Susan Ellmaurer and the Impact of the HR Competencies Cohort Program
How did you come to work as an HR manager?
I’ve been at UW–Madison in HR for the past seven years, although I had a very unusual career path. I was an executive at an insurance company in IT and in HR; a district sales manager, branch manager and sales rep with a major computer company; and a systems engineer for a technology company early on. My degree is in mathematics and computer science, and I still use facets of my education to this day. As an IT manager, I learned project management skills, specifically how to create a work breakdown structure, how to create a project communications plan to communicate with stakeholders, and how to use project management toolsets. Communicating with different groups and stakeholders and building relationships was very important in all of my previous jobs. I incorporate all of these skills into my job today.
What do you love most about your job? What motivates you?
There’s so much! There’s not much I dislike. I love helping people become more effective at their job—that’s where my heart is. Helping people find their own way and helping them to find new perspectives that they might not have otherwise considered is one of my major drivers. I also take great pride in helping people to learn new skills and tools that they’ll utilize on a daily basis. Collaborating with others to solve problems and accomplish goals helps me achieve my own goals. When a person I’m working with finds their own motivation, it always enhances mine.
Some of what motivates me is self-improvement and finding ways to be more effective in the role that I currently have. I’m also motivated by results. Helping people understand the internal barriers that they need to overcome is very meaningful to me. Everybody that I’ve met wants to do a good job—and I want to give them the tools to do great things whenever I can. Sometimes these tools can include coaching when employees face challenges. For example, it’s important to not get angry or frustrated when decisions are made that we may not agree with. It’s also important for employees to be able to see things from others’ viewpoints. Self-reflection and awareness are key. I strive to help people overcome the obstacles they face that keep them from being as effective as they can.
I understand that you participated in the Fall 2017–Spring 2018 HR Competencies Cohort. What did you take away from that experience?
I really learned a lot. I loved that we who represented HR professionals across campus were all able to learn, develop, and utilize a common language. We also began to understand our citizenship in the campus structure, for example, to look at HR from a 50,000-foot view as well as from the front lines. It helped to be reminded that we listen autobiographically. I learned, for example, that we tend to respond in one of four ways: evaluating, probing, advising, or interpreting. We acquired a central skillset that we could use to communicate and solve problems. I loved the self-improvement aspect of it and I’m excited to put the new ideas into practice.
A key concept that I read during the cohort that particularly struck me came from Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less:
“Success becomes a catalyst for failure, because it leads to the undisciplined pursuit of more.”
It’s critical to consider what’s essential about what we choose to execute. Once you accomplish a one goal, twenty other goals emerge, building on that success. Unless you have unlimited resources, there’s no way that you can complete all of these things effectively at once, let alone do any one thing well. When possible, we need to narrow our projects down to what’s most important, specifically those that will move us and our organizations ahead. That insight was very eye opening. It’s intuitive but paradoxically, not something that we tend to think about. An example is how the implementation of new HR technology systems drives new interfaces that connect to other systems and serve as a catalyst for new reporting structures. The initial project can lead to many other projects! At each phase, there is winnowing that has to take place. This concept was very impactful for me.
What advice would you give to people who are interested in joining the cohort?
Be ready to work, and be willing to have an open mind. Trust me, you will learn and grow as a result. You should also be prepared to share and fully participate. I think that everyone who participated, no matter what level of HR position they were, found it valuable. It was an enriching learning experience. In fact, I’d recommend that any employee in a formal leadership position be a part of this. I believe the concepts we covered in the program are good for developing—more fully—the ability to add value to our organizations.