Chautauqua Conversations: In HR, Koerner focuses on people of Chautauqua

Rich Koerner may be the most important man that many Chautauquans don’t know.

Koerner is the linchpin of the Institution’s human resources development activity. A Westfield consultant, he is involved in virtually all the full-time hiring by the Institution. A frequent adviser to Chautauqua leaders, planners and managers for the past 14 years, he plays a major operational role in hiring and career development for Institution staff. He is affable, approachable.

Married and with a grown son, Koerner sat in a wicker rocking chair on a Chautauqua porch and reviewed how this all came to pass.

My association with Chautauqua goes back to around 2000, if I remember correctly. I received a call from Institution Payroll Director Tena Dills, who had gotten my name from someone at Jamestown Community College. The Institution was looking for someone to conduct a human resources audit.

I met with (then vice president and treasurer) Joe Johnson and Tena, and then later with President Dan Bratton and the board of trustees. I’ll never forget that meeting — walking into the conference room — and how very welcoming Dan Bratton was. There was a genuine sense of welcome to someone they didn’t even know. Chautauqua wanted to know where they had gaps in human resources.

We did a pretty comprehensive audit, from regulatory compliance to structure to benefits to compensation. We made a report on how things were being done, and how they could be done even better. We gave them some options to look at.

The Institution got back to me. They wanted me as human resources director. I told them I would be happy to work for them, so long as I added value to the Institution and so long as we were honest with each other, to make sure our partnership was working. But I didn’t want to become a full-time Institution employee. So I began my, so far, 14-year consulting relationship with Chautauqua Institution.

At that time, President Bratton was nearing the end of his tenure. It was a tough time, because he would soon face a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. My own dad had died of that disease. We spoke about that.

I have been in charge of my own business in Westfield since 1996, and I had a good career before that. I had grown up in the Buffalo suburb of West Seneca, New York. My father was a groundskeeper at the local school district, and my Italian mom stayed at home with her eight kids, of whom I was the eldest.

I remember, once, I brought home a school report card with three Bs and one D. I really expected my dad to say something and I didn’t think I would like what he said. He just looked at the report card and said, “Good job, Rich.” I walked away thinking I had just let my father down. I vowed that bad grade would never happen again, and it did not happen again. My father had said the right thing. He knew he didn’t have to beat me up over it; I would do that myself. He knew instinctively what to do to motivate his son, despite little schooling beyond high school.

I went to SUNY Buffalo for a B.A. in psychology, and I got my graduate degree at Michigan State in labor and industrial relations. I had also applied to Cornell for grad school, but got rejected there. My dad actually took it harder than I did. I had a fine grade point average but ordinary GRE scores.

In human resources after graduate school, I started off in the semiconductor group at Texas Instruments in Dallas. In my first year, we recruited over 100 scientists and engineers — just about all of them directly from college. It was intense. I did wonder if there wasn’t too much emphasis on quantity intake and not enough on how they fit in the organization.

I took a job at Playtex International in Dover, Delaware. Yes, that is the ladies undergarment maker. I was the youngest human resources manager they had ever hired. I was 27 years old. I did finally get to the point where I could tell people where I worked without blushing. The company was later part of a leveraged buyout, and some fine people were let go. I saw the company become disjointed and the business was split. I left to work for a Philadelphia corporate outplacement firm, Kranz & Associates.

I had moved from the corporate environment to the entrepreneurial. At Kranz you had to make things happen. Two colleagues and I split 2,000 cold calls per quarter. You just got on the phone and made those calls. I came to realize that it wasn’t about making the calls, it was all about landing an appointment with a prospective client.

Then, a recruiter called me and asked about a return to western New York, in Dunkirk. I did come back and joined CliffStar, which became the largest private-label juice maker in the country. I worked there from 1990 to 1996, when I started my own firm.

Many businesses and corporations want to outsource so-called mundane tasks like payroll or benefits. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to help clients add value. I wanted to provide high-level input on human resources, organizational structure and things like that. This focus has worked for us so far.

In my new business, I began to facilitate discussions on organizational realignment, succession planning, things like that. I do a lot of work in the areas of interviewing and selection. I think that, if you get that right, you help move the client organization where it needs to be.

Here at Chautauqua, I was fortunate to have a client that knew what they wanted, and I participated in some of the meetings to chart the Institution’s organizational course. I attend enough of these sessions to have a good idea of where Chautauqua wants to go, the challenges they face, and how they can afford to continue to provide this great programming to the public. The new emphasis on customer experience is a good example of forward, positive thinking. That kind of stuff really gets my energy going.

A few years ago, Chautauqua adopted behavior-based principles in interviewing and selection. I have followed these guidelines for many years. We focus on the can do (skills and competences), the will do (motivation) and the fit (expectations, vision).

Disney says, “We work while everyone else plays.” That sounds like the Chautauqua summer season to me. When we recruit and interview, we are looking for people who can make that commitment. We don’t just look for someone who says “I can do that.” We look for someone who has made that commitment, who has done what we are looking for, somewhere earlier in their career.

It is much easier to predict future behavior based on past behavior. If someone says “I am willing to do this,” but they have never done it, they may have good intentions but we don’t know. I would rather know.

So for every competency we are looking for, we look for prior examples of success. Then we get to motivation. I like to ask people who interview for Chautauqua jobs what prompts them to seek this change at this time. Why this, why now? Listening to the answers, and based on prior experience, gives clues as to future performance.

For full-time positions, we post the job on various websites, and we get broad coverage for relatively little expense. Applicants respond. I almost always ask for a cover letter, because how the applicant communicates tells us a lot. And they need to be able to communicate well. I usually do some initial screening and share my thoughts with the hiring manager, or committee if it is a larger job. I get feedback from the hiring official.

Then I phone-screen the list we have — there might be 10 to 15 names on that list. We go from there to a short list of five to seven for interviews, and a selection is made.

I work with other regional clients, from manufacturing to banks to human resources firms to non-profit organizations. I want to add value to clients. I want to help them be the best they can be.

Chautauqua may not be a large percentage of my revenue, but they are a large percentage of my time. We look at metrics, we look at data, and we do so much better than 15 years ago. But in the end, it is always about the people. That’s what I love.