With a career that’s been rapidly arcing from the start, FTI Consulting’s CHRO Holly Paul shares the importance of striking the right work and life at home
By Shari Held
Holly Paul has logged a lot of miles and tackled many challenges over her 20-year career. She hit the ground running when PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) scooped her up after graduation in 1994, and has been in high-gear ever since.
Although it happened earlier in her career, Paul considers the investigation of the Swiss banks for the Holocaust victims to be the pinnacle of her career.
“It was one of the biggest times of learning I’ve ever had in my career,” she said.
Besides playing a lead role, Paul was charged with managing the comings and goings of a 250-member global team in Switzerland. That necessitated staying on top of cultural dynamics while ensuring morale remained high over the duration of the year-and-a-half project.
Paul accomplished this by creating a unique work arrangement—nine days on and four days off—and encouraged group travel so that members would get to know their international colleagues. For added inspiration, team members received a peek at the treasures uncovered in the bank vaults.
“I’m a firm believer that the more fun and the more friends you have at work, you’ll stay longer,” Paul said. “I think that’s the glue that held everything together.”
Paul spent the first half of the project outpacing her team and prodding them to keep up. That strategy didn’t make anyone happy. She discovered success wasn’t measured merely in terms of how much was accomplished and how quickly.
“When you’re in leadership, it’s all about keeping the team with you and making sure they understand what needs to be done,” Paul said. “You’ve got to have the right cadence so you can get things done, but do it in an environment where people can thrive.”
This project inspired Paul to concentrate on human resources (HR) projects. By 2001, she served as market HR leader; she worked her way up to U. S talent acquisition leader by 2007.
One of her keys for moving up the management chain was to seek out duties that took her out of her comfort zone. During her PwC days, Paul took on numerous and diverse roles, such as the investigation of the Swiss banks. That ability to be nimble served her well when she was promoted to a talent and recruiting leadership role that required extensive public speaking—not one of her most stellar skills.
Undaunted, she reached out to a mentor who excelled in public speaking for tips, even asking him to join her for a speaking session and provide feedback on how she could improve her delivery and connect with a large audience. Today, she’s an accomplished public speaker.
“You get used to being in situations where you can still perform at a good level even though it’s completely new to you,” Paul said. “If you combine high performance and seeking out opportunities, you’ll be much more prepared and able to perform better when you actually do get a new role.”
Around 2012, Paul, who had achieved all she could at PwC, started seeking out her next venture. She’d just turned 40, and recruiters advised her that if she wanted to make a move, she needed to do it soon or risk being considered “entrenched.”
After much researching and soul-searching, Paul proved her advisors wrong by making the leap to Vocus, a Maryland-based, high-tech company that provides cloud-based marketing and public relations software. Paul became the company’s first Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO), reporting to the Chief Executive Officer.
“It could not have been more different,” Paul said. “PwC is an up-or-out, high-performance culture, while Vocus is an innovative, collaborative environment where everyone rolls up their sleeves and it’s all about how we’re performing as a team.”
Although she enjoyed the change of pace, Vocus recently was sold and Chicago was tagged as its new headquarters. It was time to move on. In July 2014, Paul started as CHRO for Maryland-based FTI Consulting, a global business advisory firm.
Winding Down & Ratcheting Up
No matter where Paul works, she has days, weeks and even months when work wins out over home life. There’s no way around it. Setting boundaries and refraining from taking a daily or weekly tally helps keep her on an even keel.
“It’s less pressure and stress on myself when I think of it long-term rather than trying to manage it every single day,” she said.
Her husband Bill attends to the everyday parenting details for their two children, Zoe, 10, and Quincy, 8. He organizes the lunches and backpacks and gets them off to school on time (as Paul typically has already left for the office) and runs the household.
At other times, family takes precedence—school plays, sports finals, parent-teacher conferences. Paul unabashedly puts those dates on her calendar and “holds them sacred.” “I’m completely transparent about it,” she said. “I say I’m going to be with my kids and I will not be checking email.”
Although it may be 7:45 p.m. before she walks through the front door, once she’s home, work is behind her and it’s family time.
“The best thing you can do is to be in the moment,” she said, adding that the sooner you develop the skill to quickly wind down one and ratchet up the other, the easier it is.
Shari Held is a freelance writer based in Indianapolis, Indiana.
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