Faces of HR

First Ever CHRO of National Geographic Values Transparency and Two-Way Communication

Meet Mara Dell. A little over a week ago she filled a newly-created role at the National Geographic Society: Chief Human Resources Officer. There she oversees 9 HR employees and 2 medical staff.

Mara Dell, Chief Human Resources Officer, National Geographic Society Photogragraphy By Mark Thiessen / National Geographic

Is it true that your first job was at National Geographic?

“Yes, many years ago I did start here right out of college in the audio-visual group. And here I am, back again all these decades later.”

Did you ever envision coming back?

“Not necessarily, to be honest. I was a young person right out of college trying many different things. Nor did I really know at that time for sure that I’d be in HR.”

Was there any part along your career where you wanted to go back?

“I did know, always, about National Geographic and their brand. While I didn’t think at some point I’m going to go back to National Geographic as a career, I never forgot about my experience here and I never forgot about the incredible brand that National Geographic is. It’s sort of a constant for many of us. For so many of us it was such a formative part of our lives. [People] know National Geographic, and that makes me proud.”

My understanding is that HR has transformed over the last decades from a transactional role that dealt with payroll and things like that to something much more expansive and strategic. In your experience, how different is HR now than when you started?

“Yes, we need all the systems, all the transactional things that support us from an HR perspective every day. That’s important as just the baseline. But the way that we interact with each other and the way in which we approach our strategy from a culture perspective internally and externally is incredibly important to me. It is all about that.

“I’m a huge believer in culture. And I think as HR professionals we need to be agile and that part of our work is incredibly important. Otherwise we are not relevant at all. That means a lot to me. Culture, values, and the employee experience are huge to me. I think they should be paramount for all HR professionals.”

There are so many kinds of company cultures and so many approaches to maintaining and creating a healthy company culture. Have you found any commonality in those company cultures that are successful?

“I believe in listening. I believe that listening to not just your external constituencies but your internal constituencies like your staff is the most important thing you can do. And the idea of listening and really hearing and incorporating what you’re hearing into your HR strategy is really important. Also, I think a combination of communicating top down and bottom up is important. If you can accomplish those things, it will make you more successful.

“Communication is just everything. It’s so important to be talking with your team, to be talking with your organization, to be sharing information so that everybody feels connected and included and you’re all on the same journey together. I think that’s what you aspire to do.”

What would you say to an HR professional who is combating their organization’s instincts to not be transparent?

“First of all, transparency is king or queen. I think our employees are demanding it. And we should operate that way from a culture perspective. If you can make the case for it and keep sharing why it’s so important to leadership, over time it simply will stick. There are specific examples, case studies, and information out there about organizations that don’t do that very well. It’s just so increasingly important, especially with the speed of change, that you bring everyone along on the journey so people feel engaged.

“Change is constant in the world that we live in today. Between technology and the information that is out there, I think to keep pace with that and communicate with your staff and your team and your constituencies. It’s a conversation, an ongoing conversation. You don’t want to be chaotic either. I think you have to be thoughtful about it. I’m in the camp that more is better than holding back too much.”

Do you feel like you have evolved as your career has evolved?

“Absolutely. You have to, right? You’re learning, you’re growing with every experience that you go through, especially in HR. The reason why I love doing HR is you get to experience so many different things. Every experience shapes you in a different way. We deal with human beings, and human beings are all different. You evolve as a professional as well, and of course, after you get exposed to different styles, different moments, and organization strategy, you learn and you continue to evolve. And then you apply that learning to the next thing. That’s sort of what it’s all about.”

Do you think that your career has had a natural flow to it?

“In some ways yes, and in some ways no. I didn’t start in HR. I did a lot of different things before I found my space in HR. One thing sort of lead to another. Looking and thinking back on all the experiences I had even in the non-HR world, they have all been incredibly helpful to me today. Because they have had me put myself in other people’s shoes.

“In my early career, before I was in HR, I was in events, I was on the revenue side, I did marketing, communications; and it’s all been helpful to me today. When I sit across the table from someone that might be running those groups, I can understand where they’re coming from and some of the pressures or challenges they are facing. It helps me understand their world.

“I love talent more than anything else. I will tell you that one of the reasons why I am here, apart from the brand, is there are an incredible group of people here at the Society. I would say I have been privileged to have had exposure across my career to amazing individuals and amazing talent across the board. Being now with the Society, I am very excited to really get onboard and to be able to partner with the amazing staff here and do some really great things.”

Was there a moment where you said to yourself ‘I should be in HR’?

“The way I started to get interested in HR was through recruitment. I worked with many talented teams and then had the opportunity to try something different. I love building and there was an organization where they were building a new practice, and one of my tasks was to help to grow the talent for them. And so, I got involved with that. I loved recruiting and I loved finding talent for that organization. I loved understanding what is this new venture going to be and what were the right types of individuals that would thrive at that practice. And that’s what I did; I loved finding the best and the brightest.

“After that, one thing led to another and I started to broaden my experience into other areas of HR. I then became more well versed in HR. I learned on the job, to be perfectly honest, how to do the full suite of HR functions. That was a number of years ago, and I have to tell you, I never looked back.

“I love HR. I find that it’s an incredible space to be because you can sort of zoom up and look at an organization with a very unique lens to see the whole and how all the pieces fit together in a way that you often times don’t have the opportunity to do. In many roles you can be very myopic as well, and what a privilege it is to be able to zoom up and look at the whole and really understand how it all works. I love that about HR.”

What impact are you hoping to make at National Geographic?

“The good news for me is that I have a lot to build on. We have a great team, a great HR team, and I would like to pick up that momentum that they have created and continue to work with them. I am very interested in staff engagement and learning and development and giving our talented staff lots of room to stretch and grow. I’m passionate about that and about the potential of the talent. I’m really looking forward to digging in on that front and continuing to make that investment. Fortunately, the value around learning and development is recognized already at the Society. I will continue to build on that and work with staff at all levels including the leadership team to continue to hone that and grow that.”

Would you like to be profiled in a future Faces of HR and share your experiences, challenges, etc.? Or, do you know anyone else in HR you think has an interesting story to tell? Write us at HRDAeditors@blr.com, and include your name and contact information; be sure to put “Faces of HR” in the subject line.

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