Leading Transformation Through the Lens of the People

Leadership Profile
Written by Catie Briggs

Sakita Douglas

Chief Talent Officer

Harris County, Texas


Sakita Douglas’s contagious smile showed bright as she reflected on the past seven months on the job at Harris County, Texas, and what she has been able to accomplish so far. From creating a metric tracing strategy to gaining support from the leaders across departments to hiring an entire team to help her do it all, she’s on a roll. But getting this now Chief Talent Officer to take the job in Houston, frankly, wasn’t easy despite growing up in Harris County herself. 

For decades, Douglas’s career focused in the private sector and going public wasn’t of much interest. Her history includes leading very large, multi-year organizational transformations. After months of conversations, she decided to throw her hat in the ring saying, “Let's do it!” In that moment, Douglas knew she would be making some pretty big changes not just professionally, but for Harris County.

I say all the time, I'm not a regular HR leader.”


Douglas explained, “What I am saying is that if you look at my career, even my very first Corporate HR position, I've always been in organizations of some type of transformative change from an HR perspective. And so, my lens is different. I'm truly an HR leader with an operational lens. Tying the delivery of the very important services Harris County provides to its residents, and to a broader people strategy focused on the execution of those services.”

From Private to Public

Douglas explained that in the private sector, the byproduct of a great employee experience is a great customer experience, which creates revenue. So, how does that translate to the public sector when the “customers” are taxpayers who can’t just “take their business elsewhere”? Douglas had a plan, “I think like a project manager when there's a problem or an issue or gap in my head, as I pull it apart -- it's really from a project management skill set.” 

First, she wanted to know that changes coming to Harris County could be measured. While that might seem straight forward, it’s anything but simple as she had to get processes and systems in place to track the metrics. As Douglas said, “That hasn't necessarily been the culture. Where in the private sector, we speak from a lens of here's where we are, here’s where we need to be, here's what we need to do to get there. So, how do we measure that success in Harris County?” 

Douglas is excited to shake things up, but with nearly 19,000 employees across 90 departments, she wants to do it respectfully and in a way that will take hold for years to come. “It takes a little bit of time,” Douglas said thoughtfully, “a little bit of patience, but it also takes leading with relationships.... In my opinion, kicking in the door never works. And so, you really have to begin with learning the organization, learning the business, and literally going department by department, leader by leader, to figure out what's working and where are our opportunities.” 

A Fire in Her Belly

With a people-first strategy in mind, Douglas is on a mission, “Building a very thoughtful road map and strategic plan to help meet those organizations and those leaders where they are and bring them forward.… This is the fire in my belly.” With her positive energy, you can’t help but root for her and Harris County. But, in reality, how can one person accomplish this massive change in a massive organization? She said she keeps everything straight thanks to her experience and talented team that she built.  

A Strategic Team to Build a Strategic Plan

Douglas went right to work and hired a group of talented individuals, increasing the staffing in her department with full-time employees. Outside consultants also help with creating road maps and dashboard analytics. “I certainly cannot do it all by myself,” she said, “but I’m hiring really talented people and creating what I am calling a ‘short-term structure’. Because where we are today is certainly not where we anticipate being in a year or certainly in 2 years.”  

The team’s focus on talent acquisition and management along with executive coaching has led to trust from the stakeholders and leaders in a short time. “I've been here 7 months,” she shared, “most of them [on the team] have been here less than 6 months. And so, when I tell you that they have come in and hit the ground running, it is no exaggeration.” She is happy that the heads of departments are calling her up to give support, including the head of Public Health. She remarked, “It is the greatest compliment from your peers to have that confidence.”

The Next Steps in Strategy

The team is working on several initiatives and ideas. In February 2022, the team will unveil the first ever strategic plan and roadmap for Harris County, which was founded in 1837. The plan takes into account that the county has both elected officials and other employees under their umbrella and each group has different needs. Douglas hopes to centralize functions with her bigger team using her experiences in the private sector, but also having HR partners dispersed in other 90 departments. As she puts it, that’s “dividing and conquering.”  

Harris County is working on a compensation study, which has never been done in the 185-year history of Harris County. In the spirit of transparency, which she has long believed in even at private companies, Douglas explained, “The nature of public service is understanding the direct correlation between a county-wide compensation study to help mitigate retention and compete. How that shows up in these very important critical services that truly impact the 4.5 million residents of Harris County and their quality of life. And so, it is one of those things where I believe in leading with transparency, proactive communication and accountability.”  

Recruitment during the Great Resignation

Another huge part of the new plan includes recruitment. Having established an in-house executive recruitment team, Douglas is helping county leaders take a closer look at how candidate experience impacts retention and onboarding. She is also pushing for opening the search for executives to a national level. She explained, “I think we are in a moment in history to really bring Harris County to the forefront from a people perspective and really to set the standard. That is my goal, to be the standard bearer of HR innovation and culture for public sector organizations. That's where we're going.”

Innovation in Human Resources

Douglas believes this is pivotal time for HR and reflected, “The challenges in the talent market, the Great Resignation, the global pandemic – all continue to accelerate the transformation of the workplace in general. It is a great canvas for us to create something incredibly innovative and inviting and attractive for this organization… Building relationships, taking away the transactional aspect of human resources and really digging in from a true operational partner perspective… and we're getting that attention.”  

With support from the department heads, the members of court and the County Administrator, Douglas feels validated and she reminds her supporters in Harris County, “Thank you, but we're just getting started. We're just getting started.”

Special thanks to Sakita Douglas and Harris County, Texas.

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