Heather McHale isn’t trying to “have it all.” But, you might say she’s got it anyway.
She married her high school sweetheart, had three children, and now, as executive vice president and chief human resources officer at OneMain Financial, she is responsible for shepherding the careers of almost ten thousand employees.
McHale planned to go into counseling, but a college course in organizational psychology sparked a fascination about how people work together.
“The majority of our lives are spent at work,” she says. “How do we bring diverse groups of people together and optimize their ability to succeed in an inclusive, challenging environment that encourages them to build their careers here and do their best?”
After graduating from Loyola University New Orleans, McHale went straight into an organizational psychology master’s program at Columbia University, taking classes at night and interning full time in HR departments during the day. She graduated, married, and began working in HR at Pfizer and then Merrill Lynch. Seven years in, she became pregnant with her first child, and it made her rethink her priorities.
“I worked super hard to achieve my career goals and focused on bringing my best to my job each day and accomplished and achieved things I was really proud of. And then one day, I had this little baby in my arms, and it made me reevaluate my life. I was like, ‘How am I supposed to do this?’” she says. “Employees, particularly women, are under pressure to have it all and balance a rich family life with a demanding corporate job. And quite honestly, even with a great partner in my husband, I couldn’t figure it out. I know there’s people who do, but I wasn’t one of them.”
Around that time, McHale spotted a New York Times Magazine story, titled “The Opt-Out Revolution.”
“The article profiled women, some just like me, and they said it might be OK for us to leave the workforce so we could take a step back and focus on our families, and then come back at a later time,” she recalls. “I remember reading that piece thinking it was a revolutionary idea for me and going, ‘You know what? I’m going to give it a try.’ At the time, I thought it may have been the biggest career risk of my life.”
“How do we bring diverse groups of people together and optimize their ability to succeed in an inclusive, challenging environment that makes them want to be here and do their best?”
McHale helped with her family’s business after leaving Merrill Lynch and later had two more children. The day she brought her youngest home, her daughter—her second child—was referred for early intervention and later diagnosed with autism.
“After several years of hearing others question my decision to ‘walk away,’ I knew for sure I had made the right decision about my career,” she says. “My biggest career risk ended up being the best gift I could’ve given myself and my family, because I took the time and had the breathing room to really focus on my daughter’s needs. I was able to fully immerse myself in learning about my child’s disability and how to advocate for her.”
Since then, every career decision has been balanced by McHale’s personal drive for achievement and her family-first attitude. She remained at home until she felt confident her daughter was on the right path and then reentered her career with a position that was more compatible with her new life. The experience with her daughter also changed her approach to her work.
“It makes me more thoughtful and patient in my approach. It has helped me understand how we relate to each other, how someone may need to learn or train differently, how people develop and progress in their jobs differently and what someone may need to be successful usually varies from person to person,” she says. “This may all look and feel very different, so we really need to focus on meeting the employee where the employee needs to be met in order for them to do and be their best.”
At OneMain, which specializes in personal loans for nonprime consumers, customer experience is the top priority. McHale makes sure employees have the same great experience at every stage of the employee career cycle.
“I take a very holistic view of our employees and what their total work/life experience looks like. I never want that to have one lever out of line,” she says. “From day one at OneMain, I want employees to feel welcome at this amazing organization and ensure that they have everything they need to be a successful team member and meet all of their career goals.”
“I take a very holistic view of our employees and what their total work/life experience looks like. I never want to have one lever out of line.”
To understand and shape that journey, McHale spends a lot time visiting many of the 1,600 branches and meeting with employees to understand what they need.
“I think it’s one of those things you have to prioritize. You can do surveys, but they’re no substitute for relationship building,” she says. “Have I met 10,000 employees? Absolutely not. But I travel a lot. I get on the road. I sit down and have conversations. Data tells you a lot, but human interaction tells you more.”
McHale adjusts how she delivers best-in-class HR by strengthening partnerships, driving value, developing future leaders, and fortifying the company’s culture of inclusive teamwork and customer service. She added new positions into her organization, including a head of leadership development, and is creating programs for entry-level managers up through the C-suite. She’s helping OneMain attract world class talent and develop its future leaders.
McHale is still skeptical about “having it all.” Some days, she says, her dinner consists of a Pop-Tart while standing at the kitchen sink after her last child has gone to bed. But she’s giving it her all and having a great time in her current role.
“I feel incredibly privileged to be part of the leadership team at OneMain. We’re committed to delivering the best for our customers and our employees every day,” she says. “Being on this journey, at this time in my life, with this extraordinary team—I couldn’t ask for more.”