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Dinosaur FeetIn honor of the premier of “Terra Nova” last night, I thought it was a good time to post the second part of my interview with Elizabeth Lalli-Reese, or Lalli as you know her by now. We talk about creativity, human resources and, most importantly, dinosaurs.

I recently found out that you play violin, and that was something I never knew about you.

(laughs)

I was shocked when I read that. I would have thought that was something that would have come up more because it’s not exactly an easy instrument to play. How long have you been playing the violin?

I’ve played since I was 5 years old, so for 25 years now. Yeah… it’s not something that I mention very often, but I’ve been really involved in an orchestra group ever since I was a little girl. Now I don’t play as much as I like, but it’s certainly something that I keep up with. I believe that all children should learn music from a young age, because it stimulates part of your brain that isn’t stimulated otherwise.

Do you play with any string quartets or just noodle around on it with yourself?

You know what…  I kind of play around with it myself. When I was in school, I would play in a group for weddings and things like that. That was a function of having the ability and knowing there was a market for it. But now, it’s mainly just for my own relaxation and to make sure I don’t lose that skill or let that skill become diminished through the years. I actually have the violin that my great-grandfather played, and it was passed down to me when I was old enough not to break it or be a jerk with it. When I was about 5, I had a little half-size violin that I would like hit the dog with (laughs). So, once I was deemed mature enough not to break it or play with it in a destructive way, it was given to me. It’s really cool, because it’s in the same case, and there’s old resin that he used. I don’t use that anymore, but they kept it in the case, and it’s really neat for me. He really enjoyed playing it, and it was expensive for him to buy it at the time as someone who had just come to this country. It was one of his prized possessions.

Well, I know that Charlie Daniels was a fiddle player, which isn’t the same style, but which solo do you think was better, Charlie’s or the Devil’s?

I think it was the Devil’s, but I also think it’s because I know too much about Charlie Daniels’ politics. There may be a bias there. So, I don’t think it’s fair, but I think the Devil’s was better. You know, technically, I think it was.

I thought the devil’s sounded better.

I think you’re always supposed to not like things the devil does. (laughs) Yeah, I think by definition “The devil did that really well” probably is not what you’re supposed to say. (laughs)

Would you consider yourself to be a creative introvert or creative extrovert?

I think that I’m probably a creative extrovert, and I think that I’ve always chosen a profession that allowed me to have a lot of face time with people and to engage with people as a recruiter. The compensation that I would receive would be based on the people that I would be able to connect with and with the companies that I was hiring for. And, my husband is definitely an introvert and will sometimes hear me on the phone in the evening, and he’s like “I’m exhausted just watching you do that. I would hate doing that.” Like, if we order pizza, my husband will not use the phone. He’ll be like “Will you call for the pizza?” (laughs) I think that I’m definitely an extrovert, and it’s why I’ve been able to throw myself into recruiting. Sometimes, it’s kind of hard to call somebody that doesn’t know you and try to convince them that there’s an opportunity out there that’s better for them.

Did you find that playing a violin at an early age helped you become an extrovert?

I think it did, and I think it kind of reduced my anxiety around making mistakes. When you’re in that setting, you’re listening to other people play, and you can kind of tell when somebody misses a note or messes up. You understand that it’s just part of the job of being a performer. Things aren’t always going to be perfect. I’ve worked as a recruiter in open settings where everyone can hear everything I say, and you know, if you get too self-conscience about flipping out or saying something kind of silly or maybe not having the best conversation, then you know you’re not going want to get back on the phone and make another call. So, I’m thinking that maybe it’s okay to mess up, and some days you do a great job and some days you don’t have the best concert. It’s all in getting back to it and being consistent.

Knowing that you’ve met with a lot of people because of the industry that you’re in, do you think that there are people out there that are truly uncreative?

I don’t think so. I think a lot of it is confidence. I think everybody has the ability, and I think it’s even in the things people daydream. They may not think of it as creative, but it is. When I first started working in HR within a marketing company, I always felt like maybe I realized that I could be creative in spite of myselfmy ideas wouldn’t have as much value because I’m not a marketer for a living. I realize that I would have ideas that may be outside of what marketers would think, or maybe I had some unique perspective being in HR. I realized that I could be creative in spite of myself. So, I think it’s about confidence. You know, and it’s about being open-minded on how you define what creativity is.

Were you ever involved in any kind brainstorming on projects early on in the marketing places where you’ve worked?

I have been. And, I think that a lot of times, I was kind of the good lab rat for “Hey would this be something you would be interested in?” or “If you just saw this on a mailer, what would you think?” I was able to give an every woman’s unbiased view of what I thought. Then, once I saw more of the process of being in marketing and doing things like branding, I became more and more amazed at how somebody can sit down with a couple of ideas and put out a product that’s eye-catching and engaging. It gave me more confidence to give more suggestions on what I like.

You told me an interesting story involving you husband teaching your bird to whistle the Imperial March from Star Wars.

(laughs)

He probably spent an embarrassing amount of time on it. The male cockatiel we have, Spike, never liked any man that I ever had around him. He didn’t like my father and didn’t like my brother, but something about my husband just clicked. Like, he knew that he was going to have to live with this man a very long time. (laughs) And so, my husband would go up to his cage, and he would whistle silly little things like the Andy Griffith theme, which I’m so glad the bird didn’t learn because that’s really annoying. So, he would try different little tunes. When he found out the bird really got into Imperial March, he would just do it over and over again. And, I don’t think there’s anything more ominous than hearing a cockatiel at 5:30 in the morning whistling the Imperial March. My husband thinks it’s the best thing ever, and he loves the birds though at first he was not impressed. And now, I think the Star Wars thing totally sealed the deal on the relationship.

So was the bird attracted to the Imperial March?

Oddly enough, yes. I mean, my husband whistled the Indiana Jones theme —no interest. As soon as he heard the Imperial March, he turned his little head to the side and tried to copy it. So, I think that he’s probably evil because it’s the only song he’s every liked. I should have him listen to some Charlie Daniel’s and see if that peaks his interest. (laughs)

So have you become a Star Wars fan?

You know as much as I can see that my husband enjoys it. I have. When they had the Star Wars experience at the Las Vegas Hilton. I bought the tickets, and I went with him. When they had the music of Star Wars here in Dallas, I surprised him with the tickets, and he was in heaven. He was just so excited. I get into it because when I see him like that, it makes me think of what he was probably like as a little boy. Being able to see a grown man get that excited over a movie to me is just awesome. Everybody should have that in their life — where they can feel childlike and not be embarrassed by it. That’s how I am with dinosaurs. I’m ridiculously excited about dinosaurs and my husband totally indulges that. He buys me dinosaur figurines and sends me pictures of dinosaurs. It seems kind of silly but it’s something new and it makes me happy. There’s not enough of that in the world.

Have you been to Dinosaur Valley in Glen Rose, Texas?

I have. And I’ve seen pretty much every dinosaur exhibit even the animatronics dinosaurs that came here. And I was pretty much the only 30 year old woman who was screaming with excitement about the dinosaurs. I even got to take a picture next to one of the animatronics dinosaurs.

Do you think creativity is something that somebody is just born with, or is it something that you develop and nurture?

I think it’s something that everyone is born with. When you watch the way that children play, they can take inanimate objects and create stories in their minds. I think it’s something that we’re all born with, but I think that some parents and some people nurture that piece more. Now I can say that I would love more than anything to be able to draw, because I think it’s an amazing skill to have. I’m horrible at drawing. I would get books at the book store when I was a kid that help you trace things, and I would still mess it up. So, I think my creativity may be musical. I’ve seen small children be able to draw far better than I can. But, I think everybody’s creative. I think you’re born with it.

My previous guest Nicole Dobbs has a question for you. Looking back on your life, what was one of the defining moments where you came to a fork in the road, and you had to either choose A or B?

I think the defining moment for me was my first day of law school, because I went into it thinking it was going to be an experience much like my undergraduate experience which was very sheltered and very friendly. I was thrown in law school with a bunch of people that I considered adults, and I wasn’t really sure if it’s what I wanted to do. But, I’ve always been of the mind that when you start something, you finish it. So, I went and talked the dean of students, and I was like, “I really don’t’ know if I want to do this.” She said, “If you decide to leave, you know we will give you 75% of your money back, and you can figure out what you want to do in life. You have until the end of this week.” And every night that I thought about it, I had a different answer for what I was going to do. Walking into the school that Friday morning and having to go to the dean of students, I made the decision to stay and stick it through. And, you know, those were really hard years in my life. I didn’t have the money. I was working full time and going to school full time, but it’s something I’m really grateful I did. I think that if I would have given up, I would have regretted it. And, I would have always wondered what I could have accomplished if I would have stuck it out. So, that was probably the biggest turning point in my life. You know, up to this point in life.

Do you feel like you needed to go through that so that you left the field on you terms rather than the field kicking you out?

I felt like I was going to be — and I don’t like this word — kind of a loser if I didn’t finish. It was certainly parental expectations (laughs) that I finish law school. So, I think somebody else would have been pretty angry at me, but I think that it was, “I can either let this beat me, or I can beat it.”

Do you feel like you made the right decision?

I think I did. Now when I look at my student loan payments, I might tell you something different. (laughs) They suck. (LAUGHS)

I think I did, because I’ve been able to utilize things that I’ve learned and really have a growing career based on the education that I have behind me, so I’m really glad I did it.

Be sure to follow Lalli on twitter @TXStrategicHR, LinkedIn and like her on facebook. You can also find out more about her at Talentculture. Check back soon for when I interview Lynda Campbell and we talk about the good side of creativity in accounting. In the meantime, be sure to check out my interviews with Jeni Herberger and Nicole Dobbs.

Like what you see feel free to email me at tad@creativesquall.com and don’t forget to become a fan on Facebook. Check out the Creative Squall site to see how we’ve put imagination in action.

Dinosaur toy eating a business man toy figureElizabeth Lalli-Reese, or Lalli as she prefers to be called, was the first person that I met during a series of interviews with Starr Tincup in early 2009. She was easily one of the best interviewers I ever had the privilege of meeting. So, I thought that it would only be appropriate to flip the tables and make her the subject of my latest interviews on creativity. She is passionate about the human resources space that she works in, an area that’s not necessarily recognized for it’s creativity. So, prepare to change your mind about HR.

I know you have a lot of unique interests and have had an interesting journey getting to where you are. Give us a little bit of background about how you got to where you are today.

When I was in high school, I was a debater. I did Lincoln-Douglas debate. So everybody was always saying, “Oh, you should go to college, and go to law school.” Coming from a kind of strict Indian family, I had a choice of being a lawyer or a doctor, and I’m really, really squeamish. So being a lawyer sounded like a really good idea.

I went to college at TCU on an academic scholarship, and I also played softball. My major was Political Science, and I totally fell in love with it. I was able to play the devil’s advocate as someone who was politically liberal at a school that’s pretty conservative. So, I had a lot of fun with that.

I ended up starting law school right out of undergrad, so I was pretty naïve and didn’t really know what a graduate program like law school would be like or whether it was the field that was right for me. I was 22 years old, and I was going to school with people that were on average eight years older than I was. So I quickly learned that my life at TCU wasn’t indicative of what the real world was like. Starting law school wasn’t really what I thought it would be, and I figured that I might like it more as I delve into other aspects of the law. By the third and final year, I realized that the only aspect I enjoyed about law school was the labor and employment law classes that I had taken.

I decided to try to go into practice. I started with family law because there’s a pretty low barrier to entry if you can follow a step-by-step divorce, wills or things like that. I discovered I really didn’t like it at all. It was very adversarial, and it was very depressing. So from there, I decided that I was going to start working as a legal recruiter because I had been recruiting for a financial firm while I was in college. I was able to leverage the connections I made in law school, and I did that for a while. Then, I guess, I kind of went more into a generalist role in HR recruitment. So, it was kind of a strange way to get there, but I think I made a much better decision not to continue with law.

I understand that you’ve got your own business, and you’ve recently made a job switch.

Yes. I am currently the head of HR for Ace Cash Express. We are an alternative financial services firm based in Irving, Texas. I think our total number of employees is somewhere around 7500 to 8000. We’re located in the US and Canada, and we’ve got 1800 retail locations plus our corporate headquarters. So, I do that, and I also do HR consulting. I write for a blog that was featured on the Austin American Statesman for people who have been laid off, and I also help companies do reductions in force, and organizational development and planning in my free time.

Wow, do you actually have any free time?  It sounds like you work all over the board.

(Laughs) You know, I think that it’s one of those things that when you do something you love, you find yourself, even on the weekends or when you’re sitting around with your laptop, kind of poking around and taking some time to maybe flush out ideas that you’ve had during the week. So honestly, most of the time, it doesn’t feel like work except when I’m doing more administrative tasks. I really enjoy what I do, and I’m really lucky to be in an organization that helps me grow and allows me to be really creative in the way that we work with our employees.

You’ve touched on an interesting subject that I’ve talked about before, and that’s a work identity versus your home. Do you find that you are always in work mode? Is there even a work mode?

I think I certainly have a separation when I’m at work. I am the face of the human resources department so my language tends to be quite censored compared to like when I’m in the car driving and  get angry; when I’m at home and I  burn something; or when the dogs tear up two pairs of shoes. I certainly put on a professional demeanor and I watch my p’s and q’s  more. But, I think that people that know me well here, or worked with me previously, understand that I have some sense of humor. I’m not all “by the books,” not all business, and what I think is the most important thing is to be a good business partner. Sometimes being a good business partner is not always being the “by the book” HR practitioner.

I know when most people think about HR, creativity is not the first thing that comes to mind. Do you feel that’s a fair judgment? Do you see creativity in what you do within the HR industry?

I think it was a fair judgment 30 years ago when the HR department was still called personnel and their function was much more administrative — basically hiring and firing. I think that new HR professionals are able to be a lot more creative in approaches that we take not only in employee relations, but also towards employment branding and in building relationships with employees. I think with the advent of social media and email, I’m able to convey ideas and concepts that get employees engaged in creative ways rather than just send out a memo. We are able to do some cool things with surveys to see how our employees are reacting to different policy changes, and we are able to connect with our employees online in a social atmosphere. If they leave or they decide not to work for us anymore, they can become a member of our alumni group. And, it’s a creative way for them to stay in touch — not just professionally, but also personally. So, I agree that things are changing. I think HR still has the reputation of not being the most creative group. I would probably agree with that to a point, but I think the HR professionals that get it are using creative means to get messages and policies across to their employees.

Do you feel like the industry has grown in particular in the last 30 years because of people switching fields and bringing what they’ve learned in other disciplines much like yourself?

You know I think that my experience in the legal profession certainly brought a very strong compliant streak. I really think  the fact that I’ve done recruiting and worked for a marketing firm has really helped me to be more creative, and to — and I hate the term, but — “look outside the box” (laughs) to find solutions. I hate it when people say that, but it’s the only way I can put it. There are ways to look outside of traditional means for employee communications and to really get people excited and engaged. You know sometimes we’re really not dealing with the most exciting topics — like 401K. That’s not very exciting, but if we put it in context and make it something that is eye-catching, interesting and humorous, people are much more likely to read and absorb the information. I think working within marketing I’ve been able to take a lot of the really cool things that I’ve seen other companies do and bring it into what I do on a daily basis.

How would you define creativity in its most basic terms?

Creativity is the drive for innovationI think I would define it as… the drive to innovate would be the way I would try to put it in the simplest terms that I can think of. Because when I see something that is really creative and really catches my interest, it changes the way that I may look at a subject or an item. And, I think the people that are the most creative are also usually the most innovative in their space. You know, I can think of top leaders within HR that are considered to be the innovators and spot leaders, and they are all very creative in the way they engage with their employees and also with other HR professionals. So, I guess I would say creativity to me is the drive for innovation and to truly be able to differentiate yourself or your message to the outside world.

Do you think that creativity by its definition has to be a tangible product at the end?

I don’t think so, because I think in a lot of the conversations that I have, especially in resolving employee relations issues, we have to be very creative. And, of course, the solutions aren’t a tangible item, but I have to be very creative in making sure that I’m able to address all the different needs of the parties that are involved. And, you know, sometimes it’s not the book standard “policy number 405 says x, y, z” so I think some of the best HR professionals are creative in solutions that they provide for employee relations issues. For their company, it’s creative ways to save money or bring more candidates into the fold. So, I think creativity is a huge part of what makes HR professionals successful.

What was the impetus behind starting your own HR consultancy? Did you want to be a business owner, or did you just feel you had something to say within the industry?

I’ve always had kind of an entrepreneurial plan. My first job out of law school was basically me putting a signal out there and offering legal recruiting services. I had this fear of failure, but I also had the rush of creating something new. And so, I thought that a lot of small companies needed HR assistance. They weren’t following either compliance laws or standard procedures, and a lot of times, it was operators who were really good at driving the business but didn’t know how to work on the HR side. I saw a gap for low cost solutions, because many of the solutions that small companies are given for HR is either hiring a HR professional full time which is very expensive, or working with an outsource group that asks for a large retainer every month. By doing projects either on a small retainer or “as needed” basis, I think I’ve been able to fill some of the gaps for HR within these small companies, and I’ve had a lot of fun doing it. Working in HR in a small company is certainly different than working in HR in a company with 8000 employees. I found it to be very interesting to see what people think is acceptable (laughs) behavior at small companies with family members all working there. It’s been eye opening.

Do you find that it’s a bit of a creative outlet in the sense that you’re still within the field, but it’s on your own terms?

Most definitely. I think that working with the smaller companies, because a lot of times there’s not a handbook or there’s not a way to do things in HR yet, I’m able to create and put things on paper, create policies and procedures, and help people understand why we are doing things a certain way. The company that I currently work for has been around since 1968, so there’s kind of a legacy of this in the way we do things. I can change those things, but I’m not creating as much as I can with a small company where they may say, “We’ve never done profession planning. Can you help us learn how to do it? Can you put together organizational charts?” It has allowed me to build more and maybe not sustain as much. Also, here at Ace, I’m lucky enough to have a team that handles different pieces of HR. In my consulting, I’m touching every piece of HR. I’m touching the HR part — benefits, employer relations, recruitment — so I’m able to do more things in different areas than I do here on a day-to-day basis.

Are you a person that thrives on being able to wear different hats, assume different roles and constantly challenged with something new?

I think that there’s a reason why I work a fulltime job and then consult on the side. And, I think for me not having something to do or not being challenged, it’s kind of a kiss-of-death for the interest in a job. If I don’t feel like every day I’m coming in and I’m really making a difference or really changing things for the better, then that’s when I start to look around and say, “Why am I here? Am I collecting a paycheck for the right reason?” I really like to feel that if you’re paying me, you’re getting what you’re paying for. So, I think that’s probably why I’ve thrown myself into the industry so completely.

Be sure to check out the exciting conclusion of my interview with Lalli, and follow her on twitter @TXStrategicHR, LinkedIn and like her on facebook. You can also find out more about her at Talentculture.

Like what you see feel free to email me at tad@creativesquall.com and don’t forget to become a fan on Facebook. Check out the Creative Squall site to see how we’ve put imagination in action.

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