Career Lessons from Yvonne Cowser Yancy: 'Raise Your Hand for the Hard Stuff'

The senior vice president and CHRO of The Fresh Market shares her ingredients for success.

Desda Moss By Desda Moss April 17, 2018

​Yvonne Cowser Yancy

​Not many kids know who Peter Drucker is. But growing up in Atlanta with a dad who had a Ph.D. in organizational behavior and a mom who taught labor management made the business guru a household name for the young Yvonne Cowser Yancy.

“My father loves Peter Drucker,” she says. “We would have discussions about why a certain process at our favorite soul food restaurant wasn’t working after noticing that they would run out of bacon every week during peak hours. There was no talking down to children in our house,” recalls Yancy, an only child.

Despite her early exposure to business management, arbitration and employee relations, her parents were less than pleased when she told them she wanted to work in human resources.

“They were horrified,” Yancy says. “They wanted me to be a lawyer or a Ph.D. They didn’t see a career path in HR.”

Safe to say, she changed their minds.

Yancy, who holds an MBA in employee relations and a bachelor’s degree in economics, joined The Fresh Market Inc., a Greensboro, N.C.-based specialty grocery retailer, in January as senior vice president and chief human resources officer. She leads a 35-person team responsible for HR and benefit functions, including talent acquisition, organizational design and development, training, compensation, and health and wellness. Her team supports 12,000 Fresh Market employees who work in 176 stores in 24 states. 

She recently spoke with HR Magazine about her career journey.


I grew up in Atlanta in the 1970s and ’80s during the emergence of African-American leadership and a celebration of the achievements of the civil rights movement. Atlanta is steeped in a rich history of African-American achievement and has a strong commitment to civic engagement. My parents were always informed and involved, and they expected the same from me.

Getting Schooled

My mother taught political science and history and, later, labor management at Georgia Tech. She was also a labor arbitrator. She would take me along with her when she had cases. Listening to both sides present their positions taught me a lot about union contracts, dispute resolution and employee rights. 

My mother paid me to type up the case summaries. I found those documents fascinating. Early on, I thought I wanted to become a lead negotiator. I initially went into HR by studying employee relations, which I think was a direct result of my exposure to arbitration. 

Family Business

I had my first job in middle school working for my father at an industrial paint factory he founded called Zebra Corp. I filled in for the receptionist in the summer. I got to see how the business ran—the importance of work ethic, making payroll and being driven for success. I also learned the building blocks of HR: what a business environment looks like, how to treat employees, and the effects of employee engagement on productivity and the bottom line.

Learning on the Job

My first corporate job was as an HR generalist at GE Capital-Retail Financial Services in Atlanta in 1996. Since then, I’ve worked for several other Fortune 500 companies, including Ashland Inc., Lincoln Financial Group, Turner Broadcasting and Sun Trust Bank. Prior to assuming my position at Fresh Market, I served as commissioner of human resources for the city of Atlanta. There, I oversaw all HR functions that impacted 8,500 employees and 5,000 retirees. Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve encountered dedicated employees who wanted to be in a welcoming environment where they could do their best work. 

Leadership Lessons 

You must meet people from where they are in order to get them where you want them to go. So often, we jump right to what we want from someone without first articulating a clear vision or giving people a reason to change that connects to their interests.

Also, raise your hand for the hard stuff. Of course, it’s essential to keep the trains running, but find opportunities to launch something new or fix something that’s broken. That’s how you’ll stand out.

HR’s Value Proposition

Increasingly, HR is key to an organization’s success or failure. C-suite leaders understand that, and they want a trusted advisor who can provide perspective on talent but also on the business. HR professionals must be prepared to change with their organization’s needs and demands. Ultimately, we can’t just “love people.” We also have to love the business. 

How to Build Your HR Brand

Develop an understanding of how your company operates and generates revenue. Many HR professionals are given opportunities to move into lateral roles—which they should take. Doing so will enhance their knowledge and skill set. Leaders want HR partners who can advise them on talent requirements and the organization’s needs, so you must become an expert in both.

How She Stays Current

I read the trades and several periodicals, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and HR Magazine. I talk to my colleagues at other companies to find out what they’re doing. And I keep abreast of developments in my industry and sector that could have an effect on our business.

What She Looks for When Hiring

I seek talented professionals who have a depth of knowledge around their functional area and who are driven, possess a strong sense of urgency and are interested not just in the people but in the whole organization. I look for a positive attitude and someone who focuses on solutions instead of problems.

Finding Her Zen

I’ve been fortunate to work for multiple employers that have a strong focus on talent and a belief that selecting the right people is a critical component of what makes the company great. I love how business works and what makes organizations run. But even the best structure will fail if you have the wrong people in the wrong roles. Being at the intersection of strategy, operations, execution and talent is what drives me.

Tapping Into Boards

I am currently serving on two boards of directors—one at WonderRoot, a progressive arts organization, and the other for the Central Outreach and Advocacy Center, which provides services to local homeless communities in Atlanta. Being on boards has helped me learn more about communities of interest and leverage my relationships to support their endeavors. WonderRoot is a tremendous nonprofit that supports social justice. My work with it has allowed me to support change through a creative lens. Central Outreach has a spectacular program that enables people struggling with homelessness to return to the workforce after extended absences. It runs a 12-week course to help individuals find jobs, and more than 70 percent get hired. Both organizations have enabled me to step out of my comfort zone and grow.

What’s in Her Shopping Cart? 

I could spend hours looking through our new products and specialty items. If I had to pick my favorite aisle, it would have to be our meat department. I highly recommend it. We offer an exceptional variety and focus on prime cuts, which includes the highest-quality meat available in the marketplace. My grandfather was a farmer and my uncle still farms, so I grew up eating only grass-fed beef. 

Her Favorite Business Book

I love to read, so it’s hard to pick a favorite. A book I still go back to is Good to Great (HarperBusiness, 2001) by Jim Collins. It’s about operational excellence and ensuring that people are driving that. Even though it was published in the early 2000s, the principles still hold true. I just started reading Principles (Simon & Schuster, 2017) by Ray Dalio.

And, of course, I think anything by Peter Drucker is a must-read.  

Desda Moss is managing editor of HR Magazine.

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