2016 HR Excellence Awards: Emily Stickley, Executive of the Year, Midsize Organization

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

Vice President of Human Resources


Emily Stickley was an Indiana teenager working at Staples when her strong customer service and people skills brought an unexpected compliment from a supervisor.

"He told me I should go into human resources," she says. "He probably saw how I love interacting with people. I'm not a super social, outgoing person, but I like to interact in a way that is meaningful."

Stickley followed that advice to a degree in HR and business management from Indiana University, and eventually took a job at home health company ViaQuest, where she is now vice president of human resources.

Her continued quest for the betterment of ViaQuest employees earned her the title of Executive of the Year for a midsize company.

"We serve some of society's most fragile populations-people with mental or behavior health issues, the aging," says president and CEO Rich Johnson. "We don't have physical assets. Everything we have is hiring people and providing services to people. Not only does she do that well-recruiting, retention-but she does it in the most heavily regulated industry of healthcare.

"She is thrown every curve ball, but she keeps her focus on finding the best people, the most qualified people. She changes so many lives."

Stickley was actually on the Staples store management track when the company relocated her to Columbus in 2006.

She realized, however, that path was not moving quickly enough, and working at such a large corporation left little opportunity for a meaningful HR role. Stickley left a year later for an administrative job at ViaQuest. After just a few months on the job she was ready for another challenge and submitted her resignation. Johnson, however, intervened.

"I heard she was leaving, so I sat her down and said, 'I don't know why, but I have a great feeling about you," Johnson recalls. "'You have a great future here. I want you stay. I think we can do great things together.'"

Stickley stayed and led ViaQuest through challenging changes brought with passage of the Affordable Care Act and the elimination of the companion exemption, which impacted overtime pay for domestic service workers.

She has spent the better part of two years centralizing HR functions while putting a strong emphasis on employee engagement and relations.

"As a company that provides services to individuals with developmental disabilities, those with behavioral and mental health needs, veterans and individuals seeking home health and hospice services, our business survives and thrives by recruiting and retaining the best employees," Johnson writes in his nomination.

"Emily made it her personal mission to reduce turnover, increase employee and customer satisfaction and develop an internal training career path that would allow employees to create a vision for their future."

Among her key initiatives were:

• Implementing a veterans' recruiting platform.

• Assisting veterans who are separating from the military find meaningful employment.

• Creating ViaQuest University to educate and advance employees.

• Self-funding ViaQuest benefits to keep costs low for employees.

• Establishing employment communicators who call new hires at the 90-day mark to ask how are things going and reach out to all 1,800 employees through the year.

On the way she has reduced turnover by 20 percent, and increased both employee and customer satisfaction.

"I love working with our team and leading my team to figure how we can work within the regulations to be different than everyone else-to make us stand apart and stand out," she says.

"She is thrown every curve ball, but she keeps her focus on finding the best people, the most qualified people. She changes so many lives."

Finalist:Jenni Kovach, IGS Energy

In the summer of 2015, IGS Energy sought to improve operations in its call center. It turned to Jenni Kovach, a proven HR leader, to guide the 80-plus-person team.

A year later, Kovach's skill at managing people and creating a climate in which employees can thrive made the vice president of employee and customer engagement a finalist for Executive of the Year of a midsize organization.

Kovach had no previous experience running a call center, but she tackled the challenge and built a team that quickly excelled at high-quality customer service, leading to increases in customer retention.

Her recipe: Put agents at the center of every interaction and measure quality not by the speed of the call but rather the connection with the customer.

Through Kovach's leadership, IGS soon learned the longer an agent is on the phone with a current customer, the more likely that customer will remain an IGS customer. Kovach further enhanced customer support by dedicating one employee contact to each emerging IGS business.

Kovach recognized the most basic training is often overlooked, and for the call center that meant formal training to take calls. Leaders now also get on the phones, taking calls to better understand the job and its challenges.

Her "good, better, best" call-review strategy led to productive reviews of customer calls and constructive conversations between employees and supervisors.

Kovach's efforts have also led to a 6-percent increase in customer satisfaction and an 88-percent favorability rating of the company from IGS employees.

Executive of the Year

Executive of the Year recognizes an individual who has demonstrated significant achievements that advance both a person's organization and the HR profession. Nominations were categorized by workforce size: Large organizations have more than 2,000 employees, midsize between 500 and 2,000 employees and small organizations fewer than 500 employees.