Faces of HR

Faces of HR: Jennifer Armstrong-Owen on the Value of Emotional Agility, Curiosity and Soft Skills

Meet Jennifer Armstrong-Owen, VP of People at talent platform SeekOut. Armstrong-Owen has more than 20 years of experience in the tech industry and continues to dial in on the HR issues companies of all sizes are facing. We recently connected with Jennifer to discuss how she got her start in the industry, her best mistake, as well as her thoughts on ensuring talent feels safe and comfortable. According to Armstrong-Owen, it’s all about working to ensure people feel seen and valued.

Jennifer Armstrong-Owen

I think the bottom line for me is that we all can only do our best work when we feel seen, known, and valued,” she recently shared with HR Daily Advisor. “I think that’s, for me, a better mission for people teams, especially now given all the challenges that we have external to the walls of our companies. Feeling safe and feeling seen and valued is incredibly important, so to me, everything that we do is all in service to that belief.”

In our latest Faces of HR, meet Jennifer Armstrong Owen.

How did you get your start in the field?

It was pretty intentional on my part, primarily because after college I served as a Peace Corps volunteer and discovered my own personal joy working with and for others. After the Peace Corps, during my MBA program, I was really fortunate to be able to do two HR internships, which focused on ironically not people so much as the compensation function, which was great because it combined my love of people and being in a team that helped support people. It also drove my capabilities and interests in data systems and business. So, I did that for quite a long time before I transitioned into more of an HR business partner role.

Who is/was your biggest influence(s) in the industry?

This really made me think. Like I said, I’ve been doing this a long time, it’s now over 30 years, and there’s been a ton of folks over those, and everything has a season. I kind of look at it in 10-year gaps, 10-year chapters. I followed a ton of amazing, brilliant HR thought leaders. I was really fortunate to work for an incredible HR executive who became my mentor for about five years. He was Dell Computer’s first VP of HR, and he was super instrumental in my own HR leadership development. Over the last five years, I’ve really shifted the folks that I follow, and I really have been motivated by Brené Brown, Susan David, and Adam Grant, who have just elevated this case for authenticity, transparency, and emotional agility and leadership. I think that my greatest wish is for all leaders to really lean into those principles because I think it’s what’s going to serve us the best as we move forward, so those are really where I spend most of my free time reading.

I love Brené Brown, too. You mentioned emotional agility, authenticity, and all those other amazing words that we not only need to be aware of, but also actually utilize in the workplace. Where does that stem from in your journey?

I think, for me, and we probably get to this at a later question, I’ve always been interested in understanding myself and the way I’m wired. But then also, I’m interested in helping others understand the way they’re wired. At the end of the day, being self-aware is probably the greatest gift we can give ourselves and the people around us. I feel like learning how we’re wired, learning to make sense of the things that have happened to us, and understanding the cause and effect and learning those tools around understanding that impact and the formative nature translates then into this ability.

And Susan David is amazing. If you haven’t read any of her work or listened to her, she’s a British psychologist, but she wrote this book about emotional agility and being able to very quickly, in really tough situations, be able to think through what are the things that are going on and how can you quickly reframe the conversation. Because so many of us get stuck in patterns and thought tracks, and along with Brené Brown in terms of being vulnerable, sharing that, being able to stop something midstream and be able to go, “Okay, wait a minute. I understand what’s going on here now. Let’s turn this around.” I think that’s the power of relationship that it makes a huge difference in our companies and on our teams.

What is your best mistake and what did you learn from it?

I think one of the things that I learned early in my career, I did an internship at Microsoft in the early ’90s and after grad school, and it was not right for me. I ended up getting to work at a nonprofit healthcare company for seven years and I loved it. It was everything I needed at that point in my life. A lot of structure, process, values, ideology. Eventually, I reached a point where I know I needed to make a change and I went to a tech startup called RealNetworks at the time. I stayed there for 13 years. My first six months was probably the most painful time I’ve ever had in my career because I was trying to bring all of what I had learned from this nonprofit healthcare company around process, because we had no process, and we were growing. Literally, we went from 500 employees to 1800 employees in, maybe, two and a half years. It wasn’t until a leader shared with me that you can do this the hard way, or you can do this the easy way, and you’ve got to understand you’re in a different environment with different needs.

That’s really when I realized how important curiosity is. I’ve always been a curious person, and I find most people in HR are curious. It’s kind of like you’re curious about people, you’re curious about the business, you’re curious about systems, but I really realized curiosity would always be the best thing I could offer an organization. I tell people now, routinely executives and new executives, to try to listen three times more than you speak in the first 90 days. Because I think that we all come with, “Oh, I’m here and I want to make an impact, and I want to race into really putting those points on the board,” but the reality is there’s so much more learning you need to do before you step out and start trying to offer that help. The other thing curiosity does is it helps you deliver solutions and programs that will enable greater levels of engagement and success. And it’s that adage, I think it’s in Steven Covey’s book, it’s always seek first to understand, right? Call it curiosity or call it seeking understanding, but it’s putting yourself in that humbler position of, “Hey, I have a lot to learn.”

What is your favorite part about working in the industry? What’s your least favorite part and how would you change it?

This one was also interesting. I’m getting asked questions I haven’t thought about before ever. I’ve been leading the people function now at a few different companies for over a decade. I think it’s been since 2010 that I took a global HR role. And I love how universally no matter what industry you’re in – what governance you have, public or private – I love how people teams, no matter what, have the ability to positively impact employees and teams and leaders and ultimately business. I love the way that it’s a service organization that is here to help support organizational health and employee development. One of my greatest joys is watching people develop and helping people develop, and so I think organizational health and design is probably the space that I enjoy the most because I think you need to have a really healthy organizational structure and construct so that team members are free to do their best work and have fun, by the way. Fun is absolutely my number-one requirement for any team or company.

My least favorite probably is getting folks to see all aspects of HR as important and fulfilling an important need. I know I looked back at a couple of other interviews that you’ve done and a couple people have said, “Well, I don’t like HR being seen as the police.” I look at it as compliance activities are important. It’s like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Bottom layer is food, water, shelter. That’s all about organizational safety and personal safety.

And I didn’t always feel this way, but compliance, compliance training or making sure you have a code of conduct, these things are really necessary. They are hygiene and getting people to understand them and not be quite as flip about them. So we’ve really been finding providers and external providers that can help provide compliance activities that are much more relevant and make the case of why this is important that you get a great score on this training. You must really understand this. It’s not just about checking a box.

How can company leaders make HR a value within their organization?

I think I’m now old enough to have started out when HR was called personnel, and I’ve seen the transition. I personally worked hard to be seen as a business partner, and it’s been gratifying to see HR become that full business partner where I report to the CEO and not to the CFO. I think now because of the way that companies now see the link and how important it is, it’s now time for HR leaders and all leaders to really start highlighting and augmenting that and elevating that the softer side of HR is just as critical and necessary. I don’t know if Brené coined this or somebody else did, but there’s a quote going around that’s like, “Soft skills are the hard skills.”

I think that is where HR can add the best value because we all know this. You can be beyond brilliant, you can be beyond organized, you can be all those things, but if you don’t have a good handle on soft skills, on the things that we talked about earlier, you’re not being as effective for your team, your company, and yourself. So, I think that’s where HR can really add value and kind of unlock this level, this new place where we find ourselves, which is we’re not just here to make money. We’re here to exercise who we are fully, both in our personal and our public life and get better.

Where do you see the industry heading in five years, or are you currently seeing any trends?

It’s interesting. I’ve again been doing this long enough to know that all functions are cyclical, including HR, and new thoughts and ideas enter the ecosystem, and new programs and strategies are adopted. Some stick and some fade. I’ve been through all kinds of different ways to value jobs and measure jobs and comp jobs, and it always is changing, and it’s a little bit of a restless practice.

I do believe, though, that right now, the inherent relationship between employer and employee has radically changed, and I think that embracing the spirit of mutuality is important. To me, it shouldn’t be one over the other, either way, right? It’s about being in a mutually beneficial relationship. As a result, I think HR teams, people teams, are going to be helping leadership develop more open, supportive, flexible, and dynamic approaches to work and programs because we’re going to just by definition need to accommodate a greater range of employee needs and desires, because we’ve seen the Great Resignation to the Great Reshuffle, to the Great Recognition, and the Great Reassignment. I think that’s really going to be where we’re going to see this meteoric change in the way that we build people programs.

What are you most proud of?

You know what? It’s funny. Asking questions to be reflective on is an interesting homework assignment. I was doing this late last night. What am I proud of? It’s not so much for myself personally but I am proud of what I’ve seen changing in our people teams and our companies. The last two and a half years have been incredibly painful. I’ve seen companies really be caught flatfooted with no ability to understand COVID and then racial injustice and tragedies that go on and on, and mass shootings. I mean, it’s just terrible, right?

The thing I’m most proud of is the way so many companies have opened their hearts to bringing that in and legitimizing that as conversation internally and not just, “Hey. We’re a business, and we’re going to deal with the things of our business, and we’re not going to do that,” and it’s just not the way that we should be living. I believe any community, no matter what brings you together, has a responsibility to acknowledge and to be part of helping to solve when we see injustices. I’m not saying that every company should turn into a social justice or should have a social justice arm, but we should acknowledge what’s going on, the pain that people feel internally as well as externally and facilitate those conversations.

So, I think one of the things that I’m most proud of was at the time, being at a company where I just had an amazing CEO who said, “What should we do?” And I said, “We should have listening circles, we should have a town hall, we should have some study groups. We should figure out how the people that need to be educated can get education, and the people who have emotions can express them.” The reality is, it brings people more together than it does separate them, and so it goes back to empathy.

We talk about here at SeekOut all the time, how we are a kind, empathetic, people-first company. I coined this last year, and I didn’t realize it was going to become a tagline, but I was trying to explain our culture to an interviewee and I said, “Well, you’ve heard that expression nice guys finish last?” I said, “But here at SeekOut, nice people can finish first.” That’s one of the things that I’m proud of, that we can actually elevate kindness and empathy, humility and grace, above anything else, and so you have to. Somebody to work here has to think those things are important. You might have them in different levels of capacity, you might not be the most grace-filled person. You might not be, but you have to at least think that’s important and that you want to become more that way.

Do you have any advice for people entering the profession?

I would say if you wanted to get into HR or people teams, don’t be afraid to lead with heart. Don’t be afraid to be curious. Don’t be afraid to lean into, quote, soft skills. Those are going to serve a person so much better than knowing every law on the books or knowing perfect strategies on performance management. Those are the essential core attributes you need to be really successful in this function.