Chief Officer Awards Finalist Tammy Heller: ‘Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Questions’

Editor’s note: Tammy Heller of Perspecta is the winner of the Chief Officer Awards Public Company CHRO Award announced June 17.

On June 17, WashingtonExec will be virtually celebrating the most impactful and innovative C-suite executives in government and industry. These chief officers work in technology, security, data, operations, finance, business and more, excelling on both sides of the government contracting sector. Our team of judges have chosen the finalists for the inaugural Chief Officer Awards, so before we announce the winners during the event, we wanted to get to know the finalists a bit better. This Q&A series highlights their careers, successes, proud professional moments and notable risks.

Tammy Heller portrait

Tammy Heller, Perspecta

Tammy Heller chief human resources officer at Perspecta and a finalist in the Public Company CHRO Award category.

What key achievements did you have in 2019? 

Two years ago, when we first merged and went public in June 2018, no one had heard of Perspecta. Since that time, we have built an HR function almost completely from scratch — new programs, processes, procedures — all while simultaneously integrating three very different cultures and maintaining excellent service to our customers

In 2019, we really hit our stride. We completed the vast majority of our HR integration activities including moving from three HRIS systems and applicant tracking systems to one, implementing market competitive compensation and benefits programs, welcoming more than 3,200 new hires, stabilizing our voluntary turnover and achieving above average-engagement scores.

Also in 2019, we acquired Knight Point Systems and executed a very smooth integration. We navigated through these complex change management challenges with very little disruption to our customers — and our workforce and our business grew.

What has made you successful in your current role? 

My passion is my biggest differentiator. That passion stems from a significant personal connection to this company, our people and our mission. There are many proud veterans and passionate civil servants in my family — my husband, my father, my father and mother-in-law and my grandfather. In a way, I feel like I am supporting their missions and honoring their service in this role.

That connection to the mission has been even more important, as building a new public company is not an endeavor for the faint of heart. My colleagues have often heard me say that the people who are really excelling at Perspecta are those who run toward the fire versus away from it. To be successful here, you have to be willing to stretch and challenge yourself in ways you never thought possible while staying true to the core of who you are and what you believe. This experience has already taught me an enormous amount and I’m grateful for the opportunity to keep learning and growing every single day while helping others to do the same. 

What was a turning point or inflection point in your career? 

In 2005, I left recruiting/staffing to take on my first big HR generalist leadership role. Two days after I accepted the job, I found out that the business I was slated to support was going global and my responsibility was to lead commercial HR in the U.S. with Asia-Pacific and Latin American HR teams as well.

I had a moment of fear when I thought I might fail and I thought about going back to a more comfortable role, but I couldn’t resist the challenge. I knew that even if I failed, I would be tested and would be a different and hopefully better leader on the other side of it. I had some successes and some misses in that role, but I learned a great deal and never regretted it. 

What are you most proud of having been a part of in your current organization?

The best part about working at Perspecta is the camaraderie that comes with building and growing our business as a team. In many ways, we are combining the best of both worlds — bringing rich legacy company knowledge and experience to the table in a fresh, innovative way that drives mission-critical results for our customers. Since we are just two years old, the leaders are still very focused on building an ideal culture which supports our mission and actively demonstrates our values — respect, accountability, integrity, success and empowerment. 

What are your primary focuses areas going forward, and why are those so important to the future of the nation?  

  • Create a compelling employee value proposition by developing opportunities for skill and career growth, innovation exploration, empowered decision-making and wealth creation through above-market equity-based compensation programs
  • Attract and develop subject matter experts, agile learners and innovators through emerging technology skill and key competency development, certification achievement, experiential learning and strategic development planning
  • Accelerate Perspecta’s cultural evolution by encouraging and rewarding demonstration of Perspecta’s core values internally and with the customers and communities we serve.

How do you help shape the next generation of government leaders/industry leaders? 

Helping talented leaders — especially women — reach their full potential is something I value deeply. Advocating for women is about more than just hiring women. The real magic happens when you cultivate an environment where women feel comfortable in their own skin and are encouraged to operate at their very best.

That kind of culture and environment can only exist when an organization truly values everyone for their own unique strengths and perspectives, and encourages people to share those perspectives in a way that feels natural to them. Right now, we are working hard to develop a diversity and inclusion strategy for Perspecta that will foster this desired culture and evolve with our business and workforce needs over time.

What’s one key thing you learned from a failure you had?  

In a previous company, I inherited a new organization and delayed making some tough calls regarding restructuring and talent moves within my organization. Once I finally decided what I needed to do, executing those moves was a lot harder than if I had assessed and acted more quickly.

That experience was top of mind when I arrived at Perspecta. As a result, I made it a priority to assess the needs of the business and the capabilities of my existing organization as quickly as I could. Within six months, I had restructured my organization and we were off and running with key leaders in the right roles who were ready to join me in leading HR for this new company. 

Which rules do you think you should break more as a government/industry leader? 

Our industry has always been very centered around in-person interactions. When COVID-19 stay-at-home orders came about, we had to quickly modify our operations to be more virtual than ever and it has been successful. Not only were the vast majority of our employees able to seamlessly convert to teleworking while maintaining a high level of support to our customers, but we also virtually onboarded more than 650 new hires since the COVID-19 situation began.

COVID-19 has helped all of us validate that the “face-time” focused cultural norms in our industry aren’t always necessary to drive big results for our customers and our business. 

What’s the biggest professional risk you’ve ever taken? 

Just over 10 years ago, I left HR to take a really different role in credit risk as a vice president. It was a risk because these types of moves didn’t happen very often and there were a lot of naysayers who wondered if an HR leader could really perform in such a fundamentally different and more technical role.

Although this was a scary step, the new perspective was invaluable and I learned critical lessons that have stretched across all of my roles since then: know what you don’t know; don’t be afraid to ask questions or ask for help; and hire great people who know more than you do about their areas of expertise and then support them as they do what they do best.

I came out on the other side of that experience with the confidence that I had succeeded in that role, but also with the clarity that HR was my true calling. After that experience, I knew I could go into any uncharted territory and figure out how to make a positive impact. 

Looking back at your career, what are you most proud of?  

Without a doubt, the leaders that I have coached and developed over the years. My aspiration is to be a developer of truly great HR talent in our industry and watch that talent go off and do great things while contributing to our industry and our profession in a big, meaningful way.

Recently, I saw that aspiration become a reality when I heard that a woman I had promoted on my team a few years ago at a different company was included on a list of Top HR Executives to Watch.  

What was your biggest career struggle and how did you overcome it? 

My biggest career struggle was figuring out how to find harmony in terms of my personal priorities and my professional obligations and aspirations. As a working mother with two children (one in high school and one in middle school), I have to true back to results and relationships. If the critical results and key relationships are there, then I have earned the right to make time for the things that matter to me — in my case that means being a mom and wife who is present.

I am proud to say that I have dinner with my family almost every night of the week, which is important to me since I know my children will not be living at home forever (at least I hope not!). 

What’s your best career advice for those who want to follow in your footsteps? 

On more than one occasion, when I was transitioning into a new role, I would try to emulate the image of someone whom I perceived as being successful in that elevated role. However, what really matters is not what others might expect or how others perform, but instead to show up as my very best in every new situation and to do so in a way that feels natural to me. I can’t be someone else — I have to be authentic, while also allowing myself to grow and change with every new challenge I face.

I remember a time a few years ago when a senior executive told me I shouldn’t have pictures of my children in my office because I might be perceived as a mom versus an executive. I am actually quite proud to be both, and those pictures are a constant reminder that being a mom makes me better at everything else I do. If someone doesn’t get that, then that’s their issue — not mine. 

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