The HR Architect

How a well-rounded career gave Deb Deters all she needed to rebuild the human resources function at Heartland Financial USA, Inc. as the company has continued to grow

In 2017, Heartland Financial USA Inc., a multibillion-dollar bank holding company, needed a human resources executive who could handle the constant changes of its rapid growth. Deb Deters has thrived since joining the company as chief human resources officer—as she has in pretty much every position in her nearly thirty-year career.

Deb Deters Heartland Financial
Deb Deters, Heartland Financial USA Inc. Photo: Elite Images

In just the past year, Deters has created an HR infrastructure with greater stability while fostering an influx of new talent at Heartland, a Dubuque, Iowa-based company with independent community banks chartered in Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Arizona, Montana, Colorado, Minnesota, Kansas, Texas, and California.

“We’re being more creative and allowing leaders and employees to be housed in markets other than Dubuque,” Deters says. “We have to think about how we support that from a technology standpoint and a management standpoint. I’ve had to change the way I manage. You have to be more cognizant of including people when you have a remote working situation. That said, managers and employees in other locations provide backup, coverage, and experiences that are not necessarily as comprehensive from only one geographical location.”

Her external partners have also been happy to work with her on this front. “Deb is committed to innovation and offering an attractive benefits package to recruit and retain employees,” says Ronda Meyer, VSP Market Director. “Whether they live in Dubuque or anywhere else, they get access to VSP innovations like Eyeconic.com.”

Additionally, Deters has helped Heartland bring its time to fill new positions down by an average of ten days. Each Heartland bank used to have an HR generalist who worked alone. Now, for every two generalists, the company has a recruiter who acquires critical talent and a coordinator who handles the more tactical elements of the HR function. The move has let Deters pool recruiters company-wide to focus on filling high-demand roles, such as portfolio managers, wherever there is a need.

These creative approaches were borne out of Deters’s exposure to just about everything in HR. After spending the first four years of her career in employee-benefit consulting, she made her first big career jump in 1991, joining the HR team at Bally Total Fitness in Chicago.

“The Bally job was a chance to look at things from the employer side,” says Deters, who became an HR generalist there. “The most unique stories in my life are from that time. It was a great place to cut my teeth.”

Deters gradually took on more responsibility, ultimately taking over for her mentor as senior vice president of human resources. The company, however, was in turmoil without a CEO at the helm, and it eventually filed for bankruptcy and went through a period of significant layoffs. When the opportunity to build the human resources function from scratch at global insurance broker HUB International came up in 2009, Deters took it.

“HUB was also heavy on acquisitions, which was a bit of a twist for me,” she adds. “I had been going through downsizing before. Now I had to think, ‘How do I drive and align the HR function to support heavy acquisitions?’ That experience teed me up nicely for Heartland.”

Deters says Heartland makes anywhere from one to three acquisitions a year—a lot in the banking sector. “The upside is we do a better job of acquisition integration because we do a full system conversion,” she says. “We’re doing a lot more in succession planning and employee-engagement efforts.”

Deters’s experience has shown her how important it is to make employees feel that they not only have a future at their workplace but also that management is invested in their professional growth. That concept is a big part of her revamping of Heartland’s HR department. “We will be looking at each role, how their job changes, and how that feeds into their next role,” Deters says. “We want to create more opportunities for managers to talk to their employees, creating those routines and touch points so that employees experience how much their manager cares about their career growth and advancement, along with balancing a life outside of the office.”

To this end, Deters is also pushing an evolution among Heartland’s managers. Among other initiatives, her team is piloting a “stay interview” program, in which managers let employees give the kind of feedback typical of an exit interview, but before it’s too late to do anything to keep them.

She’s also reevaluating how the company looks at its annual employee-engagement survey. “Managers were focused on the lowest scores so that they could work on improving them,” Deters says. “That would often lead to a decrease in other scores. Now, we’re saying that you need to take a holistic view on engagement. We’ve done some significant management training around this and are giving them routine ways to engage their employees.”

It’s still early on in the process, but her work is already paying off as Heartland continues to add new talent through acquisitions. And, as Deters has used her experience to help employees feel more fulfilled, she has felt the same. “The great thing about HR is you can change industries and still be highly effective, which isn’t true for every type of role,” she says. “I love what I do.”


Inspiring

The American Bankers Association is pleased to partner with Deb Deters at Heartland Financial. We look forward to supporting her team’s talent development initiatives and helping Deb continue to cultivate leadership at every level.

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