Vice President of HR Marjorie Powell Conducts NPR’s HR Vision To Serve the Public Good
Cue a large instrumental ensemble that impressively weaves together a multitude of sounds—from strings to brass to woodwind to percussion—that come together to form the layered musical complexity of an orchestra. Now imagine being the conductor who links all those moving parts together to get a polished sound that consistently dazzles audiences.
“An organization is very much like an orchestra,” Marjorie Powell thoughtfully reflects, “The beautiful sound that comes out is played by 30 to 40 instruments doing their own thing, coming together in one product.”
Marjorie, Vice President of Human Resources at National Public Radio (NPR), likes to think of herself as a conductor in her own right. “As one of the conductors, conducting in my role in HR, I have to get all those working parts playing the same songs, on different notes and at different times—we need to all stay on the same page to make that final beautiful sound of a successful organization.”
NPR prides itself as a nonprofit membership organization in the business of telling great stories that enrich the public. Based in D.C., but operating around the clock and across the globe, NPR’s internationally acclaimed programs set the highest standards for journalism in their news and cultural content. With over thirty million people listening to programming each week, strong leadership is necessary to help orchestrate the intricate composition that is NPR. With years of executive experience across HR, Higher Education, and other human-centered positions that compliment her life’s vocation of serving the public, Marjorie Powell is well suited to be one of those notable conductors.
Higher Ed Roots and Parallels
Prior to joining NPR in 2014, Marjorie held a wide array of distinguished positions in higher education. She took on various executive roles in the HR realm, specializing in areas like Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity, and leaving the footprint of her leadership at schools including Michigan State University, Wayne State University, Georgetown University, and most recently, the University of Maryland in Baltimore. Marjorie discusses how the complex structure of the university prepared her for her role at a similarly multilayered organization structure like NPR.
At the university level, HR is a revolving door of dealing with multiple different populations and issues—everything from the research and development that goes into a professor gaining tenure to the complexities of dealing with a 17 to 22 year old population of potential student workers interfaced with the human resources department. As an HR executive with her J.D., Marjorie especially notes the dense volume of state and federal laws and regulations in which a university operates under.
“Higher education is like running a city – there’s a mayor, a huge group of employees and students, housing, emergency services, police, etc. It is a 24/7, 365 days a year operation with complex laws and regulations.”
This 24-hour, across the calendar work environment parallels what it’s like to run a news organization with equally complex working bodies including reporters, correspondents, and producers, as well as typical operational populations with their own respective set of needs. Marjorie explains how the workforce culture is quite similar. “Faculty and journalists are very much the same; they are creators and innovators, very independent, their work is personal to them and they follow it from beginning to end—they are perfectionists.”
In fact, the similarities of the two work cultures were a significant factor in Marjorie’s decision to join NPR—in particular, noting the exceptional leadership there that reminded her of two former mentors and inspiring colleagues in higher education, Gary Dent and Freeman Hrabowski.
“They [NPR leadership] all have the same drive and passion I do for the mission of this organization and serving the public good. That was important to me because that’s why we’re here. I’ve been in public service my entire career, my entire life, and I want to continue that. I think I thrive off of that—it’s core to who I am. To work with those that have that core in their beings as well is a phenomenal thing.”
Realigning the moving parts of a growing business
When Marjorie joined NPR, the HR function needed to be elevated to support the growing organization. In her structuring of the HR department, she focused on bringing a corporate perspective and realigning HR priorities to strengthen the business needs. Some of these priorities included making compliance part of the very fabric a part of the organization, keeping compensation and recruitment desirable and market competitive, as well as staying up to date with the latest technology advancements.
Marjorie stresses that assessing the strengths within her team—and also attracting top talent—has been a priority. Before restructuring, Marjorie did some “deep-diving” into the organization, speaking with division heads and leaders about how their departments were run, how they would like to see it run, and how they interface with HR. This process also included assessing the skills and strengths of her current staff and identifying potential growth or opportunity. This type of open communication was an empowering process for employees, giving them a sense of ownership and agency over the destiny of the organization.
“People don’t want to come to work and not know how their work has value. They want to feel valued and have a sense of accomplishment. That is usually the first thing that human beings want to feel.”
The Talent Management and Development Program, an initiative she spearheaded that is currently in the works, seeks to strengthen and fill any potential gaps in NPR’s vision. In the early developmental stages of the program, Marjorie and her team are focusing on identifying exactly how they want their workforce to look in the next 5 to 10 years, creating a chart of desired competencies, assessing current talent capabilities, and working on bridging the gap between the two.
“We want to—have to—see just how big of a gap it is and then start bridging that gap as we grow toward it. As an organization and as leaders, we all need to understand exactly the goal and direction in which we are going. It has to be everyone in the organization, not just Human Resources, based on the competencies we all agree on,” she explains.
From strengthening current NPR talent to creating a pipeline of skill-ready individuals for tomorrow, Marjorie continues to drive the organization toward its vision. “We are focusing on the life and the stability of the organization for the next 10 to 20 years, making sure that what we do is going to continue to be sustainable and relevant in the changing media culture.”
Buy-in and Beyond: Trust in the Leadership
In conducting NPR’s HR vision, Marjorie recognizes that her own leadership skills have been influenced by similarly inspiring colleagues and mentors of new and old. Working with Gary Dent and Freeman Hrabowski in higher education has taught her a thing or two about thinking through large-scale strategic issues—again, her experiences from higher education overlapping into the news organization realm.
“I’ve learned how to work and be nimble in those complex environments and how to get buy-in to get business objectives met,” she explains.
Part of this process is also taking into consideration the impact of decisions throughout the organization and learning “how to think through your wins.” As an HR leader with a business perspective, Marjorie seeks to understand the full scope of her colleagues and peers, taking into consideration what is on their plate and also how to work collaboratively to better the organization in the process.
On getting buy-in and understanding for major things that will have an organizational impact, Marjorie explains, “For one, it’s not about me – it’s about the organization.”
“So when I’m about to do something, I need to make sure I work with my colleagues and the key stake holders in the organization and think about how the shifts will impact all the colleagues to the right and left of me. Thinking about their concerns, how it might help them, where it might create barriers, and then creating solutions to remove those barriers so we can still move in the same direction.”
To demonstrate this process, Marjorie uses the example of changing commuter benefits. For a large-scale organization like NPR, she needs to anticipate how such changes will reverberate across the organization before any decisions are made. This anticipation includes considering the varying commuter systems across the different environments NPR operates in—from D.C. to L.A., from New York to Boston, and each transit and commuter system in between.
“What some individuals don’t understand is that in HR I can’t think about one person. I can only think about one person when it deals with something that singularly impacts them. Every other moment I have to think about the 800 or 1000 people I’m dealing with. Coming from large universities, that might have been one department – I was thinking of 13,000 or 9,000 or 8,000 employees, not even counting the students.”
With development and implementation on such a large scale, Marjorie values doing right by the employees, while at the same time paying attention to the critical overall health of the organization. “It’s not one or the other. As an HR professional, you can’t afford to do that – you need a foot in both worlds and you need to constantly balance that.”
Throughout her lifelong career of service to the public good, Marjorie feels privileged to serve at an organization like NPR, surrounded by leadership with that same dedication to the public good. Working closely with leaders like Jarl Mohn (President and CEO) and Loren Mayor (COO) at NPR, she is part of a team that supports her unwavering vision.
“I have no problem whatsoever talking with my colleagues now who think something might be impactful. That’s the kind of leaders NPR is surrounded with. We really think about how this will impact people working within the organization—that’s why it is fantastic to work with this group of people serving the public good at NPR.” ♦
Two Points for Good Measure: Advice for Aspiring HR Leaders
In her years of distinguished experience across the board, Marjorie Powell leaves us with two humbling pointers for rising HR professionals—practices she indeed has advocated for in her personal and professional life that have benefited her own career growth.
1) Listen to the leader
Marjorie stresses really listening to the leader of the pack and never thinking that learning is done. “I watch and learn from Jarl (President and CEO) every day. He is a consummate professional and businessman—a warm individual with a very caring heart who is so smart and good at what he does. I see he can do all those things and still have that emotional intelligence that’s important, I constantly watch how to do that. Watch and continue learning because you don’t always have all the answers.
2) Have an insatiable appetite for learning the business
She says the best advice she’s ever gotten was to learn the business. Though every business or organization has an HR department, no two departments are exactly alike—and learning the ins and out of the particular business you are working in is key. “I’ve been here for almost 9 months now and I’ve been learning the business and I’m going to keep learning the business from every vantage point possible to know how different departments and people will be impacted by my decisions. Regardless of whatever industry you are in, you have to learn that business and not just understand HR. We are the backbone of the organization– HR drives the business. If you can’t help to drive the human capital in the direction of the vision of the organization, then your work isn’t done.”