As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Amy Schabacker Dufrane.
Amy Schabacker Dufrane, Ed.D., SPHR, CAE, is CEO of HRCI, the world’s premier credentialing and learning organization for the human resources profession. Before joining HRCI, she spent more than 25 years in HR leadership and teaching roles. She is a member of the Economic Club, serves on the Wall Street Journal CEO Council, is a member of the CEO Roundtable, and is on the board for the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind. Amy holds a doctorate from The George Washington University, an MBA and MA from Marymount University, and a BS from Hood College.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
My story starts in a familiar way. When I was in college, there were summers when I was working 2–3 jobs across diverse organizations in a lot of different industries. I had both great and terrible workplace experiences, and that piqued my interest in leading, engaging, retaining and attracting employees. That interest prompted me to take an HR course in college.
In college, we were required to hold an internship and during this experience I had the opportunity to work in all facets of the business of a large company. When a full-time opening in HR was created, I ran towards it because I love connecting with people to build a company’s employer brand. What I quickly discovered is that people in HR have the power to bring an organization to life, and I wanted to be a part of that.
Each job that I have had has included HR — that’s been the case for my entire professional life. I knew about HRCI long before HRCI knew about me. I am a learning junkie — I hold a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees and a doctorate. I taught business to both undergraduate and graduate students and knew that earning and maintaining my HRCI certification during my career progression would give me access to a professional community of HR leaders and make me a better professional. And I believe that it has!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
There have been quite a few; however, perhaps none that was as unexpected as the abrupt conclusion of a large and long-term strategic partnership. While it shook us, it strengthened us. It forced the opportunity to pause, ponder and reimagine what we wanted our distinct vision to be. While always entrepreneurial and nimble, that partnership put us in tactical mode versus strategic. So, we seized the chance to establish our own identity, expanded our business model and invested in the technology to support the future of the business. Challenges can provide new prospects and that’s exactly what this pivot resulted in for HRCI.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Much, much earlier in my career, I convinced almost everyone at the company to receive their paychecks via direct deposit. Live paper checks were still more common at the time, but I wanted my team to have immediate access to their paychecks on payday.
But the bank forgot to transfer the direct deposit.
Everyone wanted to know what was going on, why they hadn’t gotten paid. It was a mess. I called the bank, and they were so shocked and mortified that they’d forgotten to transfer the funds. I insisted they write an apology to the entire workforce and cover any bounced checks and late fees the team would incur because of their oversight. It was a very political situation because the President of the bank was the Chair of the Board of Directors.
It wasn’t funny at the time, but looking back it’s such an absurd thing to happen, right?
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Clarissa Peterson, SPHR, GPHR has been instrumental in getting me where I am today. She was the HRCI board chair when I was hired. When Clarissa offered me the job she said, “You’re not only the best person for the job, you’re the perfect person for the job.” She always believed in me and stood beside me when things got really tough.
We have stayed connected through the years. We have collaborated so much! We have written pieces together. Together we co-founded the HRCI weekly webinar series, Alchemizing HR. We have had some amazing guests over this past year and have more than 18K registered for the weekly webinar series. Additionally, she is the voice on the podcast we founded with one of our partners. The podcast is called Inevitable: The Future of Work. We are working to create a community for HR leaders to learn and grow from each other and these two communication vehicles are amazing opportunities for business leaders.
As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high-stakes meeting, talk or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I’ve learned that I need to give myself time and space to think about a difficult topic, to consider possible outcomes and solutions. You have to find that perfect balance between taking the time you need and taking too much time.
Breathe deeply to clear your mind, and don’t try to hide anything — from yourself or from others.
When conflicts have occurred on the team, I’ve had to learn to not react. I coach them through their own solution. They’re closer to the problem, so their solution is going to be much better than any decisions I make.
People don’t want to make mistakes, so they defer their decisions to you. You need to give your team permission and space to make their own mistakes. Part of being a good leader is knowing when to step back.
Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
It’s vital to not only have a diverse executive team, but a diverse board, too. And it has to go past gender and race: diversity means embracing differences across gender, race, ethnicity, orientation, age, ability, social status and more. Those differences make us who we are. They impact our experiences and affect how we move through the world.
Diversity of thought and opinions spur new ideas and innovations. The more of that uniqueness everyone is allowed to bring and share at the highest levels, the better off your organization will be. Whether you’re developing a product or refining a service, embracing diversity ensures that all of your clients and customers are represented.
With the right emphasis and accountability, this can become a self-sustaining system. Diverse leaders are more in tune with the needs of their workforce. Allow them to elevate talent that may not have the traditional leadership requirements. Diverse executives and board members empower you to redefine what it means to be a leader at your organization.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
You need to look at the composition of your workforce and compare it to your environment. If you’re in an organization that’s hiring engineers, you’ve got to cultivate the interest and opportunities for women and people of color in the field.
Everyone deserves to have a career they’re proud of and passionate about. But not everyone gets the chance to discover their passions. They might get shoehorned into a stereotypical or expected role instead of being empowered to direct their own careers. So, to create an inclusive, representative and equitable society, we have to bring those opportunities to them.
When my oldest child was going into high school, there were marketing professionals at the freshman orientation trying to gain the interest of high school students in the profession. Industries have to follow this model to help kids identify their interests — and then supply opportunities to try their interests in real life.
Apprenticeships are great for learning trades, but they can also be incorporated into curricula to teach real-world and soft skills, like working alongside teams. There’s been a long-standing disconnect between higher education and real-world needs. Sponsoring an apprenticeship or allowing young students to experience work in your industry can close those gaps and empower change.
In just a few words, can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
I was actually just learning about Roger Nierenberg’s “The Music Paradigm,” right before this call. An executive is like a conductor: you express a vision, then draw it out of your people. Executives can’t micromanage; we have to trust that we’ve selected the right people to execute our vision.
Leaders, on the other hand, are part of the orchestra. They’re empowering parts of the vision, but they aren’t overseeing the whole.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
First of all, not every CEO knows how to play golf. I’ve never touched a golf ball in my life. But kidding aside, we have this perception of the “corporate bigwig” type. But, while a good CEO has to operate at a high level, they can’t separate themselves from the needs and successes of their team. You have to be in tune with your team to finesse their performance. Coach and communicate with them — often.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Women receive flack for so many things that don’t matter — and that men are never called out for, like voice or appearance. We’re often labeled “defensive” just for speaking up. I was once told (by a man) that I need to start my sentences with “I” and take more ownership of what I and my team is doing. I take accountability for my team, but ownership over their successes — and yes, even failures — belongs to all of us.
A more inclusive workplace can only be achieved by adding more diversity and accountability from the board and evaluating CEOs on supporting diversity at all levels.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Being a CEO is a 24/7 job; I knew that going in. There is never enough time in the day to do everything, so trade-offs become part of the design. Being a CEO is a highly fulfilling role. I think one of my most important jobs is to find great, smart, passionate people and let them go!
One of my biggest responsibilities is making difficult decisions: If it bubbles up to the CEO, it’s typically a hard decision. I enjoy talking through these situations. On the other hand, I truly savor the more fun discussions I have a part in, like new initiatives, branding and most importantly connecting with our community. Our clients want to be more connected with each other, but that’s been difficult over the past 16 months. I never expected so much of my role to be spent connecting with people, and I love it.
The most difficult decisions I have to make involve people. People are complex with feelings, and they face both professional and personal challenges that come to the workplace. Members of my team have shared very personal struggles with me — many of these struggles are not shared with the people that are closest to them. I am honored that they trust me, see value in my guidance, or just want someone to listen.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
Not everyone is cut out for it. I’ve worked with executives who shouldn’t have been in that position, and I’ve worked alongside people who should have been if they hadn’t been floundered by their lack of personal confidence.
Self-confidence is key. You have to trust yourself to make the right decisions for your company and for the people working for you. You have to trust your people, too: put your ego aside to let your team shine. Trust has been critical to HRCI’s success. I trusted my team to put in the work to build what we have now, and I trusted myself to stand alongside them and honor their commitment by leading us to success.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
- Hire people that are smarter than you; always hire the best that you can find. You’ll only be as successful as the people around you. But don’t shortchange your own worth, because other people will, and someone has to stick up for you. Don’t be afraid to negotiate.
- Overcommunicate. I can’t emphasize that enough!
- Offer career advice and guidance. Help your team see opportunities for growth and development — even if they end up going in another direction.
- Don’t be stoic — it’s okay to show emotion. Could you imagine if you had to lay off a dozen of your employees, but you don’t show any emotion about it? They won’t trust that you care about their well-being — and they won’t come back if things pick back up.
- Finally, ensure pay equity — among other things. Model behaviors for male leaders. Show the world that excuses don’t cut it anymore: You can run a business with equity, fairness and grace.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I’m most proud of the work I’ve done with non-profits. Share your talents and expertise with organizations that may not have the same resources as your organization. I volunteer providing career advice to people figuring out their next steps, and it’s so rewarding to touch the lives of others in that way.
In order to make the world a better place, we have to give back. That should be our legacy. People might remember my title, but I want them to remember a time when I made a difference in their lives: helped them discover what they want to do professionally or coached them through an interview for a big role. Model that behavior for your family, and make time for your employees to give back, too.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
Always try your best, but don’t worry about mistakes; everything is fixable. I might step back and let my team hash out a decision, and it might be the wrong decision. But we can course correct and learn from that experience.
I wish I would have found balance and personal boundaries a lot sooner than I have. Right after my daughter was born, I attended a day-long board meeting in the middle of the country. I nearly killed myself for that meeting, but I didn’t have to.
Bad advice I received was: “Don’t ever quit a job; work through it,” but that’s a toxic attitude towards work. In college, I worked at a job where only young women were hired, and the boss seemed to enjoy taking us privately to a back room and yelling at us and shaming us in front of customers and each other. When it was my turn, I calmly said to him, “Thank you for your feedback.” I went home that evening — talked to my parents and returned the next day with my uniform and badge and quit.
You are your best advocate — don’t rely on anyone else to put together your professional development plan. Don’t wait for your supervisor to bring development opportunities to you. Take ownership of your own career.
Don’t just read business books — you need to find an escape. If you’re all business all the time, you’ll be so mired in work you’ll never see anything from a fresh perspective.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I’d love to inspire folks to be more welcoming of people who are different than they are. Whether you’re bringing someone into your church, your workplace or your family, I’d love to see people accept each other for who they are, and to see differences as strengths — not a reason to tear each other down. Our differences enhance and complement each other; they don’t detract from what each of us brings.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” This quote is popularly attributed to C.S. Lewis, but wherever it comes from it lands with me. I’ve seen the weight of the past cause people to freeze up. We have to recognize that it’s not just okay to rethink and realign, it’s imperative.
In any decisions I make, I always reserve the right to change. Just because I’ve made a decision doesn’t mean that I can’t rethink it.
Be agile, nimble and pay attention to what’s going on around you. If you try to achieve perfection before you start, you may never get going. It’s better to prepare as best you can, move quickly and leave yourself room to correct your course and regain control halfway down the runway.