The 20 Most Inspiring HR Leaders Who Are Changing How America Treats Its Workers — And The Exact Plans They're Using To Remake Company Cultures.

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The 20 Most Inspiring HR Leaders Who Are Changing How America Treats Its Workers — And The Exact Plans They're Using To Remake Company Cultures

Tom Anderson: Director of employee engagement at Doner

Courtesy of Doner

In his role at advertising agency Doner, Anderson's main focus is helping employees become more "happy and healthy." To make this happen, Anderson built an onsite farmers market, brought fitness classes like Zumba and yoga, offered volunteer opportunities, and established a mentorship program for employees.

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But Anderson is most proud of "LIVE in the HIVE," a monthly 15-minute "Today"-like newscast that covers relevant company news, recognizes top-performing employees, and gives tips on performance development and work-life balance. 

"We must always remember that, at the end of the day, we all need respect, support, and empathy to thrive in our work," Anderson said.

Mal Banach: HR generalist at Wachsman

Courtesy of Mal Banach

When Banach interviews candidates for jobs at the PR blockchain firm, she asks, "Do you want to be defined by the industry you work in? Or do you want to define your industry?" This helps her assess which candidates are up for the challenges that come with working in an emerging — and often turbulent — industry like blockchain. 

When Banach started at the firm last year, she spurred a culture overhaul by introducing benefits like unlimited PTO and flexible working. Banach and her team launched a lunch-and-learn program that brings in outside experts like journalists or startup founders to discuss relevant industry topics in blockchain and beyond.

She also instituted professional development programs that include sessions on cryptocurrency and other emerging tech, as well as interpersonal communication and advanced career skills. Ultimately, working in HR is about being receptive to the unique needs of employees, she told us.

"Nothing is more toxic than treating employees like interchangeable cogs in a machine," Banach said.

Marquis H. Barnett: Human resources manager at High Point, North Carolina

Courtesy of Marquis H Barnett

Barnett understands that building a diverse and inclusive workplace culture often starts before employees even sign an offer letter.  

At the city of High Point, he led a comprehensive review of all internal salary offers based on demographic information provided by candidates. From his research, he determined that the city could be more inclusive in its hiring practices by removing a question about prior salaries, which put minority candidates at a pay disadvantage compared to white colleagues. He advocated for the removal of the question, and the city eliminated it from its hiring forms.

Workplace culture is ever changing, Barnett said, which is why he works with his team to keep track of how employees feel about their jobs.

Right now, the biggest workplace culture trend employees are focused on is flexibility, Barnett told Business Insider. He encourages a flexible work schedule where possible, and is in the process of drafting a flexible-work policy for the city. 

"We are merely curators of the resources that people bring to work with them daily," he said. "We cannot become so rigid that we fail to accept changes as they occur. That leads to losing good people and negatively impacting whatever our business' bottom line is."

Ayana Champagne: Vice president and CHRO at Ferring Pharmaceuticals US

Courtesy of Ayana Champagne

Champagne knows firsthand the challenges in being a modern parent.

"My biggest challenge as an HR leader has been becoming a working mother," she said. "Returning to work after maternity leave while still suffering from postpartum depression was truly a test of strength."

With the emotional support of both her family and coworkers, Champagne was able to overcome her depression. The experience then helped her bring in new family-friendly benefits to the company, which included increasing parental leave to eight weeks. Under her leadership, the company also now offers fertility benefits that cover four cycles of in vitro fertilization, and a $25,000 adoption reimbursement benefit.

"As far back as I can remember, I have always been a career-focused person – and becoming a mother changed everything, instantly," she said. "While I work to be an amazing mother on a daily basis, I am learning to be comfortable with my desire to continue to achieve amazing milestones in my career. It is who I am."

Carol Cochran: Vice president of people and culture at FlexJobs

Carol Cochran

Maintaining a healthy company culture can be a challenge when your entire company is entirely remote — but not for Cochran. 

Cochran tries to replicate "in-office experiences" for her remote team at FlexJobs, a career site that specializes in flexible and remote work. This includes everything from celebrating birthdays with online shoutouts and gifts, to sending packages of candy to coworkers on Halloween and hosting virtual baby showers, pizza parties, and trivia nights.

"These are just some examples of how we honor our workers and foster connections among employees who are spread out across the country," she said. "Technology really allows us to close virtual distances." 

When employees have the space to plan and prioritize their lives they are often happier and healthier, she said. For Cochran, flexible work is about honoring the whole person and allowing them the time and space to take care of themselves and their loved ones.

Yolanda Lee Conyers: Chief diversity officer at Lenovo

Courtesy of Yolanda Lee Conyers

Conyers' biggest challenge in her 13-year career at Lenovo involved managing cross-cultural differences at work.

It was 2007 and Conyers was the first chief diversity officer at the Chinese-heritage IT company (a position she still holds, in addition to VP of global HR and president of the Lenovo Foundation, the company's philanthropic arm). Lenovo had just acquired IBM's PC business, and Conyers said she and her team helped successfully "bridge the divide between Eastern and Western cultures." The early days were not easy, and a contrast in management and communication styles led to miscommunications, she said. But Conyers accepted the challenge. 

"Luckily, embracing discomfort was not a foreign concept to me," she said. "As both a female and an African American in engineering throughout my college studies and into my early professional career, I learned to persevere when things weren't easy or comfortable."

Today, Conyers is committed to diversity and inclusion. Across the company, talent acquisition teams are required to make sure that a majority of candidate pools for open roles have at least one female candidate. In the US, they must have at least one candidate who identifies as a race other than white.

In 2014, Conyers published "The Lenovo Way" to help other companies build diverse and inclusive workplaces. The book focuses on the challenges Conyers and her coauthor, Gina Qiao, faced building an inclusive workspace at a company bridging two different cultures.

"Everyone needs to authentically feel like they are truly welcome, safe and free to be themselves in the workplace," she said. "Providing platforms and establishing a presence where employees are empowered to speak out; asking questions; and giving feedback is the only way we ensure we're really paying attention to their needs, and that we're addressing them."

Jill Felska: Director of people and culture at Limelight Health

Courtesy of Jill Felska

During a leadership team meeting at Limelight Health, a cloud-based software company, one of the executive team members mentioned that "working extra long hours is just part of growing a successful startup." 

Felska, however, fervently disagreed. "I was able to add a comment that I believe slightly altered our culture that day," she said. She explained that working long hours was bad for retention and was also limiting the diversity of candidates who would apply for roles within the company, as women still carry the majority of the "second shift" work, or taking care of children and the household, she said. 

"Working extra long hours is just not a reality for most moms, and if that's what we're asking, we're unintentionally excluding a large part of the workforce," she said.

Felska has used this belief to champion a flexible work culture at Limelight. She helped to restructured the company's weekly all-hands meeting to encourage virtual employees to participate via video chat. She also championed "virtual coffee breaks," an idea from a Florida-based worker, that allow employees to connect virtually and talk about things outside their day-to-day work.  

Although Felska has only worked in HR for three years, she understands that perks don't define a company's culture. "Having a ping-pong table is a perk," she said. "How using it during the workday is perceived (either instantly labeling that employee as a slacker or seeing it as a smart break from screen time) is a reflection of the culture."

Michael Fenlon: Chief people officer at PwC

Courtesy of PwC

The battle for top talent is fierce — and Fenlon has led PwC in making the professional-services firm a great place for everyone to work.

Most notably, PwC invested $3 billion last year on an "upskilling" program for all of its 275,000 employees over the next three to four years. Employees who agree to participate in the training are guaranteed a job at PwC, even if their roles are lost to automation.

Fenlon has also helped develop a corporate wellness initiative called "Be well, work well" that focuses on mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health, after leadership heard "loud and clear that our people needed more time and space to take care of their health in our fast-moving world." The program encourages teams across PwC to form healthy habits and provides simple tips like discussing the importance of sleep and turning off smartphone notifications. 

As for financial wellness, Fenlon led PwC in developing a program to help some employees pay down their student loans. So far, according to Fenlon, PwC has paid off more than $30 million in student loans for its staff.

"We're constantly exploring new ways to help energize our people and sustain high performance while offering new tools, resources, and ways to 'be well' both at and outside of work," he said. 

Keren Kozar: Director and HR business partner at January Digital

Courtesy of Keren Kozar

At the digital marketing agency January Digital, Kozar and her team run employee engagement surveys three times a year. But last year she decided to switch things up a bit and host round-table discussions with employees instead of the surveys.

During those meetings, Kozar found that work-related stress was a big issue, so she provided all employees with free subscriptions to the meditation app Headspace. 

"This gives them a tool they can use to disconnect, focus on their mental health and quality of sleep, and come back to us refreshed, recharged, and ready to be their best selves," she said. 

Under her leadership, the company also added a new PTO policy, a referral program, and the ability for employees to bring dogs to work. She is also working on an overhaul of January Digital's parental leave policy. 

For most, the nine-to-five workday is an antiquated idea, Kozar said. Work routinely bleeds into employees' personal lives, which is why it's important for companies to provide new tools to balance their work and personal lives. 

"In order to attract and retain top talent, it's critical to invest time, energy, and resources into making workplace culture positive and engaging — when you're at the office and when you're not," she said.

Liz Spector Louden: Head of diversity and inclusion, and assistant general counsel of employment at Etsy

Courtesy of Liz Spector Louden

Louden has a nontraditional role in HR. She's a lawyer, and she's both assistant general counsel and head of diversity and inclusion at online marketplace Etsy.

Louden said she's "always been motivated around issues of civil rights and equal protection." Her résumé features stints as a public school teacher and an employment attorney. Louden sees her current role as head of D&I at Etsy as another way to pursue her passion for civil rights and for creating "broad and equal access" to career opportunities.

Under Louden's leadership, Etsy has made significant progress on D&I. Most notably, the company doubled the number of black and Latino hires from the year before. Louden also helped pilot a mentorship program that connects black and Latino employees with mentors in senior roles so they can start planning their career trajectories.

Other initiatives Louden has spearheaded focus on helping veterans, older employees, and workers with disabilities succeed professionally.

Maya Marcus: Vice president of people at Palo Alto Networks

Courtesy of Maya Marcus

Early in her career, when Marcus was a financial analyst, a mentor told her that the most important thing a leader can do is hire top talent. The mentor encouraged Marcus to learn more about recruiting — and that's when she discovered her passion "is where the people and business intersect."

From recruiting, Marcus made her way into the broader HR space. At the cybersecurity company Palo Alto Networks, Marcus has championed initiatives to make the company culture more diverse and inclusive — an issue that's important to her personally, since her mother was the first person of color at Chapel Hill High School in North Carolina.

Palo Alto Networks was one of the first companies in the cybersecurity industry to publicly share their diversity data and commit to improving it. Marcus has led the organization in partnering with the Girl Scouts, the National Society of Black Engineers, and Black Girls Code to educate the next generation of cybersecurity professionals.

Marcus knows company culture doesn't happen overnight. Instead, she said, it "comes to life in the everyday choices made by each and every employee in how we treat each other, our customers, our partners, and the candidates we interview."

Amanda Mulay: Senior talent manager at Lerer Hippeau

Amanda Mulay. Courtesy of Amanda Mulay

Mulay has spent her career building diverse and inclusive workplaces at tech startups. Before joining the venture-capital firm Lerer Hippeau, she was a partner at the VC firms Andreessen Horowitz and First Round Capital, and worked in recruiting at Zynga.

Lerer Hippeau's portfolio includes trendsetters like Glossier, Mirror, Allbirds, and Casper. Mulay's job is to help those companies build positive, inclusive cultures from day one.

It hasn't been easy. "We've had instances where there are 15-plus employees and most of them have worked with each other previously, and it's become a very homogeneous workforce with very little diversity," she said. But once Mulay explains to those companies' leadership how important it is "to bring different voices and perspectives into the organization," they're on board.

Mulay has organized workshops on areas like D&I, structured hiring, and goal setting to help those companies learn how to build thriving cultures on their own.

According to Mulay, she's saved Lerer Hippeau's portfolio companies $2.5 million in recruiting fees through the 44 senior and executive placements she's made since joining the firm in 2018.

Michelle Schreck: Global director of people at Vita Coco

Courtesy of Shannen Siramarco

Schreck has spent a decade in HR and joined Vita Coco in 2018. Since then, she's made it clear that people are the company's most important asset.

One improvement Schreck made, "which seems quite simple," she said, was prioritizing in-person meetings with all of the employees at the company's New York headquarters during her first 90 days on the job. "I believe this showed the team that I was here to not only listen, but to be their advocate," Schreck said.

Under Schreck's leadership, Vita Coco has also introduced benefits like access to financial advisers for employees and a partnership with the corporate-wellness platform Peerfit. She also updated a performance-review process for employees at the 16-year-old company.

Schreck thinks it's crucial for HR to be proactive versus reactive. "As an HR professional, it is so important to have a pulse on how your employees are feeling — before they decide to leave," she said.

Dan Sprock: Director of people and culture at Fairygodboss

Courtesy of Dan Sprock

When Sprock joined Fairygodboss in 2019, the career community for women was in the process of nearly doubling in size. They were moving into new headquarters and expanding into new locations.

Sprock was responsible for building the HR team from the ground up. That meant developing an effective system for performance reviews and extending the organization's parental-leave policy to cover employees who had joined more recently.

Today, Sprock said, "every member of our company is involved in the process of establishing what its identity is," which encourages them to be more invested in the company culture. Sprock values continuous feedback, which Fairygodboss receives through check-ins between employees and bosses as well as regular engagement surveys.

Sarah Strehl: Chief human resources officer at ECMC Group

Sarah Strehl. Courtesy of Sarah Strehl

Strehl defines company culture as "the values and beliefs of an organization, in action." To create a positive culture, an organization has to articulate its core values from the top down, she said. 

"This also means that companies need to make sure all systems and processes are aligned with those stated values," she told Business Insider.

At ECMC Group, a nonprofit organization based in Minneapolis focused on helping students, Strehl has put that vision into practice. One of the company's core values is wellness, or being mentally and physically healthy. She's added a variety of new wellness programs including yoga classes, happy hours, team volunteering events, and mentoring/job-shadowing opportunities for employees. Strehl also actively participates in many of the company's wellness programs herself.

"These activities help break down hierarchical barriers in the workplace, help build camaraderie, and eventually strengthen trust and respect amongst colleagues," she said. 

Shannon Sullivan: Senior vice president of talent and organization at Hulu


Growing up, Sullivan saw her mom work in HR. Sullivan didn't really understand the job, but "I saw how people followed her, and the impact she had on her organization."

Sullivan entered the HR field right after college, and joined the premium streaming service Hulu seven years ago. "There is so much evolution in the HR space that I'm able to feel constantly challenged and pushed to grow," she said.

Right after she started at Hulu, there was significant turnover on the senior leadership team, which resulted in a higher turnover rate across the organization. At the same time, Sullivan's team was trying to scale Hulu and attract top talent to the company. Instead of getting overwhelmed, Sullivan said, they started by hiring new executives and thinking clearly about how they wanted to define the company's culture.

"We prioritized rehiring the executive team, working with them to set a vision and direction for Hulu, defining a clear and compelling employer brand, and very importantly, ensuring that we weren't sacrificing quality over speed to find future 'Hulugans' that would be a culture add," she said. "Hulugans" are what Hulu calls it's employees. 

Over time, Sullivan has seen the tech industry "grow up" when it comes to organizational culture. Most companies today know that a game room isn't enough to draw top talent away from competitors. At Hulu, she's helped create "real career opportunities that allow you to develop your capabilities and have impact beyond what you'd have at other companies."

Adam Weber: Chief people officer at Emplify

Courtesy of Adam Weber

Last year, Weber participated in a founders' retreat in the Montana wilderness, during which he spent three days in isolation. That period of introspection prompted him to realize that he wanted to spend the rest of his career in a talent-development role.

Weber's path to HR is unique: He's also the cofounder of Indiana-based Emplify, which builds software to measure employee engagement. 

Since becoming chief people officer, Weber has gone on a listening tour "to better understand issues within the teams at Emplify with the lowest engagement scores," and to draft an action plan to remedy those issues. According to Weber, employee-engagement scores have increased by more than 20% for the three teams he's worked with.

And to make sure all employees understand the broader impact of their work, Weber has started hosting fireside chats in which HR leaders who use Emplify's product talk about how it's affected their company culture.

Sara Wechter: HR chief at Citi

Courtesy of Citi

In 2018, at just 37 years old, Wechter was appointed global head of human resources at Citi, one of the world's most powerful banks. She'd previously served as chief of staff to CEO Mike Corbat.

As HR head, Wechter has emphasized transparency — even when it's uncomfortable. In 2019, Citi publicly released compensation data for its women, men, and US minority employees. Results showed female employees earned 29% less than male employees across its global workforce, while people of color earned roughly 7% less than their white peers. Wechter said she's committed to improving those numbers.

Wechter takes a no-nonsense approach to career development. "People who are successful at Citi have the ability to make things happen," she's said. 

When she finds out an employee is feeling unmotivated, for example, she asks them what they've done about it. "When someone takes the reins on their own professional development, it makes it easier for others around them to take action and respond to their needs as well," she said.

Chris Winton: Vice president of human resources at FedEx Services, FedEx

Courtesy of Chris Winton

Winton became FedEx's vice president of HR in 2016, which was 12 years after he joined the company as a logistics operation manager. Throughout his career, he's always embraced FedEx's philosophy on people management: People-Service-Profit.

Winton explained it this way: "When we put people first, they will deliver awesome service. That awesome service in turn drives profitability, which we then reinvest in our people."

One major challenge Winton has faced in the HR role is finding STEM talent in a tight labor market. Through research on labor participation and unemployment, the company identified communities of 18- to 24-year-olds who are out of school and without jobs, who could be prime candidates for IT jobs if they were given proper training.  Under Winton's leadership, FedEx developed the Employment Pathways program, which partners with local nonprofits to prepare young people for the workforce and to fill IT jobs. 

"We were able to fill IT jobs within this pipeline," he said.

The best way to motivate employees as an HR leader, Winton said, is to "help connect the dots between an individual's personal goals and how it can help the company's goals."

He added, "That's my aim every day."

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