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Executive Perspectives: Melinda McAfee

Chief Human Resources Officer and Chief Legal Officer, Victoria's Secret & Co.

Melinda McAfee photo

Many CHROs deal with compliance and legal issues as part of their jobs. But Melinda “Mel” McAfee is one of the few C-suite leaders who serves as the head of both the HR and legal departments at a global organization. McAfee is a lawyer by training and spent most of her career on a legal path, first at an employment law firm and then in general counsel roles at Express and Abercrombie & Fitch. She was hired as the chief legal officer at Victoria’s Secret & Co. in 2021 and was asked a year later to temporarily lead the HR team during a transition period. In October 2022, she took on the additional role of CHRO.


What led to HR being brought under your umbrella at Victoria’s Secret?

I had been helping to guide the brand transformation at VS&Co as chief legal officer. That work has been grounded in inside-out design, beginning with deepening our sense of inclusion and belonging for associates and instilling a culture of collaboration and mutual respect.

When it came time to reimagine our HR function, I believe my connection to the transformation and the chance to ensure stability and continuity—along with my previous HR leadership experience—made transitioning HR to me the best thing for the business. I am lucky to have strong teams in HR and legal that make it possible.


What are one or two HR initiatives at Victoria’s Secret that you are proud of?

The first is establishing the company’s values. I am particularly proud of the culture we’ve created where our associates feel they belong and are encouraged to speak up when they experience or observe behaviors that don’t match our values. The second is the re-envisioning of our talent program. We are completely transforming every element, from recruiting to hiring, performance management, development, and succession planning. I believe we’re setting the business up for long-term success.


What Is the greatest challenge you see for HR leaders right now?  

Building agile workforces and preparing for AI in the workplace are two significant challenges. However, I’m most concerned with the forces impacting the health and well-being of talent. The pandemic largely erased the lines between home and work, and day-to-day life is more frequently coming into work. Employees carry the pressures of their personal lives, the anxiety brought on by political and social issues, the economy, and so much more.

Helping our teams stay mentally well, physically healthy, energetic, and engaged feels more challenging and more critical than ever. Finding ways to support our employees through well-being offerings, mental health services, and even providing outlets for expressing their feelings about external issues going on in the world are critically important to maintaining a happy and productive workforce.


What advice would you give to a rising HR leader?  

I think many people would be inclined to say, “Understand the business intimately,” and I don’t think I’d argue the value there. But my advice to emerging HR leaders is that your emotional intelligence is one of your most important differentiators.

Knowing the business and being strategic are table stakes for high-level HR professionals. Where you can stand out, enhance your value, and, frankly, be less stressed and more satisfied, is by developing your ability to relate and to see through others’ eyes. When you understand that everyone lives in their own slightly different world from yours—which is real to them and determines their worries and passions—you can build real connections and be a better partner, counselor, advocate, leader, and teammate. Ultimately, that will help you crack some of the toughest challenges you’ll face.


What do you like to do in your spare time?

I have a craft and art studio in my home where I immerse myself in all kinds of creative pursuits. I can’t say I create anything of significant artistic value. For me, it’s less about the outcome and more about the process. Spending time being creative is cathartic. I find it soothing to get lost in the process, even if the end result isn’t gallery worthy.