The Quintessential Collaborator

Greatest Challenge: Wolfe's division inherited workers from 46 countries who hailed mainly from two large acquisitions -- representing a variety of cultures.

Greatest Achievement: Integrating her division under one HR function.

By Jared Shelly

Want to know how workers in the Netherlands will perceive a new HR initiative, and why their reaction might be different than employees in, say, Morocco?

Just ask Nancy Wolfe.

Over the course of her career, Wolfe, 41, has emerged as one of the foremost authorities on Monsanto's global workforce, and that knowledge is a big reason that she's been named one of HR's Rising Stars for 2010.

Serving as the vice president of human resources for the vegetable-seeds division -- which sells 4,000 distinct seed varieties to farmers throughout the world -- Wolfe oversees approximately 4,000 employees located in 46 different countries and has been particularly adept at aligning people from many different backgrounds -- and work cultures -- into one HR function.

It all started in 2005, when Monsanto created its vegetable division by acquiring Seminis, a large vegetable seed company. In 2006, Wolfe became the HR leader for the division and was tasked with integrating Seminis' employees (and in 2008, workers from its acquisition of DeRuiter Seeds) under one HR program.

Seminis consisted of 15 different businesses that had never really been integrated into one culture with similar policies, compensation and benefits. Meanwhile, DeRuiter had a strong culture of independence and its employees, mainly from the Netherlands, took pride in the gains they made as a family business; needless to say, moving to becoming part of a publicly traded company was a bit of a culture shock.

Because both acquisitions brought people from so many different countries under one function, she had to be sensitive to all their needs and ensure her department's policies weren't too U.S.-centric.

Wolfe and her HR team decided to make a compromise. When existing Seminis programs seemed applicable, they stayed. When the programs Monsanto used worked better, they were used -- such as the introduction of Monsanto's rewards program, providing annual incentives for meeting goals.

For the DeRuiter workforce, Wolfe was instrumental in showing senior leaders, as well as the rest of the employees, that there were plenty of similarities between Monsanto policies and the ones DeRuiter employees were already used to. Oftentimes, they just had different names. For example, Monsanto's Development, Performance & Rewards was extremely similar to DeRuiter's Balance Scorecard. Communicating just how similar they were -- first to key leaders in the company's monthly People Leader Learning Series, then to the rest of the organization via local line managers and HR leaders -- provided some comfort to employees.

Wolfe also helped Seminis and DeRuiter employees integrate into the company by immediately setting them up with Monsanto's existing tools to promote their engagement and commitment -- tools for leadership training, succession planning, goal-setting and career-mapping (all developed in-house in partnership with Monsanto's Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness Team). Initially, Wolfe says, some employees groaned, thinking it would lead to extra work, but they soon came around.

"People see the value of setting goals, what they're going to be accountable for -- not being surprised when they don't meet objectives or they exceed expectations," she says. "Now, the goals keep them more efficient and more focused on the most important things to get done."

Wolfe's visits to different offices around the world, as well as meetings with leaders at the company headquarters in St. Louis, have been integral parts of her development -- helping her figure out employee needs first-hand.

Although the vegetable division has seen plenty of success -- growing at a 65-percent margin with annual sales over $800 million, she says -- she doesn't think the work of integration is over.

"I don't think we're done yet; our corporate culture is continuing to evolve," she says.

Wolfe's journey began at Washington University, where she earned an MBA. From there, she headed into corporate finance at Monsanto in 1997. She was tasked with supporting the HR function, and got a first-hand look at how people decisions affect the bottom line. When Monsanto made successful investments in training its employees and developing future leaders, it paid huge dividends.

"I started to realize, more intuitively, how much thought goes into the people aspects of a business," she says. "I didn't know what was happening behind the scenes." So in 1999, she took a job in the benefits department (still under finance at that time.) As the "benefits advocate," she was tasked with helping people understand and navigate their benefit packages.

She called it a "nice, easy move" into HR. While some may say a move from finance to HR is toward the softer side of business, Wolfe disagrees.

"HR is harder than anything I ever did in finance," she says. "Finance is black and white; people are hard. It's not always the same thing twice; you need to develop and manage people as individuals -- doing it well takes hard work."

Her philosophy in dealing with people is simple -- be honest. "Employee relations -- sometimes we make that harder than it is," she says. "You can't go wrong with honesty -- having direct conversations and treating people like adults."

Elizabeth Burger, vice president of human resources for Global Seeds and Traits -- another division of Monsanto -- and Wolfe's supervisor, can't sing Wolfe's praises loudly enough.

"I'm the luckiest person in the world!" says Burger, who calls Wolfe "pragmatic, highly organized, an insightful leader [and] a decisive collaborator."

Steve Mizell, executive vice president of human resources for Monsanto, says Wolfe is so impressive that she could climb into the C-suite very soon.

She "could be a CEO running the entire [vegetable] business ... ," he says. "I also think she could be a chief HR officer one day. She has that kind of potential."

These are the other 2010 HR's Rising Stars:

A Dynamo in The Energy Field: Tana Cashion

The Innovator: Prasad Setty

Inspired by Human Performance: Adam Malamut

The Change Agent: Kevin Close

Jul 1, 2010
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