The Big Difference

McGraw-Hill Education’s Diane Adams explains how HR can foster engagement and build communities.

As she was being placed at a manufacturing plant for one of her first roles in human resources, Diane Adams was given some challenging news. “I’m getting feedback that the leader has a dictatorial style and that the people are incredibly stressed,” one executive explained. “I’m certain that only one of you will survive.”

Although that could be a scary challenge for any young professional, Adams was determined to make things work, to find a way to coexist and get the leader on the right path. She spent three months at the plant and then returned to the executive who had sent her there with a response: “You’re right. Only one of us.” Adams had looked around the plant at the five hundred or so people who were unhappy and unfulfilled going into work every day and knew that a change in leadership was required. “For me, that was a defining moment, realizing how grateful five hundred people are that you made a difference in their lives,” she recalls. The bouquet of flowers that showed up at her desk once that leader was let go was a moving reminder of that gratitude, and so were the happy faces and thriving workers that returned once a new leader was hired.

From that moment on, Adams knew that she could help people through HR and the development of a thriving corporate culture. “I always have a lot of passion for making a difference for one person, but in HR, you can also make a difference for tens or hundreds of thousands at once,” she explains.

Diane Adams, CHRO of McGraw-Hill Education

Adams graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a degree in business administration, and since then, she has taken those skills to companies across the technology sphere, including ties to her two loves: education and healthcare. However, her business administration degree ensures that while she focuses on improving life for individuals, she never loses track of the business. Early on, she joined Cisco Systems as vice president of human resources, supporting thirty-five thousand people, and from there, she moved to a chief human resources officer (CHRO) role for healthcare solutions leader Allscripts, and another with Qlik, an innovative data analytics company.

In November 2016, she took on the role of CHRO for McGraw-Hill Education, driven by her passion for bettering employees’ work lives and a more personal connection to the company’s work. Her daughter’s diabetes drove home her healthcare work at Allscripts, and her son’s experience as a nontraditional learner connects with her work at McGraw-Hill Education, which lets her see the impact the company’s work can have on individual learners. “That’s what McGraw-Hill Education is all about: helping learners reach their full potential,” she says. Adams sees unlocking that potential through culture change as a key role she can play in leading the human resources of the organization.

President and CEO David Levin recognized that potential right away. “From a values perspective, Diane and I immediately connected during her interview for this leadership role,” Levin says. “We both recognized that a thriving company culture that unleashes employee potential can be a great differentiator. Add to that, when you consider that McGraw-Hill Education understands how learning happens and is harnessing the power of technology to make learning more effective, personalized, and engaging, we know we have a powerful offer for our customers and employees.”

Work Like Nobody’s Watching

Diane Adams explains that culture is what employees do when no one is looking, and it’s something that every organization has, whether they know it or not. But the companies that are intentional seem to have cultures that lead to better results.

To that end, she wrote the book It Takes More Than Casual Fridays and Free Coffee, in which she detailed practical advice for building a healthy culture and provided related exercises and assessments to identify company and personal strengths and weaknesses. “I got the culture question so much that I wanted to write the book,” Adams says. “When you realize that you can help one person in a company figure out how to do that, that’s important. The impact of being intentional and clear drove me to do it.”

Beyond her passion for the subject, Adams explains that her own connection with leadership and the opportunity to create positive change has driven her career decisions. “McGraw-Hill Education has transitioned from a print-centric publishing company to a learning science company,” she explains. “Education is evolving, and so are we. Today, our company is developing digital content and data-driven, technology-enabled adaptive learning solutions. It’s a huge transformation. It’s the future.”

As part of that future, Adams is working to institute new programs that will make her colleagues excited to come into work and be inspired to make a difference in the world. To that end, she and the HR team are taking major steps to build culture and drive employee wellness. That comes from the top-down, as Levin encourages transformation. “We need to integrate those values into everything that we do,” Adams says. In her time with the company, McGraw-Hill Education has participated in many listening forums, meetings, and town halls that discuss the workplace culture. “In the listening forums, we do nothing other than say, ‘What is working well for you in this culture, what do you want to keep, and what would you like for us to change or improve?’” she says. Each quarter, Adams and Levin look at the results of these discussions and weigh potential changes.

Adams also notes that leadership has identified the core values that drive successful adoption of those changes. As the company continues to evolve, the first thing Adams recognizes is the need to remain agile and flexible. Being smart about taking risks and making sure that decisions are driven by intelligent data are important factors as well.

Another impressive initiative that Adams championed at previous employer Qlik is 24-For-U, in which employees take a day off to focus on personal and professional improvement. In fact, the idea came from her daughter. “We were brainstorming one day, and she said, ‘Mom, wouldn’t it be cool if everybody in the world could take one day off and just focus on getting better?’” Adams recalls. “I told her, ‘I don’t know that we can start with the world, but maybe one company.” After focus groups and approval from the CEO, that project has led to some amazing results.

Millennial Mind-Set

“Most of my friends call me a baby boomer in denial,” Diane Adams says with a laugh. As a champion of the power that culture can have on a workplace, the chief human resources officer of McGraw-Hill Education finds that she identifies and agrees with millennials who typically place workplace culture high on their list of criteria when choosing a place to work.

“Culture is a huge drive for millennials,” she says. “They want a whole life, and if you believe that you have a great whole life, you’re better in the workplace.” To that end, Adams stresses that her department is talent development rather than talent management and that McGraw-Hill Education’s culture is one that encourages personal development as well as professional. “My personal mission is to inspire and enable others to live extraordinary lives, both personally and professionally,” she says. “When people are at their best—inside or outside of the workplace—everybody wins.

“If people have a sense of purpose beyond the company, where they’re making a difference, it gets people through the tough times,” Adams explains. Beyond rewarding, recognizing, and celebrating employees themselves, she notes that the organization helps those employees help others. As an example, Adams notes two employees who raised money with their team and went to Argentina to build a networking system for an orphanage. Another employee wanted to learn how to produce video and eventually produced a documentary on returning veterans. These examples then raised even more attention and funding once they were shared among the organization and put on the company website.

Having buy-in from leadership really made the 24-For-U initiative a success. In fact, a good leader can make quite the difference in a person’s life. “I always return to all the people that pushed me in my career,” Adams says. “Everybody has potential. My leadership style is to really push people as far as they can go.”

As she’s traveled around the world to visit all of McGraw-Hill Education’s offices, Adams has been pleasantly surprised that so many people at a 129-year-old company are excited and open to change—and reinforcing that notion with personal gestures. “The first time I met with my team, they knew I love chocolate chip cookies and brought me a huge chocolate chip cookie. Another team knew I loved butter pecan ice cream, and someone brought it into our meeting. At an Ohio office, they gave me all their Ohio State gear,” she says, with a laugh. “They really embrace new people coming into the organization, and they clearly knew that my role was to continue shaping the culture.”


BTS is proud to partner with Diane Adams and other leaders from the world’s largest corporations to focus on the people side of strategy. At our core, we believe people learn best by doing. For thirty years, we’ve been designing fun, powerful experiences that serve a wide range of client needs and have a profound and lasting impact. We inspire new ways of thinking, build critical capabilities, and unleash business success. Learn more at www.bts.com.


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