Asking Questions, Making Mistakes, and Becoming a Thoughtful Risk-Taker

Shari Held Human Resources Leave a Comment

As Senior Vice President and Director of Human Resources at Brown-Forman, Kirsten Hawley leads by leaning on 17 years of grounding in and growing with the organization

Kirsten Hawley is a thoughtful risk taker. She took on a marketing role within Brown-Forman, one of the largest spirits and wine companies based in the U.S., without any previous marketing training or experience. Initially her foray into marketing wasn’t nearly as smooth as the Southern Comfort brand she represented.

“I had to learn a new function, a new vocabulary, a new way of measuring success, and a new way of understanding our business,” she said. “In the early days, I often said the wrong thing, made the wrong decision and involved the wrong people. I had a series of encouraging bosses who let me make mistakes and not have it shake my confidence. My early mistakes weren’t treated as a epic failures.”

And it certainly didn’t hurt her career. Today, Hawley, age 45, has been with Brown-Forman for 17 years. She’s Senior Vice President and Director of Human Resources (HR) Business Partnerships, with responsibility for eight direct reports. She also serves on the Chief Executive Officer’s Executive Leadership Team and on the company’s Talent, Strategy and Diversity councils.


Getting Back to Her Roots

Hawley’s master’s degree is in Counseling Psychology, and she’d started in an HR capacity at Brown-Forman. When given the marketing opportunity, she took it and ran with it, eventually becoming Global Marketing Manager for the Southern Comfort brand.

Hawley proved to be skilled in generating excitement for the Southern Comfort brand, but she’d noticed her peers regularly asked her for advice on advancing their careers, how best to navigate the corporate culture and how to handle difficult discussions with others. Not marketing issues. At that point, she realized some major soul-searching about her career path was necessary.

“I thought, I’ll probably be an OK marketer, but chances are I was going to be a far better HR person,” Hawley said. “That was a bit of an epiphany for me.”

Again her thoughtful risk-taking side came to the fore. She asked guidance from a long-time mentor and head of HR, now her boss, telling her she wasn’t sure she was in the right place at Brown-Forman.

“I was preparing to be told there wasn’t a future for me at the company,” Hawley said. Instead, she was told to “sit tight” until some changes were initiated in HR.

In 2007, when Hawley came back from maternity leave—she now had a four-year-old and a newborn baby—she moved into HR in a part-time capacity. But it wasn’t long before she was raring to go back full time, and, as luck would have it, such a position opened up.

Hawley greatly enjoyed her seven years in marketing and feels it made her an even more valuable asset to HR.

“I got to understand from the ground up how our business is run, how we think about our brands and how we create marketing strategy,” she said. “I perform my HR role now from a grounding in our business.”


Leadership by Savvy Facilitation

Facilitation is an important skill in Hawley’s toolbox. Her training in counseling taught her the art of designing questions—questions that dig below the surface to get to the heart of an issue as well as generate excitement around solving the issue.

“That’s helped me as a leader,” she said. “The problem to solve is sometimes three layers down. I don’t want to waste time fixing the wrong thing.”

It’s Hawley’s job as a leader to make decisions, secure resources and remove barriers, and she doesn’t shirk those responsibilities. When a direct report needed a resource and the process was bogged down, Hawley told her to just do it, that she’d ask for forgiveness later.

Today Hawley serves as a sounding board to her team and others within the organization, advising them on how to conduct productive meetings to make things happen, how to communicate effectively across functions and the matrix, and how to deliver information that inspires people to think and act.

“Often someone needs to make a recommendation and they want to practice that recommendation aloud before the stakes are really high,” she said.

Mentee to Mentor

There’s no doubt Hawley’s mentors helped shape her career.

“The mentors who have been particularly helpful to me have pointed out an opportunity I wouldn’t have known about otherwise, told me truths I didn’t want to hear and did it with compassion and a true sense of helpfulness,” she said.

One mentor told her she needed corporate experience before she could make the leap to a corporate job in the Louisville market. Another told her about the job opening at Brown-Forman and encouraged her to apply.

During her entry-level marketing days at Brown-Forman, Dana Allen, a senior person on the global side of the business, would take Hawley aside after a business meeting and ask her what she didn’t understand during the meeting, even interpreting the marketing lingo. (FOB, for example, means Freight on Board, not Friends of Bill!)

“She showed me that it was safe to ask questions and to seek people out who have the answers you need,” Hawley said. “Now I want to be the person who makes it safe for others to ask these kinds of questions.” ♦

How Hawley Got There

Saying yes to a lot of things in my 20s and 30s has helped define for me those things I do well and like, and those things I don’t do well and dislike,” Hawley said. “Now that I am in my 40s, I know what to say yes to and, more importantly, what to say no to.”

Here’s a look at her career path to Brown-Forman:

The Early Years in Berlin, Germany
  • A Research Assistant at the Max Planck Institute
  • An Advisor helping soldiers determine their college paths for the City Colleges of Chicago
  • An Adjunct Faculty Member at Central Texas College
  • Earned her master’s degree in Counseling Psychology from Boston University – Berlin Campus, working with children who were victims of abuse

What she learned: Hawley’s husband was in the Army and stationed in Berlin. “This was a period of personal and professional discovery,” Hawley said. She learned she liked the qualitative side of counseling psychology far more than the quantitative side.

The Intermediate Years Back in the States:
  • A contract Outplacement Counselor for the Army, helping military members and contractors deal with the drawdown.
  • A Trainer in an entrepreneurial Training Department of Trans Financial in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

What she learned: Hawley “jumped at the chance” to work at Trans Financial as an interim step to finding a job with a major employer in Louisville, where she and her husband wanted to settle down. “It sounded like fun, and I didn’t have much to lose,” she said. This experience gave her a taste of training and development for the first time, and she realized that was a viable career option for her. After the bank was sold, her boss relocated to Louisville and told her about the job opening at Brown-Forman.

Forefun Q&A

BF402_ppFavorite quote…

“If today were the last day of your life, would you want to do what you are about to do today?” – Steve Jobs

Books I recommend…

“Start with Why,”

“Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People,”

“The Advantage”

Things I carry with me…

I travel lightly. My only “must-haves” are a credit card, phone and lipstick.

Apps on my phone I can’t do without…

Facebook (to stay connected), Google Maps (to find my way), White Noise (to fall asleep in hotel rooms)

I can’t start my day unless…

I can hug my children “good morning” and sip an espresso.

I don’t consider my day done unless…

I have powered down my PC and kissed my husband goodnight.

I start my day by…

Reading the headlines from around the world and checking email for any surprises.

Favorite leader…

The one who shows up when he or she is needed most.

My definition of retirement…

Taking my family to the many places I have seen in my global roles at Brown-Forman

I unwind from my day by…

Taking a walk or doing an outdoor activity with my family.

One of the best lessons I’ve learned in my career is…

Surround yourself with the smartest people—and make sure they are smarter than you.

It’s 5:00 on Friday, and my drink of choice is…

I live in Kentucky and I work for Brown-Forman, so it’s got to be Old Forester!

Kirsten's Key Partners:
Aon Hewitt (Benefits & Total Rewards) | Mercer (Health and Talent)

Photo Credits: Leonard Boulware - Starlight Photo

Shari Held

Shari Held

Shari Held is a freelance writer based in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Shari Held

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