Insights from a CHRO: Mitel’s Billie Hartless

“Power to the people, man. Don’t underestimate the power of people,” Billie Hartless recently responded when asked if she had anything to add at the conclusion of HRE’s interview about her HR career.

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That outlook has come to define Hartless’ more than 25 years climbing the HR ladder. Her career journey has taken her through the HR ranks of a number of leading telecommunications and IT firms–Verizon, Nokia, HERE and Polycom–and, in November, Hartless became the CHRO at Mitel, a Canada-based telecommunications company with 4,200 employees. The Texas resident says she aims to bring to Mitel her people-centered vision of innovative HR: a function that empowers leaders, embraces new technology and gives employees the tools they need to bring a high-performance, values-driven culture to fruition.

HRE: When did you first feel the spark for pursuing a career in HR?

Billie Hartless

Hartless: I was in Los Angeles, working for a subsidiary of Westinghouse back in the day. It was my first role in HR, and it was just an amazing experience for me. I had a great mentor, who has since passed on, and she was the first HR leader I worked with who really coached me in many different ways. It was a regional HR coordinator role, so I had union and non-union operations, I did benefits, employee relations. I saw the power of people. It was at the same time that I was taking courses and finishing my degree, and it just connected with me that the only asset that can really differentiate a company is its people. So, how do you get people together to make magic?

HRE: What was your worst job?

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Hartless: I tried my hand in college in food service, and that probably wasn’t my forte–serving pizza.

HRE: When you’re not in the office, how do you try to disconnect from work?

Hartless: I’m a certified yoga teacher. It involves effective breathing and meditation and helps focus the mind around what you’re doing, which helps to alleviate stress. I’m a runner, too. I don’t run as much as I used to, but physical exercise and the ability to practice meditation and focus on concentration and effective breathing all physiologically calm the nervous system. And that really enhances overall wellbeing.

HRE: Do you have a personal mantra that keeps you motivated?

Hartless: I have “Carpe diem” tattooed on my shoulder, and that goes back to being present now. Today isn’t going to happen again. Tomorrow’s uncertain. What we have right now is the moment, so we have to be present in the moment and seize the opportunities in front of us. If we get too preoccupied with what we have to get done next week, we lose that connection to the present.

HRE: I saw on your LinkedIn that you list yourself as an entrepreneur in the making. Can you tell me about that?

Hartless: I’m the co-owner of a hair salon in San Antonio. My sister and I went into business together a year-and-a-half ago. She’s a licensed cosmetologist, and I’ve helped with marketing and getting us on social media, as well as taking customer calls, scheduling appointments and washing and folding towels–doing whatever’s needed. My sister is still at the salon–it’s called Sisters Boutique Salon. Check us out online!–while I’m off doing this new venture [at Mitel]. It’s been an interesting experience because we have eight stylists and we had to figure out how to pay them and get new business into the salon, and that gave me great perspective [on small-business challenges]. Also, people tend to tell their hairstylists their entire life, so it really connected me in a personal way to our customers and was a great reminder that all business is personal. Employees at Mitel have things going on in their lives that impact them, both positively and negatively. We shouldn’t lose sight of that.

HRE: What is the best piece of HR-related advice you got that has stuck with you?

Hartless: My first mentor, whom I mentioned, coached me to be targeted in my HR journey. When I left Westinghouse, I was a marketing director for a bit in L.A., I did some work for an appraisal firm. She said, “You need to focus if you want to build your career. Take targeted steps in how you build your capability as an HR professional, and don’t ever forget your roots.” That stuck with me to this day. Don’t forget where you came from–never lose sight of that.

HRE: What are one or two of the biggest evolutions that the HR function in general has undergone since you’ve entered the field?

Hartless: How about not calling it “Personnel” anymore? That sounds so radical now. It’s part of this evolution of shifting away from the function as highly administrative and mostly compliance-oriented to “How do you capture the hearts and minds of the people in your organization and unleash the talent that resides in the organization?” And then also the workflow. A lot of the human capital management systems now have the ability to actually put performance-management tools in the hands of all employees and all managers; you can now effectively, easily and seamlessly have a performance-management discussion, talk about development goals, see online and in real time what the organization looks like. All of that automation of the workplace and the people and the processes helps leaders do one of the core processes in any enterprise, and that’s manage performance.

HRE: What did your first day on the job at Mitel look like?

Hartless: My first day was fantastic. I had a computer, I had a badge, I was able to be effective, productive, log onto the tools. Day one, there were literally no hiccups. I met a lot of people. My first day I spent in our Mesa, Ariz., team meeting held by one of our key executive leaders. Great intro to the company.

HRE: What is your most pressing short-term goal for HR at Mitel, and how about some long-term objectives?

Hartless: As the HR organization, we’re the architects of the blueprints of performance management. We don’t conduct performance management across the organization, but we have to create the tools for managers to do that. We’re also starting to look at what kind of culture we need to be successful. Mitel is approaching the 50-year mark, which is a critical time in an employer’s journey to stay relevant. We have to focus on building capacity from a culture perspective to get us another 50 years. And longer term, we’re putting building blocks in place to do some cultural shifts–how to cultivate our values to drive a high-performance people culture. There’s a lot of power in that statement, but also a lot of work to be done, and that’s what gets me excited every day. We’re not just focusing on what the organization is delivering–which is a culture that drives extraordinary performance–but we also want to focus on how to get those results … how to not lose the human in HR.

HRE: What do you think HR leaders need to be doing today to be able to set themselves up for success tomorrow?

Hartless: We need to be strong performance coaches–I think that’s our future role as HR. We empower our organizations to connect every single employee in the company to why we’re here, what we stand for and strategically what we’re doing as a company. We’ve architected great performance-management systems that allow us to do that but now we need to take a step back, let our leaders be empowered and now be observers of performance. Leaders drive engagement in teams; they’re the ones who are our greatest retention tools. People work for great leaders, they’re inspired by great leaders and they want to stay because of great leaders. So, we have to have leaders who can drive that kind of environment and engagement in our companies, and I see the HR role as being an observer of that work and giving real-time feedback. At Mitel, we’re a high-performance company with a strong culture of feedback, and I think that’s one of HR’s greatest capabilities: to ask great questions and give great feedback.

To nominate yourself or another HR leader to be interviewed in Insights from a CHRO, email [email protected]

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected]