Getting Ahead

How New Grads (and Everyone!) Can Discover Their Strengths at Work, From a Top HR Executive

Dave Harmon, Chief People Officer at USA TODAY NETWORK
Dave Harmon

When you work in human resources, you’re in the people business. You’re responsible for shaping the culture of a company, while also mentoring and leading others, helping them grow, and doing your best to foster an inclusive environment.

Dave Harmon is the Chief People Officer at USA TODAY NETWORK and a true leader at the company. We asked him to share his top tips for finding out what your strengths are when you’re starting out, building your confidence, and how to continually grow your career.

Read on for more and to hear what lifelong lessons he learned from his first bosses.

Can you tell us a bit about your background?

I grew up and went to school in New York. I've worked in many industries all over the country, including manufacturing, consumer packaged goods, internet, retail, communications and media—all in the “people" business capacity.

I've also had stints in sales, operations, and general management, but I am always drawn back to where I can truly be impactful, which is working in human resources–helping to shape the culture, the people.

How did you get into the "people" business?

I began my career in HR directly out of grad school when I was recruited into a three-year employee relations training program in manufacturing. It was highly structured and gave me stints in supervision, programming, production, safety, labor, compensation, benefits, arbitration/law, employee relations, training, etc.

But the key to my early success was having a great first boss who truly cared about developing me as a professional. I also had the luxury of a few more great bosses, one who pushed me to be better and step outside my comfort zone, and then finally my first “CEO" boss who took a lot of time to mold me into an executive at an early age.

What are the top lessons you learned from your previous bosses?

Collaborate early and often, give credit to others, bring others with you, focus on the problem not the person, and be nice in disagreeing. Most of these are pretty straightforward, and they all relate to selflessness and self-awareness which are skills that take practice as we grow and develop.

Dave Harmon of USA TODAY NETWORK talking to co-workers

What is your best advice for helping others grow in their professional lives?

One of my first bosses always talked about the little plant that moved out from under the shade of a tree to bloom. I took this to mean that you need to find your strengths and confidence, and you need to build on them.

Find people who support your dreams–sometimes it just takes knowing you have someone watching your back to succeed. But, you need to continually network, stay current in your craft, and be relevant in meetings.

How would someone just starting out find their strengths and build confidence?

They need to reflect on what they have done in their short careers or lives to date (college experiences, sports teams, church activities, etc.) and start to understand certain traits about themselves, like if they're an introvert or extrovert, analytic or creative, morning person or afternoon person, objective or emotional decision maker, etc. to help them better understand what career paths will align with those traits.

Do you have a moment in your career that stands out as being pivotal? Tell us about that.

Two moments actually stand out for me: The first was in my 20s, when I quietly worked on teaching a forklift driver how to read during our lunch breaks; the second is watching 11 of my former direct reports become heads of HR in various companies across the country. These two moments were pivotal for me because they reinforced how happiness can be achieved through others. Helping the employee learn to read was the original intention, but watching his confidence grow and his pride in being able to teach his young son to read were the real winners. Watching my direct reports learn and grow and then fly on their own as HR leaders is very rewarding for me, personally. Much like raising kids, you can sit back and watch them enjoy their success.

What are you working on right now that excites or inspires you?

We are always working on being the best—going from good to great. So improving USA TODAY NETWORK's benefits offerings to be in line with digital and millennial needs, advancing our micro learning, implementing proactive modeling with employee data, and preparing to onboard a new CEO, to name just a few.

What does a normal day for a Chief People Officer look like?

A normal day for me is basically not a normal day. Of course there are always people issues, but there are also great training and development projects, healthcare advances and programs, pension and 401(k) regulatory issues, Human Resource Information System (HRIS) and programming projects, employee recognition and awards, executive coaching and counsel, mentoring and leading, and, of course, building some fun into the day. My days are always different, but the common theme is making things better with process, people, executives, benefits, and technologies.

Dave Harmon in the USA TODAY NETWORK offices standing with co-workers

Have you accomplished something at work recently that you feel especially proud of?

We've worked hard to establish a more open and accepting diverse culture here at USA TODAY NETWORK. I am the sponsor of our Pride Forward employee resource group (ERG). We built an Ally program, we have numerous ERGs, we have surveys and feedback, we have executives speaking to diversity on a regular basis, and I've received notes from employees who are proud to be openly gay and accepted in our workplace and supported by the company–that is really cool for me.

Can you tell us about Go Forward at USA TODAY NETWORK and your involvement?

Go Forward is the name for our diversity council and initiatives. We focus on ERGs, workplace culture, hiring, training and awareness, education, mentors, best practices, benefits and more. I'm proud to say we scored 100% the last two years on the Diversity index from the Human Rights Campaign. There are so many talented people with so much to offer across our system. Our ERGs range from millennials to LGBTQIA+ to military to women and much more, and act to enhance our skills and abilities.

How did you know USA TODAY NETWORK was going to be a good fit?

From my first meeting with the CEO, we were aligned on the culture, the management style, and the passion of the journalists. Every day is exciting here because you never know what will be breaking news. Our ability to cover local to national topics is pretty exciting. We are the largest local to national media network. We also reach almost 130 million unique digital visitors every month.

Tell us a bit about what you do outside of work. What are your hobbies, or what do you like to do for fun?

I have three boys and a beautiful wife that keep me busy. They are my life. Outside of my family I still love to shoot hoops, dabble in photography, and travel the world.