CHRO Joann Eisenhart draws on her chemistry roots to formulate success at Northwestern Mutual
By Matt Alderton
What does magnesium have in common with management, lithium with leadership and rubidium with recruitment? More than you might think, according to Joann Eisenhart, PhD, Senior Vice President (SVP) and Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) at Milwaukee-based financial services firm Northwestern Mutual.
Born and raised in Quincy, Illinois, as the youngest of six children, Eisenhart has always had a natural affinity for math and science. It came as no surprise, then, that when she graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she did so with a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry. What may well be surprising, however, is what Eisenhart eventually did with that degree: She turned it into an HR career, blending physical with social science in order to drive business results on behalf of her organizations.
From Polymers to People
While she was studying Chemistry at the University of Illinois, Eisenhart met her husband—a fellow “chem nerd,” she says—who was planning to go to graduate school. At the same time, Eisenhart’s academic advisors were encouraging her to pursue a doctorate so that she could one day conduct her own scientific research. Without an advanced degree, they stressed, she would spend her career executing other scientists’ studies rather than directing her own.
“I’ve always been the kind of person that seizes opportunities that arise, considering input from a variety of sources before making my decision,” Eisenhart said. “With the guidance of my chemistry professors, and with my husband going to get his doctorate, I decided to attend the University of Wisconsin–Madison to get a PhD in Inorganic Chemistry.”
Upon completing her PhD, Eisenhart joined Rohm & Haas Co., a specialty chemical company acquired by Dow Chemical in 2009. There, she initially worked in new product development for the company’s Polymers line of business, formulating chemical adhesives, coatings and sealants. She also served as part of a project team that ultimately led to a special assignment which would forever change the trajectory of her career.
“I was part of a Quality Improvement Team that was looking at how we hired new PhD scientists for the Research and Development (R&D) Division,” Eisenhart recalled. “Because these scientists drove the research that led to new products, we wanted to ensure we could effectively identify and attract the right individuals. The best way to do that, we decided, was to send recently hired PhDs back to campus to do recruiting. Having just experienced the transition from academic to industrial research, we felt they could relate to the candidates in a way that a non-scientist HR person doesn’t.”
In addition to her scientific duties, therefore, Eisenhart spent several weeks each fall recruiting on college campuses. “Through doing that,” she said, “I started getting a sense of the importance of talent as a corporate asset.”
Eventually, Eisenhart was offered a position in an internal consulting group charged with bringing quality improvement principles to Rohm & Haas’ R&D Division. “That is what ultimately led me to HR,” she said. “When you do process improvement, you change how you do your work, and that may also change the skills and competencies you need. So, my role became very focused on organizational development—what kind of skills do you need, how do you build teams, how do you help organizations become more effective.”
Four years into that role, Eisenhart was offered a position in HR. “At that time, I thought HR just focused on policies and procedures, and that wasn’t what I was interested in,” said Eisenhart, whose skepticism was challenged by the HR executive recruiting her. “She said, ‘That’s not what HR is. It’s focused on building effective organizations and developing needed talent. That’s what true HR is, and that’s what we need.’ So, I agreed. I bought it. I’ve always said I can do anything for a couple years; if I don’t like it, I can always go back.”
She never did. After 16 years at Rohm & Haas, the final four of which she spent in HR, in 2001 Eisenhart joined pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. as Senior Director of HR in the R&D Division, ultimately becoming SVP of HR before assuming her current role at Northwestern Mutual in 2011.
Change She Can See
When she was at Pfizer, Eisenhart oversaw a large HR organization that supported more than 100,000 employees around the world. In contrast, Northwestern Mutual has approximately 5,000 employees and operates only in the U.S. The change in scale, she says, gave her something she always wanted: the opportunity to have an immediate impact.
“If I was going to be a head of HR, I wanted to be able to rapidly affect companywide change,” Eisenhart said. “Pfizer was a great place to work, and I had global responsibilities that were rewarding. In a large global company, however, organization-wide change can take a long time, as you need to work across many different countries and cultures. The opportunity to have an immediate impact at a smaller company like Northwestern Mutual was very appealing to me.”
Indeed, in her short tenure at Northwestern Mutual, Eisenhart already has driven a great deal of change within the HR organization, restructuring her team into three main components. The first component consists of business-embedded HR leads who work closely with managers in core business areas in order to more intimately understand—and, in so doing, help advance—their strategic objectives. The second component consists of HR subject matter experts who drive best practices in HR strongholds such as total rewards, talent, diversity and inclusion, and strategy and program management. The final components are shared operations and consulting groups that drive HR consistency and efficiency across the organization.
“Our goal is to be focused on business needs and move the company strategy forward,” Eisenhart said. “These three components working together can deliver that.”
The Scientific Method
Although she no longer works in a laboratory, Eisenhart is still a scientist at heart. The scientific method—asking a question, gathering information, forming and testing a hypothesis, collecting and recording data, then drawing a conclusion—still figures prominently in her work.
“I bring an analytical perspective,” Eisenhart said. “At Northwestern Mutual, I work with people who are actuaries and attorneys as well as financial and investment professionals. When you work with individuals with these sorts of backgrounds, you can’t just say, ‘Trust me; if you develop leaders you’ll have better business results.’ You have to prove it.”
Scientists rely on data, but they also rely on experimentation. “In chemistry, most of your lab experiments fail,” Eisenhart said. “You’re trying to prove something, so you try one thing, then you adjust and, if needed, you adjust again. I have that experimentation mindset. I’m willing to try something on a small scale and then make it better, versus requiring it be perfect from the beginning. Because if you wait until you know everything, it’s probably too late to do anything.”
Of course, in chemistry you can control your variables, including time, temperature and pressure. In HR, the most important variables are human. “You can’t control people,” Eisenhart said.
Even so, taking risks on untested hypotheses is the only way to innovate, which is why Eisenhart regularly “pilots” new HR programs at Northwestern Mutual. In 2012, for instance, she piloted a leadership development program. Without knowing what the full leadership development curriculum would look like, she invited 15 high-potential employees to an offsite retreat focused on concepts such as strategic thinking and influence without authority. The goal was not necessarily scoring a touchdown, but rather making progress by moving the ball down the field.
“A number of people said, ‘Tell me how this fits into everything we plan to do around leadership development,’” Eisenhart recalled. “They wanted the entire story, from soup to nuts. I wanted to experiment while we were still making the soup and nuts. We’ve used the feedback from this pilot to improve the program for 2013 and build out other components of our leadership curriculum.”
Whatever your profession, that is the key to success, according to Eisenhart—being inquisitive enough to develop new ideas, bold enough to try them and meticulous enough to improve them. In other words: being scientific.
“Scientists tend to be curious,” she said. “Thinking about what can be done differently, and having the willingness to try it, is really important.”
Matt Alderton is a freelance writer based in Chicago, Illinois.