On the sixteenth installment of our See It to Be It podcast series, Amy C. Waninger speaks with Lisa M. Johnson, an internationally experienced human resources professional who has worked with leaders from numerous industries in the public and private sectors with more than 25 years of proven experience as a human resources generalist. She graciously shares her career journey with us, talks about what surprised her the most about HR work, and discusses both her training and development-focused company HR Know-How LLC and the chapter she contributed to Imagination@Work, a unique collection of insights from business leaders and many HR and OD experts about new ways to imagine what is possible at work, on teams and in our own careers.
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Zach: What’s up, y’all? It’s Zach with Living Corporate. Now, look, for those of y’all who are new here, the purpose of Living Corporate is to create a space that affirms black and brown experiences in the workplace, right? There are certain things that only we can really understand, and when I say we I mean the collective non-white professional [laughs] in corporate America. And when we look around–if you, like, Google being black and brown in corporate America, you may see, like, a post in Huffington Post or something that kind of communicates from a position of lack, but I don’t know if we necessarily see a lot of content that empowers and affirms our identity and our experience, and that’s really the whole purpose of Living Corporate. It’s with that that I’m really excited to talk to y’all about the See It to Be It series. Amy C. Waninger, who has been a guest on the show, who’s a writer for Living Corporate, and who’s also the author of Network Beyond Bias, she’s actually partnered with Living Corporate to actually have an interviewing series where she actually sits down with black and brown professionals so that we can learn about what they actually do and see ourselves in these roles, right? So it’s a variety of industries that she’s–she’s talking to a lot of different types of folks. You’re gonna be able to see what they do, and at the same time you’re gonna hopefully be able to envision yourself in that role, hence the title See It to Be It, okay? So check this out. The next thing you’re gonna hear is this interview with Amy C. Waninger. Y’all hang tight. Catch y’all next time. Peace.
Amy: Hi, Lisa. Welcome to the show. Thank you for being here.
Lisa: Hello, Amy. Thank you for having me.
Amy: I am so excited to talk to you today. Our paths have crossed a couple of different times through SHRM groups and writing retreats and things like that, and you and I travel in a lot of the same circles, but we haven’t had a lot of one-on-one conversations.
Lisa: We sure haven’t. We’ve been moving quickly, haven’t we, and haven’t had a good sit-down.
Amy: We have, and so I am so excited to introduce you to the audience today because you have worked in your career as an HR professional, and I know that you have a particular niche within HR that you’ve focused on, and I was wondering you could tell us a little bit about that and how you got into this work.
Lisa: Yes, yes, I would be happy too. Thank you so much for having me. This is a pleasure. And for me, the HR route, it started off very broadly from a generalist standpoint, and it was just a situation of I could not make up my mind, and I loved everything that HR brought, every area. Learning and development, labor relations and employee relations and profitization and benefits and all of those kinds of things, and I felt that, you know, “I’m in a space where I can employ different aspects of my skills and interests, and then at some point if I want to specialize I can,” and it worked out wonderfully. For once I had a nice blueprint to follow me throughout my career and it worked out, and this was one of them. [?] now specifically working on training and development because that’s my true comfort space, and I focus on helping managers, helping them deal with employee relations issues confidently and dealing with employee complaints and litigation competently, but the journey’s been a broad one. And I do still use my broader HR knowledge a lot still.
Amy: So when you think about, as an HR generalist, you know, I think a lot of people if they haven’t worked in corporate for a while, or even if they have but they’ve not leveraged their HR partners a lot, they may not understand what all of that entails. Can you tell us a little bit about what are some of the responsibilities of an HR generalist? Kind of in broad terms.
Lisa: Yes. So in broad terms, of course, it’s all about–it all touches people, but in very different aspects. So from a managerial standpoint, the HR person–you see a lot of titles of “HR business partner.” I would agree. It is just that. It is partnering with the leaders and the managers in the organization to help them accomplish their responsibilities as it relates to people. They’ve got many hats to wear. They’ve got a lot of things going on. They also have to meet the goals and needs of the organization, by the way, and we know that people management is not something that comes easily to everyone, and even to those that it comes easily to, a lot of times with many hats being worn, because they tend to be quite popular, there may be a need for assistance, and so the HR person, the generalist, is someone who can assist them in every facet of their people relations. So when they need to hire people, when they need to motivate people and train people, hold people accountable, all of those kinds of things. That’s where the HR function can help be of great assistance in that capacity.
Amy: Thank you for that. I appreciate the overview. And then within that you’ve focused a lot employee relations concerns, specifically around complaints or investigations. Is that correct? And so how did you end up specializing in that field?
Lisa: I don’t know what it says about me, Amy, but I enjoy compliance and complaints and litigation. [both laugh] So, you know, I’m that person who enjoys investigation and the like, and so that’s part of it. In my role working with managers, I have a feeling of “I want to help managers because I recognize that they have heavy jobs, big jobs,” and when issues arise they may get pulled into complaints and the like. A lot of times it’s not due to any type of malicious or corrupt or anything like that, it’s due to other things. “I didn’t cross my i’s or cross my t’s. I didn’t realize how consistency was important. I didn’t recognize the law was this or that or the other.” And so for me it truly was–in addition to the fact that I enjoy it, I do–a need to help good people who are trying to help others by being good managers and leaders, and so helping them to try to avoid those things if at all possible, but then of course when these things happen helping to work through the investigatory process to help get a [?] that will be helpful to the company, you know, in terms of making sure that there isn’t a lot of exposure. So that’s really where it comes from.
Amy: So it sounds like in that role you need to be very analytical but also very people-focused. Is that accurate?
Lisa: I would agree, Amy. You have to be analytical. It is a serious process when you’re talking about compliance and workplace investigation, and for me myself, I don’t have a legal degree, and so with that comes an additional responsibility that I may need to make sure that I’m not giving inappropriate guidance that could then create some legal issues. So to be analytical, to be thorough, to have good process is key to it, but the people aspect of it is absolutely critical. A lot of times whether a litigation situation continues or blows up or what have you has its basis in how you treat people along the way. How are people engaged? How do they feel that they’ve been handled during the process? Do they come away like they feel like they’ve been heard and those kinds of things? So the people balance of it is absolutely critical.
Amy: And I would think that that’s a pretty unique skillset or combination of skills, to have the people focus and that analytical, detail-oriented component. Typically when we think about people, or at least when I think about people in terms of kind of broad categories, I think about the analytical folks who are, you know, kind of off doing their own thing, you know, typically more introverted, and then the people people that are out there just doing, right, and rubbing elbows and being a part of that, and so the reason I bring that up is I’ve talked to a lot of folks who have that combination, and they work in–you know, they work in different fields. They’ll be drawn very much to the analytical piece first and then realize, “Oh, my gosh, I need human interaction. I’ve got to back up from this field or broaden my scope of who I think I am,” or they think, “Wow, I’m really all about people and I want to deal with people,” but then there’s this itch that isn’t scratched because they don’t have that detail analysis piece, and so they kind of find this middle ground where they’re straddling both worlds. And so I like to share that because I think there are a lot of people out there who think it’s one or the other, and there are certainly jobs in corporate America that will make use of both of those skills.
Lisa: It’s true, it’s true. I know when I entered the field I was thinking people, you know? I’m thinking, “I’m a people person. This will be good,” but along the way, very quickly to your point, I learned that “Okay, there is a need for analytics. There’s a need for process, standard procedures,” all of those kinds of things, and so fortunately that was something I found was a comfort level for me as well, but it didn’t start off that way. You’re right.
Amy: That’s interesting. So what else has surprised you about the HR function or some of the industries that you’ve worked in that you did not expect coming in?
Lisa: A couple things. So one thing that surprised me is that manufacturing–which at the time was huge when I first started out–was a plethora, because Toyota had just broken ground in Georgetown, Kentucky, and had a massive impact, so I thought, “Well, manufacturing is just going to be the thing for the rest of my career,” you know? And as we’ve seen, you know, things happen evolution-wise. That has not been the case. You’ve seen more of the rise of service and the like. So the need to be flexible coming out of that, the need to be flexible to go beyond the borders that I had planted for myself, is something that I would say was very surprising, but also I would say–I shouldn’t have been surprised by this, but from the legal standpoint–because a lot of HR has its basis in law of course, and what we do has its basis in law, but you just don’t think about how that is going to change and influence you in the coming years. And so to see the twists and turns, the introduction of FMLA and the refocus again on #MeToo and Americans with disabilities. These things have helped to mold a lot of the HR piece, and how we deliver service to our companies and our employees is another thing that’s been very surprising, because you just don’t know what’s around the corner sometimes.
Amy: I think that’s fascinating. One of the things that I tell people, especially if I’m on college campuses, you know, when I’m talking about responding to change in your career, I will tell people, “Look, don’t ever stop being a student,” because a lot of us when we graduate college [and] we get out into the workforce, we focus on building our expertise, and I think there’s this misconception that experts know everything, and what I try to remind people, especially people who have been in their jobs for a while, is “No, experts know how to keep learning,” because you can know everything, and then the law changes or the economy changes or the workforce changes. And so it’s not about knowing and being steadfast in your knowledge. It’s about being confident in your ability to continue to grow. Would you agree?
Lisa: 100%, 100% agree, and you nailed it. To feel comfortable or confident or complacent because you’ve checked the list on your degrees and your experience–which, by the way, are great things–to check the list on, but to stop and think, “Okay, I’m there, and now I can just manage along”? No, no, no. I would say yes to everything that you have said. It is a changing world. My goodness, look at how the workforce has changed. We did not have this whole global connection a few decades ago, and oh, my goodness, look at what social media has brought. And so to be able to manage and manage effectively and competently with these changing dynamics, you have to continue to network, you have to continue to improve and grow and learn. So I agree 100%.
Amy: So if someone is interested in getting into this field, where would you suggest that they start?
Lisa: I would say from a starting point. I have been a member, for example, of the Society of Human Resource Management my entire career. I’ve moved a lot for job opportunities, but wherever I was there was always a chapter, and I was always a member of the National. What that did for me was it helped to make sure that I was around like people and was discussing like issues, and for somebody who’s trying to dip their toe in and start to get familiar with this whole arena, it’s a wonderful way to do it without committing like you would for a degree or education and the like. That would be perhaps your next step, would be to get some additional education, whether it be courses, maybe a program, your certification, a degree. That kind of thing would be very helpful. In this day and age, you almost need something like that if you’re entering the field. It would be a tremendous help to understand the basics, the fundamentals, the law, the histories, those kinds of things. But a society, an organization like the Society of Human Resource Management, that would be my first step to determine that “Is this something for me?”
Amy: That’s great advice, and I would imagine that you find a lot of community there as well.
Lisa: A lot of community, and they cover so much, and I think that one of the key things is they have their fingers on the pulse of what’s happening today. You literally have dialogue about things that are happening today, and so it’s very current, but they never lose sight of “What are the core values in regards to human resources?” And so it’s just well-organized, and you are surrounded by people at different levels. You’re surrounded by generalists. You’re surrounded by specialists, people of different paths, and it’s a great opportunity of like-minded individuals to come together.
Amy: That’s wonderful. I think, you know, one of the things that I didn’t know, and the audience is probably sick of me saying this, but one of the things that I didn’t know as a young professional was that these associations were out there and that I should be involved in them. Nobody told me that, right? I didn’t come from a family of, you know, white collar professionals, college graduates, and so nobody said, “Hey, you need to go out there and get invovled with associations and attend conferences and go to meet-ups and attend monthly meetings and get a pin and a certification and whatever the things are,” and so many of the people that I’ve talked to in this series have said, “Start with the associations. That’s a great place to network. It’s a great place to learn without investing a ton of money.” And so I’m going to repeat this for the young folks listening, especially if you’re early in your career and nobody’s pulled you aside and said, “Hey, you need to go to a meeting of the association or the society of whatever your job is,” do that. Make that something that’s a goal for this year so that you can start to build a network broader than your own work group, broader than your own company.
Lisa: Yes, indeed.
Amy: Now, I want to pivot just a little bit, Lisa, because you, in addition to having this amazing history as an HR generalist and as a compliance specialist, you’ve taken a little bit of a different turn in your career, and you’re embarking a new journey. I know that you recently were a co-author of a book called “Imagination@Work,” and I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about what that anthology is, what that book’s about, and your decision to be a part of that project.
Lisa: Oh, thank you for asking about that, Amy. I embarked on this fascinating journey. I left the corporate world, and one of my first moves–because I aligned myself with some wonderful individuals who gave me good guidance as a result of networking and professional organizations like SHRM and the National Speakers Association–was to engage in a project of writing a chapter for an anthology, and lo and behold it was just a wonderful experience. I have to admit I was reluctant at first. It was my first writing endeavor, and I thought, “Do I really have that in me?” But when you connect, once again, with like-minded people who have a common goal, energy came, and we really knocked it out of the park. We created a book called Imagination@Work, and there’s five authors including myself, and we each focus on the expertises that we have, that we dialogue about, and so in this book you hear everything from welcoming the multi-generational workforce, finding your story, the importance of mentorships, the importance of exit interviewing and stay interviewing and the whole nine yards, and so for me what this did was it helped people to see who Lisa Johnson is about and what type of service she’s bringing to the table. So it’s my calling card, but to be able to offer the book with all of its different elements, people light it up when they see it. It’s just been a tremendous asset, and it was a great move. It just goes to show you to be open-minded, to be open to what comes to you, because I can tell you from the beginning, I was not, and it wasn’t until Kathy [?] spoke to me and we agreed to this, and I have not regretted a moment since.
Amy: That is wonderful, and there is something so magical about Googling your name and seeing the first listing with the word “author.” It’s like–you feel so official in that moment. You’re like, “I’m an author. If Google says I’m an author, damn it, I’m an author,” right? [both laugh] The Google doesn’t lie.
Lisa: It is so validating, and it’s such a wonderful thing to be able to give people, you know, just very quickly [?] so much about you. You know, “Here I am,” you know? It’s just a wonderful thing.
Amy: And you also launched your own company around the same time, right? So you have HR Know-How. So tell us about that. What are the services you provide, and who do you work with?
Lisa: So the book was the entree into that company, HR Know-How, and my focus is training and development for managers. Once again, that’s where my–for my career that’s where my heart has been, and I wanted to focus on that because I know that’s where I get my energy, from helping others in this crazy world that we live in as they navigate twists and turns. So a lot of training and development on leadership scales. There are a lot of studies and research that shows that many managers that are in roles today, just like you explained before, have a lot of analytical skills and the like. Not so much the people skills, and that can be tough, and so helping the development of leadership skills, that’s what I have enthusiasm for. So that’s the big piece of what I do, and I like to engage in public speaking opportunies. I do keynotes, et cetera, that help to support the purpose of what I do and also to educate. It’s another way to educate as well. So that is what HR Know-How is about, and on the side I do just your basic generalist HR consulting work because I want to stay relevant. I want to keep my skills honed, and that’s something that helps me do that.
Amy: And so who are your target clients for HR Know-How? Are you working primarily with manufacturing industries still, or have you branched out into other industry verticals?
Lisa: So it’s been vertical, and it’s largely been–for larger companies it’s been companies with human resource functions that are maybe feeling a bit overwhelmed and haven’t–you know, “We need to get that training done. We need to get that handbook updated,” you know, those kinds of things, and then for smaller companies that just do not have an HR presence and are needing a little bit of guidance, but that’s really where I find a lot of the consulting aspect of things comes in.
Amy: That’s fantastic, and I think it’s so important too for entrepreneurs and small business owners, and even people maybe who are working in an environment where, you know, you’re maybe on a small team or you’re working at a small company and you think, “Wow, we get a real opportunity here. If only we had someone in HR,” right? I see these stories all of the time of things that kind of go awry in small companies because people get a little too comfortable maybe, you know, with their teammates or their employees and say things they shouldn’t, do things they shouldn’t, make assumptions that are detrimental to the organization or to the people around them, and a lot of folks say, “Well, you know, there’s no one to go to. We don’t have an HR department. We’re too small a company.” And so what I’d like to just put out into the universe is there are people who can help with this, even if you’re a small company. There are people like Lisa who specialize in helping companies, you know, get some basics in place so that their policies and procedures that are there to not only protect employees from bad manager behavior but protect company owners and shareholders and stakeholders and clients from, you know, bad behavior or from oversight and omissions that can lead to some real risk in the company’s longevity and, you know, in the company’s ability to operate effectively, and so if you’re sitting there saying, “Oh, my gosh, we just don’t have the resources to bring in someone as a full-time HR resource,” you know, my advice would be, you know, call Lisa and see, you know, what would it take to put her on a retainer, or what would it take to just build a project? You know, one or two projects at a time, a little bit at a time until you have these things in place, because at the end of the day if you’re not protecting the people in your company, if you’re not creating an environment where people want to come to work, you’re not gonna have a company for very long.
Lisa: That’s very true, Amy. I’m gonna have to borrow that overview. That was well said, well said. [both laugh]
Amy: Thank you. But it is important, and we want everybody to feel welcome and to feel included and valued in our workplaces, but sometimes we get so busy or we get so focused on the work that we forget that our culture is even more important than the work we’re doing.
Lisa: Very true. I agree 100%, and it’s one of those things that it’s hard to–once you go down a path where you’ve allowed things to kind of slide away from your original intent, it’s hard to get back. It’s a struggle to get back, and so it’s best to try to maintain that along the way.
Amy: Well, you know, it’s like a car, right? If you don’t maintain your car, all of a sudden you’ve got a project, right, because now you’ve got to plan for new tires and an oil change and maybe a new engine and, you know, there are lots and lots of things that could go wrong if you don’t keep up on that maintenance.
Lisa: That’s right, that preventative maintenance is golden.
Amy: And so what I’m hearing is whether your company needs preventive maintenance or whether you’ve got a project because you’ve let things go, there is help and there is hope. Is that correct?
Lisa: There is help and there is hope. [both laugh]
Amy: Fantastic. Well, with that, I would like to ask you just a couple of questions that I try to always wrap up with when I can remember and I have my notes in front of me, and the first one is can you finish the sentence – “I feel included when ______.”
Lisa: Yes. I feel included when I am heard, when people listen with everything. The non-verbal, the body language, the eye contact, the whole nine yards. I feel included when I’m able to have my voice heard with an enthusiasm and an engagement that covers everything, an engagement, a true engagement. I feel included.
Amy: And the second part of that is “When I feel included, I ______.”
Lisa: When I feel included, I feel more of everything positive. I feel more engaged, I feel more uplifted, I feel more enthusiastic, I feel more contributory. All of those things. I feel more positive everything, and more belonging of course.
Amy: I love that, and I think it’s so important for us to remember each and every one of us has the power to make someone feel included at work, at home, in our community, and sometimes it’s just as simple as listening and making eye contact and responding. Lisa, thank you so much for your time and your expertise today. I have gained so much additional appreciation for the HR function in the companies that I’ve worked for, and not only that, but you’ve kind of gotten my mind working as I expand my own company how I might bring in some expertise to help me do that. Thank you.
Lisa: Thank you so much, Amy, for this opportunity. This has been an absolute pleasure.