Kristen Harper and James Harden both arrived at the Houston Rockets for the 2012 season. Harper is unwilling to take any responsibility for five consecutive playoff berths, the ushering in of a new powerful Houston era, or possibly the most famous beard in professional sports. However, she does contribute to the low turnover, a successful wellness program, coaching employees to be their best, and a great culture.
The senior director of human resources at the Rockets is Houston born and bred with significant experience in HR management, employee recruitment and retention, employee coaching and feedback, and benefits and compensation. In coming to the fast-paced world of professional basketball, Harper has spent the past eight years helping expand wellness plans, working to expand diversity and inclusion measures, and providing mentorship for future leaders in sports and events while constantly looking for ways to make her team more efficient.
In coming to the Rockets, there were certain particulars of overseeing HR for a professional sports team she had to grow into. “The pace of an NBA basketball team is definitely much faster that my previous experiences,” Harper says. “There are a lot more individuals coming and going with players, coaches, and the multiple different benefit and retirement plans that come with it. It’s a constant learning experience.”
The HR head says the pace of sports can be so fast, her morning routine includes checking ESPN to catch wind of potential trades, moves, or other announcements.
“Sometimes I can see that a player has been traded or drafted and so when I get the email referencing it in the afternoon, I’ve already got a heads up,” Harper says, laughing. “But that’s part of the fun of keeping up with the teams across the league. You have a passion for the game and the players and it’s part of the excitement of the job.”
A Good Offense
One of Harper’s most wide-reaching efforts was the successful integration of an HRIS system that would allow collaboration and integration with payroll for all members of the Rockets and Toyota Center to access necessary documentation and services online.
“When I first got here, we had to maneuver through our payroll system the best we could to get the information we needed,” Harper explains. “Our HRIS system has been a game-changer for bringing services online for our new, current and previous staff. They have the capability to get what they need online on their timeline rather than contacting HR.”
The implementation was a five-person team project that occurred over months. “Anyone that has gone through this understands just how massive of an undertaking it is,” Harper says. “I had a great team that put in countless hours to make this the success it has become.”
Harper mentions she was also motivated by Rockets president Tad Brown when it comes to the team’s wellness initiatives. “I’ll never forget that conversation early on regarding our wellness program,” she remembers. “He referenced that we represent some of the best athletes in the entire world and our employees should be doing what they can to also take care of themselves. How can you represent the athletes and maintain the busy schedule if you yourself aren’t healthy?
“We need our staff healthy not just for their job, but for their own families as well,” Harper notes. “If they are not in good health, they are not at 100 percent for themselves and their families.”
The Rockets have widened their own wellness program to offer resources, activities, and convenience at no cost to employees. “Wellness has always been one of my personal passions, so it was natural for me to join the wellness committee and help take it to the next level,” Harper says. “We have embedded this philosophy into our culture and encourage all of our employees to take full advantage and lead a healthy lifestyle.”
“I’m a good coach, and whether you’re inside or outside my organization, I’d like to be able to provide that.”
Harper has also made great use of her role as a woman in a male-dominated industry to take future female leaders under her wing. “I believe in the old saying that the more people you help, the more they will help you,” Harper says. “I feel like it’s my duty to give respectful guidance, feedback, and to be a coach when I can to those new graduates and those that are early in their careers.”
Harper visits the University of Houston sports administration class multiple times a year to talk about working in the sports industry and how one might best get ahead in the field.
The HR head speaks very highly of Houston’s Women in Sports and Events (WISE) organization that brings together women in the industry to talk about their experiences and to provide guidance and leadership for those looking to get into the field. “Joining your local chapter is very important, because it’s people who are there to network and support each other,” Harper says. “You can meet and learn from those who are living and breathing the business every day.”
Harper adds that she rarely turns down a request to talk from a recent college graduate who’s looking to follow in Harper’s own footsteps. “We were all there at one point in time, and it’s such a stressful time of your life, frantically applying for all of these different positions. I try and do my best to be a mentor and provide guidance.”
It might be the fact that she’s part of an NBA team, but Harper has adopted the language of the league. “I’m a good coach, and whether you’re inside or outside my organization, I’d like to be able to provide that.”
USI offers insurance solutions to help clients manage costs and mitigate risk. Our 7,000-plus employee benefits, property and casualty, personal lines, and retirement experts give us national reach with local presence, and allow us to deliver industry-leading in-house technical resources, tools, and strategic planning. USI partners with the Rockets to manage benefits strategy and provide an unbeatable employee experience.