Career Lessons from Katherine Meariman: Deliver HR with Energy and Empathy

The vice president of HR, training and education at Smoothie King Franchises Inc. applies a varied background to deliver high-powered HR.

By Desda Moss May 22, 2017

Katherine Meariman got her first job when she was 11, wrangling kids younger than she was at the neighborhood day care center in her hometown of Kenner, La. The sense of responsibility that experience instilled in her remains part of Meariman’s professional DNA. It also kicked off a long career devoted to serving others and leading with empathy. 

“I treat other people the way I want to be treated—with respect and patience,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what role they are in. I assist the CEO the same way I help the lady who cleans the bathroom.”

Meariman has worked for the past 19 years at Smoothie King Franchises Inc., which is based in the New Orleans area and has 800 locations across three continents. She was promoted to vice president of human resources, training and education in 2016 and leads a seven-person team that supports HR and training for the company’s home office with 79 employees as well as for 321 team members in other corporate locations. 

“What you do not only affects you, it affects many other people,” Meariman says. “You have to take pride in what you do. I don’t ever want to be the person who lets my team down.”

She recently spoke with HR Magazine about her career journey and her top recommendation for what to do in New Orleans, host city to the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2017 Annual Conference & Exposition taking place June 18-21.

Early Life Lessons

I grew up in Kenner, La., which is a suburb of New Orleans. I’m the youngest of six kids. My dad died of complications from a stroke when I was 2, so it was up to my mom to hold the family together after that. She kept us all in line, and we always strived to do well. She didn’t push us, but at the same time, none of us wanted to disappoint her. Thankfully, we all turned out OK—everyone finished high school and can take care of themselves. We didn’t have much, but we had each other.

Home Team Advantage

Growing up, my siblings looked out for one another. With me being the youngest, they all felt responsible for taking care of me. We worked hard. My family let me know they would help me get whatever I wanted, but no one was going to give me anything; I had to earn it. We all had after-school jobs—we cut grass, pet-sat, helped fix cars. Working at a young age taught me self-sufficiency and independence. My siblings were, and still are, a great example to me. They taught me that you create your own destiny. 

Patient Problem-Solver

I got hired at Smoothie King when I was in college because the company needed help in accounting, which was my major at that time. But I soon decided I didn’t want to pursue a career in accounting, so I switched to studying liberal arts, with a concentration in history and political science. Since I was already working at Smoothie King, I transitioned into a marketing role at the company, and my position evolved from there. I became the go-to person in the office—not because of the knowledge I had, but because I would always make time for people. Employees would come to me with a question or a problem, and I’d say, “I don’t know, but let’s figure it out together.”

Her HR Philosophy

After the company was sold in 2012, I was asked to oversee the role of HR. Before then, the function was shared by finance and administration. I had held positions in training, project management, administration and marketing. Once HR became my focus, I had to figure out which aspects of the company and its workforce were working well and which ones needed improvement. Knowing that our employees are our No. 1 brand ambassadors, I implemented an onboarding process so they could learn about the company and meet the people they were going to work with as soon as they were hired. I think it’s important for HR to be a resource that all of our workers can turn to for guidance and support. That’s why I maintain an open-door policy. I’m pretty approachable.

Her Best Boss

Miss Loretta, the owner of the day care center I worked at when I was 11. She had high expectations. Even though I only worked there after school, she still made me feel like my job mattered. I try to make the employees I work with feel the same way.
What She Looks for in New Hires
Drive and determination, first and foremost. What kind of energy does a person have? Are they engaged in the conversation, or are they just going through the motions? Are they someone who owns their decisions and accepts accountability? When I interview people for jobs with Smoothie King, I want to hear what they learned from a previous work challenge [and] whether it turned out well or not. What lessons will they apply in the future? Are they wise enough to admit that they don’t know everything?

What Entry-Level HR Professionals Should Know

It’s important to stop and listen. If someone comes to you with a question, don’t just tell them you don’t know. … Help them to figure out the answer. They will learn, and you’ll learn, too. That’s how you become well-rounded, and before you know it, you’ll become an expert. You have to be curious, but more than that, you must have a genuine affinity for helping people. You won’t become the person others turn to for advice or information unless you show that you care. 

Career Booster 

I admit that I tend to put others’ development ahead of my own. One of the most impactful things I did early in my career was to take the Dale Carnegie training course Leadership for Managers. It really helped me gain confidence and renewed energy around my work. Before I attended the class, I was always serving as an assistant to other people—even though I was fully capable of making decisions and leading others. After that course, I became much more of my own person. My bosses asked me what happened; they said, “It’s like you took a shot of [vitamin] B12 or something!” Apparently, I had a new aura of capability.

Where She Sees HR Heading

Everyone in business has been tasked with doing more with less, and HR is no exception. But how we accomplish that as a profession will be critical to our success. Treating people well should never be the area in which HR invests less—even when we have to deliver tough messages. Often, it’s not what you say that matters most, it’s how you say it. Retaining our humanity is key.

Leaders She Looks Up To

Smoothie King’s founders, Steve and Cindy Kuhnau, who started the franchise; our brand owner, Wan Kim; and our franchisees. All of these people took big risks to follow their dream of owning their own business. They put everything on the line.
Steve was president and CEO when I started. He still serves the company as a consultant and brand ambassador. Recently, he came in to talk to a training class. He and his wife believed in what they were building—stores that offer guests nutritious, custom-made fruit drinks to fuel health and wellness—and they made it happen. Our current brand owner, Wan Kim, built the brand in Korea with the ultimate goal of expanding it internationally. He moved his family to the U.S. to pursue his vision of making Smoothie King part of every health and fitness plan. Our franchisees put their savings and their 401(k)s on the line to buy into our brand. It gives me a tremendous sense of pride and a passion to help them be successful. People often ask me why I don’t open my own store. That’s not my vision, but I’m here to help them succeed.

Her Favorite Business Book

How to Win Friends and Influence People (Simon and Schuster, 1936) by Dale Carnegie. It’s the book that helped me come out of my shell.

Her Favorite Smoothie

The Lean1 Vanilla with orange juice. It’s a good meal replacement. I love it for breakfast or lunch.

Favorite Thing to Do in New Orleans 

Visit Frenchmen Street in the Faubourg Marigny—food, music, drinks … and there is even a nighttime art market. 

Desda Moss is managing editor of HR Magazine.
Photograph Courtesy of Smoothie King Franchises Inc.

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