Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
August 16, 2021

The Empathetic HR Leader: ‘Listening In and Of Itself Is Also an Action’

Julie Duffy’s first job in human resources? When she took over the top job at Textron in 2017. However, the groundwork was laid during 20 years as an attorney at Textron, a multi-industry company that includes Bell Helicopter, Arctic Cat snowmobiles and Cessna aircraft, among other brands.

As Textron’s deputy general counsel of litigation, Duffy worked in partnership with HR on helping to reduce litigation through better training and clearer and more understandable policies. When the HR leadership position opened up in 2017, CEO Scott Donnelly asked Duffy if she’d consider filling it — a moment that she said left her “shocked into silence.” But considering her years of work with HR and relationships within the function, it made sense

“For me, it was an incredible opportunity to expand my understanding of the company and our industry, and to take on a completely different type of leadership role,” Duffy said. “I was challenged to lead a team in an area about which I had just enough knowledge to be dangerous, but not enough to micromanage them.”

Donnelly shared with us that Duffy was a clear standout in terms of internal succession candidates.

“When our last CHRO retired, we were looking for intellect, the capacity to learn and contribute,” Donnelly said. “Julie was someone I had watched for years — she was bright, creative and energetic; she had new ideas and wanted to continue to grow her career at the company.”

We spoke with Duffy in the spring of 2021, the latest in our ongoing series of interviews with leading CHROs on paths to the position and the elements of success. The interview below has been edited for brevity.

When did you decide you were ready to be CHRO?

Because I had done so much employment litigation earlier in my career, when I joined Textron as a member of its litigation team, I started working with human resources on EEO claims. We worked together to build a shared resource to develop training plans and metrics to help managers and employees work more effectively. It was a great partnership, and as a result, I got to know a lot of the HR folks, including the heads of HR.

When the top HR job opened up, my relationship with HR was not lost on our CEO. He saw the job as a way for me to continue to grow relationships I had already established, to learn more about leadership development and to contribute more to our talent strategy. What appealed to me most about HR it its variety. Yes, it's making sure people get paid on time, but it's also about creating meaningful people strategies that are linked to your corporate culture and the industry you’re in.

For example, tuition reimbursement is an important benefit. Many of our manufacturing people are hired straight from high school, without a technical degree, so the tuition benefit helps them get the certifications and technical skills they need to move up—and which in turn helps us create a better-skilled workforce. On the flip side, college graduates can work with us, grow and learn on our team, while also pursue an MBA. It’s mutually beneficial.

Looking back at the past year, how did COVID-19 impact leadership? What leadership characteristics stood out?

Throughout 2020, we saw the emergence of the empathetic leader — the manager and executive who can take a step back to recognize how many people are giving it their all in a difficult situation and will do whatever they can to ensure that those efforts are rewarded. For example, our shared services team made sure very early in the crisis that all managers and employees knew about little-used benefits that had been available before but suddenly became critically important: telemedicine, behavioral health, childcare, elder care.

The leaders who managed the “whole person” were the ones who really shined during this pandemic. The leaders who genuinely demonstrated empathy and thereby an ability to solve problems creatively were our most effective. These leadership attributes will remain a focus for us long past the pandemic.

This year also highlighted for me the importance of clear, continuous and frequent communication — even if repetitive — to ensure people know that you’re on top of things. Your people want to understand what's going on. They want to understand that your next step is related to your first step and that you’ve got a plan for the steps after that. The anxiety caused by this crisis drove employees to wanting more transparency from their leaders, more honesty about what is and isn’t working. People also wanted to be reminded that we appreciated them. Clear communication was the most important way for us to meet these needs.

What advice would you give to somebody aspiring to the CHRO role?

Number one, be sure to develop your ability to truly listen. Even in an action-oriented culture like we have at Textron, it’s important to recognize that listening in and of itself is also an action, and one you need to be good at to be an effective HR leader.

Think about the discussions of racial injustice that came to the head in 2020. You can’t address the issue at all without first listening. As a leader, you must set the expectation that you’re going to listen first — in fact, that listening may be the only thing you do right now — because that is the critical first step to coming up with a better solution down the line. Sometimes you just need to listen for listening's sake before you can do anything else.