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Career Lessons from 3M’s Kathryn J. Coleman: Be Open to New Opportunities

Kathryn J. Coleman, chief talent and diversity officer at 3M, sees the opportunity and promise that change can bring.

Above: Coleman (center), with 3M colleagues (from left) Michael Stroik, Jacqueline Berry, Jeannee Hoppe and Heather Cavallaro, says that truth, candor and kindness are central to her leadership approach.

If Kathryn J. Coleman’s HR career of 25-plus years has been defined by one thing, it’s the constancy of change. As senior vice president, chief talent and diversity officer at 3M, which makes Post-its and more than 60,000 other products, Coleman sees opportunity in the new, and embraces it.

That’s what Coleman did in August, when she agreed to expand her position as senior vice president of talent, learning and insights, where she oversaw talent management globally, by taking on the added responsibilities of overseeing diversity for 3M and its 90,000+ employees worldwide. 

In her expanded role, she’s helping 3M adapt to its changing talent needs. In the past, about four-fifths of the company’s new hires were recent college and university graduates, and the remainder were experienced professionals—but now, that ratio has reversed. Coleman will focus more heavily on partnerships with minority-serving professional associations and similar groups that can help 3M meet its talent needs and build a more diverse workforce.

Moving forward, Coleman wants to ensure that the company supports both diversity and inclusion. “We have made commitments to increasing representation, but we can’t do that well if we don’t also make sure we have an inclusive environment,” she says. “Otherwise, you just cycle people in and out.”

Utilizing AI: Meet Max and Harriet

In her previous position at 3M, Coleman welcomed another new challenge when she recognized the need to adopt AI and automation, which she considers one of the HR field’s biggest near-term tests. “The challenge will be to figure out how we leverage AI, because AI is here to stay,” she says. “But it also can help us.”

One of 3M’s first efforts with AI was to implement an interactive bot technology called Max to assist with talent acquisition. Prior to Max, job applicants sometimes complained that their applications never received a response or that their questions took a long time to be answered.

Now, Max quickly answers applicants’ questions and schedules their interviews. Before Max, it took about 45 minutes to schedule an applicant interview; today, it takes just 19 seconds, Coleman says. A similar bot called Harriet supports existing employees—for example, by answering questions about benefits.

At 3M, AI technology for HR has been so successful that prospective and current employees often don’t know they’re interacting with a bot. “We get notes from candidates and from internal people all the time thanking ‘Max’ because they don’t know Max is AI,” Coleman says.

By using AI to answer important yet routine questions from candidates and employees, Coleman has enabled her HR team to focus on more value-added activities. 

“It frees up time for us to work on deeper challenges that require more time, so we can think and operate more strategically,” she says.

Woman sitting on desk

Shifting to Hybrid Work

Coleman helped 3M adjust to another profound change during the COVID-19 pandemic: the move to hybrid work. As the company’s employees demonstrated that they could work remotely, they also expressed different preferences for working remotely, in person or a combination of the two.

“We trust our people,” Coleman says. But she knew 3M couldn’t just talk about trust—it also had to walk the talk. So in 2021, Coleman helped create and implement a policy that allows employees to determine how, when and where they work. And for employees whose roles in manufacturing or research and development require more in-person work, 3M provided greater flexibility through shift work and job sharing. postit 1.png

“It’s been hugely successful and really significant from an engagement standpoint,” Coleman says of the global policy.

However, Coleman realized that 3M had to do more than simply announce such a transformative shift. “We had to spend a lot of time with the change,” she says. “We had to be clear with employees that there wasn’t a change in the expectation of delivering a job—they’re just delivering it elsewhere.” 

3M also had to ensure its culture remained strong, even among a distributed workforce. To do that, Coleman helped create a policy that promotes “moments that matter”—times when teams convene in person. 

“That’s not about everyone coming in so the manager can look at them work,” she says. “It’s about having intentional time for teams and team members to come together and feel connected to one another.”


Embracing Change

Coleman is no stranger to leading transformation at 3M. Several years ago, she successfully executed what she calls “the herculean task” of implementing a new platform that delivers customized learning experiences. The platform launched after just one month of development that took place around the clock and around the world. 

“That’s not something you can do by yourself—you can only do that with a team aligned in the same way,” she says. “I’m not successful if the only person progressing is me.”

Throughout her life, Coleman has learned repeatedly the importance of saying yes to change. In college, she planned on studying neuroscience. But as she took pre-med classes, she decided that while she could do the work, she didn’t really want to. Her mother wasn’t too pleased. 

“After my mom stopped passing out—because she saw me becoming a neurosurgeon in the future—I got my psychology degree,” Coleman says. “I always knew I had an interest in and affinity for people, and I was able to build rapport quickly.” She earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Macalester College in 1994, followed by a master’s degree in psychology from the University of Minnesota in 1997.

After working in recruiting at what was then the William Mitchell College of Law for a couple of years, Coleman held people-focused roles at the University of Minnesota for almost a decade, most recently as director of diversity for its business school. In 2005, she earned her doctorate in education policy and administration, also from the University of Minnesota.

Coleman started her career in academia—and could well have ended it there. “I never thought I would leave higher education,” she says. In 2008, when SuperValu, at the time one of the country’s largest grocery retailers, contacted Coleman about an HR role, she thought, “I’m good. I love what I’m doing.”

But Coleman decided she wanted to expand her experience and knowledge. So she made the move into the private sector—first as SuperValu’s manager of diversity recruitment and then as its senior manager of talent acquisition.

History repeated itself a few years later when 3M approached her. Again, Coleman thought, “I’m happy. I have a great team doing amazing things.” But then she considered the opportunity to move from a solely U.S.-focused organization and gain global experience. In 2011, she joined 3M, first in U.S. talent acquisition and, soon afterward, in global talent acquisition.

Linda Johnson, chief human resources and communications officer at grocery retailer Food Lion, vividly remembers that time. As an HR executive at SuperValu, Johnson had to find Coleman’s replacement amid many changes in the company’s talent acquisition function. But Coleman didn’t simply say, “Thank you and goodbye,” Johnson recalls; instead, Coleman helped find her own replacement.

“It was a tough time for us to have to replace her role,” Johnson says, “but we were able to do that efficiently because of her commitment to making sure we had a great candidate slated for her role. And she did that with care and deliberation.”

To Coleman, “Be open” is perhaps the central theme of her career. “If I limited myself to just my knowledge set, I’d still be in a university, because that’s all I thought I’d do, and I was happy to do it,” she explains.

sitting around table

Valuing Candor

Coleman says she successfully leads change—such as helping 3M spin off its health care business into a separate company—in part by delivering communications in different ways for different people at different times. “Sometimes folks need you to talk, sometimes they need you to listen,” she says. 

Coleman’s attentiveness to people’s needs speaks to her leadership approach, which she describes in this way: “You have to tell people the truth—but balance candor with kindness.” 

It’s a leadership style that has impressed Coleman’s boss, Zoe Dickson, CHRO of Minnesota-based 3M. “Kathryn is candid and courageous,” Dickson says. “She speaks truth to leaders and to her teams. And that’s been really helpful, especially in a Midwest organization where that’s not always the narrative we have.”

postit 1.png

Coleman had seen the value of candor, and of adapting to new demands, when she was working at the University of Minnesota. Coleman recalls a meeting in which the university’s president turned to her mentor at the time, Charles Muscoplat, a now-retired professor, and asked him a question. Muscoplat answered, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.” His honest response to the school’s top leader took Coleman by surprise and made a lasting impression on her. “If you don’t know, say you don’t know. And then figure it out,” she says.

But Coleman’s ability to welcome new challenges was shaped long before her HR career began. While she grew up mostly in Florida, her mother—who worked as an English teacher, as well as a consultant in the public and private sectors—made sure that Coleman and her two older siblings regularly enjoyed new experiences, such as various kinds of foods and films. “She focused on exposing us to things that were unusual and unfamiliar,” Coleman says.

Coleman also manages any change and challenge by modeling the work/life balance she wants her team to enjoy. One example: Every evening at 5:30, Coleman has dinner with her husband—no matter what. “Something could blow up at the company, but I’m sitting at the dinner table with my husband,” she says. “You have to carve out that sacred time. If I don’t model that for my team, I can’t expect them to do it.”

She adds, “I can’t tell my team, ‘You don’t have to be online at 3 a.m.,’ and then they get an email from me at 2:45 a.m.” If HR leaders exhibit the behaviors they want their people to emulate, Coleman explains, everyone can bring their best selves to their work, to the benefit of the organization and its people.  

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

Photography by Joe Szurszewski