Illustration of a chess board
Illustration by Francesco Bongiorni

Getting Personnel

Three alumni relate how they rose to challenges they encountered in building a better workforce.

Nimesh Patel, ’03, Director, diversity and inclusion, WilmerHale, Washington, DC

Photo of Nimesh Patel Nimesh Patel, ’03

The Challenge: How do you go about creating the first diversity and inclusion strategic plan for the Department of Homeland Security, the third-largest and newest US federal government department? With 240,000 employees, not only is the DHS large, it includes long-established agencies such as the Coast Guard and newer agencies such as the Transportation Security Administration, all with their own policies, priorities, and cultures. When Nimesh Patel joined the DHS in 2011 as executive director for diversity and inclusion, the department had no cohesive strategy or oversight of diversity and inclusion, which sometimes resulted in significant challenges for senior leaders when briefing members of Congress about diversity efforts. “We couldn’t even clearly identify our successes, challenges, or the strategies to address the challenges,” said Patel, who recently left DHS to lead diversity and inclusion at WilmerHale, a large international law firm.

We couldn’t even clearly identify what our successes were or what our challenges were.

Nimesh Patel

The Strategy: Patel relied on his experience consulting with Fortune 200 companies regarding their diversity and inclusion efforts, as well as his relationship building, consensus forming, and negotiating skills, to create the department’s strategic plan. He established a task force including representatives from all of the major agencies to create a collaborative process, enable different perspectives, and gain buy-in from all key stakeholders. The task force decided on three goals: to increase diversity across the workforce, to focus on creating inclusive workplaces in part by developing and offering employees professional growth opportunities, and to commit to leadership and management accountability for diversity and inclusion. Patel identified common challenges across the department, and also worked with each agency to develop an individualized plan that aligned with the department’s goals but allowed for flexibility in addressing unique issues within the respective organization. The overall plan was drafted and signed by the secretary of Homeland Security in about eight months. Its success drew notice from the Office of Personnel Management, the human capital arm for the US government. As a result, DHS partnered with OPM and a few other agencies to advance diversity and inclusion across the federal government’s two million civilian employees.

The Takeaway: Technical skills provide credibility in knowing the mechanics of the job, but leadership and interpersonal skills enable relationship building and motivate others to drive results.

Paola Caburlotto, ’11 (EXP-16), Partner, Transearch International, Milan, Italy

Photo of Paola Carburlotto Paola Caburlotto, ’11 (EXP-16)

The Challenge: Switching careers and starting a new business is always a challenge. That’s where Paola Caburlotto found herself in January 2005 after she joined senior executive recruitment firm Transearch International’s Milan office, following a career working for a private wealth management firm. She found herself struggling initially until her boss and mentor suggested she use her finance and strategy background to find her niche. Caburlotto discovered that some of the European divisions of the large consulting firms such as Ernst & Young or PricewaterhouseCoopers no longer had advisory services, but were looking to restart them. Moreover, the request for consulting services was booming. However, Transearch did not have expertise in placing executives in business and professional services. She would have to start from scratch.

These companies are innovators . . . so I had to be a step ahead of them.

Paola Caburlotto

The Strategy: Caburlotto presented the business case to build a professional-services search practice. She immersed herself in these companies’ businesses and cultures, and conducted heavy research trying to find trends before they became well known. “These companies are innovators and are supposed to be one step ahead, so I had to be a step ahead of them,” she said, also crediting her mentor for guiding her progress. “We had to anticipate enough of their needs, but not too much, so there is a little serendipity when that happens. We had to become consultants to consulting firms.” She also created a team of people who mirrored clients’ teams in terms of education, experience, and expertise. The work paid off: By July 2005 she placed the first of two partners at these firms, and within 12 months she was the company’s top biller. In 2007, Caburlotto was made partner at the firm, based in part on her ability to start up a new division.

The Takeaway: Success in a start-up position relies on several factors. Research and analysis are important in identifying key targets and people, but having support during the process, being flexible, making quick decisions based on intuition, and having stamina also play a big part. But the most important takeaway is understanding in advance, if you’re starting a new business, whether you have all the skills to make a start-up successful. “Because,” Caburlotto said, “a good idea is not enough.”

Joshua Teo, ’10 (AXP-9), Regional director of strategic resourcing, human resources, Prudential Corporation Asia, Hong Kong

Photo of Joshua Tao Joshua Teo, ’10 (AXP-9)

The Challenge: Prudential Corporation Asia* is a leading life insurance company with operations in 13 Asian markets. The company takes a conventional approach in hiring senior executives. It requires that employees have in-depth experience in life insurance, and leans toward hiring actuaries and professionals with insurance distribution experience. The talent pool for leadership is hence limited. Yet the industry is evolving; more business and service is done digitally, driven by the changing demands of its new customer base (i.e., millennials) and potential disruption from new players. What has made the organization successful today will not keep the organization successful going forward. “We needed fresh, diverse thinking, and the courage to challenge the status quo to stay in step with the times and remain on top,” Teo said. When a company is the leader in its field, how does it keep innovating and avoid complacency? How do you leverage diversity as a competitive advantage?

We had the same blind spot. That needed to change if we were to think differently.

Joshua Teo

The Strategy: In 2015, Joshua Teo joined the human resources team, to lead a change in its top leadership hiring, after consulting for the firm for several years. He had seen how sticking with the status quo caused a previous firm he worked at to lose its flexibility in adapting to changing  circumstances. This first-hand knowledge gave him experience when suggesting steps the company could take to remain innovative in attracting top talent. He also explained to senior management the disruption affecting traditional banking operations, and how it would eventually create similar ripple effects to impact the insurance industry. “With so many of our top leaders with similar backgrounds and experience, we had the same blind spot,” he said. “That needed to change if we were to think differently, and take the first steps toward a new direction.” The strategic resourcing team encouraged hiring managers to interview people with more diverse skills and backgrounds, such as those with experience in retail banking services, wealth management, and e-commerce. It also made a deliberate effort to widen the talent pool to target professionals from different national backgrounds to better reflect the diverse customers in Asia. While it’s too early to see definitive results, the team’s approach to hiring tactics has been well received by the top leadership. 

The Takeaway: Adding employees with diverse skills and knowledge bases helps to avoid groupthink and complacency.

*Disclaimer:  Prudential Corporation Asia is a business unit of Prudential plc of the United Kingdom. Neither Prudential Corporation Asia nor Prudential plc are affiliated in any manner with Prudential Financial Inc., a company whose principal place of business is in the United States of America.

—By Debbie Carlson