Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer Mary Beth DeNooyer Harmonizes Human Capital with Exceptional Growth Opportunities at Pinnacle Foods
“The complaint booth,” “the office dedicated to feelings,” “the recruitment deck”—such are common nicknames for human resources departments based upon stereotypes of what they are all about. But underneath these cloaked and often misconstrued impressions lies a vital, strategic business partner with considerably more depth and it is dedicated to the one thing every business, of all sizes, has in common: human beings doing work.
Mary Beth DeNooyer, Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer at Pinnacle Foods, believes human capital is the key to success in every business. She was drawn to the deeper aspects of HR—the emphasis on analytics and problem solving—since her last co-op assignment as an undergraduate student at Drexel University. After learning about the inimitable role that HR plays in different businesses and forming an interest in subject expertise, she aspired to be a head of Human Resources. She set this plan in motion by following the advice of her mentors and earned a Master’s Degree in Industrial and Labor Relations from Cornell University. DeNooyer yearned for a serious career path that would give her access to work on a variety of different areas with a common foundation in working on the “people” aspect of the business. Her commitment has led her to executive roles at Hillshire Brands and The Sara Lee Corporation, as well as other leadership positions at The Pepsi Bottling Group and General Mills.
Pinnacle Foods is a leading producer, marketer, and distributor of high-quality branded food products that can be found in more than 85% of American households. DeNooyer has served as Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer for Pinnacle Foods since 2013, leading all HR responsibilities throughout the company including organization development and learning, talent acquisition and management, compensation and benefits, and employee relations and diversity.
Similar to the communication and team building skills promoted in sports, engagement in the arts is an intellectually stimulating and valuable tool in leadership development. DeNooyer has long been involved in music and has performed in band, chorus, orchestras, and musical theatre. These experiences have impacted her creative leadership and team approach as head of HR at Pinnacle.
“Just like with anything musical, you are a part of the whole – your contribution makes a difference. You have a role to play and a part to contribute, and your part makes the whole better. But you are part of something bigger than just you and what you can accomplish on your own.”
Last year, she embraced the opportunity to build and grow the HR department at Pinnacle, creating change through appropriate resource alignment and prioritizing work functions.
“We put dedicated generalists and dedicated talent acquisition staffing resources to each component of the business, rather than it being the deli counter where whoever you could catch and whoever who was there fit the position, we aligned them to better learn the business. We allowed them to develop a partnership and understand what needs they had particularly and created a profile of what person would work best in what departments.”
DeNooyer also geared the HR team’s focus toward communicating role clarity, setting clear priorities, aligning business objectives, and funneling in key resources that the office was lacking. She saw the need for growth and sought to build a team with managers focused on subject-specifics areas like compensation and benefits.
“As we evolve as a public company and get more complex from an HR standpoint, it is about aligning the resources to match the business needs.”
DeNooyer’s vision for the future of the HR department is focused on two key areas: culture and talent development.
“The culture we have here at Pinnacle is really unique – it is a differentiator for whom we can attract and who we retain. HR is largely the keeper of the culture. Making sure we keep our uniqueness and keeping this a great place to work are high on the agenda.”
The companion piece to creating that culture centers on talent development. She explained that over the last few years, the team has focused on hiring skills from the outside, retaining the talent throughout the organization, and ensuring these employees can grow their careers at Pinnacle in all the different functional areas. All this occurs in unison with the idea that the HR agenda must harmonize with the business needs at all times—a nod to the “part of the whole” philosophy she employs in her music avocation as well.
Leadership Style: Differentiating the “What” Versus the “How”
In leading and managing her team, DeNooyer’s approach leans on the military phrase “tell people what to do or how to do it, but not both.” She gives her employees support and clarity, but values the opportunity for them to learn and grow.
“My approach is to give people the clarity of direction to set a clear objective, vision, and endpoint—that’s the what, but by not telling them the how, that actually allows them autonomy, discretion, and learning opportunity. It gives them the ability to exert their individual style. There are a lot of different ways to get the work done. The power of the team is having lots of people who approach it and see it from different lights. Allowing that individual style gets us a better outcome.”
She explained that divvying out complex, meaty projects to her team allows them to create their own leadership experience by having the autonomy to get the work done in a way that best suits their personal style.
Challenges and Innovative Solutions
At Pinnacle, a particular issue is the pent up need and desire to create valuable HR programs. She explained that the business has a variety of experienced leaders that came from blue-chip companies that have seen and experienced outstanding HR programs.
“We were all attracted to come to Pinnacle for the promise and the opportunity to create something new and different and, frankly, simpler than we have experienced at other companies. The challenge is that the expectation is we have high quality, well-developed HR programs, but making sure that they fit in this simpler, easier, not-big-company, no-bureaucracy, no-trapped-in-process Pinnacle environment.”
This is a challenge specific to Pinnacle and DeNooyer has tackled the issue with an innovative plan: to utilize all the knowledge and experience the team previously had with blue-chip companies and develop something in-house that is consistent with Pinnacle’s character.
One example of this leadership technique is noted in her approach to succession planning. Many executives now at Pinnacle came from companies that had career development and career ladders aimed to shape the next generation of talent. Lacking the staff or resource luxuries that other large companies typically enjoy, DeNooyer’s team has constructed a model that is exclusive to Pinnacle.
“We’ve created a new way of thinking about talent development. Instead of using the classic 9-box grid or things that would be very common in other companies, we’ve created a new, simpler tool where we can quickly differentiate what talent we want to invest in and have a shorter list and a simpler approach to how we go after a much smaller subset of people and make it more meaningful here.”
Formulating reachable solutions to these realistic boundaries keeps DeNooyer’s executive position as head of Human Resources a constant learning experience—and she relishes the opportunity to connect all aspects of the business with the broad vision of the entire company at the forefront.
“The twenty years I’ve been working in HR have been exactly what I hoped it would be. There are lots of different aspects; there’s analytical and problem solving that shows up in compensation and benefits and the more straightforward things. Then there are all the things that you get to influence on talent management, staffing, performance management and making sure that your human resources perform to their best.” ♦
Passing The Torch: Learned Leadership Skills and Advice for the Next Generation
In her twenty years of Human Resources expertise, Mary Beth DeNooyer’s journey has been shaped and influenced by wonderful mentors and coaches throughout her career. She shares some of her most valuable learned skills with aspiring HR leaders.
Be a student of the business. “In any role, you are business leader first, and then what you bring to the party is the subject matter expertise on human resources. So for me, it is to understand what the business challenge is and I know then what levels we can push or pull on the HR front.”
Be a partner with the business leaders. “Knowing what keeps them awake at night, helping them solve that, being the confidant and the listening ear, but also leveraging the subject matter expertise in a partner approach.”
Have a teachable point of view. “From a leadership perspective, be able to coach your team and help them see through your lens and your eyes so that you are growing their leadership perspective and experience as well.”
Invest in your team. “If you make them better, then they make you better. Collectively, you turn out a lot more work. Your functional view as a leader is about what quality work your whole team is putting out—not just what you can do as an individual.”
Build a quality, diverse toolbox. “Throughout the course of your career you are building a toolbox and you want to have in there as many different tools as possible. When you are presented with a different opportunity where you can add something new to your toolbox, even if it is a lateral move, that is a good investment. Ultimately, you want a more broad set of tools so that you can, as you get to more senior levels in any organization, say hey I have had all these different kind of experiences and the ability to use all these different tools in a leadership level role.”