became a student of the government agency, playing a role in its staffing arm by meeting candidates at college recruitment events. “This gave me a good understanding of how certain businesses have specific needs and about the competitive nature of talent acquisition.”
Gaston also tapped into his philanthropic nature while with NASA. He became involved in the agency’s teen outreach program in Cleveland by educating young adults on the importance of college education and the possibilities such an education affords. He noted, “The program showed the inner city kids that you can be in charge of your own opportunities.”
And his four-month opportunity was crucial to his professional growth—the in-the-field experience prompted him to pursue a career in HR in lieu of attending graduate school to explore clinical psychology. His first job was at Lazarus, a division of Federated Department Stores, as an HR generalist, learning the ins-and-outs of college recruiting and executive search. Early on, Gaston was schooled about the importance of training associates and developing talent.
“In the HR world, you see the same problems all the time and you learn from them,” he said. “That’s what makes you more skilled—from the decisions you make in the past.”
As his skills grew so did his responsibilities. He spent 11 years in different senior roles at May Department Stores Company, working on multiple functions including compensation, governance, and benefits. While at the firm, Gaston became a bridge for international business. “I never lived abroad, but I did quite a bit of travel to Europe and Asia for the company,” he said. “During that time, I learned very quickly how important it is to understand the culture and legal differences between countries.”
The experience broadened his perspective on business and the culture of companies. In the HR industry, he saw endless expertise in the U.S. in terms of functions and skills. But he also realized domestic operations had more freedom in some function than those abroad. “It was an important business experience to learn about how very differently operations function overseas,” he said.
His tenure at May prepared him for his next role as senior vice president of HR for corporate giant Toys “R” Us. While at the $11 billion retailer, Gaston was responsible for delivering programs and services to more than 72,000 employees worldwide. At the time, the toy icon needed a fresh take to succeed in a changing marketplace. Gaston stepped in.
“Toys ‘R’ Us has a great brand name, but they had taken their eye of the ball and the competition had caught up. At the time the Internet was becoming a big competitor, especially etoys.com, and we had to bring the company up to speed and maintain that capability. Also at the time, the toy business was transforming from a board game business to an electronics game business,” Gaston recalled. “It was a time of activity and reconstruction. We had to change everything from floor layout to production to supply chain.”
After leaving a successful track record at Toys “R” Us, Gaston made a move to StorageTek, a $2 billion technology firm that specializes in a range of storage solutions for digitized data. As corporate vice president, he led a global HR organization focused on transforming the business into a global storage services and solutions leader. One of his great achievements at StorageTek was when he pinpointed an area that needed improvement: talent acquisition.
“The company has a great product and position, but it wasn’t executing its recruitment as well as it could have been,” he noted. At the time, the company had more than 7,000 employees in 32 countries serving more than 17,000 customer sites worldwide, and it had been through two iterations of recruitment models.
Gaston oversaw an RPO deal with the Kenexa Corporation. The reason to outsource was two-fold: across-the-board cost savings and an efficient and effective recruitment system. “Great strides were made during my tenure,” said Gaston. A testament to his success: StorageTek’s solid talent base and executive culture attracted a major acquisition. The company was purchased by Sun Microsystems for $4.1 billion.
In 2006 Gaston joined global communications provider Avaya as senior vice president of human resources. At Avaya, Gaston directs employee compensation and benefits, employee communications, workforce relations, organizational development and transformation, recruitment, talent management, and labor relations. It’s fitting that the veteran works for a company that designs, builds, and manages communications networks for global businesses—mostly Fortune 500 companies—considering that he feels that communication is the No. 1 aspect that has progressed the most during in his time in the HR industry.
“Over the years, the whole communication model has changed. Our ability to communicate within companies and with outside and external competition has greatly improved,” he said. “The dynamics of dealing with employees has also evolved. The speed in which we communicate is much quicker. On the international side, it’s dramatically different. We now have the ability to communicate effectively on a real time basis, which is remarkable.”
Some things, though, stay the same. The HR industry is no stranger to the natural ebb and flow of business patterns. “Most businesses go through similar cycles. The two that have a large effect on HR is growth and downsizing,” he explained. “Each gives you the opportunity to anticipate the outcomes. The more you see of each, the better you can react and be a better business partner. In both situations, you want to move as quickly as possible. In today’s environment, it’s more about securing your best assets.”
This sentiment doesn’t come as a surprise considering the current economy. One challenge that Gaston faces on a regular basis has been looming large over all HR executives: consolidation.
“Currently, every industry is facing consolidation. It’s a big side effect of the economy on our industry from an HR standpoint. There is fewer numbers of jobs. We are all tightening our belts. We have to do more with less, and it will continue for some time,” he said. “The model of talent management has to be changed internally. We have to utilize our best resources to transform our business to react to the economic climate. That is our focus in the short run. But like most things in HR, it’s cyclical. We will see growth again and the need to hire for things that we aren’t doing today but will do in the future.”
What to do before that growth comes? How to succeed during these tough economic times? Gaston advises focusing on cost initiatives to make business as cost effective and productive as possible. He believes outsourcing is an option but noted that he is looking at a few other options, like his company’s current arrangements and the possibility of bringing functions in house. “I am challenging the way I do business to make things more productive. In a recession, you have to look at everything in your business model and do more with less. You have to challenge the current systems,” he said.
Avaya has agreements for outsourcing functions with two providers: Convergys and Kenexa. Convergys handles Avaya’s transactional work, including a call center for employees. Avaya’s North American recruitment arm, which is supported by a robust applicant tracking system, is handled by Kenexa.
Dealing with the current economic climate is a matter that all companies have to face. A decision for Avaya to go private in 2007 has worked to its advantage. “It has been tough for public companies. Most have had to make some changes. But being private means we are have a very active board of directors. The speed of action is greater, and we are aggressive with making decisions, and that’s the biggest change [from being public] I’ve seen.” And to keep up with the times, speed and experience are exactly what one needs.