Daniel Diaz has been invited to a lot of weddings. It is a by-product of his “family-oriented and collaborative” tendencies—tendencies that have defined his approach to leadership at major organizations across the country and now as vice president of total rewards at Signature Bank.
When Diaz first became acquainted with the world of HR during a high school internship, it was love at first sight. “What drew me,” he reminisces, “is that HR is critical to an organization. You are developing the embodiment of an institution, the culture, the perception.”
Following his high school epiphany, Diaz worked in the HR departments of several finance institutions, his love of numbers leading him to focus on compensation. He then branched out to a position at Continuum Health Services, where he learned about labor relations and the art of job descriptions. Soon, however, Diaz’s affinity for numbers drew him back to the financial aspects of HR: the ensuing years saw him complete compensation- and benefits-related stints at TIAA CREF, Arrow Electronics, and Madison Square Garden.
But as Diaz has learned in his thirty-plus years in the industry, finding success in HR is about more than cultivating a specialized knowledge of a certain area. As he worked his way up to leadership roles at prominent organizations such as the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Salvation Army, Diaz both honed his management philosophy and gained a critical understanding of how HR departments can—and should—collaborate with their parent companies.
“Not every organization sees HR as a partner,” the VP acknowledges. But Diaz has set out to change that mindset, helping in both private and public sectors understand that HR’s potential extends beyond mere administrative duties. “We are perceived as an expense environment, but our potential lays with how we sell the company brand to potential human capital, who in turn bring in the revenue,” he argues. In fact, by highlighting the benefits of strengthening the collaboration between HR and other internal teams, Diaz has helped several organizations successfully weather pivotal financial moments.
All of these ideas, and more, found their way into Diaz’s syllabus in his days as an adjunct professor for Baruch College. For more than two years, most evenings found Diaz sharing his wisdom on compensation and HR management with aspiring HR professionals—and he wasn’t afraid to bring in real-world experiences as examples. “Textbooks are antiseptic; they will turn you off,” he says, explaining that he often supplemented assigned readings with discussions of how that information could be practically applied. This approach was met with great eagerness on the part of his classes: Diaz still cherishes a thank-you gift he received from one of his students, a small rock with an impression that reads, “To teach is to touch a life forever.”
In 2017, Diaz left the classroom. “People are true characters,” he says, laughing—but Diaz could not deny his true passions. And in August 2018, the HR expert and finance aficionado found his ideal job: a position at Signature Bank as a compensation manager. Today, as VP of total rewards, Diaz leverages all that he has learned, as well as his natural talent for collaboration, on behalf of the employees he serves.
“To be a true leader, you must first learn to listen and understand what motivates your employees.”
Responsible for overseeing all compensation and benefits at Signature Bank, a full-service commercial bank based in New York, Diaz navigates a dual set of priorities: as VP, he must advocate for employees while maintaining responsibility for company assets, people, and products. To achieve this balance, Diaz says, collaboration is key. He stays in constant communication with Signature employees as well as the company’s management team in order to remain up-to-date about what employees need and what the company can offer. “My job is to keep employees engaged and motivated by implementing programs that are both competitive and rewarding and to ensure that their experience is enriching,” he says.
Signature Bank is a New York-based, full-service commercial bank with thirty-two private client offices in the New York metropolitan area, including Greenwich, Connecticut, as well as in San Francisco, and Charlotte, North Carolina. As an HR leader, Diaz dedicates himself to making the time to connect with his fellow Signature employees, no matter where in the country they’re located. As he points out, “To be a true leader, you must understand what motivates your employees.”
Of course, making himself constantly available does come with a certain set of challenges. “I’m always putting out fires,” Diaz says with a chuckle. Since COVID-19 hit the nation, the majority of the issues he has dealt with have—unsurprisingly—centered on employee exposure, travel, childcare, and other related concerns. However, to Diaz’s mind, such challenges are really an opportunity—in this case, an opportunity to further explore and coordinate with his team on the rollout of enhanced virtual health and wellness programs. As he puts it, “I am reshaping HR to act as a true advocate for employees and, at the same time, keeping the best interest of the organization at hand.”
This is the moment, Diaz emphasizes, that he and other HR leaders have been training for. This is the time for those leaders to really utilize their understanding of human behavior, and their knowledge of organizational operations, in order to help businesses everywhere rise to the occasion. “I’ve worked in many organizations that say, ‘Employees are part of our family,’” Diaz notes. “We are really putting that to the test now.”