From Microsoft to Memphis

Alex Smith left the private sector to address HR challenges for the City of Memphis

After the victory celebrations and concession speeches have faded away, a newly elected administration has a lot of work to do. That includes learning how to work with existing systems and infrastructure to govern effectively.

In 2016, Alex Smith became the chief human resources officer for the City of Memphis, working for Mayor Jim Strickland. Smith had to determine not only how to support Strickland’s vision for governing, but also how to assess the city’s personnel issues, priorities, and potential solutions.

Through focus groups, town hall meetings, and engagement surveys, Smith discovered that she was facing longstanding employee morale and engagement challenges. “The most important goal was to revise city government and create a new culture,” Smith says. “To come up with effective solutions, we had to have an ongoing fact-finding conversation so we could understand employees’ points of view.”

That conversation revealed career development and benefit policies as being prime sources of employee dissatisfaction. But Smith was also faced with two city-wide objectives: attracting and retaining public safety professionals and enabling employees to “be brilliant at the basics” in their jobs. After ten months, she was able to launch numerous initiatives to address all of those concerns.

Focus on professional development led to the creation of learning tracks to help individuals grow as managers and leaders. As a part of the city’s Professional Development Institute, programs are now in place that leverage social media and other technologies to provide greater visibility of employment opportunities at all levels.

Smith also consolidated recruitment, talent development, and promotional testing in the newly created Talent Management office. This has allowed for innovative programs like Blue Path, which works with high school seniors interested in law enforcement. The program pays for their associate degree and offers training to become police service technicians.

Benefits issues have also been addressed through streamlined processes for open enrollment and benefits counselors who provide advice on making the best coverage decisions and navigating the automated system. One of Smith’s ongoing challenges is ensuring that compensation and benefits are competitive with other municipalities, as well as the private sector.

“All cities are having to make tough decisions about pension liability and healthcare choices, but since we expect the best from our employees, we want to provide them with the best possible benefits,” Smith says.

Pertaining to the “be brilliant at the basics” objective, Smith explains that setting clear expectations enables employees to be accountable for meeting and exceeding them. Managers now provide quarterly feedback on key goals, opportunities for improvement, and rewards and recognition for exemplary performances. For example, the Ovation Awards—a city-wide recognition ceremony—has been rebranded and relaunched to highlight employee innovation, collaboration, and customer service. “Whether you’re a police officer, financial analyst, or sanitation worker, we want you to be rewarded for doing your best to serve the citizens of Memphis,” Smith says.

In addition to addressing employee concerns, Smith has also changed some internal structures and improved interdepartmental collaboration. Americorps Vista has been moved from the executive division to HR, which enables HR to directly coordinate and partner with multiple nonprofit agencies outside of city government. HR has also partnered with the Community Affairs Division and the Workforce Investment Network to create a public workshop to help residents develop an effective résumé and position themselves for a successful job search.

“The workshop was the first time three city divisions collaborated to provide service to our citizens,” Smith explains. “It was an amazing opportunity because, even with our internal focus, HR has a lot of knowledge we can offer the community.”

Smith came to city government from Microsoft, with experience working with Blacks at Microsoft, the company’s oldest employee resource group, as well as special initiatives like the National Immigration Spouse Network, which assists families going through the green card process for permanent US residency. She also grew up in a family that was active in public service, and, as a girl, she frequently accompanied her grandfather to city council meetings in Gary, Indiana.

“My professional path started in the private sector, but public service was instilled in me from a young age,” Smith says. “I was always looking for opportunities to serve.”

Looking forward, Smith plans to position HR liaisons as coaches and advisors to city leadership. She has already created the HR Information Services team to aggregate and integrate data. This team will use analytics to better understand employees and ongoing issues, as well as to proactively develop innovative solutions using predictive business intelligence. Smith has also launched a Diversity and Inclusion office to build strategies and comprehensive training for senior leadership.

“I love my job and the HR team that does amazing work serving the city,” Smith says. “Along with the mayor, who is very supportive of our initiatives, they all help make my job just a little bit easier.”