For Tracie Sponenberg, an interest in human resources came early: high school. She had shadowed her aunt, who worked in personnel, both in high school and early in college. “Personnel seemed to combine my love for business, people, and psychology,” Sponenberg explains. “I was hooked early.”
That spark ignited into more than twenty years in human resources for Sponenberg, who is currently chief people officer at The Granite Group. She has seen the function grow and evolve, and in the past five years, she has taken an active role in helping HR leaders transform their departments through her active participation in the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), teaching at Southern New Hampshire University, and cofounding both HR Rebooted and Disrupt HRNH.
When Sponenberg first started as a HR specialist at UPS, the department was seen as an administrative function. They were the administrators, the paper-pushers, the rule-followers, and the complaint department. It was when she left UPS for her first leadership role that she witnessed that HR was a business partner.
“That was rare then, and we still aren’t where we should be,” she notes. “The number one thing that holds HR back is HR. We have to see ourselves as confident business executives for our companies to see us that way. If we don’t view ourselves that way, why would anyone else?”
Sponenberg has had a seat at the table for the past twenty years, and at the Granite Group, it’s not even a question that HR is a true business function.
She joined the Granite Group—one of the top fifty plumbing, heating, and PVF wholesale distributors in the United States—in July 2015. At the end of 2014, Sponenberg’s family was going through big changes. Her stepdaughters’ mom had passed away, and the family focus and priorities shifted. Her husband started his own CFO consulting company so he could spend more time with his daughters. Sponenberg was looking at spending a lot of time in California as her company was looking to relocate a facility.
Then an early mentor reached out about an opportunity in Sponenberg’s hometown. The catch, she explains, was that it was a very lean team and the company was a plumbing wholesaler. “I went for the interview, and I quickly learned what an incredible company it was,” she explains. “I was all in.”
It wasn’t until Tracie Sponenberg joined the Granite Group that she understood what it meant to be an introvert. A behavioral assessment from the Predictive Index helped her not only understand herself but also provided her with the tools to use her introversion to her advantage.
Then she set out to make herself uncomfortable. She built her public speaking skills, took risks. “I started to take a look at myself, areas where I was holding myself back, and did something about it. It’s given me so many opportunities that I would never have had otherwise,” Sponenberg says. “Introverts can lead, and it can be a huge advantage to be an introverted leader.”
As part of her exit negotiation at Emerson Ecologics, Sponenberg agreed to meet with her successor to ensure she had everything she needed to be successful. That person was Michelle Strasburger.
“We never stopped meeting. Through that, we became really great friends,” Sponenberg says. “In late 2018, we both ended up attending the same conference and over dinner one night, we decided to form a project that would explore how to change HR for the better.”
And thus, HR Rebooted was formed. The project is devoted to changing how people think of human resources. Sponenberg and Strasburger craft podcasts, short videos, blogs, and speaking engagements that focus on the changing world of work based on four tracks: technology and innovation, business strategy, women supporting women, and diversity.
“We don’t make money doing this, and we don’t have sponsors intentionally,” Sponenberg explains. “We’re doing it solely to make the world a better place, one HR professional at a time!”
When it comes to transforming HR, Sponenberg notes that the focus is often on larger companies. But nearly 50 percent of the country’s workforce works for small businesses, which employ five hundred people or less. Sponenberg has spent most of her career working for mid-sized companies and offers advice for HR leaders at small companies on how to transform HR.
Start with learning the business. “Learn about business in general and about your business. Read business and industry periodicals. Twitter is great for this, so get involved! Some of the best conversations in HR, and in business, are happening in 280 characters or less.”
Learn the technology. “Understand how your company’s ERP system works. Learn how to use technology to automate some of the routine HR tasks, and then go and do it. Learn about how your company goes to market with its products or service.”
Go to industry events. “Get out there and meet your company’s customers. Befriend your CFO, CIO, CMO. You can learn a lot form them, and they can learn about you.”
Ultimately, align the HR strategy with the business strategy, Sponenberg says. “You must do this to transform. And all of these things are valuable learning experiences that will help you and your company.”