Howard Cleveland has brought a unique set of skills and perspective to his role as principal of PeopleCap, the boutique human resources firm he co-founded in 2012.
Cleveland knew his PeopleCap colleagues Anna Holtzclaw and Meg Crosby while growing up, and he attended Rhodes College with Coleman Johnson and Andy Nix.
“It’s fun to be working with real friends,” he said.
Cleveland entered Rhodes with the intention of a pre-med path until, he said, he “ran into the buzz saw which is organic chemistry.”
Switching to a major in psychology, he became fascinated with the subject. Specifically, he grew interested in the psychology of juries during a time when newsmakers such as John Gotti and William Kennedy Smith were on trial and all over television.
“It was always that ‘why things work’ aspect of it that I enjoyed,” he said.
After Rhodes, he headed to the University of Tennessee College of Law, where he was executive editor of the Law Review and graduated cum laude.
Back in Memphis, he began in the field of civil and criminal general sessions work while with Glankler Brown PLLC. He moved to Kiesewetter Wise Kaplan Prather PLC, a firm committed to “creating a culture, a strong culture, where everybody was on the same team trying to do the same thing as far as providing excellent client service,” he said.
It would become a benchmark taken into future endeavors, including the environment of PeopleCap and its clients. While at Kiesewetter Wise, Cleveland transitioned into employment litigation defending companies in lawsuits but also union avoidance work.
“The reason they initially called us was to figure out how to keep the union out, but what we would do was go in and interview people and help them understand what the factors were that were driving the fact that the employees went and contacted the union anyway, figure out what the real drivers were,” he said.
This was the psychology of the law that had interested Cleveland from the start as he dug deeper to find out “whether or not people felt like they were treated with dignity and respect, whether or not they were appreciated, whether or not they felt like they were part of a team, whether or not they felt like they were included in decisions.”
After 12 years with Kiesewetter Wise, he was looking for a change and joined the Urban Plunge outreach program at Hope Church, getting introduced to community organizations serving under-resourced people and parts of the city.
“The organizations that I was attracted to, or that resonated with me, were the ones that were helping people get the skills or the knowledge they needed to help themselves,” Cleveland said.
As he worked to help individuals, he became more engaged with the organizations themselves, and his skill set came full circle as he started helping with grant writing and working with them to better position themselves to increase opportunities and outcomes.
During that time, he also worked at Counsel on Call, and ran into Crosby while working with Advance Memphis on policy issues.
“We started talking about the need for people strategy-slash-HR in the nonprofit world, and then, as we continued those discussions, Andy and Coleman came into the mix and we started talking about how important people strategy is, just in the city as a whole,” Cleveland said. “And that’s how PeopleCap was formed.”
Cleveland left private practice to pursue community service and then “gravitated back to the parts of my practice that I loved, which were working with organizations and being part of that team and that trusted adviser.”
With PeopleCap, he is jokingly referred to as the “recovering attorney,” but there is no denying the knowledge base he brings to the table when it comes to a client’s integration from a merger, leadership team analysis, helping with a transition or helping shape the culture of a company.
“From being in employment law and working in labor relations, a lot of my experience dovetails into exactly what we’re doing here – being the adviser, helping companies see the big picture and put together a strategy for getting to where they want to go,” he said.
As a practicing attorney, Cleveland found the oftentimes necessary conflict to be an unpleasant ingredient of the profession. His new role, however, “is everything that I enjoy doing; it’s fun to come to work,” he said. “It’s the people aspect of it. … Everything we’re doing is somehow related to helping companies with their people.”