Understanding Your Role in HR

Trent SavageSeason 4Episode 1


Trent Savage is the CHRO at Mountain American Credit Union. He talks about how to be effective in a role in Human Resources and how to use feedback professionally.


Trent Savage

Trent Savage

Chief Human Resources Officer

Trent Savage is the Chief Human Resources Officer at Mountain America Credit Union. In this role, Trent is responsible for developing and executing an HR and talent development strategy that supports the credit union’s overall business plan and strategic direction. He’s also responsible for partnering with business leaders to provide clarity and direction and alignment of goals to create a high-performing organization. Since joining Mountain America in 2018, Trent has implemented technology to automate processes, which has streamlined the credit union’s human resources, and improved engagement, while allowing team members to engage in strategic consulting with leadership.

Over the course of his career, Trent has worked for some of the world’s largest, most recognizable brands, including Amazon, eBay, and Proctor and Gamble. During his time with these companies, he gained expertise in strategy development, executive coaching, leadership effectiveness, organizational design and development, strategic talent management, and team effectiveness.


Troy Blaser (00:05):
Hello. Welcome to today's episode of Simply Feedback. I'm your host, Troy Blaser. It's great to be with you all today, I'm excited to introduce our guest. Our guest on the episode today is Trent Savage, who is the Chief Human Resources Officer at Mountain America Credit Union. In this role, Trent is responsible for developing and executing an HR and talent development strategy that supports the credit union's overall business plan and strategic direction. He's also responsible for partnering with business leaders to provide clarity and direction and alignment of goals to create a high-performing organization. Since joining Mountain America in 2018, Trent has implemented technology to automate processes, which has streamlined the credit union's human resources, and improved engagement, while allowing team members to engage in strategic consulting with leadership. Over the course of his career, Trent has worked for some of the world's largest, most recognizable brands, including Amazon, eBay, and Proctor and Gamble. During his time with these companies, he gained expertise in strategy development, executive coaching, leadership effectiveness, organizational design and development, strategic talent management, and team effectiveness. Trent, welcome to Simply Feedback. It's so great to have you with us today.
Trent Savage (01:23):
Thank you, Troy. Looking forward to chatting with you. It's great to be here.
Troy Blaser (01:27):
Well, I'm also excited about our conversation today. Maybe just to get started and maybe kind of help us get to know you, of course, the podcast is Simply Feedback. I wonder if you could tell us about a time in your life that somebody gave you feedback, maybe it had an impact on your career, on your personal life, whatever it might be, but have you got a story that you could share with us?
Trent Savage (01:50):
I do. I got maybe a couple that I could share with you, Troy.
Troy Blaser (01:53):
I love it.
Trent Savage (01:54):
The first would be, actually when I was in MBA school, we did an interesting exercise. It was a fishbowl exercise where we had a group on the inside and, a group on the outside observing. And, you know, in that class, I don't think the teacher loved me too much after the class because I was trying to do a lot of self-exploration about what was the impact I had on others. And so, for example, in one class when I was on the inner circle, I would be dead quiet, wouldn't say a thing, the whole thing. And then the next meeting we'd have, I would not stop talking. I would talk over people, you know, and really what I was just trying to understand is, well, what is my impact on others? Like, how am I, you know, being perceived? And, you know, my teacher gave me some feedback that she wasn't happy because I was kind of ruining the exercise, but I shared, I'm trying to understand like, how do I, you know, come across and how do others perceive me? But I do think feedback is critically important, and, self-awareness are key things that are important to our success in the business world today, and probably in many industries.
Troy Blaser (02:57):
Yeah. So you were sort of almost running at your own experiments in, in those different options. What happens if I behave in this way? Yes. You know, what's my impact? Or if I change in the next exercise, it's totally different. And your teacher's like, Hey, you're tracking all over the place here. who are you really? Right.
Trent Savage (03:15):
That's exactly right. Yeah. And I do think, you know, it really has benefited me a lot and I've learned a lot about myself over the years. You know, one example I'd just share, early in my career, when I was at Proctor and Gamble, we had this process where we would give written feedback to other employees. I was in HR and I was new to the team, new to the organization, so pretty young. I gave some feedback to a 25-year veteran manager, and he was, just blew up over the feedback. And my feedback, I'd say was accurate. It was reflective. It's just something that maybe others hadn't been as transparent sharing that he didn't love. So, you know, that kind of blew up. And then I had a meeting scheduled shortly after that with his two-up leader, you know, that I also support his organization.
Trent Savage (04:02):
He kind of blew me up with some feedback. And so I learned pretty early that feedback is important, but just as important as how you give it. What I took away specifically from that is when I give people hard feedback now, I will always give it to him face-to-face, before I put anything in writing, and give them the chance to kind of react before I put in. And usually, I'll write it and share it with them so they see what I'm submitting, and then, you know, I'll give them a chance to engage with me. And, that was a big learning point for me very early in my career, which I was grateful for.
Troy Blaser (04:35):
Yeah, yeah, for sure. You know, I actually think about that sometimes. I've been here in this career for 20-plus years, so I'm not as young as I used to be. And sometimes I want, I ask myself, Troy, are you turning into sort of a grouchy old man who's set in his ways and isn't able to hear any feedback or make changes? You know? And so, you know, you're giving feedback to that supervisor who'd been there for a very long time. And sometimes I wonder, and I hope not, I don't want to be closing my mind off from feedback that comes in as I get older in my own career.
Trent Savage (05:10):
Absolutely. Yeah, I totally agree with that.
Troy Blaser (05:13):
As I was kind of getting ready for our interview today, getting to know you just a little bit kind of out there on LinkedIn and, you know, all the world that is out there as we can sort of get to know people. I saw that in one interview you talked about, growing up you wanted to be a motivational speaker or own a consulting ranch. And I wanted to ask you about that. First of all, two questions, I guess. One is, what is a consulting ranch? Two, was there a turning point in your career that led you from that dream to kind of where you are now?
Trent Savage (05:44):
Yeah, that's a great question. So, and I would say, Troy, that that, that is still a vision that I've not given up on in the back of my mind. But what I thought about early in my career was that in order to consult, you actually have to have some skills or tools that you can consult on. And so I didn't feel it was appropriate to try and jump into that right after graduate school. But, really to me, a consulting ranch, what the vision is, my wife and I both love being in the outdoors. We're huge fans of just being out in the mountains and enjoy time up there. We thought it would be great to have a ranch where people would come in and we would really use a lot of the natural elements, you know, whether that be horses.
Trent Savage (06:26):
My wife and I have horses, and we believe there's so much you can learn about working with horses and relationships. You know, that is something that we think you could use to help build, teams and some other things. We think fly fishing, you know, hikes, river rafting, just all of those things, you know, that in nature there's like an ecology and an order that happens there. That is it applies to high-performance work systems and organizations. And I've always thought it would be fun to be able to marry those two. And at some point in time, you know, I still think, you know, at some point, I think I would like to probably retire, go into consulting with, another firm just to kind of experience the consulting life. But then I still wouldn't mind trying to bring that together at some point.
Troy Blaser (07:10):
Well, I'll keep a watch out. Right. I think that does sound, I also enjoy being in the outdoors and I think, I agree with you. There are a lot of lessons that can be learned, not only the lessons that come from adventures in the outdoors, whether it's horseback riding, fly fishing, hiking, whatever it might be, but even too, just the benefits that we all get by being outdoors.
Trent Savage (07:34):
Troy Blaser (07:34):
You know, in terms of mental health and physical health. So that sounds like something very interesting. And like you said, figuring out how to combine something that you're passionate about in terms of being outdoors with that career aspiration of helping folks out building those leadership development skills, things like that. That sounds really cool.
Trent Savage (07:55):
Yeah. And if I could just add to it, Troy, you know, one of the things that, I've become more and more convinced of over the years in HR is there's just a wide range of what I'd call leadership team functionality in organizations. And, I think there's so much opportunity to help leadership teams be more efficient and productive, you know, in terms of conflict, feedback with each other, you know, direction setting clarity on where you're going, leadership style, relationships, all of those things that I think these, a lot of organizations, you know, if the leadership team's not doing it well, that goes throughout the organization. And I just, I've become more convinced in my career of the importance of that. And at some point, I hope to be able to bring that to life and really help leadership teams and others really learn how to be more effective.
Troy Blaser (08:50):
What are some of the challenges that you deal with in, you know, as a leader in HR, what are some of the challenges that you see for those leadership teams?
Trent Savage (09:00):
Well, you know, it's interesting, there's an organization that I worked with that, was very successful because they had made a choice about their product set, and they were kind of first mover advantage, but their leadership team to me was very ineffective in terms of how they operated. And at some point in time, that's always going to catch you, and in this case, this organization was acquired by another organization because the leadership team did not necessarily have the maturity to take that product to the next level. And, you know, that's just one example, but I think a lot of the challenges that we face is just, you know, there's, is the leader, you know, willing to, A) set good, clear direction, are they willing to set a really clear strategy and make hard choices about what the organization's going to focus on and not focus on? And saying no often is just as hard as saying yes or if not harder. But then really it's about having plans to execute against once you've had that clear direction and having the relationships and the accountability in place to drive it and partner across functions. And everybody that listens to the podcast would probably go, yeah, duh. But the reality is, from what I've seen, is that there's not a lot of organizations and leadership teams that do that really well.
Troy Blaser (10:19):
I see. Yeah. That's really the big challenge. Right. If you can figure out how to do that well, I can appreciate that need for a vision, a strong vision coming from the leader to say, here's the direction we're going, and the ability to sort of stick to that vision. And it needs to be repeated and drilled into and keep everybody's focus on that vision for a sustained period of time in order to achieve it often, you know? And so you can't have a leader who's sort of jumping from place to place saying, oh, now today the new shiny thing is this, you know, and then a few weeks later, we're going to be focusing on this other thing. And that can make it very difficult for an organization to really get traction and move forward.
Trent Savage (11:05):
Troy Blaser (11:05):
As you have worked with some of these challenges that you've talked about with leadership teams, are there ways that you've incorporated feedback into some of the work that you've done?
Trent Savage (11:14):
Yeah. I think feedback is such a critical piece to me. You know, one of the things that I've done it, well, I'll just say it, I've done in various degrees in organizations will be, so I don't incriminate anything.
Troy Blaser (11:28):
Trent Savage (11:29):
But, one of the things that I do believe in is a core principle of effectiveness, is when leadership teams put together kind of their operating principles for how they're going to interact with each other and engage with each other. Now, a lot of people probably say, yeah, we do that, But then the other key piece is giving feedback on that regularly. And that feedback needs to be really open and honest, because what you're trying to do is if the leadership team says, hey, when we operate according to these operating principles, we know we're going to be more effective. And so having the principles in place is one key thing. A second one is giving feedback on those. One of the things that I love to do with my leadership team, and I've found it to be very effective, is we do kind of speed backdating where we have our operating principles, and then we'll just go around and everybody will take no more than 30 to 45 seconds, and it's saying, hey, this is a principle, an operating principle that I see you do exceptionally well, and I think you would be more effective if you worked on this, and this is what that might look like.
Trent Savage (12:28):
So it's quick. And then we ask them to go through everybody on the team, and when they do, we ask, give everybody a minute to take their feedback, summarize it, and then present to the group saying, hey, this is the summary of what I've heard of what I do well, and they only pick the top thing that they feel, and then they pick the one area where they're going to focus. And then as a team, we'd say, okay, over the next quarter or six months, all of us are going to work on that, and we're going to give feedback in six months to say, hey, are we improving? And I have done that with some organizations that are willing to commit that time. And it's very, very effective, really starting to drive behavioral change in organizations where feedback comes to life.
Troy Blaser (13:08):
I love that. I love that it's something that is kind of formalized in terms of, I think it can be very easy to say, you know, here are our operating principles, and oh, we're going to give feedback to each other. And you kind of say, we're going to do that informally. And then it turns out it never really happens, or it happens on a very superficial level. But for you to say, Here's the process that we're going to use to give each other feedback, and it doesn't have to take a long time, but we're going to do it purposefully, and then we're going to come back and follow up in six months and see how it's going and continue that cycle of feedback. I think that is important.
Trent Savage (13:45):
Yeah. There's two pieces to this, Troy, that I think are really important. There's an organizational level, like what I've learned over time is, you know, all companies have a vision and their operating principles that they say, and then teams sometimes do, sometimes they don't. I like to say there's some organizations that really bring those operating principles to life, and there's others that have what I call the proverbial plaque on the wall. Yeah they have them, but nobody lives them. And if you don't put mechanisms in place, and frankly, when an organization does it, you know, HR plays a key role in helping bring those organizational values to life. We should be building those values into all of our systems and processes from how we recruit, how we perform as management, how we promote and develop. You know, if we don't bring those in, who is? Who's going to bring those values to life? And so I think that there's structures that we can put in place both at the organizational level and the team level that really brings feedback to life in a meaningful way.
Troy Blaser (14:43):
I love it. I like that a lot. You know, thinking back over your time as an HR leader, as a coach, can you share with us maybe a specific experience or a time when you've seen feedback cause a point of inflection in someone's career or in their life that you've been able to sort of be a part of that?
Trent Savage (15:01):
Yeah. This is an interesting one. This is what I've seen probably a pattern that's a disappointing one. I'm very much a believer that as individuals, especially in the corporate world, we need to have a learning and growth mentality. What I saw early on in my career at Proctor and Gamble, where you get longer-tenured employees, and I've seen it at other organizations, is you get employees that at some point their skillset matched what the market needed. And they were at their pinnacle of the career, high performance recognized doing great. But then what happened is there was a change in the market and the skillsets shifted. And when those employees don't shift those skill sets with it, the feedback sessions that I've been a part of with these employees is having conversations that we're basically moving them towards performance improvement.
Trent Savage (15:54):
And eventually, I've seen many of them that didn't correct. And frankly, most of them, and you're terminating them from the company. And what's been sad to me is to watch people that have been with these organizations sometimes 15, 20 years and watch them lose their jobs because they weren't good at taking feedback. They weren't good at being willing to make the adjustments needed and adjusting their skills to match what the market is. And I've seen that play out as a pattern over time that has frankly been disheartening. So I think, you know, a key piece is the importance of us giving feedback, but then helping people take action on that feedback and really work on their skills.
Troy Blaser (16:37):
That makes a lot of sense. It hits home to me. I've been here in this career for 20 years, you know, I'm getting into that timeframe, and it's like, okay, I've got to make sure that I keep that growth mindset right. I can't get fixed in place and just say, well, this is what I've been doing for 20 years. I'm going to keep doing it, and it doesn't matter what changes around me. Right. That's sort of that limited mindset that you're talking about, as opposed to saying, okay, what do I need to do to tweak my skills, make sure that my performance stays in line, or continues to grow and change with the environment? Is that right?
Trent Savage (17:11):
Yeah, absolutely. And you know, it's the world that we live in now. You know, there's about, I've seen some research that says about a third of a job's skills may be different in three to four years or more. So think about that. A third of our skills might be changing every three years. If we're not giving feedback, taking and acting on that feedback, our skills could become irrelevant pretty quickly in today's world.
Troy Blaser (17:36):
Yeah. Yeah. That makes sense. I think that's great advice. Anything else that you would, you know, as you think about our listeners working in their careers, any other advice that you would give to folks in your area of expertise, in HR?
Trent Savage (17:53):
In the function itself?
Troy Blaser (17:55):
Yeah. Yeah.
Trent Savage (17:57):
The biggest piece of advice that I would give, in the function is this. You know, if you go back and look at several articles over the last few years, more pre-COVID, but still there, you know, there's a lot of, I hate HR or, you know, just a lot of negativity in HBR forms on HR. And I've reflected a lot of that on my career. And really what I've seen is that, a lot of times I think HR gets stuck in the mindset that when I'm doing recruiting and employee relations issues, policy performance management, I'm doing what the company needs. The reality is that's just what the base expectation is. We really need to be great as a function of upping our game and providing really meaningful strategic work to the business. So, you know, from my point of view, I think HR is, you know, I've seen in a lot of organizations where, especially the smaller, mid-size, where they maybe struggle more with strategy and strategy definition.
Trent Savage (18:59):
In my opinion, HR should be one of those functions that is best positioned to help business think about strategy. It's one of the things I appreciated about Proctor and Gamble. A lot of times HR was facilitating the strategy discussions for the business, and we sit in a unique role where we see things across the business that no other functions see. So I think we really need to be focused on not just delivering on our core things that the business expects as base expectations, but how do we really up our game and add that real strategic value, whether that's around strategy or design, change management, talent management, leadership development. I think those are really the core, you know, with COVID, I think a lot of HR navigated that pretty darn well for their company. Some, not so much, but a lot did. That gave a lot of credibility to the function. And right now we're at a unique time with this hybrid workforce and everything else. It's different and it's new. And we really need to be thought leaders and not get comfortable just playing in our space. We need to be stretching. We need to be really understanding the impact of things on the business and really making sure that we are leading out and really having influence across our organizations within our domain.
Troy Blaser (20:17):
So if there's an HR leader sitting out there listening to our conversation today, maybe at a small or mid-size business, and that person realizes, hey, I have been in a reactive role. I've been hitting the base expectations for HR here in my small company, but I'm ready to become more proactive to start to bring some of that leadership in. Where should they start? What are some first steps or a possible first step to take to start to move into that proactive leadership role?
Trent Savage (20:47):
Well, I think you called out the first one, Troy, as recognizing if you're in a reactive role. The second one is, I think unfortunately there's too many HR practitioners that they define their value over being the decision maker for places that, frankly, I don't believe we own the decision. I'll give you an example. When a manager wants to hire, hey, they need to own the decision of who they hire, when they want to fire, frankly, it does not need to be our decision. I've seen too many HR leaders that they want to own, whether somebody gets fired or not. It's not our decision, it's the business. Our goal is to tell them what the risks are. Now, I will tell you that I tell every leader I work with, I reserve the right to escalate. Meaning if I don't agree with your decision, I can escalate it to your business leader and just give them the data, and we can do it together.
Trent Savage (21:36):
By the way, and I've only probably escalated in my career three or four times, and I've won every single time. And the reason is, and I, won's probably not the right word, but the reason is because they're usually emotional. It's an emotional decision for them. It's not as an emotional for us. And so I've elevated to their leaders, and when they're leaders who also don't have that same level of emotion, they can move on. But anyway, the first point that I'm getting at some of these things we just need to let go of, like, quit being the police. And I'm telling you, we have too many practitioners out there. That are so bent on being the police, we got to stop it. Then what I would suggest is being thoughtful about where we spend our time as HR. You know, in a lot of cases, the business, they ask a lot.
Trent Savage (22:18):
Sometimes they don't. But we have a lot of say over where we spend our time. I would say that the first place that we should spend our time is making sure we have just some very core things in place. If we're in a growth mode with the business, we need to be recruiting. Recruiting is like one of the most visible things that if you're not delivering people in a timely manner for the business, nothing else that you do matters. Right? If you're not paying your people on time, the right amount every time, nothing else that we do matters. So what I'm saying is the first phase is just get your core fundamentals in place. Now, what I'm not saying is go create a 30, 50, 60-page policy manual, right? At the end of the day, to me, we need policy for two things. One, is we need to have policy in place for like fraud, theft, those types of things.
Trent Savage (23:08):
And the other one's harassment-related. Outside of that, I don't know if we need a bunch of policy, quite frankly, like we need to help our leaders lead. So the piece I would say from there is saying, what does my business need? And the reason I say that is because each business is so different. If I'm in a growth mode, you know, when I was at P&G, P&G was in a very, very consumer, global consumer market. And margins were so thin that everything was about cost-cutting and just being as absolutely efficient as you could be. You know, I went to a company like Amazon, which was high growth, and yeah, efficiency is important, but it's not the same. It's more about having the infrastructure to support the growth. So understanding your growth model, whatever that is, your business model is really important.
Trent Savage (23:57):
Then I would say, how do you build capacity in your teams by standardizing a lot of the kind of core work that we do. So, for example, you know, employee relations, to me, everybody feels they need to have, you know, that all throughout their business. In a business like mine at the credit union where I have a high, you know, a big, large kind of frontline workforce. I'm centralized employee relations, and I manage it with a few people. Because when I got here, I had like seven business partners and they were managing everything, and they were never spending time on strategy work. So we took all of those employee relations, we centralized them to a few, and then we moved the other business partners into true business partner work. We said, Look, you are not to do employee relations. You hand it off, right?
Trent Savage (24:46):
So, you know, to me, at the end of the day, Troy, there's three key things. One is you got to get your design right, or design. And I found that a lot of HR teams actually do they figure out how to centralize or to standardize or scale that transactional work so they can get to that more strategic work. The strategic work to me is things like organization design, team effectiveness, leadership development, talent movement. Right? We don't spend enough time in those areas. So again, principle number one is getting your design right. Principle two is getting the right capabilities defined for the roles. So for example, like to me, an HR business partner should be a highly strategic role. You got to get all that transactional stuff off and then really make it a strategic role. Well, part of that's defining the capabilities and the expectations.
Trent Savage (25:35):
The third thing is to just get the right people on the bus, you know, good to great Jim Collins saying. What I've seen is the organizations will get the design right? They'll lay the capabilities out, but they just want to move the people they have, and they're not willing to make the hard call. Sometimes some people just aren't going to develop the skills to get there. And you've got to be willing to make the hard calls to get the right people in the roles with the right skillsets to be successful. The last point I'd say on this is leverage existing systems. So for example, IT several years ago went to kind of a ticketing system for their help desk, right? Some people love it, some people don't, but the reality is it works and it's efficient and it scales. If an organization doesn't know HR, start there. Like build, take their system, replicate it, and use it to take in, self-serve or those kind of questions that people have, and put your lowest, you know, level, skill level HR people on those issues so that you're not using your HR business partner and other resources on these very transactional issues. So what I'm getting at is things like that we can replicate what somebody like IT has done. To build the capacity to play at a more strategic level.
Troy Blaser (26:46):
That's, I like that general approach of figuring out how can we get to more strategic levels, standardize those things that can be standardized, take advantage of other processes that are already in the company. Again, all with that idea of moving towards more strategic partnership rather than that tactical, you know, taking care of the everyday kinds of things.
Trent Savage (27:10):
Yeah, absolutely.
Troy Blaser (27:11):
Well, Trent, this has really been fascinating to me. It's been a great sort of, exploration. I've loved the conversation with you. If people want to know more, if they, if you struck a chord with somebody and they want to maybe explore something further with you, are you open to that? What would you say is the best way for people to get in touch with you?
Trent Savage (27:30):
Yeah, absolutely. I would suggest that they reach out to me on LinkedIn. I'd be happy to connect with anybody. I would encourage them if they do have interest to just connect it to this podcast. Most of the times I'm pretty accepting on LinkedIn, but there's occasion where I'm like, I have no idea if we don't have any connections. But if they'll refer to this, I'd be sure, I'd be more than happy to connect with them and help out where I can.
Troy Blaser (27:52):
Mention Simply Feedback when you make that connection. Right. That's fantastic. Well, Trent, thanks again for your time. I've really enjoyed speaking with you today, and I look forward to our next conversation down the road sometime.
Trent Savage (28:05):
Hey, thanks Troy. It's been a pleasure and really appreciate what you guys are doing. Hope this was helpful for some of the audience today.
Troy Blaser (28:11):
You bet.