Career Lessons from Amy Bastuga: Leaders Pull Others Along

The senior vice president of HR at Radio Flyer shares the big career lessons she applies at the company that makes the iconic little red wagon.

By Danielle Braff May 17, 2018

Amy Bastuga​

​Growing up in a family of six children in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, Amy Bastuga was often reminded that she’d need to work hard if she wanted something, whether that “something” was attention or spending money. But as a youngster, she also watched her father toil in jobs he didn’t like and realized how draining that could be.

“What I took away from that experience was the need to work hard, while making sure you’re doing something you enjoy,” says Bastuga, who holds the SHRM-SCP credential.

Her mother also exemplified a strong work ethic, whether tending to the needs of her large family or volunteering in her community, which she still does at age 80. 

Her mom “continues to be a role model of what it means to be hardworking and engaged in helping others,” Bastuga says.

It was Bastuga’s own drive to help others reach their full potential that led her to human resources. “I love my job, and I am passionate about helping people discover where their talents and passions intersect,” she says. In her current role as senior vice president of human resources at Radio Flyer, a 101-year-old Chicago-area company that produces children’s tricycles, scooters, wagons and battery-operated vehicles, Bastuga is responsible for HR strategy, talent management, compensation, benefits, organizational culture and employee development for 115 workers worldwide. 

“It is really great to see an employee grow from being an intern to a key manager on our team,” she says. “It is a privilege to be part of someone’s development journey.” 

Bastuga recently spoke with HR Magazine about her own career path.

Her Fork in the Road 

When I was working as a recruiter at a manufacturing company named Fel-Pro Inc., I had to decide whether to earn a master’s degree in education or in human resources. I was inspired by my employer, which was recognized as a “Great Place to Work,” so I chose to commit to teaching adults and creating great workplaces.

Getting Grounded

I began baby-sitting when I was 11 and later worked as an aide at a Montessori school part time. In both places, I learned the value of having an organized educational environment. It only takes a couple of minutes to change the energy in a classroom, whether from well-ordered to chaos or from tears to smiles. I also came to realize that leaders need to understand their influence and be conscious of their impact on others. In the classroom, you must be aware of the needs of each child. The workplace is no different. These are lessons that still guide me in my job today. 

Hitching Her Wagon

I’ve been at Radio Flyer for 11 years. I was recruited by Dorie Blesoff, my first mentor. From the beginning, she helped me to see myself through the eyes of others and introduced me to the concept of becoming a recovering perfectionist. I learned to focus my efforts on achieving excellence and relevance rather than trying to meet some impossible standard. At the time, Dorie was consulting for Radio Flyer’s chief wagon officer (aka its CEO). The company was growing, and he needed someone to build a great culture and team. He created a new role to lead the HR function. It was a perfect fit for me.

What She Looks for in Hiring

Lifelong learners who pick things up quickly. We need to be adaptable as an organization, and that requires employees who will grow with the company. Being passionate about your job—and willing to work hard at it—is also important. I also look for people who demonstrate our values. At Radio Flyer, those principles are embodied in our F-L-Y-E-R Code: F is for FUNomenal Customer Experiences. (As a toy company, we believe in the importance of having fun.) L is for Living with integrity; Y for “Yes, I can”; E is for Excellence in everything; and R means we are Responsible for success. 

Know Your People 

Each person is different, and everyone deserves to have their unique complexity matched with a management style that brings out their best. I look to deeply understand the people who work with me so that I can serve them more effectively. 

Great (and Clear) Expectations

It is essential to be specific about what you expect of others and to ask people to share their expectations of you as their leader. My team can expect that I will push them to the capacity that I see in them—and maybe beyond what they think they can achieve. And they can expect me to listen, collaborate and be accountable. 

What She Loves About Her Job 

Working for an organization that brings smiles to kids of all ages and creates memories that last a lifetime. It is an honor to be part of something that stands for good in the world. I also love collaborating with executives who are HR-minded and deeply committed to servant leadership. 

Use Your Power

Remember that influencing leaders is an important way for HR to have a positive impact on their organizations. Have the courage to help people see their blind spots and break silence on uncomfortable topics. In order to gain credibility, you’ll also need to be comfortable gathering and using data to support your recommendations and focus on solutions instead of problems. For new HR professionals, my advice is simple: Know HR, know your business, and know yourself. Having self-insight will enable you to use your strengths to navigate around your weaknesses—before they become roadblocks. 

How She Stays Relevant 

I do monthly benchmarking with a peer group and read current articles and books. Lately, I’ve been inspired by Chicago DisruptHR events and videos. They’ve been very helpful at this stage in my career. The five-minute format is a fun way to explore a topic, and the talks challenge me to think differently and be more flexible. 

Her Favorite Radio Flyer Product

It’s hard to pick just one. The classic red dual-deck tricycle is one of my favorites. I loved watching my own kids ride it around, and it reminds me of my summers growing up with my little sister. My family also loves our three-in-one folding wagon, which we fill with softball gear.

Her Favorite Business Books 

The first is The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (Doubleday, 2006) by Peter Senge, which introduced me to the concept of a learning organization. The principles are still vital in today’s business climate: shared vision, systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models and team learning. 

Leading at a Higher Level (FT Press, 2006) by Ken Blanchard is another important read. Blanchard defines leadership as “the capacity to influence others by unleashing their power and potential to impact the greater good.” The last chapter is about writing your own leadership point of view. It is a very grounding exercise that starts with understanding the factors that have shaped you and how they impact how you lead. When I lead, I’m trying to align my actions with my purpose. Developing my personal point of view was one of the most powerful leadership experiences I’ve had because that perspective drives my daily actions and pushes me to lead at a higher level. 

Her Favorite Things About Chicago

Portillo’s hot dogs, tamales and beef sandwiches are a Christmas tradition at my house—highly recommended. Also sightseeing on the Chicago River. One of my favorite memories is taking my son on the Shoreline Sightseeing Architecture River Tour from Michigan Ave. The view is captivating and a great way to get energized for talking all things people at the #SHRM18 conference. And if you arrive early and have time for some Sunday baseball, let’s go White Sox!  

Danielle Braff is a freelance writer based in the Chicago area.

Photograph by Steven E. Gross


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