Faculty Spotlight: Old School to High Tech- How Robert Ostrov Delivers the Best of Both Worlds to Human Resources

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Robert Ostrov, J.D., MPA

Photo: Robert Ostrov, J.D., MPA

Robert Ostrov has spent most of his career in the C-suite. From companies like True Value to FedEx, he knows what it takes to manage the HR function at large corporate institutions.

After more than 30 years as a senior human resources professional, including the role of Chief HR Officer for several Fortune 500 companies, he learned that success comes from a combination of creative problem solving and the ability to make smart judgement calls and a clear vision for the organization and the people who work for it.

His reach in the field of corporate HR extended all the way to Washington where he has provided consultations, expertise and testimony on human resources, labor relations, executive compensation and health care to congressional committees, the Department of Treasury, the Internal Revenue Service and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Now retired from the C-suite and living in Chicago, Illinois, Ostrov is enjoying a teaching career where he encourages his students to use advances in HR technology, but not to forget that that computers and apps cannot replace a well-educated and well trained creative HR executive.

Ostrov, an adjunct professor at USC Bovard College, will be teaching HRM500: Human Resource Strategy.

“I think I’ve come to understand the importance of blending old school HR skills and new technology,” he said. “What I’m trying to do is show the next generation of leaders who may have begun their careers focusing on the technology side of HR that there’s another side to it as well.”

Continue reading to learn more about Ostrov and how the industry has changed the C-suite since he landed his first HR management position.

How did you get started in HR?

I am a labor lawyer by training. I went from being a labor attorney and working in the field of labor relations into a general HR role, and eventually becoming the Chief HR Officer of some major companies.

What’s it like being in the C-suite?

I’d like to think I came to understand the expectations of the role. You have to be well trained, well prepared, creative and work really hard.

It requires an enormous amount of physical and intellectual capacity to constantly manage a process that is in my opinion and experience is getting much more complicated and technology driven.

How has HR changed?

In my view it’s changed, in some respects, not necessarily for the better, and in other respects I think technology has made it different. When I began in the practice of HR it was a very personal experience. It was a lot of one on one. You got to know your employees. It was a process where HR was a value added proposition because of its understanding of its employees, what they were looking for, what they needed. And in the whole spectrum of recruiting, training and development, benefits, compensation, succession planning — you really had to know the organization and the employees you worked with really well to be successful.

Over time, HR has evolved both with and apart from technology and, in part, just in terms of how our society has changed. For example, when I started I became a specialist in compensation and benefits. Medical Benefits and Pensions were a substantial part of the HR practitioners’ toolkit. Today, benefits are much more technology based and driven by various state and federal laws. HR professionals today are not as focused on the delivery and design of benefit and retirement plans because that’s now done in a different venue that is mostly outsourced using technology.

HR needs to participate to a great extent in recruiting, training, development and succession planning. While much of this has become technology driven, I try to argue when I teach that all the technology in the world can’t really help you pick and select the best people based on technology. I still believe there’s a human element that requires HR to make judgement calls and assessments not based on technology. But technology is driving the field. I acknowledge it, but feel strongly that it needs to be well managed.

What is your expertise within the human resources industry?

I’m very focused on the concepts of recruiting, training and development, succession planning and incentive compensation.

What can companies do to get the best people?

I’m frequently asking my peers and colleagues to think creatively about HR roles in organizations and in our society as a whole.

I have extensive experience and expertise in understanding the type of individual who is needed to fill a C-suite role. Filling senior jobs is critical to any organization — not just for-profit companies but large institutions of any kind. [They] need to understand what they are trying to achieve and, therefore, what type of person do they need in those roles to help the organization succeed.

My first thought is not to ask what kind of person they are looking for, but where does the organization want to go? What does it want to do? Does you want to double its size? Does it want to improve the overall quality of its goods and services? Does it want to gain greater market share?

Organizations need to understand where they want to go and what they want to accomplish and then HR’s role is to match up the right talent to meet that strategy and that goal. As an example if a company wants to triple its size in three years, it may need to look at hiring very aggressive focused leaders. If on the other hand if it wants to focus on improving the quality of its products or services it may need to look at a very detail oriented leaders.

What are the biggest challenges facing companies today, HR-wise?

I think there is overreliance on technology. Human resources was, from its beginning, focused on hiring people, the development of people, the promotion of people, and the training of people. I’m afraid that HR, in many places, has moved away from that and is now simply plugging in to LinkedIn and, Facebook and not applying as much intellectual curiosity and creativity to the process.

College graduates or applicants will apply for a position at a company online. The company uses an algorithm that decides which candidates get the job or get interviewed. These algorithms in my view and experience, unless closely managed by HR, are designed to “rule out” candidates rather than focus on the finding the best ones.

If you are in HR and you subscribe to this notion, well everything can be technology driven that’s great. But you post the job and guess what? The technology screens out most of the applicants. The fact is that technology usually does not look beyond the technical assessment and therefore can frequently overlook many very qualified people.

So the IT experts that set the criteria for how the technology works in HR today are themselves, I think, in some ways not equipped able to provide a rational process for the hiring of employees.

I’m focused on teaching my students to use technology, but to think about it. My experience is that in the world today I have to get my students to think beyond their iPads and their iPhones (that I myself use) and to think about people that they meet and people that would add value to a company or any organization.

I think the best corporations today put a great deal of time, thought and effort into succession planning. They do not necessarily rely solely on technology. You really have to apply some value propositions as to what the company stands for, and the kind of people you want in your leadership roles. That requires HR to participate at a creative and intellectual level, not just technologically.

What classes are you excited to teach and why?

I was quite flattered and excited to be offered the opportunity to teach at an institution like USC, obviously nationally ranked, obviously a sterling reputation. It comes with tremendous respect on my part.

I’ve been a practitioner of human resources for many years. I’ve been fortunate in that sense to have been judged by my peers and colleagues to be at the top of my field so I look forward to sharing my knowledge. But I also look forward to teaching the strategic implications of human resources, and once again, trying to get the next generation to understand that human resources is more than technology. And that’s a hard sell, by the way.

It requires me to think about how I educate the next generation of HR leaders to use technology but also to move beyond it, to expand it, and to enrich it. What I try to teach is both sides of the equation and show there is a value add proposition in blending traditional HR practices with new HR technology.

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