October 21, 2019 · Human Resource Management,
Quick Biography: Barry Wolfe is the president of Argos HR Solutions LLC. With over 25 years of leading HR in manufacturing and engineering companies, Barry Wolfe has delivered real results in change leadership, leadership development, performance management, employee retention, recruiting, compensation & benefits management, strategic management, and HR analytics. He now puts that same expertise to work for other organizations.
Top 10 HR Leaders – Interview Series
Elena: Welcome Barry! So glad to have you with us today. If you can tell us a little bit about your own HR story and how you grew up to be in your current position?
Barry: I got started in HR working for my father’s company when I was 13, where I learned to drive a forklift before I could drive a car. I was interested in music and literature while growing up. I also was part of a musical group that was touring new places! After a few years of touring, I decided to go to college to study literature because I wanted to be a literature professor. But one day before I was supposed to go to graduate school, my dad called me into his office. He had just let his HR person go, and he asked me, “how would you like to be the HR director?” And I thought that sounded like fun, but not really knowing anything about it. I got on the job training, learned by reading and networking with other HR professionals.
I was one of the people who started a local SHRM chapter and had been on the board for several years.
Later on, I started to work for a business owned by a Fortune 500 corporation in Williamsport, PA, which is the home of the Little League World Series. After that, I moved to Pittsburgh where I worked for a number of years as HR Vice President for a civil engineering and environmental consulting business. During this time, I also wrote my book, “The Little Black Book of Human Resources Management,” which is available on Amazon.
Now we are launching a human resources outsourcing/PEO business and building a referral network, identifying potential clients, technology, et cetera.
Elena: Wow. From music to literature to HR and starting at 13 sounds very exciting enriched with fulfilling experiences! So at what point did you realize that HR was your thing and what made that switch or how did that happen?
Barry: Well, you know, what’s funny is, I got where I am the old-fashioned way: My dad started the company, and I joined him really knowing much of anything about it. But I knew it was my calling when we were starting a pretty significant organizational change and I was part of the planning team – scoping it out, communicating it, creating people systems support around that and making that happen successfully. It was a game-changer as I was really not just changing a few things in the company, but changing people’s satisfaction with their work and changing the performance of the business. That’s when I really knew, this is what I would like to continue to do.
Elena: And so given the vast experience that you have, it’d be very interesting to hear from your experience how the HR world has changed since 2015 and how do you think it is shaping up for 2025?
Barry: One thing that has surprised me most in my time as a consultant is that people in my profession are often not viewed as credible leaders in business. In fact, I have found that there is some level of contempt that non-HR people have for people in the HR field.
Elena: Yes. It’s a very interesting observation.
Barry: It mostly comes from the fact they are too many people in Human Resources who talk to other HR people – they miss the technology part and the business understanding. The reality is that a lot of HR people are still administrative, kind of technocratic, quasi-bureaucratic people. There are a lot of them who talk about leading change, but they’ve never actually done it. And they probably wouldn’t know how or don’t have the capability if they did have the opportunity.
I don’t want to be unkind, but such people are obsolete and can be completely replaced. They need to step up their game and the best way for them to do that is to stop paying exclusive attention to what’s going on in human resources and start really, truly understanding what’s going on in the business they work for.
Also, alongside the emergence of AI-driven technology especially in core HR functions is the explosion in progress around analytics and businesses are these days driven by analytics. HR people must understand statistics, must be able to interpret data at a high level and be able to dive deeply into data because HR now is augmented by the basics of statistics and analytics.
Elena: So what is your advice to the HR people?
Barry: As I mentioned earlier, the HR landscape is changing fast. I think the emphasis on technology and data analytics will become increasingly important. But above all, I’ve become convinced that there’s nothing more important than an HR person can deliver for the company than to find and develop the best leaders you possibly can because everything comes back to the leadership.
Elena: What are some of the key ways that you see that HR is actually driving that business growth and that success? Do you have some concrete functions or examples of how really HR can and does have a lot to say in terms of business growth?
Barry: A lot of HR data is driving businesses to understand what type of people are successful in that type of organization, or what are the factors contributing to the employee retention or churn rate. But the real challenge is still to stay focused to grow this business and make it profitable at the end of the day. HR must be able to forecast the resource capacity, what is the team size, can they manage them appropriately? Do they have a sense of how that’s going to change? What systems are going to have to be in place to support that, both from a technology standpoint, and a human capital management standpoint? Read here Why Data is a Must for Workforce Planning.
Elena: Now, coming specifically to multi-regional and multi-national companies, does the face of HR change in some important way? Is their job easier or harder?
Barry: Well, the President cannot be everywhere, the senior leadership cannot be everywhere, but if we have solidly laid down policies and processes supporting capable leaders, then there can be some confidence that things are being done according to what the organization considers its “right way.”.
Elena: There is a lot of buzz around employee engagement, what is your take on it?
Barry: I think the term “engagement” is one of those technocratic terms born in academia that make people sound smart, but that doesn’t adequately describe the capacity of human commitment that organizations are trying to tap into. Think about the Continental Army during the winter of 1777 at Valley Forge during the American Revolution. George Washington nearly lost his entire army to desertion and deprivation, yet his soldiers endured. In fact, they went on to receive better training and came through the hardships a much-improved, committed, and professional force. Soldiers of the time attributed the miraculous changes to Washington’s steadfast leadership and the loyalty it engendered. I think leaders today are trying to tap into something similar to their employees. But whatever you want to call that level of commitment, I think it’s something much deeper and more powerful than is captured by a word like “engagement.”
I saw something in my dad’s business. He and his partners got many of the employees to believe that this was more than a company, it was a kind of cause. Creating that kind of commitment requires a very personal style of leadership, and above all, it starts by convincing people that the leader is personally committed to everyone else. With that start, it’s something that can be supported by a thoughtful employee and leadership development, as well as thoughtful performance management and compensation processes.