Bringing a Business Mind-Set to HR

Marco DeThomasis uses his business background to help HR bolster its untapped potential and value

Photo: Will Stroud

Although very passionate about people and leading teams, Marco DeThomasis never imagined a career in HR. As early as he can remember, he was always curious about two things: understanding how things work and how things could work better. One would think these interests would have led him to a career as an engineer, doctor, or politician, but instead they brought him into the business world, where it all began.

Before embarking on an HR career, as a business leader, he was responsible for linking and bringing to life the synergies of strategy, structure, culture, process, and people to achieve desired business outcomes. Early on, he realized that, while the numbers matter, a business cannot stay afloat without the right human capital to support it.

“It’s the most valuable asset to any business, and the way you leverage it today and tomorrow is extremely important to driving goals and objectives,” he says. “The power and magic are in bringing the different puzzle pieces together to achieve desired results.”

At an inflection point about a decade ago, DeThomasis decided to continue to do what he does best—but from a different seat. With his personal interest in leveraging HR differently, many encouraged him to join the field and bring his business mind-set and passion to a critical component of corporate operating infrastructure. After several years as a line leader, he maneuvered into the world of HR to explore how this vital piece of the puzzle could enable a business to flourish even more.

In his current position as vice president of global HR for the pharmaceutical operations and technical division at Biogen, DeThomasis relies on his line experience, passion for people and culture, and his curious nature to bolster the untapped potential and value of HR. He channels his business mentality in a few key ways.

Marco DeThomasis Biogen
Marco DeThomasis, Biogen Photo: Will Stroud

Thinking Realistically

Having walked in the shoes of business leaders himself, DeThomasis values simple and practical solutions. He sees himself as a ‘business solution architect’ whose job is to deliver the right solution, at the right time, in the most impactful way. Before initiating any HR work, he usually asks the basic questions: “What are we trying to solve? What does success look like? Why are we doing this? How will this help or advance the business? And, is this the right time?”

“HR plays an important role in the business and its sustainability, but it’s important to make sure the solutions are practical, make sense, drive impact, and have meaning to them” DeThomasis says. “We shouldn’t do things in HR for the sake of it; we are here to serve business.”

In pursuit of helping HR be a value creator, DeThomasis believes that, regardless of what role you play in HR, you need to understand and be knowledgeable about the business you serve. “The best way is to get out there and experience it for yourself,” he says. “To develop meaningful and value-add solutions, you need to get to know your customer and understand their current and unanticipated needs.”

Paul McKenzie, Biogen’s executive vice president of pharmaceutical operations and technical division, has witnessed DeThomasis’s approach firsthand. “Marco has his finger on the pulse of our business,” McKenzie says. “He thinks of strategies that are atypical but always implements those that make the most sense for our operations and people, based on where we are today and where we want to be. He stresses end-to-end thinking and networks broader than our organization, which makes him a strong, functional leader. Because of his business background and experience, he truly understands our everyday challenges. He is not your typical HR guy.”

Being a Provocateur

“Sometimes the business needs to be pushed to look at things differently,” DeThomasis says. “HR’s role is to constructively hold up mirrors and ask provocative questions to help a business and its leaders advance by gaining new perspectives.” When hiring, he looks for candidates who are not afraid to ask questions, push boundaries, and move mountains that stand in front of them.

DeThomasis accentuates the importance of staying curious, especially when faced with big problems. “You must stay curious through the process to drive the change necessary to help grow the business,” he says. “My job as a provocateur is to help the business look at the mountain in front of it, understand what it is, why it exists, and be able to look around the mountain to see what’s on the other side while figuring out the best ways to deal with the challenge or opportunity ahead of us.”

DeThomasis pushes himself and those he engages with to think differently, to be positive ringleaders who tell the truth, and to incite change by approaching problems confidently and eccentrically. “The only way to genuinely bring diversity and inclusion to fruition is to be a role model by appreciating different perspectives, pushing current thinking, and creating space for unconventional thoughts and ideas,” he says. In doing so, he teaches his team to remain undaunted by adversity and instead view it as an opportunity to make a difference.

“Marco’s unique business background—complemented by his inquisitive nature—helps us prioritize as an HR function,” says Ginger Gregory, chief HR officer at Biogen. “This thinking enables us to really step back and think about the services we provide, the impact we have on the overall employee and manager experience, and even how we advance in our overall functional capabilities to create further value to the business while growing as HR professionals.”

Always Stretch & Grow

“To keep pace with the business,” DeThomasis says, “you need to stay current and continuously learn and grow while stretching yourself as well. You don’t want to become obsolete if you believe in yourself as a value creator.” He spends time learning about different aspects of the business while welcoming new development assignments—big or small—to stretch and grow both professionally and personally. Via his own path of self-discovery, DeThomasis has valued the importance of gaining new experiences and trying new things to help improve his overall craft and impact.

Aside from constantly seeking to develop himself, DeThomasis makes time to give back and help build the next generation of leaders. He is passionate about helping employees, peers, and leaders alike to find their natural talents and discover their untapped potential. He serves as a mentor to many employees both inside and outside HR who are willing to learn and develop. He encourages them to embark on their own path of self-discovery, just as he did.

A former manager of DeThomasis says, “He understands the ‘human’ half of ‘human capital’ because he is genuinely and unconditionally willing to invest and mentor junior professionals to rise to their full potential in the company, too. This is what makes him both a great business and HR leader.”

Because of his background and path, DeThomasis considers himself an untraditional HR professional. Although he didn’t grow-up in HR, using his business lens, he plays the role of sociologist, psychologist, political scientist, architect, economist, and more, proving that a person with many hats is the person you want on your team.

EY Health Sciences & Wellness helps our clients deliver on their strategic goals; design optimized operating models; and form the right partnerships to thrive today and succeed in the health systems of tomorrow. We work across the ecosystem, to understand the implications of trends and proactively find solutions to business issues.