Elizabeth 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?
I 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.
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