Why this CHRO chases impact, value

Jennifer Landis of Black Hills Corp. strives to create opportunities that help employees achieve personal and professional goals.
By: | October 5, 2020 • 4 min read

Jennifer Landis

Jennifer Landis

Senior vice president and CHRO

Black Hills Corp.

Rapid City, S.D.

Greatest HR Challenge: Keeping employees safe and focused. More than half of the utility company’s 3,000 employees work in the field, tackling hazardous situations like repairing downed power lines. But some may fail to observe safety policies or practices because they’re distracted or concerned about the health of their family and friends during the pandemic.

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Greatest HR Accomplishment: Growing a diverse talent base within the organization. Eight years ago, the company employed two female officers. Today, 10 of its officers—about 35%–are women. Three women also serve on its board of directors. HR is changing the face of talent at the white, male-dominated utility.

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In 2000, Jennifer Landis was hired by Black Hills Corp., a gas and electric utility, as an account manager in IT and was responsible for technology integration and employee training in HR and other departments. Over time, she became so drawn to the HR space that she pitched her own business plan to the then-CHRO about what she could accomplish if transferred to HR.

“I thought I was going to lose my job for my audacity for putting myself out there like that,” says Landis, who holds a master’s degree in global HR development.

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Hardly. Since then, she has been promoted to director of organizational development, director of corporate HR and talent management, and then vice president of HR before assuming her current role as senior vice president and CHRO in 2017. Although she credits her 50-member “amazing” team for the company’s HR accomplishments, her leadership has been the driving force behind employees’ personal and professional growth, the company’s strategic responses to COVID, a world-class succession planning strategy and employee performance accountability.

Leading through Change

In her short time as the top HR leader, Landis’ work has made a meaningful impact on the organization, its workforce and even its CEO, Linden (Linn) Evans.

Early on, Landis visited more than 100 of the company’s operating sites to develop a better understanding of the workforce culture and sub-cultures. Likewise, she accompanied Evans during a three-month employee tour throughout eight states during his CEO transition.

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Besides her contributions to the energy industry—like participating in CHRO roundtables or presenting at this fall’s conference of Women’s International Network of Utility Professionals—she has led the creation of the company’s HR Solution Center, established recognition awards for HR excellence and implemented cross-functional rotations among employees in organizational development, talent acquisition, total rewards and HR business partner groups. Under her guidance, HR also created a set of six management practices that clarify expectations of the company’s leaders, which reflect 25% of their performance rating.

Even the company’s board commended Landis and her team for developing a world-class strategic talent-review process that places promising leaders in key developmental assignments to build their skills, enabling HR to better assess their capabilities.

“My great passion and life’s work is to create opportunities for other people to be able to chase their own forms of value creation and lead through service to others,” Landis says, adding that her philosophy extends to her HR team. “My job is really to work alongside my team members. I get to know them very well, remove any barriers that get in their way, make sure they stay on the rails and make sure they get every opportunity to get out in front.”

 Value Creation

When COVID-19 struck earlier this year, there was much for HR to do. Landis and her team created and implemented paid pandemic leave and hardship leave programs. If employees test positive for the virus, suspect they have it or even come into contact with someone who does, they can take time off with pay to quarantine without touching any of their benefits. So far, she says, 20 of the 150 employees who have taken this leave tested positive for COVD-19.

However, if employees are struggling with problems related to the pandemic, such as childcare, they can receive half-pay while resolving these issues. Up to now, five employees have taken advantage of the program.

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Sometimes, Landis participates in video calls, generally conducted by Evans, that provide employees with updates surrounding the pandemic, everything from new policies to the heroic or compassionate deeds performed by workers. More than 1500 employees tune in each week. HR also distributes COVID-related newsletters to targeted employee populations.

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Among Landis’ most difficult COVID challenges was developing a return-to-work plan. In late August, 300 employees voluntarily began returning to the office. More will return in phases—every three weeks—after completing training on psychological readiness, new corporate policies and health protocols.

Throughout her career, Landis says, she has chased impact, never big job titles with big salaries.

“I’ve always chased value creation, impact and where I can help contribute or create value for people,” she says. “I’ve never had to worry about money or titles. They followed as long as I was focused on providing value.”

Carol Patton is a contributing editor for HRE who also writes HR articles and columns for business and education magazines. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.