Faculty Spotlight: Forget a Seat at the Table, George Ho Wants His Students to Design the Table

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George Ho, MHRM

Photo: George Ho

George Ho traveled a long and winding path to a successful career as a human resources executive, and he is grateful for every one of the stops along the way.

Ho has worked in a law firm, at several non-profit organizations, with government agencies, and at large corporations. Those wildly varied posts gave him opportunity to see what makes those very different organizations tick, and to learn how best to manage communication, culture and employees to get the best results.

Ho, who now works with the federal government, as a consultant for Deloitte, is excited to pass on that spirit of exploration to his Bovard College MSHRM students.

Ho said he wants his students, the next generation of HR managers and executives, to get out into the world: volunteer, intern or visit other organizations to see how corporations, non-profits, and businesses work.

Here is more about George Ho and how he wants the next generation to go beyond getting a seat at the table.

How did you get started in HR?

For me, it was kind of an unintended consequence of some of my experiences. My first job out of college I was working for a law firm. It was during the recession and I remember watching the environment and the culture become very toxic, very quickly. I saw and experienced a lot of really negative HR. I thought this is what human resources is; I never want to work in this.

I had always thought I wanted my career to be more mission-oriented around environmental work, which is what my bachelor’s degree focused on. I was working for one non-profit organization that was really struggling to pay the bills and eventually became insolvent. And so it created a critical moment where I asked myself “what do I want to do — I really don’t have a job to go back to, so what do I want to focus on and what am I good at?”

I went and talked to a lot of people who I had worked with throughout the years. And every person that I talked to said, “You’re the kind of person I feel like I can talk to about anything that’s going on with work, you’re the ombudsperson around the office.” That really resonated with me. After plenty of research, I later came to realize that the intermediary role between people, their job, and the organization, was at the heart of human resources.

I immediately decided to invest in my education, enrolling at Georgetown to earn my Master’s in Human Resources Management. That was the beginning of my formal HR career. It started out of crisis, which is often such a great catalyst for change.

What are the biggest challenges in the HR industry?

For the HR industry, it continues to be how we are maturing out of the transactional side of business and into one that really enables strategy.

I think there has been a lot of progress toward HR starting to serve as a strategic business partner. Ultimately what it comes down to is, can human resources move from looking at things through the lens of human resources and start looking at human resources through the lens of business strategy? And that’s something that people in the profession struggle with. As an overarching profession, we’re getting better at that, but it’s still, in practice, not happening. We have to be honest with ourselves: there is still a lot of ground to cover in terms of improving the reputation and perception of human resources within the business community.

Human resources people often talk about getting a seat at the table. It goes beyond that. It’s not just getting a seat at the table, it’s designing the table. It’s helping identify who comes to sit at the table from the get-go.

Human resources needs to find ways to be more intimately involved in every stage of the business and not just remain focused on one or two aspects of business strategy.

How can the next generation that’s in school now change that perception and put business strategy into place?

There’s a couple of things. One, they have to have diverse experiences. That’s probably the most important thing. If they want to be somebody who really advances the profession and their own career in the long term, they really have to have experiences that are not only all over the function of human resources but outside of human resources as well.

And the second one is becoming gifted communicators. I think this is something that is universal across most roles. Human resources, ultimately, it relationship-based business. You have to be effective at building relationships with leaders, with employees and the only way to be effective at that is by becoming an excellent communicator. That’s not just polishing up presenting and writing skills, it’s also listening and developing the ability to ask great questions.

How does HR differ from corporate to non-profit organizations?

With business, it’s very simple in a sense. You need people to align their actions, their behaviors, their mindset, and their values in a way that drives the business towards profitability.

When you are talking about the government or you’re talking about non-profits, things become more complex from a human resource perspective. Because many people decide to work somewhere because of the mission, the HR levers you have available to you may not always be as effective as they would be in the private sector and you may not also have as many levers to pull.

For example, in the private sector it’s relatively simple to fire people that are toxic or resistant to change. In the government that’s exceedingly difficult. In the non-profit sector, the negative aspects of firing people may be amplified because non-profit environments, in my experience, tend to be more collaborative and consensus-driven.

I’m making some broad conclusions here, but essentially with government and nonprofits the key difference here, the key challenge — which makes HR even more important and even more difficult and complex — is that you generally have fewer resources, greater funding restrictions, and a mission-driven mandate to stretch the efficiency of every dollar. To be effective, you really have to know how to maximize the leverage you get out of every HR practice and system.

What is your expertise in the HR field?

My primary field of expertise is in strategic change management, which at a high-level focuses on how organizations can ensure that people successfully embrace and adopt the necessary changes required to achieve an organization’s strategy or mission. I like to joke that if change is truly the only constant, then change management is the only business worth being in constantly.

I’m also deeply passionate about culture transformation, which centers on ensuring that the culture of the organization, in so the way people behave and the way work really gets done, aligns with the strategy of the organization. Working with organizations and companies to help them understand and manage their culture is a thoughtful, exciting, and rewarding process.

What are you excited to teach your students?

I’m really excited to walk them through some of the more strategic aspects of human resources. I think that when many students come into a program like this, they usually come in with some general expectations and knowledge of strategic HR, but still lack the context to “make it real” and apply it in their everyday lives. I like to use extreme cases from the real world and current events to show them just how quickly things can go wrong if human resources takes its foot off the gas.

I’m really excited to get them into the weeds, to talk to them about how important the human resource function and practitioners are to organizational outcomes. To talk about the critical difference they can and will make for organizations and people. I couldn’t be more thrilled to help each student realize their limitless potential.

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