This bank CHRO is pioneering a ‘people-first culture’

HR Honor Roll winner Barbara Kennedy of Western Alliance Bank brought HR into the 21st century, while navigating a once-in-a-century pandemic.
By: | October 6, 2021

When Barbara Kennedy arrived at Phoenix-based Western Alliance Bank to serve as executive vice president and chief human resources officer in the spring of 2018, the bank’s HR function was admittedly behind the times. Immediately, Kennedy got to work, shifting the HR team’s orientation from transactional to a 360-degree perspective that better aligns human capital goals with business goals. She implemented an HRIS tool, centralized transactions to free up the HR team to work more closely with managers and leaders, and ensured the bank had the core HR framework to support the needs of the business, which is ranked on Forbes’ “Top 10 Best Banks in America” list.

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The need to modernize an antiquated HR function didn’t faze Kennedy in the least. In her first job in human resources, she literally started an HR department from scratch. “In all of my early jobs, I either built something or reinvented something,” says Kennedy. “I’ve done every job in HR in my career [with the focus that] when you start things from scratch or reinvent skeleton crews, you get involved in everything.”

Barbara Kennedy

That breadth of HR knowledge and experience serves Kennedy well in her interactions with her 60-person team. Often, she says, they are surprised she knows so much about the inner workings of HR, which gives her the ability to pose “deep, targeted questions.” Kennedy, one of this year’s HR Honor Roll winners, prefers a team approach to leadership, rather than a hierarchical approach—yet, she is clearly the leader, and a very hands-on leader at that.

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“I’m not someone [HR staffers] hear from once a month, I’m very active and involved,” says Kennedy. “I have my finger on the pulse of everything that’s going on in HR and I give everybody the opportunity to get involved in things, even though it may be outside their area of expertise.”

Coping with COVID

When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in the spring of 2020, Kennedy had been with Western Alliance just under two years. She and her team quickly responded to COVID requirements, ensuring safety protocols were in place for those who had to report in person as well as that those employees who chose to work from home had all the necessary resources, not only to perform their duties, but to take care of their physical and mental health during a truly unprecedented time. They promoted the company’s robust EAP program and introduced new engagement and wellness tools, like Wondr Health, a digital behavioral program designed to boost physical and emotional wellbeing, sleep hygiene and weight loss.

Coincidentally, Kennedy had launched the bank’s first ever corporate wellness initiative just two weeks prior to the start of the work-from-home period. That proved invaluable, but she recognized the need for more resources. To help employees combat the isolation of the pandemic, Kennedy led her team in developing an in-house social platform. They identified a previously unused Microsoft tool, Yammer, which they bank-branded and populated with Facebook-style groups to boost performance and personal goals aimed at increasing professional skills and good health, while reducing isolation and stress.

Growing the business

In April, Western Alliance acquired Aris Mortgage Holding Co., LLC, the parent company of AmeriHome Mortgage Co., LLC, for $1.22 billion. The addition of AmeriHome is expected to help Western Alliance expand its national commercial business. For HR, it meant onboarding 1,000 employees—a 50% increase in total workforce, which now stands at 3,000—in the middle of a pandemic. Admittedly, the integration was a “big endeavor,” says Kennedy, but it was just as much about making sure the AmeriHome employees felt like part of the team as it was integrating the two businesses.

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“A big part of that has been making sure it’s not all the Western Alliance way but incorporating some of the great things they’d been doing as a business into what we’re doing,” says Kennedy. “We took an approach from a benefits and people experience perspective to merge the two together and take the best of the best.”

Since Kennedy’s arrival, Western Alliance has adopted the tagline “People, Performance and Possibilities” to describe its people-first culture. As the bank continues to grow, her focus is on making sure it has the right foundation to attract, develop and support the talent who differentiate it from other financial institutions. For Chief Executive Officer Ken Vecchione, there’s no doubt Kennedy will play a major role in enabling Western Alliance’s future success.

“As we continue to grow, Barbara’s ability to imbue our people-first culture all across our organization is integral to our ongoing success,” he says. “She capably scales our entrepreneurial culture, with particular attention to helping people develop and grow their careers to reach their potential with us.”

Julie Cook Ramirez is a Rockford, Ill.-based journalist and copywriter covering all aspects of human resources. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.

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