Why HR leaders need a business mind with a people focus

While HR success can be motivated and measured by a variety of factors, for Ali Intres, senior vice president of HR at Forbes, a truly great HR department is defined by one primary element: how well its members understand the business.

That’s why she’s made it a priority throughout her career to explore the business challenges at each company she’s worked for, so she can better understand the barriers to talent and the needs of employees. Before joining media giant Forbes earlier this year, Intres was senior vice president of talent at Digitas and previously spent a number of years in leadership roles at Time Inc., ultimately serving as vice president of HR from 2011-15.

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“One of the things I’ve learned since starting my career is that those who continue to adapt and embrace change–not always easy–will be a strong asset for the business,” she says. “That’s one of the reasons I was excited to accept the position at Forbes because it’s a brand that’s constantly evolving, innovating and looking to the future.”

HRE: You onboarded at Forbes at the start of the pandemic; logistically, how challenging was that for you?

Ali Intres

Intres: Whenever I begin a new job, I approach the first 90 days as an opportunity to familiarize myself with the organization, its people and how it works. When I started at Forbes, I continued to follow that rule with everything going on. In the end, it wasn’t too different than if I had been there in person. I’ve found it beneficial to put more emphasis on connecting with employees at all levels of the company earlier on.

I also found that people have empathy for you when you start a new job during the pandemic and this can be very encouraging, although it can be a bit intimidating to take on something new while so many of us are working remotely. My advice to anyone in this situation is to actively get to know people, be patient with yourself if you make a mistake and embrace all things virtual–especially video calls.

HRE: How different do you think your priorities at Forbes are today than they would have been a year ago, before the pandemic?

Intres: The No. 1 priority for us during the pandemic has been the health, safety and wellbeing of our employees. This is always a top priority for Forbes, but even more so important during uncertain times.

We’ve also focused on being more flexible with our employees and their needs during this time. After joining, I started an initiative called “Coaching Hours” for managers, and one of the very first sessions we had focused on planning for flexibility, so teaching managers and sharing best practices on how to be flexible with childcare, caregiver and other needs during this time was valuable for our leaders and benefits our employees. We’ve increased the frequency of our communications, training and adjustments to our benefits support offerings to help employees with changing needs during this period.

Beyond the pandemic, we’re also taking steps to address employees around the social justice movement, offering them what we’re calling “five days of action,” in which every employee has the opportunity to take up to five days this year–outside of their already allotted vacation and personal days–to use at their discretion to support causes that matter and drive the change in their communities and in our nation.

See also: This compassionate leader is HRE’s HR Executive of the Year

HRE: What do you think will be some of the most lasting impacts of the pandemic on how HR leaders approach employee engagement?

Intres: The pandemic has certainly shaped how the world is thinking about the future of work and what constitutes productivity. We’re taking a moment to learn from these changes and understand what our employees value most: flexibility, health, family and the integration of these needs with their career.  I like to think of this as work/life integration.

I believe the important constant here is communication. For us at Forbes, we felt the need to communicate more regularly with employees and react more quickly to real-time events, from the pandemic to the social justice movement. At the onset of our transition to remote work, our CEO, Mike Federle, started a twice-weekly company-wide communication in an effort to keep everyone informed about our business, to stay connected in each other’s successes all the while emphasizing that it’s important for employees to know we support their personal needs. Additionally, we’ve hosted several virtual town halls and we’re being consistent in our communication with empathy in everything we do.

Overall, I see positive impacts that will shape the future of how we approach employee engagement and work-life satisfaction.

HRE: What initially sparked your interest in HR?

Intres: Before I began my career in HR, I worked in retail. I remember going on an interview for a position at a department store, and I felt that the questions around what my strengths and developments were didn’t answer whether I had the right skills for the role. It certainly didn’t leave me excited to work there. I think interviews should be a conversation around a person’s capacity and motivations and how these can be aligned with what the role/company is offering. At that moment, I saw an opportunity to do something better and to bring my skills into corporate recruiting.

HRE: Is there any advice you got on early in your career that has stuck with you?

Intres: First off, be constantly curious. Understand your business and its unique needs.

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HRE: Outside of work, what are you passionate about?

Intres: I think you have to be passionate about people to do what I do, and I’m extremely fascinated by human behavior. I also love to cook in my spare time–this relaxes me–and, last but not least, it brings me great joy to watch the next Frenkie de Jong (aka my son Florian) on the soccer field every weekend.

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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].