Faces of HR

Faces of HR: Britta Mühlenberg—Building Bridges Between People and Potential

Britta Mühlenberg, COO at Acrolinx, isn’t your typical HR leader. Her path to the C-suite started not with textbooks but with a deep-seated desire to connect with people on a global scale. This wanderlust, coupled with a fascination with human behavior, led her to an unexpected first step: the world of hospitality.

Britta Mühlenberg

“University confirmed my passion for the ‘people field,'” Mühlenberg shared with HR Daily Advisor. “Every paper, thesis, and internship – all centered around understanding and empowering individuals.” Hospitality, with its emphasis on building relationships and navigating diverse cultures, became the perfect training ground for her future endeavors.

However, her journey didn’t unfold on a linear path. Mühlenberg’s leadership philosophy is a testament to her ability to glean valuable insights from diverse sources. “Encountering Stephen Covey’s ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ was a turning point,” she noted. “Concepts like effective communication, time management, and building strong relationships remain core principles that guide me even today.”

Fast-forward nearly three decades, and Mühlenberg’s career trajectory has taken her through renowned organizations like Accenture. But she continues to quench her thirst for knowledge at the wellspring of modern thinkers like Adam Grant. “His forward-thinking approach to organizational psychology, with its focus on human motivation and meaning, deeply resonates with my leadership style,” she explained.

Today, Mühlenberg bridges the gap between human potential and organizational success. Her unique path, paved with a passion for people and a commitment to continuous learning, is an inspiration to HR leaders everywhere. She reminds us that the journey to building high-performing teams often begins with the most unexpected first steps—and that the most valuable lessons are often gleaned from the most diverse sources.

In our latest Faces, meet Britta Mühlenberg.

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

Early on in my career, I had always been a very heads-down, diligent person and never paid too much attention to sharing what I did with others. I realized fairly quickly that this was actually to my detriment, and unfortunately, I think that it is a very typical female pattern to hope that people will notice the good things that you do. I’ve had several instances in my early career when I had hoped that people would see all the effort that I put in. From these experiences, I learned that I have to make sure that all my successes are seen so that I exemplify the value I bring, as well as share my knowledge with others I’m working with.

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

I’ve always felt that my purpose in life is to help people at organizations grow and thrive. I really enjoy seeing how I can support the growth of people and leaders and how I can help them be successful and stretch their own limits and horizons. My favorite part about my job has been seeing the potential in people and leveraging it to further them in their own careers. It’s also given me the chance to pull from my own experiences to benefit others following a similar path.

Working in HR, there’s a responsibility to deliver unpopular messages at times, such as layoffs. It’s extremely difficult to detach from the pain and suffering connected to times like these, but I always aspire to make the situation as graceful as possible for the person who is on the receiving end of this. In every tough situation, an aspiration of mine is that I can shake hands with the person and wish them well with a lot of integrity. Being let go does not have to be a traumatic experience. It can be graceful, it can be worthy, it can be human, and it can be kind, even though it’s often a harsh reality. While it’s an extremely tough part of the role, ensuring it’s handled with care and grace is the inevitable responsibility of HR leaders.

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.

Yes, this really is what being in the HR industry boils down to. As an HR leader, it is about being a human, being seen as a human, and being treated as a human, with kindness. You can be tough, and you can be strong, but at the same time, you can still be kind. You can meet people as humans while still acknowledging that they have fears and feelings. This includes ensuring that when issues arise, such as performance or behavioral issues, the leadership team addresses them in a way that showcases empathy and allows both the employees and the leadership team themselves to be vulnerable. Communication in the workplace, especially in the HR function, should be led with empathy and focus on the humanness that the role requires. Employees are so much more than just employees; they have lives, fears, and circumstances beyond their role in the company, and having an HR leader recognize that and lead with that in mind is vital to employee success.

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

For a long time, HR has struggled to find their spot at the leadership table and at the board table. While HR is the department that’s seen for prioritizing employees at the company, the other side of the coin is making sure that you’re seeing and responding to the needs of the business. As an HR leader, your job is to bridge that gap and help build an organization that’s capable and supported. It’s an important skill to not only hire the right people but also drive and evolve the right culture. It’s critical to see the skill sets that are needed and what’s necessary at the current phase of a business because that changes over time. Making sure that you see and work with the humans inside a business is important for the growth and stabilization of the business. These are the opportunities where HR departments can show their direct value to leadership.

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

In this age of generative artificial intelligence (AI), everybody’s looking at how they can implement the technology to drive efficiency and productivity. I wonder sometimes why it is that HR looks at AI with such rigor and awe because we’re the ones who are working with humans, and that’s something that I don’t think will go away. Yes, we can leverage generative AI for content creation and the completion of other tasks, but the HR function isn’t something that can be taken over by AI. It will ultimately change the skill landscape and the skill sets that we need for our organizations.

However, I think that working with people inside organizations and making sure you leverage their humanness is something that won’t go away. The importance of this function will most likely grow, which makes connecting humans to the business more important. It’s tough to say where the industry could be headed now because everything is in flux; we’re at a point where so much is happening and changing that it’s hard to predict what that looks like in 5 years. However, my strong belief is that the human side of HR won’t go away; AI will not and cannot replace humans here because the whole role is centered on the person.

What are you most proud of?

This goes back to what I said about what I like best about working in this industry. I’ve helped quite a few leaders grow with me and through me, and that’s something that I’m proud to see. Knowing I’ve contributed to others’ growth is something that makes me really happy and proud. It inspires me to continue doing the work that I do, and each experience gives me a broader perspective of how I can help mentor and grow future leaders. The HR function allows me to foster and create a workplace that helps these leaders thrive. Leading with that goal in mind and the passion that I feel when watching these leaders succeed pushes me to make our workplace better each day.

Do you have any advice for people entering the profession?

My advice for HR professionals goes back to how we can best show our value to the business or the leadership team. It’s important to never understand the HR function as a means to an end because we’re a facilitator of the organization, and we have a very important communications role. Likewise, we have a very important bridge-builder, connector role, even a catalyst and sometimes a change agent. We wear a ton of hats, but they all need to be tied to the needs of the business.

I’ve seen HR people have an inside-out way of thinking where they think they must address policies and processes with an almost scientific and dogmatic approach. This creates pushback from business leaders because they sometimes don’t feel like they’re being heard right. I had the chance early on in my career to impact businesses on a much broader scale and scope. Not everybody has this luxury, as sometimes the people function is very encapsulated and in a separate silo. It is important that early on, young leaders or emerging professionals in this function get to see the business and can connect to other areas. My exposure to other teams and functions inside of businesses, such as with sales and operations, has helped me better understand the business. Service as chief operating officer at Searchmetrics and Acrolinx has given me the chance to dip my toe into various areas of the business and by that become a better people leader. If you don’t know what you’re talking about, it’s hard to see and meet the challenges of somebody in business development or in product management and even more so to help them grow in their role. The ability to make that connection is extremely important, and the earlier on in your career that you can gain this experience, the better so that you can build it into your thinking and acting.

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