HR Exec of the Year: Why self-care should top your priority list

This month, HRE is helping HR leaders prepare for the year ahead with a series featuring insights from industry experts, thought leaders and others about what we can learn from 2020 and the challenges coming in 2021. Read the series here.


This year has brought HR a host of unprecedented issues to navigate: employee safety concerns, engagement in a newly remote world, legal considerations and even the reshaping of the HR role itself. With all of that change just in the last few months, many HR leaders are looking to 2021 with a bit of trepidation: What’s next?

Ellyn Shook, chief leadership and human resources officer of professional services giant Accenture, says the success and collaboration shown by HR leaders in 2020 provide building blocks for what’s ahead, even as uncertainty and the need for rapid change remain. Shook, HRE‘s HR Executive of the Year for 2020, recently spoke to HRE about hybrid workplaces, resilience, leadership and the importance of organizations lifting their people.

HRE: What was HR’s shining moment in 2020?

Ellyn Shook, HRE’s 2020 HR Executive of the Year

Shook: Collectively, HR leaders stepped into the spotlight with extraordinary compassion and creativity to lead their people and businesses through unimaginable health, economic and social crises. And, the C-suite and board continue to look to HR to help navigate this new reality. A huge silver lining of this time is the collaboration we’re seeing across HR, across organizations and across industries. We’re breaking barriers to come together to put people back to work with things like People + Work Connect, which brings together companies that are letting people go with companies that are rapidly hiring. Our HR community is also collaborating to fight racial injustice in our companies and communities.

Related: This compassionate leader is HRE’s HR Executive of the Year

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I’ve never been more proud to be in this profession. And, as an optimist, I say let’s keep moving forward with hope and an eye to the future.

HRE: What will the world of work look like in 2021?

Shook: If only I had a crystal ball. Here are a few things on my mind …

  1. Even with the vaccines, don’t throw away your mask! We will still need to mask and practice physical distancing for quite some time.
  2. This hybrid of physical and digital working–which I call “phygital”–will be the norm, providing much more flexibility to people coming into the office, helping to ensure cultures stay positive and vibrant, and for when there is a strong need to collaborate with others vs. just doing work.
  3. In terms of leadership, we’re seeing a shift beyond empathy to compassion. I think compassion is emerging as one of the top leadership characteristics of this time.
  4. Speed will be the watchword. The most successful companies have been incredibly agile during the crisis–and that focus on speed will continue. Transformations that used to take decades will now take years, while changes that would take years are now happening in months and weeks. To help “institutionalize” speed, organizations need to be less hierarchical, more inclusive and operate with what we call a progress > perfection mindset. This will allow companies to operate at speed but should not mean unrealistic intensity every day.

All of these will impact how we work differently in the coming months.

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HRE: What should HR’s first priority be in 2021?

Shook: I encourage all HR professionals to make a commitment to their own self-care and mental resilience. We carry a lot on our shoulders–to care for and nurture our people, help drive business results for our organizations and influence positive outcomes in our communities. This is on top of the important roles we play with our families and friends. We need to take care of ourselves so we can take care of others, be strategic problem-solvers and lead with compassion and creativity.

HRE: Any other key insights from 2020?

Shook: Leaders are feeling a greater sense of responsibility for their people. Pre-COVID, only about one-third of leaders felt that it was an organization’s responsibility to leave their people “net better off” across six key dimensions–employable, financial, emotional/mental, purposeful, relational and physical–as a result of working for a company. Now, 50% of leaders believe that a company is responsible for helping their people become better off. This is a big step in the right direction because when we lift our people, we lift our organizations.

Related: Mayer: The employees are not all right

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Elizabeth Clarke
Elizabeth Clarke is executive editor of Human Resource Executive. She earned a journalism degree from the University of Florida and then spent more than 25 years as a reporter and editor in South Florida before joining HRE. Elizabeth lives with her family in Palm Beach County. She can be reached at [email protected].