Iona HardingYou can hear Iona Harding’s laugh from across a crowded café, she has such energy. I first met her several years ago when she was my teacher for certificate classes in management. The content could have been dry, but Harding has a rare talent in communication and she kept us all interested, even riveted.

Some years later I met with Harding to learn more about her 25 years as an HR professional, and in particular her time as an HR executive at Lucent Technologies. The conversation confirmed her remarkable talent.

Lucent Technologies spun off from AT&T in April of 1996 alongside Global Information Systems as part of a “trivestiture” that eliminated a conflict of interest between Lucent’s customers (customers of telecommunications equipment) and AT&T. AT&T gave Lucent a 75% share in its Bell Laboratories, one of the most prominent corporate R&D institutions in American history, and Lucent boasted over $20 billion in annual sales the first year of its release. At that point Lucent’s was the largest initial public offering of all time. It had promise.

Iona Harding was Lucent’s Mobility Unit’s HR executive when Lucent separated from AT&T.

At the time [Lucent] was about 160,000 people strong and the mobility unit was made up of only about 3,000, because it was considered a green field. People didn’t use cell phones much back then. It was very exciting. We were being funded as a potential growth area, so had little more autonomy than the core business. Ten years later, it would be the primary growth engine for the business, bringing in more than 50 percent of the revenue from wireless business.

Lucent was already a large company; 127 years in the making at AT&T, it maintained seven different product groups. Then, early in Lucent’s independence, the company made a number of acquisitions.

These added to its market position and lent it clout. But Lucent was, at the same time, trying to stabilize the management of the overall business, and the rapid growth presented huge challenges to its internal business and human resource processes.

Harding faced a formidable task from the start.

We were hiring thousands of people, but that was the easy part. What was difficult to deal with was rapidly integrating people into the business and creating a new culture. And “long-timers” on the R&D and manufacturing side did not necessarily like some of the decisions about how to organize the company. They wanted to maintain the autonomy they used to have back at AT&T, and they were all brought together under this “Lucent” umbrella. They were resisting and we were trying to drive a commonality from an HR standpoint, and among programs and processes. From my perspective it was painful.

The acquisitions created further complications.

We had just made an acquisition in Germany and the Netherlands with R&D facilities in Swindon in the UK. We reorganized the business, and the organization I supported went from 3,000 to 33,000 people. So I woke up one morning and I had HR Responsibility for 33,000 people everywhere on the planet. It was a terrifying time for me—I really was not prepared. I learned by fire, and that’s not a good way to do it. When I first came there, it was a promotion, and now within 6 months it had just exploded. So, I lived on a plane. I was always traveling. I had 200 people reporting to me all over the world. I was always on a conference call, and I was never sleeping because you talk to people in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia at night. It was pretty scary, and to this day I don’t know how I got through it. I had fantastic people on my team.

That’s why I lived on a plane because I was sitting down face to face to sometimes do battle with senior executives who were all men and who had all been with the company for many, many years. They didn’t like being pulled together, losing autonomy, and (they didn’t like) “corporate”. But what’s interesting is that some of those executives today, I count them as friends. I developed very lasting relationships with leaders from every region and every part of the business.

In the late 90’s Lucent was the most widely-held global company, with 5.3 million shareholders. It maintained its market position until the early 2000’s. But it insisted on focusing on its incumbent R&D advantage, Bell Laboratories, to protect its product offerings instead of moving them forward.

The organizational inefficiencies inherent in Lucent’s design were exacerbated by its leadership’s preference for buying expertise through acquisitions. The company was, in a word, unwieldy. After the telecom bubble burst in 2002 (a burst some 10 times larger than the dot com burst) Lucent started hemorrhaging revenue, and employees.

By the time the telecom industry had recovered, Lucent had stabilized but it had lost its commanding position, and by 2006 it was acquired by Alcatel to become Alcatel-Lucent.

Harding’s role at the helm of Lucent’s HR was a uniquely challenging one. The company went from 195,000 employees at its peak to 30,500 shortly before the merger. Iona’s specialty is organizational effectiveness; she worked to help bring the company together early on, and then streamlined its workforce to make it more effective during the downturn.

Lucent was acutely influenced by the intersection of globalization, diversity, and mobile communications: perhaps the three of the largest trends in business recently. And Iona was at the epicenter of where Lucent felt the tension from these trends. She helped leaders reconcile cultural differences for dozens of business units/disparate processes, led human resources for a massive and diverse workforce at an exciting but turbulent time in technology, all toward the goal of establishing cellular infrastructure – the proliferation of which has changed the way we communicate.

These days Iona Harding is Principal of Harding Resources, LLC where she works as a leadership and organization consultant, she sits on the board for the Human Resources Certification Institute, and teaches in the MBA programs at St. Peter’s University in Jersey City, NJ and at Sasin Institute for Business in Bangkok, Thailand.

Harding’s advice to me when I spoke with her was this:

There is always this balance between how collaborative to be—you need to be collaborative but not a pushover. You have to have courage. My nature tends to be more collaborative: I begin from a position like “we are in this together”. I think that is why consulting is a natural place for me to be, because good consulting is collaborative. But it wasn’t always easy. The only way to deal with it sometimes is to lay down the law. But when I did I would oftentimes be sitting in New Jersey and the HR professionals on my team would bear the brunt of it (laughs). There is no playbook on this, you just figure it out as you go.

Lazonick, William and March, Edward.”The Rise and Demise of Lucent Technologies.” MPRA Munich Personal RePEc Archive Paper NO. 22012  (2010): n. pag. Web. 22 Nov 2012. <http://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/22012/1/L>.

photo credit: smswigart via photopin cc

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