Al Torres is charged with aligning HR strategies and the employee experience with his company’s business strategies. If that task doesn’t already seem daunting enough, he has to do this with half of his team located in India, more than 8,000 miles away from his New Jersey-based office. The vice president of human resources operations at Verizon Communications, Inc. is up to the challenge, making it a point to communicate frequently and effectively with his team of 50 employees and with his colleagues, ensuring the goals and vision of Verizon are being fulfilled. Here, Torres shares with HE why making time to talk is the best quality a leader in the telecommunications industry can have.
The telecommunications industry has evolved so much through the years. How have these changes affected you in your HR role?
The telecommunications industry has changed dramatically from what it used to be. The world gets smaller and smaller and is, in large part, driven by telecommunications and the ability to move data and information very quickly. I find it very exciting. Because of those advancements, the way we do business has had to change. Years ago, when recruiting for a company of this size, I would post jobs in a newspaper and do what I call “post and pray”—post the job and hope that people apply for it. Now we use Facebook for recruiting and all variations of social media. We have recruiters on LinkedIn looking to make relationships with people.
When we used to have classes, 20 people came in a conference room and we’d spend a couple hours in training. Now we can deliver a class online, with an instructor sitting in an office somewhere, and all 20 students could be in different countries. Telecommunications has changed, and that has changed how HR recruits and how it helps employees develop themselves.
What are some of the challenges you face, having an HR role in a global company, and how do you handle these difficulties?
Because of the size of Verizon and the reach it has across the entire world, it’s a 24-hour operation. So at any moment, there are employees getting ready to go to work and there are employees finishing up work and going home. And we (in HR) are looking at the employee experience from beginning to end. So, we have to be on call 24 hours a day.
The biggest challenges we have as a global company have to do with time zones and the long-distance management of employees. For example, one of my direct reports works out of Chennai, India. The quickest we can get to each other is on a 24-hour plane ride. You really need to go out of your way to have a connection, to get things done, and to build a relationship.
For every one of my employees that isn’t located near me, I have a standing weekly call. No matter what happens, whether there’s an agenda or not, we have 30 minutes or an hour on the calendar where we can actually get on a call. Sometimes it’s just 10 minutes to shoot to breeze because when we get to work in America and we’re getting a cup of coffee and walking down the hallway, we are shooting the breeze, and asking about what you did this weekend. When you have an employee that isn’t co-located with you, you don’t have the luxury of that. I also take advantage of things like TelePresence, which allows us to have discussion face-to-face by utilizing technology. I find it very impactful.
What do you like about working in human resources, and how did you get interested in this field?
I consider myself an operations person; I’m really a businessperson that ended up in an HR job. I believe businesses are successful based on the nature of the talent and how that talent is engaged and leveraged. How do we create the right work environment and give employees the right tools so that we can create a product that will have an impact on businesses, individuals, and on countries? I saw a clear connection between the people part and the business-delivery model, which I was excited about.
What advice would you give to people looking to succeed in your field?
One person’s road map to success isn’t always the one that everyone else should follow. I can only share my experiences and what I think has helped me. I think the first thing that differentiates some people from others in a work environment is performance. Focus on your job and what you need to do and build a reputation as somebody that can get things done.
I always tell people in HR to be a businessperson first. People need to make sure they understand the business. A lot of times you will have a meeting with someone from HR or finance and you ask about their function and they can talk about tax codes and accounting rules, but then you ask them a question about the business that they’re in and they may not understand the products and the services—I find that that’s a problem. Know the business.
Also, anytime somebody says, “I’m looking for a volunteer to help with the particular project,” I always raise my hand. It gives me the opportunity to learn something different, to meet different members of the organization, and the opportunity to network with others.
Back to your note about being on call 24 hours a day: how do you achieve work/life balance?
I schedule everything. When my kids were younger, Halloween was always scheduled on my calendar. If Halloween was a weekday, I took the day off. My kids were dressing up. I wanted to see them and I wasn’t going to leave it to chance. I schedule everything, including Friday date nights and kid performances. Even my dog grooming is on my calendar.
Speaking of family, in what ways do you believe your parents contributed to your success?
I was the first in my family to ever attend and graduate college. My parents ensured that I stayed in school and got a college education. My mother started working at a factory as soon as she came into the United States from Cuba, and my father was a salesman for a produce company. This immigrant family worked long hours to get their kid to go to an Ivy League college, get an education, and achieve the American dream. Not a bad story!
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