Victor Agruso

HR Business Executive

Victor Agruso has 20-plus years of executive leadership and consulting experience in the field of Human Resources (HR). He has worked with public and private firms ranging from startups and mid-market enterprises to Fortune 50 corporations covering wide-ranging industries in union and non-union environments.

Mr. Agruso uses his strategic HR expertise to empower a company’s stakeholders to achieve positive, lasting organizational change. Through his guidance, he helps HR professionals become stronger business partners, change architects, and talent engagement leaders. His core technical competencies include: strategy clarification and structure-process-capability-culture alignment; leadership branding and succession; and HR functional effectiveness-technologies-analytics.

He has led domestic and global HR division transformations for numerous organizations, including: the marquee program division of a $400MM digital cable and satellite television network; an emerging growth technology infrastructure services merger; a $6B disease management biotechnology company; and a $18B healthcare provider.

Throughout his career, Mr. Agruso has worked with several dominant corporate brands. Early on, he served as Corporate Director for HR Development & Organization Planning with Hallmark Cards, where his responsibilities included co-facilitating a corporate strategy clarification and organization alignment mission that substantially decreased operating expenses and reversed declining performance trends without downsizing; overseeing delivery of comprehensive learning modules for several thousand team members annually; and implementing a state-of-the-art balanced scorecard performance management and incentive compensation program that remains largely in use today.

He later joined Nike, where he served as Global HR Director for the footwear division (the company’s largest). There, he reengineered Nike’s corporate HR division structures, services, and technologies, while leading the international HR planning process that ensured timely development and launch of key position succession and organization development plans across the entire corporation.

After Nike, Mr. Agruso assumed the newly created position of Vice President of Organization Development & Corporate Relations at Humana. His successes in this role included completing a pivotal strategy clarification and organization alignment campaign to streamline the company’s product portfolio, work processes, and senior executive team; while enhancing HR functional effectiveness and technologies as well as overall corporate administration capabilities at greatly reduced expense.

Mr. Agruso works directly with companies on a contract executive and consulting basis and maintains a long-term consulting partnership for other client assignments with The RBL Group. He is a member of the Organizational Development Network and Society for Human Resource Management, and operates from Florida and Michigan.

Where did the idea for career come from?

After completing my undergraduate studies in Psychology and English, I found myself on a path to discern a potential vocation in the Catholic priesthood. I spent a year in a Benedictine monastery, discovering whether that was the right choice for me and for the Church. Ultimately, I decided not to pursue this vocation; instead enrolling in a diverse theological studies masters degree program at Harvard Divinity School. The program was open-ended; you could take up to half your classes at any other school in the University — and I did. A semester or so into the program, I began taking classes in faith development theory and practice, building on my undergraduate majors and piquing my broader interest in human development. An internship with Harvard’s career planning and placement office solidified that interest. Soon thereafter, I gained admission to a second masters program in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which collectively enabled me to specialize in human resources and organization development while pursuing both masters degrees in parallel. Each semester, for nearly four years, I also engaged in a series of dynamic internships — one with a management consulting firm focused on technology startups in the high tech corridor of Boston; another with the financial services executive search business unit of Fidelity Investments. These two experiences were key for me, professionally, by demonstrating that I could balance my interests in theology, philosophy and psychology with earning a living. I absolutely loved this integration. Still do! Initially, my energy was applied to helping individuals perform to the best of their abilities; which steadily progressed to also helping organizations pursue strategic goals and build internal capabilities while staying true to their values, mission, and culture.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

My routine was much different before COVID-19; I used to do a fair amount of traveling. I expect my new, post-pandemic routine to be the norm for a while. That said, the early part of my day hasn’t changed that much. I’m generally up at sunrise and put aside time for exercise, reflection and prayer before the workday begins. Typically, I’m in meetings for much of the day. These days, of course, they’re virtual meetings; I’ve become accustomed to a lot less face-to-face contact as part of what I do. On days that I have creative work to do, I try to block time for it in the morning. If I have phone appointments scheduled, I generally take those in the afternoon, working around my regular meeting schedule. Come evening, I do my best to relax in some way, shape, or form, but I always set aside some time to prepare for the next day.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Within a business setting, I start by envisioning the desired outcome. I then formulate the milestones and key deliverables essential to that outcome as well as how to accomplish them. Because I strive to align my work with the strategy and values of the company I’m working with, I approach stakeholders as soon as I have a conceptual idea framed and ask them to further vet it. When the path is clear enough, I generate a business case and deployment blueprint, which I then pitch to decisionmakers. Using their feedback, I make adjustments, and we iterate until we have a solution we are confident to initiate in consensus. If I’m not working on my own, I take special care to build the right team early in the process. Later on, once we’ve implemented — “brought to life” — the resultant solution, our attention turns to “keeping it alive.” That’s all about having a sustainable infrastructure in place conducive to continuous improvement.

What’s one trend that excites you?

I think the present imbalance between virtual and in-person work relationships will level out at some point. Right now, of course, there’s essentially no face-to-face interaction, but I believe we’ll get to a point — once the pandemic is under sufficient control — where it’s not going to be all or nothing either way. You’ll have lower expectations about going into an office all the time and taking most meetings in person. I believe a more balanced approach will be healthier in the long run for all of us.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive?

I try to address, if not resolve, everything that crosses my desk within 15 minutes of getting it. I call it “15 minutes of discovery.” If I can’t put it to bed, it goes on my daily punchlist until I do.

What advice would you give your younger self?

I wish I had published more and done more public speaking earlier in my career. If I could do it again, I’d be more disciplined and proactive around those activities. At the same time, I wish I’d taken on even more leadership roles in the not-for-profit world. I firmly believe in volunteering and giving back, and I’ve learned that many nonprofits lack the resources and wherewithal to build the systems needed to run a successful organization.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Premium scotch and cigars – in moderation together – can be healthy for you!

What is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

First and foremost, endeavor to be grateful every day. Be in a constant state of receptivity. And resolve to “do it well or not at all.”

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your career?

I believe in focusing on profitable growth in concert with values. Beyond compliance with laws, regulations and company policy, which are of course foundational, HR work should center on increasing revenue and reducing costs. That is, most everything we do should either build the top line and/or bottom line. And, this is best done in ways that reinforce an organization’s values, mission and desired culture. Functional excellence — being great at HR in and of itself — is irrelevant, unless it enables growth and generates income.

What is one failure you had in your career and how did you overcome it?

I believe that ‘failure’ is giving up. Because I don’t believe in giving up, I won’t call this a failure — but I will call it a huge disappointment. It was a companywide strategic alignment and HR effectiveness initiative at a $10 billion Fortune 500 corporation. Looking back, that year was one of the most productive of my career. We made tremendous progress on our deliverables and had an opportunity to make a huge impact on the market and organization. Unfortunately, the company’s culture was highly dysfunctional; the organization had grown through a series of acquisitions that never really came together. Support from the C-suite was mixed, at best; the leadership team didn’t really get along. The experience reinforced, to me, the importance of having a united executive team and board, and especially a CEO with real support from the board. You need that to make transformative changes stick. Ultimately, I anchored as much of our work as I could, celebrated victory on a number of fronts, and moved on. I’ve since used that experience as a filter for the type of work I want to do now.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

It cost more than $100, all told, but let’s say $100 toward an enclosed trampoline for my grandsons. Three boys — ages 5, 7, and 9, quarantined and homeschooled for months now — have to do something to get all that energy out! My daughter and son-in-law just welcomed twins in February, too; five young boys in all; so this continues to be a welcome distraction for everyone!

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

I like Workday. It’s an enterprise-caliber, self-service, software-as-a-service application that automates HR transactions in real time. It makes HR essential support work much more efficient because it covers foundational HR practices, it’s online, and it’s available on demand for all HR users.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Real-Time Strategy: Improvising Team-Based Planning for a Fast- Changing World.” This is one of the best books ever on strategy clarification and organization alignment. Its conclusions are research-based, tested, and proven, and they’re still best practice today even though initially developed in the early 1990s.

What is your favorite quote?

“HR that starts with the business doesn’t get as much resistance from the business.” — Dave Ulrich

Key Learnings:

  • First and foremost, endeavor to be grateful every day. Be in a constant state of receptivity. And resolve to “do it well or not at all.”
  • Functional excellence — being great at HR in and of itself — is irrelevant, unless it enables growth and generates income.
  • It’s important to haave a united executive team and board, and especially a CEO with real support from the board. You need that to make transformative changes stick.