4 Women at the Top of the HR Field: How They Got Where They Are
There’s been quite a bit of buzz recently surrounding the role of women in the professional world. Anne-Marie Slaughter argued last year in her controversial essay in The Atlantic that women can’t have it all: we have to make at least a few sacrifices if we’re going to be high-level executives. Slaughter’s argument, however, was quickly rebutted with the publication of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. According to Sandberg, women themselves are responsible for the low number of female executives. In other words, we’re holding ourselves back.
No matter which argument you support, there does exist a professional field in which women have traditionally dominated: human resources. HR expert John Sumser even went so far as to say, “HR is female.” And as HR begins to contribute more to strategic business outcomes—largely through improvements in technology—the women in this field are wielding greater power when it comes to determining their companies’ future course.
To better understand how women are shaping HR’s evolution from a primarily administrative function to a central component of overall business strategy, I interviewed several women in senior HR positions: consultants and in-house practitioners. All are extremely successful in their chosen career. But how did they get where they are today?
Vice President, HCM Products, Workday
Georgia State University, MS Human Resources
Howard University, BA
Years in HR:
I’m quite proud and honored be part of shaping what became a $3B talent management solution marketplace.
Leighanne Levensaler is currently the Vice President of Product Management at Workday, one of the market leaders in HR software. While her current responsibilities span all strategic aspects of the business—from human capital management to product update planning and customer engagement—she began her career as an HR Specialist in Organizational Development.
In one of her early roles at an education company, she was responsible for developing and implementing processes to ensure consistency in organizational design, staffing strategies and talent development across all the company’s locations. Even early on, Levensaler noted the acute difference technology could make in the human resources department.
According to Levensaler, the education company was woefully lacking in HR technology: “The only ‘HR Tech’ we had in human resources was an outsourced payroll service and some computer-based training CD-ROMs on the network.” But rather than accept the status quo, she decided to take matters into her own hands, leveraging technology to improve the company’s productivity and the effectiveness of the HR department. “I took my MCSE, learned HTML and database design, and built the ‘HR Web’: a corporate intranet and the start of what is now known as a talent management system.”
Her initiative served her well, and won her the notice of the founder of Bersin & Associates (now Bersin by Deloitte), Josh Bersin, who hired her on at Bersin & Associates. As her duties evolved, research of an emerging field of HR software fell to her: talent management. Levensaler was up to the challenge, and as she says, “I’m quite proud and honored be part of shaping what became a $3B talent management solution marketplace. I worked tirelessly with organizations and vendors to create models and frameworks for the emerging (and utterly confusing) market.”
Through extensive research into how talent management software could best serve businesses, Levensaler became integral to the HR tech field, and the emerging talent management market in particular. As Bill Kutik, a thought leader in the HR tech space himself, describes it, “Leighanne figured it all out, explained it to everybody else and came to be seen as the area’s leading expert.” Having proved herself a valuable asset to any company who would have her—or could get her—Workday snapped her up, and she started as Vice President of HCM Product Strategy.
At Workday, her passion for human resources and technology has served her well. As she said in our email interview, “My mentor, Barbara Butterfield, told me to go deep and specialize: ‘Become an expert. You will be indispensable.’ So, I chose to specialize at the intersection of HR and technology.” Workday has been just the place for her to realize that passion, working for a company that is “the manifestation of all that I’ve wanted for our industry: continuous innovation, business alignment and a trusted partner that truly understands HR.”
While Levensaler is proud to be a part of a company that is rethinking the technology used by HR professionals, she still believes that the human resources field has a long way to go. “I find it challenging that HR is often viewed as tactical and not strategic by their peers in the organization, but I think that fuels my passion to solve more problems and make greater impact.”
As for Levensaler’s views on women in the workplace: “I think it is reckless to say that women can have it all without discussing the real trade-offs to both family life and career, and I also believe the discussion shouldn’t always be about the choice between home and work. Rather, it should be about encouraging women to aspire to lead.”
Founder & CEO, Nonprofit HR
Howard University, BA
Howard University, BA
Years in HR:
Providing HR professionals in the nonprofit sector with professional development and information they can use to help their organizations fulfill their missions.
Lisa Brown Morton
Lisa Brown Morton’s position in HR at a large multinational firm taught her the ins and outs of the international benefits space–but she soon realized that she would need to cultivate more of a generalist background in order to grow professionally.
After working with two major nonprofit organizations, she decided to form Nonprofit HR, when, as she says, “It became hugely apparent to me that no one was really serving this market well, or quite frankly, had a genuine interest in the HR needs of nonprofits.”
Her company is the only firm of its kind in the nation, covering talent acquisition, outsourcing, project-based support, HR education and advocacy and everything in-between. And her HR expertise has proven to be in-demand. Under her direction, Nonprofit HR has grown rapidly—and as the CEO, she’s had to take on new challenges and reformulate her role at the company. “I’ve moved from having my own portfolio of clients and being very hands-on to running a full-fledged corporation,” she says.
Taking on these new challenges has not always been easy for Brown Morton. “I think one of the things that works against us as women in HR is our unwillingness to be assertive about our roles and the functions that we lead,” she says. But she certainly has stepped up to the challenges she’s faced as a leader, taking the company from a “managed growth” approach to a more aggressive one.
This strategic aspect of HR, for Brown Morton, is essential. While she acknowledges that many women are drawn to HR due to the desire to help others, that isn’t the whole package. True, HR requires empathy, but to be successful, she says, an HR professional must combine that empathy with technical knowledge and business savvy: “We’ve got to stop asking for a seat at the table. We simply need to show up ready and informed with data that will drive business decisions. When we do that, folks will wonder why we didn’t show up sooner.”
Her company hosts HR conferences and workshops, and conducts a yearly survey to capture employment trends in the nonprofit world. And late last year, the company began efforts to launch the Nonprofit Workforce Advocacy Practice, the sole purpose of which is to advocate on behalf of nonprofit organizations to ensure that no federal, state or local legislation is enacted that will impede their work.
As Brown Morton says, “We’ve provided HR professionals in the sector with professional development and information they can use to drive HR practices and help their organizations fulfill their missions. No one else in the country is doing that on a consistent, committed basis.”
President & Founder ITM Group, Founder HR Bartender
University of Central Florida, BS Political Science
Howard University, BA
Years in HR:
Being an early champion of the benefits blogging and social media can bring to individuals, as well as organizations.
Sharlyn Lauby, SPHR, CPLP
Sharlyn Lauby is the president of ITM Group Inc., a consulting firm focused on developing training solutions that engage and retain talent in the workplace. But you most likely know her as the author of the well-known HR blog, HR Bartender, where she has created an open forum for professionals to discuss work-related issues.
While consulting is her primary business, it is the way she’s leveraged technology—in this case, social media—that has elevated her profile in the HR space. Lauby has also had a hand in changing the way the HR Certification Institute (HRCI) awards HR professionals for actively participating in social media. As she says, “I was very involved with the decision by HRCI to add blogging to the list of approved recertification activities. I’ve been an early champion of the benefits blogging and social media can bring to individuals, as well as organizations.”
Thinking strategically, working hard and using the technology available has allowed Lauby to become a prominent thought leader in the HR space. But like all the women interviewed in this article, Lauby emphasizes the importance of lifelong learning as well as technology. She advises those coming into the field to never stray away from three key areas: statistics, technology and operations. And, she says, “The next time there’s a special project, volunteer for it. You’ll learn something and others will get the chance to see you in action.”
Managing Partner, Bloom & Wallace
Boston University, MBA Financial Systems
Howard University, BA
Years in HR:
Most of the work I’ve done is taken for granted now. There’s a lot of people working today in wonderful HR tech career roles who don’t know that my fingerprints are all over this wonderful industry.
Perhaps one of the most well-known figures in HR technology, Naomi Bloom has been called the matriarch of HR tech–and the name is fitting. She’s been in the business for over 40 years, and in her own words, she’s seen it all.
As Bloom says, she got in on “the absolute ground floor when the big banks and insurance agencies were automating their business processes for the first time,” when she took a job as a programmer trainee at John Hancock in the late 1960s. She was also completing her MBA from Boston University at night. “I kept finding myself at the intersection of what the technology of the day could do—which wasn’t much—and what was then called personnel,” Bloom recalls.
It was at this intersection of human resources and technology that Bloom launched her career, and helped build the foundation of a new and growing field. Early on, she realized that “everything that matters about a company is the people,” and applied to that a philosophy she had learned growing up: tikkun olam, a Hebrew phrase for “fix the world.” Armed with these insights, she set out to improve how companies use their number one resource—their people. According to Bloom, “Improving HR is how you fix companies. And technology is how you fix HR.”
So she helped fix HR technology. After working in a systems consulting firm, leading their human resource management (HRM) consulting practices, for almost ten years, Bloom branched out on her own. In 1987, she launched her own consulting firm—Bloom & Wallace—where she’s built the only vendor-neutral HRM domain model and HR software architecture “starter kits” to be licensed across the industry, which are considered a primary contributor to many of today’s HR best practices.
After a quarter-century running her own firm, Bloom announced on August 5th that she would be winding down her consulting practice. But she’s left quite a legacy for posterity. As she said in our interview, “My proudest accomplishment is that most of the work I’ve done is taken for granted now. There’s a lot of people working today in wonderful HR technology career roles who don’t know that my fingerprints are all over this wonderful industry.”
For all her experience, Bloom acknowledges that a great career can come at a cost. As she says, “Don’t expect to have it all. Nobody gets it all. And the sooner you figure out what you really want, what really matters, the better the chance you’re going to get it.”
The Secret to Success
Each of these women has gotten to where they are today through hard work—there’s no denying that. But when I asked each of them why they believed they were successful, the answer was unanimous: specializing in something you care passionately about, and embarking on a never-ending quest to keep learning.
Bloom recommends thinking of your career—and your life—as a three-legged stool. The first leg is the accident of your birth. The second leg is the good fortune of your life. And the third leg is your hard work: the effort you put into developing yourself. “When you think about your life as sitting on a three legged stool, over two legs of which you have no control over, you better put your energy into that third leg,” she says. “You better really control what you can, make the extra effort.”