This time for Fond of Work, we spoke with Todd Helms, CHRO at Synovus Financial Corp. Synovus is a financial services company based in Columbus, Georgia, with approximately $48 billion in assets.
Todd is an experienced global HR business partner with diverse exposure to multiple industry sectors. He focuses on driving change and success in challenging business environments and proven HR transformations.
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and how your first got into the HR space?
I have kind of a unique background. I’m actually an engineer by training — I went to Georgia Tech to be an engineer. I had a few internships to see where it would lead, and then I started doing work adjacent to my mechanical engineering work. That lead into safety training and development, so I got in front of employees to deliver safety programs. That was my first entrance into the HR world. From there, I went on to be an Environmental and Safety Manager. When you’re a manager out on the floor, you get pulled into handling employee matters, and that solidified my passion for HR. I got my MBA and set off on a path to become an HR manager, and that was the start of my HR career.
Getting involved in the safety side of things really got me in front of employees and out of my comfort zone. It was a very non-traditional path, which is great because it gives me a unique perspective. Some of the companies I’ve worked for have either made things or distributed things that have been very operationally challenging for the company. Having an engineering background has helped me be effective as an HR leader. I think having a technical background and mindset helps me understand how to adapt the practice of HR to meet other department’s needs. You understand what it means to run an assembly line or manufacture a product, so you can take the craft of HR and apply it to others in a way that won’t be constraining to them.
You’re actually not the first HR leader I’ve spoken with that has a non-traditional background of getting into HR. Is that common?
You’ll see a lot of attorneys that have made the transition to HR, which makes a lot of sense, especially if they’re employment law attorneys. You’ll start to see more engineers and more attorneys that end up in HR, which I think makes them highly effective!
How did you find yourself in your current position?
I was leading HR for a very large business unit for a publicly owned company with 17,000 employees. I wasn’t the CHRO — I was supporting a business unit role. The opportunity arose for me to move into a CHRO role working with a public board and compensation committee. I got a call from a recruiter, and I noticed that the culture, the leadership style, and the role itself was a good fit for me. It was a great transitional move to give me the broader HR experience I was really looking for.
What about your position are you really fond of?
I think what drives me is to have the ability to impact people’s lives daily. Whether it’s compensation or benefits plans or other things that make their lives at work enjoyable, I really enjoy helping with career paths and providing a sense of accomplishment for employees in their careers. I want them to feel good about where they work and (hopefully) stay for a long time. That’s one of the interesting generational things that comes up often — millennials and Gen Z employees think less about working for a company for 25 years, but those options are still out there if that’s what you choose to do. My goal is to give employees the ability to make that choice: if they want to stay somewhere for a lifetime, they can make that choice, but if they want to move on, that’s their choice as well. Just give them the options and hope they might want to stay.
I’ve heard similar answers regarding the impact HR leaders have and wanting to create an environment that reduces turnover.
Absolutely. There are so many benefits to having new employees come in because they give you perspectives on how to do things differently. Simultaneously, having a baseline of legacy employees that understand what the company is all about helps onboard these new employees and provide them context for who we are as an organization. It’s beneficial to have a mix: if you have to many legacy employees, you have blinders on and you’re not going to innovate the way you need to, but if you have too many brand new employees, you’re never going to get traction. You need to have a balance of the two.
Why do you think HR is an important department for businesses to have?
I think there’s an element of HR that’s always going to be administrative. People have to get paid, they need compensation systems, and they need structure around the way things work. But an HR organization also prepares leaders outside of HR to have that HR toolkit they need to do great work and be an effective leader. If we’re doing a good job as an HR department, we’re giving all leaders the skill sets they need to excel. HR is everyone’s job.
What’s your management philosophy, and how do you apply it at Synovus?
I would say my management style is one of empowerment and trust. If you set the right expectations for employees and give them the leeway to run with it and be successful, you guarantee success. I really don’t enjoy an environment where you’re being micromanaged, so I try not to manage my employees that way. I try to set the strategies for the overall organization but they set their own strategies within their responsibilities and teams. I want my team to go out and learn about what’s best-in-class and new trends in the industry and then come back to inform me of what I should be doing. That’s a better approach than me dictating what should happen from the top down.
How do you reward and recognize your employees for a job well done?
We focus less on monetary and traditional “rewards and recognition.” The formative parts of my career have been when leaders have given me hand-written notes or recognized my accomplishments in front of my peers, so I try to perpetuate this behavior with my team as well. Highlighting major achievements is a key way I support my team, and I think it’s a great thing for any organization to do. To have the ability to have cash bonuses or other rewards is great, but I don’t think it’s the actual “thing” that motivates people — it’s the recognition itself and the validation that hard work is appreciated. That sincere appreciation is what I think makes people want to work harder.
I think leading by example with the work-life balance is important as well. It’s important to work hard but it’s important to play hard too. There will be times when we have a tight deadline, but when there’s a time to take a breath, it’s okay to take PTO and vacation with your family or take a day off to go play golf or work half a day from home. Do something that helps you revitalize and catch your breath. I think it’s important that, especially for my generation who always felt like it’s important to be seen at work to be productive, we teach the younger generations that this isn’t always the case. If you have a leader that behaves a certain way, your team will emulate that behavior. As a leader, communicate to your team that they deserve to take the time off to spend with friends and family and there’s life outside of work.
There’s definitely a widening gap between generations who want to work remotely and generations who believe work happens in the office. How do you navigate that?
We need to train the more senior leaders on how to get comfortable with that environment and how to embrace that. Because you can have all the work from home policies that you want, but if you have managers that aren’t willing to give it a try or they’re secretly holding grudges against employees who choose to work from home, it defeats the purpose. We have to change that mindset, and there’s certainly room for all generations to learn from each other from that perspective.
I think a big part of that has to do with trust — establishing it between managers and employees.
Yes, and when it comes down to it, it’s about establishing clear expectations. When I tell someone to produce x, y, and z within a given time frame, I really shouldn’t care where they are or how they do it. Of course, there are other expectations around being present for meetings and project management, but getting managers comfortable with unlearning that concept that employees have to be in the office from 8-5 to be productive is something we have to focus on.
Why do you think employee recognition matters?
People want to be appreciated. They want to feel like they have a purpose in their job. Either the organization they work for helps fulfill that purpose — it’s a purpose-driven organization like a charity or a place that impacts others in a very positive way — or they, individually, are doing at work fulfills a purpose. Do my employees feel like they’ve made a difference when they go home every day? I think that’s why recognition matters. I want employees to go home and connect the dots every day between everything they did to impact their team, the organization, and customers.
What’s the best advice you’ve received in your career?
I have two answers:
The first is common: always hire people smarter than you. It’s impossible, especially the higher up you get in an organization and the more responsibility you have, to understand that you cannot be an expert in everything. HR is a great example of that. If compensation isn’t your strength, then make sure you have a really great compensation person who works under you. There are all these facets of the HR function that make it impossible to be a master of all things. You need to have the humility and the smarts to know that there are people more experienced than you in certain areas and that’s okay. You should also try to hire your successor. If you’re looking at the next step forward, you should always have a few people in mind that you’re preparing to step into your role.
The second piece is different. I had a boss years ago who only focused on the job at-hand. When recruiters called, he never called them back. He never networked outside of the organization. One day, he realized he was unhappy and made a very abrupt decision to quit. He didn’t have a plan in place about where he wanted to go. He came back to me six months later and said the worst thing he ever did was put himself in an environment where he was so focused on his role that he lost sight of everything going on in the outside world.
Those relationships are really important — it’s not like we always have to look at every opportunity that comes along, but when a recruiter calls you, listen to what they have to say, and if you’re not interested, give them a couple names of others who might be interested. Always give back to the professional community to be a good networker and help others with their careers.
One last thing: Regarding your career, don’t be so focused and narrow minded in what you do and how it defines you as a person. Early on in my career, if I simply defined myself as an engineer, I would have never made the jump into HR. In reality, I was someone capable of doing engineering work, but there’s so much more I knew I could do. Be open minded to new opportunities and don’t pigeonhole yourself into one path. You’ll find a job at some point that you’re really passionate about and defines who you are, but it might not be a clear path to get there.
What are some of the most pressing issues HR leaders face today?
I think it’s obvious to most people that there’s such a high rate of change in the world we live in today. Jobs and skills that are relevant today didn’t exist 10 years ago, and five years from now it’s going to change again. I have a daughter in high school and I think a lot of the career path discussions happening in high school right now are archaic. They still focus on what the world looked like 30 years ago, so I try to tell her to worry less about it at this point. By the time she gets out of college, the job market will again be so different.
Adapting quickly is not easy. How do you keep that pace of change, as well as the capital investment decisions and knowing how to prioritize and make those decisions? I think that’s a major challenge HR leaders are dealing with today.
The other is generational. We have four generations in the workforce right now, and while they all work hard and they all know what good work looks like, they don’t always agree on how to get there. Managing through those dynamics and, especially in an area like banking that has been traditionally conservative and slower to adapt to change, we’re asking ourselves how to update ourselves to be relevant to the next generations.
Lastly, public companies are really focused on inclusion and diversity. How do we change and eliminate some of the biases that are built into our own mindsets and/or our processes? We also have to change mindsets of people who are attending college or recently graduated that are pursuing careers. A lot of people have stigmas about the banking industry and don’t want to pursue it.
How do we get people interested in banking after college? The industry has been tainted by a lot of stuff happening during the recession and the financial downturn — how do we change that brand image to ensure there are more women and people of color that want to come into the banking industry?
What’s one thing you’ve had to learn the hard way in your career?
This is harder for every manager as they get higher in an organization: managerial courage. The willingness to make the tough decisions, even if they aren’t popular, and know that it may impact you with the larger workforce. The higher you get in the organization, the more you are visible to people, opening yourself up to criticism about the decisions that you make. But being willing to make those tough decisions for the right reasons is really important. I’ve seen so often that it’s hard for senior leaders to do that because they want to be liked. You can’t always be liked. It’s almost like parenting — sometimes you just have to make the tough decisions because it’s what’s best for the organization, but they’re not necessarily going to be popular.
Do you have any advice for future HR leaders?
Never stop learning, and not just about HR, but about the business. I’ve been fortunate enough to work at a variety of places — one for over 13 years — so I’ve been in a lot of different industries with a lot of different competitors. I’ve had exposure to a lot, and it’s all fun to learn. Every role that you take, you learn something new, and that’s how you keep growing. HR leaders need to own whatever business they’re in and think of themselves and true partners. They’re not behind-the-scenes. They need to bring themselves to the table — their whole mind and heart.
Thanks so much to Todd for taking the time to speak with us! Synovus is hiring, so check out their website to learn more. And, of course, stay tuned for the next interview in the Fond of Work series!
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