Allison Rutledge-Parisi brings elements from roles with Fab.com and Kaplan, Inc. to raise the talent bar as Chief Administrative Officer at Macmillan Learning.
When Allison Rutledge-Parisi arrived at Kaplan Inc.’s distribution center in Aurora, Ill., her mission was clear: Figure out why the company’s products weren’t leaving the distribution center and being delivered to customers. The whole fiasco was “blowing a hole” in her division’s performance. Rutledge-Parisi, an attorney who had just moved into administration, rolled up her suit-jacket sleeves and dove in.
“We learned pretty quickly that, if we listened, they’d tell us something,” said Rutledge-Parisi of working with colleagues to get to the bottom of the distribution center’s problems. “I knew what I didn’t know, so I listened relentlessly. We found the right experts from the finance, operations, technology and legal backgrounds to figure it out.” In addition to the team she worked with, she credits her background as a technology lawyer, a role where she always had to get up to speed quickly.
It took two very painful years, but the team figured it out. The way forward required leadership changes at the distribution center, fixing technology issues and commitments to the company and its customers that the problems were a thing of the past. Rutledge-Parisi credits the team of experts who surrounded her. “It taught me a lot about logistics, but also the importance of figuring out who was reliable and who wasn’t. I also learned how to match talent to role, and what’s needed to lead a dispirited, overworked team through to a better outcome,” she said.
Thrown in head first – like it or not
Her experience at Kaplan, Inc., where she initially served on its in-house legal team, prepared Rutledge-Parisi for her success with Macmillan Learning, where she today serves as Chief Administrative Officer. The transition at Kaplan from legal staff to the business side was rather sudden. On a seemingly regular day at the office, Veronica Dillon, then Chief Administrative Officer at Kaplan, called her into a meeting with her and Jonathan Grayer, then CEO of the global educational services company. During the entirety of the short walk to the meeting, a self-described “intimidated” Rutledge-Parisi wondered what was going on.
Dillon wanted Rutledge-Parisi to join her team as Vice President of Administration, essentially as her “right-hand person.” Over the coming years, Rutledge-Parisi would find herself thrust into business meetings, compensation discussions and strategic ways to help the business grow, while attracting and growing the best talent. “It was a wonderful set of circumstances,” she said. “And Ronnie and Jonathan were fantastic mentors.”
That sort of quick change was just Grayer’s style, she said of the former CEO of Kaplan’s approach towards managing talent. His philosophy was the “throw them into the deep end” school of executive development, an approach that helped her grow as a manager – though it’s one she doesn’t practice with her team at Macmillan.
“While I benefited from Jonathan’s style of management, I think that approach works for some but not all people. The CEO rightly can be selective about whom they choose to mentor. On my team, everyone is mentored. I find that most people grow if they are given incremental challenges that are the appropriate size for their abilities. If you can set up development across the board, then everyone starts operating at their best,” she said.
Charting a way forward
Developing new talent is a crucial focus of Rutledge-Parisi’s work as Chief Administrative Officer at Macmillan Learning. “The depths of the tremendous digital revolution that has rocked the publishing world can’t be overstated,” said Rutledge-Parisi. That change has impacted everyone’s workflow, from editors and writers to students and professors. The way that writers and editors collaborate with production and technology professionals, all of that needs to be looked at – not to mention the way that sales people educate customers about Macmillan’s learning solutions.
“A human resources team worth their salt needs to understand the details of these workflows. We need to provide support, training and mentoring as we take into account all of this change. For our sales people, we need to educate them to discuss learning solutions, not products,” said Rutledge-Parisi, who sees human resources’ role as providing a “steady drumbeat to employees and management as they work their way through all of this change.”
Given her experience as Chief People Officer at Fab.com, an e-commerce firm, this is a perfect fit. At this start up led by two co-CEOs, the average age of the company’s 600 employees was 26. With employees scattered throughout the globe, Fab.com served as the first professional workplace for recent college graduates. In this environment, she had to park her assumptions at the door. “You couldn’t make assumptions about how teams worked together or how a meeting should be organized,” she said.
Rutledge-Parisi and her small team coached Fab.com’s young managers on how to manage the performance of their teams, even if they were the same age and went out for beers after work together. “It was about setting goals, holding employees accountable and caring about their talent development. That’s what we were all there to do: make sure our teams flourished,” she said. ♦
You don’t accomplish what Rutledge-Parisi has without having a little wisdom to share. Check out her three pieces of advice.
- Know yourself. A continuous, clear-eyed assessment of your strengths and gaps is essential at every stage of your career. You don’t have to be great at everything – no one is. You just have to be superb at a few things.
- Stay open to opportunities. To borrow from Cathleen Benkow’s excellent book, “The Corporate Lattice,” there are no ladder-like career paths in today’s organizations. We need to stay open to career moves that may be lateral, in a different department or even a step “backwards,” so long as that step provides new experiences and the ability to expand your capabilities.
- Make yourself a student of every aspect of the business. How do customers receive products and services? How does the company sell? What accounting issues does your firm have to bear in mind? What role does technology play in enabling your organization to deliver to customers? Understanding the entire business increases the value you can bring to your function.
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