RPO & StaffingTalent Acquisition

Reaching and Pursuing Opportunities

With two decades of experience in the industry, ABB’s director of recruiting Shelia Gray is excited that her specialty may be the next great concept to come out of HR. 
Like Shelia Gray’s surname, challenges in HR aren’t always black-and-white. But that’s the way this corporate executive and industry leader likes it because it keeps her work exciting and varied.
“In HR, there are always lines of gray,” the director for recruiting for ABB, a global power and automation equipment provider, and the world’s leading manufacturer of transmission and distribution equipment for the power grid. “It’s never a black-and-white answer; it’s always the right answer for the right situation.”
The industry veteran who started as an HR generalist is a born problem solver, a skill she believes is necessary to succeed in the field. “I knew HR was where I wanted to be, and it’s not because I like people,” she quipped. “Many people say that, but I like solving problems, and anyone who works in HR has to have strong problem-solving skills.”
Discovering solutions to quandaries such as developing alternative work schedules when gas prices skyrocketed last year or making work more virtual for qualified candidates who  don’t want to relocate during the current housing crisis is what Gray thrives on. Knowledge from her bachelor of arts degree in industrial labor relations from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill provided her the skills to work for the Boston Private Industry Council during the summers. The nonprofit organization encouraged corporations to hire marketable public school students. Gray helped place students and received exposure to the corporate environment and the complexity of HR work. Both factors persuaded her to pursue a career in corporate HR. At the same time, she knew she wasn’t ready to be finished with h0er education.
“I believe in being a lifelong learner because it’s a part of how you grow,” she noted.
So she sought a firm that offered the opportunity to attend part-time graduate classes, which was rare at the time if you were looking to study in a field outside of finance. But Gray jumped this hurdle. While serving as an HR generalist for the Boston Redevelopment Authority, Gray also attended Northeastern University to earn her MBA. This empowered her to get involved with business strategy, a skill she has called on throughout her career.
As a young professional, Gray knew HR was a good fit for her, but she also was seeking a speciality. When she landed a position as a consultant, she found her niche—recruitment.
“The firm wanted to set up a recruiting practice to recruit diverse executives. Back in the mid-80s, diversity was a new term. I started there, and I’ve never looked back,” she recalled. “When I helped set up the department, I liked putting in the infrastructure. And recruiting is like matchmaking—putting the right people in the right place together.”
She certainly hasn’t looked back. Gray has handled recruitment in a bevy of fields, including insurance and finance; defense; telecommunications; high tech; consumer products; durable goods; and now power and technology. Her resume includes work for various companies such as MITRE Corp., Honeywell, Accenture, Qwest Communications, Sun Microsystems, Hanes Brands Inc., and International Paper.
“What I’ve done for the last 10 years is I enter businesses and create a recruiting function from scratch or redesign one,” she explained. “I’ve changed companies almost every three years because of the nature of the work that I like to accomplish. The function of recruitment doesn’t change, but the culture of each organization that I have joined does.”
Positioning herself in different industries encourages her love for learning. The learning curve varies, she said, but adapting to each individual culture helps her create a vision around an organization’s specific needs by asking the right questions. Is the firm aggressive and innovative, a risk taker, or bureaucratic? Then she performs a thorough analysis to see where recruitment can make a difference.
“You look at volume of recruiting, costs, the number of steps it takes to get stuff done, technology, and how to deliver service,” she explained. “You look at what the company currently has, what’s working and what’s not, and what you can do to change it. Not everything needs to be changed, some things just need to be lifted up as best practice.”
Seeking Outsourcing
In her career, Gray has helmed several outsourcing deals, most recently a partnership between ABB and The RightThing. In June 2008, when she joined the 130,000-employee ABB, the business had individual generalists at each office that internally handled HR functions. To increase efficiency, ABB created a shared-services center to centralize HR. It had moved to this model in 34 of its offices, and at the time the U.S. was next. Gray was brought in to revitalize the recruitment model: She learned the culture, vetted companies, and presented several options. ABB then made the move to do partial outsourcing with The RightThing.
“There are two parts of recruiting: strategic and operational. What I’ve done is created teams in-house for the strategic part who are working with the outsourced partner to handle the operations. We define the strategy and make the decisions, but we work with people who have the expertise and have the resources to source for candidates,” she said. “The RightThing is a great company. As I look at them over time, they continue to reinvent themselves as the market changes. We chose to go with RPO not because it’s cheaper or quicker but because as a company we want to be more diverse, we want quality of hire, a great candidate experience, and a quality of brand. Those are the things that made the difference in choosing them. They will help make us a better company.”
Navigating the Economy
In today’s climate, you need as many resources as possible to leverage in order to be successful. Gray said ABB’s number of new hires for 2008 was 1,500, but a fact that everyone can attest to is that 2009 is simply a different year.
“Every company is evaluating its jobs differently. They are asking, ‘Is this a must-have skill?’ And just because someone leaves, do we need to replace them or redesign the work?” she said.
In addition to the possibility of fewer openings and new hires overall, there’s also the factor of a large increase in the amount of candidates looking. Gray said that the number of applicants is very deceptive right now because not all of the available candidates are viable for the position ABB needs to fill.
“When you are looking for the right person with the right skills, the unemployment market is not what you think it is,” she said. “The market may have a lot of people, but many of   the available candidates don’t have the transferable skills you need without an investment in training.”
But a lean market does lend some advantages to those looking to hire. “For a long period, it was a seller’s market, not a buyer’s market. In the 1990s, I saw candidates become more bold and aggressive when they would negotiate,” she said, noting that applicants would often ask for extra vacation time or a signing bonus. “In the last two years, it’s shifted to buyers and sellers have equal footing in a tight labor market. Many college grads are moving away from the tough negotiations tactics of the past, that is if they can find a job. I have met so many new grads who are a loss this year on how to transition their classroom knowledge into a career when they are facing the competition from so many experienced candidates.”
And as the economic landscape changes, Gray says the ways of recruiting are evolving too. Technology and globalism are two major factors whose impact is hard to ignore.
“In the early days, recruitment was very transactional. You’d find someone, interview them, put them in a job. Then employee referral and networking came about. Now it’s becoming relationship based,” she said. “The new concept is employment branding. You need to have a brand, and that brand is the value proposition that you offer. People want to know what it is and why should I work for you. Money is no longer the motivator. It is a motivator, but it’s not the only reason people take a job. You have to sell them on the organization not just the job. Before we were recruiting, now we are talent acquisitioning. Talent is now becoming a differentiating factor for companies.”
Gray pointed to the example of the technology firm, Apple. In January, the CEO of Apple Steve Jobs was experiencing health issues. Gray said the question on everyone’s mind was whether or not he had groomed someone else to be just like him since he brought such innovation to the company. Apple’s stock even dipped. Gray doesn’t think that would have happened a few years ago and it shows the merits of talent today.
Gray’s latest endeavor is developing the RPO Buyer’s Group, a specialist group of HROA. She said, “The Buyer’s Group is set up to share best practices. We don’t talk about our provider; we talk about what we’ve learned. How do you make it successful? How do you measure success? Because if we are successful, the concept of RPO will be too.”
And Gray thinks RPO is the future of recruitment. “RPO is a concept that I really think is going to change the landscape. When we talk about scarity of resources, cost reduction, being leaner companies, it will be an option every company will consider. In recruiting, we have the opportunity to do best practices. Our market is in its infancy, it’s being defined and I hope the buyer’s group can help define it. I look at this as the next great concept to come out of HR.” 

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