In our current knowledge-based economy, the most competitive and innovative companies are those with the best talent. As the recruitment, retention, and development of human capital becomes integral to an organization’s success, the head of Human Resources has evolved into an essential strategic partner to the CEO.
Cindy Caruso, who is the Global Head of Human Resources for BNY Mellon’s Investment Management business, is one of those truly effective HR heads who is constantly working with the CEO to ensure that HR practices support and align with the company’s overall business strategy.
Human Resources is an Art and a Science
When she started at Cornell as an undergrad, Caruso had her sights set on law school, but a couple of summer internships in the Human Resources department changed her mind. “I loved HR, so I decided to stay in the field instead of going to law school,” she told me when we met over the summer.
Part of what drew Caruso to HR is that it is both an art and a science. “An HR professional must understand labor law, compensation, and talent acquisition strategies. And also must create a human capital plan which will support the company’s overall strategy. That’s the science of the job,” she said.
“Relating to people and knowing how to incentivize their achievements are the artful parts of the business.”
With over twenty years in the HR field, Caruso has built an impressive career, steadily moving up the corporate ladder.
The Power of a Mentor
When I asked her how she has crafted such a dynamic career, she humbly replied, “I give a lot of credit to my mentors.”
Caruso particularly singled out Brad Thomas as her most important mentor. The two met in 1996, when she was working in HR at a bottling plant in San Antonio, Texas for PepsiCo. “Brad was my boss’s boss,” she explained, “yet he would always reach out to me on a quarterly or bi-annual basis to check-in. He’s a wonderful leader and really made me feel understood and challenged.”
Over time, Thomas became a powerful mentor and sponsor of Caruso. “He had unfailing faith in me,” she said. “He had more faith in me than I did in myself.”
Though Thomas was Caruso’s most ardent cheerleader, he also didn’t shy away from giving her constructive feedback. “It takes a lot of guts for a mentor to give frank and candid feedback, so I was always very thankful for it. And I worked quickly to address the opportunities for improvement.”
Eight Keys for Success
As an HR professional with two decades of experience in identifying and developing talent, Caruso is an incredible source of wisdom for emerging executives. I asked her to share her expert advice on how to cultivate a successful career.
1. Take Ownership of Your Career: “You have to have high expectations for what you want to accomplish and you have to continually work towards meeting those goals. Never sit back and blame your lack of progress on the company’s failure to provide you with opportunities. You have to create your own opportunities.”
2. Be a Continuous Student: “Always leverage learning opportunities. The most successful people are continually expanding their knowledge base. It is that intellectual curiosity that creates good leaders over time.”
3. Take Risks: “The importance of taking risks cannot be understated because with risks comes the potential for transformation. Try something you’ve never done before. Learn something new. It is that little bit of fear that keeps you growing and learning.”
4. Follow Your Heart: “You have to like what you’re doing for the very simple reason that you won’t mind spending time doing it. And if you devote time to your job and apply yourself, then you’ll become better at it. Through this process of self-fulfillment, success will follow.”
5. Find Mentors and Maintain a Network: “Spend time investing in your network from the very beginning of your career. If you cultivate relationships with both your peers and your mentors, and you occasionally check-in with a thoughtful email or call, then they are bound to do the same for you.”
6. Work Abroad: “We now exist in a global economy and having the experience of working overseas is essential for anyone looking to advance their career. I don’t think that people coming out of college today will be able to achieve a C-Suite job without international experience.”
7. Study Finance: “The underpinning of all successful business leaders is a strong financial background. In order to be a better strategic advisor to your company, you must have a strong understanding of finance.”
8. Give Back: “Much like we have a duty to preserve our planet and to care for the less fortunate, we have a duty to help others develop and achieve their aspirations. In the course of our careers, we’ve all benefited from good mentors, good leaders, and good promoters. We have an obligation to do that for the next generation. It’s not just a good thing to do. It’s a duty.”
A Life Outside the Office
Though Caruso is a self-described workaholic, she’s also an avid traveler and a philanthropist, who is devoted to her friends and her large extended family. “I’m on my own and I have no children,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t need work/life balance.”
Whether on safari, sailing down the Nile, exploring Lake Titicaca, or celebrating her last milestone birthday with a dozen friends in an Umbrian castle, Caruso brings as much passion to her life as she does to her job.
When not working, traveling, and being with family and friends, Caruso makes time to give back. She’s very involved in charitable organizations, her church, and sits on the board of a non-profit high school in Harlem for underprivileged youth. “The school has a tremendous track record – 100% of graduating students gain admittance to college, and attend schools like Georgetown and Amherst, Villanova and Williams.”
Women’s Future in the C-Suite
Caruso acknowledges there is a lack of senior women working in financial services today, but she believes change is on the horizon.
“It’s just a matter of time before more women make it to the C-Suite,” Caruso explained. “Companies are making incredible efforts to encourage emerging talent in a multitude of ways, and, as a result, you are seeing a big change at the beginning of the pipeline. But it takes about 20 or 30 years to make it to the top. Soon enough, we will see the fruits of all that investment.”
With women like Cindy Caruso mentoring and developing the promising talent that is just starting out, the leaders of tomorrow will be worth the wait.