After trying internships in everything from physical therapy to marketing, Kristi Yowell was wondering if she would ever find the right career. In fact, the young college student had already changed her major four times. That’s when an advisor made a suggestion that would change Yowell’s life forever.
The advisor noticed a common thread in Yowell’s coursework. She excelled in areas like psychology, management, and ethics. When the advisor suggested yet another internship—this time in human resources—Yowell accepted.
Although Yowell knew little about HR, the internship at a local hospital was different than anything she had previously experienced. She was soon sitting in meetings with leaders who discussed everything from strategy to budgets to staffing to metrics. “I realized that HR is the anchor at the center of everything an organization does,” she explains. “I felt like a kid who uses a telescope for the first time and finally understands just how big the universe really is.”
Today, Yowell is associate vice president for HR at Goucher College just miles from Baltimore, and also coordinates the graduate HRM program at nearby McDaniel College. The roles are the culmination of a steady twenty-year climb.
The journey started when Yowell graduated and took a position as an HR coordinator at a local John Deere dealership. The company was small, and as its only HR person, Yowell was responsible for every aspect of the job. After less than a year, she knew how to complete all necessary tasks but lacked a deeper understanding of how to serve as a true business partner. “I wanted to work as part of a larger team that I wasn’t leading so I could build the foundational skills that would take me far in my career,” she says.
Yowell decided to take a step back. She enrolled in a master’s program and took a job as an HR assistant at Loyola College. While the move was technically a self-imposed demotion, Yowell knew it would set her up for future success and calls it “the best decision I’ve ever made.”
By moving out of a leadership role, Yowell put herself in a position to learn from veterans in the workplace while applying the theories she was learning in the classroom. The synergies helped Yowell make significant contributions as she learned the ins and outs of HR in higher education, and after a year she moved into a HR generalist role that would help her gain more independence and experience.
Soon, Yowell was ready for a new challenge. She moved to Towson University and created a multifaceted training and development program for the large public institution. In doing so, she noticed an unnecessary divide between HR colleagues in public and private institutions. This led Yowell to create the Building Bridges Across Maryland program, a cohort between HR leaders at several local higher education institutions.
Building Bridges, which still exists today, helps peers share best practices, promotes collaboration, and offers professional development workshops, and networking opportunities. Yowell also started a local chapter of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources and recently took a position on the organization’s national board.
Although Yowell had grown to love higher education, she purposely left the industry for a stint in insurance. “I didn’t want to turn into one of those people who just does the same old thing the same old way forever. Tunnel vision blocks innovation,” she explains.
After nearly three years away, Yowell returned to higher education and accepted various roles of increasing responsibility before ultimately joining Goucher in 2020.
In her current role, Yowell is helping the small liberal arts college maintain its connections to Baltimore and enhance its strong values related to inclusion and social justice, as well as its focus on global education. To do so, she’s applying her expertise, leveraging the relationships she’s built with other leaders in the industry, and using robust metrics.
Her department is working with IT to implement new technologies and collecting data to make value-informed decisions. One such example is using data to track job applicant demographics, qualifications, and referral source, as well as understanding what causes applicants to drop out of a search or reject an offer. Analytics help Yowell examine marketing materials, outreach events, and other factors.
Goucher’s HR team is also using needs surveys to discover what employees want before they invest time and money into changing benefits programs. “The data doesn’t have to be complex, but getting and evaluating data is critical,” she explains.
These tools and other methods help Yowell navigate challenges related to COVID-19. Like most employers, Goucher is interested in increasing employee engagement after pivoting to a work-from-home model. Yowell is helping department heads schedule tech free days and plan online happy hours, virtual service award celebrations, team fitness challenges, and other special events.
The pandemic has even opened up some new opportunities. As employees and students embrace online methods, Yowell believes she can help Goucher also tap into a larger employee pool by challenging historical geographical barriers and physical worksite requirements.
“Adaptability and collaboration have been the secret to my personal success and the success of all of my employers,” she says. “And now is the time to adapt, collaborate, and innovate.”