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Meet Ruth: Human Resources Business Partner

Tell us a little about yourself and your career

I am currently a Human Resources Business Partner within a large, global software company. We are preparing to spin out my business unit to become a brand new, privately-held, small company, where I will be the HR leader and have the opportunity to build up HR from scratch (an equally exciting and intimidating opportunity). But I want to back up to describe how I got here.

I have a degree in Music from Texas A&M University. When I began my studies, I intended to pursue a career as a professional singer. Part-way through my degree, I realized that the lifestyle of a professional singer was not in harmony with my highest aspiration in life – to be a fully-engaged mother who raises my children in my home. Completing a degree was important to me and I was nowhere close to becoming a mother (spoiler: I’m still not), so I began exploring alternate options for how to use a music degree without being a performer. I decided to pursue arts administration; specifically, the artistic planning behind an opera or symphony organization.

At this point, I had worked for several years as a part-time office assistant at an employment agency. I landed a dream internship at Washington National Opera and wanted to work in the artistic department planning productions. But I was placed in the HR department due to my prior work experience. I was happy just to be there and loved everything about that experience, but I remained set on getting into the artistic side for my career.

A year later, I graduated college in the depths of the financial crisis. Nonprofit arts organizations weren’t hiring. Because of my internship connections, I was fortunate to be offered a job in the HR department of a DC-based public broadcasting station. It wasn’t performing arts and it wasn’t an artistic job, but it was a nonprofit with a creative mission and I knew it was as close as I was likely to get at that time. I accepted the position while secretly intending to jump ship when the job I really wanted became available.

But within the first year I was hooked. I had joined a team of three supportive, passionate, and intelligent women who mentored me, enabled me to do virtually anything I wanted to do, and taught me everything there is to love about HR. I unexpectedly found myself in a job that I enjoyed, I was good at, and had the makings of a stable and fulfilling career.

I have since spent time working in virtually every aspect of the HR world. I’ve spent time as both a generalist and a specialist, a leader and an individual contributor, at small companies and at massive, global corporations.

Throughout this journey, I haven’t stopped singing. I continue to find plenty of opportunities to share my talents, though most of the time I don’t get paid for it. And that’s ok. I love that music is a gift that I have to give away. The career I’ve built allows me to pursue all my passions without the stress of how I’ll provide for myself. It gives me freedom to be generous, and I think that’s a pretty sweet deal.

And that whole thing about being a mother? I’m still waiting for that to happen. But do I regret my choices and the path I’ve taken? Never for a moment. I made this life for myself. I chose it all. My life is filled to the brim with rich, fulfilling endeavors – both professional and personal – and my career enables it all.

How does your community of women you surround yourself with support you?

My community of women is a large and diverse group made up of family members, friends, colleagues, and colleagues-turned-friends. Some are in similar career situations to mine, others completely different. Some have been my mentors in business, others are friends who give me a break from business. Some are both. They collectively keep me sane, pump me up, and inspire me in all the ways I need. I also cannot understate the value of their examples. After I left my job at the public broadcasting station – the one where I decided to stick with HR after all – I was unexpectedly thrown into a leadership role in a hugely chaotic environment. I felt under-experienced and overwhelmed at the challenge. During that time, I only-half-jokingly adopted a personal mantra of, “What would Jacky do?” Jacky was my boss at the public broadcasting station, and I figured that if I could be even close to the kind of leader she was, things would work out. That was years ago, but still I mentally call on the examples of the women who surround me all the time. They say great songwriters know how to artfully borrow material from others, and I think the same holds true for great women.

What misconceptions about HR do you wish women understood? 

Let’s start with what my job is. My job is to enable everyone to be their most successful – both the employees as individuals and the company as a whole. This is achieved when there is an environment where employees can bring their whole and best selves to work, people are treated fairly and respectfully, talents are fully utilized and developed, everyone acts ethically, and there is a clear, shared vision. Everything I do is centered on this purpose. Even what you may think of as “discipline” or “performance management,” I think of as intervention to help someone get back to their best. That is always the goal. When it’s done right, it’s a win-win. The company gets the maximum return on its investment in its people, and the people are fulfilled and happy.

Now let’s talk about what my job isn’t. I am not a police officer, nor am I the antithesis of all things fun. I often roll my eyes when I walk into the break room and someone says something to the effect of “we’d better stop having fun now; HR is in the room.” First of all, why wouldn’t I want in on the fun?! But second – and most importantly – why wouldn’t I want you to have fun? Remember, my job is to enable a great place to work. That must include laughter and fun. I guarantee you that your HR person is not walking around the office looking for someone to bust for bad behavior. And if they are, they need to find a new profession!

I am also not the manager of anyone’s people but my own. I often have people come to me requesting that I deliver bad news to one of their employees, talk to them about their performance, or settle a conflict. This is the job of the manager, not HR. I am more than willing to listen, advise, and coach to help you reach the best outcome. That is part of my job. But often, the very act of bringing HR into the conversation can be interpreted as a threat or escalation. It can invoke a reaction of fear (“uh oh, I’m in trouble”), so I stay out of it whenever possible. Professional adults should be able to resolve conflict amongst themselves in all but the most drastic situations. And if you’re a manager, this is one of the aspects of your job that is earning you that higher salary.

What do you wish you could go back and tell your younger self re: your career? 

Don’t be afraid to bring your whole self to work, be vulnerable, and let your human side show. I used to think that because I was in HR I should avoid bonding with coworkers and having any kind of personal interaction. Thanks to the examples of some amazing female colleagues-turned-friends, I’ve since learned that not only is this completely unnecessary, it actually does more harm than good. Professional does not mean detached. So much of what we do in the workplace is about relationships. Letting yourself be human builds trust and comradery, which is good for business. It also allows for some fun, levity, and connection, which will help your team through the times of stress. Also, let’s be honest, it’s easier to get things done when people know you and like you.

What is your career-related mantra? 

Do the work; be yourself. Like I’ve said, I’m still learning that second part. But about that first part…. In the workplace, people tend to like people who simply do what they’re supposed to do. Often this is the sole quality that separates a great performer from an average performer.

If my boss asks me to do something, I do it. If my boss doesn’t ask me to do something but I know it needs to get done, I do it. I’ve been surprised over the years at how often my boss has forgotten about whatever the ‘thing’ is, and they are delighted to see that I’ve done it without their having to follow up. And the higher you climb on the ladder, the less you will have anyone telling you what to do. Take responsibility. Don’t cut corners and think no one will notice. Don’t be afraid to speak up when something is being missed, isn’t right, or can be improved. Do the work and do it well.

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