ManpowerGroup’s VP of Global Strategy and Talent knows getting results means collaborating outside the box
By J.L. Greene
Mara Swan likes a challenge. After two years at ManpowerGroup as Senior Vice President (SVP) of Human Resources (HR), she felt the time had come to tackle a new giant; she looked forward to exploring new terrains. Seeing her talents, Swan’s boss chose a new task worthy of a champion—a task that would both test her abilities and propel her to even greater success. And so, in addition to her responsibilities in HR, Swan also became accountable for ManpowerGroup’s marketing, public relations, strategy, social responsibility and product expertise. In other words, she had several giants to tackle.
But conquer she did. Now VP of Global Strategy and Talent at ManpowerGroup, the $21-billion workforce solutions company, Swan continues to break the mold of what seems possible. And as a result of her hard work, the organization thrives as a successful, streamlined and agile one.
A Motivating Vision
Swan’s history of jaw-dropping achievements began early in her career, when her supervisor at the Molson Coors Brewing Co. asked her to transform the 150-year-old company culture, combining the character of the past with a more relevant perspective for today’s marketplace. With no team, funding or specific instruction from her boss, Swan decided her only option was to cast a compelling vision that would draw people to the cause project. It worked. What’s more, staff both inside and outside the company volunteered.
“I was amazed that people came to work for me, and I wasn’t even paying them!” Swan said. “They were doing this in their free time because I had a purpose that was motivating.” It was a success that ultimately earned her the title of Chief People Officer.
Swan discovered that the passion and potential in each of her volunteers outweighed their lack of technical skill as they worked outside their various areas of expertise. This applied to her role as well. After all, she had never been tasked with such a monumental challenge. But by harnessing the talents of a diverse group and building excitement for the project, she created a strong team to fill the gaps in her own experience.
“What I learned from that was mobilizing other people is how you get results, not doing it yourself,” Swan said.
As the team members, with their own personal backgrounds and knowledge, debated the ideas that would become the steppingstones to a new company culture, she unlocked a new gateway to success: collaboration.
Spreading Her Wings
Swan’s distinct view of collaboration means seeing the potential in employees, versus their backgrounds, to create a well-rounded team. For instance, her Head of Marketing also has experience in Information Technology (IT) and Finance and she recruited the Head of the North American Compensation and Benefits Department to take over the Organizational Development position.
“To me, if you can figure out what the goal is, most smart people can figure out how to get to it,” Swan said, “but some people have a hard time figuring out what the goal is.”Varied perspectives developed stronger strategy to achieve the project’s goal, allowing the team to break down tasks, avoid redundant work within departments and expedite processes for clients.
Years later, Swan encountered another doozy when the Chief Executive Officer of ManpowerGroup asked her to integrate the particular workings of every area of the company into a cohesive whole. Armed with the lessons from her experience at Coors, she once again began assembling a diverse team and cast a vision. A quick look at her standing in ManpowerGroup’s world shows her success. Swan now oversees most every department in the company, with the only exceptions being IT and Finance.
Swan’s professional successes have not come easily, and she has learned many lessons the hard way. By mentoring, she hopes to guide others to avoid her mistakes. One of the greatest lessons she stresses to those she mentors is personal assessment—becoming aware of one’s own strengths and weaknesses while being held accountable to leaders and peers. This allows employees to perform at their highest capacity professionally, according to Swan.
“This is one reason why mentorship is so important: If everybody can reach their highest potential, then the company can perform at the level it needs to. It’s ultimately about the company’s performance, the health of the company and the performance and health of that person’s career. To me, those things go together.”
Such a strategy is quite the enticement for both up-and-coming professionals and company leaders.
Swan’s tenacity allows her to be invigorated by challenges—a characteristic that has led to her world recognition as an HR expert. In addition to being a member on various boards and committees, Swan often speaks at high-profile events, including the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Switzerland. She also was named 2012‘s HR Executive of the Year by Human Resource Executive magazine.
The extreme challenge Swan faced early in her career pushed her beyond her known limitations and to a whole new standard. She is living proof that one need not be superhuman to accomplish the seemingly impossible. Fortunately, she is even willing to show you how.
Swan has some specific advice for women looking to succeed in the business world:
Understand the System: Claim Your Dues
“I’ve seen that women in general have some specific things they need help with. A lot of it is understanding how the system works and viewing the system from how the system works versus your viewpoint. And that means sometimes you have to do things that aren’t comfortable. Sometimes you have to claim credit for things—something some women don’t necessarily do.”
Man-Speak: Learn the Language
“Women have different communication techniques. We tend to tell the story and then the ending; but when you’re speaking to men, they want the ending at the beginning and then they want to ask questions about the story. You’ll watch as a woman is telling a story [about what she did] and the guy is checking out. When you’re working in an environment where most of the leaders are male, you have to adapt some communication styles. You have to understand how things get done.”
The Bold Bird Gets the Worm: Overcome Good-Little-Girl Syndrome
“Sometimes it just takes confidence and being willing to take a risk. I would say that the thing I have learned the most that I’ve been able to help women with is ask for the sale. I always thought that if I do a good job and I act all nice, then my boss will give me what I want. But then I realized it doesn’t work this way. I have to go and say, ‘I need this kind of money, here’s why I need it and here’s what I can deliver for you.’ That’s taking a risk saying, ‘I am willing to tell you if you give me this, I will give you that.’ That’s how business is done, but we’re not told that as women.”
‘No’ Doesn’t Always Mean ‘No:’ Keep Asking
“When I was an HR Generalist in sales, I realized that ‘no’ does not mean ‘no’ to a salesperson. I learned a lot from that. If you don’t ask, you don’t know if it’s ‘no.’ And if it is ‘no,’ ‘no’ doesn’t always mean ‘no,’ it just means ‘no’ right now.”
J.L. Greene is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tennessee.