Starting an HR Department from Scratch

Tanya Garzon

Tanya Garzon focuses on mentoring and retention as she continues to develop the strategic platform she launched at MacKay Shields

Tanya Garzon originally planned on pursuing an accounting major when she entered Rutgers University. Things changed, however, after a fateful summer working at an insurance company. “My job exposed me to many new opportunities including working with employees at many levels,” Garzon says. “I found I really loved the interaction with staff, and I knew I’d found what I wanted to do for the rest of my career.”

Self Review

How do you unwind during down time?
I like to unwind by spending time with family, especially my two daughters.

What talent would most people be surprised to know you have?
I am an avid Latin dancer.

What is your favorite childhood memory?
Our entire family—aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, etc.—playing kickball at a local park on a regular basis. Everyone laughing and having a great time is honestly priceless.

What would be your three “luxury” items if stranded on a desert island for one week?
An iPod filled with relaxing music, a Tempur-Pedic bed, and my family.

What is your dream vacation?
To go with my entire family to the Caribbean. When we were younger, my cousins and I would dream of winning the lottery and going on vacation together—all 40 of us!

After a series of progressively challenging positions in the field, today Garzon heads the human resources department for MacKay Shields, a wholly owned, fully autonomous subsidiary of New York Life Insurance Company and the Investments Group at New York Life’s. When Garzon joined the firm in 2009, MacKay Shields had no formal HR department, so she was challenged with establishing the department from the ground up.

“I was intrigued by the position because it provided me with the opportunity to not only head the HR department, but also formalize the function within the firm,” Garzon says.  “I also felt the person I reported to would provide an opportunity to learn and become a mentor and, at this point in my career, I was in search of a truly inspirational leader.”

Garzon’s day-to-day role at MacKay Shields involves developing a strategic HR platform that includes talent management, organizational development, recruiting, change management, diversity, employee relations, and compensation/benefits, all while serving as an advisor to the leadership team. She notes, however, that her passion is serving as a mentor. “The greatest reward for me is seeing employees I’ve helped break through professional obstacles and challenges to succeed,” Garzon says. “With mentoring, they’re able to grow professionally within the organization and take on leadership roles. I feel if they’re growing and succeeding, so am I.”

When it comes to professional challenges, Garzon says supporting a strong corporate culture has remained an ongoing concern throughout her career, but is especially difficult in recent years. “Since I started in HR there has been an abundant amount of new laws and regulations that I’m required to stay abreast of for my work which often affects how we do business,” she says. “The current economic environment also has made it tougher for employees and management to deal with the increased challenges both internally and externally.”

Garzon credits her parents and strong ties to her culture for playing a key role in her approach to work. In particular, as a first-generation immigrant and eldest child, she says her parents stressed a strong work ethic as the most important ingredient to success. “My parents have been my champions in all aspects of my life. They worked several jobs in order to provide me with the American dream and an education,” Garzon says. “From an early age, I appreciated the hard work and sacrifices they made, and I knew I wanted to be like them one day.”

“From my parents, I also learned that hard work equals credibility, and the value of humility, which has always been at the foundation of how I interact with all levels of an organization,” she adds. “I believe my morals and principles helped me foster strong relationships, which are essential to being a successful HR professional.”

3 tips

Deliver on your messages and standards in order to attain credibility and trust.

Listen to your population before communicating culture to senior management.

Open lines of communication among all levels of the organization; when employees have access to senior leaders, they are more productive because they are happier.

Garzon admits her belief in these essential skills was tested early in her career when she was challenged by managers and placed in situations that would serve as a “training ground” for her future including her current role at MacKay Shields. “I refer to the early part of my career as my ‘trial by fire,’ but, often situations that are difficult and put you outside of your comfort zone will become those that will prepare you to be successful in the future,” she adds.

Her strong passion for mentoring also has led Garzon to become involved with the New York chapter of ALPFA, an association for Latino business professionals and students that is dedicated to enhancing opportunities and building leadership and career skills. “The ALPFA Board Leadership team I work with is focused on building future Latino leaders by providing professional programming, student support, and exposure to various firms that support the organization,” Garzon says. “For up-and-coming Latino business leaders, it’s essential to learn from those who have paved the way and network as much as possible because you never know who could be your future mentor and/or advocate.

Garzon also believes in working to impact the shortage of diverse talent within the financial-services industry. “Many financial services organizations are leading the way to advocate, expose, and promote future talent of diverse backgrounds, which is very encouraging,” she adds. “I’m personally excited, as well, to be able to introduce more diverse candidates and students to our industry through my personal and professional experiences and connections.”