These are the six words that Angel Contreras uses to define the HR role in businesses today—a definition he learned while working as an HR director for a Fortune 10 company, and a definition he brought with him to the position of chief HR officer at Rockford Public Schools
Angel Contreras has his eye on the future. In fact—he’s staking his career on it. When he signed on to become the new chief human resources officer (CHRO) for Rockford Public Schools in Rockford, Illinois, in August 2012, he stepped down from his human resources director position at GE Aviation, where he had been working since 2008. “The decision to work for Rockford Public Schools gave me the opportunity to see changes through in the district,” Contreras says. “It’s a unique challenge.”
Contreras first developed his passion for HR during his military days, joking that the difficulty and unpredictability of being a Navy corpsman (a type of combat medic) are what best prepared him for the challenges of being an HR professional. “I was in the Navy for eight and a half years, working in alcohol-rehab wards, psych wards, emergency rooms … I’ve delivered babies, ran EMS departments, given sutures and chest tubes,” Contreras says, laughing. “This is what prepared me for work in the HR world.”
Truly understand where people come from and where they want to go.
Be genuine about getting to know people.
Through Contreras’s multifaceted work as a corpsman, he got into the military’s leadership development training, and when he left the Navy in 2002, he landed a job as a corporate trainer in the private sector, facilitating leadership-development programs and informally setting the stage for a move to HR. “I really enjoyed this type of development, but I realized that I needed to be more robust in the HR field,” Contreras says. “I went back to school, got my MBA and PHR [Professional in Human Resources], and started learning more about how HR can change an organization from within.”
After graduating from Aurora University in 2005 and working with companies such as Wrigley, OSI, and Portola Packaging, Contreras went to work for GE—a company he had in his sites since he entered his MBA program. With GE, Contreras relocated from the Chicago area to McAllen, Texas, helping his HR team implement employee self-directed soft-skill educational programs, reducing delinquency rates from 40 percent to almost zero.“By that point in my career, I had been learning more about how companies utilize HR as a business partner,” Contreras says, “and that’s when I really started to define what HR is, in six words: ‘learn the business, help others succeed.’”
After spending two years in Texas, an HR director position opened in Rockford, Illinois, with GE Aviation, a $19 billion GE subsidiary. Aside from being proximal to Contreras’s home state of Iowa, the relocation to Rockford afforded Contreras the opportunity to continue learning the business, reflecting the changing role of HR. “I would invite myself to sales and quality meetings, and people wondered why I was in those meetings—I would always say that I’m in these meetings because I am HR,” Contreras says.
Through community links that Contreras built in his capacity as HR director for GE, he drew the attention of the Rockford Public School District, which approached him as a candidate for its newly created CHRO position. With 4,100 employees and 28,000 students, the district was a different entity for Contreras, who was used to working for a Fortune 10 company. “It was quite a shift, but I saw an opportunity to really come in and see some change from an HR standpoint, and to be able to see the effects of those changes down the road—it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up,” Contreras says.
Reporting directly to the district superintendent, Contreras’s position with the district not only gives him allowance to refine the functions of the HR department, but orient it in such a way to reflect the evolving role of HR as a strategic business partner. For Contreras, this paradigm shift will start with the low-hanging fruit that, once plucked, will allow for greater strategic redirection.
Aside from streamlining HRIS functionality, simplifying administrative workflow, and increasing employee and retiree access to open enrollment programs, Contreras is focusing on communicating with other departments on what HR can deliver to the district’s diverse programmatic functions. “We need to get better at being the advocates for ourselves, as HR, answering what we do for the organization and how we impact its culture,” Contreras says.
“Rockford Public Schools are undergoing a paradigm shift, and with the changing role of HR within the organization and its interaction with the surrounding community, I believe we can really help the school district improve,” Contreras says. “It will be exciting to see what happens.”