A Lifetime of HR Insights
Isaac Dixon 00:00
It’s all about helping your organizations get better, stay competitive. And at the core, I always suggested new people going into the HR field. Start out in recruiting. If you understand what brings people to your organization, how to get them there, what motivates them? What motivates them to stay, as opposed to leave? Those things will stay with you the rest of your life regardless of what you do.
Andrea Herron 00:28
When future talent is deciding to apply for a job, what are their most important considerations? Well, if they’re like most of us right after the job description and salary range your employee benefits page is going to be next. The reason is simple. Employees directly relate benefits to their overall perception of well being. And HR leaders are constantly adapting their benefit offerings to meet the needs of their evolving workforces. But let’s be honest, some employee benefits are way more interesting than others. Hi, I’m Andrea Herron, head of people for WebMD health services. And I’d like to welcome you to the HR scoop. On this podcast, I talk with other HR leaders to explore the world of unique employee benefits, and about the challenges of managing unique workforces. Because well being isn’t a one size fits all approach. Today’s interview is one of my favorites. I’m joined by Isaac Dixon, Associate Vice President of HR for Portland State University. And we talk about all things career and life. From his military background to the pandemics impact on higher education to the amazing wisdom his grandma has for all of us. Isaac shares a lifetime’s worth of HR experience and learnings in this amazing episode. Welcome, Isaac, we are so happy to have you here today. I know we have seen each other at various events in the Portland HR community. And I am thrilled to have you here to share your wisdom with our listeners.
Isaac Dixon 02:11
Well, thanks for inviting me. Pleasure to be with you. Yeah, we
Andrea Herron 02:15
have so much to talk about. I don’t even know where to begin. But maybe we should start at the beginning. And you’ve had a long career in the army and then transitioned into the HR community. And I am very curious about that journey and how you kind of got to where you are.
Isaac Dixon 02:35
You know, as you mentioned, I guess the last 14 years of my military career, we’re in the Oregon Army National Guard here in Portland, Portland area, and I entered the guard as an enlisted soldier. And four or five years later, they decided it was time for me to go to Officer Candidate School. An idea that I was not all that hot on because officers pay for everything. Many people don’t know that. But uniforms, meals, everything they pay for. Wow. Yeah, I’ve never understood it. But I said What the heck. So I ended up at OCS and was subsequently commissioned a second lieutenant and came back to Oregon and my first job in the guard as an officer was as the battalion S one that z is the personnel officer for the 280 field artillery, which is located right out by the Portland Air Base. From there. I ended up as a platoon leader. And then subsequently, I wound up as the company commander for the Headquarters Company of the 41st Infantry Brigade. And that was about 600 soldiers that I commanded. Many of them were officers who outranked me, because hey, quarter companies are comprised of soldiers, many of whom don’t really want to be in the army, doctors, lawyers, MP platoons, I mean, so it was a very large unit. And there, I reported directly to the brigade commander General Osborn, and general Osborne pulled me aside one afternoon and we sat down and talked and he said, You were commissioned late. I was 31. When I was commissioned, that’s the oldest you can be commissioned an officer in the United States military. And he said, and I looked at your record, looked at your experience, combat experience and other experience and he said, I think you really can go places in terms of your career. He said, so I’m going to remove you from the headquarters commander job after your tour of duty is up, and I’m going to make you my aide and I said, aid what what’s that? And so he explained what an aide de camp response ability was and I decided to take the job. And subsequently, I wound up being called to Salem. After I’ve been in in his job as his aide for about a year. I got called to be in Salem on a Sunday evening. So the following day, the Monday and I said, why? And the gentleman on the phone, Colonel Thomas said, because the State Ag in general wants to talk to you. Oh, and I said, What’s that about? He said, just be here and wear your dress green uniforms with all your ribbons and everything on them. So I show up in Salem the next morning, and I walk in and I meet the state agent in general, general Reese, who at the time, was 43 years old. He was the youngest general in the army. And he said, I want to remake the Oregon Army Guard. He said, There’s not enough officers of color. There are not enough women. I want you to help me change the guard. Wow. And I said, Oh, okay. How do I do that? He said, I want you to be Secretary General Staff. I want you to run my staff for me. Wow. And he said, It is the second most powerful job in the in the National Guard here in Oregon. And he was a Army Guard general, but he ran the Air Guard and the Army Guard. Both. So I was in that job for six years. I learned a lot about the army. But I also learned a lot about state government, because he was a direct report to the governor. And I got to know the governor and her staff pretty well. It was a governor of Barbara Roberts at the time. And after I’d been in that role for about six years. They wanted me to move into a job as the state personnel officer, I decided not to take that job because the state of Oregon executive department had called me and they asked me to come run all staffing for all of Oregon State Government. So I took that job, and I was direct report to the governor and her chief of staff. I ran the recruitment for the first Oregon Health Plan director, the first lottery director, we restaffed. The leadership at the Oregon Department of Revenue, hired a state police superintendent. And I had a very small team, I had a team of seven people, two of them wrote and scored all the state exams, we ran a state leadership mentorship program, I mean, we get we got a lot done with very few people sounds like it. So that kind of kind of launched me, you know, back into the HR world. I had moved to Portland originally in 1978, to run the manpower temporary service franchises here in Oregon. And so I ran all the franchises here in the state, and grew the number from four offices to I think six, by the time I left. And one of my clients was the only reason I left manpower. I worked for them for about four and a half years. And one of my clients, a little company called Blue Ribbon sports, asked me to come to work for them as an HR manager. And they were a good client, I got to know the leadership of that organization pretty well. And so I went to work for them. And a year later, they changed their name and became Nike.
Andrea Herron 08:29
Oh, that little company. I think we’ve heard of that one. So I
Isaac Dixon 08:33
worked for Nike twice. My last time with them was from 2000 to 2003. And I was director of staffing for retail global finance it and I also ran the internship program. So I got to see all these bright young faces who wanted to come to work for Nike. Even in those days, Nike used to get 6000 unsolicited applications a week.
Andrea Herron 09:04
A week. Wow. Yeah. For all of our listeners who receive applications, our minds are blown right now. A lot. Wow, what an incredible journey. It is interesting. You mentioned, you know, back when you were in the army, and they wanted you to build a more inclusive and you know, diverse guard. That was pretty forward thinking at the time and yet here we are in 2020. And the themes of social justice and inclusion and diversity are just as prevalent, if not more so. And I’m curious if you see differences this time in business and culture impacts within the workplace or if there’s anything that you know, the spotlights are positive or can just your perspective of how far we’ve come or not come
Isaac Dixon 09:57
you know I think as a as a state As a city as a nation, in my lifetime, we’ve come a long way. My dad was in the army. And so I grew up on military bases across the United States and all over the world. And I’ll never forget, I was eight years old. My dad didn’t like to fly. So 1958 When we came back from Germany, we took a ship back across the Atlantic 10 days, I’ll never forget it. The rest of my family was traveling by rail, and I didn’t get seasick. I was the only one that didn’t. But we landed in New York, and we we ended up on a Greyhound bus from New York to Los Angeles.
Andrea Herron 10:41
Wow. Yeah. That’s a long
Isaac Dixon 10:45
story. But oh, yeah. But one of the places where they stopped was in Texas. And that was the first time in my life I had ever seen a segregated lunch. My dad was a criminal investigator in the army CID agent. They’re the army equivalent of the FBI. Matter of fact, they trained at the same school at Quantico, Virginia. And my dad was a man of short patience, having survived World War Two and Korea. And so he’s walked up to the counter. And in the post House Restaurant, I’ll never forget this as long as they live. And it was kind of like one of those Eddie Murphy movies where he walks in and the music stops. He said, I’d like to order some food for my family. And the guy behind the counter said, We don’t serve people like you hear. You have to go to a room back in the back. So I’ll never forget, I go back there, you know, and I get up on my tiptoes to look over the window pane. And I see a pitcher of water sitting on the counter and flies on the top of it. dead flies. So I went back to my dad, I said, we can’t eat in places awful. My dad said we’re not going to turns back to the guy and says, I’m going to ask you for the last time I want some food for my family. Down at the end of the counter. Somebody said, Edward, get back on the bus. Before we drag you out of here. My dad had this habit when he got irritated of putting an unlit cigar in the corner of his mouth and starting to chew on it. The cigar went in, I said, Oh, this is not good. He pulled his code back where they could see the Gold Star pinned to his belt and his 38 strapped to his hip. He said I’m a federal law enforcement officer you feed my family all have federal troops here in 15 minutes, and alone your damn restaurant, which is it? Do you want pickles on them? Hamburgers was the reply. Wow. The rest of the trip my time my dad talked to me about segregation. He talked to me about the Civil War and Reconstruction. And he said, You’ve been born into a fight that you’ll be in the rest of your life. My grandmother was an amazing woman, she lived to be 97. She was the first woman graduate from UCLA. And she was a history buff. And that’s where I got my love of history from, she started handing me books when I was like five, six years old. And say you got to read this because you need to understand context of everything that you’re gonna see. We still have work to do. As demonstrations and protests have pointed out this summer. And certainly, younger people have grown up in a different world. The instantaneous availability of information has been one of the real remarkable things of my lifetime. When I think back to the 1956, when I saw the first color television set, with the huge cabinet and the screen that’s like,
Andrea Herron 13:52
now there’s one in your pocket. Yeah, it’s just
Isaac Dixon 13:55
it. I mean, so I am extremely hopeful. You know, in addition to my role at Portland State as the Associate VP for HR, I teach at Portland State, I teach HR. And I’ve taught there for 17 years. And every year the students never cease to amaze me with the new perspectives they have on issues and how to solve problems. So I’m it’s just it leaves me hopeful.
Andrea Herron 14:25
Well, that’s great, because I think we all want to feel a little bit of hope here in 2020. And you know, if I think to your grandmother living to be 97, and the amount of change that she saw in her life, and even the amount of change that you have already seen in your life, it is incredible and really highlights the importance of those family stories, as well as the power of supportive teachers and that is undeniable in shaping and molding, different way of thinking and change that we Need to grow as a country, you know, through people like yourself with these lived experiences talking to, you know, young people and future leaders of businesses and nonprofit boards and politics. So with everything, you know, pandemic wise, and including higher education and PSU, I’m sure the academic world has been rocked by this and not able to continue. So how, you know, how is it going? How is education being transformed? What are your thoughts on this next, this next group of students and how are they coping?
Isaac Dixon 15:44
I think in the near term, and by near term, I would mean the next 24 to 36 months, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to go back to a highly leveraged face to face model, I think it’s going to be extremely difficult to do and to do safely. I think class sizes will be smaller, you know, just from the fact that even if you have an in person class, you want to have some social distancing. So you can’t cram 100 people into a lecture hall anymore. I just don’t think I don’t think I think those days, at least for the near term are gone. Post vaccine, who knows. But I’d say for the next couple of three years, it’s going to be difficult to do. Colleges and universities are really struggling right now. Because their business model is built around the face to face experience. Everything from classrooms, to dormitories, to cafeterias to parking structures, and see they get income from all of those sources. And that was called auxilary. income. So that’s anything other than tuition has fallen off the map. It’s fallen by almost 90% in Portland State.
Andrea Herron 16:59
Wow. 90% If, if anybody thinks of 90% revenue loss, wow, what a tailspin that would be in campuses are like little cities. Exactly. That makes sense. Exactly. You gotta eat you gotta sleep somewhere. You got to put your car somewhere, you gotta maybe have a gym, that’s probably not open
Isaac Dixon 17:18
Student Rec Center. That’s been that’s been closed, intercollegiate athletics, which brings people to the campus that is off the map.
Andrea Herron 17:29
Cause hot dog revenue
Isaac Dixon 17:31
conferences and events. We have a hotel on the Portland State campus. And they’ve been at 4% occupancy since March 4%. Oh, by the way, the Portland area average for hotels, occupancy is 7% 7%.
Andrea Herron 17:48
I mean, it’s not surprising yet. 7% is wow.
Isaac Dixon 17:54
Yeah, that’s, and that’s in a business where you have to average 60% per night just to break even. So it’s. So with all those revenue sources drying up? People say, Well, just the state should step in and help you. But the state revenue is down. Because look how many people we have one employee who aren’t paying taxes. I mean, so this is this kind of gerbil wheel kind of thing going on. So I think that what universities are finding out is that bolster online educational offerings, we’ve had to purchase a PSU and talk to my colleagues at other schools, they’ve done similar things. We purchased over 1000 Chromebooks since March, for students that didn’t have access to to a computer, mobile hotspot devices, we purchase those as well. So student could pretty much study and do their work anywhere. The biggest changes has been for professors, especially for many of them who’ve been teaching for a long time like this. This, I can’t do this online stuff. Said big shift. It’s a huge live
Andrea Herron 19:06
and sudden, yep. Yep, totally redo everything you’ve done for the past 15 years in a new format yesterday. Okay, go
Isaac Dixon 19:15
and go now and make it good. I’ve seen I’ve seen some remarkable, our university as an office of academic innovation. And they had put together courses for professors about how to move your class online. And the kinds of best practices for distance learning that you ought to look to incorporate in your class structure.
Andrea Herron 19:45
They get to be students again.
Isaac Dixon 19:48
I love it. For me, I try to to make sure that that my students stay engaged. I use a platform inside of our distance learn pipeline, which is our basic platform on campus, I use another one called pack back where I send them to a pack back website, they log on there, they have to post one question for their colleagues, and respond to to others every week. Now, that sounds easy. But it makes it a little more challenging when you have the one that you have to post of your own. And to because the system, moderates and says, This is really kind of a lightweight question. You know, here’s some suggestions about things you might want to add. And you also have to have an APA cited reference for every
Andrea Herron 20:41
Oh, I’m having flashbacks.
Isaac Dixon 20:46
Yeah, yes, some of my students send me hateful Notes version week. But you know, it’s good rehearsal, because they have a project paper is due at the end of the year, and I require APA citations in the project paper. So this kind of reinforces it every week, I’ve been using that platform for five years or so. I have data that shows clearly, my foreign students are English as a second language students actually do do the best. Oh, interesting, because they actually read the material. And they actually pay attention to instructions
Andrea Herron 21:20
that were put in the work.
Isaac Dixon 21:25
But yeah, things like that are really helpful. There are amazing tools being developed by really smart people. And as students, as faculty, as staff members, as human beings, we just have to be willing to change. No one saw this coming in in March, I sure didn’t know. And flexibility is the hallmark of being able to survive, you have to be able to change.
Andrea Herron 21:54
And humans don’t always have the easiest time with change, especially in the collective. So kind of with all of these shifts in culture, and how organizations are operating and remote life. Whatever advice have you been giving to those in your class or that you’re mentoring that are interested in a career in HR, given how much HR has evolved in the past six months alone, and how we see it continuing to evolve and be more flexible and remote, the model of HR also has to shift. So have you been, you know giving out any specific advice or tips or anything you’d like to share to help us all in this moment?
Isaac Dixon 22:34
Well, what I’ve been telling, newly minted HR professionals are those who aspire to go into the profession, don’t let what’s happened change you pursuing your patient. If you love numbers, if you love data, then compensation analysis remains one of the highest paid areas in HR benefits administration. Another key place where someone with an HR background can do very, very well. Data Analytics. Every HR team needs a data geek. I have a couple of my team at Portland State and they do amazing work. Because more and more, we’re going to be called on to help organizations make fact based decisions. At most colleges and university PSU is no exception. 90 cents of every dollar spent are people related costs, salaries, benefits, etc. So the more we can use data to help our organizations and leaders make fact based decisions, the better. And that’s the way the world has shifted, regardless of industry, the days of HR being the place where people who, anytime I have students says you know why go into HR because I really like people, I tell them become a homicide detective, your ads are better be liking people, if you did that, you know, you know, a few years and employee and labor relations or something else, they walk away shaking their head. So, you know, it’s not enough to just be a you know, in many small companies still be HR people, the people who plan the Christmas party, right? It’s it’s all about helping your organization’s get better, stay competitive. And at the core, I always suggested new people going into the HR field, start out in recruiting. If you understand what brings people to your organization, how to get them there, what motivates them, what motivates them to stay, as opposed to leave, those things will stay with you the rest of your life regardless of what you do. And my team laughs at me because I’m still I’m still a recruiter. I have never I think back to the days of manpower when we had jobs we had to fill you know you You have to be able to bring talent into your organization. And if people are thinking about leaving, understand why
Andrea Herron 25:07
there is great wisdom in that in, you know, encouraging people to stay true to themselves in their interest, because that’s where the passion will follow. And then you can learn the skills and back it up. So we have learned a lot about you and lots of great tidbits. And I was wondering to close it up. If there was one more nugget you could give us that somebody may not know about you, or that would be interesting for our audience.
Isaac Dixon 25:35
Hmm, interesting nugget, probably that in 1969, the year I graduated from high school, actually, earlier in that year, my grandmother, she had this habit of getting me involved in things and just to stretch myself try something different. That was her her mantra of life. So she called me and she said, I saw this story in the paper. And I think this is something you might be interested in doing. So I said, Oh, okay. So come on over, she only lived a few blocks from where my parents did. So I walked over spring day in 1969. And she has this newspaper spread out on her kitchen table and said, Read that I read. It’s about this new show, television show. And they’re having an audition, the following day show called The Dating Game, where she tried to get you a date. So I get on the bus and right out there. And there’s like, there’s like 600 people, you know, this mass cattle call that they have. And they broke us down into groups of 10 or 15. And they had, you know, 15 men, 15 women, you know, asking questions back and forth. So I ended up being selected to go on. So, so I Jim Lange was the host, then that’s the original dating game show. So I ended up being selected. So I want to date and ended up going to some someplace some resort in South Dakota. It’s crazy. So after after the show aired, I got a call from the producers asking me to come back a second time, which I did. I ended up being on the show three times.
Andrea Herron 27:26
We need this footage.
Isaac Dixon 27:28
Yeah, I looked. And thank god, I can’t find it anywhere. Because my hair and those days, I look like Michael Jackson was huge. They could they couldn’t invite me back after the third time because there was a violation of the Screen Actors Guild regulations. So he took me to meet a guy who was producing a show called the FBI. And I ended up getting a big part in that. And then subsequently, the Dick Clark show where the action is I ended up getting a big part in that too. So my dad was laughing, he kept saying, you know, get a real job. And I say, hey, you know, they feed me as well as me making money. This is better than bagging groceries. But I did that for about 18 months, I made a living as an extra, all based on being on the dating game show. So that’s something that not very many people know.
Andrea Herron 28:23
Wow, I like your grandma Joey sounds like a wonderful Trailblazer. And I didn’t know we had a TV star in our midst.
Isaac Dixon 28:31
Well, she also had this little game she played with me starting when I was 14. On Sundays, she would have a map, and she’d give me bus fare. And she said, your goal is to go to this point on the map and come back within a couple hours. And tell me the stories of three people you met on the bus. Wow. She said you have to learn to talk to people you don’t know. She said the world’s greatest library is outside your front door. Never forget that. She also taught me the importance of asking questions, and then listening to people. In America, we’re very verbal, dominant. We don’t listen as much as we talk. And everybody is carrying something. You don’t know what until you ask him. It was the most important lesson I learned in my entire life.
Andrea Herron 29:25
Thank you for sharing that with us. I mean, once we start riding the bus again and talking to people, I think we should really take that advice. Well, thank you again, so much for coming on. We really appreciate it. It’s been wonderful having you and we’ll see you around.
Isaac Dixon 29:42
Thank you so much for having me. Take good care.
Andrea Herron 29:46
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