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DNA of a VP of HR

DNA of VP of HR Suanne NielsonSuanne Nielsen is the Senior Vice President and Chief Talent Officer for Foresters, a leading, respected mutual international financial services organization. Nearly five years into this role, Suanne’s goal is to have Foresters known as a place for talented people. Prior to this role, she was the Senior Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer for Foresters, and Senior Vice President of HR and Employee Communications. Suanne is a Certified Professional Active-Coach (CPCC) and is Human Resources and Compensation Committee Certified (HRCCC)

Suanne Nielsen, SVP and Chief Talent Officer at Foresters

DNA of VP of HR Foresters logo

Did you always aspire to becoming an HR Leader?

No, I knew I wanted to be in business, but didn’t know that HR specifically would be my path early on in my career. Initially I thought I’d be a lawyer. I joined the life insurance industry and considered a career as an Actuary at one point. I started out my career in a broad back office role, covering accounting, customer service, hiring and training within an innovative start-up in the US and now have been in a variation of my role with Foresters for more than 18 years.

What is the biggest obstacle you’ve faced along your career path?

The biggest challenge within my role is balancing life. Many crises occur within a business that requires HR to be there. You have to consciously make time for your life outside of work – having a balance will make you a stronger leader.

In addition to this, one of my greatest learnings was recognizing that I was my own obstacle. What made me successful when I was coming up through the HR ranks was that I was smart, quick and generally felt I had all of the right answers. Whereas, at the senior level, my need to feel that I’m right all of the time is limiting. I’ve had to open up to other people’s input and ideas more.

What technical skills and personal attributes are integral to being successful in HR today?

Today you have to be business savvy, have strong financial acumen and have an acute understanding of human behaviour. At a senior level in HR you are always small-c coaching, so understanding human behaviours will help you as you develop executive coaching skills. You also need an understanding of board governance.

In terms of personality traits – the best work that HR does for a business is often invisible to the organization or its people. Sometimes so invisible that others receive the credit. You have to have the agenda of the organization and its people at your heart and not be egocentric.

To help you through this path you need to have strong influencing skills (which ties into your business acumen).  HR is becoming increasingly scientific, which is forcing HR professionals to bring more analytics and evidence based information to the table. The path today requires you to know how to mine data and draw up patterns.

Lastly, presentation skills are essential. You need to be able to get to the essence very quickly and be able to ‘bottom line’ the information you’re providing; put simply, clearly getting across the impact on business performance.

What is your advice to someone who is moving up the ranks in the field and wants to pursue a management/executive career?

Too often, people gravitate to HR because they want to help people. This leads to the risk that you end up doing the work of the leaders of the business, rather than actually performing HR work. You need to be able to coach leaders on how to both identify root causes and manage their own issues and challenges. Don’t get caught up in ‘emergency responder’ mode. Understand root causes and bring evidence-based information to the leaders of the business. Step back from crises and ask why, and then develop a people strategy to drive the business forward. I’ve worked from top to bottom. You have to be curious about the business. Understand how the business makes money, loses money and what are the leverage points.

What is the one thing you have to have to be a VP of HR in your opinion?

Personal credibility.

What advice would you give to the next generation of professionals aspiring to become a HR leader?

Hold onto your hat!  If you’re good at what you do, then everyone will want a piece of you, so you’re going to be busy.