H&R Block’s director of talent acquisition believes strategic HR is critical for business success

This story is part of Talent Pioneers, a series of profiles on leaders transforming the future of HR. 

Some people might pick up a book if they want to learn about another culture. Or watch a PBS special. Or maybe just search Wikipedia.

Instead, Shari Soper traveled to Bali to better understand Hindu culture — alone.

Pushing boundaries, feeling uncomfortable, investing time … these are the attributes that define not just explorers but professional leaders who try to make a difference. For Soper, the director of talent acquisition at H&R Block, she firmly believes in making a difference.

In many ways, she views her role as a cultural steward. Soper’s extensive background in talent acquisition has taught her that relationships are just as important as results. Says Soper, “Take the time to invest in getting to know the people you work with, especially those you wouldn’t normally envision being friends with outside of work. Diversity in every form is essential for team and business success.”

Soper recognizes that to be an effective talent acquisition leader, she has to understand the entire corporate strategy, its direction, and most of all, its people. If she succeeds, everyone succeeds. Leaving her time to plan her next bold adventure. 

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Why are you so passionate about talent acquisition?

Talent acquisition is a truly unique function. We work as much externally as internally, and our decisions around which candidates progress can have a huge impact on the organization. We’re able to deeply learn about all functions of the business, and then take what we know about the functional and organizational needs (both present and future) to identify the people that can deliver results – in a way that is aligned with our organizational culture. We can also positively affect a company’s diversity. We can facilitate a career move for someone that transforms the quality of life for them and their family. It’s incredibly exciting stuff!

How does this translate into your passions outside of work?

I’m passionate about personal growth and experiencing new things. I try to push myself outside of my comfort zone from time to time. In the last year, this meant taking a solo trip to Bali where I learned a lot about Hindu culture, and jumping out of a plane to take my daughter skydiving on her 18th birthday!

How have past failures helped you evolve into the talent acquisition leader you are today?

Early in my corporate talent acquisition career, I was asked to be a part of a project team that would roll out candidate assessments on a global scale. I was excited, and the team and I quickly went to work on an RFP for vendors and creation of operational plans. The director leading the initiative left the organization about 3/4 of the way through the project, and after that, it became very apparent that we did not have the senior leadership team buy-in, and the entire project (6+ months’ worth of work) came to a crashing halt. As we dug deeper, we realized that very few people across the globe actually had any interest at all in implementing candidate assessments, and it was viewed as simply a complication to the hiring process versus a value add.

This was an enormous learning experience that resulted in the following takeaways for me:

  1. Never ever begin working on an initiative if there is not a clear business case for it. No one cares about a cool project if it isn’t solving for a current problem or business need. If the business case is clear, communicate it broadly with an eye on the WIIFM factor (What’s in it for me?).
  2. Ensure buy-in from stakeholders early and often. There should be multiple people in the organization excited about the work and able to speak to the value of it if needed.
  3. Speak up and challenge projects appropriately if you have doubts about the value it will bring.

What kind of changes have you seen in HR and talent acquisition over the last few years?

The talent acquisition function has been evolving quite rapidly. It used to be a networking game to find your next position. The advent of the internet changed everything. Now employers and employees have access to basically every job in the world.

What that means is you have a huge volume of applicants. This includes a volume of applicants that isn’t always 100% serious about the jobs that they’re applying for because it’s so easy to click and then decide later. It’s put a lot more pressure on employers to be able to both efficiently weed through the applicant pools, but also pressure in the sense of showcasing themselves as authentic and transparent and really putting their true employer brand out there so that they can be sure to attract the right talent.

Why do you think evolving the HR function is so crucial?

Business is evolving at an unprecedented pace. Having a strategic HR function that can help the organization to navigate and adapt to this pace of change and be prepared for future business needs is critical. As with all jobs and functions, if we don’t evolve, we can’t support our ever-evolving business groups. We must embrace technology (AI, machine learning, etc.) and new ways of doing things in order to become more efficient. This will allow us to apply more energy to strategic work and creative problem solving. Otherwise, HR (and all functions) face the possibility of becoming obsolete.

How should companies approach technology to help solve these business problems?

With all of the vendors and products and new technologies, it’s really easy to chase the next shiny object. But I think the more effective approach is to take a step back and work with your business leaders to understand the problems that you’re trying to solve for. This way you make sure that the time and the energy that you invest in implementing a new technology or new product is actually going to be of value to the business.

So, how can new technology like AI help with your business?

We have a huge opportunity for AI to improve the candidate experience, as well as provide significant value to the business from a candidate standpoint, because it can help to bring the right candidates to the top.

The real value, I think, from a company standpoint is in the efficiencies that can be gained. You take an organization like H&R Block where we hire 80,000-100,000 people a year. When you think about the amount of time it takes for a manager or a recruiter to review resumes, if you can decrease the amount of resumes that have to be reviewed by even 50%, you’re talking thousands of hours of time that can be saved from an efficiency standpoint.

How are you thinking about personalization in your hiring experience?

In a day and age where our candidate pools are overloaded with messaging from recruitment marketing materials, it’s really important that candidates feel like an opportunity is speaking to them.

There are a number of things that can be done with personalization. From making sure that you’re going after your key talent markets to making your recruitment marketing efforts specific to those candidates. But to take it a step further you really need to have both a human touch as well as be looking at ways that you can leverage technology — for instance, through the use of chatbots.

How should HR leaders be thinking about skills and developing the right skills for the future?

It’s easy to focus on the skills that are needed for today, especially in the talent acquisition space because there’s a lot of urgency when there are open positions. The harder part is taking a look at where will the business be three to five to ten years out. That really comes from being close to the business and the business leaders, and understanding the future goals of each talent segment, as well as careful workforce planning.

There are some skills that are universal. For instance, change management, the ability to be agile, the ability to be flexible. It’s pretty obvious that the one constant today is change.

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