The Attack Zone

During the 2012 lockout impasse, everyone in the organization was tested but, Eliza Hernandez says, it created an opportunity to get close with everyone. (Photos by Bill Ziady)

Elisa Hernandez shares how she kept the Florida Panthers scoring HR goals during the 2012 lockout

Elisa Hernandez comes from a background of determination and hard work. Born in Newark, New Jersey, and moving to South Florida in the mid-1980s, Hernandez’s native Cuban parents instilled a dogmatic doctrine that has shadowed her throughout her life. Not only is she vice president of human resources and payroll for one of the leading sports and entertainment companies in the business, Sunrise Sports & Entertainment (SSE), Hernandez is the industry’s go-getter. “Throughout the years, I think back to my dad always taking on additional responsibilities with a ‘whatever it takes’ attitude. That’s me—whatever I can do, whatever responsibilities I can take on, I do,” Hernandez says.

Hernandez joined SSE—owner of the professional hockey team, the Florida Panthers and its home ice, the BB&T Center—during one of the toughest times for the NHL, the 2012 lockout. Keeping some 140 full-time employees motivated through grim times is a feat not many would take on during their first few weeks with a new job. But Hernandez “tends to be like a steamroller and move forward.” Her pragmatism kept employees involved in the Fort Lauderdale community by actively promoting the launch of Red Fridays, a weekly event where employees were sent to help with different charitable organizations. Activities ranged from building playgrounds and cleaning livestock farms to packaging meals, cleaning parks and beaches, “anything and everything.”

“We bonded and we sort of forgot the concerns over the lockout and didn’t feel so sorry for ourselves because we were out there helping others. Their needs overshadowed anything we were going through,” she says.

 “Every time I drive up to this gorgeous arena, there’s a big sense of pride. I just can’t believe I’m a part of it.” —Elisa Hernandez, VP of Human Resources, Sunrise Sports & Entertainment
“Every time I drive up to this gorgeous arena, there’s a big sense of pride. I just can’t believe I’m a part of it.”
—Elisa Hernandez,
VP of Human Resources,
Sunrise Sports & Entertainment

During the lockout impasse, everyone in the organization was tested but, Hernandez says, it created an opportunity to get close with everyone and realize how quickly they were able to react and respond. Throughout the lockout, there were weekly staff meetings, which brought together the entire workforce to talk about what was going on within the industry and what to expect. Hernandez, along with her boss and mentor, SSE president and COO, Michael R. Yormark, kept the conversation real, sometimes having difficult discussions, but letting everyone know what was coming down and sharing positive news whenever possible. This transparent practice is one in which Hernandez strives for as a best practice and rule of thumb every day at SSE.

“While we were waiting for hockey to return, we were focusing on the entertainment side of the business. Something was always happening to keep our organization moving and our employees engaged,” she says. “It was all hands on deck.”

Her HR background stems from years in the health-care industry, starting out as a payroll specialist fresh out of high school. Over the years she took on higher levels of responsibility, immersing herself into the profession. She obtained her degree from Davie, Florida-based Nova Southeastern University by taking night and weekend classes, while raising two sons with her husband. “Starting my HR career in a heavily regulated industry, [like] health care, created a good foundation for me,” she added. “Over the years, I was able to experience HR in other industries like manufacturing, telecommunications, and then, ultimately, the opportunity came up to enter sports and entertainment.”

An avid sports fan from a young age thanks to watching hockey with her dad, Hernandez’s innate ability to thrive in a fast-paced work environment is second nature to her. Never remaining stagnant, Hernandez is very active in a plethora of organizations and nonprofits throughout the Fort Lauderdale area professionally with the Florida Panthers Foundation and personally. “As a community, we have to help each other,” she says. “It’s great to work for an organization where community service is expected. It speaks to our owner and it speaks to who we are.”

From helping returning veterans find a job with Mission United to hosting a children’s poetry workshop with the Jason Taylor Foundation, she says it’s the least she can do. She also works with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the National Kidney Foundation, and March of Dimes. “It’s been a calling for many years,” she adds.

Following the lockout, Hernandez’s focus has been to develop an effective recruitment process. “One of the things I have incorporated is a behavioral profile modeling and behavioral-based interviews, which intend to attract a good bench so that when we need the right person, we have a ready bench of excellent performers,” she says. SSE has an internship program that helps to bring people into the organization. “We look for people with passion, with excitement, and a can-do attitude. Maybe that’s why I relate to this organization because that was instilled in me so many years ago—you do what
it takes.”

Hernandez is particularly excited about a new project under development, an executive leadership program, which accepts country-wide applicants to be brought through the rigors of executive leadership. The program, she adds, will expose young professionals to every area of executive leadership with the ultimate goal of having them join SSE. “One thing that I’ve learned in being here is that it takes a certain DNA to thrive and be successful in the sports and entertainment industry,” she says. “It’s not for everyone. It’s tough. It’s fast-paced. But, boy, is it rewarding! Every time I drive up to this gorgeous arena, there’s a big sense of pride. I just can’t believe I’m a part of it.”

She believes a leader is someone who treats people with dignity and respect; someone who is honest and transparent while being able to share positive feedback. In problems as foreboding as the NHL lockout, Hernandez has kept those ideals close to her heart. “Sometimes there are solutions. Sometimes there aren’t. So you have to reformulate the problem a little. Everything is not black and white, especially when it comes to HR and dealing with people. There is a shade of gray and you have to know it exists and be able to work through that.”

As an HR sponge, Hernandez was taught early in her career the importance and necessity of balancing the needs of the organization and its employees. “It’s interesting to see HR professionals who don’t do that or gravitate towards one over the other. It’s one of the things I think is missing sometimes in HR—the common-sense element.” Regulatory compliance is certainly paramount, Hernandez says, but you can exercise common sense, understand the bigger picture, effectively balance the business as well as the employees’ best interest, and, of course, have some fun along the way. “It doesn’t change no matter what industry you’re in: treat people with dignity and respect. Have fun, enjoy yourself, and wear that smile on your face,” she added.