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HR Leadership Takes Head and Heart: A Q&A with Marissa Andrada

Chipotle's HR leader excelled in math and science but was drawn to business and chose a career in human resources.

A woman in a red jacket standing in front of a building.

​Human resources was not Marissa Andrada’s career plan, but it apparently was her destiny.

Her parents, who immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines, expected Andrada to become a doctor or an engineer. She excelled in both math and science and initially pursued a science degree in college. But she was very social and loved working with people, so she switched to business and planned to pursue a career in marketing.

Her first job just happened to land her in an HR role. “I hated it,” she says. “It was all this administrative stuff, like planning the company picnic and running charity fundraisers.”

To be an effective HR leader takes a balance of head and heart.

She later earned an MBA but ended up in HR again, this time at PepsiCo/Pizza Hut. There she learned how HR can operate on a high level, and she decided it would become her career. “HR can be strategic, so long as you know what the strategy is, what leadership capabilities you need, how to organize people into the right roles, and what motivates and inspires people to deliver.”

She started with Chipotle Mexican Grill in April 2018 and is now the company’s chief diversity, inclusion and people officer. Andrada will be a keynote speaker at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2021, scheduled to take place Sept. 9-12 in Las Vegas.

Describe your role and how it has evolved.

I joined as Chipotle’s first CHRO [chief human resources officer], but we changed the title to chief people officer because our focus was on the people experience. Human resources often is about rules. At Chipotle, it’s about creating an experience so employees feel awesome every time they come to work.

In July 2020, we expanded my title to include diversity and inclusion. The change reflected the work Chipotle had already done as part of our digital and cultural transformation to build trust and create a workplace where our employees felt seen and heard, so it was a natural progression. 

What was your most critical leadership skill during the pandemic?

Being authentic, empathetic and open. We kept employees informed and we listened, during both the pandemic and the civil unrest that occurred last year. After George Floyd’s death, I reached out to nearly every Black employee on my staff to listen to what they were going through. Then I brought in our executive leadership team to hear it, too. We asked Black staff members who wanted to participate in the conversation to address three questions: What are three words that describe how you’re feeling? What one thing do you want executive leadership to know? What ideas do you have to cultivate a better company or better world? It was an amazing learning moment.

What skills do chief people officers need today and going forward? 

To be an effective HR leader takes a balance of head and heart. Intellectually, you need the ability to understand and use data to make business decisions. For example, we used data analytics to figure out how staffing issues impacted the performance of individual restaurants during the pandemic. And it’s not just triaging the moment, but data can inform long-term strategy. We can use that data to build a predictive model that helps us keep restaurants performing well.

Outside of analytics, it’s very important to understand the emotional side of what employees are feeling and create a positive experience for your workforce.

How have you redefined benefits at Chipotle? 

The people experience has been the foundation of Chipotle’s transformation. It’s based on establishing a strong culture, building leadership capability and creating pathways to opportunity for all employees.

We expanded education benefits to help employees learn English as a second language and complete high school. We pay not only for workers to take classes but also for family members.

At the college level, we reimburse employees for any program, up to $5,250 a year. We also offer “debt-free degrees” for 100 business, technology and culinary programs at 10 universities. The benefit covers 100 percent of costs, with no out-of-pocket expenses for employees.

We provide a direct, transparent pathway for moving up in the company. You can join Chipotle as a crew member and rise to become a restauranteur making $100,000 a year within just a few years.

You started with a talent for math and science, gravitated to HR and today are using analytics to improve HR operations. Do you feel you’ve come full circle?

Not really. The math and science orientation has always been there. I always focus first on identifying and formulating the problem. I want to define which problem we need to solve right now, because you can’t do it all. You have to prioritize against the business.  

Interview by Tam Harbert, a freelance technology and business reporter based in the Washington, D.C., area.


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