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Target’s CHRO Creates a ‘Culture of Care’

A conversation with Melissa Kremer, CHRO at Target
June 2021

As the CHRO of Target during the 2020 pandemic and social and political unrest, Melissa Kremer saw first-hand what she believes is the future of HR leadership — going well beyond just overseeing human resources activities.

“Skills like human-centered design, digital and data acumen, and a willingness to take risks and champion change — I think that will separate the good from the great,” Kremer said. “And as I continue to plan for my own team, it's going to be really important that we're building skills in these new spaces. At the same time, I am very open-minded to new skills that we probably don't even know exist yet.”

Brian Cornell, Target’s CEO and board chair, said that 2020 reinforced the central role of the company’s people in the retailer’s strategy and success.

“Melissa and her HR team have never had a greater impact on Target’s values, culture and business,” Cornell said. “They will continue to play a crucial role in rallying our 350,000 team members around a culture that cares, grows and wins together.”

We sat down for a virtual conversation with Kremer in the spring of 2021, the latest in our ongoing series of interviews with leading CHROs about their career path and the elements of success in the position. The interview below has been edited for brevity.

At the suggestion of a good family friend, I started out as a recruiter and came to really love it over the first 10 years of my career. That’s where I got my first leadership role, leading Target's undergraduate and MBA recruiting teams.

A first formative moment was a special assignment standing up HR and our recruiting infrastructure to scale our operations in India. The opportunity allowed me to expand my experiences beyond recruiting. I learned that I really enjoy building and fixing, whether it be capabilities, teams or businesses. I was motivated by the idea that people and culture drive business strategy. It also cemented the idea that I wanted leadership to be part of my future path.

I was very fortunate to have great leaders and mentors who helped me determine what to do with those insights. They pointed me to the HR business partner path next. Quite honestly, I had never considered it. But I trusted the advice, did my own exploration, and took a little leap of faith. I stepped into a role as an HR business partner supporting HR.

HR supporting HR is not an easy job. But it turned out to be the next truly formative experience in my career. I got to work daily with the CHRO and her HR leadership team, and learned the HR business end-to-end from experienced peers. I got to know the core roles within HR, spending time shadowing those jobs at headquarters and in the field.

The same thing happened when I stepped into the Talent Center of Excellence, which included learning, leadership development, talent management, change management and strategic workforce planning—functions I had not yet gotten experience with myself. I was able to pull forward my leadership skills, and not be afraid to be a student in my own space. I had a great team, and built a great network externally, and remained relentlessly curious. That was the job I had prior to becoming CHRO.

I think it probably took me maybe a little longer than most to discover that. I am very honest with people that I think I suffered a little bit from the imposter syndrome. There was always the little person on my shoulder, questioning myself and my capabilities, wondering when everyone was going to figure me out. I was very fortunate to be surrounded by people who believed in me and my potential and kept pushing me to do more than I thought was ever possible. That was important, because whenever anyone asked whether I wanted to be the CHRO, I usually answered that I was still looking to learn and grow.

In my last HR generalist rotation, my leader encouraged me to create a development plan aimed at becoming CHRO. I dug deep to understand my own personal focus as it related to work, talking with some of my early career mentors and examining the values that I held most dear. Through that work, I recognized that my value of human connection is what gives me purpose in my work. The idea that I could do that at scale inspired me to put that goal on paper.

We built a personal and practical development plan anchored around three things. First was identifying and then gaining exposure in places where I hadn’t yet, including exec comp, HR policy and board governance. The second was broadening my leadership with a rotation into the talent center of excellence. And third was the inner work — becoming comfortable and confident in my ability to step into such a visible role.

I spoke with Brian about what was important to him in a CHRO and the partnership, and to share who I was, what I valued and how I think about the job. It was a great conversation. I walked away inspired to bring my true self to the role and supported to learn and grow along the way.

One question in that conversation really stands out. Brian asked me about how he could help me prioritize being a working mom in an executive role, and a model for the organization. I had two very young kids at the time. As a mom, a wife, a daughter, a sister and a community member, taking on this role and being allowed to be an example for Target was a real privilege.

The combination of my HR business partner experiences and leadership of the Talent COE were great building blocks. HR at Target has a strategic seat at the table. So there’s an expectation that you have a high degree of business acumen. These experiences deepened my understanding of the business and my ability to develop and lead a highly-integrated talent and culture strategy.

Exposure to the board was also important. My leader started inviting me to conversations with the HR and comp committee through the lens of my talent management role. I knew that success would also be dependent on building and broadening relationships, and I got a lot of permission to start building some of those relationships that helped me inside and outside the boardroom. I’ll never forget my first board meeting. Brian pulled me aside seconds before and said, “Remember to just be yourself. This is a team effort and we’ll do this together.” I felt really safe and supported in that development experience.

We knew from the start that leadership was going to be infinitely more important. I don’t believe the role of the leader is going back to what it was like before the pandemic. I think human-centered leadership, focused on empathy, vulnerability, humility and authenticity, is going to be a big part of leading, no matter how technical your job is.

While there were many systemic and programmatic things we did to take care of the team during 2020, leaders were critical for cultivating what we call a culture of care. Our leadership development team invested in studying the leadership characteristics that were thriving during the pandemic, and then layering that into how we worked with our leaders.

We identified six characteristics of leadership at Target that were going to be of outsized importance: empathy, resilience, inclusion, prioritization, clarity and communication. Then we doubled down on tools, resources and just-in-time training for all of our leaders. We also took a close look at how we define our C-suite roles, and made sure that characteristics like humanity, community leadership and empathy would remain parts of the success profile for future leaders.

The CHRO is becoming even more central to the success of the business. Skills like general management, broad-based business acumen, strategic mindset and emotional intelligence are going to remain non-negotiable for the CHRO job. If you look at just the past year, in addition to digitizing a full employee life cycle overnight, many of us extended into crisis management, communication, risk and reputation. We became obsessed with a world of work where the health, safety and wellbeing of your people is top priority. And then you layer on top of that all of the rules around work that have changed and how that's been really catapulted us to reimagining the organization.

I tell my team all the time that I think this is such an exciting time to be in HR — and particularly at Target. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play a leadership role in the current global conversation about the future of work, starting with the future of how we work at Target.