Kerri Morehart began her career in marketing and proposal development, with no intention of going into human capital. Not, that is, until her mentor Ted Legasey, Chief Operating Officer of SRA International at the time, tapped her on the shoulder one afternoon and asked her to run recruiting at the company.
Morehart is now Vice President of Human Resources at Pragmatics, Inc., and for her, the people business is about partnering with business to acquire, grow, and maintain talent to brand the organization.
Morehart spoke with WashingtonExec recently about the evolution of the human capital executive role, strategies for employee engagement, her fondness for LinkedIn as a recruiting tool, talent acquisition, and animal rescue. She also shed light on her favorite job interview questions and why answering them correctly is key to landing the job.
WashingtonExec: How do you manage budget restraints in the government contracting industry to ensure continued employee engagement?
Kerri Morehart: That’s a great question, because it’s likely one that most senior executives are struggling with; yet, as with most difficult questions, sometimes the answer is very simple — and it’s honesty. Honesty means informing employees about situations and how the company intends to handle them. It really relieves a lot of tension for employees and lets them know that you are in it for the long haul and that they can be in it for the long haul too.
It also means you’ll do everything you can to keep them apprised of everything that’s going on. If we have a situation, like sequestration, where we have to let employees go, we are going to work with those employees every step of the way and try to help them find new opportunities — either within the company or with other companies. That’s just the right thing to do. When employees see how we approach the issue, they trust the organization more, and their level of engagement stays constant or increases. They know they are going to be treated fairly and honestly.
“You’ve got to have good people. You’ve got to keep good people. You’ve got to enable them to enjoy their work, find value in it, find value in themselves, and keep their skills going.”
WashingtonExec: Is there a specific way you deal with the generation gap between younger hires and older employees to ensure all employees remain engaged?
Kerri Morehart: The best way is really through the quality of the manager. A good manager who really enjoys what he or she does and who enjoys the customer and the team will know how to connect with people, no matter his or her background or age. There has to be glue there to make people work together, regardless of differences; there has to be some conduit. To me, that is the manager.
Our job is really to connect people with the right career and not try to make them into something they are not. When we look at the generation gap, the issue mostly comes down to communication. How do we help a new professional deal with someone who has been in the business for maybe 20 years and has a specific way of looking at things? How do we find common ground for them? The manager really sets that tone.
WashingtonExec: Do you find yourself using social media to engage younger hires or current or future employees?
Kerri Morehart: Social media is very important in my personal life, my communications, and my work life. I’m really lucky that I have a fantastic partner with the Director of Communications here, Linda Alkire, because Linda and I partner on much of the messaging. That is definitely one of the key elements in any HR department. You have to partner with your sales and marketing folks and your communications team, because we are all trying to brand at the same level, but sometimes to very different audiences.
We are a very community-service oriented organization, and we love to tell people about what we are doing. We find that social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter are great to get that information across. We are big on LinkedIn too, to communicate with people. We also have alumni sites for Pragmatics and other organizations. There’s just so much you can do with social media, though. It does help connect people, but it’s not an excuse for not doing some of the other hard work in communication as well. While I think it is a very important tool, I don’t think it’s the only tool you should have in your tool kit.
WashingtonExec: How is your company able to differentiate itself from competitors to not only recruit the top talent, but also retain it? What is unique about your approach?
Kerri Morehart: People in this business want to be aligned with individuals who support their customers, rather than people who are just going to come in, put in their time, and say, ‘Hey, I worked here this many years.’ But what did you do there? Who did you help? What careers did you get moving or restart? People want to follow people who are getting it done and making opportunities for other people.
I find top talent is all around us. Talent acquisition is about making a compelling reason for that talent to come here and stay here. Our senior management team is engaged, has a long-term view of the market, and believes in growth. That’s frankly very exciting for people who join. There can be a lot of negativity in our industry right now, but I think people are looking for the companies that are saying ‘I got that, this is the reality of it, but this is what we are going to do to change that and make it go in a more positive direction.’ That’s what we are doing. We’ve got some leaders here that attracted people to come and work with Pragmatics, and we take advantage of that.
We’ve got a fantastic employee referral program — that’s really our greatest source for new hires, because people want to refer people they know are going to do a good job and create a great work environment. No one wants to refer someone who won’t work out, because your reputation is on the line too. I think it says a lot about our culture and our company that our employee referral program is so robust and healthy.
WashingtonExec: How has the role of Human Capital Executive changed since you first entered the sector?
Kerri Morehart: I had such forward-thinking mentors in Ann Denison, VP of Human Resources at SRA International, and Ted Legasey, who I mentioned earlier, that I always understood the idea of HR partnering with the business to bring in the talent, grow the talent, keep the talent, and brand the organization. I really benefitted from their total entrepreneurial look at HR. Ted and Ann had a very strong bond. Similarly, I have a very strong bond with our COO, Joe Brock, and our CFO, Mike Zaramba. We are always talking, and there is an element of human resources, human capital, or whatever you want to call it — it’s the people business. You’ve got to have good people. You’ve got to keep good people. You’ve got to enable them to enjoy their work, find value in it, find value in themselves, and keep their skills going. There aren’t too many decisions we can make in an organization that don’t have some impact on the employees.
I feel the business of people has not changed; perhaps it’s our attitudes that have changed. I was so fortunate that I had people who were already established in their roles, and who helped me in that part of my learning process. They taught me that people are the most important thing. It doesn’t matter what role you’re in — you have to understand that. It didn’t matter if I was in HR, if I was in marketing, or if I was in IT. It didn’t matter where I was, what team I was on, what company I was with — anything to do with people was the most important thing. My mentors’ philosophy was that if you don’t take care of your people, you won’t have a business. I believe there’s nothing more important in our business than making sure we’re putting people first: being honest with them, communicating, and trying to create the best experience we can for them in the workplace. All of these people have choices to go someplace else. The people who decide to stay with you, and the ones you are recruiting and want to retain — that’s the challenge every day. How can I make it better for them?
WashingtonExec: Is there a particular question you think is the best question you can ask when you interview candidates working toward employment in an organization?
Kerri Morehart: I have a few questions I like to ask people to learn about their self-awareness. Several of those questions are, ‘If I were to talk to your manager, or the last three managers you had, what would they say are your three greatest attributes, and what would be several areas for continued improvement?’ That’s not to say it’s something bad, but you would be amazed. People pause and have to think, ‘Who were my last three managers? What would they have said about me? What would they have said I was good at?’ They have to put themselves in the place of someone who was managing them. They might say, ‘Well they wouldn’t say anything bad about me; there’s no area for improvement.’ It’s interesting how people approach that question and how they answer it.
Other questions I like to ask people, especially those who manage teams, are, ‘If I talked to your team, what would they say is your management style? What would they say you’ve been able to do for them?’ I think that puts people on pause too, because they’ve got to think about answering those questions in a way that’s a bit different than questions they’ve answered in the past.
WashingtonExec: What’s something that most people don’t know about you?
Kerri Morehart: I’m very involved in animal rescue. I have two rescue dogs — foxhounds named Walker and Wyatt — that I got through HART (Homeless Animals Rescue Team). HART is a no-kill animal rescue group that takes in and rehomes abused and unwanted dogs and cats, something that is very important to me.