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Q&A with Alexandria Smith

Updated: Jul 20, 2023

Exclusive Trusted Magazine Q&A with Alexandria Smith, Chief HR Officer @City of Memphis

How could you describe your career path in a few words?

I am currently the Chief Human Resources (HR) Officer for the City of Memphis. I lead the HR division, which provides HR policy, strategy, and administration for 7,800 employees at the City of Memphis.

As an HR professional with more than 18 years of experience, I have built a notable career as a strategic HR partner for key business leaders, serving in HR management roles for Brightstar Corporation and industry leaders, including Target and Microsoft. I hold a Bachelor's degree in Economics from Duke University and a Master's in Human Resources and Industrial Relations from the University of Minnesota.

I love the function of Human Resources and being in the business of the recruiting, caring for and motivating employees to achieve an organization’s mission. Every career move I have made has been with the goal of building both breadth and depth as an HR professional and business leader in mind. I have worked across six different industries: private and public sector, Fortune 50 and mid-size companies, industrial plants, and call centers, as well as high-tech offices. I have worked as a Project Manager and Chief of Staff, as well as an HR Business Partner.

The common theme that winds throughout my entire career is that organizations are made up of people who must be hired, trained, managed, and respected. Most of our work environments have more in common than not. So, having diverse experiences across multiple industries and companies has helped me to gain exposure and build an incredible network to lean on, and to help me solve interesting challenges through my career progression over the years.

What was your most challenging experience, and has it changed your mindset?

We have an issue unique to the public sector – for the first time in Memphis history, we have a term-limited Mayor. As of December 2023, Mayor Jim Strickland's term will be over. As such, we are currently focused on succession planning and preparing the next layer of leadership for the next administration.

Additionally, our resignation rates across the board, particularly in the police and fire departments, have increased over the past year. We are not alone. In 2021, according to Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), a record-breaking 47.8 million Americans resigned from their positions. 4 million people (about twice the population of New Mexico) quit every month, topping 2019's average of 3.5 million. After doing some soul-searching of my own, I realized I am inspired – now more than ever – to stay the course as Memphis' Chief HR officer, as there is so much great work to be done.

Former U.S. Chief Technology Officer, Todd Park said, "I believe that as public servants, we have a shared goal - to deliver to Americans the service they deserve and expect." My work not only directly affects the quality of life for our employees but also significantly impacts the quality of life for the more than 600,000 citizens we serve. Because of the quest for this positive impact, my team and I are motivated to solve complex HR problems. We are inspired to be innovative in our approaches to talent management and to recruiting, investing in, and using cloud-based technology, going paperless, and ensuring that we use data insights to make the best decisions for our community.

Each day we go out of our way to think differently – focusing on partnering with other agencies and engaging on many levels, including social media, on improving talent recruitment. We also challenge ourselves by being fully transparent about our compensation and using data to inform how we make improvements. We often update our website to ensure we are compellingly telling our city's story: One that helps others see the value of working for city government and, hopefully, motivates them to join us in our pursuit to make life better for our citizens.

We have also focused on improving our exit interview program to obtain better data on why employees resign. In addition, we have made a concerted effort to increase internal communications and show city employees more appreciation (through videos and other recognition efforts). This has changed my mindset to think more holistically about talent management and retention. From revamping manager training to expanding employee resource groups, we are in a time where we must create spaces for people to connect across generations and backgrounds to best serve our community.

So, though these are all challenges, I really see them as opportunities for us to make an impact through innovative HR approaches, practices, and teamwork.

What do you think when you are surprised by unusual or uncertain contexts?

I don't get surprised. I get curious. Human Resources is a multi-faceted field that is dynamic and ever evolving. As an HR practitioner, it is essential to learn as much as possible about your problem (gather data, etc.) and tap into the resources around you (e.g., network, white papers, articles) to seek solutions. The goal at the end of the day is to problem-solve. And the best way to do that is to identify a diverse group of resources on which you can lean so that you can view the problem from different angles, thus enabling you to develop a comprehensive solution/s.

For example, when the City of Memphis faced the global pandemic, we brought a diverse group of leaders together to strategize on how to best address internal policy and procedures to manage COVID and the inevitable fallout from it. One of the most creative solutions that the team produced was delivering personalized care gift baskets for COVID-positive employees and developing an internal contact tracing team. Additionally, our team was even called on to manage the vaccination process, which, of course, we had never done before, and did so in a very efficient and effective manner. The only way we were able to develop these innovative solutions is by having a diverse expert group available that was willing to solve problems together.

Based on your experience, what is the critical success factor for a female leader/manager?

Being a female leader is so amazing. Most women are natural-born leaders, as we have learned to use the tools in our toolkit to make those around us soar. But it is not without its challenges, as most industries are male-dominated, and women are often overlooked for a seat at the table. But when diversity, equity and inclusion come into play, and women are given the same opportunities as men, women are unstoppable.

And a good female leader knows how to lead a talented team. Here are the essential success factors I employ to bring out the best in my teams:

  • Ability to inspire the best work from your team: I believe in empowering my team with the tools they need to be successful, which includes feedback mechanisms, training, opportunities to do work that would allow them to advance and sharing best practices with them. Empowerment is the key to motivating your team to be their best.

  • Penchant for building strong teams: Talent recruitment and management is one of the most essential factors to building a talented team. You cannot take people at face value. You must see them for what or who they can be and work to help them realize their full potential. It is so true that we are stronger together. The ability to build a team of highly competent people who can work well together for the greater good sets you up to be unstoppable as a leader.

  • Humility: No one knows everything. A good leader is willing to ask questions or do more research when the answer is not clear or known. A good leader also leans on his or her team and knows that everyone has strengths and inherent value they bring to the table. This helps to create a cooperative and collaborative environment.

  • Trust-building transparency: I believe that sharing information early and often establishes the foundation for a trustful relationship with your team. This, in turn, motivates them to tell me the truth, even if the truth is unpleasant. Transparency is key to building success as a team and as a leader.

  • Open-mindedness: I have an open-door policy and welcome my team to come to me with ideas, for advice, with questions and more. They know that our discussion is held in the utmost confidence. This is another rung on the ladder of trust, ultimately leading to success.

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