Excellence Over Perfection — An Educator’s Journey to HR
Written by Linda Luty
VP, Human Resources
Change can be difficult, especially when that change involves leaving your “dream job.” But that is exactly what Shane Zutz, VP of human resources at Digi-Key, did when he left his career as a coach and high school principal.
“I really wanted to have an impact at the highest level in the school district. And high school is where most of the big things happen,” says Zutz. It could have been easy for him to become complacent, but he also realizes that “at times in my career, I've needed a little bit of push to see what may be next. You have to keep your eyes and ears open throughout your career and listen to people you trust.”
Following the guidance of a trusted advisor, Zutz took the plunge and joined Digi-Key, a global distributor of electronic components, located in Thief River Falls, Minnesota. Digi-Key is unique in a few ways, one being that they employ nearly four thousand people in a town with less than nine thousand in population. They are also a global organization, poised to do nearly four billion in annual revenue.
Talent is the backbone of any organization, but this is especially true at Digi-Key, given the integral role they play in the economy of their small town. “There's more responsibility here, being in a rural area, because we will impact things more deeply,” says Zutz.
I don’t say this lightly: if we don’t do right by our company or our people, we will greatly impact the economic health of our region.”
Zutz is a newer HR leader, and his background in education lends itself to the people-centric mindset critical for furthering Digi-Key’s people-centric strategy. “Talent is a challenge for us. One of the things we have to spend a lot more time on than most global companies is better internal-talent development. Most companies of our size are located in larger metropolitan areas, but because we’re in a rural area, the talent pool is that much tighter and more competitive,” says Zutz.
Because of the smaller talent pool and strong community ties, “We’re very caring of our culture,” Zutz says.
Talent & Leadership Development
“Leadership development is a challenge for all companies, and I think it is for us, as well. The world is changing quickly; it's so dynamic. So, we have to be thoughtful about how we are developing our leaders, how we are setting clear expectations, and where we are going as a company to enable the world's ideas,” says Zutz.
Being thoughtful about talent development is by no means a revolutionary idea, and the crux of it comes down to communication and setting clear expectations. Digi-Key works to set clear expectations of their workforce to ensure an understanding of their goals and to keep the team engaged. “Engagement is a big deal, and we can’t lead heavy handed, but we do set high expectations,” says Zutz.
Employee engagement has remained high during the pandemic as well, as Digi-Key’s response was to play the long game and keep their workforce employed and provide added flexibility and support to their workforce. Digi-Key also made a commitment to play the long game throughout the pandemic by putting employees first, not laying off or furloughing the team, and adjusting rapidly to a flexible work environment for those that need it.
And those changes are here to stay. “We're going to maintain some of that inherent flexibility for employees and help them find that flexibility that they may need wherever they are in their journey of life for them; we're trying to build a work environment that will meet that,” explains Zutz.
Parallels Between Business & Education
For Zutz, leadership starts with education; a well-educated and empowered team creates a culture where people can grow, thrive, and make sound business decisions. From working with people from different backgrounds to strategically planning a curriculum or business decision, these parallels between business and education helped Zutz greatly when he joined Digi-Key.
“How does education play into HR? There are many transferable skills that people in education don’t get enough credit for with all the things they juggle on a daily basis,” says Zutz.
“If we have to wait for leaders to make every decision, we are going to be dead in the water. We need employees to feel strong and clear, understanding that they can make decisions that can impact not only the success of the customer, but also the success of the company,” he says.
Connecting Human Resources to the Business
Zutz encourages all of the HR team to develop a deep understanding of the business in order to cement the team as a connected business partner – and that initiative starts with him. “If you're going to be looked at as a connector, you have to absolutely know and understand the business,” says Zutz.
“I need to understand how we deliver for customers in one hundred and eighty countries; the complexity of trade compliance; the needs of our organizations; where the roadblocks are, and all those types of things.”
You cannot be a strategic HR business partner if you do not understand the business.”
“HR people are really good at critical thinking. I think you have to be when you work with people the way we do because people are the secret sauce to any organization. We need to ensure they feel supported and are all connected to our company’s vision,” he says.
Digi-Key’s long history and dedication to their employees was established well before Zutz joined, and his unique perspective and passion to connect to and understand the business has been successful thus far.
“I'm very respectful of what needs to happen in the HR function. The risk management, employee relations, safety, security, et cetera. And our business partners outside of HR can also be helpful to us in solving some of the things that we may struggle with. People in our business have such great perspectives on things, it’s important to break down those silos and connect across the business.”
Special thanks to Shane Zutz and Digi-Key.
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