Behind the Scenes: Machelle A. McAdory

Machelle A. McAdory, 54, is the senior vice president and chief Human Resources officer at Jackson National. A member of the company’s executive leadership team, she leads a staff of more than 100 professionals in eight business offices across the U.S. Before joining Jackson National in 2011, McAdory worked for General Motors, DaimlerChrysler Corp and TD Auto Finance.

You have spent a good deal of your career in the auto industry. How has it shaped your career?    

I’ll go back even one job before I went into General Motors and it’s my family-owned business. We were in electrical contracting. As soon as I was old enough to drive I became the material expediter – the owner’s kid running materials between job sites. It shapes you – [I had to] get materials to the site on time and if they didn’t have what was necessary, they couldn’t work and we were losing money.

While most people thought I was just driving, there was a schedule to keep. I had to get to the warehouses and make sure all of the materials were there and deliver the materials, so that work ethic was instilled in me from very, very early on. That’s probably the foundation that shaped me.

What was next?

From there I went to Kettering University – GMI at the time. I was 18, just out of school, and my first job was as a line supervisor. You think about it, we’re talking about the early eighties, so [I was] young and female and supervising people who had kids my age. A pretty great learning experience.

And was being a minority part of it too?

I would say yes, because it’s hard to say no. Cat whistles were still allowed back then. People could say and do a lot of things that they definitely can’t say or do now. Fortunately, because electrical contracting was not exactly a pristine environment, I got toughened up pretty early on. What I’ve learned more than anything else is that you have to know the business in order to influence the business. In HR, all we do is influence business.

When you look at your career, especially starting out at Kettering, do those kinds of opportunities exist today for someone graduating from high school?

I’m actually more optimistic for my kids than when I was coming out. They can do so many more things and the world is so much smaller.      

I wish I had taken advantage of some of the opportunities that are available to young kids right now. No one expects to stay with a company for 35 or 40 years. No one expects to stay in the same profession. There are so many more opportunities. If I look back on my career I would get some cross functional and cross business experience. I didn’t take it early in my career. I thought “that’s not HR work.” GM wanted to send me to work in procurement and supply. I was like why would I do that? I didn’t see the connection.

You worked for auto companies from 1980 until 2011, toward the end, some of the most difficult and disheartening times ever for the industry. Now you don’t.

When I left Chrysler Financial, we were a little less than half the size we were when I started there four years earlier. The reason I really decided to look elsewhere was that at some point the bad news just gets to you. You are asking the same people over and over and over again, “hey, wouldn’t you like to take a buyout?” or “wouldn’t you like to take a package and retire?”

They’re like “you asked me six months ago and I told you no. I don’t want to retire. I don’t want a buyout. I can’t afford it now.” And then you end up doing some pretty adverse things, and that’s never good. 

I picked up the phone one day and Jackson was looking for a chief Human Resources officer. I look at Jackson and I think, “wow.” What an opportune time to go to a company that is growing. This will be novel. I’ve got to learn to hire people.”

And why HR?

The electrical contracting business was my father’s. My mother was the head of HR for the City of Kansas City. Everything I learned about HR I learned from my mother. She really was a pioneer and trailblazer, the first woman and the first black person to head up human relations for the City of Kansas City.

When you plan for Jackson’s future what do you look for?

Obviously, tech is huge and it’s not just for the people who work in technology, it’s for the people who support the business. It’s just the price of entry. And it’s the transferable skills, what in the profession we call the innate skills that say you can reason well, you can gather information, you can look at data and make it mean something. You can think through an issue or problem; you can collaborate with people around you to give input but also to receive information. 

We are going toward a far more social environment. People have been talking about “fit” for a long time. What we need are people who have some innate skills that allow them to work with other people in a manner that helps us to be successful.

Based on your international experience, do you find differences between workers overseas and those in America?

It is always amazing to me that when I’m in an international setting with colleagues, how similar our problems are. They talk about working with three, four or five generations. How do we attract Millennials? How do we get young people who have all of these social media influences? Their ideas are very Western. It creates problems for the HR departments.

What else is changing with HR?

The profession has morphed and we’ve gone through some stages. Thought leaders would say we are moving away from transaction HR to strategic HR. I’m fine with that. What I tell my team here is that we aren’t even thinking about strategic HR. We need to be very capable business professionals who have an expertise in HR. You have to understand the business, think like the people you support and understand the financial implications of the decisions that you make. If you can’t think the way the business thinks, then you are a failure in human resources. 

When these two conflict, how do you balance between the needs of the company and the needs of the workers?

I don’t believe it’s HR’s function to do that. I think HR has to help management understand how to manage people as it would with any other resource in the company. No one teaches you to take the fiction out of not having enough money.

Human capital is not about us alleviating the friction; it’s trying to understand how you lead people, how you want the company and culture to execute and orienting your associate base so that it understands what to expect every day when they come to work. We have a certain way that we do business and what we expect, those are our core values. Our associates have to understand what that is and we have to be consistent with that. They make the decision that this is what I signed up for or that this is not for me. The bigger issue is really leadership, from your supervisors and managers and from your corporate leaders.

This conversation with Machelle A. McAdory has been edited for space and clarity.

Mickey Hirten

Mickey Hirten

Mickey Hirten is an award winning writer and editor. He has been executive editor of the Lansing State Journal, the Burlington Free Press in Vermont, and was the financial editor and a columnist for the Baltimore Evening Sun. He is the current president of the Michigan Press Association. His wife, Maureen Hirten, is director of the Capital Area District Library.

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