This HR leader is ‘on a mission’ to reinvent the perception of HR

When Cora Walker took on the role of heading up HR at wire and cable redistribution company OmniCable in 2018, it was with the understanding that she had a lot of building to do, she says. The leadership team was looking for a true HR partner—one who knows the profession and what it takes to grow the function.

- Advertisement -

At the time, she was the fifth person on the HR team at an organization with about 320 employees; today, HR is a 14-person function, while OmniCable employs nearly 850.

Managing the people elements of that growth, Walker says, has largely hinged on the function’s investment in company culture. After all, OmniCable isn’t necessarily a household name—and it’s in competition for talent with both distribution and manufacturing players, including the likes of Amazon and FedEx, she says. So, the organization has to ensure it offers candidates and employees something unique.

Walker recently spoke with Human Resource Executive about what sets OmniCable apart, and how its company culture and HR strategy underlie that success.

Human Resource Executive: You were brought into OmniCable with the goal of building out the HR function. Was that more daunting or exciting?

Cora Walker, OmniCable, company cultureWalker: Very exciting. Prior to being at OmniCable, I was with large Fortune 500 companies, where you’re part of a very big, well-established structure. You have a boss who can tell you what’s expected of you, and then you go in and sort of make the role what you can make it. And sometimes there’s a lot of Cora Walker added into it, and sometimes there’s very little.

When I interviewed for this job, it was, “Hey, we’ve got three HR people, none of whom are classically HR trained or have a lot of HR experience, but they’re really good employees at OmniCable who’ve been around a long time and like to help people.” I said, “OK, great. Sounds good.” It was truly an exciting, exciting opportunity in terms of “You can build it and oh, by the way, you don’t have to undo much. It really is a build.”

The CEO at the time was a big advocate for HR business partnership, so I was sort of limitless. In my first couple of years, we expanded the HR budget exponentially and really set some very specific targets around what success would look like, which was helpful. But getting there was kind of however I deemed appropriate.

HRE: As you went through that process of building the function out, what skill sets served you best?

Walker: I think the biggest skill set was a true desire to understand the business and how we make money. The reality is, we can do lots of things for the sake of HR. And generally then, you’ll hear people leaders say, “This is an HR task,” or “HR is making me do this” or “HR said no”—which is kind of the thing I hated the most at the companies that I worked with before. So, my goal was to collaborate, collaborate, collaborate.

- Advertisement -

I spent my first 90 days traveling, listening, meeting people, asking questions. I also took the stance that it’s my belief that HR should not say no, except in very extreme circumstances. You might hear us say, “That’s interesting. Maybe not this but would you consider … ?” or “What other options might you be open to?”

Click here to read more Insights from a CHRO.

HRE: How is OmniCable encountering challenges when it comes to recruiting and hiring?

Walker: Yes, we are not different from anyone else right now. Talent is hard to come by, and talent is hard to keep, quite frankly. In the distribution space, we compete with huge, well-known brand names: Amazon, UPS, FedEx—anyone who does pick, pack and ship distribution, we are competing directly with. We also compete in the manufacturing space because our distribution centers have heavy machinery that goes beyond forklifts, and pure manufacturing generally is much higher compensation. We are not a household name—most people, when they hear OmniCable, they think about Comcast, if you’re in the Philadelphia market. So, it is a challenge.

We rely heavily on referrals and offer really great referral incentives. We highlight when people have referred; in addition to the new hire’s name being posted on the intranet, it says who they were referred by, which is additional accolades for our employees and another way to say thank you. We also recently partnered with Phenom, which is very big into AI, with very cutting-edge technology.

HRE: What role does company culture play in this process?

Walker: Company culture plays a huge part. We actually hand out a one-pager—I keep them on my desk—that has our mission, vision, values and culture statement, which are grounded around three primary pillars: We put people first, we thrive on collaboration, and we deliver consistently.

At the end of 2021, we had just completed an acquisition of our largest competitor. The year before that was the pandemic, and the year before that, we were bought. We had been an employee stock ownership company with about 280 employees at the time; those 280 people truly believed OmniCable was about being an ESOP. “I want to work here because I’m an owner.” So, when you tell those 280 owners you’re selling to someone else, they expect everything to change. From that time until 2021, we were constantly trying to remind people, “Culture is about how you show up,” “Culture is about what you do every day,” “It is not about just ownership.” Sure, that plays a part, but that’s not the only part.

We were already on an uphill battle and by the end of 2021, we doubled in size overnight. We knew that if we did not spell things out very clearly and take some different actions, we were going to fail from a cultural perspective. And especially when you’re not a household brand name, and people don’t know who you are or what you do, you better be able to provide a very clear picture about what the work experience is like—and then deliver on that. We were not going to win in a talent acquisition game against Amazon and all these other places if we didn’t have something special to offer in that experience when you got here.

Culture plays a huge role for us, and we’ve been on a journey. We are not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but we started with: What is our culture? What does it feel like? How do I experience it? And we would write that down and go explain it. By explaining it, we put 10 people on a plane who visited 16 locations over the course of six weeks and did lunch and learn presentations, handed out gifts, and gave examples of “Here’s what good [upholding of our culture] looks like” and “Here’s what not-so-good looks like.” And then it’s really daily care; we spend time in every management meeting and on every company webinar reminding people about our culture—what it means, what it looks like, how it feels.

The thing I think we do differently is how we think about someone’s first 10 days on the job. How does the culture show up in those first 10 days? Specifically—on a checklist. Can you match “put people first” to something in those first 10 days? We’ve tried to get very detailed and very articulate for people.

HRE: Throughout your career, how has your approach to HR leadership evolved?

Walker: I had the fortunate opportunity of starting somewhere very big, very structured—very, very compliant. And at the time, HR leadership was about, how do you take compliance and put it into any specific business operation? At Aramark, we were food services and janitorial services—all the things that no one really wants to do. How do you do that in a way that helps hourly employees know how to show up and do the right thing, but also be friendly, be warm, be welcoming? So foundationally, that’s kind of what HR looked like. It was very compliance-oriented with a hospitality spin on it.

As I grew in my career, this whole idea of focusing on business partnership—being out and about shaking hands, kissing babies, talking to employees, helping them with their problems—and still not being very effective for the business became more clear. Through experience, and a lot of trial and error, you learn that if you don’t align yourself with the leadership team, you don’t understand what motivates them to make decisions. You have to think about it from the standpoint of, how do I help this leader be more effective? How do I help them recognize the value of truly caring about the human being in front of them, and how that equates to output for whatever it is they’re trying to achieve?

That has been my evolution. I say to our HR business partners today, “I appreciate that you care so much about our employees, that’s really important. As an HR person, I need you to care that much about helping leaders be effective and care about their employees. Because they are who the employee reports to, they are the person making day-to-day decisions about that employee’s experience at work.” Helping the people leaders, in some ways, is more significant than solving employee problems one by one.

HRE: Outside of your work, what drives you?

Walker: Big picture, I like to find a way to leave one little mark, to make the world a better place than how I found it. I’ve tried a million different ways to do that, but I have three pseudo-adult children so some of my passion is raising kind, compassionate, caring, humans.

The other is really putting yourself out there into situations that you don’t know much about, that you might be uncomfortable with, and going in with the opportunity to listen and learn and maybe do something a little bit different in your day-to-day as a result. Volunteering is a big thing, and I also love to run, which is new for me. I make it my mission with a friend of mine; we look for all types of nonprofit charity runs and try to align with those that we feel most passionate about. We did a run this weekend for Rebuild Philadelphia. It’s an amazing group. They spend four weekends a year renovating and adding value to low-income homes in Philadelphia that will allow people to stay there.

It was a really cool experience. And now I have this whole other organization that taps into this idea of learning something new.

HRE: How do you envision your impact on the HR profession?

Walker: I think at the end of the day, I would love it if more people said, “Wow, I really love HR and my HR partner is extremely helpful. They truly care.” Versus what I normally hear: “HR at my company’s not so great,” or “I don’t even know who my HR person is,” or “They’re compliance people.” I’m on a mission. HR cares about people, and if we could change that perception of HR, I think we’d be doing a whole lot more for employees and for helping companies achieve their goals and objectives.

Avatar photo
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].