On paper, Dr. Melissa Harts hasn’t had the typical career path into the CHRO’s office—though she says her background has armed her with experience that is well-tailored to leading the people function.
With two master’s degrees—in broadcast journalism and educational/instructional technology—and a doctorate in education, her resume is peppered with years of teaching and education administration positions, including most recently such titles as director of technology, dean of institutional technology and senior vice president of technology. She also spent eight years in the Army Reserves.
Harts is now putting her passion for teaching and leading to use in the HR sector: Last summer, she was named chief people officer at higher education software company Anthology, where she also now holds the chief transformation officer title.
As a former customer of Anthology, Harts says, she appreciates the impact that a strong and invested workforce can have on the ability of customers—in this case, schools—to do their work and support students.
“In every career role that I have been privileged to have, it was always about taking care of people: parents, students, employees and even soldiers,” she says. “People are the heart of any company or organization. So, no matter what leadership role you are in, you must keep that ever-present in your decisions, behaviors and interactions.”
HRE: Your new title involves “transformation.” What is your vision for the people angle of the transformation at the company?
Harts: Taking my lead from CEO Jim Milton, the vision is to create an inclusive environment where all of our employees feel accepted and have a sense of belonging. We share a common vision and sentiment that people matter! I say that emphatically because it is important in a remote working environment that employees feel as if they are valued and that their contribution is appreciated. Part of that vision is also to ensure that leaders have the resources and support that they need to establish a growth mindset in demonstrating a can-do attitude and behaviors. Transformation and change are not difficult but can become complex. Anyone can change in a second depending on the circumstances. What becomes challenging is the mindset and the consistency in ensuring that we are all working in alignment to reach our goals, while being authentic and open to the experience. I hope that as we continue to go through this transformative process, we can remember that we are all in this together. We all have a part to play and we can still be kind to each other, laugh and enjoy the journey along the way.
HRE: Can you share a bit about your U.S. Army service and what skills you developed from those experiences that will translate well to leading the people function at Anthology?
Harts: It is an honor to say that I am a veteran who served eight years in the U.S. Army Reserves and I hope every day to represent the pride and courage that my father demonstrated as an Army veteran as well as those who came before and after him. My military experience cemented for me that it is all about the team. As a leader, it’s all about moving in alignment toward the goal and not leaving anyone behind while doing it. So, I believe the skill sets that were fostered were sensitivity to each individual and the role he or she plays in solidifying the team, never giving up on people and always looking for solutions to challenges. While I was in the military, I relied on my team and they, in turn, relied on me. My bottom line: It’s all about strengthening people and developing them so that collectively the team can be strong. There must be that intention fundamentally and then all of the HR technical work—benefits, performance pay, onboarding, etc.—can fall into place.
HRE: Where did you develop your passion for education?
Harts: My father said that he knew that I was always going to be a teacher. He recalled a time when I was a little girl “teaching” the neighborhood children on our porch. He said I told them, “You’re going to be the students, and I am going to be the teacher” as I handed them loose-leaf paper. Education has always been a part of my experience. My parents both stressed education and encouraged me to do my best in school. I was the student who got the 99 and wanted to know why I hadn’t reached a perfect score so that I could do better next time. But as I grew and learned that I could share my knowledge with others and see them light up with self-discovery or revelation, I felt a great sense of satisfaction and passion to serve. I felt empowered by empowering them. I have always considered myself to be an educator in whatever role I am in. There is always an opportunity to give, serve and learn from others while doing it. Each one must teach one.
HRE: What was your day one priority when you joined Anthology?
Harts: My day one priority was to get to know as many people as I could. I held “Meet and Greet” sessions because I wanted and still want to listen to others. I believe that to be of service you must first listen to understand what to do. Notice that I didn’t say listen to know what to do. You must connect with what people are saying and empathize with their perspectives. Someone once told me we are born with one mouth and two ears because we were created to listen more. Intentional listening is key to wanting to make a difference in any company or organization.
HRE: How would you define the culture at Anthology, and how are you working to minimize impacts from the pandemic on that culture?
Harts: The Anthology culture is evolving given the new merger with Blackboard but there is a strong sense of ownership to our employees and partners (clients). The leaders whom I have had the privilege to work with and meet genuinely want to do the right thing just because it is the right thing to do. That is one of the key reasons I chose to become part of this organization. One of the responsibilities that I have is to provide professional development and a communication cadence for the global leadership team. I believe providing support and resources for our leaders is fundamental in minimizing the impacts of the pandemic on the culture. If the global leaders feel supported, empowered and have the training needed to grow, then this will impact not only their engagement but the engagement and hopefully the retention of those on their teams. Another piece to impacting the culture is providing support to the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging group. Their work in providing a level platform for dialogue, appreciation, collaboration and awareness for all is paramount to shaping and maintaining a wholesome company culture. Finally, continuously reaching out and openly communicating to individuals, leaders and teams to let them know that change is an inclusive effort where everyone rolls up his or her sleeves to get the job done is another way to keep people engaged in a remote working environment.
HRE: What are you passionate about outside of work?
Harts: I am passionate about my family and my community. I am also passionate about helping students in need and developing/empowering women leaders. I am a believer in “to whom much is given, much is required.” I have been given so much grace, encouragement and support as a student and as a leader. It is only right that I give back some of what has been given to me.