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By Shana Lebowitz & Aman Kidwai – Insider

Talent leaders have had their hands full.

A global pandemic upended traditional models of work as employers across industries sent staff home from the office. Leaders in human resources were tasked with figuring out how to make long-term remote work effective and maintain company culture virtually.

Meanwhile, anti-racism protests following the police killing of George Floyd left many employees feeling frustrated and unsettled. It was HR’s job to create space for those employees to share their experiences. The most successful HR leaders listened closely to employees and used their ideas to build more effective diversity, equity, and inclusion programs.

Insider wanted to know which HR executives had done the most impressive work on these fronts. We asked our readers to tell us about innovators in the HR space, and then we picked 33 outstanding leaders across industries. Some were nominated by their colleagues. The list includes executives from startups, small companies, and large companies such as Chipotle, Glassdoor, and Zoom.

These executives have transitioned a staff of thousands to flexible work, partnered with an academic institution to educate their employees about racial issues, and modernized performance-management systems. As one nominee, OJO Labs’ chief operating officer, Angela Dunham, said, “The lessons we learned this year will serve as a playbook for how HR can better serve our teams into the future.”

Here are the top 33 innovators in HR (in alphabetical order by last name) and their exclusive insights on building the future of work.

Marissa Andrada, the chief diversity, inclusion, and people officer at Chipotle

Marissa Andrada Stefani Green

Andrada helped waive the 15-hour minimum requirement for employees to qualify for Chipotle’s education programs. The company now has a debt-free college degree program and tuition assistance for GED and ESL classes.

She also made sure the company’s executive leadership held listening sessions for all employees to discuss how the company can be more equitable. The 88,000-person company managed to grow its annual revenue by 7.1% while opening 161 new locations in 2020, despite the pandemic.

“2020 reinforced my belief that the role of HR is to help an organization grow through its people,” she said.

Andrada also helped launch a new employee resource group focused on multicultural, companywide mentorship programs. Andrada hosted virtual sessions on DEI that featured guest speakers such as athletes and musicians, and she oversaw a new partnership with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and the National Urban League as part of a $1 million pledge to address systemic racism.

“HR leaders need to have clarity on values, with a deep understanding of who the company is and what it stands for as an organization,” she said.

Ayesha Blackwell-Hawkins, the global head of talent mobility at Johnson & Johnson

Ayesha Blackwell

Blackwell-Hawkins was one of many HR leaders at work as the company prioritized flexibility and increased the access of Johnson & Johnson’s 130,000 employees to services such as mental health care and financial planning.

“The last year has shown me that HR has a very important role to play in caring for a company’s most precious resource, its people,” she said. “I believe this role will continue to expand, and we will be called to support our businesses and talent in new, more innovative ways.”

Aliza Goldstein, a leader for talent mobility at J&J, said Blackwell-Hawkins is an “incredible advocate and ally” for diversity, equity, and inclusion at the healthcare company.

Blackwell-Hawkins was an immigration attorney before spending nine years in a talent-management role at Amazon. She joined Johnson & Johnson in 2018 and has been part of the company as it earned numerous awards and recognition — it was highly rated for gender and racial diversity and named the No. 1 employer for working moms by Working Mother.

“I have consistently focused on cultivating a digital mindset, data, and analytical acumen, and agility as core competencies required to be successful in HR,” Blackwell-Hawkins said. “I stand by these, but added resilience to the list after 2020.”

Sheri Bronstein, the chief human resources officer at Bank of America

Sheri Bronstein

Bronstein oversees a team of more than 2,600 HR professionals that are responsible for supporting Bank of America’s 200,000 employees across 35 countries.

Bronstein and her team worked to reskill and reassign more than 23,000 employees to serve in new capacities during the pandemic, including helping with the Paycheck Protection Program.

Bank of America provided support for its staff by adding unlimited sick leave and childcare benefits.

Bronstein also worked with the company’s chief diversity and inclusion officer to create an analytics tracker for workforce diversity. It measures representation in all levels of leadership and helps keep senior leaders accountable for progress on their teams. The company also committed to improving pay equity by measuring its gender pay gap and raising its minimum wage to $20.

“Throughout the coronavirus and subsequent racial injustices, the past year has presented a completely new set of obstacles,” Bronstein said. “From the imperative to keep our teammates safe and healthy, to recognizing the need and value for more diversity throughout our company, 2020 led to more discussions and immediate actions among myself and fellow C-suite executives than ever before.”

Vincent Chee, the director of people and culture at Bevel

Vincent Chee

Bevel was three years old when the pandemic hit.

The strategic communications consultancy represents startups such as Acorns and venture-capital firms such as Greycroft. Chee helped the firm grow 111% during the pandemic. Today, it employs about 20 people and is hiring another 15 to work on communications for special-purpose-acquisition deals.

Chee has also invested heavily in learning and development, giving employees a stipend to take courses and attend conferences. He’s established a professional development committee that runs workshops to help employees hone their job skills and achieve their career goals.

“The past year,” Chee said, “really magnified the importance of HR.” Chee saw recent events — a global pandemic, social unrest — as an opportunity to strengthen the hiring practices at Bevel, and for the firm to become an ongoing advocate for mental health and wellness initiatives.

Bernard C. Coleman III, the chief diversity and engagement officer at Gusto

bernard coleman

Coleman’s career has been defined by firsts. He was the first chief diversity and HR officer for a US presidential campaign with Hillary for America and Uber’s first global head of diversity and inclusion.

At HR tech company Gusto, which employs more than 1,400 people and is valued at almost $4 billion, Coleman introduced the company’s first diversity and inclusion training program: RISE, or representation, inclusion, social impact, equity. Employees have weekly RISE Bites, in which they discuss social-justice issues in a safe space. Coleman’s team at Gusto has trained hundreds of managers and individual contributors on how to build an inclusive and equitable workplace.

“An effective DEI program,” Coleman said, “needs to be comprehensive in nature and interwoven into every aspect of your business.”

Carina Cortez, the chief people officer at Glassdoor

Carina Cortez

Cortez was instrumental in advocating for Glassdoor rankings to include diversity and inclusion ratings.

Internally, she helped the company publish its first diversity and inclusion report and pay-equity analysis. Cortez is also enrolled in a master’s program for diversity and inclusion at Tufts University.

Cortez added a policy called “Work Where You Want” that allowed employees to move around and live wherever they want. Glassdoor also recommended that employees take at least one day off per month.

“This past year’s events — from the pandemic to social injustice to politics and more — have only reaffirmed my belief that HR is at the forefront of business success,” Cortez said. “People are at the center of every decision a company must make. I enjoy having a role that requires an intersection of data and empathy.”

Glassdoor has more than 1,000 employees and is owned by Recruit Holdings, which also owns Indeed. Last year, the companies teamed up to get more jobs in front of unemployed Americans.

Cortez encouraged her peers to reflect on how much has changed and how much may continue to change.

“I’ve had to ‘unlearn’ my 20-plus-year history of how to do HR,” she said. “Empathy, flexibility, stepping into very difficult conversations seem to be stronger leadership requirements than prior to events of the last year.”

Gianna Driver, the chief people officer at BlueVine

Gianna Driver HeadShot

Since 2020, BlueVine has facilitated almost $7 billion in Paycheck Protection Program loans. The fintech has raised a total of $242.5 million from investors such as Citi Ventures and Menlo Ventures, though it’s never publicly disclosed a valuation.

Mental-health benefits, days off, financial-literacy counseling, motivational meetings with senior leaders, virtual social events, and regular care packages were the primary thrust of Driver’s COVID-19 response efforts as the chief people officer at BlueVine, a 400-person financial-services company for small businesses.

BlueVine also created an employee-led diversity and inclusion council that regularly reviews diversity data and recommends items for improvement to senior leadership. It also expanded its manager training to cover unconscious bias in the hiring and promotion processes.

“HR has always been a bridge between employees and organizations,” Driver said. “Last year magnified the important strategic role we play in helping companies lead through change, and I believe this awareness will help our function continue to partner in new ways to help organizations create amazing employee experiences.”

Angela Dunham, the chief operating officer at OJO Labs

Angela Dunham

It was a tumultuous year for OJO Labs, which uses artificial intelligence to help people buy homes. But under Dunham’s leadership, the company put its 700 employees first.

During last summer’s protests following George Floyd’s death, the company shuttered US operations for a week to give staff time to process the events. OJO Labs, which has headquarters in Austin, Texas, also partnered with the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for the Study of Race and Democracy to help educate employees on issues around race.

In February, Texas went through a storm that left many people without power or water, and Dunham’s team created forums in which employees could ask for help or volunteer to help others who were struggling.

“The lessons we learned this year will serve as a playbook for how HR can better serve our teams into the future,” Dunham said. “I know my team found their roles more rewarding this year than ever before.”

Lindsay Grenawalt, the chief people officer at Cockroach Labs

Lindsay Grenawalt

After its latest round of funding, Cockroach Labs was valued at $2.16 billion.

Grenawalt and her team have grown Cockroach Labs’ staff by 63% since the pandemic hit the US, onboarding 85 full-time employees, and about a dozen interns. Grenawalt’s team revamped the hiring and onboarding process to be entirely virtual but still welcoming.

Even as she ramped up recruiting, Grenawalt made sure the hiring process was fair and inclusive. Cloud-software company Cockroach recruits engineers from historically Black colleges and public state universities — not just from elite computer-science schools, Grenawalt said. And only hiring managers review résumés. “This enables the broader interviewer slate to challenge their own biases and leads to a fairer hiring process,” Grenawalt said.

With an end to the pandemic perhaps in sight, Grenawalt said she’s “hopeful that businesses realize how imperative the HR function is.”

Natalia Harris, the vice president of people operations at Eko

natalia harris

At media startup Eko, Harris is holding herself accountable for cultivating DEI among its 200 employees. Eko has raised $61 million to date, Crunchbase showed.

Last year, Harris hosted a listening tour with an outside moderator, in which she asked employees to share any challenges they faced at work. More recently, Harris developed a DEI plan called “Stand Up,” where she delivers a weekly report to the entire company on the progress she’s made and the issues she’s encountered.

Harris called HR the organizational “glue,” adding that throughout the past year, HR was critical to keeping businesses functioning. She said HR has been “owning and driving change-management strategies that have helped to do more than keep the lights on, but also kept people safe, supported, and self-motivated.”

Jeffrey Housman, the chief people and services officer at Restaurant Brands International

Jeff Housman

About two years ago, Housman led Restaurant Brands International in doubling down on its commitment to DEI. The 6,300-person company, whose brands include Burger King, Tim Hortons, and Popeyes, ultimately decided that at least 50% of candidates in every final interview round must be from groups that are “demonstrably diverse.” For all members of the leadership team, bonuses are tied to this particular goal.

During the pandemic, sales declined at Burger King and Tim Hortons. Employees at the roughly 100 RBI-owned restaurants (most restaurants within RBI brands are owned by franchisees) were given an hourly raise and up to 14 days of paid sick leave if diagnosed with COVID-19.

Housman said the pandemic deepened his “appreciation for the important leadership role HR can play in supporting people and helping an organization navigate through a crisis.”

Jane Jaxon, the vice president of people at Wistia

Jane Jaxon

Privately owned video software company Wistia employs more than 100 people. And the 500,000 or so businesses that use its products include Starbucks, Tiffany & Co., and Mailchimp.

The company formed a COVID-19 task force in February 2020 and went fully remote in early March. Jaxon’s team quickly got to work revamping the virtual employee experience at the video software company.

Her team added stipends for home offices, offered virtual company events, provided masks for employees and their families, and encouraged workers to take time off.

Jaxon also created a DEI task force to develop a three-year plan for improving representation and inclusion. The task force made a number of changes, such as making Juneteenth a company holiday, offering more support for ERGs, and ensuring public transparency around diversity data.

“This is a hard role involving a lot of emotional labor,” Jaxon said. “2020 really hammered that home, but I think it also really cemented the value of investing in the function and the outsize impact the role can have on a business.”

Cheryl Johnson, the chief human resources officer at Paylocity

Cheryl Johnson

As a mother to three children, Johnson understood the challenges facing working parents at the 3,600-person payroll-software company Paylocity, which saw a 20% revenue growth in the fiscal year 2020.

So Johnson added a “matchmaking” service for tutoring so that employees’ children could access a network for help with their schoolwork. The company allowed flexibility for parents in the form of split schedules, four-day workweeks, reduced hours, and the option to swap weekdays with weekend time.

Paylocity hired a chief diversity officer in June and focused on a few key areas in its DEI strategy: improving representation at all levels in the organization, workforce training, resources for clients to train their workforces, and greater transparency around people processes.

“There is no playbook for any of this,” Johnson said. “I think the best thing that has come of and should come of this year is that HR is being humanized again instead of just focusing on policies and procedures.”

Kristina Johnson, the chief people officer at Okta

Kristina Johnson

Johnson was ahead of the game at Okta, the $30 billion identity-security company.

In 2019, she and her team started piloting a more flexible model of work, which meant many employees could choose when and where they got stuff done. More recently, Johnson hired a head of dynamic work to make sure the success of the pilot program continued post-pandemic.

Okta employs more than 2,800 people. And to date, 60% of its hires don’t live near an Okta office. The company expects 85% of its workforce to be remote once the transition to dynamic work is complete. It also made job interviews 100% virtual.

Under Johnson’s leadership, Okta made DEI a priority and released its first “State of Inclusion” report in 2020. Outside its own walls, Okta made a $3 million, three-year commitment to racial justice and economic opportunity. Already, the company has donated tens of thousands of dollars to funds, including Black Lives Matter and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Now, Johnson is “working to better understand how the company can improve culture and experiences for employees at all times, whether they’re in the office a few days a week, a few days a month, or rarely.”

Sung Hae Kim, the chief people person at Rippleworks

Sung Hae Kim

At Rippleworks, a nonprofit with around 50 employees that support social-impact entrepreneurs, Kim has been prioritizing flexibility, such as allowing people to work in the office if they choose. Kim also made sure to encourage employees to take time off and provided a monthly cash allowance to use for health services.

“I have known Sung Hae for over 10 years. She was my rotation manager when I was in the HR Leadership Program at HP,” said Amy Nguyen, a career coach who nominated Kim for this list. “This was among the best experiences I had in my HR career. We’ve been in touch since then.”

Rippleworks, the foundation of cryptocurrency Ripple, also implemented a new hiring process designed to be more equitable. The company committed to having 50% of every candidate shortlist come from an underrepresented group. It also trained interviewers on new interview processes and set up a “Tiger Team” task force in order to “maintain the DEI drumbeat,” Kim said. This team also helped create new DEI objectives for the company.

“I feel that HR leaders have played a key role in ensuring that company’s pay attention to all forms of wellness for their employees, including psychological safety,” Kim said.

 

April Kyrkos, the chief operating officer at Brighton Jones

April Kyrkos

Kyrkos focused on communication, psychological safety, and personal well-being in leading the wealth-management company’s COVID-19 response effort. Brighton Jones, which has 195 employees, gave workers a $1,000 stipend to improve their home offices. It also built out a training program focused on mindfulness and social intelligence.

With the support of its CEO, Kyrkos amped up the company’s DEI efforts: It pledged to be an anti-racist organization, made donations, hired outside help to develop a DEI playbook, and created an internal program called JEDI (justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion) to measure progress on DEI goals.

“The people team has always aimed to service our team members just like they serve our clients. We strive for a thoughtful, personalized experience,” Kyrkos said. “Our goal remains to be supporting each individual in their pursuit of happiness.”

Jonathan Lucus, the head of NSITE

Jonathan Lucus

NSITE connects people who are blind, visually impaired, or veterans with job opportunities. Lucus helped launch the now seven-person organization in January, once he saw how the pandemic had exacerbated under- and unemployment among this community.

Lucus said his goal as the head of NSITE is to “find innovative ways to strengthen the workforce of US companies through DEI” and accessibility, focusing specifically on visually impaired workers. For employees to excel at their jobs, he added, employers must provide different types of flexibility.

Even within NSITE, Lucus prioritized flexibility: “By empowering your employees to strike a personal and professional balance that works for them, without fear of reprisal, we have established trust and fostered support for one another.”

Sundar Narayanan, the chief people officer at Virtusa

Sundararajan Narayanan

Virtusa is a 25,000-person IT-services company that works with tech giants such as Amazon Web Services, Google, and Salesforce. When the pandemic began, Narayanan set up an internal task force to monitor updates and communicate with Virtusa’s teams around the world as working conditions changed.

Narayanan helped most of Virtusa’s staff transition to remote work. He set about making sure employees were able to do their work and take care of themselves outside of work. So the company offered a 24/7 helpline, well-being programs, and a COVID-19 care plan that included “screening, testing, home quarantine and isolation assistance, and ambulance services,” Narayanan said.

“HR played an extremely strategic role in ensuring business continuity was not compromised due to the pandemic. We were very quick to go digital on all our people platforms and frameworks,” he said.

Virtusa has also worked to improve gender equity in technology. It hosts “hackathons,” apprenticeship and mentorship programs, and the Women of Virtusa group, which provides career-development opportunities for employees. Virtusa also allows employees to “initiate a new career” after taking a few years off for family reasons, which Narayanan said has helped with the retention of female employees.

Lynne Oldham, the chief people officer at Zoom

Lynne Oldham

Before the pandemic, Zoom was about 15% remote as a company. As the usage of its platform skyrocketed, those remaining employees were experiencing the same challenges as the rest of the world — balancing work and increased family obligations while trying to stay healthy and sane during a public-health crisis.

For Oldham, the pandemic response required a two-pronged approach: The company needed to address the skyrocketing demand and step up to support more than 4,400 employees. One of its first investments was in a mental-health platform and physical-health benefits to cover gym memberships, grocery and food delivery, office furniture, and more.

Oldham helped launch meetings to discuss diversity and a series of events for the children of employees. She also forged a partnership with an HBCU, Claflin University, and has participated in Next Chapter, an initiative to help formerly incarcerated people learn to code.

Oldham said that about a third of the company’s total workforce was hired after the pandemic began. So they have less familiarity with coworkers and the overall company culture.

“The workplace has forever changed, and employers need to support flexibility in the workplace,” Oldham said. “I’m currently working to be sure employees return to a safe office designed around employee needs, in a hybrid model geared toward enhancing collaboration and productivity while allowing space for employees to be humans first.”

Jeff Ostermann, the chief people officer at Sweetwater

Jeff Ostermann

Ostermann had barely been in his seat for a month as the chief people officer at audio equipment retailer Sweetwater when the pandemic hit the US. The company had around 1,500 employees at the start of 2020 and added 400 more over the course of the year as it crossed $1 billion in annual revenue and grew its customer base by 50%.

Ostermann made sure to communicate with employees frequently and as accurately as possible about changes occurring in the workplace. Ostermann started sending regular emails to employees, something the company had never done before, to inform them of the rollout of new services and safety measures.

Ostermann also worked with the company’s CEO to develop an updated DEI strategy. He met with dozens of employees individually to create this strategy, which ended up with a new online diversity training program for all employees, guest speakers to discuss inclusion and the hiring of a vice president of employee well-being who is also responsible for DEI.

“In moments of crisis, I believe that those organizations that had already implemented a proactive approach to caring for employees found themselves better situated than most to weather the storm,” Ostermann said. “I’ve told our team repeatedly that who our HR group is today will determine what our company is, not just tomorrow but three, five, and 10 years from now.”

Cynthia Ring, the chief people officer at Tufts Health Plan and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care

Cynthia Ring

Ring is a 25-year HR veteran and a champion for diverse voices across the newly combined Tufts Health Plan and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care. The organization now employs 4,467 people and is expected to serve 2.4 million members.

She’s focused in particular on supporting the LGBTQ+ community, and Harvard Pilgrim received a perfect score in the 2020 Corporate Equality Index, which evaluates companies based on best practices for LGBTQ inclusion. Ring also spearheaded a mentorship program tied to executive compensation: Executives must mentor someone who is different from them in terms of gender, race, or age. (The program is on pause now that the two organizations have merged, but Ring is working on developing similar initiatives.)

Ring said one of the most important takeaways from the pandemic is the importance of empathy. “This greater understanding has allowed Harvard Pilgrim to increase its focus on its employees as individuals,” she said, “and to think about the company’s support systems beyond traditional HR benefits.”

 

Paul Rubenstein, the chief people officer at Visier

paul rubenstein

As the chief people officer at Visier, a Vancouver HR analytics company, Rubenstein said he learned that “data can help build empathy for the things you can’t physically observe” during the pandemic.

Visier was named one of Canada’s best small and medium employers three years in a row. To get a sense of how Visier’s more than 400 workers were feeling during the pandemic, Rubenstein and his team conducted pulse surveys to gain an understanding of where employees needed the most support.

In the interest of promoting DEI, Rubenstein increased transparency around recruiting and promotion processes, and also emphasized the role of leadership in prioritizing inclusion.

The company also gave workers $1,000 to set up their home offices and added an “MTV Cribs”-style segment that allowed employees to share their home-office setups, pets, and families.

“The events of the past year really showed the importance of having a culture where people are connected with intention rather than just cohabitating an office,” Rubenstein said. “HR has a role in measuring and protecting culture — through communications, creating rituals and celebrations, and holding up a mirror to how we all show up at work.”

Michelle Sitzman, the chief people officer at Talend

Michelle Sitzman

Sitzman admits that her plans for 2020 went out the window. Instead, she had to adapt to what 1,400 employees needed at the data company Talend, where annual recurring cloud revenue grew 150% between the first quarter of 2019 and the same period in 2020.

One critical change Sitzman initiated was adjusting the performance review format. “This helped alleviate some of the heavy lifting typically associated with employees and managers at the end of the fiscal year,” she said, “and sustain a mechanism to drive meaningful conversations.” Sitzman’s team also worked with Talend’s CEO to address mental health concerns among the staff, and they’re in the process of introducing Headspace memberships for all employees.

“I believe it’s essential to create an organization and culture that makes a deep sense of belonging and allows us to do the best work of our careers,” Sitzman said.

Lenke Taylor, the chief people officer at Twitch

Lenke Taylor headshot

Amazon’s Twitch hosts 91% of all video-game streaming and experienced rocket-ship user growth during the pandemic.

Taylor invested heavily in virtual Twitch events, including guided workouts and interactive cooking classes for more than 11,000 employees. The company also improved onboarding to help workers joining the remote-only environment acclimate to the company culture.

Employees also received a number of surprises, including a box of “famous Twitch Kitchen cookies,” which Taylor called “a delicious nod” to the company’s in-office culture, as the cookies were normally available before the pandemic.

“The pandemic has been an incredibly difficult time to lead a people function, but also a very rewarding one,” Taylor said. “As CPO in such a turbulent time, I’ve learned how important it is to encourage the best of each individual’s capabilities and ensure they are collaborating as a team.”

Twitch has focused on data and accountability for leaders to reach DEI goals across hiring, training, employee support, and people programs, Taylor said. It also expanded its employee-led guilds and further empowered them to advocate for inclusion across the company. For example, the company has a new apprenticeship program to bring in employees from nontraditional or underrepresented backgrounds.

Laurie Tennant, the vice president of people at Norwest Venture Partners

Laurie Tennant

A venture-capital company with over 130 employees, Norwest also had the interests of over 150 portfolio companies in mind with its pandemic response. This included adding access to telehealth benefits, informal talks, guest-speaker events, and free online courses from Udemy, in addition to participation in an HR roundtable for the investment community.

“While I have always known that HR is important, this year really drove home the unique contributions that HR leaders make,” Tennant said. “It was stimulating, rewarding, and terrifying to be the one to whom others were looking for solutions that didn’t yet exist. I think this year gave HR an opportunity to shine as strategic partners to the business.”

Norwest also responded to the increased responsibility to drive equality in the startup world, forging a partnership with the Black student group at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and making donations to local schools and colleges to support access to information on the world of entrepreneurship.

Janet Van Huysse, the senior vice president and chief people officer at Cloudflare

Janet Van Huysse

Cybersecurity company Cloudflare more than doubled its market cap during the pandemic. And it’s hungry for new talent beyond the 1,700 people it employs.

As a working mother at Cloudflare, Van Huysse has focused especially on supporting employees who are parents during the pandemic. The “Cloudfarents” employee resource group meets regularly and generates ideas around benefits and programs for parents. And Van Huysse led Cloudflare in joining the Invest in Parents pledge, which publicly encourages companies to support working parents through this crisis.

Van Huysse, who was once the VP of HR at Twitter, is still reflecting on the positive changes to come out of the pandemic — in particular the ability to craft your workday around your lifestyle. “There’s no going back to the way things were,” she said. “The future is flexible, and that’s a good thing.”

Sean Vanderelzen, the chief human resources officer at Lineage Logistics

Sean Vanderelzen

It was a big year for cold-storage company Lineage Logistics, which employs about 18,000 people.

The company acquired more than 39 businesses, and Vanderelzen led the employee-integration process, revamping Lineage’s culture to accommodate so many new additions.

Vanderelzen also made sure Lineage put employees first during the pandemic. He successfully encouraged the company to reduce executive compensation and reallocate those funds toward bonuses for frontline workers. The company brought on a physician to consult on employee safety, and it built custom medical trailers, which provided COVID-19 testing and antibody testing, in the parking lots of some of its busiest facilities.

The past year reminded Vanderelzen why he pursued an HR career in the first place: “I saw the impact that great people practices could have on an organization. No matter what you do, people are the absolute backbone of it.”

 

Pat Wadors, the chief talent officer and chief human resources officer at Procore

Pat Wadors

Wadors has spent 35 years in HR, with stints at Yahoo and LinkedIn.

In HR, she said, “uniqueness and authenticity are celebrated,” and she wants to bring that feeling to others. At LinkedIn, Wadors, a self-described introvert, brought the Quiet Ambassador Program to life in order to help employees learn that introversion doesn’t have to preclude professional success.

Wadors joined Procore, which creates cloud-based software for construction projects and employs about 2,000 people, in November. Before that, she worked at software company ServiceNow, which is where she helped launch People+Work Connect, a platform that helps companies find job candidates who may have been laid off from other employers. (Chief human resources officers at Accenture, Lincoln Financial Group, and Verizon are cofounders.)

“I’m living my best life in this role,” Wadors said of being a CHRO. “It’s the most comfortable I’ve ever felt.”

Cassie Whitlock, the director of HR at BambooHR

Cassie Whitlock

More than two decades ago, Whitlock started her career in accounting. “Over time, I recognized that I was more passionate about the workaround people,” she said.

That passion was on display during the pandemic.

At BambooHR, the HR software provider in Utah that employs 600 people in the US, Whitlock and her team were able to prevent layoffs. To help workers who had lost their jobs, they created the Utah Layoffs page, which helped laid-off employees find new roles in tech. Whitlock’s team even volunteered to coach people who’d been let go from other companies on their job applications.

Whitlock has made DEI a priority at BambooHR. All interviewers go through training that covers hiring discrimination and unconscious bias, and they’re required to use scorecards to keep the interview process as consistent as possible.

In 2021, BambooHR was named one of the best workplaces in technology by Great Place to Work.

It’s critical, Whitlock said, those talent leaders “embody the ‘human’ in human resources.” She added, “Yes, there are HR tasks to do, but your real job is to help the people of your organization be successful.”

Dantaya Williams, the chief human resources officer at Raytheon Technologies

Dantaya Williams

Raytheon outperformed earnings expectations last year, with $1.4 billion in cash from operations in the fourth quarter of 2020. But the aviation and aerospace industry was hit hard by the pandemic, and Raytheon cut about 21,000 workers (it has a staff of nearly 180,000 people).

Williams led Raytheon in supporting employees. Most notably, she helped expand Raytheon’s dependent-care benefit to all US employees. If your routine care falls through, the company works with care provider Bright Horizons to provide subsidized backup care.

Williams has also focused on both gender and racial equity, and Raytheon is committed to achieving gender parity across senior leadership roles by 2030.

To keep Raytheon staff engaged, Williams helped introduce the Employee Scholar Program, which allows employees to pursue any work-related degree that interests them. The company helps fund the tuition.

Williams said that through the challenges of the past year, she “saw endless examples of courage, resiliency, and authenticity.” She added, “We shifted long-standing beliefs and thought differently about how work gets done.”

Denise Williams, the chief people officer at FIS

Denise Williams

FIS took a unique approach to the pandemic. Instead of conducting layoffs or cutting salaries, the fintech gave employees raises and paid bonuses to its essential staff around the world. The company employs over 55,000 people and grew annual revenue by 21% in 2020.

Amid the protests that unfolded after the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Williams displayed empathetic and authentic leadership.

“These events deeply impacted many within our company, including me as a Black woman,” Williams said, “a fact that I did not shy away from sharing with our colleagues.” Williams’ team created forums where employees shared thoughts on how FIS could better drive social change.

Williams said a company’s performance depends heavily on the strength of its talented team. “It’s become crystal clear that companies that have HR at the center of their strategy and approach,” she said, “are the ones that will thrive in this new, uncertain, and complex world.”

 

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