Armed with a creative writing degree and ambitions of writing the next great American novel, Towers Watson CHRO Gail McKee relates how a job she’d expected to be short-term turned into prolific career within HR.
As a Creative Writing major, Gail McKee never expected to find herself in a business environment, let alone the human resources (HR) field. But the current Chief HR Officer (CHRO) at Towers Watson—a global professional services company—has spent more than 20 years working in various HR positions, from entry-level to executive roles, for both domestic and international organizations.
Prior to taking over as the company’s head of HR in 2011, in January 2010 McKee played a vital part in the merger of Watson Wyatt and Towers Perrin. As Managing Consultant for Watson Wyatt’s Pacific Northwest operations at the time, McKee worked to integrate the two businesses, both internally and market-facing, and learned the importance of making key leadership decisions early in the process.
“For example,” she said, “in the months before the merger, we used external resources to pull together information on clients from the two organizations. None of the information was shared across the two companies until the merger was completed, but as soon as it was final, as a Managing Consultant, I had access to integrated client information.”
Although the information was admittedly rough, McKee said she had an understanding of the work each employee had been doing and was able to form client teams and quickly get in front of clients—before competitors did—as an integrated team.
“That made a big difference for us in the market,” she said. “And leadership put a lot of focus from the beginning on doing the kinds of things that would help the consulting units come together.”
Also contributing to the smooth assimilation, according to McKee, was the fact that leadership decisions were made early and the reporting structure was made clear. From there, the new company built an infrastructure to help people work together.
“Within six months of the merger, we had a brand-new salary structure and reward system for all associates—14,000 people around the world,” McKee said. “Generally speaking, we had the whole organization lined up by the time we hit our first full fiscal year, so people had the same rewards, bonus opportunities and career levels, which in turn allowed us to staff projects effectively.”
McKee’s keen ability to keep clients’ needs front and center amidst the merger eventually led in January 2011 to her current role as CHRO of Towers Watson, when she took on responsibility for both the internal integration of the two firms and for transforming the HR culture to a “client-first” environment.
An Unexpected Path
McKee fell into the HR field when she moved to New York City shortly after graduating from the University of Washington.
“I moved to New York expecting to get hooked into the liberal arts scene, go to grad school and write the great American novel,” she recalled. “I had to earn a living while I was preparing for that, so I happened to join Hewitt Associates.”
Because she was a strong writer, McKee was asked to attend meetings and write notes for the busy senior consultants.
“They would oversee the technical work, but I got to learn the business from the ground up, working with companies such as American Express, DuPont, PepsiCo, and I watched very seasoned consultants work at the executive level.”
McKee eventually joined the Wyatt Co., focusing first on international benefits and then working as an HR Consultant. In her 21 years with the company, she has played several roles, giving her a broad perspective on both the professional services industry and Towers Watson’s client concerns.
When she took over as the head of HR, McKee focused on integrating company infrastructure—a task that had lagged behind client needs.
“Starting with client needs was the right decision,” she said, “but it meant that in HR we had not been able to turn our attention to major work such as building and integrating a new IT [information technology] platform.”
McKee brought on additional resources and reset the integration’s time frame to be more realistic. “As we planned for HR’s development, we realized that we really couldn’t get started until all the market-facing functions were addressed,” she explained. “So we had to adjust expectations a bit in 2011.”
As the integration took place, McKee used to the opportunity to develop a new HR culture—one with a more client-first focus.
“In HR, the way people position themselves is always client-first, but people oftentimes have different clients,” she said. “So, for example, what’s best for a particular unit within the company might not be best for the enterprise as a whole. It’s a delicate challenge we constantly face.”
As she assembled her leadership team, McKee saw that the sheer volume of work was forcing staff members into silos.
“There wasn’t time to pause and look across the whole organization, so we focused on implementing a culture we call ‘One HR,’” she explained. “Our clients—the consultants and managers we work with—really don’t care if something is a global mobility issue or a compensation issue. They just want to be able to go to somebody in HR and say, ‘Help me solve this,’ without having to reach out to 20 different people.”
McKee and her team needed to work with the HR Advisory Group, or HR business partners, to be that critical focal point and help knit all of the issues and solutions together for the business leaders.
“We then had to help our centers of expertise be comfortable in their partnerships with the HR advisors,” she said. “I think we have come a long way. There’s tremendous collaboration and mutual respect.”
Leading Through Change
Leading a team through so much change within an organization requires an adaptive style of leadership, which McKee undoubtedly developed during this transitional period.
“Leadership styles need to vary by situation,” she said. “You can be a directive leader if you have all the right information and you know exactly where you’re headed. However, in an environment where you have so much culture and organizational change going on, you need to be learning as you go, trying new things, recognizing when they don’t work, and adapting the organization over time as the business evolves.”
By exercising an adaptive form of leadership, McKee has developed her own skills to invite participation amongst her team and obtain actionable information, whether or not team members agree with her. Additionally, she has exhibited and grown a willingness to experiment, learn from these efforts and make adjustments toward the broader vision.
“It also requires you to have the right people connected,” McKee said. “Make sure people are committed and have an opportunity to challenge and get their voice into the mix. It is the cohesive leadership team that is going to make change happen when you have constantly adaptive challenges in front of you.” ♦
1. Good listening skills
Sometimes the most intellectually sharp people are the least able to listen. We want people who are smart and intelligent but who also have the emotional intelligence to hear and respond to what others are saying.
We’ll always have people who want things we cannot deliver, whether it’s because of budget limitations or business priorities or simply because it’s not right for the company. We need to be able to educate colleagues about HR’s goals and priorities, and it can take time and resiliency to keep the heat down.
3. Calm under pressure
I look for people who are able to stay calm under pressure while still driving toward a result.
1. Test your decisions with someone you trust
A senior mentor or a peer who has a different view of the organization, for example. This can help you build confidence in your choices.
2. Look for people who have a different perspective and will disagree with you because they will give you new information
You can disregard it, but you at least will have a different way of thinking about the decision you are about to make. Listening to opposing viewpoints also can give you some sense of how to manage the change associated with the decision and how to present the decision to a broader group within the organization.
3. Don’t be afraid to make decisions
Make sure you are strongly aligned with the organizational values as well as with your leader’s view. Know where the guardrails are, then take risks. You will never know how far you can go with an idea or decision until you’ve stepped just a little outside of those boundaries. Take smart risks and experiment a bit.
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