Northeast Human Resources Association’s Tracy Burns: Elevating HR to a Strategic Role

December 11, 2013 6:59 pm

By Debby Scheinholtz

Tracy Burns, Northeast Human Resources AssociationDuring a career that has taken her through five different industries and the full spectrum of human-resources roles, Tracy Burns has seen attention to diversity evolve. “It started with recruitment and diversity training—a nice thing to do,” says Burns, who now heads the largest HR association in the Northeast. “Now it’s a business imperative, it’s fully integrated into the culture—and that’s when it works.”

While her roles have allowed Burns to gain experience in all aspects of HR, from recruitment to organizational development, her career has not been without hazards. She joined Harvard Management Company, which manages the endowment for Harvard University, six months before the 2008 market crash. The endowment quickly dropped $11 billion, leading to Burns’ having to lay off 25 percent of the workforce in one day. Around the same time, however, she inherited oversight of an informal group in Downtown Boston called Financial Services HR. With the market crash’s heavy impact on human resources, professionals in the field needed support, and the group grew from 75 to more than 200 people in six months. It was at this time that Burns started to see the HR profession differently.

Taking Time to Help Ourselves

“What struck me is that as HR professionals, we’re always helping other people—helping people in their careers, helping people transition out of the organization or transition in, or helping with an issue inside the organization. And we don’t always stop and take time to work on developing ourselves—to work on our own strengths and opportunities, make sure we have a good network, an updated résumé. Because of that experience, when the opportunity at NEHRA came up, I jumped on it.”

As the leader of the organization since 2010, Burns has focused on developing HR professionals who know how to build relationships with senior executives by understanding the business, thinking more strategically, and developing strong analytical, decision-making and negotiation skills. She sees these as critical competencies not only for HR, but for diversity work as well.

“For about seven years, our board has been really focused on diversity,” Burns says. This stemmed from NEHRA board members—senior HR professionals themselves—being asked to play more strategic diversity roles in their own companies. The organization created a diversity steering committee to look at internal work as well as external partnerships. The organization has held a Diversity Awards Gala for 19 years, which attracts more than 500 people. NEHRA awards two scholarships to high-school students from Boston’s inner city schools at the event, as well as a Diversity Champion Award for outstanding community service. This year, a day of diversity workshops was added to the evening event.

In addition to the gala, NEHRA partners with five not-for-profit organizations that represent a broad scope of diversity: 2020 Women on Board; Bottom Line, which helps disadvantaged students get into and succeed in college; Work Without Limits, an organization that places people with disabilities in the workplace; the Boston office of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; and the Greater Boston Business Council, an LGBT professional group.

It’s All About CEO Support

Burns has continued to see diversity efforts succeed when they are fully integrated into corporate culture and, most importantly, when they have the backing of the CEO. “If you’ve got leadership support, you’ve got a much better chance of succeeding. If you don’t, you either decide to stay or you decide to go—because you’re not going to get much of anywhere if you don’t have that support. We’re definitely seeing a lot more of a strategic, thoughtful focus on diversity than what I experienced early on in my career,” she says.

Burns would like to incorporate a project from one of those earlier roles into NEHRA programming. As Director of Workforce Development at UMass Med School, she was tapped to co-chair a university-wide committee on civility, after an employee survey uncovered a lack of civility as a problem.

“For me, as an HR professional, it gave me a place to talk to people, a label or a word to use to talk to people about the things that happen at work that aren’t necessarily against policy or  illegal, but they just don’t feel right,” says Burns. She used the learning from the project in on-boarding new leaders. “That was something I’m very proud of,” she says. “It helped to change the culture over time.”