Deon Riley began her human resources career reluctantly—it wasn't her original career path. After receiving her MBA, Deon joined an aerospace company in a management rotation program that included sales and other functions. At the time, she was dissatisfied with HR and voiced concerns, so she was surprised when her manager walked in one day and said, "You know that function you complain about all the time? Well, your next rotation is HR."
She soon realized how rewarding the role could be and how much change she could influence through HR. After six months, her manager offered her a different assignment, but she turned it down. "I loved the business side, but the people side is what gave me adrenaline," said Riley.
For the next 20 years, Riley advanced in HR positions at PepsiCo, Abercrombie & Fitch and Ross Stores. She was named the CHRO of Bath & Body Works in 2020.
HR has transformed over those 20-Plus years. Where have you seen the biggest change?
If you had asked me about the primary role of HR five years ago, it was making sure we have the right talent in the right place doing the right things. Those capabilities are still essential, but today's HR must also be a key enabler for the company's strategic pillars of DE&I, ESG and well-being. As an HR leader, you must understand the business, the competition, the macro-economic environment and the issues impacting people outside of the office.
The human element of human resources has never been more critical than it is now. Everyone is unique, and we need to consider how we're meeting everyone's needs. Since the start of COVID, every conversation we're having in the business includes a discussion about the impact on people.
How does the CHRO position in a retail company compare to other CHRO roles?
Human resource leaders face their own set of challenges in the retail industry. They lead an employee base with very diverse education levels and socio-economic backgrounds. A significant portion of the employee population is geographically dispersed, making it harder to consistently provide positive experiences. It's a complex industry, so I often collaborate with HR leaders at other retailers and consumer products companies to discuss current issues and share best practices.
How has the workforce changed since George Floyd's murder?
We've experienced a significant shift in the workplace over the past several years with the rise of racist activities, social injustice and acts of violence. Employees want to work for companies with strong values and a desire to make the world a kinder, better place.
We deeply value their perspectives and incorporate their feedback into our organizational strategy. We host listening sessions with associates to discuss difficult topics, understand their concerns and co-create solutions. Together, we're sharpening the point on who we are and what we stand for as a company.
We've also seen a shift in talent acquisition. Candidates carefully vet companies in the same way companies carefully vet candidates. Organizations must have a value proposition that appeals to everyone. It's no longer enough to offer competitive compensation and development opportunities. Companies must demonstrate a strong commitment to building a diverse, equitable and inclusive culture; assisting communities in need; and providing sustainable solutions for the environment.
What advice would you give to a rising HR leader?
One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was to create a personal board of directors. I encourage everyone to build a network of trusted individuals with different perspectives and experiences than their own. Look to these individuals to challenge assumptions, give advice and provide honest feedback. I regularly turn to my personal board of directors when I have an important decision to make.
Finally, I would tell rising leaders to show up as their authentic self—don't wear a mask. My mother always said, "Truth spans the test of time; lies are soon exposed." I've lived by this motto my entire life because people never forget the truth, but they always forget a lie. Be honest, be authentic and show you care deeply for others.