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So You Want My Job? You & Mr Jones’s Paulette Forte on applying psychology to HR

Paulette Forte, chief people officer, You & Mr Jones

Welcome to So You Want My Job? Each week we ask the people working in some of the industry’s coolest jobs about how they got where they are. Along the way, we dig into their philosophies, inspirations, processes and experiences. Hopefully, our interviewees can inspire you to pursue (or create) a job that’s just as exciting. This week we talk to Paulette Forte, You & Mr Jones’s chief people officer, and formerly ex NBA head of people.

What did you want to be when you were growing up? Does your job now resemble that in any way?

A few different things including a meteorologist – but by time I went to college I was focused on becoming a psychologist. There is one definitive experience that influenced what I wanted to be when I grew up: the differences in seeing my mother and father at their workplaces. My father was a joiner and carpenter – his workplace was dusty with big machines and you couldn’t touch anything. My mother worked in an air-conditioned office building and the most senior woman had an office with a view, nice curtains, a big desk with neat piles of papers and a secretary who would need to let you into her office. I decided then that when I grew up, I would be in an office with a big desk, neat piles of papers and a view. Over my career I’ve achieved these aspirations in different roles.

How did you get your job? Tell us the full story.

The long story: I was a psychology major focused on becoming a clinical psychologist. By the time I got to my master’s program I had become disillusioned with a career as a clinician. I’ve always had an interest in work and why people do the work that they do, and developed an interest in business. I transitioned from clinical roles to administrative roles in non-profits, and went back to get a PhD focusing on work and organizations. My classmate’s sister was the head of HR at a television network and took a chance on me to run their summer internship program. I found my place in the HR/talent space, which perfectly melds my sense of altruism and fascination with the human condition with my interests in the world of work and business – and it’s been my path ever since.

My path has had challenges, including some people being ‘perplexed’ by my PhD in psychology and how that would ‘fit’ outside of a clinical or academic setting. The route to my current role is pretty standard. I worked with the chief exec and chief operating officer in my first job in advertising years ago. The operating officer reached out about my current role, and I decided to join the journey at You & Mr Jones. I’ve always respected and trusted the vision and integrity of our founder and chief executive David Jones.

I have a funny story from my first job in advertising involving a mechanical bull at a holiday party... another time I was in the airport lounge in Qatar wearing an NBA warm-up jacket and got on the elevator with a gentleman who looked at me and asked: “Coach or player?”

A few months later I ran into former NBA commissioner David Stern who was visiting our offices and jokingly attempted to take some office supplies. Besides being in awe of him, I was reminded of my encounter in Qatar and his success in making the NBA a global brand.

I’m saving most of the funny stories for the second act of my professional life.

OK, so what do you actually do? How would you explain your job to a taxi driver?

Pre-pandemic I had a lot of conversations with taxi drivers. We bonded over the immigrant experience, the fact that my uncle was a NYC taxi driver when he first came to the United States, and my working as a delivery van driver in the NYC and tri-state area for a couple of years when I was in graduate school.

What I actually do is bring people into the company, and make sure that they have the tools and experience that makes them thrive and be successful so that they can make the company thrive and be successful. I’m a foodie and have a habit of making sure everyone eats well, including regular rotations of my famous guacamole, Levain cookies, Jamaican food from Eating Tree, Jacques Torres chocolate...

Do your parents understand what it is that you do?

Yes. I’m lucky to be an immigrant (#Jamaican) and first-generation college graduate so I’ve developed this extra gear where I can distil the unfamiliar to my mom, who is an octogenarian and barely finished high school. A personal barometer for my understanding and learning is I need to be able to explain this so my mom can understand.

The impact of technology in our lives and just how fast the world is changing gives me many opportunities. I get regular calls from my mom to explain what she’s read in the newspaper: is the internet on your phone? What’s a blogger? What’s the cloud? How did you buy and send me groceries without going to the supermarket?

What do you love most about your job?

The variety: I’m a proud nerd and learning is a key motivator for me. We are growing and moving fast so there’s a variety of initiatives that I work on that keep me engaged, excited and learning. Also the people: there are lots of smart, generous, nice people who are passionate about their work.

How would someone entering the industry go about getting your job now? What would be their route?

Gain HR/talent experience in a variety of organizations (sizes, stages or industries), develop a high level of emotional intelligence, and get mentoring from colleagues – at your level, above your level and below your level. Keep learning about how the HR/talent space is evolving. Know your business.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received from Ted Alcarez (my manager in my first job in HR and a second time years later, now a friend and mentor) is to demonstrate your value by learning and knowing your client’s business as well as they do.

What advice would you offer to others entering the advertising industry, especially at this weird time?

Don’t be dissuaded by the change, the disruption and the upheaval that is happening. In fact, as HR/talent professionals, change is our specialty and with change comes opportunity to demonstrate your value. Your clients need, want and will remember you for your stewardship in difficult times.

What would you say is the trait that best suits you for your role?

Resilience and flexibility. As the HR/talent person there’ll be times where you’ll get knocked around. Change is the norm in business and with people and life, and it’s been amplified in our industry significantly in the last five or 10 years. Use your network to recover, recoup, rebound, recalibrate and regenerate.

Who should those who want your job read or listen to?

I generally read the standard industry publications for HR/talent professionals and business/media/marketing. I also like newsletters from CB Insights, Scott Galloway, Cassandra Daily and The 19th.

Last week we spoke to James Lace, assistant brand manager for Guinness at Diageo.

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