7 January 2019
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Margie Harris. Margie is a corporate human resources officer who has served on the executive leadership team of several global companies with thousands of employees worldwide. Margie is my first HR executive to interview for this series, and I am thrilled to share her story and insights.
Her impressive professional background, coupled with her high emotional IQ and commitment to promoting diverse talent, are just a few reasons why she has successfully re-engineered HR departments and even built them from scratch, leaving a lasting impact on the public and private companies she has served at. When she is not blazing new trails in human resources and in business, Margie enjoys travelling, exercising and working on the endeavors of the charity boards she is involved in.
Tell me about your career progression into your current role.
I am a woman of many careers! I started out of undergrad at The Ohio State University with degrees in Finance and Real Estate Finance and was recruited heavily by large employers. I decided I wanted adventure, so I took a job at Shell Oil as an Oil & Gas Negotiator and a Landman. I didn’t know anything about oil and gas, and I had never been to Texas prior to that! I took this job and for five years I worked for Shell, travelling to some of the most remote places in the US. I was also considered the “token female” in the division but I learned a lot from that experience.
While at Shell, I attended graduate school (evenings) and upon completion of my MBA, I went back to my roots in finance and worked for Continental Airlines in strategic planning, financial planning, and ultimately served as the controller of the airline’s international division. At that time, I went into consulting, and took a position in HR consulting at Hewitt – a total compensation firm that was private at the time. That’s where I came to know HR, the value of HR and the fact that HR has a lot of financial aspects to it. It was during my almost eight years at Hewitt that I was recruited by one of my clients to lead HR. For the last 22 years, I’ve been leading HR at public and private companies, primarily here in Houston in a global capacity serving as many as 20,000 employees, and now at Tellurian, a start-up which is poised for significant growth. I feel very fortunate to have experienced such a broad career!
Working across a variety of roles and industries certainly requires taking some risks. What are your thoughts on risk-taking?
I must admit, I really like this question. There are many different types of people who excel in their careers. During my career, I’ve stayed in one industry – energy. However, I’ve worked in a few subsets of the energy business with several job changes. I think that if you are willing to take some chances, have a high tolerance for risk, and you are financially able to, you can make some bold career moves and test your growth trajectory. I think I’ve done that. There are people who work for one organization and are able to move right up, and work and assimilate for many years in a single organization. I am not that type of person; I like to broaden. Being in E&P, power, construction, consulting and now LNG, these professional experiences have broadened my skillset and made me more marketable. It’s made me a better businesswoman, understanding how each of those industries work. My advice is, if you can take a risk you might be surprised what you can accomplish. I took a lot of risks early in my career because I didn’t have a child, a husband, or any dependents. I was able to take risks, see different dimensions, and move up. Now that I’m married and have an almost-adult child, it’s very easy for me to take more risks.
Now that you’re well into your career leading HR for public and private organizations, what are you doing to ensure a succession of diverse talent?
I love to build teams. One thing I’m proud of is, in my many stops throughout my career I don’t bring a core team with me. Instead, I have been very successful at growing talent. I have helped develop many young professionals who are already on their way to becoming a VP, because they understand the business aspect of HR. As far as diversity, I am oblivious to color- I want to get the best person for the job. Whether that person is male, female, a minority or has a different lifestyle orientation, it isn’t something I force; but rather, diversity is what I thrive in!
I probably have done something differently than most people my age. In terms of building diverse talent, I’m starting from grassroots not only with the scholarships, but when building teams, I look for people who complement each other. I know that the workplace is not just a bunch of white males. I’m lucky because I’m very proud of my current workforce. It is very diverse, global, full of many different ethnicities, and it’s pretty exciting to be in a place where all of those different backgrounds come together under one cultural mantra.
I feel very blessed that I have achieved what I have in my career. I like to give back. I’ve set up a scholarship at the Fisher School at The Ohio State University to help young students who want to be in HR to have the means to do so. OSU has a very good HR program. Additionally, I give back to University of St. Thomas, where I got my Master’s, as well. That is an organization that needs a lot of help putting together scholarships for their target student body, and I’m glad to help out.
What challenges have you faced, if any, as a female executive in a predominantly male industry?
When I first started working as a young professional at a very large major, I was the token female, and everyone let me know it. They thought it was interesting that I was doing a “man’s work”. I’m the type of person that, when people challenge me like that, I’m more apt to try to prove them wrong. Growing up in the Midwest, I didn’t see as much of a lack of tolerance for women in the workplace. In my schooling, a woman could be just as successful as a man. I can tell you, keeping up with some of my undergrad colleagues, many of the women are quite successful, but, like my career, success wasn’t without challenges. And it was very lonely.
You find that you have different relationships with people, and there are always a few men who have daughters that are going to college and they are thinking, “I don’t want to be a jerk”. Because that could be their daughter someday. So yes, I faced a lot of unfortunate behavioral encounters. I think I have been able to work around them and excel.
How does diversity within an HR department compared to other departments? For example, an IT department?
I think that in technology (IT), quite frankly, it’s easy to have diversity. This discipline is one where there seems to be a deeper culturally diverse workforce. When I started in HR, however, it was an all-male business. I remember when I was interviewed with my first employer, the interview panel were all men. It’s interesting to see how women have become more predominant in HR. I make it a point to ensure that we have a good mix of genders. I also try to get a good mix of ethnic backgrounds and I’ve done that pretty well. Serving in HR, I’m very mindful that because we have a diverse workforce, it’s important to employ a diverse HR team to be able to serve everyone and meet the needs and expectations of employees.
What about age diversity? What’s your experience of how organizations manage and promote a diversity of different ages and experiences?
In HR, we see that the hiring manager often comes to us with pre-conceived notions regarding the type of candidate he/she wants to hire. The reason could be a budget constraint or lack of really understanding who he/she may be able to attract and hire. My goal is to always try and find the best person for the job. Often, we interview people who might be over-qualified, and our minds may change about what we really need because there’s less of a need for training, development, and mentoring. If you’re in a business that needs to hit the ground running, get the best candidate. Some hiring managers come in with blinders on, and they have it in their head that they want a 5-7-year experience candidate. Or a 3-5-year person. Quite frankly, some of those people can’t live up to the expectation of the organization. To answer your question, the company needs to be introspective and decide if their job qualifications are in fact correct. Maybe at a very established company, you can afford to bring in a candidate with 3-5-years of experience. Otherwise, if there’s someone who wants to get back into the workforce (maybe they had a career break, had a child, and he or she decided to re-enter the workforce) I think we should give them a chance. The less-experienced people will require training over months and years.
From an HR executive’s perspective, what are some of the biggest challenges in promoting a diverse and inclusive workplace?
I can’t support forcing the effort, but rather being conscious of diversity and inclusion and adding talent that will help not only diversify the team in background, but also in thought. I go back to my E&P roots because I understand the lack of diversity in the industry. Many employers are required to perform an affirmative action assessment each year and work toward a set of quotas by job category. Face it, in the field, we are light on females. In management, we are light on females and minorities. I think we, as employers, need to look broadly for talent and determine who is the best person for the job. In terms of diversity, we need to focus on how to make everyone, regardless of their background, feel included and that they are part of the team. We need to implement programs to understand and respect their diversity. That often doesn’t happen. Due to a lack of talent pool in some of these companies, it’s far easier for them to say that they exhausted their recruiting efforts and hire a traditional candidate. We need to make more of an effort.
That being said, I am proud of Houston right now. I’m proud of the changes that I’ve seen in female leadership, starting with Lisa Stewart, Vicki Hollub, Kim Dang and my CEO, Meg Gentle. It’s wonderful to see females leading public and private companies. They are stars in their fields.
What advice do you have for someone interested in pursuing a career path in STEM?
Everyone should always pursue their dreams. If a young person has an interest in STEM, he/she needs to pursue it. There are fabulous jobs in that field, and more jobs than we even realize. When I think about my own career, what’s fascinating is that the positions right out of my undergrad and the career choices I had at the time, were far different than they are today. It’s interesting to hear young business school graduates tell me about the career opportunities they have available. Amazon didn’t exist when I went to school. There was a Transportation and Logistics Degree, but that didn’t equate into eCommerce. Sales and Marketing were face to face, not through the internet. When you think about career transitions in STEM, can you imagine what the STEM professions will be 10 years from now?
My advice is, regardless of your background, you should pursue a career you are passionate about. Never stop learning, and always improve your skillset. When you are stagnant and not learning, whether that be in a STEM career, business career, HR career, etc., that’s when you aren’t the best professional you can be. Someone will beat you to the chase. Keep on learning, don’t get comfortable.
I’ve had a fabulous professional career and I love the fact that I’ve been able to change careers so much, and I’ve been able to excel and reach my career aspirations. Throughout, there have been plenty of times where people asked me, “how the heck is a Landman going to become a Financial Controller?” Or, “how can this woman that’s in consulting become the head of HR?” Well, I’ve done it at five different places and have led very successfully in these roles.
More broadly, what general career advice do you have for all professionals to succeed in their careers?
I always consider myself a businesswoman who happens to do good HR work. To be successful in a job like mine, you have to know your business. The first thing I’ve had to do is always learn the business. If you’re in IT, HR or any department, you need to understand how the company makes money and what drives profits. That’s important. For younger professionals, align yourself with more seasoned professionals. Don’t be afraid to ask how things work. Noting beats face to face contact and asking someone to explain these things to you that you may not understand.