Samantha Holy Talks Building HR from Scratch, What Companies Need from HR Teams and the Upside of Working in Professional Services

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Samantha Holy is currently the HR Regional Leader at Gensler, a global design firm, and has over 15 years of experience in Human Resources. Prior to joining Gensler in 2013, Samantha spent three years as an HR Project Manager at Leucadia National Corporation. From 2002 to 2009, Samantha worked at Protiviti, first in Houston as a Staffing Coordinator and HR Generalist, then in London helping to develop HR in the EMEA offices, and finally, in New York where Samantha worked in financial operations as well as the integration of a new acquisition. Connect with Samantha on LinkedIn. 

What do you do at Gensler as the HR Regional Leader?

I am the HR Regional Director of Gensler’s South Central region. I’ve helped develop their HR business partner function and grow the HR regional team. Gensler started in the 60’s and has grown organically over decades. We’re now the largest, diverse, and innovative design firm in the world.

Holy_Samantha_5Gensler grew so rapidly that the HR function had not necessarily been the highest priority, but now HR is evolving to become a very strategic part of the business in driving talent strategy. Since I joined, I have been building out a more strategic HR function that partners with the business, developing strong relationships with our people. We are in the trenches with our people asking, “what are you struggling with and how can we help you?”

It’s been fun working with an organization to transform their thinking of what HR does. We often hear “we didn’t know HR could do that!” I feel really grateful to be part of a company that values people and what HR can bring to the organization.

You joined Protiviti in the early days in 2002. What was that experience like?

Protiviti was my first job out of college. I was really fortunate because Protiviti was hiring a staffing coordinator at the time and they had just started. I think they had just come up with the name Protiviti when I joined.

In 2002, it was a really difficult time in Houston because that was right when the Enron collapse had happened. Andersen had recently closed, so it was a lot of change and a difficult time for our economy and the city. So I was happy when I got the job!

It was exciting to be part of a company that was doing something new. It had a startup feel, but with the support of Robert Half behind it. In those early days, it was a lot of asking “what new things do we need for the company?” A lot of it had to be developed from scratch – new hire orientation, new employee files, new policies.

It was really creative and really fun. And I loved the people. Oh my goodness. I still have relationships with people from those days. It was really exciting to build a new company together.

Aside from building new processes, what did you work on in Houston?

I was in Houston for four years doing staffing and resource management – making sure we were getting the right people on the right projects, working with leadership on staffing new projects. I call it a kind of trading floor and had to learn how to juggle all the pieces. I became an HR generalist over time. Then I played more of a national role in resource management trying to bridge together a national network.

Why did you transfer to the London office?

My husband had an opportunity to go to London for business school, so I went and talk to my managers and they said, well, we have a brand new office in London. Let’s call over and see what’s happening with their HR support. The timing was opportune.

Our London office had grown to 80 people and they didn’t have a dedicated HR person yet. The local leadership knew that I would be able to help bridge the gap between the U.S. and European offices. So it was a win-win.

It was another opportunity to create from scratch because they didn’t have any mature processes. I had to really quickly learn UK employment law, so the Robert Half UK team was really supportive. They taught me what I needed to know as quickly as I could. I was primarily focused on the UK, but also supported the emerging offices in Paris and Germany.

Then you transferred back to the U.S., this time to the New York office. What did you work on there?

We were only in London for about a year and it was so fast. We thought we’d stay longer, but then my husband got a job offer in New York. Yet again, I thought I would need to resign. Thankfully, again, timing was opportune. Protiviti had just made an acquisition of a small company in Waterloo and the HR lead in Toronto had gone on maternity leave, so they were struggling with integrating that team. It was another great learning experience to help manage that integration.

What’d you do next?

I left Protiviti in 2009 to take an HR position at a financial services firm. It was a good three years of project-based work, mostly focused on benefits. The type of business was very different from Protiviti in terms of business model because they had fewer employees, so it wasn’t as high-paced or high energy. It was more analytical and thoughtful. I had a really strong HR mentor there who taught me a lot.

Then we moved to Germany for a little bit. My husband got an expat assignment in Frankfurt and I stayed working for my company remotely.

How did you end up back in Houston?

I was consulting, but took some time off after I had my daughter and hung out for 6 months enjoying a maternity leave of sorts. We had moved back to New York at that point, but my husband and I were both like, “Gosh, we miss Texas!”

When I found this role with Gensler, it felt like coming home again. The company is very similar in terms of culture to Protiviti. It’s very entrepreneurial in spirit and similar in terms of structure and partnering with the business. I had missed that. Like Protiviti, there’s also this strong sense of service in terms of helping clients be successful.

Then I realized Gensler is in the same elevator bank in the same building as Protiviti. It had been 10 years and felt like I was coming home again. I’ve been at Gensler five years now and I love it.

How does your background help you in your current role at Gensler?

Looking back, my experience at Protiviti completely set me up to do my role at Gensler well. Gensler needed to think through their HR function needed to be and build it out. I was able to help by leveraging so many things I learned from Protiviti.

The thing that was special about Protiviti was that the mobility I had in the firm helped me grow. Also, Protiviti had very high expectations and very high volume. The pace and client-first perspective are such a big part of professional services firms and that really helped propel me in my career.

How have you seen HR change or evolve over the course of your career?

The HR function has moved into a more of a strategic partner position. Much of that is because we’re in an era where there’s a talent shortage. A lot of companies are asking, how do we optimize, grow and retain our people? In order to compete in this economy, companies need their HR functions to be more sophisticated.

Each individual company needs to decide what their HR needs are and staff from that standpoint. I think professional services firms are more apt to have strategic partners because their intellectual capital is how they make a profit. It’s the people they have on staff that their clients value, so they’re more attuned to developing strong HR teams.

Is that inclusive of culture building?

Absolutely! The intangibles of what makes a company culture and what makes employees want to stay at that company is central to HR.

What’s something great about Gensler?

Gensler is truly a family. It’s a very team-oriented culture. We talk a lot about the “we” versus “I” and how important it is to work together as a team and celebrate together as a team. I think we’re very different from a lot of design firms in that way.

We’re the largest design firm in the world, but that was never our aim. It was to be the best. We’re decentralized for that reason. We want to be local, nimble and client-first. It’s easy to be in HR at a company with a strong value system that really cares about its people. Makes my job cake!

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