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Career Lessons from CHRIS 180’s Matthew Mitchell, SHRM-SCP: Listen, Learn and Make an Impact

CHRIS 180’s Mathew Mitchell, SHRM-SCP

Matthew Mitchell, SHRM-SCP, describes a moment that reveals a lot about the Atlanta-based nonprofit CHRIS 180—and about his work as its chief people officer. A grandmother in the area had heard that counselors from CHRIS 180, which provides mental health services and support for youth and families could help her struggling grandson. “She came in through the front door frantic about getting help for her grandson, who was caught up in violence at school. And she wasn’t leaving until she got help for him,” Mitchell says. “We’re hiring for that—for employees who know and want to make an impact on what’s going on in the community.”

Amid escalating mental health care needs, CHRIS 180 has been growing rapidly, bringing on more therapists and hiring to fill numerous other positions. In December 2022, the nonprofit tapped Mitchell to help acquire and retain the people who can best meet this challenging moment.

“The first thing I did was listen,” Mitchell says of his initial weeks on the job. He met with his HR team and employees across the organization to assess the nonprofit’s talent challenges. “Instead of coming in and making a change, I wanted to know where we were, where we needed to go and how to fill that gap,” he says.

His strategy demonstrated the qualities that had convinced his boss, Kathy Colbenson, CHRIS 180’s president and CEO, that Mitchell was the right person for the role. “Matthew wants to solicit opinions different than his own and have a dialogue,” she says. “He’s open to feedback and wants to learn.”

Nicholas O’Connor, a former colleague of Mitchell’s, agrees. “A lot of times, when someone has knowledge, they tend to talk at people. Matthew is always willing to listen,” says O’Connor, director of talent management at Ermi, an Atlanta-based medical equipment manufacturer. “He takes time to understand what people say to him and then to address it accordingly.”

Equipped with the insights gained from his listening tour at CHRIS 180, Mitchell set out to drive change. First, he realized it would be difficult to grow the organization when his 10-member HR team had just one person devoted to recruitment, so he brought on two more recruitment specialists.

Second, he strengthened CHRIS 180’s relationships with the larger community—for instance, by having his team attend more job fairs in metro Atlanta. Third, he persuaded the leadership team to approve funds to use LinkedIn’s hiring tools, gaining better access to more qualified and interested job seekers.

And fourth, Mitchell implemented software that guides hiring managers in thoughtfully creating highly accurate, targeted job descriptions. “The tool forces the hiring manager to sit down, focus on the role in this time and place, and think about the type of person they need for the team to succeed,” he says.

Mitchell’s approach paid off. In 2023, CHRIS 180 experienced a 13 percent increase in headcount and now employs about 485 people. And it didn’t stop there: At the end of last year, the nonprofit had about 35 job openings.

Hiring more people is just the first step, however. Mitchell’s team also must support them to work effectively and to stay with the organization. Toward that end, Mitchell established performance management training—which is critical because the organization’s fast growth means that some employees will become managers for the first time in their careers.

Moving forward, Mitchell will leverage data and metrics to help the organization’s people function mature. In addition to increasing headcount, he also wants to improve metrics such as time-to-fill, turnover and offer-acceptance rates. “I have to look at the data, share it with my team and let them know how we’re measuring HR’s impact,” he says.

Knowledge and Response

Colbenson praises Mitchell’s ability to drive organizational change in part by relying on others’ expertise. “He doesn’t feel he has to know everything already or have the answers,” she says. “His goal is getting the right answer.”

Mitchell had to develop that skill early in his career. In 2013, he was named a Presidential Management Fellow—the culmination of a highly competitive application process to a prestigious federal leadership development program involving more than 12,000 applicants and only about 660 finalists who could apply for two-year appointments at federal agencies. As a fellow, Mitchell accepted an HR generalist position with the U.S. Small Business Administration, which had him relocate from Orlando, Fla., where he grew up, to Atlanta.

“I want to take roles where I’ll have the most impact,” Mitchell says of his career, which has taken him into industries as diverse as the public sector, creative services and health care.

Just six years after earning his bachelor’s degree in business administration at Florida A&M University, and only two years after getting his master’s in HR and change management at the University of Central Florida’s College of Business Administration, Mitchell was overseeing HR team members across eight states. “I was looked at as the lead HR and administrative person for all these long-term HR professionals,” he says. “It was a little bit intimidating.”

But Mitchell quickly gained a vast amount of HR knowledge on topics including labor relations and HR systems by learning from those with more experience. “I’m not threatened by people with more knowledge in HR than me,” he says. “I believe in surrounding myself with people who are smarter than me.”

In 2014, after his fellowship, Mitchell joined CATMEDIA, a Georgia-based advertising and creative services agency, where he was an HR department of one. Once again, he learned on the job. “I was doing everything from recruiting to onboarding to training,” Mitchell says. “I would not have been able to make mistakes and gain knowledge if the leadership team had not had faith in me.”

In 2019, following a couple of years in employee relations for optical retailer National Vision, Mitchell joined Ermi as director of HR and change management. By then, Mitchell had developed a well-honed skill for listening and responding, and Ermi’s people benefited from it.

Through engagement surveys, Mitchell found that many employees were having children—and wanted their employer to offer paternity leave. “I created a business case for leadership so I could say, ‘Yes, there will be a cost, but in the long term, it will bring dollars into the business because we’ll retain top sales talent,’ ” he says.

Mitchell successfully argued that paternity leave would improve employee satisfaction and retention. And he made use of the policy himself in 2020, when he and his wife, Philander Mitchell, a schoolteacher, welcomed their son, Christian. They also have a daughter, Brielle, who’s now 9.

HR in the Family

Because of his desire to create a lasting impact, Mitchell reflects carefully on the effects of what he does—and considers what he might have done differently. “When an employee resigns or is terminated, I always wonder: ‘What if? Is there anything I could have done better?’ ” he says.

As his former colleague O’Connor says, “One of his biggest attributes is that he cares about people.”

If Mitchell takes HR to heart, that’s partly because the profession has always held a deeply personal place for him. His father, Ralph Mitchell, worked in HR for the Walt Disney Co.—starting just months before Walt Disney World opened in October 1971 and remaining with the company for 36 years. “He’s the reason I got into HR,” Mitchell says. “Anything I’ve wanted to do, I’ve wanted to do because of him.”

Mitchell says he learned from his father and mother, Jennie Mitchell, an educator, the importance of professional reputation and of making a difference in people’s lives.

“When I was little, I just thought I could go with my dad to his work in the summer and get into the park for free and run around with my friends,” Mitchell says. But as a teen and young adult, when he had jobs at a car-rental company and other businesses, Mitchell met people who used to work with his father at Disney. Mitchell discovered the significance of his father’s work. “Hearing stories of how my dad had a positive impact on people piqued my interest,” he says. Even now, Mitchell says, he turns to his father for professional advice every day.

Mitchell wants his own impact to be felt in the workplace—and beyond. He volunteers with Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and Phi Beta Sigma, and he mentors through SHRM. “My passion is working with younger HR professionals,” he says. “I’m still relatively young, but HR professionals seek me out, and I talk about my experiences and how we can grow as HR professionals together. My door is always open.” He means that literally: He typically keeps his office door open, he says, so that employees feel comfortable coming to him.

Mitchell’s attentive leadership style allows him to understand what employees are experiencing—and allows them to feel heard. Mitchell says that soon after he joined CHRIS 180, a health care provider was unhappy about a particular HR policy and messaged him about it. Instead of simply sending a reply, Mitchell invited the individual to lunch and discussed the employee’s larger goals and motivations.

Soon afterward, at a departmental meeting addressing employees’ concerns, that health care provider spoke up on Mitchell’s behalf. “He said, ‘If you have concerns, Matt is different. He’ll listen to you,’ ” Mitchell recalls. “That’s important to me. At the end of the day, I’m a businessperson who solves problems. I just do that through the people part.”   

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