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Under Armour CHRO Kerry D. Chandler brings passion and purpose to her HR game.
Kerry D. Chandler, CHRO for Under Armour. Photo courtesy of Under Armour.
Kerry D. Chandler has never lost sight of the reason she got into HR three decades ago. “In many respects, HR is a thankless job. You don’t stay in it because of the accolades,” says Chandler, chief HR officer for athletic apparel and accessories company Under Armour. “But I have this opportunity to really help change people’s lives because they so much of their lives at work.”
Chandler came to that realization at her first HR job. In 1986, halfway through a master’s degree in public administration at American University in Washington, D.C., she had an exploratory interview with aerospace manufacturer McDonnell Douglas—and was quickly offered an employee relations position. She left school to take the job. “Three months into the gig, I knew this was what I wanted to do,” she says.
After spending the early years of her career at technology and engineering companies—Exxon, Motorola and IBM followed McDonnell Douglas—Chandler decided she wanted to move into an industry that was more interesting to her personally. So she sat down and wrote a list of her passions. “Sports was at the top,” she says.
Chandler joined Under Armour in January 2015 following stints at ESPN, where, for the first time, she was head of HR for an entire company, and the National Basketball Association (NBA), where she served as executive vice president for HR.
It wasn’t just the idea of working for a high-profile sports company that made Under Armour’s offer attractive. It was also the fact that she found a kindred spirit in the company’s founder and CEO, Kevin Plank.
At the interview, Chandler recalls, Plank showed her a pitch the company had developed for a professional athlete the organization wanted to sign who played for a Baltimore team. Rather than simply tout all the money to be made, the pitch also focused on the city of Baltimore, where Under Armour is based.
“It was about the match between Under Armour’s culture and what’s happening in Baltimore in terms of grit and desire and passion,” Chandler recalls. “Particularly as an African-American woman, I thought, ‘Here’s this city that’s 60 percent black, and here’s this young entrepreneur who’s not black but who’s talking about this city like it’s someone in his family.’ That told me a lot about Kevin, and it made a big impression on me.”
Chandler introduced a new three-day onboarding process—dubbed the 'preseason training program'—that every new employee, regardless of position, now completes.
Two more things that impressed her were Plank’s strong drive to beat out Under Armour’s bigger competitors and his description of the type of HR leader the organization needed. In 2014, Under Armour’s revenue grew by 31 percent (and then by 28 percent in 2015). Its growth had surpassed its HR infrastructure, so the company needed an HR leader who could operate at a strategic level and also happily roll up her sleeves to build HR from the ground up. Chandler calls this type of person a “high-low” leader, and she brought precisely these kinds of skills to ESPN and the NBA.
At Under Armour, she found the kind of dynamic environment in which she excels. Chandler also discovered that the company had a decentralized HR department, with recruiters supporting different parts of the business. To give Under Armour’s HR function a more cohesive, strategically aligned approach, she quickly identified three main areas for her 140-person HR team to cultivate: the acquisition, onboarding and development of the company’s 14,000 employees (or “teammates,” as Under Armour calls them).
Chandler introduced a new three-day onboarding process—dubbed the “preseason training program”—that every new employee, regardless of position, now completes. Staffers are introduced to Under Armour’s history, even visiting the small Baltimore offices where the company began, and learn about the life cycle of Under Armour’s products, from concept to market. The company has hired more than 1,000 full-time employees in corporate roles since Chandler joined the organization.
She also created a buddy system to pair new employees with more-experienced colleagues, and she hired a new head of talent acquisition to build more recruiting capacity in-house to reduce the company’s reliance on search firms. And in partnership with the University of Maryland, she established a leadership development program for directors and vice presidents.
Another area that Chandler takes responsibility for is the company’s culture. “How do we make sure Under Armour is always a great place to work?” she asks. “What does it feel like for people to get up in the morning and come in here?” Chandler hosted 20 sessions in 2015, called “Conversations with Kerry,” each with 10 to 20 employees across all levels and departments, where she posed two questions: What do you love about Under Armour? And what would make you love it even more?
Even though she didn’t play sports in school, Chandler traces her passion for sports to her childhood. When she was 9 years old, her divorced mother, a nurse, married Chandler’s stepfather, a pediatrician. Chandler had two sisters and a brother, while her stepfather had three sons of his own. “People would say we’re the black ‘Brady Bunch,’ ” Chandler says, laughing. The family of nine watched sports on the weekends, and her parents had four season tickets to the local football team, the San Diego Chargers. “We used to fight over who would go to the game,” she recalls.
“Sports brought us together as a family. To this day, that’s one of the things I love about sports: It’s one of the few things left in the world that brings society together.”
Leader and Coach
Building connections with people all over the world has always appealed to Chandler, and this interest prompted her to pursue international work early in her career. “I thought, ‘There’s a whole other world out there, and I want to experience it,’ ” she says.
While director of human resources at Motorola, she earned her second master’s degree in global management, from McGill University in Montreal. (She got her first master’s, in HR, from Washington University in St. Louis.) Before joining Under Armour, she served as global head of HR for auction house Christie’s International, headquartered in London. It was her first opportunity to head HR for a company based outside the United States.
Chandler characterizes her leadership style as “very direct,” but quickly adds that she is “fun and silly as well.” All of these traits are clear in conversation. Her easygoing, conversational manner is disarmingly forthright, and she peppers her sentences with plenty of laughter. “We have probably way too much fun at times,” she says of her team. “We laugh a lot and joke a lot. But when you’re working long hours and the work is really intense, you have to keep it a little bit light at the same time.”
Chandler is intent on countering the perception of HR as the corporate equivalent of the principal’s office. “I don’t want to be that department,” she says. “We’re not just here for our senior leadership team. We’re here for every teammate in the company.”
While the people Chandler serves are always at the top of her mind, she also nurtures a keen understanding of her company’s industry and aims to stay ahead of business trends. And she expects her staff to be just as committed. “I challenge people. I think I challenge them to be their very best,” she says.
As she notes similarities between two of her bosses—Plank and former NBA commissioner David Stern—one gets the sense that the description fits her as well: “You have to be at the top of your game. ‘Good’ is not anything they desire. They desire ‘great,’ ” she says.
Chandler considers the ability to influence others “the No. 1 differentiator between an average HR person and a great HR person. … If you really think about it, there’s very little that we make people do,” she says. “The majority of our job is trying to influence people to make decisions that are in the best interest of the company.”
Her advice to early-career HR professionals: “Practice your influence skills early and often.” She notes that influence doesn’t follow title. In other words, leadership skills don’t suddenly materialize when one becomes a vice president. Rather, position follows influence—and the fancier titles come once business leaders feel they can trust and rely on you.
She has noticed that some HR professionals, perhaps eager to be liked, simply go along with whatever the higher-ups tell them. That’s never been Chandler’s way. “Business leaders don’t want someone who’s just ‘yes, ma’am’ or ‘yes, sir.’ They want people who are going to make them think of things they wouldn’t think of on their own.”
Not one to sit on the sidelines, Chandler has always seen HR as a game changer.
Novid Parsi is a freelance writer in the Chicago area.
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