Serendipity and the Senior Vice President

JoAnn Murray planned for a career in social services, but an entry-level opportunity in HR changed that career path, as well as gave her "the opportunity to work in an area that truly makes a difference in people's lives."

She credits some of her success to her work at PepsiCo's aggressive and fast-paced environment. "To succeed, I had to work quickly and adjust to continuous juggling of priorities."

Wednesday, September 1, 2010
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JoAnn Murray says that an early, unexpected twist in her career path led her to where she is now, namely to her position as senior vice president of global human resources at Pleasantville, N.Y.-based Reader's Digest Association, where she also serves on the company's executive committee and reports to President and CEO Mary Berner.

Prior to this appointment, she served the RDA as vice president of human resources and global talent development since 2008, when she left an executive-director post at a Manhattan-based boutique search firm to join the association.

"I entered this field by serendipity, rather than design," she says when asked what initially motivated her to pursue a career in human resources.

After graduating from Pace University with a degree in child psychology, she fully expected to teach or pursue a career in some area of social services, she says. But that's when the fates interceded and made her an offer she couldn't (and thankfully for RDA, didn't) refuse.

"I received an offer for an entry-level HR position, was intrigued by the field and the opportunity to work in an area that truly makes a difference in people's lives," she says. "The rest is history."

Part of that early work history took place at PepsiCo, where she says she learned a lot of the fundamentals.

"You could say that I cut my teeth there," she says. "Pepsi had an aggressive and fast-paced environment. To succeed, I had to work quickly and adjust to continuous juggling of priorities," she says. "On a senior level in HR, this is what the job is all about, so this gave me an excellent career foundation."

Fast forward to her time as head of resourcing at Cadbury Schweppes, where she says her department managed four major change initiatives in three years. 

"Today I'm very comfortable leading a change environment, which certainly describes RDA," she says, adding that one of the biggest challenges in today's business environment is doing more with less.

"Ultimately, [that challenge] means a lot of balancing," she says, providing the example of initiating cost-cutting and growth initiatives at the same time.

"During such challenging times, leadership is essential, as is a focus on employee engagement," she says.

Her previous HR work experience also includes a stint as a vice president with human-capital-consulting firm Dinerstein Group, where she says she honed her search expertise. That post "provided me with a unique skill set for a corporate HR executive -- both general executive skills and consultative search skills," she says. 

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Back at current-day RDA, Murray says "we're focused on assessing skills and performance. What does good talent look like? How do you bring talent into the organization? What about retention? Also essential to this effort is relationship building, influencing and internal consulting -- all skills that were critical in the search industry and which have helped me to be successful as an HR partner."

When asked to share some of the best advice, Murray offers two: Assume positive intent; and focus on solutions, not problems. 

"It's important to assume positive intent to avoid sinking into negativity and thus missing opportunities to find solutions," she says. "One can be constantly and pleasantly surprised by the potential for others to contribute, and by assuming the positive one is in the best position to observe and interact in a constructive manner. 

"Focusing on solutions, not problems, sounds obvious, but it's actually rather esoteric. The two are sides of the same coin. But by focusing on solutions, we move quickly from the negative to a strategic approach that is conducive to action."

In addition to her many HR duties, Murray is also an active member of the American Cancer Society and the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.

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