Tim Garrett

Like many leaders in HR, Tim Garrett didn’t set out to spend his career in the people side of business.  To say he was in the right place at the right time might be a stretch. But he was definitely where his talents could be best used when they were needed the most.  He was in a management training rotation in the HR department when a strike hit the company.  He was immediately assigned the duties of giving management whatever support they needed to prevail in the strike.

Over 30 years later, he has successfully led his employers and suppliers through more than 15 unionization attempts. His approach is not to go head-on with union organizers. It’s to create a workplace culture based on mutual trust and respect — one that makes unions irrelevant in the eyes of the employees. At this writing, just a year after retiring from Honda of America, the oldest non-union automobile manufacturer in the United States, he is now consulting with client companies who are surprised to discover that they are now in a strengthening pro-union environment.

Be sure to listen to the Master Class audio portions of this interview. The first interview gives an overview of the pro-union environment today and what employers need to bear in mind when considering what their approach will be. The second interview is HR specific, showing how the HR department can be the company’s most valuable player in creating and sustaining a union-resistant enterprise.

To contact Tim directly, email him at: TimGarrett.dps@me.com

What is the best advice you ever received in your career?

It actually came from a union president. I was working for Goodyear early in my career. It was unionized, and the president and I developed a very close relationship. He told me to always maintain my integrity and honesty. There will be arguments. There will be disagreements. All that will happen. But what’s most important is to maintain honesty and integrity, because if you lose those, then you lose the ability to work with people.

I have seen time and time again where individuals have foregone that advice and become absolutely limited their ability to work with others, to work through issues, problems, and reach compromises.  Everything you have in life can be taken from you.  Only you can give up your honesty, integrity, your self-respect, and dignity. Only you can give up your character.

How has a reputation for being a stand-up kind of guy helped you specifically?

The most common feedback I ever got at Honda was, “You know with Tim, you always know where you stand and you can always trust what he’s going to tell you as being true.”  So when we had union campaigns at Honda, whatever I communicated, people knew that I was being honest with them. And so it carries a great deal of credibility because they knew I had their interest at heart.

You want to have the reputation that you will always stand up for what is right. They may not agree with you. They may disagree with you and that’s fine. But everybody knows that you’re standing up for what is right.

It’s got to make life a whole lot easier for you because you’re not wondering in the back of your mind if somebody else is doubting or suspecting your motivation.

That’s right. No matter what I would say, no matter what position I took, everybody knew that there was a very good reason behind it. That was never a question in anybody’s mind.

Now, having said that, Martha, if you’re willing to live up to those criteria, that also means on any given day you’re willing to put your career on the line.

So you’re of the school that to be really an effective HR person, you have to be willing to lose your job.

That’s right. And if people know that you’re willing to put your job and your career on the line for people, then you will gain their respect.

Plus loyalty.

Plus loyalty. There was a time that during a UAW campaign, I was attacked personally by the UAW, just trashed – which is not uncommon.  I didn’t take it personally, that’s a campaign strategy. But in this case, a group of associates went down to the UAW office and said, “If you ever do that again, we’re done.  You’re not going to have any of our support.”  The UAW organizer admitted in a meeting with the associates that he made a big mistake.

So those are the types of feedback I got that was more important than any other feedback I ever got.  People just knew that they could trust me and I had their best interest at heart.  That didn’t mean I didn’t make tough decisions. It didn’t mean we didn’t have to make changes. But they always knew that whatever we did, it was necessary and the right thing to do.

That idea of your associates coming to your defense sounds like the end of a Frank Capra movie.

Yeah.  It was great.  They wanted me to file a lawsuit against the UAW.  I said, “No, no, no.  It’s okay.”

And these are the associates that the UAW was trying to recruit as new members.

Right.

What was the moment when your career changed forever?

Again back at Goodyear, when the union went out on a four-month strike.  As a result of that four-month strike, that’s how I ultimately ended up in the HR world.  Had they not gone on strike, I probably would have not ended up in HR.  I would have ended up in manufacturing.

Actually, I was a trainee, going from division to division to division to learn what they did. Well, I was in HR at the time there was a violent strike. They firebombed the plant. There were terminations out of this, so part of my role within the HR group was to help the manager work through all this stuff and get things together. I was able to write arbitration cases and I actually presented an arbitration case on one of the terminations. But I was really just a support person for the HR manager during that period of time.

That strike led me to my second job as the HR manager of a UAW plant, which then led me to my third job which was at Honda. Had that strike not occurred, and I had not been in the HR department when it did, my whole career would have changed.  I probably never would have ended up being in HR.

When I came to Honda, one of the reasons they had an interest in me was that I had union experience. At that point, there was a very strong belief within Honda Motors that we would ultimately become unionized.  So had I not had that union experience, I probably wouldn’t have been hired by Honda.

So they were almost expecting that they would become unionized. And you were their last best hope to keep themselves out of that?

Well, it wasn’t so much to keep them out of it. They wanted people with experience in union environments so that if it happened, we were able to work in that environment.  As it turned out, we were able to lead the fight and never become unionized.

The unions taught me a lot in other ways too. I was like any kid out of college. It was some of the union leadership that put their arm around me and helped me.  I remember one time at the Goodyear office, walking out of the plant, and I made some stupid comment. I think it was about the union president, the one who taught me everything.  I was mad at him about something and I made some comment about “that SOB.” He heard me and he just absolutely shredded my ass.  Just shredded me. I’m feeling about as slow as a snake bellying in new-mowed grass and the next thing I know, he comes up behind me, puts his arm around me and says, “Tim, don’t ever take it personally.  It’s only business.”  And we ended up going uptown and having a beer together.

Yeah, he taught me a lot about people and what’s important to people.  I remember having conversations with the other union president there. We used to talk off the record all the time about individuals. And there were times that he would actually sit down with me and say, “Just do something with these people, will you? We’ll file a grievance but we won’t take it anywhere.”

That’s all because we had a relationship.

Yeah, exactly.  So the strength of the relationship can actually circumvent a lot of posturing and opposition.

In my world, what I found is the strength of your relationship equates to the strength of your operations and your ability and capability to getting things done. It’s all based upon the same fundamental criteria of honesty and trust. The only reason that I was able to work with them was the fact that they knew they could tell me something and trust me, that it would never come back to hurt them. I don’t care how good you are, if people don’t trust you and they don’t believe you’re a person of integrity, they will never respect you.  They may respect your capabilities but they won’t respect you as a person.

I wonder if that’s one of the reasons why HR really does suffer from a lack of respect across the board.

Sure I did.  Sure I did.  But that’s okay because even though I may have had career setbacks, I never sacrificed the respect and trust that people had.

What is the one thing that you wish you had done differently?

The one thing I wish I would have done was to build networks of organizations, associations, and people outside of my work-related networks.

Outside of the work-related context entirely?

Right.  A lot of my networking was within the world of Honda or companies, suppliers that had some relationship to Honda. And because I was so busy, that’s an excuse… I never took the time to really build networks like with SHRM or with the different manufacturing associations or different individuals out there.  I didn’t take the time and part of it was the fact that I sacrificed so much time anyway I didn’t want to take more away from the family.  I just didn’t want to go out in the evening and go have dinner and drinks with somebody just for the sole purpose of building a network. But I should have probably done more of that.

Why do you think that’s something that you should have done?

Well, it would have done a couple of things.  One, it would have probably helped me broaden my awareness, information, knowledge. If I had to connect with somebody on an issue or problem, if I needed to help somebody out, I may have had a network to help. I was fortunate that I have never been without a job. But had I been without a job, it would have been far more difficult to get another job without the network in place.

What do you think the new folks today need to know that you didn’t need to know back then?

They really need to have a strong firm grasp on the global environment outside of the United States. They need to understand politically, economically, business-wise what’s going on in the global world because it’s impacting the United States and every company more so every day.  When I started out, the global environment wasn’t that critical.

You need to know what’s going on in China. You need to know what’s going on in India and in South America because eventually it will have a direct impact no matter what your occupation is.  So global awareness is essential, I think, today.

So you almost have to be a renaissance person, in a sense.  It’s not just being a deeply vertical expert on people policies; you have to be able to hold the whole world in your brain and understand all the time how the various shifting pieces fit and then fit again and reconfigure themselves and then fit again.

Five years ago, I said Toyota was a train wreck waiting to happen and I knew the economy was going to go south, not as bad as it did. And people said, well “How did you know that?”  I pay attention.  I learn and when I traveled around the world, it wasn’t just “well I’ve a got a week that I can just party and get stupid.” I always tried to learn.

So you were a nerd!

Well, I had fun but you know…it was business.

Going back to what you were able to observe in the last 10 years and come to an entirely different set of conclusions. Part of it depended on knowing what to believe and what not to believe when other people were talking.

Right.  And the more you learn, and the more knowledge and awareness you have, the more you can differentiate between what you should believe and not believe.  If you don’t have worldly knowledge, then you don’t know if somebody’s telling you something that makes sense or not.  Take China for instance. People used to say, “Well, there’s no way the United States can compete with China.” Because of my knowledge of Southeast Asia and the China market, we’re able to explain how that’s not the case.  It’s not about competing with China, it’s about competing in China.

So you have to be smart and you have to be confident in your own internal radar.

Right.  And that can come when you develop and spend a lot of time thinking and learning.

What is the worst thing that newbies can do to themselves?

The worst thing they can do is be self-focused, which means all they care about is their career.  “It’s all about me.”  “What’s in it for me?”  “What do I have to do to get promoted?”

Are you seeing that trend being especially relevant to the new generation of incomers?

Well, there’s this whole emphasis on career pathing.  They actually want you to lay out their career for the next 5 to 10 years. You’re going to do this, then you’re going to do this, you’ll be promoted here, you’ll be promoted here, and this is what you’re going to be doing for the next 3, 5, 10 years. That’s not even realistic.  As the old saying goes, “You can plan for the future but you can’t plan the future.”

So anybody who says, “What’s my career path?”, my answer is “Whatever you decide to make it yourself.”

When they put themselves first, ahead of the organization and ahead of the people of the organization, it says that they’re willing to sacrifice the organization and the people for their own career.

So wanting somebody to plan your career and having a self-focus ahead of others is a mistake.

That puts the whole HR profession into that saintly category though, doesn’t it?  The idea that of all the functions inside a corporation, which is so “it’s just business, don’t take it personally,” for HR to take on that burden of being about the people over their own individual self-interest, that kind of gets them into this role inside the company of being untouchable or removed from the rat race or the hard-scrabble game.

Well, you know, what I’m trying to say it’s not just about HR.  It’s not about a division or a function within an organization.  It’s about an individual, who they are as a person.

So are you saying that that lesson should be applied throughout the entire organization?

Every single person.  I don’t care if you’re in HR.  I don’t care if you’re in manufacturing, in purchasing, or accounting.

But don’t you think that that burden is especially heavy on the HR shoulders?

It’s heavy on the HR shoulders in two respects.  One, and this is what I used to always preach within the HR group at Honda, you have to set the example.  So don’t ever ask somebody to do something that you’re not willing to do.  You set the example. And if you’re willing to sacrifice the organization for your career, then you accept everybody willing to do the same thing.

And you have solid ground to stand on by setting that bar of expectation because you’re willing to do it.

That’s right. I never asked somebody to do something I wouldn’t do.  And it’s because I never asked them to do as much as I did.  Because once you ask them to do something that they know you’re not willing to do or you didn’t do, then your credibility is shot.

So it’s where the newbies will make mistakes is when it’s all about them and they’re not willing to stand up and focus on the organization. Honda had never hired me for a career.  Honda never hired me for a promotion. They hired me to do a job.  And my responsibility and my obligation was to do it to the best of my ability.  And if I do it well and it’s recognized, then I’ll have opportunities.  And that’s how I’ve always believed.

What characteristics would you look for if you were hiring somebody new into the field?

Are they individuals who are willing to contribute?  Are they individuals who are willing to work hard?  Are they individuals who are willing to learn?  Are they individuals who are willing to work together in a supportive and collaborative way? Are they individuals that I can trust?

So if you’re brand new – right out of school – how do you demonstrate the answers to those questions in a convincing way when your resume is maybe 50 words long?

I remember when I first interviewed with Goodyear, and I was a newbie out of college. The person I was interviewing with said, “You know what, we know you don’t know a whole lot. What we do know is through your college, you have the capability to learn and the willingness to learn. Now we’re going to teach you everything you need to know.”  And so, I didn’t pretend to be something I wasn’t.

Is it important for first timers into the field to have a resume chockfull of extracurricular activities that show energy and community orientation, selflessness, that kind of thing?

Do you know what?  When I see resumes of individuals that look too good to be true, they’re too good to be true.

I really don’t have interest in people who got 4.0’s in college, who like to talk about the fact that they got 4.0’s. And I don’t necessarily look at somebody who’s been involved in so many different organizations and activities, because can you really be contributing if you’re simply trying to build a resume? I’ve seen different resume builders and I’ve been involved in enough outside organizations and activities to know that 90 percent of the people involved in those absolutely have zero contributions but it looks good on paper.

So you can spot a manufactured presence because you’ve seen enough of those resumes.

Yeah, and frankly if you talk to them long enough, you’ll figure out that it’s manufactured.

So don’t even try.

Don’t try it.  You probably won’t even make it into the room with me.

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  1. Pingback: SmartBlog on Workforce » 4 keys to creating a union-resistant workplace

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