Q&A with Melissa Harper, vice president, Global Talent Acquisition, Diversity & Inclusion, Monsanto, #43 on DiversityInc’s Top 50 list.
Were you identified as a high potential early in your career and, if so, how did that change your career trajectory?
Demonstrating the ability to create winning solutions by integrating business strategies with talent strategy helped set the path of my career. It began in my years in executive search, and continues today. What I didn’t know is how that would evolve in my career. I was fortunate to have some great experiences and advocates early on. Whether it was contributing to creating new operational models of teams, consulting and placing senior leaders with multinational organizations, or innovating ways to build an employer brand in order to attract talent globally – these experiences shaped my career.
Did you know you were a high potential? What qualities did you have that people noticed early on?
I didn’t know through use of more formal ways we inform high potentials, or manage their careers – such as, succession planning, etc. – however, I was aware that more senior leaders and organizations (were) invested in my development. This happened more informally first, then as my career progressed – supplemented with formal, such as being nominated to participate in leadership development programs. I believe the qualities people noticed early on were the ability to create and build relationships, to bring solutions and people together to solve for complex business issues. Another quality was that of grit/persistence – which showed up often as a high level of energy, positive and work ethic.
Were there female role models and mentors available to you early in your career?
My career has definitely been shaped by some great female mentors. Although I would say I’ve learned from a diversity of role models – whether it’s been diversity of gender, generations, or industry. I count my first female role model to be my mother, who I marvel at having all three of her children in private schools at the same time, as a young widow. I learned strong work ethics from her. In my early career, working in executive search enabled me to meet many senior business leaders, although there weren’t as many women in this industry as there are now.
How did you get these mentors? What advice specifically changed your career?
I have never been afraid to just ask someone for advice or mentorship, and encourage the same for others. The specific advice that most impacted my career direction was to not limit myself by geographical restraints. Being from Chicago, and my early career centered there, I wasn’t as open in my early career to relocation. Once I removed that self limitation, my career grew much faster.
Tell us about the two most effective mentors you had (male or female) and what they taught you.
Fortunately, it’s hard to consider just two. An effective female mentor, who turned out to be someone I played a role in recruiting to her senior role, taught me the value of business acumen. Not just for the obvious reasons of understanding the company – including the competitive landscape or strategic direction – but really understanding the core of how a company makes its money, and understanding broad perspectives, whether it’s from the supply-chain side, to the IT side of the business. An effective male leader taught me the value about always being prepared — whether it’s being ready for the next role, the next project, or the next business challenge. When you operate in a way that you are planning ahead, thinking ahead, it enables faster adaption to change. The world is increasingly globally complex, and the speed of change is getting faster – so this has proven to be great advice in working and leading global functions.
What I learned from both of these mentors, is the philosophy of purposeful leadership –leading with intent, developing and building relationships and networks with intent, and being committed to bringing others along – also with intent. I learned from them that if you are going to be a leader, then leading people, developing others, and creating high performing teams takes a blend of vision, strategy and execution. But it equally takes understanding the individual beyond their work lives, and how you blend the unique talents of individuals into a collaborate and high functioning team.
In my early career, these mentors didn’t know to call it such, but I now know this is what the value of being an inclusive leader is all about, and the results you get from it.
Can you cite an instance in which being an inclusive leader made a difference and delivered better results or an innovative solution?
Being an inclusive leader, where you understand what makes each person unique – and at the same time, create a sense of belonging where those unique talents contribute to better innovation – has made a difference daily. Each day, as I lead a global team, across the world – the opportunity to take advantage of developing global strategies, yet adapt locally creates better engagement, and improved processes. One example of where this has resulted in a more innovative solution where we as a company needed to put an infrastructure in place to better compete for talent in over 60 countries. Growing in a more globally complex environment meant we had to put in tools, processes, and a structure to enable this capability. The end result was technology and a model to support our talent acquisition needs, across many languages, cultures, and countries that gave us increased talent reach, a strong employment brand, and access to a diverse range of skills and talents.
What was the greatest challenge in your career when you were in your ‘30s and ‘40s?
The challenges have evolved, but they also have many consistencies. In my 30’s the challenges were speed of change of business, global complexity, how do you execute while considering global standards and at the same time local needs. The challenges in my 40’s are still unfolding. Keeping a pulse on the global talent landscape, compiled with the complexity of the speed of change in technology being a game changer are among my current challenges. And so in both time periods, the need to think and act both globally and locally are a key focus.
How have you balanced personal responsibilities with your career needs?
I’ve been fortunate to have family support that helps with my balance, as well as not being afraid to leverage the resources around me. Being transparent and sharing what my needs are to achieve balance has also been helpful.
Can you give an example of a situation in which you were able to balance the personal and the professional demands.
I can countless examples as a mother. But I’d like to highlight an example a broader base can relate to, and that is aging parents. Over the past few years, with my in-laws living in a different state than us, I’ve needed to exercise more flexibility – whether that was working from their location, and even in the past year with moving them closer to us. I believe that workplace flexibility will be necessary to compete, attract and retain talent of all generations and backgrounds. Companies that embrace a more flexible approach will be those that win the talent wars of the future.
What lessons and advice do you have for young women just starting out?
I would say: be open, be active and don’t be afraid to be bold. Be open to learning constantly, active in seeking out feedback and insights, and don’t be afraid to be courageous as you own the navigation of your career journey. I have a daughter who is approaching this stage, and I give her the same advice. Count everything as a learning opportunity – even if you’re learning what not to do!
What keeps you up at night?
I’ve rarely met a senior leader who didn’t put talent or people at the top, or close to the top, of those things that keep them up at night. No business strategies are executed without great talent. For myself, I would add a slight twist, as I view my role as talent architect for the organization. This provides me the responsibility to contribute to innovation and culture transformation through human capital and inclusion. And this aligns with keeping up with the speed of change – whether it’s the fact that a lot of what’s learned in the university is quickly outdated, to keeping up with needed in skills in the workplace. There is a need to build, grow, and develop people faster than ever before.
What qualities do you most look for today in finding talent?
Today in finding talent, I look for the ability to build relationships, judgment/critical thinking, the ability to be creative and innovative, solutions focused, balance of strategy and action/execution. A person that can create what I consider “followership” – can develop others, create a vision, that others want to follow and support.
On a lighter note, what do you do for fun?
Having a daughter who is 21 and a son who is 10 is quite exciting! I enjoy reading, traveling, and keeping up with my kids’ two very different phases of life. My son’s interests range from robotics to sports, and my daughter is approaching graduation from college – both of them are not only a lot of fun, but the center of pride for me.