Faces of HR

Faces of HR: Sandra Humbles on Passion, Psychological Safety, and Being Present

Here at HR Daily Advisor, our week-long virtual celebration of learning and development is well underway – and it doesn’t stop with our latest Faces profile, which features Sandra Humbles, Chief Learning Officer at Johnson & Johnson (J&J).

Sandra Humbles
Sandra Humbles

At J&J, learning and development is both central and critical to its employees’ journeys, Humbles shared. As a result, the company created J&J Learn – a L&D ecosystem that connects its employees with the skills, mentors and personalized learning content needed to help them grow in current and future roles.

“Through this ecosystem we chart personalized career paths for all employees toward the role of their dreams, while helping them thrive at every step along the way,” says Humbles. “Every day, our employees across the world are blending heart, science, and ingenuity to profoundly change the trajectory of health for humanity. [This] starts with creating the world’s healthiest workforce. Through cutting-edge programs and policies, we’re empowering the physical, mental, emotional, financial, and career health of our employees.”

In our latest Faces of HR, meet Sandra Humbles.

How did you get your start in the field?

At an early age I had a passion for the sciences: biology and chemistry. This took me to university to study biomedical sciences, specifically microbiology. My first job out of school was working for the Welcome Foundation, pioneering development and manufacturing of HIV diagnostic kits back in the early ’90s, helping to identify those people who were HIV positive. I wanted to do more, and that led me very quickly to look for a company that had strong core values and put patients and safety at the center of everything. No surprise I chose Johnson & Johnson and have had the privilege of being here more than 30 years.

For the first 15 to 20 years, I held various business positions in sales, marketing, strategic planning, strategic support for Company Group Chairs and general management. I started to really understand what made me get up each day: making a difference for people, whether externally with patients or internally with employees at J&J.

So, around 2010, I started to charter the next phase of my career at J&J, taking on assignments through which I could make a significant impact for patients and our people. I held roles with increasing business and geographic scope in the surgeon and physician education space, and just prior to this role, I was the Global Head for Education for J&J Med Tech. I’m so proud to have been a founding member of the J&J Institute—our external education brand for J&J. We made transformational changes to the education space launching incredible delivery channels like virtual reality, augmented reality, gamification, and AI-driven performance improvement platforms. It was so inspiring.

During this period, my passion to help and support our people at J&J to be their very best never waned, so when I was asked to take on this new assignment it was a very easy decision. I’m now looking forward to taking the same digital transformation leap for all our employees at J&J.

Who is/was your biggest influence in the industry?

With my passion, I have spent many hours benchmarking and figuring out how to disrupt work and make a massive impact at scale, so no surprise I have a group of digital disrupters who have inspired me to do amazing things. Jean Nehme, an innovator in AI/machine learning; Derek Streat, an entrepreneur; Justin Barad, a leader in VR; and Hani Abouhalka, an executive at J&J who is leading our robotics platform.

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

Always a tough question, and with more than 30 years of work experience I have made a few, but mine would be around a life transition. I had been working at J&J for just over 10 years, and my husband and I had recently moved from the United Kingdom to Dallas, Texas. It was such a wonderful opportunity to be a Worldwide Head of Marketing and lead a fabulous group of marketing leaders.

We had only been in the United States for less than 10 months when a decision was made to close the Dallas office. On the day we were all told, some of the people were going to stay on in Dallas to help divest part of the business, a third of the team merged with our Cincinnati business and a third of the team merged with our New Jersey business.

I was in shock and very sad for the teams, the first few hours on an emotional rollercoaster, dealing with my own situation but also worried about my team and their families. I was not my best self. Lesson learned: before you start trying to help others, put your own oxygen mask on first, recover, and then bring your whole energy to everyone else. Over the last three years, this lesson keeps coming back to me and I have paid it forward to so many when others needed it most. Life transitions are hard.

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

Every day I bring my whole self to work, grounded in science, passion for innovation and making a difference for the people I serve. What we do matters to those who need our products—we save lives. As the first Chief Learning Officer for J&J, I get to work with incredible people and get to see all the best practices within J&J and externally and shape a strategy and plan to make a difference. I love what I do.

Right now, in HR, we are dealing with many external factors, including geopolitical unrest, social injustice, burnout, inflation and the Great Resignation, giving us a lot of competing priorities. It is so important to prioritize and deliver. We cannot change these forces, so my default is to help lead through it with resilience and empathy. Our teams need their leaders to be present, help remove barriers and ensure they hear the words “thank you” for all they do to make a difference.

It sounds like through your experience you really care about people, and you want to help them feel safe and comfortable, which is important in the industry. Please elaborate here.

Life and work have shaped me into who I am, and I get most of my energy when I’m around people and giving back. For 15 years with my daughter, we did some amazing things together, whether that was with her Girl Scouts and community service or the time our family got to go on a mission trip with Operation Smile. I now watch my daughter, who wants to be a special needs teacher, and she is the most caring individual you will ever meet. It makes a difference.

How does this translate to our work? There are two areas that our teams need to focus on right now: Supporting our leaders to be truly inclusive. and creating the psychological safety in our new reality.

L&D needs to support leaders to create psychological safety, which is the shared belief that members of a team feel comfortable taking interpersonal risks. Our focus needs to be on skilling up our people leaders to communicate decisions transparently and demonstrate empathy and vulnerability. Simply put, there is a new call to action for Human Leadership.

The second part of this is around helping our employees live their purpose, develop leadership skills, and maximize their energy. We have a specific practice area that is focused on bringing all our employees world-class development experiences. At Johnson & Johnson, our leadership philosophy stems from ALL of us as leaders giving direction to human energy to help people and human health thrive.

The Human Performance Institute readies all employees for critical transitions, key roles, and growth at every step of the way:

  • Purpose: The Human Performance Institute provides the tools and content to help employees define and leverage their purpose to grow and have impact with a personal development plan.
  • Energy: A holistic and science-based approach to energy management, resilience and well-being—based on behavioral science, performance psychology, nutritional science, and human physiology.  

Where do you see the industry heading in five years? Or are you seeing any current trends?

Talent management practices will be fundamentally changed through digital disruption of artificial intelligence, machine learning, intelligent automation, and augmented and virtual reality, with the corresponding change in the people capability required in learning and development teams. How we operate in our lives today as consumers will be how we operate at work with our talent management practices. Core areas of focus will remain leadership, inclusion, well-being, and digital upskilling.

The learning and development strategic partners/vendors are on fire right now with so many innovators trying to solve problems with digital solutions. The next five years will see innovation continuing as well as some of the major players acquiring these innovator startups to bring into their own technology stack.

What are you most proud of?

Every day I bring my whole self to what I am doing—at home and work. I know I have made a difference to my family, friends, work colleagues, surgeons, nurses, and patients whom we serve. My daughter is amazing, and I shine when I see all she has become. At work I have done three major digital transformations that helped others to improve performance and be their better self – it gives me chills.