The finalists for WashingtonExec’s Chief Officer Awards were announced March 25, and we’ll be highlighting some of them until the event takes place live, in-person May 11 at the The Ritz-Carlton in McLean, Virginia.
Next is Chief Human Resources Officer (Private & Public) finalist Michelle Link, who’s chief human resources officer at Maximus. Here, she talks key recent achievements, career turning points, primary focus areas going forward and more.
What key achievements did you have in 2021/2022?
Throughout 2021 and into 2022, Maximus has been at the forefront of helping governments at every level vaccinate people against COVID-19, a continuation of our work with agencies since the beginning of the pandemic.
Specifically in 2021, we had to hire and onboard tens of thousands of new personnel to help with vaccine pushes, both with state governments and at the federal level with CDC. This was a massive undertaking, which at one point included the hiring of 12,000 employees over a 4-week period as well as having approximately 10,000 employees onboarded in one day.
It wasn’t easy, particularly in a tough environment for recruiting talent, but we were able to succeed in filling those roles. It took hard work from everyone on our team to make it happen, and it revealed how strong our team truly was to achieve this.
Another very important accomplishment for myself and Maximus in 2021 was the integration of new employees that came through acquisition. In early 2021, Maximus acquired two companies, Attain Federal and Veterans Evaluation Services, which brought with them thousands of new employees. Similarly in late 2021, we created Aidvantage to handle the student loan business that we took over from Navient.
In each case, we had to specifically focus on these new employees and bring them into the Maximus fold in a smooth, efficient manner. These acquisitions didn’t just add new people into Maximus, but also added new customers, new technologies and new partners. It was a period of transition, which I can safely report in 2022 has been a tremendous success and helped foster a new sense of excitement and energy throughout the company.
What has made you successful in your current role?
The one thing that has stood out during my time at Maximus is when people thank me for evolving our culture. We’re proud to be a company that puts our people first and making sure we’re focused on creating an environment that does it right.
It’s a certain style of leadership that is not easy. There’s a saying that it’s easier to lead by policy than by grace. So, I try to flip that on its head to lead by grace, not policy. I also consistently encourage our leaders and our HR employees to do the same.
Taking this approach really encourages leading with empathy and building trust with your employee base. Especially in the wake of COVID-19, as we wrap our heads around our new working environments, it became even more critical to show empathy to our employees. It’s important for every employee to know that you care about their well-being, beyond just paying lip service to it. We’ve made great improvements since I’ve arrived to ensure our employees are front and center in every decision we make.
Similarly, I also believe being a little fearless has helped me at Maximus. I am willing to push on people to get the best out of them. I’ve always believed that to be successful, you have to be at least a little fearless in trying things that are different or difficult. When you take the leap, respectfully, it oftentimes results in positive changes for both leaders and the organization.
What was a turning point or inflection point in your career?
My team jokes that I “collect” people because there are people working for me now that have worked for me in two or three other companies. I learned very early on good people make you more successful, and that was a turning point for me as I progressed through my career.
Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve found the best and brightest, and have worked to keep them with me wherever I am. If you surround yourself with amazing talent, you make yourself and your company better. I know it sounds very cliché coming from an HR executive, but at the end of the day, success really is defined by your people.
What are you most proud of having been a part of in your current organization?
Maximus is a company that doesn’t just say they care about their employees. It’s a company that proves they care about their employees on a daily basis.
When you are in HR doing what I do, you wouldn’t be successful without a CEO or a board who weren’t fully on board. From CEO Bruce Caswell to our board to our whole executive team, they have been actively engaged and focused on our employees’ well-being and what we can do to make their work experience better.
The best example is how we approached our work when COVID-19 first hit and we were forced to transition to work remotely. It was probably an easier transition for other companies, as so much of our work was designed to be conducted on-site and in offices.
From the moment we started dealing with the pandemic, the questions that came my way focused on how we can make it safer for employees and how can we invest in them. We always worked to rapidly respond to those concerns and make our work environments as safe as possible.
It’s very fulfilling to know that the work we’re doing in HR for Maximus is so valued all the way up to the CEO’s office, and it motivates myself and my team to do the best we can for everyone.
What are your primary focus areas going forward, and why are those so important to the future of the nation?
Maximus has an extremely diverse workforce, based upon the work we do and where we do it. We’re working with governments at every level across the country, not to mention globally in countries like the U.K. and Australia. We anticipate and are prepared for that workforce to become even more diverse as we continue to expand.
To that end, one of the company’s main focuses, which I was able to initiate, is redefining our efforts around diversity, equity and inclusion to create a more equitable work environment. We’ve held a large number of listening sessions and focus groups in partnership with employees to better understand their feelings about how the company is approaching diversity and what we can do better or differently.
These listening sessions have proven extremely valuable as we have developed new DE&I initiatives across the company. It’s another example of this company walking the walk and not just talking the talk. We listened to their feedback and incorporated that feedback into a new strategy moving forward.