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Wesley Vestal

Wesley Vestal

Wesley has 15 years of experience as a global HR executive responsible for HR operations, talent acquisition, talent management, technical training and leadership development, sales training, M&A integration, and process transformation both in the US and for three years overseas. Prior to that, he spent eight years leading consulting and best-practice research on knowledge management, human capital management, and process improvement. He’s a sought-out panelist and featured speaker at industry-leading conferences, a patent owner, and author of two books and numerous published articles on best practices on talent management and knowledge management.

Hi Wesley, welcome to the series! We’d love to get to know you a bit better, can you tell us a bit about how you got started?

After graduating from Trinity University in San Antonio, I spent four years fundraising for the United Way of Greater Houston. There, I was able to help others while learning sales, account management, customer service, and presentation skills. 

From there, I joined the American Productivity & Quality Center for eight years. I started out as a project manager and progressed through different positions until I was presented with the opportunity to lead the Knowledge Management/Human Capital practice. Because it was a small organization, my position as practice leader allowed me to conceive and deliver new ideas, package them, sell them, and deliver them in the form of articles, two books, and industry-speaking opportunities on Knowledge Management and other learning capabilities. 

After growing my family, it was time to get off the road (I’d been traveling over 60% of the time). I went in-house with a former client at Baker Hughes, a global oilfield services company. There, I worked on the global HR transformation effort, which led me into three HR leadership roles over the next nine years, including leading HR for an international division based in Dubai, UAE.

I then expanded my global leadership capabilities at KBR and Weatherford International. I decided to take a break from the oilfield and spent a year helping a close friend run his growing online program management business, Elsmere Education, serving as the Senior VP of Growth and Executive Consultant. In 2022, I was recruited by CAI to join as their Chief People Officer.  

It’s been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. What's a mistake you made when you were first starting and what did you learn from it?

In the first six months at my job out of college, my manager asked for a list of fundraising prospects that we needed to pursue. It was close to the end of the day on Friday, so I rushed through and gave him a pencil and paper list, and whisked off to begin my weekend. 

On Monday, he shared with me that what I’d given him was not what he needed, and he’d had to spend Sunday night re-doing my work. I felt so guilty about causing him extra work, and learned how important it is for me to a) clarify expectations and b) deliver above and beyond so other team members can do their jobs.  

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person you're grateful for who helped get you to where you are?

There are too many to name! However, there is one particular person who served as a sage mentor and guide—Guille Arango. 

Guille was my client for several years at APQC.  He is the smartest person I’ve ever met, consistently dropping nuggets of wisdom, book recommendations, and strategic concepts he found useful in his career. 

When I was looking to reduce my time on the road, he recruited me to work at his new company, Baker Hughes. He had asked me to improve the Baker Hughes Drilling Rig Count, an over 60-year service the company had provided to the investment community.   

Even though I’d never been on a drilling rig, he trusted me to successfully figure out the issue, communicate with senior leaders across the US, and resolve the problem. Lastly, at the end of the project, he suggested that we take this work and apply for a patent—which we successfully received after four years.

If more organizations would allow HR professionals to branch out into other business areas to build their operational and financial acumen, such as Schlumberger and GM, they could be better differentiated from others who aspire to the CEO role.

What's your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” and how does it help guide you in your decision making? 

My favorite quote is from the legendary basketball coach, John Wooden. “When opportunity knocks, it’s too late to prepare.”

Through my work in knowledge management, learning and development, and talent management, I learned how great companies prepare employees to take on and excel in new roles. 

At the start of my HR career, I was exposed to global mobility, compensation, and employee relations issues and spent time with those experts learning the why and how to support those fields to the best of my ability. 

This drove me to find learning opportunities, such as earning my project management certificate,  a Global Professional in HR certification, and a Six Sigma green belt. When the opportunity knocked to lead large HR organizations, my preparation and ongoing education were absolutely vital.

Thinking back on your career, what would you tell your younger self?

In college, I originally planned to focus on law and/or politics but neither path was my calling. If I could go back in time, I would have encouraged my younger self to take more business and psychology courses helpful for Human Relations.

Why do you think HR deserves a place in the boardroom and in high-level decision-making?

Over the past 3 years, the importance of having a connected, business savvy People partner in the C-suite has grown exponentially. The role of the CEO has expanded to require responsibilities not previously needed for involvement—they are now chief culture officer, counselor, pandemic advisor, remote work specialist, inflation expert, ESG navigator, and retention guru. 

In the past, most companies leaned on HR professionals to deliver the basic functions of hiring, onboarding, employee relations, pay, and talent management. Now, those professionals are at the forefront of every decision we make to attract, retain, develop, and engage our talent.

From your experience, how can HR people and culture professionals ensure they’re involved in strategic planning processes? 

First, HR professionals need to understand the strategy and financial goals of the organization to be able to translate those into a cohesive talent strategy. We need to understand where the business is going—it is the first, most important step to shape that strategy. 

For instance, if the business has traditionally sold individual products/services managed by discrete product lines but wants to pivot to selling “integrated solutions,” the HR team needs to be front and center to conduct a realistic assessment of the talent needs, including re-skilling requirements, incentive changes, and organization design factors.

A lot of folks believe that CHROs would make great CEOs, but often they’re overlooked. Why do you think that is?

Traditionally CEOs come from varied business backgrounds, gaining experience in the field, sales, operations, supply chain, and development organizations. 

Many top companies have C-suite candidates rotate through an HR-related role to give them a better perspective on people-focused issues. In contrast, many HR leaders have only performed various HR roles like compensation, talent, and recruiting. 

If more organizations would allow HR professionals to branch out into other business areas to build their operational and financial acumen, such as Schlumberger and GM, they could be better differentiated from others who aspire to the CEO role.   

What skills can HR folks work on to become more effective business partners?

Financial acumen is critical for all of us to understand how our decisions impact cash flow, top-line growth, profit margins, working capital constraints, etc. 

Additionally, HR professionals should work on understanding strategic planning concepts, using tools such Porters 5 Forces and SWOT analyses to understand how the company differentiates itself from the competition. 

Lastly, HR business partners need to understand the responsibilities of leadership and how to support leaders for better performance.  

In my experience, talent strategy should focus on building a sense of collective ownership for each employee's outcomes for their clients.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important ways that HR can help drive company decisions? 

1 . Fully understand the strategy of the organization and how it needs to evolve to meet competitive threats or exploit opportunities.  

Example: In the oilfield services business, success requires strong products, a great sales organization, effective field staff to implement services, and an effective supply chain is required for success. 

Originally, these businesses were responsible for selling individual products or tools to various parts of the customer base (drilling the well v completing the well v. producing the well). 

Originally, these businesses sold individual products to customers, but due to exploration and production companies pushing risk and technology requirements in the early to mid-2000s, the oilfield service organizations needed to “integrate” their product and service offerings and deliver full solutions. 

Given this integration required a full update of company expectations, HR teams of the service organizations had to quickly pivot to build a new company structure, including project management and contracting expertise, incentive schemes to drive “integrated” behaviors, new hiring models to bring in talent that didn’t exist in the organization, etc.  

2 . Be able to translate business strategy into a thorough talent strategy that sustainably delivers over time.

Example:  A company’s talent strategy needs to prioritize identifying what roles need to have the best talent possible. While every role at a company is important, there are a few that a company needs to get “right” to remain competitive with other companies.

From there, talent strategy needs to outline how talent is acquired (buy, build, borrow), how much is needed and where it is needed, and the sourcing and development paths needed to bring it online. 

In industries with rapid growth/contraction cycles, it's critical to maintain partnerships with Recruiting Process Outsource (RPO) companies to continue the talent acquisition process. Keeping a positive partnership with RPOs ensures the company has access to specialists who can staff up or down as demand rises and falls—without having to hire and lay off recruiters.

In my experience, talent strategy should focus on building a sense of collective ownership for each employee's outcomes for their clients.

When consultants travel constantly and spend more time onsite with clients than with their own colleagues, it’s essential that the employees understand the purpose, mission, and accountability each other have to drive collective success. 

Additionally, talent strategy has to align with the knowledge management strategy—arming each consultant with the needed training and linking them to all resources  That way, they can bring the entire organization’s expertise to every business engagement

3 . Understand what talent acquisition strategy is appropriate for each scenario: 

  • Whether a company should hire talent externally, or re-skill current employees 
  • Change compensation incentives to attract, retain, or change behavior
  • Activate the leadership succession bench to unlock potential new opportunities

4 . Ground business strategy decisions and accompanying talent decisions in solid business impact analysis.

This could be through a more tangible analysis such as ROI and cost-benefit analysis, or less tangible such as the impact on retention or engagement.

Example: In an analysis of product development and R&D engineer salaries, comparing internal benchmarks and external salary studies, my team discovered the average engineer was under the midpoint, approximately 10% below market.

The HR team put together a plan and cost/benefit analysis for bringing the group in line with the company benchmark in year one and phasing increases to achieve market rates over the next two years. 

Using the cost of attrition as the benefit component, the incremental salary cost far outweighed the savings generated by lowering attrition and increasing engagement. Because of our analysis and phased approach, the business leadership team was able to  make educated people investment decisions.

5 . Serve as a coach for key decision-makers as they weigh alternatives.  

Example: All leaders need team members that can work through issues, provide feedback, and talk through challenges.

As a part of an organization going through bankruptcy and facing layoff decisions, the HR team and I were able to coach the senior leadership through layoffs during the holiday season.

We helped them with their decision not to lay off anyone in December—treating people with respect and mitigating the challenges that layoffs would entail internally. 

Parents and families had already made commitments to their kids and relatives—losing their job immediately before the holiday season could cause incredible stress and despair. While that was a costly decision, it was the right one for the people.

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen businesses make when faced with hard decisions?

  1. First is that they don’t decide and they delay hard decisions, which leads to even more hard decisions along the way. 
  2. They don’t always gather multiple stakeholder perspectives, they just make decisions in a “vacuum”, only gathering the executive team’s input. Tough decisions require widespread responses from multiple perspectives—customers, employees, and shareholders/stakeholders. 
  3. Organizations don’t communicate the “why” behind the “what” around company decisions, and those impacted are left in the dark. George Bernard Shaw’s quote, “The illusion about communication is that it has occurred" is one of my favorites and a good reminder that what we say is often not received in the way in which it was intended. 

Lastly, who would love to have lunch with and why?

In the HR world, I’d love to meet and learn from Josh Bersin, whose work I’ve followed for years. I’ve used a number of his unique insights into talent models, tools, and methodologies that I’ve tapped into in my own work.

Additionally, as a sports junkie, I’d love to have lunch with my original basketball hero, Larry Bird. His passion for the sport and his ability to transition from one of the great players of all time to a successful coach and general manager would be fascinating to learn about. 

Thanks Wesley, some great insights in there! How can people follow your work?

My LinkedIn page is the best place – I’ve written a number of articles there and listed out the articles and books I’ve written over the years as well.

Some further insights from the series:

Finn Bartram
By Finn Bartram

Finn is an editor at People Managing People. He's passionate about growing organizations where people are empowered to continuously improve and genuinely enjoy coming to work. If not at his desk, you can find him playing sports or enjoying the great outdoors.