Ramping Up at BLR: Hiring Key People

From Dan: As a way to honor the individuals who have taught me critical life lessons about people and business, I’ve invited several to write guest columns to run in this space over the next few weeks. Today’s voice of experience once again is Robert L. Brady, the founder of BLR®—Business & Legal Resources. This week, Bob talks about BLR’s HR manager, Amy Champlin, and what has made her career with the company such a huge success.

by Robert L. Brady

In my last post, I wrote about how BLR survived its first hyper-crazy years. We were a triple-threat company. We had a great product, but we also had good marketing and good operations. You need all of those to survive. That may sound like “duh,” but companies that fail can usually trace the problem to being OK or great in one or two of those areas but an abject failure in the third. Without all three legs, the stool doesn’t stand.

Starting out, even though my brother and I personally had the skills and training to do everything, it didn’t take long before we reached our limits. We needed to hire staff if we wanted to grow. Again, that’s a “duh” moment, but it’s often hard for entrepreneurs to grasp. “Why hire people? They’re just problems. I got to where I am because I can do things. Managing people isn’t what I want to do.”

We’d reached a point where we couldn’t pack more tasks into a day. Faced with this evolutionary moment, we had a choice: adapt or die. I don’t think I ever got really good at managing people, but I did get good at hiring a few key managers who were good at it. One of those is Amy Champlin, BLR’s HR manager for the last 20-plus years.

Amy was barely out of her teens when we hired her in 1985. She started out as an accounting clerk. Over just a few years, she rose to become our bookkeeper and HR clerk. She also was earning her college degree part-time.

Things got complicated when we grew to about 50 employees. I hired an operations manager/CFO, Lou Musante, who became Amy’s boss. As we kept growing, he persuaded me that we needed a full-time accountant and a full-time HR manager. Up until that time, Amy did both—and did them well. But the work was now too much for even her capable hands.

Lou offered Amy the choice of concentrating on accounting, with a goal of becoming our controller, or becoming the full-time HR manager. Both Lou and I encouraged her to take the accounting route. We felt it was a better career path, maybe better suited to her no-nonsense manner.

Disregarding our advice, Amy chose HR. Since then, working full-time all the while, she completed her college studies, got her SHRM HR certification, and has done an incredibly good job as BLR’s HR manager for the last quarter century. As we grew, she managed hiring, onboarding, and benefits administration. During tough times, she managed terminations and layoffs professionally. Never once in those 25 years has anyone come to me to complain that she hadn’t treated them fairly.

Why is Amy so good at her job? Well, she works hard, to be sure. But a lot of people work hard and still don’t succeed. Part of the reason is that she followed her passion. She loves HR. Even though Lou and I thought it was less of an opportunity, she chose it because she knew that’s what she wanted to do.

Another part of the reason is that she had started out in accounting. She understood what I call “the plumbing” of the business. She knew how to evaluate costs and benefits. She knew how to use spreadsheets and budgets to justify her proposals. She was a lot better at doing her HR job because, just as John and I had done at the beginning, she had learned multiple roles. As a result, she had a real-life appreciation of what happened after her job ended.

Lessons for All Members of an Organization

As I wrote in my last post, businesses succeed when founders are capable in all the enterprise’s key competencies. And you are better at your job when your competency extends beyond your job description. Amy is so strong because she has never stopped wanting to learn and develop—and not just in her HR skills.

Never think or say, “I’m just a salesperson” (or “tech person” or whatever). Think and train to be a member of the team, with a commitment to the team’s goals and an appreciation of team members’ roles and skills. If you are a manager, encourage your staff to expand their horizons through training, job shadowing, etc. As an employee, recognize that lateral moves and assignments can make you a much stronger employee.

Next time, I’ll be writing about how to use performance appraisals to help employees develop and improve.