Faces of HR

Faces of HR: How Nicole Dawson Built a Trendsetting Workplace at BAL

In the fast-paced world of immigration law, where navigating complex legalities is par for the course, Nicole Dawson, Chief People and Culture Officer at BAL, isn’t just building a team; she’s crafting a culture. With a career spanning nearly two decades, her journey from recruiter to HR leader is a testament to her passion for fostering a positive and inclusive work environment.

Nicole Dawson

BAL, a global powerhouse with over 1,200 employees, empowers businesses to attract top global talent. But Dawson understands that retaining that talent requires more than just competitive salaries. Under her leadership, BAL boasts an industry-leading diversity record and innovative employee development programs. Think of her as the architect of culture, meticulously designing a space where employees feel valued, supported, and empowered to reach their full potential.

But Dawson’s path to HR wasn’t entirely linear. An initial foray into the world of recruiting, coupled with a law degree from the University of Georgia, could have led her down a different legal path. However, a desire to balance motherhood with a career in employment law led her to HR, a field she describes as “the closest parallel” to her legal interests. This unique perspective, combined with her extensive HR experience, allows her to not only champion employee well-being but also serve as a strategic partner to executives, ensuring all HR decisions have a solid legal foundation.

“I am grateful for the career path I’ve had that embraced risks and varying experiences in HR,” she recently shared with HR Daily Advisor. “I truly believe my diverse experience has made me a stronger HR leader. I would encourage other HR professionals to keep an open mind, take risks, make sacrifices, and be unafraid to explore unconventional paths.”

In our latest Faces, meet Nicole Dawson.

Who is/was your biggest influence in the industry?

My biggest influence in the HR industry was Tracy Faber, my prior CHRO at McKesson. She was always her most authentic self. I strive to be an authentic, empathetic, courageous leader, like her, who can inspire others and effectively communicate the HR vision in alignment with business goals, ultimately fostering buy-in. To have an effective HR strategy, you must have leadership buy-in, and this was a strength Tracy exemplified.

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

My best mistake was taking on a project without communicating that I did not have the bandwidth for it. I was already overextended on a few deliverables; however, I agreed to be on the project because leadership thought I would bring great insight. Not only did this decision leave me exhausted and burnt out, but I also wasn’t able to show up as my best self for the project team. This taught me to prioritize self-care because if I don’t take care of myself first, I do not show up at my best with my peers or my partners. Also, I learned that communicating your limitations upfront builds trust and credibility rather than harming it. Since then, I’ve shifted my focus from being seen as someone who can do it all to someone who prioritizes authenticity, communicates effectively, and is a good teammate. You don’t have to take on every project to prove you’re good at what you do.

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

My favorite part of working in the HR industry is the ability to build relationships and coach leaders to where they consider me a strategic partner beyond HR and pull me into meetings on business-level priorities and solutions.

My least favorite part is that HR can sometimes be seen as a catch-all for issues that HR teams lack full accountability or control over. I believe there should be greater transparency around the HR role, and organizations should have a clear definition of its function and responsibilities in comparison to other senior and executive leadership roles.

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.

It’s important for HR to create an inclusive, safe space where people can be their authentic selves and bring their whole selves and lives to work. We don’t lead robots; we lead people. We need to have a people-first mentality to engage employees and allow them to achieve success and fulfillment. Your workforce can’t feel like they’re working for the sole benefit of the organization. They need to feel that it is mutually beneficial, and it’s HR’s role to develop those policies and strategies that address their needs. Additionally, as diversity increases, we have to make room for the different ways people show up as their authentic selves, and it’s up to HR leadership to help our leaders understand how to create this safe space.

How can HR most effectively demonstrate its value to the leadership team?

At BAL, we demonstrate HR’s value to the leadership team by measuring the effectiveness of our programs and initiatives. For example, our ability to help leaders assess talent is evident in metrics such as promotions, top performers, and recipients of rewards annually. Additionally, my team helps the firm design competitive pay practices, and our success is demonstrated by our ability to quickly attract talent and retain the talent we have. We also gauge our effectiveness in attracting, retaining, and promoting diverse talent by monitoring the representation of women and minorities in leadership positions. We are also able to quantify whether talent programs are resulting in strong hires and leadership pools.

Where do you see the industry heading in 5 years? Or are you seeing any current trends?

Like other industries, I believe that technology and artificial intelligence (AI) will have a big impact on HR in the next 5 years. With companies struggling with speed to hire, AI will help increase efficiency in recruiting and staffing, empowering HR to make faster solutions and recommendations to better support business leaders daily. However, while AI can increase efficiency, its solutions may lead to rigid, black-and-white answers that do not account for the nuances of human judgment and care that are needed when leading people. If we over-rely on AI and technology and underestimate the need for human touch, companies may miss opportunities to truly engage and inspire employees.

What are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of the people I have inspired to join the HR industry and the individuals I’ve been able to coach and develop to become accomplished HR leaders themselves. Several people that I’ve hired and mentored now hold vice president positions in HR, and I’m immensely proud of their success and grateful for the part I played in helping them reach their goals.

Do you have any advice for people entering the profession?

My advice for people entering the HR profession is to decide early on who you want to be outside of just your role. To be the best HR practitioner, you need to be true to your own values and priorities and show up authentically each day. Throughout my journey, I’ve found that people learn most not just from my words but also by observing my actions. They are inspired by my leadership and authenticity, not just by what I say.

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