Journey to Human Resources

Rebecca Hunter CPA, SPHR
Tennessee Department of Human Resources


Growing up as a “preacher’s kid” and number six of fourteen children, I had no way of knowing that both of these factors would ultimately serve as the foundation for my career. Living in the fishbowl with so many siblings prepared me not only for a career in public service where transparency is critical to success, but also to lead a team, as I was always the cheerleader and peacemaker for my siblings.

My first job out of college with an Accounting Degree was as a payroll clerk for the City of Chattanooga. Although this role didn’t require a degree, I learned everything I could about payroll processes and began building my customer service foundation, since payroll touches everyone in the organization.

My journey into the HR world began while serving as the only female member on the senior finance team at Hamilton County Government in Chattanooga. I was asked to lead a team in which everyone who worked for me was not only older, but subject matter experts in a field about which I had much less knowledge. I embraced this challenge and learned at an early age that the best leader knows to ask great questions to understand why things are done a certain way, surround themselves with people who know their jobs, remove barricades and give them the necessary resources and support to achieve their goals and do their best work.

I had oversight for the County’s mostly self-funded risk management & safety programs, which included employee benefits and workers’ compensation, two areas that gave me the opportunity to interact with County employees on a regular basis. Because of the connection that employee benefits typically has to various types of leave, I was often asked questions that should have been asked of HR, a department that was then known as the agency of “no”.

After 25 years serving in increasingly demanding senior finance roles as a CPA in the public sector, I was asked by the Hamilton County Mayor to become the HR Director for the County. I believe I was given this opportunity not because I was an “HR Guru”, but because I had developed a reputation in the County for being a problem solver through focusing on the customer, while building relationships with many leaders outside my field of expertise to gain their insights.

I accepted this new challenge by meeting one on one with each department head and asking them how the HR department could better serve their needs. I then developed an action plan which I began implementing with the support of the HR team. My goal was for the department heads to call HR to help them problem solve on the front end of a potential HR issue, rather than after the fact to help them clean up the mess. The end result was we became known as the department of “problem solvers” and I was recommended to the Governor as the Commissioner of HR by the County Mayor when he was asked to serve on his Cabinet as the Deputy Governor. If someone had told me before this major career change that I would become a “recovering” accountant and would ultimately serve on the Governor’s Cabinet, I would never have believed them, but serving in the HR field as the “keeper of the culture” for the largest employer in the State has been the most rewarding work of my career.

Stepping into my role as the Commissioner of HR for the State of Tennessee, I had no idea that I was inheriting antiquated employment practices which would require a change to state law. That first year, Governor Haslam asked each Cabinet member to perform a top-to-bottom review of their department, and each of them shared that we had to do something about the antiquated employment practices. The Finance Commissioner also sent out a survey to all state agencies, asking for their ideas on how to make state government more effective and efficient, resulting in about 700 responses, almost half of which noted that we needed to “fix” our employment practices. Finally, the Deputy Governor and I went on a statewide employee listening tour to hear how to recruit and retain the best employees, and were told multiple stories related to our antiquated employment practices. The end result was we knew we had to change the law in order to effectively drive results for our citizens and have a lasting impact.

We utilized the feedback from these initiatives to create and implement the Tennessee Excellence in Accountability and Management Act, now known as the T.E.A.M. Act, which transformed the State’s employment practices from a focus on seniority to performance. This was the Governor’s bill, but was created and lobbied by his senior team and the Department of Human Resource’s (DOHR) senior team. We had five months to implement the bill, which created new hiring practices (focused on knowledge, skills, abilities and competencies) and a new performance management system, aligned all learning & development under DOHR, and positioned the State to pay for performance. The act also positioned us to create the first Chief Learning Officer for State government in the country with the goal of fostering a culture that promotes engagement, encourages retention, and provides continuous learning and leadership development for all employees, ultimately positioning the State as a learning organization and an employer of choice known for its innovative HR practices.

Passing the TEAM Act was crucial to the transformation of state government and the largest workforce in the state. There were conventional traditions and sacred cows in the law and in the workforce, presenting challenges in passing and implementing the legislation that would modernize our employment practices and make the state a more attractive employer where employees could advance based on performance. My senior team worked tirelessly to produce the vision of the future that helped us successfully pass and implement the TEAM Act with the support of the entire DOHR team.

But key to the successful implementation was assuring the workforce that while they would be measured on performance and against key competencies, we were ready with the leadership development opportunities they needed to succeed. I also had the challenge of providing my peers on the Governor’s Cabinet and their HR teams with the information and tools they needed to assist us in effectively communicating the pending changes throughout their departments, while continuing to provide efficient services under the old way of doing things for five months until the bill went into effect.

Discovering the Four Disciplines of Execution (4DX, a Franklin Covey tool) shortly after the bill passed was critical to our success, as it enabled us to focus on the Wildly Important Goal of developing the policies and processes for successful implementation while keeping up with the whirlwind of everyday operations involved in providing HR services for the largest employer in the state.

Although the role of the Commissioner of HR is defined in State law and is very broad, I view my role not in the traditional sense of HR compliance and processes (although we must get those right), but through the lens of creating an environment where employees can develop and thrive. For the past seven years, our team has worked to create a culture of continuous feedback, where employees are engaged and empowered to do their best work in serving our citizens. We’ve also continued the transition (begun by my predecessor) from a long-standing reputation as the agency of “no” to a team that asks the right questions to best serve our customers. Because each state agency has an HR Director who does not report to me, I must lead through influence to drive the transformation of not only the State’s HR practices, but its culture. I achieve this by convening the HR teams on a consistent basis to collaborate on potential policy changes, gaining their perspective through task forces on pending HR initiatives, and providing strategic HR development programs that position them for success.

A key strategy to driving HR transformation has been to provide development opportunities for the HR staff throughout State government, something that had historically not been done. In 2012, we partnered with the TN Personnel Management Association (TPMA) to create the Three Pillars of Human Resources, an entry-level certificate program that provides basic knowledge and supporting resources in three key areas: HR strategy, the legal aspects of HR, and HR administration. In 2014, as a result of submitting the Three Pillars of HR to NASPE, a new award, “Advancing the HR Profession”, was created and DOHR received honorable mention. Through a grant for HR Innovations received from CPS-HR Consulting & IPMA-HR, DOHR launched the HR Master Series, a year-long development program based on the IPMA-HR and SHRM competencies, and received NASPE’s Advancing the HR Profession Award in 2015. This program has graduated five cohorts of agency HR directors and continues to receive more applications than available slots for participation.

The original vision for HR transformation was faced with the challenge that there was insufficient bench strength available to meet the impending retirement of state employees in critical leadership positions. Specific talent challenges we faced were leadership gaps, skill shortages in key roles, heightened competition for talent, loss of experience and knowledge, and minimal focus on employee engagement. We committed ourselves to overcome these challenges with a focused strategy on learning and leadership development.

The enactment of the T.E.A.M. Act opened the “floodgates” for forward-thinking agencies to assist us in transforming the culture of state government. The challenge we were facing was shifting the government’s reputation from a seniority-based culture to a performance-based “employer of choice” culture. Civil service reform brought increased visibility and executive support for replacing stagnant hiring and refreshing development approaches. We recognized the need to move from a focus on transactional, activity-based training to a focus on a transformational, performance-based environment for learning and development. The vision of becoming a more efficient, effective customer-focused government became a call to action for all state agencies and cabinet leaders.

An area where we were able to quickly gain leadership support was performance management. When I began in this role, 85% of state employees were earning fours and fives on a five-tier scale, but were not being held accountable. All Executive Branch employees now have S.M.A.R.T. work outcomes that are aligned with the department’s strategic and operational goals, which are then aligned with the Governor’s priorities, so that each employee can see how their work contributes to the bigger picture. We practiced writing S.M.A.R.T. goals for three years and have now paid for performance for three years in a row, with one-time bonuses paid to the top two tiers for the past two years.

In 2011, there were three statewide leadership development programs in place. There are now five, along with 23 individual leadership academies that are sponsored by agency commissioners, along with a four-tier management and leadership certificate program for supervisors. We hear repeatedly from state employees about the positive impact on their careers that is occurring as a result of the progressive leadership development initiatives that have been implemented over the past seven years.

It’s also of note to mention the difficulty in engaging close to 8,000 supervisors who work for numerous departments with varying missions around a common goal. We began tackling this challenge in 2011 by launching the State’s first annual leadership conference for alumni of our three statewide leadership programs. We invited alumni to assist us in developing the conference, which was a huge success, resulting in an aligned focus from state leaders on vision, communication, engagement, systems thinking and forward focus. I shared in my closing remarks that I did not want to lose the momentum of the excitement and enthusiasm generated by the conference participants and assured them the Governor’s senior team would be briefed on these five themes. As a result, we created the TN Government Leadership Council (TGLC) to assist us in providing strategic guidance in developing leaders from a statewide perspective.
The Council has not only been used as a “think tank” for statewide employee initiatives such as pay for performance, but its members champion leadership excellence through the various initiatives they’ve launched such as the Black Belt Leadership Program, Leadership Book Clubs, and the Toastmasters’ Club for state leaders. Another refreshing outcome of the TGLC is the engagement it has driven in these leaders and the resulting positive impact they are bringing to their individual organizations.

We used a similar approach to drive alignment with the leaders of learning and development housed in various agencies throughout the State. As we have done with HR Directors for the past seven years, we began convening the L&D leaders on a monthly basis. In the first session, our CLO led them through a “brutal facts” exercise, where they identified a statewide need for a “How to Facilitate Certification”. The CLO and her team partnered with a local university to develop the curriculum and launched it shortly thereafter.

Within six weeks, the CLO shared a concern that only 38% of participants were passing the certification workshop. We strategized about options, and her team developed a “Fundamentals of Certification”, which has resulted in an increased pass rate of 83%. These facilitators are proud that they now know how to engage adult learners and get them excited about learning. The L&D Council has now collaborated with DOHR to create a statewide S.M.A.R.T. goal to drive the 4-tier leadership and management certificate, with the goal of assuring that 100% of all supervisors achieve at a minimum, the level one certificate by year-end. Seeing this team of leaders focused on learning and development and collaborating in this way has exceeded our expectations! Over the past several years, DOHR has been on a continuous journey to drive performance excellence and we were fortunate to discover a local partner to assist in that effort. In 2012, our CLO asked me to sponsor her to be an examiner for the Tennessee Center for Performance Excellence (TNCPE), which is the Tennessee arm of the national Baldrige Performance Excellence Program. I quickly realized that this opportunity (often described as a “mini MBA program”) would not only increase her skill set, but would enable her to then share what she learned with her teammates, which would ultimately benefit the organization. I followed her lead to train as an examiner in 2014, not only to take a deep dive into performance excellence but to increase my bench strength as a new member of the TNCPE board (and received some of the best continuing education ever!). 

TNCPE asks the following questions: “Is your organization doing as well as it could? How do you know? What and how should your organization improve or change?” The answers to these questions lie in the Baldrige Excellence Framework, which is a systems approach to performance excellence, and is ideal for the HR function, since we must view our organization from a systems perspective in order to assist our customers in meeting their goals. The framework includes the Criteria for Performance Excellence, which is a set of questions about seven critical aspects of managing and performing as an organization: leadership; strategy; customers; measurement, analysis and knowledge management; workforce; operations and results.
Answering the questions helps us align our resources; identify strengths and opportunities for improvement; improve communication, productivity, and effectiveness; and achieve our strategic goals, while strengthening three of our core values: customer-focused excellence, data-driven decision making and continuous improvement. As a result, we deliver ever-improving value to our customers and stakeholders, which contributes to organizational sustainability. We also improve and learn as an organization, and we improve our organization's overall capability as our workforce members learn and grow.

DOHR applied for and received TNCPE’s Commitment Award in 2016, and received the Achievement Award (level 3 of 4 levels) at the TNCPE Excellence in Tennessee Awards Banquet in 2018. I’m extremely proud of this award, as it has not historically been typical for the HR function to drive performance excellence from a business perspective, and it has helped our department focus on improving in each of the seven categories.

DOHR’s story is one that has transformed what it means to serve the people of Tennessee as a public servant. Our team leads with a collaborative approach, ensuring our business partner’s needs are met, with the goal of continuously improving the State’s ability to recruit, retain, and reward a talented workforce. We’ve fueled a transformation in leadership development for the state’s largest workforce, part of a transformation of public service in the state of Tennessee, making it a model for the nation.

We fought and won battles to change conventional traditions and bring government HR in line with best practices of recruiting, retaining, and rewarding a talented workforce. We balanced that with award-winning learning and leadership development programs for state employees, through a love of life-long learning and a commitment to developing people to their fullest potential. Our team shares an optimistic, “can do” attitude, which enables us to accomplish challenging work while maintaining a light-hearted atmosphere where employees feel that they have a “work” family.

DOHR challenged the notion that government work is attractive because of pensions, protected status based solely on longevity, and short, regular hours—the image that made government workers the brunt of jokes about inaction, complacency, bureaucracy and frustrated citizens. Instead, we have focused on making government service attractive, full of promise for accomplishment and achievement, and helped to create a culture where people are proud to work.

 This Leadership Project is sponsored by Infor.