According to Sabrina Ellis, truth telling may be an HR leader’s greatest power. During her 25 years in HR, Ellis says, she has aimed to lead with honesty and integrity.

“It has always been important to me to speak truthfully to everyone—leaders and employees,” she says. “Honesty requires courage because it’s not always easy, but it has always been my superpower.”

Ellis now wields that power as chief people officer of the NBA, a role she began in January. In one instance earlier this year, she had to explain to employees why the organization was asking its hybrid workforce to return to the office the same three days each week. Ellis found that frankly communicating the reason for this new policy—the ability to collaborate in person—helped get employees to agree to it. 

“When you’re honest about the reason, change management becomes that much easier for people to accept,” Ellis says.

‘Honesty requires courage because it’s not always easy,
but it’s always been my superpower.’ 

Encouraging two-way communication also helped. Ellis’ 75-member global HR team had heard from hybrid employees that they didn’t enjoy commuting to the office, only to be on video calls all day. So with the new policy, the organization also asked workers not to use Zoom during in-office workdays.

Ellis’ ability to listen and respond to employees has impressed her supervisor, Kyle Cavanaugh, the NBA’s president of administration. “Sabrina is decisive in making decisions but also incredibly respectful in hearing the voices of others in the organization,” he says.

For Ellis, honesty isn’t just a principle. It’s also an effective approach to HR leadership.

“Employees want to know why—why we offer these benefits, why my pay is X, why my responsibilities are Y,” she says. “Being honest is important in establishing credibility for HR.” 

Ellis says this leadership philosophy has helped her build effective teams, which she considers her top career accomplishment. It’s also helped her address what she sees as one of her top career challenges: “coming into roles where credibility needed to be established quickly.”


Empathy and Clarity

During the pandemic, Ellis had to draw extensively on her truth-telling abilities. Before joining the NBA, she served as CHRO at New York University. There, Ellis and her team delivered candid communications about public health protocols, such as masking and vaccines, and eventually about the need for remote employees to return to campus.  

“There was a lot of questioning: ‘We’ve been productive. Why do we have to come back?’ ” Ellis says. “You have to have good answers, and you have to lead by example.” 

In this case, the answer was simple and cogent: “It was important to go back for the students,” Ellis says.

Stephanie Pianka, NYU’s chief financial officer, recalls those days clearly. 

“Sabrina showed one of her real talents during that time: balancing the very real people consequences of these decisions with what we had to do from a business standpoint,” Pianka says. “And she did it with clarity of communications and with real empathy. That’s a hallmark of how she leads and is perceived.”

Ellis calls herself an “organizational translator.” She explains, “I want to represent the point of view of employees but also help employees understand the point of view of leaders who have difficult jobs in challenging times.”

Driven by Data

To a large extent, Ellis’ candor is complemented by a deep respect for data. As a decision-maker, Ellis doesn’t depend on gut instinct. She wants to see the numbers—and understand the stories the numbers tell. 

“So many times, people raise anecdotes, but then you see that the anecdotes don’t align with the data,” Ellis says. “Data helps us slice through anecdotes to get to whether we’re doing the right things.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean individual experiences play no part in HR decisions. “Sometimes you have to think about the person in front of you, and certainly there are situations where you have to move away from the data a little bit to maintain the human element,” Ellis says. “But I can’t tell you enough how much using data has helped build effective and responsive HR operations.”

One key metric for HR, Ellis notes, is turnover. She looks at data to track employees’ first months and their advancement within the organization. At NYU, Ellis’ data-driven team helped keep turnover rates below those of peer organizations and other benchmark employers. 

“Part of that was a really intentional effort to connect with our people and ensure we were doing the things they found important,” Ellis says. 

One of those was professional development. “There aren’t a lot of universities like NYU,” Ellis says, noting its 22,000 employees worldwide—a global footprint that Ellis calls second to none within higher education. 

“It became difficult for us to attract talent because no one else was doing what we were doing, so we recognized we had to groom talent from within,” she says. To that end, Ellis created the Management Fellows program, which prepares midlevel employees to become senior leaders.

‘When you’re honest about the reason, change management becomes that much easier for people to accept.’

Ellis had two stints at NYU: as CHRO from 2016 to 2023 and as an HR officer from 1998 to 2007. In between, she held HR leadership roles at the City College of New York and at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Now that she has shifted from academia to professional sports, Ellis says her top priority at the NBA is talent acquisition—­especially in light of the league’s expansion beyond the U.S. and the competitive talent marketplace in the media, entertainment and technology industries.

“Sabrina has taken a look at the core areas in need of improvement across the HR landscape, and top of the list for her has been talent acquisition,” Cavanaugh says. “She comes at that from a very data-driven approach.”

To help deliver on this priority, Ellis will be looking at another valuable metric: time-to-fill. “One thing we’ve learned is that the longer a job stays open, it can trigger additional turnover in the unit,” she says. When positions go unfilled, Ellis explains, current employees usually pick up the slack, which can cause them to burn out and head for the exits.

The NBA’s talent strategy will be supported by the organization’s first chief diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) officer, Lesley Slaton Brown, who joined the NBA shortly after Ellis. DE&I used to be part of the HR function but now sits separately. 

“That’s such a good thing,” Ellis says, “because employee diversity is an important component of DE&I, but it’s one component.” DE&I at the NBA, she explains, also encompasses vendors and audiences. 

The NBA “takes seriously its commitment to people,” Ellis says. She notes the league’s collaboration with SHRM to launch an HR summit in Dallas last year—an event that involved HR professionals from all 30 NBA teams.


Leadership Lessons

Ellis spent her early years in North Chicago, Ill., as the youngest of six children. “I grew up in a big family with lots of strong opinions—all Type A personalities—so at a young age, I learned really good negotiation skills,” she says. 

She also learned leadership skills from her mother, the officer-in-charge at the city’s post office. “Her employees would drop by our house and share stories,” Ellis says. “I knew she was a person that people really respected.”

Ellis recalls her mother’s jam-packed workdays: leaving for work early in the morning, returning home to be with her kids before and after school, then working at the office again before finally arriving home for dinner. “I would see her at work and observe her as a leader,” Ellis says. “She was always the first one there and the last one to leave. My mother had the biggest influence on me professionally.”

Meanwhile, Ellis traces her scientific mindset to her father, an electrical inspector. “I grew up playing with electrical components,” she says. 

In the 1990s, Ellis trained Chicago- and New York-area HR employees in the pharmaceutical and consulting industries on information systems. “From then on, I was always that person who people could rely on to help them navigate data and systems,” she says.

With thoughts of a career in tech, Ellis moved to New York City in 1997 and earned her associate degree in business in 2001 and bachelor’s degree in information systems management in 2006, both from NYU. She soon realized working in HR would allow her to combine her interests in tech and people. In 2008, she earned a master’s degree in HR management and development, also from NYU.

Ellis has continued to pursue lofty goals outside the classroom. She is an avid runner and last year completed the New York City Marathon, her first full marathon. Ellis credits the support of her husband, Gilbert Paschall III, with whom she has two small children, along with two stepchildren in their 20s.

Looking ahead, Ellis sees the employee value proposition as the toughest challenge facing HR professionals. Overall, she finds that career advancement is the top priority for many workers, so professional development will remain a crucial piece of the value proposition—but she knows that won’t hold true for everyone.

“For some [people], the value proposition is traditional career advancement and pay,” Ellis says. “For others, it can be feeling connected to the mission of the organization. For someone else, it could be flexibility that allows them to do things equally important in their life.” 

In other words, HR will have to figure out what employees value—and they’ll need data to do that well.  

Novid Parsi is a freelance writer based in St. Louis.

Photographs by Adam Lerner for HR Magazine.


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