Kay Curling is senior vice president and chief human resource officer at Salient Federal Solutions, where she defines, develops and implements the company’s strategic human resource initiatives.
In partnership with senior management, she formulates the company“™s human resources strategy and provides leadership and direction.
Prior to joining Salient, she was vice president of human resources at Serco Inc. and previously held the same position at SI International. Prior to that, she led human resource groups and strategic initiatives at SRA International for nearly two decades.
Curling recently spoke with ExecutiveBiz to discuss how the HR field has evolved over her career, how to transition employees through acquisitions and Salient’s methods for attracting talent.
ExecutiveBiz: Salient has employees and offices around the U.S. and overseas. What is it like to manage diverse and wide-ranging operations?
Kay Curling: We actually have more than 140 locations and the majority of those are across the U.S. with some of those being international locations.
It“™s a complex environment in terms of managing and communicating with our employee base.
You“™ve got to be able to do things in a way that is scalable and sizable for both the domestic and international workforce.
ExecutiveBiz: What challenges did you face transitioning from Serco to Salient? What are some of the lessons you’ve learned that helped you overcome current challenges?
Curling: My transition from SI to Serco was an important step in my career. SI was sold to Serco. It was the first time I“™ve been on the sell side of a transaction. Prior to that, I had participated and completed 12 acquisitions from the buy side.
In this situation, I was the one being acquired. It was an important experience for me to go through. It gave me a great understanding of what it feels like to be on that side of the transaction, where you have no power other than your persuasion and negotiation abilities. That experience also made me a more empathetic and emotionally intelligent leader.
I“™ve experienced 16 transactions in my career. SI had about 5,500 employees when we sold to Serco. The combination of the two workforces was over 11,000.
Most of the Human Resource challenges that I experienced at Serco with a much larger workforce were similar to what I previously experienced at SRA and SI. We are working with similar clients and similar workforces in the same industry.
Many of the challenges remain the same regardless of the size of the workforce.
Having four different sets of experiences prepared me perfectly to take on this role with Salient.
ExecutiveBiz: How has the HR field changed throughout the years since you first entered it?
Kay Curling: It has definitely changed. Twenty years ago the way people entered human resources was that they had some type of administrative talent. In my case, I happen to have a background in education. I came into human resources to run a training department. I was not a human resource professional. I was an adult educator with a business background.
The field of HR has changed dramatically in the past two decades. There is a formal body of work, experiences and knowledge that are a part of HR. There are certifications for the different HR disciplines (compensation, benefits, etc.) as well as multiple career paths within HR.
HR at its best is not about being administrative experts but rather being transformational partners for the business.
So, what does that look like? A transformational partner works alongside business leaders to make sure they are able to accomplish business goals in a way that is relevant and most effective. They are partners sharing responsibility toward common business objectives and goals.
ExecutiveBiz: What types of strategies do you use to ensure a smooth transitional process for acquisitions?
Kay Curling: I don“™t think I“™m a business expert, but I do think I“™m a seasoned veteran in the business. I spent eight years managing projects inside of another federal contractor, and I think that“™s an important part of why I am an effective business leader. I have managed projects away from the flagpole and have been responsible for delivering projects and products to clients under short deadlines and tight budgets.
Over the years, my experiences have given me a view of our industry from multiple vantage points and have allowed me to gain a business acumen that I don“™t know that all HR professionals have. If you want to be a strategic partner to the C-suite and to the operation side of the business, you must be able to speak their language and understand their basic business challenges.
That“™s also part of being a transformational partner. An HR transformational partner at my level must be complementary to the leaders running the business. You only become a complementary partner if you understand the business.
ExecutiveBiz: How has the current budget, business and technology environment affected your ability to attract talent with the appropriate technology specializations?
Kay Curling: We purchased our platform company in 2010. Much of the senior leadership team that is in place at Salient, were together at SI.
The interesting thing about this for this team is that we have an opportunity to be able to build a company from the ground up again. That is a really unique opportunity. It“™s also a rare gift and privilege. The things that we learned together at SI, we now have the opportunity to put in play here. We are not tied to legacy systems, process or ways of thinking.
Many of the companies in our industry are not growing or are shrinking. Many of them are tied to legacy structures, legacy systems, legacy ways of thinking or legacy contracts. Perhaps, they“™re tied to large contracts for obsolete types of technologies or obsolete types of systems or products.
We had a chance to start fresh and build something that would uniquely position us to meet our client“™s needs today and into the future without any of the encumbrances that our competitors have. When we apply this thought to a recruiting model, many of our competitors continue to use legacy ways and structures to recruit talent. They“™re recruiting the same way now that they“™ve been recruiting for the last two decades.
ExecutiveBiz: Can you go into some more detail about how you differentiate your candidate recruitment from your competition?
Kay Curling: I“™ve seen many different recruiting models including centralized and decentralized models. At the end of the day, these recruiting models are all very similar. Recruiting in our industry has been a challenge for decades. Salient“™s model is distinctly different. It allows us to meet our client“™s precise needs ““ The right people, right now.
Our recruiting is imbedded inside the operations side of our business in what we call a Talent Operations Center. The best way to visualize our Talent Operations Center is to envision several small Network Operations Centers working together across the business and across the nation. Our TOC uses proprietary processes and systems. Our recruiters are called Talent Operations Specialists.
We recruit candidates for our TOS positions that have a strong aptitude for sales. All candidates are screened using a sales instrument to make sure that they have fire in their belly. We not only screen them intensely, we then put them through a several month certification process to make sure that they understand the Salient way of recruiting candidates. I know of no one else doing anything like this in our industry.
This process eliminates risk for our clients and it drives mission, which is why our Talent Operation Center has been so successful. It allows us to determine with absolute certainty that our candidates are going to meet the client“™s precise needs. That is a weapon in this industry.
We have a proprietary database that has hundreds of thousands of contacts that we have actually made contact with. These aren“™t just resumes of people that we“™ve pulled off of job boards.
These are profiles of candidates that we have aggressively sought after and know exactly what they“™re looking for and know what will entice them to move from their current position. When our clients come to us and say, “I have a need,“ we have the ability very quickly to move and meet that need with a precision that“™s pretty uncanny in this marketplace.
I think the interesting thing about the Talent Operations Center is it“™s not run by HR. These are mission professionals that are in the operation side of the business, but partnered with HR to make sure that they do things in a way that“™s compliant and a way that“™s efficient and effective.
Because the Talent Operation Center and Talent Operation Specialists are not owned by HR, they“™re more closely aligned to the actual business requirements. It“™s a transformational partnership truly that allows our business to meet needs of our clients in a way that I don“™t believe anyone else is