Female HR Leaders Share Lessons They’ve Learned

News Updates

Although their journey to global HR and talent management roles took different paths, a panel of female executives recently reflected on common themes in their ascent: a solid foundation, a belief in oneself, authenticity, having mentors and setting work/life priorities.

Several said key factors in their rise were getting experience across different lines of the business and understanding the business.

Speaking at the 2013 Catalyst Awards Conference on March 19, 2013, Terry A. Hildebrand, global director of talent and development for The Coca-Cola Co., said her most important career advice for young people—especially women—is to “learn your business.”

“You will be able to leverage that forever, even if you change industries, which many of our young people want to do,” said Hildebrand, whose company was one of the 2013 Catalyst Award winners.

Companies should make it easier for women to try out different roles. But Hildebrand said women often shy away from operational roles, and companies often want people to stay in a particular “functional expertise” area for a while before moving them to different roles.

“That’s actually a mistake, and it’s a mistake for men and women,” Hildebrand said. “We should be moving them earlier in their career, when they haven’t got families and mortgages.”

Believing in Oneself

Speakers discussed their upbringing and the role that family and mentors have played. Cynthia Marshall, senior vice president of human resources at AT&T, grew up in a public-housing complex in Richmond, Calif.

“I had a mother who taught us it’s not where you live, it’s how you live,” along with the importance of working hard, Marshall recalled.

“I bring that to work, and fortunately, I work for a company that allows me and all employees to bring ‘themselves’ to work,” Marshall said. That wasn’t always the case. When she was in her early 20s and had been with Pacific Bell for just a month, Marshall said a female supervisor told her to “get rid of those red hooker shoes and take those braids out.”

Marshall stripped her braids that night and got some church friends to lend her shoes, since the red ones were her only pair.

By contrast, at AT&T, “We have 240,000 employees that have their own foundation, their own backgrounds,” she said. “We don’t want to change them. We want them to walk in the door being just who they are and to contribute to the company.”

Drawing applause when she pointed to her footwear, Marshall said that since she now works for a company “where you can ‘do you,’ I’ll wear whatever the heck I want to wear, and yes, I have on these polka-dot shoes!”

Mentor Key to Unexpected Career

Michelle Nelson, senior director of human resources at Sam’s Club, never expected her job at Wal-Mart to be anything but a part-time college gig.

She began working at the big-box store in 1988, while majoring in criminal justice, and later worked in accounting before an unexpected mentor—the head of loss prevention—recognized her talent and offered to help.

Nelson thought he was crazy, but before long, she had a job in training and development and believed she owed “it to him and the corporation to give it 110 percent.”

Nelson has since held roles in diversity recruiting. She said her understanding of the the business and her growth with the organization have been instrumental to her HR success.

Each day, if the list of what she has to tackle at work “doesn’t start with the value that I can add to the associates and back to the business, then it’s time to course-correct,” Nelson explained.

Work/Life Effectiveness

Setting priorities in life and work has been key, speakers said.

Hildebrand described her family as “tightknit,” noting that “work is important to me, but life is important to me.” She encouraged women to be clear about what’s important in their professional and personal lives.

“Prioritize those things and find solutions for everything else,” she said.

Abbe Luersman, senior vice president of human resources, Europe, for Unilever, now lives in the Netherlands but previously worked in the U.S. and the U.K. Her husband, a former law firm partner, took a sabbatical to stay home with their 8-year-old daughter.

“We decided to make a family choice,” explained Luersman, whose company also won a 2013 Catalyst Award. “We wanted to have the adventure abroad.”

The family has its own “life-cycle map” (similar to what organizations use), on which each family member plots what’s important to him or her over the next 10 years. It’s a long sheet of paper, complete with crayons and colored markers, taped to the wall of their home’s third-floor hallway.

“We thought it was important to make collective choices,” Luersman said. “You move away from work/life balance, and you say, ‘What’s work/life effectiveness?’ ‘What works for you and the choices you make with your families or your partners?’ ”

Want to Get Ahead in the Workplace?

Speakers offered more suggestions for women in the workplace:

Executive presence is key. Women shouldn’t be first to offer to take notes in a meeting or try to make themselves “small” by reining in papers—men don’t.

“Sometimes we discount ourselves by putting ourselves by the door or on the side,” Nelson said. Weigh in, but avoid talking for the sake of talking. “You know those people,” she said. “And they don’t always get the credibility that you would want to have.”

Be authentic. Women shouldn’t feel that they have to sound like men. Zabeen Hirji, chief human resources officer at Royal Bank of Canada, works in a fairly male-dominated industry. But Hirji, who was born to Indian parents in Tanzania and moved to Canada as a teenager, noted that the bank’s clients are diverse and that nearly half are women.

“I can think through that lens,” Hirji said. “I don’t need to be like everybody else, because that is not what makes me unique.”

Remember why you like HR. Luersman said she enjoys watching individuals, teams and organizations grow and develop to the point that they “deliver things they didn’t think were possible, or seeing an entire culture change or an organization change.”

“Seeing that consistent strategy delivered is incredibly rewarding,” she said.

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area. To read the original article on shrm.org, please click here.