05/11/2015 15:42 GMT | Updated 05/11/2016 05:12 GMT

Women in Business Q&A: Ashley Goldsmith, Chief Human Resources Officer, Workday


Ashley Goldsmith is chief human resources officer at Workday and has global responsibility for all human resources functions, internal communications, and the Workday Foundation. A leading provider of enterprise cloud applications, Workday delivers financial management, human capital management, and analytics applications designed for the world's largest organizations.

Prior to joining Workday, Ashley served as CHRO and executive vice president at Polycom. Preceding Polycom, she was senior VP of HR, corporate communications, and environmental health and safety for the Tissue Diagnostics Division at F. Hoffmann-La Roche. Ashley has also served as CHRO at Ventana Medical Systems and divisional VP of HR at The Home Depot.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

Fresh out of college, I began my career at Home Depot on a temp assignment, which turned into an internship and then a full-time position. After participating in a program where I had the opportunity to work in more than a dozen roles at the same company, I permanently landed in the department I originally fell in love with--human resources.

Over the years, I've worked with some very talented leaders who helped me see the profound power of people in an organization. Companies that successfully inspire employees to do great work have a real advantage. Most people want more than just a paycheck--they want to feel like they are making a real difference. Creating an environment where people can thrive and deliver amazing things is one of my primary jobs as CHRO at Workday.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Workday?

At Home Depot, I was fortunate to participate in the company's business leadership program, which rotated me through a variety of roles within the company and exposed me to different departments. My experience working in a store taught me how important it is to gain respect, trust, and credibility with peers. This was an important lesson that I carried with me as I moved on to different roles. It emphasized what really matters--the front line and the customer. Employees need to feel knowledgeable and empowered to create a great experience for their customers.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Workday?

When Workday started 10 years ago, our Co-Founders Aneel Bhusri and Dave Duffield wanted to bring innovation and customer satisfaction back to enterprise software, an industry that has been mired in legacy technologies and low customer satisfaction. To get there, they needed the right people and the right culture. To do so, they went the extra mile and interviewed the first 500 employees.

When I joined Workday in 2013, Aneel and Dave were looking to invest more heavily in HR to bring a new strategy, vision, and commitment to talent. I knew I had to be mindful of a company that had grown quickly from hundreds to thousands of employees, and was careful to focus on finding people that would be a great culture fit.

We've remained intent on creating a culture of opportunity as the company grows. People are valued, heard, inspired, and encouraged to have fun. One real highlight has been a program called Generation Workday, which is dedicated to helping new college grads cultivate their talents and pursue their passions, and sets them up for long-term success at Workday with meaningful and strategic positions from the start. This program currently has a 94% talent retention rate.

We also use our Workday Human Capital Management application, of course. It offers a great user experience, and is designed in a way that employees can have an open and ongoing dialogue with their managers on their careers, roles, development, and location interests.

With these types of programs and practices, we've been able to create a high-energy, high-trust work environment, which allows us to attract top talent in the hyper-competitive tech industry.

I'm proud of our culture, and it has even earned us high rankings in many employee satisfaction surveys through the years, including the #22 spot on this year's Fortune Best Places to Work list.

What advice can you offer women who want a career in your industry?

As a career, I truly can't recommend human resources enough. Don't be fooled by the old reputation of HR as a "soft" area--there's nothing soft about focusing on the most important part of your organization.

To women starting their career, my advice is to do great work, build relationships with everyone (not just the people higher up the chain), be confident, and take some risks. One of my favorite quotes is, "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity." Be prepared by getting an education and knowing your stuff--then don't be afraid to jump in when opportunity comes along!

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

Maintaining work/life balance is always tough and looks different for everyone. In my younger years, I wasn't very good at the life part and admittedly spent more time on work than I probably should have. As I matured, I realized that I am the only person capable of balancing my life. It's important to identify the things that really matter and make a point to stick to those--whether it's dinner with family, time to exercise or whatever I deem as significant, I schedule it and treat it just like I would an important meeting. Sure, critical work will sometimes come up, and you'll need to adjust, but those should be exceptions.

What are some of the challenges women considering future careers in tech face?

In general, I think women have incredible opportunities today and believe most companies--tech and non-tech--truly and deeply want to see women succeed in their organizations.

There is still more we can do to minimize the gender gap in the tech industry, though. I recently read a Google study on how gender plays into computer science degrees, and it emphasized the importance of encouraging STEM paths at a young age. Young women growing up around supportive parents and peers that talk about careers in tech can reinforce existing interest and foster interest where none exists.

Self-perception is often a vice for women in the workplace. Building up skills and even more importantly, confidence from a young age is crucial for women considering a career in the tech industry, especially when they are motivated and aspire to move into leadership positions. As leaders, we should empower young women to consider these careers early on, continuing to mentor them as they enter the workforce.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?

I've had a few important mentors in my career that have shown me the value of strong leadership and an honest, collaborative work environment. One was Dennis Donovan, former CHRO of Home Depot. Dennis threw me in the deep end with roles I didn't think I could handle, but in the end, I found I was capable of reaching that next level. I learned that you have to challenge people in order for them to grow.

The second mentor was Paul Raines, CEO of GameStop and former president of my division.

Paul taught me the value of being humble, no matter how high up you go. Both Dave and Aneel remind me of Paul. Even though Paul was at a very senior level, he always remained approachable, and everyone respected him for that. That "we" mentality is something I've brought with me to each new role.

These lessons have helped shape my leadership style at Workday, where the people-first mentality is at the core of the company. The focus is less on the hierarchy of power and more on what the team is doing and how individuals are contributing to that core vision. Over the years, I've learned that it's important to lead with honesty and to promote an environment of open communication. Building trust is everything-- it's what builds an empowered, productive, and exciting company.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?

A person I admire greatly is Leighanne Levensaler, Workday's SVP of products. As long as I've known her, she has been incredibly tech and business savvy. She is very confident and determined. She owns her strengths and really helps others around her develop into their best selves. Leighanne is a true leader; the whole package.

What do you hope to help Workday accomplish in the next year?

When I think ahead, I always look back to the vision Dave and Aneel had 10 years ago. Workday's core values of employees, customer service, innovation, integrity, fun, and profitability have resulted in a culture that puts our people at the center. I want to continue this vision, delivering breakthrough business results by pioneering and optimizing people practices and technology.

This year, one of the things we'll focus on is creating new ways to enhance Workday's culture. Our goal is to ensure people know that they can grow their careers and put their passion to work at Workday in many different ways--more contributions to the current job that they may love; increasing their breadth of experience by exploring lateral opportunities; or increasing their responsibilities through more senior roles. We also want to show how much we value our employees as people (not just workers) with programs such as "Summer at Workday", where employees can play trivia, win prizes and gather for fun events, as well as family-focused events. In addition to growing programs like Generation Workday and promoting the many growth opportunities within the company, we're also excited about the role predictive and prescriptive analytics will play in helping our own teams find and retain the best talent in the industry.