People + Strategy Journal

Fall 2021

Member Profile: John Whelan

John Whelan, Vice President and CHRO, Yale University, shares his journey as an HR leader.

​John Whelan has spent years honing his expertise leading HR in university settings. Having championed people as an HR leader at the University of Notre Dame, Baylor University and Indiana University, he recently transitioned into a role at Yale University.  

What is your leadership philosophy? 

I love creating a work environment where everyone feels comfortable and included. This means trusting employees to make decisions and expecting some bumps and missteps along the way as they grow. Those mistakes are minor in the grand scheme, and they serve as an investment in an employee’s development and engagement. When the entire team feels empowered and valued, the results of their work will be excellent. Employees thrive in environments with a culture of trust. Conversely, a lack of trust that pervades the workforce becomes toxic and cynical. When you add some fun and lightheartedness, the work environment is enjoyable and productive and team members are motivated to go above and beyond.

What are you passionate about?

A number of years ago I read the book Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, and it changed the way I see the world, both at work and in my personal life. The book highlighted that humans are not always rational when we make decisions, and this is critically important to understand in the work environment, especially in HR. I started reading everything I could about the science of behavioral economics and then incorporating these concepts into my work to make my organizations better and to ensure our HR practices were designed to get the best out of our employees. 

What do you enjoy in your spare time? 

While there were many challenges during the pandemic, one silver lining for me is that all five of my kids were living at home with my wife and me (four were in college and one in middle school). Because I worked from home during that period, we were able to spend more time with each other than we would have otherwise. Our whole family got into a routine of running or walking together every day. It became a nice ritual that brought us together even closer during the pandemic and built a nice habit of physical activity.