Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Robert Turner, Fostering Integrity in Leadership

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Robert Turner
Photo: Dr. Robert Turner

Dr. Robert Turner leads with integrity. It’s a philosophy that characterizes his Human Resources career, that “to be successful, [he] made treating people with respect the top priority”. His mission to bring dignity and integrity into every professional conversation inspires both Dr. Turner’s students and his colleagues.

Dr. Turner has had a lengthy career in human resources, a path he stumbled into after time in the Army. He was working in operations when he found himself assisting his colleagues with personnel issues. This caught the attention of the Personnel office and Dr. Turner’s HR career was launched.

Dr. Turner is an integral part of the MSHRM program, having been on the faculty advisory board that helped develop the program. Prior to his retirement, Dr. Turner was the Chief Human Resources Officer at L.A. Care Health Plan, the largest public health plan in the United States.

How has Human Resources changed over the course of your career?

HR’s mission has changed a lot. Our colleague, Gerry Ledford, who taught at USC, traced the history and contribution of HR based on what HR called itself:  Labor Relations, Personnel, Employee Relations, Human Resources and now “People.”  The name of the department tends to reflect the key mission of the department at that point in time. In the beginning, the Personnel department was primarily focused on administrative tasks, hiring, firing, and keeping track of vacation. As the issues became more complex, usually due to new laws coming into effect, the work became specialized and required more expertise.

What was a memorable moment in your career?

One of the most memorable things was when I was in transition and looking for job, I got an unsolicited letter of recommendation from a former manager I had fired several years earlier. In it, he wrote, “You might wonder why I would send a letter of recommendation to someone who fired me. I do it because you terminated me in a professional, compassionate, and human way that I could not be upset with you, even though it was one of the darkest and painful periods in my professional life. I did not walk away happy having been fired, but I did walk away with my dignity and a clear understanding of what I needed to do to be better.” That was very special and personally gratifying.

Throughout your career, you’ve worked across industries. How is Human Resources different across industries and how is it the same?

HR has to know the business and be an integral part of it. The principles and goals of HR do not change much across industries. How we execute and get to the desired results is dictated by the needs of the organization. One size does not fit all. 

There are several things that HR must do in every client environment.  HR must ensure everyone must walk out with their dignity intact.  We must listen, then talk. In a word, we must have unchallenged integrity. 

When we live that kind of professional life with integrity, colleagues will try to model their careers after yours. They might ask, ‘What would Dr. Bob do in a situation like this?’ and that is when you know you have made a real difference.

What is a cornerstone of an HR professional who leads with integrity?

The HR professional has to maintain their own dignity, self-respect, purpose, and professional bearing; be a true third-party neutral. I tell my staff and students, if hard decisions impacting employee’s lives become easy for them, it’s time to take a break and look for a job in a different profession.

We’re seeing an influx of Diversity and Inclusion positions across industries. What do HR professionals need to know about D&I hires?

HR is the keeper and protector of the organization’s conscience, its soul, if you will. HR, therefore, needs to be the most knowledgeable, the most sensitive, the most focused on ethnic, cultural, and racial concerns, as well as the fairest internal department to guide management on creating and maintaining an inclusive company culture. We are the conscience of the business and must be seen as an asset to both management and employees.

What excites you about teaching at Bovard College?

The opportunity to give back professionally and a sense of contribution. Socrates once said that he could not teach anyone anything; but his greatest hope and contribution was to get them to think.  I guess he was successful and set a high bar, since we are still holding him up as the standard to shoot for 1500 years later.  Bovard gives me an opportunity to directly work with and hopefully influence the next generation of HR executives.

What do you enjoy most about the perspectives your students bring?

I enjoy the energy and enthusiasm with which they address problems. They are smart, worldly, and somewhat naive all at the same time. I try to learn as much from them as they do from me. They are very adaptive and eager to get out and make the world better. When we talk about solving ‘hard social problems of business,’ I tell them that my generation tried to solve some of those problems but often failed; now it is up to them. I want to make sure they are equipped to do that.

What are some of the key factors influencing HR today?

Our society is at a critical point. Social and cultural events influence the priority and approach HR must take to be of service to our company and employees. Issues like Black Lives Matter, community policing, systemic institutional racism, culturalism, different standards and opportunities based on gender, handicap, and sexual preference have to be acknowledged and addressed openly. Paraphrasing President Kennedy, ‘we have to choose to do these things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard’ and need to be done for our collective good.

HR must have a heightened sense of right and wrong; be aware of the trying issues in our country, community, and company; we have to be a leader in problem acknowledgement and problem solving, otherwise we will be marginalized and become irrelevant.  We have to be the soul of the organization by understanding and acknowledging the needs of the organization based on internal and external events and how they impact our organizational culture.

What motivates you?

I am most motivated when I make a difference to a colleague or knowing I’m the first call the CEO makes when they are in trouble and need someone they can talk to help guide the decision.  I want to be in a position where the CEO calls an emergency meeting for the crisis de jour and will not start the meeting until I get there. That is power and influence, knowing you are trusted and respected enough to have made a difference. If that is acknowledged publicly, all the better; even if it is not, when you get that knowing look of gratitude and thanks from your boss and colleagues, you can go home and sleep comfortably with a smile on your face, it is a great, great feeling.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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