Insights from a CHRO: Angelique Kelly-Lara

Managing systemic change is at heart of the mission of Enterprise Community Partners, a national nonprofit that aims to connect low- and moderate-income people with affordable housing. The organization takes a three-pronged approach to that goal: pioneering capital investments, piloting and scaling opportunity-building solutions and transforming public policy.

Change is everywhere these days–and Angelique Kelly-Lara is primed to help Enterprise deal with the HR-related disruptions prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Kelly-Lara brings more than 25 years of HR leadership to her new role as chief people officer of Enterprise, which she started in April. She comes to the organization from Choice Hotels International, where she oversaw talent acquisition and spent nearly a decade at McDonald’s, ultimately serving as director of the company’s U.S. HR and employee relations. She has also worn top HR hats at Aramark Corp. and Bankers Life and Casualty Co.

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HRE: First, how have you been faring in the pandemic?

Kelly-Lara: There are two important aspects to this question for me: personal and professional. On the personal side, it’s been my priority to make sure that my closest family and I–my husband and our dog–are safe and well. We also check in regularly with our extended families in Kansas City and Chicago to make sure they’re all healthy and safe.

Regular check-ins with the people I love help me maintain a clear state of mind, which is so important for my role in HR. Especially right now, employees are looking to their HR team for the answers to questions like: What do we do next? How do we make sure everyone is safe and healthy? What are the tools and resources we need to help us continue working through a pandemic? To do my job effectively, it’s crucial that I’m able to remain clear-headed, calm and focused. That starts with what’s happening at home.

HRE: What has it been like for you to be starting a new position amid the current crisis?

Kelly-Lara: The onboarding process has been a little different given the circumstances, with everyone working remotely, but my HR and all of Enterprise have done a really good job of making this transition as seamless as possible. It’s clear to me that everyone here at Enterprise is committed to making a positive impact in communities, and I’m excited to help support their vital work and the organization’s mission.

HRE: What are a few of the most pressing short-term priorities for your new role, as well as long-term? How different do you think they would have been a few months ago, before the pandemic?

Kelly-Lara: If I had joined a few months ago before the coronavirus broke out, my short-term priorities would have looked vastly different than they do today. I would be primarily focused on things like visiting our market offices and engaging with our community leaders and partners face-to-face. Also, making sure we do not lose momentum with our HR strategy and goals that will drive results. These are still vitally important, but in the short term, I’m more focused on the pandemic and ensuring our employees are supported with the tools and resources they need so we can get through this tough time together.

Right now, I’m thinking through how we continue our work remotely and plan for various potential outcomes, including a second wave of infections later in the year. Enterprise has 11 market offices and more than a thousand employees spread throughout the country, so my team and I need to be completely on top of guidance from state and local governments and the CDC to ensure our people can continue to support the communities we serve nationwide.

At the same time, we’re thinking creatively about how to digitize some of our priorities that once required in-person contact. New employee orientation has to be done remotely now. HR processes and activities that support employee growth and development continue to be critical and have shifted to digital delivery. We have a number of diversity and inclusion activities planned for this year that we want to move forward with no matter where our employees are working, and we’ll adapt accordingly.

Read all of HRE’s coronavirus coverage here

HRE: This venture into the nonprofit world is somewhat different than a few of your previous positions, such as in hospitality and at McDonald’s. Is there any type of mindset shift in terms of your approach to HR as you make this transition?

Kelly-Lara: I pride myself on being a student of the business. Regardless of industry, for every company I’ve joined, I have focused on learning the business very quickly so that I can effectively lead my HR team and provide guidance on the human capital solutions that align with the organization’s priorities.

Since joining Enterprise, I’ve had two to three virtual meet-and-greets each week with leaders from different parts of the organization. I’m using these conversations as a way to learn more about their work and priorities so I can understand how all the pieces that make up Enterprise fit together.

Under normal circumstances, to help me fully understand the scope of Enterprise’s work, I would visit some of the community-development projects that we’re involved with and visit all of our 11 market locations around the country to meet with the market leaders and understand their priorities. Needless to say, those plans are on hold, but I plan to move forward with that as soon as I’m able.

HRE: Can you identify one or two of your most impactful accomplishments thus far in your career?

Kelly-Lara: I’m really proud of the fact that, throughout my career, I’ve led and supervised people who have gone on to achieve their professional goals, whether that means getting promoted or growing within their current roles. This is something that’s very important to me. I want people in my team to know that they can grow within their job and continue moving upward, if that’s what they want to do.

HRE: How has the HR industry changed since you started your career?

Kelly-Lara: A lot has changed, but the core–helping people reach their full potential–remains the same.

One of the most impactful shifts in the industry is data: Having access to data we never had has greatly enhanced the HR industry’s ability to understand the workforce landscape and predict talent needs. These insights have allowed us to make more strategic and informed decisions, such as whether we need to grow and develop talent within our organization or go out and attract talent for the future.

The other key shift is in how CEOs view the HR function. In today’s business world, the wellbeing and engagement of employees is top of mind for every CEO, regardless of industry. CEOs are increasingly seeing HR as integral to the organization and are bringing HR professionals to the table to advise on strategic planning and the direction of the business.

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HRE: Is there any HR advice you got early in your career that has proven vital? And what would your words of wisdom be for someone about to start a career in HR?

Kelly-Lara: The best advice that I got, and have put into practice throughout my career, is that it’s not always about being promoted. Sometimes, there’s a lateral experience that will give you additional skills to build your profile and your skill set that will then set you up for the right promotion. I try to pass this advice along to people on my team and explain to them that I’ve taken three or four lateral moves in HR that helped set me up for my next promotion.

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Kelly-Lara: Dance! I studied ballet, tap and jazz for 22 years. I was on the dance team in high school and choreographed almost every school musical. My mother wouldn’t let me study dance in college because she said: “You’ll never make any money!” I’m glad that she did that because I would probably be retired by now with bad knees. However, I’m really passionate about dance and I still volunteer and teach at community centers.

HRE: What was your very first job?

Kelly-Lara: My very first job was when I was 15. It was a summer job at the Dr. Martin Luther King Community Center in Kansas City, Kan., as the receptionist/secretary/copy person for the community center’s director. I typed. I answered phones. I did it all.

HRE: What sparked your interest in HR?

Kelly-Lara: I took a class in undergrad at the University of Kansas when I was getting my business degree called Personnel Management. The professor was someone who had actually been a head of personnel management, and I became interested in HR from that class. So, that’s how I started and here I am today!

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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].