How one CHRO champions an inclusive culture

Exciting. Engaging. Ever-learning. These are the descriptors that Melissa Jones says sum up her HR career thus far.

It’s a journey that has spanned more than 20 years and has most recently taken her to CSAA Insurance Group, a AAA Insurer–where she just marked her first anniversary as executive vice president and CHRO. Jones joined the organization as vice president of HR in 2012, after an HR leadership role at the Northern California branch of AAA. Jones has also held HR leadership roles at JPMorgan Chase and Providian Financial.

Related: Read more Insights from a CHRO

Melissa Jones

Despite having a firm trajectory in HR now, Jones started college as a chemistry major, aiming to enter the pharmaceuticals field. She soon realized that wasn’t the right path and majored in social sciences, getting a job in payroll and benefits after college that sparked her interest in HR.

“I realized that a career in HR is industry-agnostic, so there’s a lot of opportunity, and you have a significant influence on shaping a company’s culture,” she says. It’s that focus on culture that brought her to, and keeps her at, CSAA Insurance Group.

Related: Strategies for managing HR during the pandemic

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HRE: What are one or two of the most significant evolutions the HR field has undergone throughout your career?

Jones: I think people traditionally thought of HR roles as people positions–with soft skills more important than anything else. HR is centered on people, but there’s both an art and a science to what we do. Strategic thinking, financial stewardship and analytical skills are just as important as emotional intelligence, relationship management and empathy in HR careers.

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This is an exciting and pivotal time for HR professionals. The growth in technology has significantly affected all aspects of what we do–not just in terms of systems and processes, but in the expectations employees and potential candidates have of their employers. I think the No. 1 challenge we face is attracting and keeping talent in an increasingly evolving and competitive environment. We have to think more broadly and inclusively, while ensuring we have the flexibility to move quickly and respond effectively.

The current pandemic is stress-testing many of our long-held systems, processes and procedures. It has forced a response to an extraordinary situation, but I also see it as an opportunity to learn and come out better on the other end. Truly, necessity has been the mother of invention. It’s given us the opportunity to focus on how we can be more efficient and do things in new ways.

Also, I think there’s been a significant shift in how companies, and therefore HR professionals, think about corporate social responsibility. Historically, U.S. companies avoided taking a stand on social issues, fearing consumer and public backlash. This has evolved in recent years as the expectations of employees (prospective and current) and consumers have changed. Research shows that ignoring social and environmental issues can put a company’s reputation at risk and may result in the loss of talent and customers. That’s having substantial impact on approaches to recruiting, hiring, onboarding and retaining employees.

HRE: How has CSAA’s HR department changed since you joined in 2009?

Jones: It’s vastly different than when I started. We’ve always focused on cultural and social responsibility programs to differentiate us as an employer–things like inclusion and belonging and volunteerism. It’s what attracted me to the company. Since I’ve been here, we’ve enhanced those programs and we implemented a new HR information system, we developed award-winning leadership programs, we were the first department in the company to move our operating system (HRIS) to the cloud, we’re a key partner in driving our company strategy and we drive organizational design to align with our strategy. And, by modernizing our programs, we have fewer HR employees now than we did then, yet we’re more effective.

HRE: You just marked your first year as CSAA’s executive vice president and CHRO. How has the pandemic shifted any goals you had for your first year in this role?

Jones: Our priorities have always been the wellbeing of our employees and serving AAA members, and that has guided our response throughout the pandemic. How we’re conducting business now will likely have a significant impact on how we want to do things going forward. We’re learning that there are ways we can maybe do things more quickly and efficiently in the long term, and we’re exploring our options for a more virtual workforce. If jobs can be done just as effectively remotely, that opens up the candidate pool immensely. We are also consciously considering what not to revert back to once things normalize. It’s given us the opportunity to focus on efficiencies maybe faster than we would have otherwise, and we want to capitalize on our learnings.

HRE: With the shift to virtual interviewing and hiring, what skills have recruiters and HR professionals at your organization needed to hone in on to ensure success?

Jones: In the wake of COVID-19, we’re currently doing 100% virtual interviewing and hiring, using Microsoft Teams and Zoom. A focus on virtual recruiting has opened up the possibility for much broader outreach to universities and colleges, so we’re definitely honing our skills in those areas. One theme that keeps rising to the top for us–and it’s been a key theme for our CEO, Tom Troy–is the importance of listening. It’s always important, but now more than ever. Listening is extremely important to being a good recruiter and HR professional; it helps us stay in touch with the needs of candidates as well as managers, and it increases our awareness of the nuances that might be missed by not having in-person interactions.

HRE: What impact has the pandemic had on CSAA’s efforts to build its talent pipeline, especially with interns and recent grads?

Jones: We’ve been able to continue and expand our highly successful partnerships and internship programs with colleges and universities in the communities where we have a strong presence, including Oklahoma City, Las Vegas and Colorado Springs. Additionally, we have a well-developed actuarial program with UC Berkeley. We’re also developing a career-pathing program for our IT division, which will help us both develop an internship program and do more college recruiting for IT positions.

At the same time, virtual recruiting has opened up the possibility for much broader outreach to universities and colleges. We’re at the beginning stages of understanding how all this may impact future talent pools.

The Community Relations department is part of my team, and my HR team works strategically with that team to build relationships with local organizations that work with a variety of populations to reach a wider range of potential candidates. We’re looking at where we can most effectively put our attention to meet people where they’re at, and in a way that benefits the organizations as well as CSAA Insurance Group.

HRE: Some people are predicting a massive rise in permanent remote work, while others take a different viewpoint; where do you see remote work headed?

Jones: When we do return to our offices, we’ll be going back in phases, with a majority of employees working from home for the rest of the year. We’re approaching the pandemic as an opportunity to learn and help inform our long-term operating model, and we are exploring our options for a more virtual workforce.

Related: Will other employers follow Google’s decision to stay remote until summer 2021?

Even prior to the pandemic, we had feedback from employees who would like more work-from-home options. This pandemic has given us an opportunity to really test how that could work, and so far we’re very encouraged. Of course, not everyone wants to work from home. There are some who enjoy office camaraderie or think they do their best work in the office, and we’ll do our best to accommodate individual preferences. Our goal is to position our employees for successful careers and help ensure a positive experience for them.

HRE: What motivated you to co-found the Women’s Professional Network? What impact has this association had on the organization, specifically in terms of career development and advancing women into leadership roles?

Jones: Like many organizations, we had a gap between our representation of females in our individual contributor population and our representation of females in management positions, and we weren’t making progress fast enough. My colleague and I wanted to do something about that gap, so we co-founded the Women’s Professional Network with the purpose of advancing women to leadership positions.

WPN evolved from a small, invited group of women to being open to all employees in 2017, and we currently have almost 600 members. As a coalition of women and men, we collaborate, learn and lead to support the advancement of women at CSAA Insurance Group.

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While not solely attributed to the WPN, we are now happy to report that female representation in management positions is 49% and females make up 42% of our executives.

HRE: Outside of work, what are you passionate about?

Jones: I love anything outdoors. I run, walk, ski and try to do as much as I can outside. I love to read and haven’t done as much as I’d like to in the last few years, but last year I joined a book club and have read more since then. My favorite book for my book club so far is Educated, by Tara Westover, an autobiography detailing her upbringing in a Mormon, survivalist family; it’s a bit heavy, but definitely a good read.

I’m a Raiders fan and will stay true to them even though they moved to Vegas. Since I grew up in South Lake Tahoe, I feel like Nevada is my second home state so that’s how I rationalize my loyalty to the team. It will also give me a reason to visit Vegas more often!

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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].