View from the Top: Rosalyn D. Wesley, Corporate Director of Human Resources, Fortune Brands
She has had numerous articles published, has appeared on television with Dan Rather discussing workforce issues, has been a frequent lecturer and workshop leader, and has won several awards, two from U. S. Presidents for her work launching creative labor and workforce initiatives. Ms. Wesley has also received awards and recognition from the Illinois Prairie Girl Scouts and the Illinois Department of Labor
Ms. Wesley graduated from Knoxville College with a BA in political science and psychology and has attended numerous executive development programs. She currently serves on the board of trustees for the Garrett Evangelical Seminary and is a volunteer on several church and community boards and organizations. She also sings, dances and is an avid reader.
First of all, I think that being in the right place at the right time is critical, so I wouldn’t say there were some concrete steps that I took. What I did initially was just learned a lot about my field. It’s critical to have an overall knowledge, not just about a specific aspect or component of your field, but to become a generalist so that you’re prepared regardless of what opportunity comes.
I also learned about the business. I learned early on that it was just as important to know how businesses were run, what the financial obligations and challenges are for certain businesses, to let folks know that I was interested in helping them from the HR side of the house with an understanding of what their challenges are. Earlier in my career, a lot of people who felt that human resources people only focused on one aspect. So I’ve become a global business partner, a global strategic partner, understanding clients’ issues around what it takes to get a product to market and how to help their workforce be more tuned in to their jobs, feel that they’re being productive enough to help them achieve their goals. So in a roundabout way, I first made certain that I was a holistic person, that I not only understood my specific profession, but I understood how business works and what it takes to run a business, with financial, as well as human resources.
The most critical aspect to me is networking and building relationships. When we’re in college, we feel like “I have this degree and I’m qualified and I have a competence in a certain field,” but once you begin to work, you understand that it really is one half about that and the other half about networking and the relationships that you build, the teaming competencies that you build, and learning how to collaborate and be collegial. The value of building relationships and the role that they play can’t be highlighted enough. It’s being on boards, understanding the value of volunteer work and helping in the community, and really becoming a holistic person. You get that on the job, because oftentimes you wonder why a certain person got a position and you didn’t, and you feel like you either have more years of experience or you feel that you’ve done better on the job. It’s not really about that, it’s about how well this person fits, what can this person add, what else do they bring to the party? So what I’ve learned is that it’s a lot more than the As that you made in school or the technical competences; you have to learn to build on that and to partner your technical competencies with your capabilities to be a collaborator and a team member.
It’s an interesting question, because I believe there’s a glass ceiling everywhere. There’s always something there that’s perceived or real. I don’t think you can necessarily avoid glass ceilings—and sometimes I call them concrete walls—because in some companies, or in some aspects of life, there aren’t glass ceilings…they are concrete walls. I believe that it is the process that you use to break them that will determine how successful you will be. I think if we’re focusing all the time on thorns and not the rose, we’ll miss the opportunity to crash that glass ceiling or to break down that wall because we’re so busy looking for that, as opposed to preparing as much as you can. I believe in making sure that I’m in the right place at the right time, that I have the right relationships, that people understand who I am, that they know me personally as a person of integrity and as a person who adds value and brings value, because when you come up against that glass ceiling, you’re really ready. There’s no reason for you not to be able to break through that glass ceiling if you focus on outcomes, rather than barriers.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your career?
I meet a lot of people, and building and nurturing relationships has probably been the single most rewarding aspect. I have met people who have nurtured my spirit, I’ve been able to nurture other people’s spirits, I can pick up the phone and call people to come and participate in a workshop or keynote an event, and by the same token, I’m often called to provide insight on some topic or issue. But more than that, it’s been facilitating organizational change. I’ve done a lot of work in the performance management area, and have been on the forefront of creating, managing and sustaining diversity. I have developed compensation and reward systems, and have tremendous expertise in the coaching and counseling arena. So, I have been part of helping people transform their lives personally, as well as helping organizations transform their culture so that people feel better about the workplace they go to every day.
What would you most like to change?
The change in my field has already occurred, because early on when I started, it was really personnel, and people were really relegated to doing transactional tasks, and not transformational tasks. I have seen this field evolve so much that it has allowed me to be able to do the things that I’ve talked about previously, so I see it continually changing. I’m often called on by all of the senior executives to participate in business conversations, and as long as that continues, as long as there’s a recognition that the human resources side of any business or of any enterprise is just as important, I’m OK with that.
What impact has your career had on your personal and family life? Do you have any special techniques, methods and philosophies that help you maintain a work/life balance and be a successful professional?
I have two kids—my son just graduated from college and my daughter is graduating this year. They’re only 15 months apart and I had them at a time when I had already pretty much established a benchmark for success for myself. One of the most important aspects of my career has been to allow my family, especially my kids, to see that success is possible as they define it.
Whenever I have begun a new position, I make sure that it’s known that my family vacations are a critical component of my work life. I believe that my career is important, and it has allowed me to be able to afford certain things for my family, to be able to do certain things. By the same token, having all of that success and not having a successful family life would mean nothing to me. So I always take a vacation with my family, and we’ve taken it every year pretty much at the same time, and I try to get it all in because I believe in nurturing the spirit. My family understands that my career is important, but they also know that they are a priority. When the kids were small, I traveled to Asia and Europe routinely, but I would wake up in the morning at two o’clock Asia time, because I knew it was about 2:30 central time here in the States, and my kids were getting out of school. I wanted to have that personal connection with them. They always knew no matter where I was, in whatever part of the world, that I was just a phone call away. I went to recitals, I went to soccer games, I went to field hockey games. I believe that there is a way we can still put our families first. In fact, I believe it’s mandatory to do so.
And, yet, it is still critical to accomplish your work goals. With pagers, BlackBerries, laptops and cell phones, I’m able to get my job done as well as nurture my family’s spirit. If you were to ask them, they would say to you that I was neither an absentee mother nor an absentee wife. My husband, Pete, knows that he’s important to me and my children, Mannis and Tiffani, know that they’re important to me, yet my company also knows that at the end of the day, I have results that show that I’m committed to the company. You have to put the time into everything, and my view is that when things get really bad and I’m trying to make a decision, I employ my two bones in life: a funny bone and a backbone. I stand up for the things that I want, but I also can laugh at myself and laugh at the things when I do make mistakes. I am not perfect in that arena and I have made lots of mistakes, but I have learned from each one of them. I do think my sense of humor and my sense of humility have been the things that have really carried me forward, and I think I’ve bequeathed that to my family.
I think my mother was kind of the supreme networker of all time before the word “network” became popular, because my mother was always able to make us feel that we were rich—rich in spirit, rich in the things that matter. I can’t even begin to tell you what little money she made to put me through college, somehow she made it happen. What she said to me early on was that you need to ask for the things that you want; you need to develop relationships with people so that when you need things, those people view you as a person who will give back to them in some way in the best way that you can. So I learned from my mother about being collegial, about building camaraderie, because that way you have a community of people around you to help you, whether you need financial help, whether you need career help.
The other person is Rosa Parks. I’m from Selma, Alabama, and I grew up in the whole era of the Civil Rights Movement, and some days you just get tired and I learned that it’s OK to be tired, and it’s OK to buck the system. Humility is fine and acquiescing is fine, but some days, you just need to buck the system. It’s appropriate to do that sometimes.
The last person was Jim Denny, who was a white supervisor of mine whom I consider to be the absolute best boss I’ve ever had. He taught me a lot about being responsible for people and their careers and how you are to work with people—that you work with people, that people don’t work for you. He had great personal strength, great humility, and he was a man who let you take the forefront, and who was very comfortable with himself. So I learned from him the value of being not only a good manager, but a good person. It’s not about you, it’s about the people around you whom you support and who support you, it’s about you being a team player.
What advice do you have for a young person considering a career within your company/industry?
Have that thirst for learning and for continuous improvement and be an enthusiastic person. My grandmother had a saying of ‘Watch who you run with.’ If you run with people who commiserate your position, then you’ll always wonder about what else is going to befall you. If you wake up every day and say, “This is going to be a bad day,” it obviously will be a bad day. I believe that the affirmations that you give yourself and that you feed your brain manifest themselves in the way that you behave with the people around you. So it’s that passion that you have for life, and belief that you can do anything and not worrying about the glass ceilings, about the concrete blocks, because they are going to be there. Les Brown has a saying that I absolutely believe, which is “Your attitude often determines your altitude.” I don’t believe that life is nirvana, and I’m not a Pollyanna by any means because I can be as hard-nosed as the next person, but I do believe if I get up in the morning expecting to have a great day, even though I may be meeting with difficult people, I decide how I want that meeting to go, I decide how I want my day to go. If it doesn’t go my way, at least I was prepared and then I can deal with whatever the obstacles are. But I have found more often than not that it’s my expectation, my enthusiasm, my energy that can often turn the tide on something that could have been potentially negative.
My mother always said to me, “Sit up front; I don’t ever want to see you sitting in the back.” Maybe that’s a product of the fact that I’m from Selma, but I had daily messages about how inferior people thought I was because of the color of my skin. So these were messages that carried me through every aspect. If you want to talk about breaking down barriers and ceilings and walls, you know, as a child of the 60’s, I had to do that. But I really do believe that just walking through the day smiling changes your whole posture; it doesn’t change the situations that you run into, but it changes your approach to them so there’s less stress for you—you can think better, you can think clearer, and you disarm people and bad situations.
I have not had the privilege of having formal mentors in my early career because I’m part of that creed of people who were trying to get to where we needed to go without a lot of mentoring. Jim Denny, my boss, was my first and my greatest mentor. But now I have met all these women through conferences that I attend for work, professionally, as well as personal conferences where there are women like myself who’ve been around for awhile, and I think you can always learn. So there are people who are mentoring me that don’t know that they’re mentoring me because I admire them, or I will call them or just check in with them, “How are things going?” and say, “By the way, I’ve got this issue I’m dealing with.” So it’s not formal mentoring for me, but I know I can pick up the phone and call women that I have met. This is a whole value of creating a network of people.
Now, I do mentor. I’ve had people who may have heard me speak at a conference come up to me and ask if they can keep in touch with me. I have had several women from colleges where I’ve gone and done some speaking who will e-mail me and ask me for advice or information. I have also mentored men. You should not limit yourself because you can learn from others and their experiences, regardless of ethnicity or gender. I learn from the people that I mentor, because they have bright ideas and great ideas and they have a way of thinking that is fresh and young, or seasoned with experience, and I love that.
I would love to sing classical—I am in awe of Kathleen Battle and Denise Graves. I sing in choirs and I sing lots of classical. I would want to be like Les Brown and some of the other motivators, because when I do keynotes and speak on panels, oftentimes I do touch and resonate with people. People have said that to me. I’m just as at home speaking in front of thousands of people as I am one-on-one, so I would really love to just continue just meeting people globally and giving them the benefit of whatever experiences that I have that I think have helped me in my life.
What was it like being on television with Dan Rather?
It was a town hall meeting, and I was on a panel, talking about workplace issues. It was probably one of my first television programs. I would also like to be a television commentator at some point. I absolutely loved it. It’s nice when you can actually be in the presence of someone who has national recognition, but I also found him to be just a genuine person.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I believe that you have to be an enthusiastic person. Not that you don’t have days when you don’t feel well, but you have to cut through that and know that there’s always somebody else who’s probably having a worse day. I’m very passionate about the way that I walk, the way that I talk, the way that I approach people. Truly successful people are successful because they have a passion about what they were doing. You may get to a certain level, and oftentimes the glass ceiling stops people because maybe you’re not as passionate, this may not be what you really want to do, but I think we find ways to go around, to circumvent, to break through.