Chief Human Resources Officer

How to Rebuild an HR Department: Cetera Financial Group Executives Explain What It Takes to Overcome HR Challenges

8 Sep, 2015

Jason Mullens, Chief Human Resources Officer for Cetera Financial Group, and Sonia Vora, Head of Talent for Human Resources at Cetera, discuss the challenges of rebuilding an HR department and what to look for in new hires.

What is your biggest priority when rebuilding the HR department?

A key priority is mixing and matching a couple of key roles to first get the infrastructure or operations to where it needs to be, and then second, to get a couple of arms and legs to talk to the internal clients while we’re trying to get the thing rebuilt. 

The most important thing for me when I joined Cetera in March 2013 was spending time, probably a month-and-a-half or so, hearing about what’s working and what’s not working, and getting the perspective from the employees, managers and leaders across the company. Because what you hear when you get hired from a company is what the senior executives think are the gaps that you’re trying to clear. But when you go do your own assessment, what you’ll find is that they’re correct on some of them but they’re wrong on others, and you sort of reconcile that to build a plan. 

So when assembling your team, what were the key qualities that you looked for in candidates, and what made you hire certain people over others?

Well, for my first 10 hires, I interviewed over 180 people. So you could say I’m slightly selective. But it’s been a half-build and then a quarter-build and then another quarter-build over the course of 18 months. Get it ramped up and then figure out what else you need, get another quarter added and then – when you’re adding value – go get the rest of the people. But as we’re a smaller company than what I’m used to, we had a mix of some small-company-experienced folks along with some more scalable, mobilized people who understand bigger companies. We could build it for scale, but also understood the nuance and the uniqueness of being part of a smaller company.

And then it was about making sure to get people that are willing to be scrappy, because you’re not just being hired as a compensation analyst. You may also do things like reporting or systems work as well when you’re part of a smaller team. There’s also a mix of the company experience. We looked for talent in a more fast-paced environment (financial services, technology) or strong HR program, whether it’s GE, Honeywell, Coca-Cola or Taco Bell. It’s a mix of gray matter and good HR experience. I won’t hire a generalist who’s never been a specialist; in the business partner role, I want somebody that’s been both a specialist and a generalist. And then what I look for is the desire or motivation level where I don’t have to tell the team to work hard. They’re just going to work hard because they want to work, or they think of new work they have to do. In the end, something is working – over the course of two-and-a-half years; we’ve only lost two out of 20-plus people.

Can you elaborate as well about something you told me earlier about the different temperaments you might have around you, such as “high energy” here or “calmer” there?

There’s a balance of what role you play and how the team fits together. So if you lined up the people on our team, you would find that our team is really diverse. And then if you sat in enough meetings, you would see that the team gets along pretty well even though they also tend to challenge each other. So with the differences of people and the differences in roles, are you going to be a little bit more cerebral? Then you’re probably going to be on the talent management side. Are you going to be more transactional? You may be on the business partner side. So it’s about thinking about the skill sets people need to have and a balance of how those things come together.

“What you hear when you get hired from a company is what the senior executives think are the gaps that you’re trying to clear. But when you go do your own assessment, what you’ll find is that they’re correct on some of them but they’re wrong on others, and you sort of reconcile that to build a plan.”

In your opinion, what is the most important trait that an HR leader can possess, and how has your emphasis on that particular trait or value influenced your department?

Execution orientation, but I’d probably add to that influence, which is the ability of people to both execute on a plan and bring other people along with them across that plan. Those are sort of the two converging skills that I look for. Then what I really want deep down in their bones is a great analytical capacity and ability; in essence, a systemic thinker, a person to see end-to-end and be able to envision where it’s going to go before it gets there.

There’s another trait I look for, which is a fun factor. Because when you work in HR, you don’t have to like people, but you have to be able to work with them and they have to like to work with you. So there has to be some level of engagement that works. 

What are your department’s biggest strengths, and alternatively, what would you like to continue to improve?

We have a trait of being commercially relevant. The team does try to put user experience first. The reason we’re doing what we’re doing is not for our own academic value, but for the benefit of the company.

I’d say that even though “partner” is sort of an overused term, it is about being a true partner. That’s right in that backbone of what we do and what we say we’re going to do. We do it well and we do it on time, which allows us to be a partner and to be commercially relevant to our teammates across the company. 

“I won’t hire a generalist who’s never been a specialist; in the business partner role, I want somebody that’s been both a specialist and a generalist. And then what I look for is the desire or motivation level where I don’t have to tell the team to work hard.”

Great, and what would you like to improve upon?

Probably project managing or thoughtfully executing the amount of things we’re doing, and figuring out how to get them past the goal line before we start the next five. We need to just balance the prioritization of things while executing in a fast-paced environment.

Looking into the future, what are you most excited about for your HR department, and how do you foresee the department evolving in the coming years?

After our hard slog of nine months of trying to put 17 payrolls together, with 1,600 employees coming from 11 different companies, it’s probably just being on one set of processes, systems and tools, with a fully integrated team that can deliver as one company. As we’ve gotten to scale, we’ve now been able to bring up some of the more junior talent and we’re seeing them starting to step up to take on bigger roles as things become more settled.

BIOS: 

Jason Mullens

Jason Mullens is Chief Human Resources officer for Cetera Financial Group and a member of the executive management team. He is responsible for leading all aspects of Cetera’s human resources and works closely with leaders throughout the organization to increase engagement among associates, helping them deliver outstanding service and support to advisors.

Jason has spent nearly two decades developing expertise across the portfolio of human resources functions and programs. Along the way, he gained significant experience in supporting companies acquiring businesses, helping to integrate thousands of employees. Before joining Cetera, he served as Chief Human Resources Officer for QBE the Americas, where he helped transform its human resources function while supporting the businesses to integrate four legacy organizations and a large acquisition. He was also responsible for their marketing and communications organization.

Prior to QBE, Jason held positions with a series of Fortune 500 companies, developing a reputation for working closely with the business to build and execute on value-added human resources programs. He spent nearly nine years at Bank of America, where he supported a range of business areas, from investment banking to corporate risk management, and ultimately, the consumer bank. He began his career and gained his foundational financial services and human resources knowledge at Goldman Sachs.

Jason received his Bachelor of Business Administration from Stetson University in DeLand, Florida.

Sonia Vora 

As the Head of Talent for Cetera Financial Group based in Los Angeles, Sonia is responsible for building and leading a suite of talent solutions for a high growth financial services firm. Prior to this role, Sonia was the Head of Global Development for the Northern Trust Company, focused particularly on international expansion, change management and leadership development. Her early experience in investment banking and strategy consulting helps her bring a financial and consultative approach to HR. Sonia has an MBA in International Finance from Georgetown University and a MA in Creative Writing from Temple University.

Visit Argyle Executive Forum's 2019 Human Resources Leadership Forum: Creating the Workplace of the Future in San Francisco, CA on Mar 06, 2019

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