Peter Ramjug pivoted from a wire service journalism career to writing and strategizing executive communications. He helps thought leaders gather their thoughts.
Peter RamjugFebruary 6, 2024
Topics: Customer Stories

This HR leader had something more valuable than a degree: skills

Quick quiz — what do these boldface corporate giants have in common? Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Ralph Lauren. They all made it to the pinnacle of success without a college degree.

Lavonne Monroe, Vice President of Talent Acquisition and Onboarding at Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), laughs at the notion of her keeping such rarified company. “I would like to say that I'm going to be a billionaire like them one day,” she told Phenom in an interview. “Still striving to get there.”

Monroe may well have hit the jackpot already.

Her remit is almost CEO-like in its responsibility and business impact on the organization. She leads global TA for a company that does about $30 billion in annual revenue. HPE, spun off from the iconic computer maker Hewlett Packard years ago, hires about 12,000 people a year. The company has 60,000 employees total spread out among more than 50 countries.

HPE recently announced plans to acquire networking gear maker Juniper Networks for $14 billion in an all-cash deal. If the purchase goes through, HPE’s workforce would increase substantially.

All of this falls under Monroe’s purview despite her not having what was long considered a stepping stone to success: a four-year degree. Times change. Fewer employers require one. Skills are the new focus. And that’s where Monroe’s career journey really gets interesting.

The Paper Ceiling

Monroe didn’t pursue higher education because, well, real life happened. She met her future husband in high school and they have been together ever since.

“We started our family and I just jumped into the workforce,” she said.

By 21, Monroe was in her first leadership role managing a team of telemarketers. It was those early days that helped her navigate the people aspect of leadership and everything that goes with it, like trust and transparency.

Challenges loomed when she began applying for jobs. It was difficult to navigate Applicant Tracking Systems. Without ever having talked to so much as a recruiter, she would get knocked out of consideration almost immediately because of the degree requirement.

“It came to the point where my skill sets were absolutely there, so I had to always take different routes when applying for jobs,” she said. “I hit a point in my career where I decided I wasn’t going to apply for jobs any longer. I was going to build my network instead. I'm going to build my advocates to the point where I don't have to apply for positions, and then my skill sets will be the conversation point versus my lack of a degree.”

Sometimes Monroe would get asked where she went to school. She would reply that she attended the best school anybody can go to — “the school of hard knocks.”

Taking Other Paths to Get There

Monroe belongs to a national initiative called STARs (Skilled Through Alternative Routes) run by the non-profit Opportunity@Work. STARs gain skills in a variety of ways beyond a four-year degree, including community college and the military.

“One of the key things, especially in tech that we're learning, is that there are a lot of different paths of learning, where people can become subject matter experts in what they do without having to go the four-year path,” Monroe said. “There's still a two-year path. There’s vo (vocational) tech, there’s what I call no tech.”

In the era of PlayStation and drones, what kids are doing in terms of coding is absolutely amazing, she said. They come out of high school, become a coder and make great money.

Competitiveness in the marketplace is driving HPE to find talent in different places because it needs people with diverse technical skill sets.

HPE, for example, has an apprenticeship in cybersecurity, and one of the qualifications is — no experience in cybersecurity. “That's the minimum qualification, no experience, because we want to bring you in and teach you,” Monroe said.

The company wants to take people who are returning to the workforce or coming off of maternity leave and give them a chance to flourish. The demand for talent outweighs the number in the marketplace, and organizations are still competing for the same people.

“So why are we still fishing in the same ocean?” Monroe said. Organizations should take a hard look at alternative recruiting avenues versus the standard traditional ones.

Related reading: 10 Talent Acquisition Smart Goals for 2024

Unconscious Bias

Monroe has long believed, throughout her career, in upending some of the traditional ways of bringing in talent by confronting unconscious and conscious bias inside organizations based on watching the data and seeing how people are being hired.

Technology can do that, but a change in attitudes and behaviors helps too.

“At the end of the day, any HR organization can take their team members and do an analysis of their backgrounds. You can look at the success and the talent. You can look at the backgrounds of different people in regards to your talent.”

She cites the fact that HPE’s CEO started working at the company in customer service. He hardly spoke English at the time, and one would have never thought he would be the CEO one day, but that’s another big, diverse background.

Though more companies are dropping higher education requirements — long the norm in recruiting — there are still TA teams that continue to read resumes starting from the bottom where education credentials are usually shown.

“Let’s be real,” said Monroe. “My track record of success should tell you why I'll be successful in doing this job versus how many years ago that I didn't obtain a four-year degree.”

The Invisible Force Behind the Leader

Ask any leader who was the unseen guiding hand in his or her career, and you’re more likely than not to hear it was the author of a best-seller or an inspirational TEDTalk presentation. For Monroe, it all comes down to family.

She points directly to her father, who spent 20 years in the military before pivoting to a successful career in restaurant management. “Leading at every aspect, I believe I got a lot of my core skills from him.”

The other big influence was her husband, a healthcare system executive.

“I have admired his ability to command a room (and) his ability to remain true to self at all times,” she said. “He’s also my biggest supporter.”

Go Break Something

Monroe personifies the engineering adage that you can’t learn how something works without taking it apart. “I believe in breaking things.”

Ideas that may seem far-fetched are the ones she wants to hear about. “Let’s throw it up against a chalkboard. Let’s see if it’s going to stick,” she said of her approach to new ideas.

That’s a useful mentality to keep in mind for organizations that want to be seen as an employer of choice — they are evaluating talent in a different way and with a different message. They are finding ways to bring more talent into the fold rather than finding reasons to exclude them – reasons that may have nothing to do with the roles they are trying to fill.

“Companies have to understand that there are two things they need to survive as an organization — people and technology. And if you don't get either of them right, you're not going to survive.”

Interested in learning more about becoming a skills-first organization? Watch Skills Day on demand to see how to get started.

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