A Seat at the Table

Changes in the corporate world and the reputation of Owen’s Human and Organizational Performance program put Owen HOP MBAs in high demand.

From the Spring 2013 edition of Vanderbilt Business


It’s a classic case of supply and demand, with Vanderbilt meeting the demand for sharp human resources professionals with a supply of MBAs trained in human resource. The crunch is driven equally by changes in the corporate world and the reputation of Owen’s Human and Organizational Performance program.

The HOP concentration is among the highest ranked programs at Vanderbilt’s Owen School. Financial Times, for instance, named it No. 4 in specialty MBA programs in the U.S., and No. 7 globally.

That reputation creates competition to land Owen grads for the working world.

“Employers want to get here before anyone else and skim off the cream of the crop, find those qualified students and lock them up for internships,” says Read McNamara, executive director of the school’s Career Management Center. “They feel if they can lock them up for an internship, they have a pretty good chance of having that particular student convert the internship to a full-time offer and a good chance of the student accepting that offer. Companies will push us as hard as they possibly can to get to campus as soon in the school year as they can.”

Case in point: By January 2013, every second-year HOP student had accepted a full-time position. About 60 percent of them came back from their summer internships in the fall with offers for jobs. Vanderbilt’s rate for all MBAs is 40 percent receiving offers after summer internships.

HOP has virtually caught up with other MBAs in salaries, too; McNamara says that the average starting salary for a Vanderbilt MBA grad with a HOP concentration is about $90,000, just shy of the $92,000 average for all MBAs. He expects HOP to be on par with other MBAs by 2015.

“It’s not just the salary. The number of offers per HOP person and the credentials of the people applying to Owen with the stated goal of HOP are certainly on the rise,” McNamara says. “We’re delighted with that and if we keep doing the things we’re doing, there’s no limit to what we can do.”

And no limit to the need, either. Changes in corporate America have shifted views of the workforce. Technological improvements that handle typical HR functions have created opportunities for HR professionals to claim a seat at the table of the upper echelon of company management.

Barry Salzberg, CEO of Deloitte Touche Tahmatsu Limited
Barry Salzberg, CEO of Deloitte Touche Tahmatsu Limited

“The HR function has been elevated,” says Barry Salzberg, chief executive officer of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited and a former member of the Owen Graduate School of Management Board of Visitors. “Ten to 15 years ago, human resource directors in large organizations reported to COOs or CFOs; today chief talent/HR officers report directly to CEOs, reflecting the increasing importance of talent. While leading a winning organization looks radically different today versus five years ago, business still relies on people to succeed.”

New demands on HR professionals include using predictive analytics to identify high performers early in their careers or to identify which employees may be likely to leave, Salzberg says. “This model allows for overall workforce planning, which is just as critical to a business’ bottom line as financial planning. Human resources has become a broad and strategic driver in business. This has not only helped us identify and cultivate careers of high-performers, but shifted our development approach from reactive to proactive.”

Reflecting Current Business Needs

Whether a company is growing rapidly, winding down a segment of its business or trying to do more with less to remain competitive, people issues are at the forefront and HR professionals are finding sometimes that seat at the table means at the head.

When Virginia “Ginger” Barnes, EMBA’91, began her career as a contracts administrator at Boeing, she recalls that “empowerment and encouragement thoughts existed only in small pockets and they certainly weren’t popular.” In her first program management job of overseeing early phases of Boeing’s involvement in the International Space Station, she began to understand the importance of people management as she worked closely with Russian counterparts. “That was a real people kind of epiphany,” she says. “We didn’t look alike, but we had the same values.”


As CEO of United Space Alliance (USA), Barnes has had the unenviable task of retiring NASA’s space shuttle program. At the peak, USA—an alliance between Boeing and Lockheed Martin—employed 10,500. That number now stands at less than 2,000.

“What I’m most proud of is that we’ve done that with an intense focus on taking care of our people,” Barnes says. “Before I got here, USA benchmarked other companies that had shut down big programs. We didn’t find good examples of people who did it well. We went out to the workforce and said, ‘What do you need from us?’ I have an 11-by-17 spreadsheet of all the initiatives that we have implemented, and I have to say, we have been wildly successful. People come back and thank us for the ways that we helped.”

In 2011, when the shuttle flew its final mission, USA garnered five perfect performance scores from NASA; it marked the first time that USA had received even one perfect score. “I’ve been criticized by some for focusing more on people than I did on profits,” Barnes says. “But at the time that I did, we received the 100 percent award. As hard as this job is, and as unglamorous as it is, it’s the most rewarding experience of my career. Part of that has to do with the people I’m doing it with. We’ve made deliberate decisions about the people that we kept on board to finalize the closeout. In every case, each of those employees has come to me and said, ‘I will take on more, and do whatever you need me to do.’”

Crises, especially over the last five years, have certainly influenced the importance of staffing in companies, whether navigating external challenges or internal issues. “Those kinds of reactive developments have made companies, at the board level, look at the alignment of their own human capital, the importance of human capital and the importance of succession,” McNamara says. “And they’ve reached the conclusion that human resources is no longer a compliance function, but an absolutely essential element in the quiver of a company in terms of the elements it has available to ensure its own success. Visionary companies that recognize the importance of human capital and human capital deployment and planning are way ahead of the curve.”

“Attracting and retaining game-changing talent is at the top of the CEO agenda, as companies and clients expand exponentially in key markets—particularly in Asia and the Middle East.”

—Barry Salzberg

Those visionary companies are using their human relations personnel for entirely new functions. “Attracting and retaining game-changing talent is at the top of the CEO agenda, as companies and clients expand exponentially in key markets—particularly in Asia and the Middle East,” Deloitte’s Salzberg says. “In our global knowledge economy, the right employees make or break organizations, and we’re in the midst of a talent paradox: While layoffs continue and unemployment is high, many jobs still go unfilled because of skill shortages.

“For instance, in the United States alone, 3.6 million jobs were unfilled as of December 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, even though the unemployment rate was at 7.8 percent,” Salzberg says. “Globalization and the proliferation of new technologies have forced companies to radically reconsider traditional talent and organizational models to distributed, crowd-sourced models.”

A Need to Understand

As HR gains visibility in upper management, it’s equally important that HR professionals know and understand all facets of business just like their peers with MBAs.


Erika Bogar King, MBA’99, began her career as a recruiter before moving into more of an HR generalist role, where she found herself recruiting those with graduate degrees to fill banking positions. “I hadn’t really thought of it before, but one turned to me and said, ‘So when are you going (to graduate school)?’ I looked at Owen because the professionals that I knew came from there were more accessible, more balanced in their approach,” says King, now talent director for Deloitte Consulting. “I liked the cultural sense that I was getting from the talent as well as the quality. I knew it fit would me.”
She also was attracted to the business background that embodied the HOP concentration. “I knew I wanted to stay in professional services and Owen’s HOP program was not from a psychology or people basis, but from a business basis first with the people element,” she says.

Nancy Abbott, EMBA’91, wanted to change fields and move out of the IT function at her company, GE. Her undergraduate degree in behavioral science made human resources the logical choice. “I wanted to immerse myself in areas I hadn’t studied in undergrad. I needed to know how to read a balance sheet, get better grounded in economics and learn the language of business,” she says. “That was my goal in choosing Owen. In the job that I had, I realized I didn’t truly understand finance, business metrics and key drivers. I wanted to build my skills to be a credible business partner. We continue to have a strong relationship with Owen and recruit here every year because of the talented, business-focused HOP graduates.”

“I think I’ve been lucky to be in a company where it’s assumed that HR has a seat at the table,” says Abbott, who leads organization and talent development for GE Capital. “Although it’s expected that you have a seat, you have to understand how the business works and contribute broadly to the business’s success, or you’ll lose that seat.”

When Abbott worked on an acquisition, one of the biggest learning curves was helping the new employees to understand the role of HR. “They viewed HR as very tactical, more about benefits and payroll transactions,” she says. “They had no vision of the value we could add, such as attracting, growing and developing terrific talent.”


Abbott sees traditional human resource functions such as payroll and benefits as activities many companies are outsourcing to specialists or centralized centers of excellence. “That’s an evolution that has allowed HR people at GE to focus on the most critical and strategic needs of the business,” she says.

In her role, Abbott must have a clear understanding of the company’s worldwide business goals. “Without really knowing the needs of a particular business unit, and its plans for the future, I can’t help to identify the best possible talent to help it reach its goals. In my role, I’m one of the few people in GE Capital who looks across the top performers in all our businesses to see where in the world they might be matched with a great new opportunity,” she says.

Success Secrets

In business, timing is everything and Vanderbilt has a strategic advantage: It’s growing its HOP concentration at a time when other business schools have eliminated programs. “A number of premier programs either de-emphasized or dropped human resources,” McNamara says. “I think they’d love to have that one back and do it again.”


Vanderbilt has a strategic advantage: It’s growing its HOP concentration at a time when other business schools have eliminated programs.

While others may have stepped out of the HOP studies, Vanderbilt has stepped up. McNamara sees the possibility of doubling the number of students specializing in HOP to as much as 15 to 20 percent of its MBA class. The secret to the success? “No. 1 is faculty,” McNamara says. “If you look at the accomplishments of our management department faculty, and specifically people who teach HOP, these are folks who have gained a reputation inside the classroom and out, in terms of research and recognition. The kind of people who come to study HOP do their homework and understand the value of the faculty.”

McNamara also cites Owen’s forward-looking curriculum and association with Peabody College of education and human development, which is widely recognized for its organizational performance programs. “There’s a spillover effect of the wonderful reputation of Peabody on Owen,” he says. “We’re recognized as having two of the premier organizational programs. Finally, it’s the self-perpetuating excellence in that our HOP people go on to great careers in corporate or consulting, and they’re people who come back and get involved. The alumni involvement will not permit this great program to slip.”

Transforming the Future

Human capital has risen in importance along with other corporate functions, but it is not without unique challenges.

“Because people associate HR with the touchy-feely things, it does not get the respect that finance does,” King says. “I do think there are probably HR organizations that still are the people who organize the company picnic and other events. It’s hard to pull away and tell your clients that you’re not going to do this anymore.”

At Amgen, the transactional aspects of HR have been moved back to the staff level, and human resources has shifted to coaching and advising. Centers of excellence handle recruiting and scheduling job interviews, says Joe Parise, MBA’10, Amgen human resources manager. “Having a business background helps you speak the client’s language much faster. Transactional work is not what our clients need,” he says. “Clients come to me for decisions on what they want to do. My job is really to hold a mirror up to them, to explore unintended consequences, to be a sounding board.”


And to be a sounding board requires a strong understanding of the issues, the kind of understanding gained through an MBA.

“It’s doubly important here at Deloitte,” King says. “My clients have the degree. My clients are advisers to their clients. They expect that I have the ability to manage change, to be able to craft a vision, to understand project management and how we extract value from our practitioners.”

When all the elements come together, the role that HR professionals play in their corporations can—and will continue to—be a formula for success. “When an organization becomes known for cultivating and developing talent, the market brand is strengthened,” Salzberg says. “This ultimately increases their ability to attract and retain high performers. When a company attracts top talent, it can quickly fill new and open positions without missing a beat. Keeping unfilled positions to a minimum can lead to increased productivity and profitability, greater innovation and faster time to market.”