Lisa Caldwell knows what it means to be driven when it comes to finding the perfect job. After all, it took every ounce of persistence to find hers. She grew up wanting to become a doctor, a goal she held all the way through her first visit to the anatomy lab. (Working with cadavers was a little too scary.) Although she majored in business at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Caldwell didn’t want to give up on her lifelong dream to be in a health profession, so she pursued a path to dental school. After learning that the dental school had its own version of gross anatomy, Caldwell did what any logical business major would do: she went to law school.
Caldwell earned a law degree at Wake Forest University and worked for several years at local law firms. But it was only after R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company hired her as human resources manager in 1991 that she realized the HR field was where she belonged. Caldwell had finally found her calling, achieving a position as executive vice president and chief human resources officer. “The bottom line is you have to find that intersection of passion and what you’re good at,” she says. “In my role at Reynolds American, the key thing I have to do is find the right person for the right role at the right time. My journey was a prime example of landing in that sweet spot.”
To get there, Caldwell says she had to be resilient and forward-thinking—qualities that serve her well to this day. “When stumbling blocks get in the way, you have to be able to play chess and not checkers,” Caldwell says. “That’s been important in my role. My head has to be in the future. I’m always looking at what is out there and how I lead this important asset called people to drive tremendous business results in the face of a lot of uncertainty.”
Caldwell calls her hiring at Reynolds a blessing, but she also put herself in position to take advantage of the opportunity when it arrived. Now, she and her HR team, along with company management, are putting Reynolds in the best possible position to hire top talent. They are now entering the third year of her five-year initiative to make Reynolds American an employer of choice by more closely aligning the company’s human resources goals with the core strategy of the entire company.
Caldwell explains that Reynolds American CEO Susan Cameron often says that the company’s two most important assets are its people and its brands. “Our goal is to ladder up to that business strategy,” she says. “You need high-performing, sustainable talent that’s highly engaged. You also need a diverse group of employees with a sense of purpose and the right mix of conventional and unconventional thinking.”
Caldwell and her team ensure that current employees feel invested in the changes being made for them. She says the company conducts regular “voice of the employee” research, and results show that there are three factors that make Reynolds American stand out. “One is the people. People come here for the job but stay for the people,” Caldwell says. “Another is opportunity. We allow employees to have a say in their careers, to let us know what their preferences are. Finally, they like the sense of purpose here. Transforming the tobacco industry is a vision we can all rally behind.”
Caldwell, together with her HR team, facilities management group, and information management staff, is looking to make the work environment at the Winston-Salem corporate office another key differentiator for employees. Reynolds American is renovating every floor to reflect its rich history in an atmosphere that is quite modern and contemporary. The company has also spent the past few years updating technologies and processes that support or enable how employees get their work done. To reimagine the office space, it consulted with leading office design firms, as well as employees and job candidates. “We realized all of us rallied around the concept that our work environment should have what we call an ‘energized urban loft’ feel,” Caldwell says.
Nods to the company’s heritage include reclaimed wood from old tobacco factory buildings integrated into the interior design, as well as old barrels fashioned into tables. Interestingly, research shows that millennials were most interested in these types of elements. “They told us they want to be steeped in the history of this organization while they’re part of its ongoing journey,” she says.
These physical changes are all part of a larger shift Caldwell is leading to treat employees as customers. Much of this involves top-notch marketing, which is why her HR team includes more than a few people who came over from the marketing function. “We needed to design our HR function to mirror the services you typically see in a consumer goods company. Except in our case, our consumers are our employees,” she explains. “We created a marketing department to reach out to them, but it’s more than marketing. It’s also employee research. It’s strategy and planning and communication.”
The bottom line is ensuring that the employee experience at Reynolds American is not only positive, but great. “Even if it means more administrative complexity, we want employees to find the information they need, be able to get their questions answered, and have intuitive processes so they can focus on their jobs,” she says.
Caldwell and her team have gone so far as establishing an employee service center within the HR department to help employees understand and navigate HR programs and processes. “When you need an answer to a question, you have somebody to call right here in the company,” she says.
Caldwell has also steered the HR department toward a more holistic approach to employee well-being. This includes personal well-being initiatives such as on-site health clinics, fitness centers, health advocacy, and telemedicine programs. Financial well-being is also a focus. A transparent pay structure and special bonuses foster innovation, and personal financial education and counseling are offered at no cost to employees.
There are also efforts to make employees feel more connected to their own communities through work with local nonprofits and charitable organizations. Caldwell says these moves have already earned Reynolds American recognition as one of the fifty most engaged companies in North America. “This is not just an HR vision,” she says. “This is a vision that is embraced and modeled by the leadership team. It’s important for success to have your top leaders’ commitment. We are a cohesive leadership team invested in becoming an employer of choice.”