There are a few key pieces of wisdom that Claudia Kropf keeps close at hand — not just as an adjunct professor for USC’s Online MS in Human Resource Management, but as a busy HR professional, mentor to students and colleagues alike and author of the forthcoming book, HR Simply Defined. These are life lessons that do double-duty as HR tools.
The first comes from her mother: Don’t tell everything you know. The key is to understand what information is called for in each situation.
The second, from her father: Do whatever you think you’re big enough to do. That’s about believing in oneself and trusting the experience and power you have.
And third, a piece of wisdom from Kropf’s first mentor. “She said, Never let anybody rush you,” says Kropf. “The decisions that you make affect people’s lives.”
“I always pass that along to folks,” says Kropf. “I don’t care if you’re talking about manufacturing or AI, if there is someone in your office and they’re crying, consider what they’re saying, consider the circumstances, the environment, consider all the concentric circles and then you will come out with a nice balanced answer.”
I would imagine, in this day and age, that slowing down is a challenge — even in human resources.
It is, but not if you want to do the right thing. You know that’s part of the reason that you’re there is to give good sound advice at every level of the organization. You have choices. You have to consider all the things they haven’t thought of yet. You have to put it all together. You try not to offend. And then you tell them what you know from what experience you have.
The semester before last, I had a student who had never been in HR and someone who was a Chief Human Resources Officer. It doesn’t matter. I still focus on relationships and how to get things done. Not going slow, per se, but taking the time to consider. The world will slow you down if you go too fast.
Human Resources was a career change for you. How did you transition?
I wanted to get into HR, and nobody wanted to let me in. I decided to leave Boston, and accounts payable, and go down to Tennessee, when I got a call from a temp agency. They said, we have a job for you — in accounts payable. When I got there, a wonderful woman comes to the door and says, Can I help you? I said, I’m in accounts payable and I want to be in human resources. Then finally I asked, What’s your title and what do you do? She said, My name is Claire and I’m the head of human resources.
I worked that temp job with all that I had. She saw that. I ended getting that job in human resources. And there was no turning back.
Now, I’m in a plant — they sent me to Georgia. It was my first day by myself. A woman walks in and she holds up her hand in a fist and says, That there machine cut my finger off. What are you going to do about it?
I said, Why don’t you have a seat? I got her information. I made sure she felt listened to. Then I called Claire. That’s when the mentorship started.
The third time I called Claire, she says, What do you think you should do? She knew, if she kept telling me, I’d never figure it out for myself.
That’s true mentoring.
Right, I can teach you the tactical — that’s easy. But the application — how to understand people, how to know who is where and what, and still be fair — that’s the part that’s hard to teach. People have their own fears, their own sense of work politics. Everybody has to find their own way. But I try to give them the basics. That’s what I love about teaching HR — helping everyone find their path.
What role does mentoring have for you now?
It’s huge. Mentoring is such a part of who I am. There are so many ways to approach any issue. I always say, Here is the legal standard — this is what you have to go by. You can always do more; you can never do less. And also, Here is Claudia’s way. Whether you like my way or not, it’s something else you can consider.
Mentoring in HR is important because HR is not an exact science. As a mentor, I can teach the basics, but when it comes to the application of knowledge, I think that it’s crucial to allow the individual to express themselves while crafting their ability to “listen toward strategy.”
It all goes back to this: You’ve got to let everybody be who they are.
What are you most proud of in your career?
I made the transition to HR when others suggested that it was not wise to do so. I’ve successfully argued mediations, won in court, and created and implemented programs that have reduced costs and improved morale, but what I am most proud of is much simpler. I once received a phone call from an executive that I had never met. He said, I just wanted to get your advice on a matter because you get it, you just get it. I knew what he meant. Not only had I made every effort to find that balance toward the business and the employees, but my efforts had been discussed and recognized by those that I had never met. Having such a subtle, yet positive, impact was my proudest career moment.
How did you get into teaching?
A colleague was already teaching at USC. She asked me to do a class on employee relations, which is my specialty. I had an absolute blast. I’ve started teaching other classes, including “Anticipating the Future of HR” — HRM555 — which is the last class before they graduate.
I love that they’ve given me 555. There are all the things they’ve learned about organizational design, leadership, employee relations. Now, how do you apply it? When you get out, it’s not just a degree. HR is not an exact science, no. It’s as varied as there are people. If you do it right, you’re exhausted at the end of the day.
What are you looking forward to most about teaching your next session?
I’m looking forward to getting to know the next group and what challenges they bring. Every class has their own personality. The challenge is going to be to understand what their needs are and to look at myself and ask, How can I do better? How can I meet their needs? How can I make sure I’m giving enough structure, without too much?
I just want people to be able to stand on their own two feet and be ready for whatever comes. That’s my goal when I teach.
Claudia Kropf teaches HRM 555: Anticipating the Future of HR.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.