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Meet Susan Burns, Industry Thought Leader at Talent Synchronicity

Posted on September 9, 2008
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Part 1 of 2 Part Interview – Originally Published, RecruitingBlogs.com

Over the last several years that I have read Susan’s thought leadership articles, listened to her presentations, or heard of fellow colleagues speak glowingly of her capabilities – needless to say I have been impressed consistently with her public figure. I can also say with pleasure that we all share our admiration for Susan’s consistent weekly live chat contributions to RecruitingBlogs.com, the Recruiting Roadshow and her upcoming session at RecruitFest in Toronto.

It must be said, that having walked the streets of Amsterdam past midnight or dined, commiserated, and having corresponded with Susan Burns, “the person,” that my admiration is far more substantial in the compelling impact she makes as both a colleague and a dear friend. Her multi-faceted personality, conviction, and brilliance as a candid, thought-provoking, socially conscious friend and colleague are ever present. She is passionate in all things in life, and it is omnipresent when she evangelizes architecture aspects of Strategic Talent Planning, employment branding, and metrics that we as an industry excel through her contributions and it is in her valued friendship, that her gifts never cease to bring value.

I applaud all her contributions in our industry – she lives and breathes “pay it forward” and it is a pleasure to know that the RecruitingBlogs Community have an opportunity to share the many value propositions Susan offers so selflessly and with such passion that Jason Davis and I so often witness on a personal level. Susan Burns is the “real deal” – and the community is richer for all she contributes. Susan, today as a friend, an advisor to SixDegreesfromDave.com, a personal mentor, and a thought leader we salute you, and it is ever so well deserved.


Q&A with Susan Burns

Six Degrees: Tell us of your Home World Susan

Susan: I find a nice balance between taking on challenging physical activities and challenging career endeavors. Yoga, hiking and travel are among my deepest passions outside of work and when I can bring them all together its ideal. Two of my favorite hikes included a 100-mile trek through Torres Del Paine National Park in Southern Chile and a trip to Peru that included hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. I’ve traveled to Mexico, Costa Rica and British Columbia for yoga retreats and find the week long immersions an incredible rebalancing to the stresses of life – even though the retreats often include 5 to 6 hours of physical yoga each day. Yoga is also part of my everyday life and an area of growing interest and commitment. In fact, I’m about to undertake a 200-hour, 3 week teacher training in the Berkshires this July. There are also many areas in which yoga philosophy and practice can carry over into enhancing business practices. The very act of being “present”, focusing on the mind-body connection, and building a sense of community are just a few areas that could add value to the business world. I’m planning on exploring these further through my yoga studies and practice.

Six Degrees: How did you get started in talent management?

Susan: When I began my career I was in general management. I managed specialty stores and then made the transition into department stores. I loved the hum and buzz of the business and, over time, as I took on assignments of increasing volume and scope the challenges of creating community within a store environment were quite enticing. In my last store manager assignment I was responsible for over $40 million in annual revenue, an employee population of over 350 and a management team of about 16. But, one thing was missing – the company invested little in development efforts and I was intellectually bored. So, I decided to take a bit of a sabbatical and go to graduate school. I actually thought I would leave retail but found I liked the interconnectedness of strategy, product and tangible results. There is something very unique about this within a retail environment and when you’re playing in high volume you can see these three come together quite quickly.

After graduate school I joined Federated Department Stores (now Macy’s Inc.). At the time Federated owned Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s and generated about $15 billion in annual sales. Initially, my role was to lead the development of a centralized college recruitment and relations strategy. Federated hired about 550 college graduates each year and another 300 as summer interns. The year was 1998 and there was a lot of change occurring because of the Internet. One of the first things I had the opportunity to do was secure support to develop a website. I think there were about 6 people on the original development team and together we mapped out the strategy for what was to become Retailology.com. The timing was right and I was fortunate to have a really talented group to work with. We saw the impact and growing value of the site in a relatively short period of time, and could demonstrate to the organization the value of being online. One of the coolest things about Retailology is that it not only benefited Federated but it also became a tool to teach students about the retail industry.

A couple of years later as Internet recruiting was growing quickly in popularity and the task of sourcing/hiring via the job boards was overwhelming, I had the opportunity to present Retailology as a strategic solution for hiring across Federated – which included hourly, management positions across every function, and college recruiting. We won the support of the divisions and quickly undertook the challenge of building 12 recruitment sites on the Retailology platform. The company had an autonomous culture and the structure and branding strategy at the time required individual branded sites. As a whole, the company hired about 110,000 people annually so this was a very cool opportunity. The change implications for this were huge – we would be moving from 100% paper-based processes to taking everything online. There were several key events that created tipping points along this journey and by the time I left Federated in January, 2006, the Retailology corporate strategy had generated over 38% of the company’s total hires and touched just about every functional area and position up to director/VP. Taking on a broader role also advanced my position with the company and allowed me to take on a greater scope of work that included employment initiatives, employment branding, recruitment technology – both selection and development, change management initiatives, recruiter education and development. The role became that of an internal consultant and over the 7+ years I was with Federated I had the opportunity to work with a number of very talented and committed colleagues.

While it was a difficult decision to leave Federated I was at a point in my career where I wanted to take on a broader challenge. I had a hunger to experience another industry, immerse myself in a global business and take on a more holistic role in talent management. I was recruited to head up global staffing for Waggener Edstrom Worldwide (WE). WE is the second largest independent PR agency. They are the PR agency of record for Microsoft and also have growing practice areas in public affairs, healthcare, and consumer. Once again, I was fortunate to work with a very talented team of recruiters. While I only stayed with WE for about 18 months, great headway was made with advising the Board on workforce/talent planning initiatives, sourcing strategies, recruiting structure and processes, and introducing CRM technology.

Do you have a mentor to whom you attribute your overall outlook on recruitment, capabilities, and/or model your career after?

Susan: There wasn’t a single event or mentor but a string of events and experiences that have influenced how I think about talent management. First, my role in store management. In retail you are uniquely dependent on talent. Whether it be the product design, assortment selection by the buyer, distribution by the planner, merchandising in-store, leading a department/selling team, or the last “12 inches” between the sales associate and the customer – its talent that makes the ultimate difference. Retail is also a business environment where you can see people’s careers move quickly. Seeing a sales associate promoted to sales manager or an assistant buyer promoted to divisional merchandise manager and eventually on to roles of increasing scope and responsibility is very rewarding!

Second, coming out of graduate school I heard the same thing time and time again from my classmates – getting through to anyone in recruiting/hr was incredibly frustrating – whether callbacks, email responses, or just answering their phones. Many of my classmates were looking to make a career transition and getting a recruiter to look at their past experience and future potential was insanely challenging. The same thing would happen on informational interviews – hiring managers only wanted people who had done the job. Well, there’s evidence that indicates taking people with the potential and placing them in new environments leads to more creative thinking, innovation, personal growth and……better business results. And, while I couldn’t impact thinking across every aspect of an organization I could make a difference in how job seekers felt about their experience.

I’ve been fortunate to have several mentors during my career. Mostly in the earlier days but that’s when I also think its most important. As I was “growing up” in retail it was at a time when mentor relationships developed more naturally. They not only helped me to understand the business at a more strategic level but to think broadly and creatively about building partnerships and getting results. Both of them were also terrific leaders and had their own unique way of building teams and camaraderie. Two of these mentors are still my closest friends today and are still the first people I turn to for guidance.

THOUGHT LEADERSHIP RECOMMENDATIONS

“Susan is smart, analytical and a great client. She knew what she wanted and was able to communicate that in an effective way. She brings original thinking and a wide network of information to any project she is part of. I have worked with Susan for several years including when she was at Macy’s, Waggner and now at Talent Synchronicity. We have worked together on projects that involved selling concepts to senior management that were forward looking and not necessarily easy to get approved. Her combination of influencing skill, persistence and intelligence have led each project to a successful conclusion. She gets things done efficiently and effectively and is a good partner.” March 26, 2008
Kevin Wheeler, President/Founder, Global Learning Resources, Inc.

“Susan puts recruitment process vision to work with quantifiable results. She tackled workforce planning, recruitment process and brand issues at Federated Department Stores by developing and implementing one of the first uniquely branded recruitment websites for the retail industry which resulted in tens of thousands of hires. Susan is top notch and I would use her to handle any workforce opportunity.” February 22, 2008
Hank Stringer, Principal, QTalent Partners

“Susan is a professional with a deep understanding of all three legs of the corporate HR platform: business strategy, HR process and leading-edge technology. Her depth of insight into ways to make HR a strategic business asset are both unique and extraordinary. It has been a real pleasure working with (and learning from) her.” January 7, 2005
Jeff Hunter, Senior Director, EA University at Electronic Arts

“I’ve worked with Susan Burns for a little over a year now and I can say that she has the most strategic, forward-thinking and fresh approach to talent acquisition out of any leader that I’ve worked with in the industry. I’ve always said that I wanted to work with someone who I could learn from, who wasn’t just pushing old ideas and who would challenge me in new ways. Susan has always managed to challenge me. She has a unique way of getting you to think about things differently. Susan is also amazingly connected in the industry and the relationships she has helped me form with thought leaders has been invaluable. She is an avid reader and spots trends and innovations before most people have adopted the known innovations. The talent acquisition community has mostly agreed that finding people with passion for their field is a key performance indicator. I’ve met few people with as much passion for our industry as Susan. She thinks way outside the box, outside the organization and outside the industry to come up with advances in our field that are truly innovating the way organizations acquire talent. Most notable is her work with retailology.com prior to joining Waggener Edstrom and the workforce planning work she is currently designing at our organization. If you work in our industry I hope you have an opportunity to meet Susan, collaborate with her, brainstorm, have her tell you to put on your kid glasses or just have a quick brainstorm with her. I think you will find that you walk away feeling like you have learned something new.” May 16, 2007
Steve Fogarty, Talent Manager, Adidas

“Susan is a talented staffing and recruiting professional who brings a wealth of experience and expertise in the acquisition of talent and workforce planning. In her role with Waggener Edstrom, she was responsible for the global acquisition of talent and her work had a significant impact. Her passion and commitment were clearly evident and the results she guided were notable. A reduction in time-to-fill, a broad portfolio of sourcing vehicles, and several new creative staffing strategies and initiatives were all part of what Susan contributed to. Additionally, her leadership in guiding the Agency’s Advisory Board through a workforce planning strategy advanced our staffing capability to positively impact the business. As a staffing industry leader she is broadly recognized for leading edge thinking and the perspective she offers to organizations and clients. Susan is smart, strategic and results-oriented. I see her as flourishing in an environment that has the management of talent as a critical business priority and where Susan can freely demonstrate her entrepreneurial and results-oriented talent.”
Daniele Joudene, SVP, People Services, Waggener Edstrom

“Susan Burns is one of the most talented leaders in the talent management industry today — smart, innovative, passionate, dedicated, and able to see and create solutions where most people can only identify challenges. Quite simply, she helped to make us better and more innovative as a company/partner, every step of the way. Our partnership in developing WetFeet Recruiter’s Enterprise Interview Scheduling system, which delivered industry-first innovations in many areas, is just one example of one of her strongest personal assets: Susan gets results. The passion, energy, focus and commitment she brings to her work is simply extraordinary. What a joy to recommend her!” October 11, 2007
Gary Alpert, CEO, WetFeet Inc.


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