What HR Can Learn from Martha Stewart’s Journey

Martha Stewart has had many ups and downs in her life, from owning and operating a global media company to spending five months incarcerated, and the key to overcoming such obstacles has been continuous learning–a message she believes today’s HR leaders should embed in their organizations.

Stewart imparted this and many other messages about her own business success during the opening general session of Society for Human Resource Management’s annual conference Sunday in Las Vegas, where 20,000 global HR practitioners and business leaders are congregating. Stewart–the entrepreneur, Emmy Award-wining TV personality and best-selling author–tapped into her several decades leading a host of companies that bear her name to speak to the conference’s theme: creating better workplaces.

To do that, she said, it’s up to HR leaders to usher in a culture of continuous learning at their organizations.

“You have to make sure to encourage your employees or the people you’re finding jobs for to stay current, not only with what is going on in the business but also in the world out there,” Stewart said, using a recent meeting she had with a group of social-media influencers as an example.

“Who the hell wants to listen to an influencer talk about makeup? They’re 12 years old,” she laughed. “But they’re the ones who are influencing people. So we need to all keep abreast of what is going on, and pay attention to it. Not everything is good, not everything is useful–but everything should be acknowledged in some way.”

In her own life, Stewart said, she wakes up every morning around 4 a.m. and reads the New York Times­–cover to cover, even taking time to do the crossword. It’s an exercise that keeps her fresh and current, which she said HR should be coaching employees to strive for. Especially with the ageism that permeates today’s businesses, the 77-year-old noted, it’s particularly vital for older workers to challenge themselves.

“Be smarter than the young ones,” she said, noting, however, that all generations have lessons to contribute both to the workplace and to one another.

“Embrace the young and what they bring to the party,” she said. “Learn from them while teaching them the old tricks. There are old tricks nobody should forget; yet, there are new tricks we all should learn. That balance is so terribly important to the workplace.”

Hand in hand with learning is embracing change, she said. For instance, her magazine, Martha Stewart Living, was recently purchased by Marquee Brands, a shift that she said will likely result in the company moving from its longtime headquarters in New York.

While she said that will be an adjustment on a personal level, she will also have to ensure her workers are prepared for that change. “[Business leaders] have to take it upon ourselves to make sure everyone is in a good place,” she said. “With machines taking over so many jobs and consolidations [happening], when you’re hiring, it’s really important to understand what this person is like, and what their hopes, dreams and aspirations are, so we can be paying attention [to how they’re coping with change].”

Stewart said she personally tries to challenge herself to accept change every day. On her way into work, she requests that her driver never takes the same street twice–allowing her to explore different areas and neighborhoods and, perhaps, spark some creativity.

“You have to keep accepting change, but you have to also keep finding change,” she said. “That’s the way you learn.”

One of the most life-changing learning experiences, Stewart noted, was her time as an inmate at a federal correctional facility–after having been convicted of conspiracy and related charges stemming from insider-stock trading.

“There’s no such thing at making lemonade out of lemons–there were no lemons at Alderson [correctional facility in West Virginia],” she said, meaning that both figuratively and literally. Without lemons, the award-winning culinary expert said, she picked sour cherries from trees on the campus for recipes–and sought to make the best out of a challenging situation.

“I wasn’t dead, I wasn’t sick, I wasn’t guilty–I’m not supposed to say that–but I was strong and I was curious,” she said. She helped fellow inmates learn how to style their hair to their liking and taught classes in entrepreneurial principles.

Stewart commended SHRM’s new initiative “Getting Talent Back to Work,” which champions the hiring of those with criminal backgrounds.

“It shouldn’t matter if you were incarcerated, sick, old, you gave up your job to have kids. Those are the people who interest me a lot,” she said, noting that she drew motivation from her ability to share her knowledge with her fellow inmates. “Making the best of a horrible event is hard; you have to have inner strength and the ability to look forward and not blame. But you can move ahead and come out on top. If you’re good, you’ll always be good.”


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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 hreletters@lrp.com.