Management Development ForumVol. 1- No 1(98)
Meeting Career Challenges in HRM
Lisa Hope Pelled and Jean Louise Kahwajy
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Lisa Hope Pelled
Jean Louise Kahwajy

This article shares approaches one woman has taken to get ahead in HR in a high-tech male-dominated corporation, surviving and thriving through the course of the company’s acquisition by another company. By remaining flexible, knowledgable, positive in the face of change and challenges, and aware of the broader corporate objectives, one woman’s career has flourished.


Only a small number of women reach the upper management levels of organizations (Swoboda, 1995). Of those who do, even fewer achieve a degree of influence comparable to men at those levels. Among those few is Jennifer Miller, who has become the Human Resource (HR) Director at Cadence Design Systems in San Diego, California. Advancement to the upper management level and having an impact in a male-dominated environment are not the only challenges Ms. Miller continues to meet: She also is dealing with the trauma of an acquisition.

In 1995 Cadence Design Systems acquired Unisys STO. Miller had become HR Director at Unisys – the only female of eight senior managers – while still in her thirties. In spite of her gender and a youthful appearance that could have kept her from being taken seriously, she became a major player at Unisys, instituting and championing innovative human resource management and quality improvement programs. Although an acquisition often constitutes a considerable disruption to the careers of those in the acquisition target, Miller has retained her position as HR Director in the post-acquisition firm, Cadence Spectrum Design, and her career continues to progress there. How did she get there and, more importantly, what is her strategy for continuing to thrive there? During several extensive meetings with Miller, we learned of her key approaches and insights. These are summarized below, along with illustrative quotes (in italics) from Miller.

Take on New and Different Assignments

According to Miller, an important factor that helped her become HR director at Unisys was her willingness to accept new tasks. Even if a task was uninteresting, she would volunteer for it – as long as she had not done it before.

Miller: I joined Unisys as an HR representative. At staff meetings, Unisys’ previous HR director would need someone to do something and ask, “Who wants to take this on?” Everyone else would sit there, and I’d always say, “I’ll do it.” It all fascinates me, and I’d like to try it all out. I need change, variety, new things. I can’t just do maintenance things. I can’t. I get too bored. If you say, “I’ll do it,” then once the exciting job comes along, you get the reward. Actually, I never saw anything as a crummy job. I never approached anything as though “that’s not exciting” or “that doesn’t have the visibility.” I thought of it as though, “I haven’t done that before. I’ll give it a try.” I mean, you always learn something! My [former] boss [the previous HR director] once said to me, “You’re very much like me. You’ll take everything on.” So when she was leaving, she recommended me for her position.

Although career experts have argued for the importance of being selective about assignments, they also acknowledge that “sometimes the less attractive assignments are the best reputation builders. In those cases, management may be trying to challenge you in areas where they have not seen you demonstrate skills” (Williamson,1994:64).

Miller: There are a lot of people who don’t want to do task forces. To me, that was where I got a lot of development. I think that’s the benefit of a large corporation: You get those kinds of experiences. You have the opportunity for more exposure to different aspects of HR. In a very small company you are more hands-on, but in a large corporation like Unisys, there were corporate training departments and huge corporate benefits departments. You could go on a task force and get exposure to issues like “benchmarking HMOs.” I found it educational to listen to these all-day presentations on companies and how they benchmark and manage their costs. On the task force I participated on, there were consultants from Mercer . . . . I thought, “That’s an incredible learning experience.”

Often, high-level positions require using a variety of skills and juggling multiple tasks (Mintzberg, 1973). Employees who demonstrate flexibility and a broad skill set are therefore seen as better promotion candidates. In addition to showing flexibility, accepting new tasks that are not required and not particularly appealing shows that one is a good citizen of the organization. Because most employers look for special effort, volunteering for tasks, helping others, or exhibiting other employee such organizational citizenship behavior tends to increase one’s chances of getting favorable assignments or early promotion (Borman & Motowidlo, 1993; Landy, Shankster, & Kohler, 1997).

Adjust your Style to the Situation

A second approach that Miller employs is to monitor her behavior and adjust it as situations demand. Researchers (e.g., Fiske & Taylor, 1991) have pointed out that conforming to situational norms is a form of impression management. In many settings, there is a style or pattern of interaction that conveys the best identity for that setting -- i.e., a “situated identity” (Alexander & Knight, 1971). Adopting that style or interaction pattern helps one make a positive impression. Below, Miller describes how she applied this technique at Unisys STO.

Miller: There was a task force set up by Unisys’ Corporate Headquarters in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. I would participate in meetings at headquarters about task force findings. I think they invited people from the field [like me] because of this Malcolm Baldrige thing. The corporate facility began to see that people out in the field were their customers, so if you’re going to make decisions impacting your [internal] customers, why not get some of their input into it? The senior vice president of HR, from corporate headquarters in Blue Bell, invited me to come back and present to his staff what we had done in our department and how we were establishing ourselves. That was fun. I don’t know how receptive they were to it. You’re talking about 30-year company employees. Most were men – heads of corporate HR functions. It’s a little bit of a different audience than someone who has been out of college for five years. You’re talking about people who have been in compensation all their lives, and I’m supposed to talk to them about cross-training and finding out what your customer wants. In some respects, I wanted to see the audience get excited, but I realized after a while, in doing different things, that you aren’t going to get everybody as enthused as you are. I had to sit on my enthusiasm a little because I can see it’s annoying to people at times. There are people who don’t want a cheerleader in the room. So I’ve kind of had to adjust my style a bit. [Ultimately,] I was asked several times if I would consider relocating back there [at corporate headquarters]. If I were a single person, I would have, for the experience.

By adopting an interaction style that her audience expected and preferred, Miller eventually made a wary group of managers comfortable with her and more receptive to what she had to say. The use of self-presentation tactics in such a manner often fosters career advancement (Baumeister, 1989).

Take a Positive Attitude Toward Change and Challenge

Another key success factor conveyed by Miller is an upbeat attitude in the face of change. Resistance to change is a common and debilitating phenomenon in organizations (Strebel, 1996). Managers and employees are often concerned that they will be overloaded with work, that their competencies will no longer be useful, or that they will lose status as a result of change (Kanter, 1985). Consequently, they strive to maintain the status quo even when modification is essential (Truell, 1988). Miller, however, maintained a positive attitude toward change and its accompanying challenges before, during, and after the acquisition of Unisys STO.

Before the acquisition, she welcomed quality innovations with open arms.

Miller: [The previous HR Director at Unisys] had started some changes. I kept them and developed them more. I’ll give you an example. We started tracking the issues brought to us – tracking where the majority of issues were. We measured ourselves to see how quickly we turned questions around. We made a commitment to get back to the person within 48 hours, and then we would send out report cards – have employees fill out report cards. The report card would say how we were doing. If people had to come in over and over again to ask the same question, we referred to them as defects. We began to ask ourselves, “How can we eliminate these defects?” That either meant more education in HR, or looking at the communication techniques that were in place and how we needed to improve those. At first, it was a little haphazard. You start collecting too much data. But eventually you figure out what you need. We were spending too much time on it, so we decided to hone in on a few areas. With an annual survey, we saw marked improvements from this.

I made a lot of these quality efforts. It was fun doing it. You see improvements, and the front-end HR people get more responsibility. There was energy, camaraderie. We trained the secretaries and included them in staff meetings. If Patty is out there and sees all the employees pass by her office every day, then who knows more about what’s going on with the employees day-to-day? Patty or me? Patty. Patty had great suggestions. Because everybody was fairly well-trained, business never came to a halt. Before, secretaries were treated like, “You’re just here to process paper work.” In departments where you eliminate the people who have the first point of contact with employees, you do yourself a disservice.

During the acquisition, Miller faced a more radical change: the forthcoming restructuring. Resistance to the acquisition would have been highly understandable, as acquired personnel often face dismissal or if they remain with the post-acquisition firm role changes that make adjustment difficult (Hambrick & Cannella, 1993). Yet Miller faced this uncertain situation with optimism.

Miller: My concern with Unisys was that I wasn’t sure where the future would take me. Cadence was doing well and growing, so the decision [to go with Cadence] seemed right. Of course, I didn’t know what my new job would entail, and that is another reason I took a while to make the decision. Eventually, I decided, “Perhaps this acquisition is an opportunity to create my job.” It’s a new company – a new situation.

After the acquisition took place, Miller avoided looking back and second-guessing her choice. Instead, she did her best to help others adjust, offering her empathy and serving as a liaison when necessary.

Miller: At first Cadence and Unisys people were all in the same building. (Cadence has grown so much that it now uses another building.) Cadence gave a big party to welcome new people, right in front of those who were still Unisys employees. It was very awkward. Those Unisys people had already been upset that they weren’t taken to Cadence. On the day of the party, one gal said, “If I had any kind of idea that this would happen, I wouldn’t have come to work today.” I just couldn’t convey [to Cadence management] that those of us who are going to Cadence are excited about it, but these people we’ve left behind are our friends we’ve known for 15 years. For them [the people left behind] it was like being a kid, and somebody got an invitation that you didn’t get.

The greatest challenge right after the acquisition was the transition of [Unisys] employees – assimilating them into the company. The employees who had been at Unisys needed someone to handle their benefits transition from Unisys to Cadence. The fact that I had been at Unisys was beneficial to the employees. It was helpful to have someone who had worked at one place [Unisys] from the get-go and was transferred to the other place [Cadence]. I knew all the people to call at Unisys. I look at the acquisition, and I know that, as promising as it can appear to be, when you actually go through the assimilation piece of it, it is far more stressful and threatening than people assume. Whatever you can do to make it easier for employees, makes it easier for the company as a whole.

In sum, by accepting and helping to manage changes instead of working against them, Miller makes sure that she remains an asset to her company. Then, as the company progresses, her career progresses with it.

Pay Attention to the Business and Strategy of HR

Increasingly, management consultants are advocating a stronger link between HR strategies and overall business directions. They argue that, with rampant restructuring and changes, HR staff need to ensure that employees understand and work toward company goals (Jones, 1996). Additionally, these experts suggest that HR policies and practices – e.g., recruitment and staffing, compensation, and training – must be aligned with the objectives of the business (Davis, 1996). The results of management studies support such ideas: Firms have better financial performance when there is integration between their corporate strategy and their HR function (e.g., Fox & McLeay, 1992). Aware of this trend toward business-HR alignment, Miller now attempts to understand and be in sync with the substance of Cadence’s business.

Miller: I find myself trying to read the business books that my boss [the general manager] is reading. One of the books is Built to Last. I just started reading it, and it’s fascinating. I just bought Only the Paranoid Survive. I figure if I can understand what is important to my boss – how he sees the world – I will be a better business partner. I have to learn what that terminology means. I have to be able to know the same language they’re talking. I’ll never know it to the depth that an engineer does, but I’d better have a good understanding of what that means to us here.

In this new HR director position, the traditional pieces of HR that I had responsibility for – they haven’t changed. The difference I see is that I’m more involved in the business of it. That’s the direction of HR: to truly understand the business of it and try to develop strategy to get where we want to be.

Miller’s understanding of the business is not limited to vocabulary. She also has a vivid picture of where the company is headed and where HR – and she herself – fit within that plan.

Miller: There are three phases we’ve had to go through since the acquisition. We were like a startup. One piece was to get it together and up and running. The next piece was dealing with, “Okay, now were going to change as a company, and we have to figure out how to do that.” The third one is to think about the future so that we can become the company we want to become.

Before, Unisys was our only customer. We had only dealt with our internal group. We made Unisys products. As Cadence, we now design chips for worldwide companies, AND for Unisys. We continue to do the work we did before (as outsourcing), but now we also have outside customers. You’re dealing with multiple projects. There’s a lot of work – more than before. The amount of work from Unisys is going down, but the work from other companies is going up. Before the acquisition, we knew that once Unisys had finished designing the chip, the design engineers would ultimately lose their jobs at Unisys. That’s why Cadence was such a great deal. The same thing won’t happen here [at Cadence] because we’re doing it for multiple customers.

It has put me in an exciting position – to think about how to do it differently and still achieve what we want to achieve: to make sure our workforce is happy, to make sure our compensation is set up so that people feel rewarded for the results that the company is achieving, and to make sure that we retain the employees.

As Cadence is doing more outsourcing work, I would like to be part of an outsourcing team that would get to do the “due diligence.” Having experienced [Unisys outsourcing to Cadence], I think I have a vested interest in this. I have the emotional experience. I lived this.

As Mainiero (1994:62) has noted, “Power in corporations is not given to those who ask; it must be earned through credible actions that gain the respect of others.” Jennifer Miller’s actions have repeatedly helped her gain respect and instrumental support; consequently, her career is moving forward despite the turmoil of an acquisition. In order to build support for herself, Miller demonstrates her own willingness to support others by accepting new tasks, even if the tasks are not especially desirable. She also carefully manages her impressions and builds relationships by adjusting her style to the situation. These strategies help secure the necessary backing of her colleagues.

Yet political support is not the only factor that has helped Miller’s career. Miller is also receptive to change and in tune with her company’s business goals. She is not afraid to take risks, such as adopting innovative practices that improve the service provided by the HR department, and she treats an acquisition as an opportunity, rather than a threat. Miller continues to work at the senior management level, and she continues to plan her next steps, anticipating where Cadence is headed in the future and striving to move in that direction.


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Lisa H. Pelled holds a BS degree in systems engineering from the University of Virginia as well as both an MS in operations research and a PhD in industrial engineering from Stanford University. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Management and Organization at the University of Southern California.

Jean L. Kahwajy holds a BS in systems engineering from the University of Virginia as well as both an MS in engineering-economic systems and an MBA from Stanford University. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in industrial engineering at Stanford, focusing on organizational influences on decision making. Ms. Kahwajy is also a consultant at Strategic Decisions Group, with experience in strategic development, competitive analysis, and applications of decision theory, and she has led over 80 corporate seminars worldwide.

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