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Wisdom From the Top: Why Mary O’Hara Is Always Working on the System, and You Should Too

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Human resources professionals aren’t unlike social scientists. Beyond the usual hiring, firing, and benefits package, they have the distinct challenge of building a company’s culture. They’re trying to bring people from all walks of life, culture, education, experience and expertise to work together towards a common goal of growing a business and achieving the company’s mission. That’s a tall order.

Mary O’Hara is Blue Shield of California’s chief human resource officer and senior vice president of internal communications. She doesn’t just have a seat at the table, she chairs the operating committee. She has elevated workforce plans as a critical and indispensable part of the business strategy rather than a functional support role, which human resources is sometimes seen as. If you pay close attention, the difference is leadership, and Mary is a constant student and teacher of it. She has been a social scientist of sorts for more than 25 years leading award-winning talent and development strategies across large enterprises in various sectors in 13 countries. Previously, she served as senior vice president of human resources for the Toronto-based TD Bank Financial Group. We had a chance to discuss her philosophy on women’s rights and the #MeToo movement; how her dad still has her back; and what she has in common with Fixer Upper stars Chip and Joanna Gaines.

As the Chief Human Resources Officer, you have the “inside baseball” knowledge of a company’s hiring, firing, and promoting practices. How has this experience informed the skills you’ve wanted to teach your children to prepare them for success in life and work?

One of my life goals both for myself and for my children is to be a continuous learner. Having a curiosity for understanding other people’s perspectives and learning something new carries across cultures. I’ve now lived and or worked in 13 countries across business and academia, I’ve learned a tremendous amount by having experiences with how different people think across America and different parts of the world, and I want to inspire my children to be more adventurous and creative in their learning. You can learn as much from different people with different life experiences and from different cultures as you can from a classroom. It’s my strong belief that cultivating a learning mindset is a requirement for success. That’s the focus I have instilled in my children and frankly, this is the outlook and mindset we promote and cultivate at Blue Shield of California.

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(L to R) Mary's husband, Steve O'Hara; daughter, Celine O'Hara and Mary O'Hara

The #MeToo movement has brought a lot of visibility to the inequities and various forms of harassment and challenges faced by women. As a next step, how can we drive measurable change on this front and who should be accountable for this change?

I talk about this in our Blue Shield of California leadership development courses. In the spirit of leadership at all levels, each of us is accountable for working on the system, not just in it. Who’s accountable? If you’re a leader: you are. Change is both an individual and a collective responsibility. You can’t just be in an organization and be a bystander. You have to be willing to be part of the solution. You may be in an organization where it’s hard to bring about change. It’s all of our jobs to eradicate when unacceptable things come up. Clearly, leaders have additional accountability to drive change and at Blue Shield I’m proud to say that we have addressed many inequities in women’s access to leadership and equal pay. At the same time, there is always room for improvement, and that’s why we all need to be working on the system at all times, at all levels.

You’re a big proponent of engaging men to be part of the solution for women’s rights and advancement at work. What are three things men, at any level, can do right now that could help?

I’m actually not focused on just making men champions, but for everyone to be part of the solution. In order to advance, we have to start from understanding one another on a deeper level. You don’t get to understanding until you get to connectedness. Many organizations dismiss the importance of connectedness and still hope to yield the greatest potential from their talent.  It doesn’t work that way.  Building our social and emotional intelligence helps us get to connectedness. If we are willing to listen, have a personal curiosity, keep an open mind, and focus on the relational aspects of work as much as the task, we’ll be more likely to connect and advance together.  This is true for all walks of life, men and women.

What advice would you give women who feel they’ve been road blocked or have hit a wall in their career?

I would give them the same advice I would give men, because the same thing is true for men. Nobody is more riveted around your career than you are. If you have that perspective, then you won’t outsource your career development.  You are personally accountable for managing your career. In addition, at Blue Shield we are very deliberate about the role of leaders which includes a shared responsibility for growing people along with the business.  We teach them how to do that with tools and training around people strategies and talent practices that are inclusive and broad in how to develop capability.  Ultimately, each of us needs to be clear about what we need personally in our role and from our leaders at all junctures of our career.  We also have to be aware of what we bring to the table when considering opportunities along the way. This knowledge will help you make balanced and discerning choices.

What shows are you binge watching and why do you love them?

I’m a junkie for HGTV. I have a really creative side and I love interior design. My husband and I have built and remodeled multiple homes in the past. I’m somewhat of an architect in my job and life, and I love seeing things from the conceptual stage all the way to fruition. Flipping houses appeals to my nature, because I love the creative process.   

What are you reading right now?

I’m a voracious reader but these days I’m reading some pretty boring stuff. My dad was the picture of health his whole life, but he’s had cancer four times. He now has terminal cancer and is obsessed with his children’s health. He’s gotten me to read “Women’s Health Matters -- The Influence of Gender on Disease” by Dr. Karen Jenson, ND. He wants to make sure we’re all making good choices with our health. He’s looking out for me right up to the end. I’m also reading “Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter” by Liz Wizeman and Greg Mckeown. The idea is you can decide to be a multiplier or you can choose to be a diminisher. On my personal path to mastery, my goal is not to be a diminisher. I’m focused on continuously making myself and the people around me better.

What ways, hobbies or rituals do you have to recharge and stay healthy?

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Bella

I have two dogs—a Labradoodle named Bella and a Yorkie named Moose. Moose thinks he’s a big guy. They give each other a kiss every morning. Some say there seems to be a dog theme here at Blue Shield and I’m no exception. I love living in the East Bay because I hike a lot. Hiking helps me clear my head, and I like to take my dogs out for long walks. I’m really drawn to water, and I love spending time at the beach. I travel and explore with my family as much as I can.  We also have a vacation home on the water in Naples, Florida. That’s my happy place.

What was the best lesson you’ve learned in your career?

At some point you figure out that having all the answers is not the path to success. We all make mistakes and you can’t know everything. Past experiences don’t necessarily predict success in future contexts; they can, however, help you be more open, resourceful and resilient.  And experiencing challenges, including failures in different context, if you take the time to unpack your learning from them, it can provide a shortcut to productive reasoning, which can help you navigate through the unknown. I may not have all the answers, but I can keep an inquiring mindset. It all comes back to the continuous learning lesson and it’s an important one for me in my life.

Perhaps, Mary’s social science experiment is to see what happens when we train our people to be continuous learners, so we can all work on the system.


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