GM’s global director of talent acquisition talks about why he made the move from Google, the importance of corporate culture and why LGBTs have a sense of responsibility to help the next generation.
By Shane Nelson
I first met Bill Huffaker, global director of talent acquisition, human resources management, during General Motors’ (GM’s) benchmarking debrief in June (GM is No. 48 on the DiversityInc 2016 Top 50 Companies for Diversity list). DiversityInc put together an analysis of GM’s strengths and opportunities in diversity management, which included recommendations. I spent the day with GM, sitting in on resource group meetings, as well as meeting with talent acquisition, talent development and supplier diversity. The first meeting of the day was with the resource group leaders, and Bill participated in this session.
Bill mentioned that GM was slated to hire 25,000 people over the next five years. He said his department couldn’t do it by themselves and needed help from the resource group members. Specifically, Bill wanted to leverage group members as talent ambassadors for the company. Bill proceeded to outline his plan for the initiative.
Afterwards, I met Bill in his office for a discussion on his plans to ensure that GM continues to recruit the diverse candidates it needs to be successful in the future. Most of that conversation was off the record, but I was able to hear about Bill’s passion and commitment to diversity and inclusion and thought he had a unique and interesting story.
SHANE NELSON: I thought it was very interesting when I met you over the summer, and read your bio, and the team informed me of your move from Google to GM, from California, Silicon Valley, to Detroit, Michigan. What attracted you to GM?
BILL HUFFAKER: I wasn’t looking for an opportunity, but there was something inside me that was yearning to sink my teeth into something more significant. I’ve always been a sucker for the underdog. It was a routine search and I thought General Motors did a nice job of recruiting me. We had more discussions than interviews about what they were looking for and the transition the company was undergoing.
What really appealed to me was the make-a-difference factor, in that, here, you have a 115-year-old company, and leading up to bankruptcy, a lot of work in the talent space was just not funded or unplugged. So this was an opportunity to come in and work, really roll up your sleeves and to effect change in a large company on a global scale by reintroducing talent programs. And not just putting things in place, but having an opportunity to leap-frog and modernize things. Not just do what we did at Google, but to think differently and to think about how we can use these programs to help change the culture at GM.
Now, I would be a liar if I didn’t say that I had culture shock just for a variety of reasons. It took a lot of soul searching with my spouse to really think through this. Does it make sense from a career perspective? Does it make sense financially? Will we be okay? Does it make sense socially? With any career transition, you have to think through those things. But what really did it for me was the spiritual element of how can I use myself to make the biggest difference. I took the plunge and I don’t regret it. In the first year, I was a little traumatized by some of the culture shock, but I’m very proud of having the courage to make that move and the contributions I’ve made.
NELSON: How important is it for potential employees to pick the right company? And what should people be looking at in a company?
HUFFAKER: Corporate culture is becoming, or is, a very critical element to the decision-making process for people. People want to join something and be part of a mission. We used to think, okay, good pay, good benefits, a winning company. But more and more people, I think rightfully so, are looking at culture and saying, can I contribute here in a meaningful way? Do I believe in the mission?
For example, I didn’t come to GM just because I like cars. For me, for what I do, it’s looking at the business, but it’s also looking at the culture, and it’s looking at the meaning of the work that I’m doing. And that is very important.
If you don’t do that work yourself and really understand what’s important to you in a culture and what kinds of cultures would help you thrive, then you can engage in continuous searching behaviors where you almost set yourself up for disappointment. People join companies without having done the due diligence, or they ignore signs, and then they’re disappointed. If people did more due diligence up front and asked more questions about culture, then they wouldn’t set themselves up for disappointment.
In today’s world, there’s so much data and information. You can have a LinkedIn network and can talk to people who actually work here. You can look at Glassdoor. People need to be smart consumers about the cultures that they’re signing up to be a part of, and then be realistic about how they can influence and be a positive change. You have to really do the work and understand what gets you up in the morning. Given my talents and strengths, how do I want to contribute, and what’s meaningful to me? People have got to translate the company’s vision and mission to something that’s personally meaningful.
I’m the head of recruiting at GM and that’s what gets me up in the morning. I get to give people jobs and opportunities, help them and their families. And I love that. Even for the people who aren’t a good fit for the company or for the job, hopefully we’ve made the right decision, and we’ve helped them avoid some pain and heartache in their career decisions. But we build relationships, and maybe the next role will be right for them.
NELSON: Great! You have a deep personal commitment to diversity inclusion, and I discerned that based on a few things. When I was in your office, you spoke about the organizations you are involved with around Detroit and the change you’re trying to make there. We also had a conversation about regrettable loss and how you are disappointed when talented people leave when you could have had an opportunity to perhaps change it. You’ve got this personal commitment to diversity and inclusion. It’s not smoke and mirrors. This is the real deal. So I want to understand where that commitment comes from. What was your “aha” moment, if you had one in the past?
HUFFAKER: Like many LGBT people, I grew up in a blue-collar family in a town of 2,500 people. I have a wide circle and a very eclectic group of friends. I think that I have a unique ability to see through labels, and really see people, and understand how to value their strengths. I have a lot of curiosity about people and I care very deeply. I want nothing more than to help people and organizations achieve their full potential in the ways that that makes sense or according to their own path.
I put myself through school: I have a PhD, two master’s degrees, and a bachelor’s degree. I worked in a factory during undergrad to put myself through school and I had a really bad experience. I was physically assaulted, continuously ridiculed, made fun of. And I had to go to work every day. At the time, it was a good wage to help me pay for school in addition to student loans. I was terrified going to work every day. It was a very isolating time because I couldn’t share — nobody knew I was gay, although I’m sure … I was being teased because they sensed that I was or that I was different.
The last summer I was there, I befriended someone who’s a straight guy, and he became an ally. I never came out to him, but I’m sure he suspected. He really helped me — he intervened and stopped the bullying and assault. I was very grateful to him. As a leader, I feel a sense of responsibility to help the people behind me, to help them learn and grow, and to leave the world a better place than you found it.
I teach a leadership course in Detroit for LGBT people. It’s an intensive six-month experience, and we go through a lot of deep reflection about who am I, where do I want to go, who can help me, how do I pay it forward and how do I stay mindful.
I feel that LGBT people have a sense of responsibility to help the next generation, but also there may be shame and baggage that, how do we help them move from shame to pride. And pride is a term we throw around very loosely in the gay community, and we don’t really stop and think, what does that mean? So, how do you move from shame to pride, and not in a self-aggrandizement way, but in a way that claims your strengths. You can be humble and proud at the same time. How do you help people on that journey?
I also think there’s been a lot of work on the coming-out process, but, as we learn and grow as a society, I don’t think we really know what’s different between being a leader and being LGBT. I think it makes you a more empathetic person. I think most LGBT people have had to deal with their own pain, and they had to work through that. They want to set a good example and they understand marginalized people and want to be a voice for them.