Career Lessons from Cindy Carlisle: Relationship Builder

The vice president of talent management and corporate HR for Stryker Corp. combines business and people skills.

By Novid Parsi November 27, 2019
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Career Lessons from Cindy Carlisle: Relationship Builder

Cindy Carlisle

Earlier this year, the leaders at Stryker, a medical technologies company based in Kalamazoo, Mich., decided to consolidate the talent management teams across its business units under one leader.

As it expanded globally through a series of acquisitions, Stryker’s top executives wanted to ensure the alignment of talent management and development across the entire organization.

To fill this new role—vice president of talent management and corporate human resources—Chief Executive Officer Kevin Lobo and Chief Human Resources Officer Kathryn Fink tapped someone they had worked with earlier in their careers at Johnson & Johnson, someone they had continued to mentor in the years since: Cindy Carlisle. In her new role, which she began in November, Carlisle will expand from a North America focus to a global one.

The Stryker opportunity reflects a central theme in Carlisle’s career: developing a network that’s at once professional and personal.

“You never know how you might end up connecting with people and how your mentors will continue to be part of your life,” she says.

Guiding Change

Carlisle takes a macro and micro view of her work, understanding both the organization where she works and the people who work for it.

“I happen to work in HR, but I see myself as a business leader first,” says Carlisle, who, prior to moving to Stryker, was vice president of HR for commercial operations at Roche Diagnostics in Indianapolis. There, she helped design and implement a new business model, transforming five units that operated separately into “One Roche.” 

“What we heard from our customers was that sometimes it felt like working with multiple companies,” she says.

Cindy Carlisle (left) and her former Roche Diagnostics’ team volunteer for an American Heart Association program.

Now, each customer has a single point of contact representing all of Roche’s businesses and offerings. And the HR team works across the company rather than within specific business units. 

The transformation showed customers that Roche was listening to them and allowed the company to gain better insight into its customers and their unmet needs. 

There was an internal benefit, as well, Carlisle says. By showing employees that Roche aimed to better fulfill its mission of providing health care solutions that improve patient outcomes, it increased employee engagement.

But during the change initiative, Roche’s global leadership gave its North American team an additional directive. Roche wanted to move into an entirely new business space: digital diagnostics—that is, software-as-a-service solutions that support clinical decision-making. The North American team had to launch the new venture and hire for it.

“We were asked to put that team together at the same time the whole business was in the middle of a transformation,” Carlisle says. 

Learning Constantly

Carlisle saw the challenge as an occasion to expand her professional horizons. 

“I always take the mindset that opportunities like this provide ways to learn new things,” she says. 

To fully grasp this new business, she tapped her network of colleagues, friends and family members to learn about the software-as-a-service market and the type of talent that she and her team needed to hire for it. She also connected subject matter experts with her team members so they could learn about digital diagnostics.

Carlisle and her then CEO, Jack Phillips, had to find someone to head the new business. At the same time, they needed to get salespeople ready to sell the products—as soon 

as possible. 

Until they found that leader, Carlisle donned another hat, as hiring manager for the new team. She embraced the challenge. 

“I realized throughout my career that if I have positive thoughts, I say positive things and then I act positively,” she says.

For Carlisle, that’s more than a fridge-magnet sentiment. It’s an effective way of handling the inevitability of change in an ever-volatile business world.

Adapting Quickly

Earlier in her career, Carlisle had seen the value of welcoming change rather than resisting it. 

While she was at a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary, the organization restructured. Her colleagues felt worried and anxious. For her part, Carlisle gladly took on a new role as marketing product director. Just as she would years later at Roche, she quickly learned a new business area. 

‘I believe in being attentive and being a servant leader. I’m more than willing to get in and help where it’s needed.’

“I saw the new job as a great opportunity for me to learn a new part of the business,” she says. “Change is an opportunity for growth.”

Shortly afterward, the organization restructured yet again. This time, Carlisle was promoted from her regional role to a global one.

“In the meantime, all the people who had been negative were either no longer with the organization or in places where they were unhappy.”

Such experiences illustrate Carlisle’s larger leadership philosophy: “I believe in being attentive and being a servant leader,” she says. “I’m more than willing to get in and help where it’s needed.”

Giving Back

For Carlisle, that approach to servant leadership began early in life. Born and raised in Cincinnati, she describes her upbringing as “a really loving, supportive, hardworking, middle-class situation.” 

Her father worked at the Procter & Gamble plant, and her mother was a homemaker. Both were active in their community and their children’s schools. 

“My parents always told my two sisters and me that if we’re not giving back, we’re not part of the solution,” she says.

Carlisle still abides by that principle. She volunteers at her church’s food pantry and at a United Way program to reduce childhood obesity. And like her mother before her, she serves as president of the parent-teacher group at her children’s school.

Seeking Diversity

After high school, Carlisle attended Marshall University in West Virginia as a track-and-field student athlete. At Marshall, she earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting and finance and a master’s degree in adult and technical education. She started her career in finance at GE before moving to Johnson & Johnson. 

Carlisle credits her experience in multiple fields for her appreciation and understanding of the larger business in which she works—even, and especially, as the business changes.

‘It’s really important to understand what gets people excited and what gets them up every day, to get clarity about their intent and their career aspirations,” she says. “That builds trust and good connections.’

“Throughout my career, having experiences in other disciplines helped me as I went into new spaces,” she says.

She entered HR with Johnson & Johnson. There, while working in process improvement, Carlisle was asked to serve on a diversity council. The council crafted a plan to better integrate diversity into the business, a plan that included the recommendation to create a new role for the head of diversity. In 2005, Johnson & Johnson’s vice president of HR asked Carlisle to take on that role, her first HR leadership position.

Diversity and inclusion remain key pillars for Carlisle, as well as for Roche. 

“We believe having diverse leaders brings perspective and experience that help us to be innovative,” she says. Today, 38 percent of senior leadership roles at the Indianapolis location are held by women—up from 11 percent in 2011. That helps Roche better serve a significant part of its customer base. 

“If we look at who makes health care decisions for families, typically it’s women,” she says.

That observation—how people’s lives inform business decisions—speaks to the value Carlisle places on treating employees as individuals. She makes a point of asking those who work with her about their interests and motivations, while also sharing her own. 

“It’s important for me to be vulnerable, as well,” she says.

Building Relationships

Carlisle’s personal approach is about more than being friendly and pleasant. It also delivers a clear business benefit.

“It’s really important to understand what gets people excited and what gets them up every day, to get clarity about their intent and their career aspirations,” she says. “That builds trust and good connections.”

Carlisle built one such connection with Phillips, who served as Roche Diagnostics’ CEO of North American operations until August. As one of his trusted advisors, Carlisle had many conversations with Phillips about the business and its people—and about his motivations and how she could help him become an even better leader.

Earlier this year, Phillips’ mother died—the day before an important executive team meeting. Phillips asked Carlisle to chair the meeting in his place. He could trust Carlisle professionally when his personal life took precedence.

Likewise, organizations need to value employees as individuals, Carlisle says. That’s a worthy end in itself, but it’s also a way of gaining a competitive edge. That edge will be especially useful in tackling what Carlisle sees as the biggest challenge facing HR professionals today: finding and engaging talent. 

“Recruiting has always been hard,” she says, “but it becomes even harder when a lot of people are willing to move to other jobs that allow for more development and flexibility. HR has to figure out how to engage them.” 

Engagement means creating a healthy culture and offering incentives such as flexible scheduling, Carlisle says. But it also means something even more fundamental: “It’s taking a genuine interest in people and understanding what motivates them.”  

Novid Parsi is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

Photographs courtesy of Roche Diagnostics and Amanda Irons.

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