New personnel chief learned skills by straddling two cultures

February 09, 1994|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

Plyas William Herndon Jr., who was named county personnel administrator Monday after serving 13 years as second in command, honed his people skills pulling weekend riot duty as a District of Columbia National Guardsman in 1970.

It was not an easy job for anyone, much less a young black man who had been born and raised in the nation's capital and had participated in civil rights demonstrations, such as the 1963 march on Washington led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

"Going from someone who participated in demonstrations to the National Guard on the other side made a lasting impression on me," the Howard County resident says.

The skills he learned straddling two cultures will be needed again in his new $61,432-a-year job as head of the county's personnel office -- a job in which he will represent management as he seeks to provide for and sometimes negotiate with employees.

He will hear grievances, bargain contracts, recommend policy changes and be responsible for assuring that the county salary and benefit package is attractive enough to keep high-quality employees and lure new ones.

"He has a very good personnel background in affirmative action, equal opportunity and the Americans with Disabilities Act," County Executive Charles I. Ecker says.

"He has a very good way of dealing with people and has good relationships with [county] department heads."

What distinguishes Mr. Herndon is his "great feel for people," says Deputy County Administrator Cecil Bray, who headed the search committee. "Employees will relate to him well and find that he is a very caring person."

It was Mr. Herndon's convivial manner and easygoing way with people that led him into personnel work in the first place, and he says he wants to continue that style as personnel director.

Mr. Herndon got into human resource work, as he prefers to call it, almost by accident.

He was fresh out of college in 1970 and being trained as an executive at American Security Bank in Washington when the employees went on strike. During the strike, he and other managers had to take on added responsibilities and work overtime.

"I would go outside to take a break from the 15- and 16-hour days we were having," he says. "While outside, I would talk to the people [who were striking], and when I returned I would make comments about the issues.

"A week later, the strike ended and I was told I was being transferred to personnel."

Mr. Herndon's had some reservations, but his boss told him that he had the kind of skills the department needed, and he has been working in personnel ever since.

"Someone was recognizing something in me I didn't see in myself," he says, "and so far, I still love it."

Mr. Herndon, who will be 47 on Valentine's Day, says the name "personnel" does not do justice to the work given his department.

"Human resources is a more accurate description of what we should be doing," he says. "We start with a basic philosophy. The county's employees are our human resources. They are the county's greatest asset, and they should be treated as such."

Mr. Herndon sees his role as more that of a coach than that of an administrator. He sees himself as a person who helps others by assuring that they receive the proper training, incentives and encouragement to reach their full potential.

"It is not something I can do by myself," he says, despite what he sees as his tendency to take things over, to be "the lead buffalo."

"Hopefully, I will have the wisdom to use the awesome amount of talent around us here," he says. "I am not a detail person. I see the big picture, but the nuts and bolts wear me down a bit. I have to utilize the skills and trust the judgment of people around me."

County Council Administrator Sheila Tolliver says Mr. Herndon did exactly that when he helped the council hire a new legislative assistant last summer.

"He was very helpful to us," Dr. Tolliver says. "I think he will look out for the welfare of employees and will be helpful to departments in their recruiting. I think he will be a good person to work with and will have an appreciation for the county's work force."

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