Inside the Role of the CHRO

It is people who will take a company where it wants to go, and effective CHROs know how to attract and retain the best talent. Loren Heeringa explains how CHROs can drive a company’s human capital edge

Loren Heeringa, CHRO of Land O'Lakes.
Loren Heeringa, CHRO of Land O’Lakes.

Land O’Lakes, Inc. has become synonymous with high-quality dairy products, and the company is one of the most recognizable and beloved butter brands in the country. However, Land O’Lakes is more than just butter; the company has a farm-to-market portfolio, and also encompasses Purina animal nutrition.

Loren Heeringa became senior vice president and chief human resources officer of the Minnesota-based, member-owned cooperative in 2004, after coming from an aerospace and control background. He also spent significant time at Honeywell as its vice president of human resources. It was cross-human resources rotations and a few “corporate tours of duty” that taught Heeringa the ins and outs of his line of work, but he wanted to get into the “action of business” and lead large-scale organizational change, making Land O’Lakes a place that creates win-win situations for employees and the company.

Is it difficult to transition from one industry to another in human resources?

Loren Heeringa: There are clearly differences between industries, but the talent you have is what gives you the most exclusive competitive advantage. It’s what allows you to meet marketplace needs, grow the company, and be competitive—it doesn’t matter what industry you’re in. I’ve been in HR for more than thirty years, but it seems that only now human capital is being recognized as the main source of competitive advantage, and HR is a pivotal business partner because of it.

As Land O’Lakes’ chief human resources officer, what are the biggest challenges you’re up against?

The same thing that gives us and everyone a competitive advantage: talent. It’s a huge challenge. We recently doubled the size of our company; we’re a $15 billion company in a great growth industry. When our CEO lays out a growth challenge, it’s my job to think about how to recruit, develop, retain, and inspire employees. What got us here won’t get us to the next level, so it’s a matter of being more intentional about how we grow because our competition is strong. You grow or you die, and talent management is a critical part of achieving the level of bold growth we hope to continue.

How do you ensure you’re keeping employees engaged?

We have an aggressive talent management strategy, part of which includes an employee-wide engagement survey. It’s been running for three years, and each time we do it, we take the feedback very seriously and make improvements based on the input. We achieved a 70 percent engagement rate and have a 95 percent participation rate in our team’s feedback and action planning.

Human resource departments are now seen as business partners, and what’s expected of someone in your role is decidedly different than it was ten years ago. What does an effective leader in human resources look like in 2015?

You need to be strategic and capable of partnering with the CEO to drive the business. You need to understand the human capital that’s needed to achieve profitable growth. That being said: being good at HR and helping the CEO and senior team isn’t all you need to be good at. You should be adept at general management skills and apply them to your human capital imperatives: understanding marketing, finance, sales, supply chain, IT, and so forth. A strong CHRO will have HR skills, general management skills, and will be capable of solving critical problems on the fly.

What are some of the common pitfalls that HR leaders fall into?

There’s a lot of hand-waving about HR needing a seat at the table. If you add value to the company—if you’re doing what the company needs from you—you’ll have a seat at the table, because you’ll be recognized for your strategic contributions. It’s only up to you if you add value.

How do you personally define leadership? How do you apply that definition to your framework at Land O’Lakes?

It means having a vision; for me, my success hinges on engaging people in that vision. The goals of the company and our vision for the future are aligned, and I’ve defined strategies around that vision. It also means being very agile. This is a fast-paced industry and you have to have agility.

How should HR balance meeting the needs of the business with being the representative of the employee?

I think these things naturally coexist. If employees are engaged and meeting the company’s needs, the business will succeed, and employees will grow in their roles and have new opportunities. It’s a win-win you must achieve. Sometimes it may feel like a balancing act, but these two things can coexist.

If things get out of whack, and you’re meeting business needs at the expense of employees, it’s a win-lose. That’s a real loss, because inevitably, the business will suffer if employees aren’t committed and engaged. The second you stop thinking these two things can comfortably coexist, it’s like a death spiral.

What’s the plan for Land O’Lakes moving forward? How do you plan to continue growing and maximizing the effectiveness of employees?

We need more talent to continue to innovate, deliver value, and grow our brands and global capabilities. It’s what keeps me up at night. It is critical for us and any company that wants to continue to be successful.