The Unlikely Head of HR

As Glenn Gilkey advanced through the ranks at Fluor Corporation, he cared less about himself and more about the team of people he’d been asked to lead. Now, the engineer by training finds himself the HR lead at the global corporation.

Glenn Gilkey, senior vice president of human resources. Photo: Leo Wesson.

Glenn Gilkey began at Fluor Corporation in 1981 as a mechanical engineer, a role he was more than happy to stay in. It was a sought-after position at a Fortune 500 company that for 100 years has been delivering award-winning engineering, procurement, construction, maintenance, and project-management services to governments and companies around the world. Imagine Gilkey’s surprise then, when, in 2008, he was asked to be the company’s senior vice president of human resources and administration. “There was no way I could have ever guessed the career path I’d have at Fluor,” he says. “Looking back, I can see how everything I did was preparing me for this role, but it’s definitely not a role I aspired to have.”

“As you get older and further along in your career, something shifts; you stop worrying about yourself and you begin to worry more about the people who work for you.”—Glenn Gilkey

When working as an engineer, Gilkey had become known for his strong work ethic and dedication to getting things as close to perfect as possible—something that becomes increasingly difficult when you become accountable for the work of others. For Gilkey, the one thing more difficult than transitioning from a peer to a boss was having to take ownership of work that was not his own.

What strengths does Glenn Gilkey harness as a leader?

Susana Suarez
Executive Director, Human Resources | Industrial & Infrastructure Group, HR Executive

“Common sense does not seem that common anymore. Glenn masters the use of good common sense, and is one of the most reasonable men you’ll ever meet. Glenn is a leader with solid intellectual and technical skills, and a strong self-awareness. He’s trustworthy, committed to the organization, and an expert in managing relationships and building networks.”

Jennifer Large
Executive Director, Talent Development

“Glenn is one of those rare executives who understands the relationship between people, performance, and profitability. He makes business decisions knowing that if you have talented, motivated people, they will drive performance for customers. The natural outcome is profitability, which is what our stakeholders have come to expect.”

Bill Hardaway
Vice President, Human Resources

“Glenn has the strategic perspective and relationship skills to influence organizational change. His collaborative and decisive style inspires others to perform at their best to achieve meaningful results. Glenn’s authentic approach to visionary leadership fosters a high level of trust and teamwork, thus nurturing creative ideas and solutions.”

“When you become a leader it stops being about you and the work you’re doing; you’re no longer an individual contributor,” Gilkey says. “The work of other people, people who may not have the same standards as you, becomes your work, because it’s a reflection of you. That was very hard to get used to. I do everything possible to ensure that everyone is on track. It’s not a matter of doing the work the way I would do it, but doing the work in a way that all of us can be proud of. I think people like that; I tell them the outcome that we need, but I don’t instruct them on how to get there.”

Gilkey attributes his new outlook to leadership as growth. When he first joined Fluor Corporation, he was like many other young people who get the position they’ve coveted: driven and admittedly self-centered. But with age and added responsibility comes insight. “As you get older and further along in your career, something shifts; you stop worrying about yourself and you begin to worry more about the people who work for you,” Gilkey says. “When I was tapped for leadership positions at Fluor I learned to stop asking, ‘What’s in it for me?’ My whole thought process changed, and I began to think, ‘What’s in it for my team?’”

Gilkey may have been surprised that Fluor tapped him for leadership roles, but to those around him it came as no surprise. In the past, when he was given a particularly difficult project, coworkers and managers would marvel at the fact that Gilkey could form such amazing teams and deliver results that pleased the company and the client.

It could be said that being named the senior vice president of human resources and administration—responsible for 700 HR employees around the globe—was Gilkey’s most difficult project yet. He had to dive in and adapt to the role quickly, relying on his inherent leadership skills while picking up the nuances of HR along the way.

“In a previous role as head of operations for one of Fluor’s business groups, I oversaw several billion dollars’ worth of work, and I brought that experience with me to HR,” Gilkey says. “I wasn’t trained in the HR profession, but I could draw from past experiences in leadership roles while getting accustomed to this new area of the company. I had a bit of a learning curve, especially because there were many aspects of the job I’d never done before, like working with the board of directors. I wouldn’t characterize it as a challenge necessarily; I actually thought it was fun. I’m naturally inquisitive and I like to learn new things, so I was okay with learning on the job.”

Gilkey had been running projects at Fluor for more than 20 years by the time he was tapped to move into HR, so he was just the man to help human resources become better at project management. As a natural-born problem solver, Gilkey enjoyed making the most of limited resources and timing things perfectly, ensuring that existing talent was trained and ready when particular projects needed them. In other words, he had many complimentary skill sets outside of traditional HR
that enabled him to transition into his new role quickly
and seamlessly.

“While experience is important, results count,” Gilkey says. “I’m accountable to our chairman, David Seaton, but I have to earn and maintain the respect of my peers to be successful, and I work hard at being a true partner with them. Together, we set priorities and make decisions that add value for our company, our shareholders, and for our employees, the last being an essential part of our success.”

Once he was appointed to his new role, Gilkey also made a small but critical change that would advance the careers of many in Fluor’s HR department. For years, Fluor had been offering leadership-development courses to high-potential employees, but none of the company’s 700 HR employees were ever invited to attend. It wasn’t an intentional oversight, but it was detrimental to the HR employees who could have benefitted from the courses. Once Gilkey was aware of the problem, he made sure that HR was included in the classes, something he called an “easy fix,” though it’s resulted in a better-trained HR team and more opportunities for those who attend.

Eastern Span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge

Fluor Corporation partnered with American Bridge to construct the 625-meter, $1.8 billion east span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which was damaged during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. When it is completed in the fall of 2013, it will be the first-ever, single-tower, self-anchored suspension bridge, and the largest public-infrastructure project in California’s history. A crane barge had to be constructed specifically for this project, so that massive segments of the deck and tower could be lifted. Before moving into his HR role, Glenn Gilkey was head of operations for the group leading the charge on the project. “I reviewed the estimate for this project six years ago, and it’s been amazing to see the progress,” Gilkey says. “This bridge will be the centerpiece of the San Francisco skyline forever, and I’m proud to work for the company that made it happen.”

“Learning the ropes of HR has been very interesting, but I’m most interested in anything that has to do with talent development,” Gilkey says. “The most exciting thing is watching a person’s career change and helping them to become more successful. It’s the most rewarding part of my job.”