How this frontliner-turned-CHRO is ‘opening the aperture’ on talent at WM

Kelly Rooney knows a thing or two about internal mobility.

During her more than 30 years in the waste management industry, she has worked in almost every corner of the space, including her first job as a teenager on the frontlines. She has spent the bulk of her career at WM, formerly Waste Management, including in operations, management and other areas before moving into the C-suite as WM’s vice president of people in 2021. Today, she serves as senior vice president, CHRO and diversity & inclusion officer for the Fortune 500 that employs more than 50,000 people and generates nearly $20 billion in annual revenue.

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Rooney’s progression from the frontline to the C-suite gave her key insight into what WM’s talent needs to thrive, which is among the factors driving the success of its transformation to a competency-based structure. Prioritizing skills over experience and developing a culture where internal mobility is the norm, Rooney says, is key to designing a successful future for WM’s workforce. It’s work, she notes, that must be supported by comprehensive training, robust L&D offerings and a deep investment in emerging technologies—learnings from understanding and being responsive to the needs of frontline workers.

“What I’ve tried to do is bring this view from the windshield—we have 22,000 truck drivers so that image is powerful inside our organization—instead of just from out of the corporate office window,” she says.

Rooney recently connected with HRE about WM’s talent and tech transformations, and her own journey with the organization.

HRE: What are some of the ways WM is using AI?

Kelly Rooney, WM
Kelly Rooney, WM

Rooney: You’ll see AI in every part of the business. We are preparing folks for a future where everybody can do more complex work with a digital copilot. Humans can do the work that only humans can do—but the digital copilot elevates the human experience.

For example, in our trucks, we have AI that coaches drivers on their driving habits. It goes beyond the lane assistance that you have in your Chevys or Fords; it’s coaching drivers on following distances or, if it detects they’ve picked up their device, prompts them to put it down. We’re using AI in our recycling facilities. Where we might have had humans doing sorting manually previously, now we have robot machines. And then we can take the folks from the sort line and give them the opportunity, for instance, to fix or tune the robots or to work in the control room. On our customer experience team, we use chatbots to answer the most basic questions and then use our humans to answer the more complex questions. And folks tell us they like that experience—it doesn’t engage their brains to have to answer questions about what day is trash pickup. They want to help customers engage, solve more complex problems.

We’re hearing this in every facet of our business. These digital resources help our folks engage in things they really want to be doing.

HRE: How is WM moving to a competency-based workforce, and what kind of an impact are you looking for?

Rooney: When we think about the workforce of today and the future, we think about skills being the new currency. We’re shifting the focus from experience and time in a role to having a skill set that we can leverage and develop.

You have to think about it like baseball. You don’t just need somebody who has experience playing second base; you need somebody with the skills and the potential to play not just second base but all the positions on the field. You can’t count on just finding folks with deep, very specific experiences in the workforce anymore.

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So, instead of writing job descriptions, you have to write competency profiles, which allows you to open the aperture on talent, to attract the very best talent. You have to flip the script.

HRE: Before companies can focus on skills rather than degrees, what kind of strategic work do they need to do to make that effort sustainable?

Rooney: Part of it is tactical, removing those artificial barriers. We consider degrees and experience as artificial barriers. So, you have to weed through every job description, remove the barriers and insert the competency profile. And then you have to train all of the talent acquisition folks and the hiring managers to think differently about what they’re hiring for. That’s the harder work.

There is a strong historical bias toward experience and degrees, so it takes a lot of internal socialization and stakeholder management—and you have to do that on repeat. For example, our performance assessment process is rooted in competency. We created tools and guides for our folks to have different kinds of discussions. Our HRBPs did the hard work of socializing that this is the language we use. This is the lens through which we view performance. We insert that language into our talent reviews and our planning conversations.

And then we have to police ourselves. When we have conversations about talent, performance, hiring, promotions, if someone veers off the path of competency and into a place where they’re thinking about experience or degrees, we have to bring that conversation back to, “Let’s look at that competency profile, let’s talk about their potential.” You have to establish a discipline and rigor.

HRE: When it comes to L&D, what have been some of the most critical lessons learned about what makes such initiatives sustainable?

Rooney: L&D plays an important role in effectively standing up a competency-based structure. Our whole approach is about co-creating our experience with our folks. That’s what makes us really effective: The entire organization is engaged in the work.

What we heard from our folks is that one of the things that’s really important to them is the ability to move up and around the organization. If we don’t enable and empower their ability to explore different roles and career paths inside the organization, they’ll go outside to find that experience. Our goal is to create an environment where people can not just get the opportunity to move around but the learning and development support they need to do that. You can’t just wake up one day and decide, “Hey, I’m a truck driver today but I want to be a hydrogeologist tomorrow.” You need support in some way.

So, we create internal programs to help our folks learn what is unique about our business, to help them accelerate their development in terms of what it means to lead in the WM way, or learn the hard and fast tech things they need to understand the business. Then, we partner externally on the things we don’t need to develop in-house, some fundamental leadership development that we buy externally.

We also have a really robust approach to what was traditionally tuition reimbursements but what we consider an investment in our people holistically: We pay for employees and their dependents to engage in over 270 external opportunities—technical and CDL schools, bachelor’s, associate’s and master’s degrees—that can help our people make decisions about what they want to do next in the organization, to chart their own path. So, someone can come in a truck driver without college debt, work a flexible schedule and get that degree to become a hydrogeologist and stay under the WM umbrella.

Folks really value that investment, and we get a return on the investment in the form of extended tenure and lower turnover.

HRE: What are you finding is moving the needle most on enhancing diversity at WM, especially in leadership?

Rooney: Our focus is quite simply on creating an environment where everyone feels welcomed and supported. We’re better [at that] than we were, but not as good as we will be, particularly with women representation across the organization. Part of that is about storytelling. There’s an image of this industry that historically makes women concerned they can’t be successful here for a number of reasons. One is this old image of labor-intensive work, a salty crew of dirty guys riding on the back of the truck. In reality, our trucks today cost upwards of a half-million dollars and have more computing power in them than most small businesses have in their entire offices. These are highly automated, highly sophisticated vehicles that our drivers get out of at the end of the day as clean as they got into at the beginning of the day.

We’re North America’s leading sustainability company, which is a different image than a garbage company. Telling that story is important to helping women understand who we are, what we do and what we bring to the table as an employer.

HRE: Communication with frontline workers remains a challenge for many organizations. How are you confronting this?

Rooney: We’re particularly sensitive to that because our biggest population is hourly frontline folks. Every day, our people have an in-person, face-to-face to start the day or their shift. That presents an incredible opportunity and where we’re really looking to better unlock that opportunity is by potentially adding some digital assets to allow a more consistent message to come from across the organization. We also are working to involve hourly folks more in our ERGs and looking to add digital tools there as well. It’s starting from this great place, this face-to-face connection, we have every day that keeps everybody culturally aligned, working on the same things and working together for a more sustainable tomorrow.

HRE: Was there a moment in your career that emphasized to you that HR was where you’re meant to be?

Rooney: I’m not a lifelong career HR person. I spent most of my career in our field operations and started out on our frontline. Then I became a leader of frontline teams. I really made the shift into HR three years ago when we were struggling to understand our turnover. That started me and this company on this journey of understanding what we need to do to evolve our organization for the future and create an experience where everybody feels welcomed, supported and wants to stay.

My place in HR became evident as I was out doing roundtables with folks, opening listening sessions to help us understand their experiences. One of our drivers called it out: “You have the benefit, Kelly, of having looked through the windshield, and that helps you be the bridge between our past and our future in a way that we can relate to at the frontline. You can be an ambassador to the organization on our behalf.”

I bring the execution focus of an operator to HR. We execute quickly, we bring solutions to market quickly. They aren’t all perfect at the outset, but we try things, we see what works, we iterate on them, and that helps us be responsive to the pace of change in the external marketplace today. We have this drive for outcome and results that is much more effective because we are moving at a faster pace. And my folks show up like operators. If you were to listen to our HR folks at a table, you wouldn’t be able to tell who’s an operator and who’s an HR person. Our folks quickly learn what’s important to the business, to the people and to our partners, and we speak the same language—which helps accelerate receptivity and drive results.

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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].