Tackling the Law from the Other Side

Moving from the legal department to lead Motorola Solutions’ global HR function has taught Manuel Cuevas-Trisán to view lawyers in a new light

For nearly four years as the top employment lawyer at Motorola Solutions, Manuel Cuevas-Trisán spent much of his time working closely with human resources and managing some of the company’s most sensitive personnel matters. As a result, it was not a huge surprise when he discovered he was being considered to become the global head of HR.

One surprise, however, was that he still had to compete against other outside contenders for the job. “Being considered along with external candidates was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Cuevas-Trisán says. “It forced me to reflect deeply on how this would change my path and to face up to the possibility that, in the end, I might not get the job.”

Putting a Succession Plan
in Motion

According to Manuel Cuevas-Trisán, one of the most important factors in successful succession planning is having buy-in from top leadership. “You can’t cascade up with this idea, so leadership has to recognize the benefits,” he points out. Other executives and managers have to take a very mature and unselfish look at their own careers and think beyond the current quarter’s or year’s performance. “It can feel counter-intuitive, but you actually become more successful by creating a talent bench,” he says. “You have to reframe the conversation to be more about governance and resiliency than feeling threatened about identifying a potential replacement.”

Now, as corporate vice president, head of human resources, employment law, and data protection, Cuevas-Trisán has found his new direction to be one of the most rewarding of his career. “I have a much greater influence on the overall culture and human element of the company than even the best lawyer can have,” he explains. “I’m closer to HR decisions and their consequences, which forces me to think more like a client than a consultant—and to realize that sometimes a lawyer’s advice, even if it’s technically correct, is irrelevant to the appropriate solution.”

For example, it is necessary to ensure compliance with established policies and to create formal documentation in cases of behavior that is detrimental to team performance. But Cuevas-Trisán has come to recognize that when there are situations in which behavior is so toxic and disruptive that severing ties with an employee is the appropriate action. In those cases, protecting team morale requires the fastest and most effective outcome possible, while finding ways to minimize risk to the company.

“If you know immediately what the outcome needs to be, a formal performance or behavioral improvement plan can be counter-productive,” Cuevas-Trisán admits. “When that happens, I have to reconcile the lawyer in me with what the HR professional sees so clearly.”

There have been additional times when he has had to balance his legal training and experience with his HR responsibilities. In one case, after the prolonged illness and subsequent death of a long-term and highly respected employee, a third-party vendor mistakenly provided incorrect information to the widow about eligibility for supplemental insurance benefits.

“We had legal grounds either to deny the benefit or to press the vendor to assume the full financial responsibility for covering its mistake, but I over-rode my lawyerly inclination to ‘win’ the issue and, instead, worked out an arrangement that was suitable to everyone involved,” he says. “It was more important to do the right thing.”

Since assuming his HR role, one of Cuevas-Trisán’s priorities has been to develop a more robust and comprehensive model for succession planning at Motorola. This had previously existed to some degree among senior leadership, but his efforts are introducing formal and standardized practices at all levels of the company. This includes transparency in talent development, documenting development interventions, promoting talent sharing across traditional barriers (much like his own transition from legal to HR), and demonstrating how nurturing potential successors benefits mentees, mentors, and the organization.

“I take great pride in shifting the focus from viewing employees as ‘costs’ or ‘head count’ to seeing them as valuable resources that are well worth investing in. That shift in focus turns HR into a ‘wealth management’ function that produces ROI and creates organizational resiliency.”

—Manuel Cuevas-Trisán

“I take great pride in shifting the focus from viewing employees as ‘costs’ or ‘head count’ to seeing them as valuable resources that are well worth investing in,” Cuevas-Trisán says. “That shift in focus turns HR into a ‘wealth management’ function that produces ROI and creates organizational resiliency.”

Role rotations, international assignments, expatriation, formal and informal mentoring and coaching, more structured internships, and stretch assignments (which give added responsibilities and guidance to high potential employees sooner than might be expected) are among the investment and development tools HR has implemented since Cuevas-Trisán took the helm. Other non-traditional career paths, like HR’s recent hire of an employee from the finance department, are all helping Motorola celebrate and share its best talent.

Even though Cuevas-Trisán thoroughly enjoys, and is tremendously gratified by, his new role and responsibilities, there are still frustrations that come with the territory. Perhaps the most significant is his realization that no matter how many employees might benefit from a particular HR effort and how difficult the associated choices and negotiations might have been, there will always be those who are dissatisfied with the outcome.

“I believe that every employee at every level is important, and deserves his or her share of benefits and consideration,” Cuevas-Trisán says. “It’s frustrating that I can’t show how hard we fight for them and try to get the best outcomes for the most people. But I’ve learned that that’s part of the balancing act at the heart of what HR does. It can be overwhelming, but it’s still exhilarating, and I love doing it.”