Avantor’s CHRO on how culture, change management fueled the company through COVID

The COVID-19 pandemic made flexibility a cornerstone of business strategies across industries—a reality especially felt by Pennsylvania-based Avantor. The global life sciences tools company is the provider of mission-critical products and services, including some that became instrumental for for healthcare workers fighting the health crisis, such as medical-grade silicone and, later, components for vaccines.

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Bringing those efforts to fruition involved an influx in hiring—and a commitment to transparent communication and adaptability on the part of both leadership and employees, says Brittany Hankamer, executive vice president and CHRO at Avantor. Hankamer was named to the role this summer after joining the organization in 2019, most recently serving as senior vice president of talent and people operations.

Prior to Avantor, Hankamer held HR leadership roles at companies including Conquest Completion Services, Halliburton Energy Services, Fidelity Investments and Chevron Phillips Chemical Co.

She recently spoke with HRE about how she and her HR team have helped Avantor navigate the change-management challenges the organization has faced and how she envisions the company’s people strategy will evolve in the coming years.

HRE: What did you learn about Avantor’s culture in your first four years with the company that will influence how you approach your new role?

Brittany HankamerHankamer: What stands out to me most about Avantor’s culture is its authenticity. What you see is truly what you get. Shortly after I joined, a senior leader said to me, “I lead with transparency. You may not always like what I am communicating, but my commitment is to share as much information as I can—as early as I can.” I appreciated the candor, and this set the tone for me on how Avantor leadership “shows up.” If your culture is based on candor and a well-defined shared purpose, you inherently have a results-based organization.

For Avantor, delivering “results” means empowering our customers—scientists across the life sciences and technology industries—with products, services and solutions that fuel productivity for their research and commercial priorities. Recognizing this vital role, I’m focused on supporting each step of the associate experience to ensure our team continues to thrive in their careers and remains prepared to deliver results that help drive Avantor forward. Our nearly 15,000 associates worldwide have a strong drive and passion for their work, and we have incredible leaders who embrace our talent philosophy and set clear standards on performance, development and career focus for our associates.

HRE: Avantor’s work has been instrumental in fighting the COVID pandemic. What kind of change management muscles did it take for HR to help the organization make the pivots needed for that new work?

Hankamer: While the COVID pandemic presented challenges that many of us had never experienced, it also gave HR professionals the opportunity to exercise a skill that is perennially important: change management. I was proud to see our team pivot priorities, manage change and adapt quickly to new information. And we were glad to have open lines of communication with the executive team for timely decision-making and implementation. We knew how essential it was to communicate our decisions swiftly and clearly with Avantor employees worldwide, and our HR associates did an excellent job. We at Avantor were just one part of a global effort that stretched across industries and borders, and we are proud of the role we played alongside our customers during an incredibly challenging time for global health.

Read more Insights from a CHRO here.

HRE: How has Avantor approached remote/hybrid/return-to-office? And what role has employee feedback played?

Hankamer: Again, it comes down to change management and adaptability. Like many companies, Avantor implemented plans at our offices and sites in response to COVID-19, learned from them and adjusted the course as we gained information and experience. We recently introduced our Global Return-to-Office Policy, which shifts much of our workforce from largely remote to hybrid. The new policy was designed to facilitate in-person collaboration and connection and reinforce our culture. For example, our corporate headquarters in Radnor, Pa., located outside of Philadelphia, continues to be the center of gravity where we come together and make a number of business decisions. That said, it was still important for us to provide the flexibility of a hybrid schedule. We are optimistic about the positive impact this blended approach will have on our associates’ growth, development and success.

HRE: What is the biggest HR challenge Avantor is facing today? And on what fronts are you planning to tackle it?

Hankamer: Our business is complex. We serve end markets in life sciences and technology that are rapidly evolving. Our space is highly dynamic, and our workforce is spread across 30 countries around the world. These factors make it vital—yet incredibly challenging—to prioritize our associates’ focus areas. We are working to evolve our HR model so that it flexes with our corporate growth plans and clearly delineates how work gets done in our organization. We are also working on leveraging technology (like artificial intelligence) to create efficiencies for human resources and our business functions, maximize our talent strategies and amplify career opportunities for our associates.

HRE: What are the skill sets HR leaders of today need to possess for success—and that may not have been as integral a few years ago?

Hankamer: Successful HR leaders create an environment of trust and respect with their teams and business partners and still prioritize and delegate effectively. We earn the right to move forward the innovative, strategic HR programs by executing consistently and flawlessly on the basics—whether a straightforward, tactical response to a payroll question or a more complex initiative such as a re-organization. Approaching all tasks with empathy and excellence is crucial for credibility in the HR function.

HRE: If you hadn’t gone into HR, where do you think your career would have taken you?

Hankamer: Without a doubt, I would have been a teacher. I love children, and I’m energized by their spontaneity, simplicity and curiosity. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing a child’s eyes light up at a new discovery or idea.

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].