Michaela Geronima Doelman is a self-described "die-hard believer in the business case of human decency" - and it shows front-and-center in her role as the Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) at Washington State's Employment Security Department. Not only is she is a public servant on a mission to "change the world (and ESD's services) so that every person can experience safety and belonging" - she is also a full-time mom who finds joy in sustainably balancing the two. In short, she is a powerhouse.
Ahead of her session at PSN's Government Innovation West virtual event on October 6th, we sat down with Michaela for an exclusive interview to find out more about her initiatives at Washington ESD, her experiences as a woman in government leadership, lessons learned, advice for young women, and much more. We hope her words will open your eyes and inspire you to be bold, to think big, and to make positive change.
Please tell us a bit about what you do, how you got there, and what you love about your work?
I’m the Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) for the Washington State Employment Security Department (ESD). I kind of got here by accident. Although public service was always where I wanted to be, HR wasn’t even on my radar of options, I just knew I wanted to help people like my parents did in their public service jobs. After graduating from college and working in Mexico for a couple of years, I moved back to the US in 2007 and wasn’t in the position to be picky about what job I could take, I just wanted one that paid the bills so I took the first one I was offered. It was a non-permanent job as a recruiter. I was so fortunate to get my first job in a role where I got to help connect people to careers while also working with a team that I loved and am still in contact with today.
As a woman (and a leader) who has spent time in both the private and public sectors, how have you seen things evolve in terms of diversity & inclusivity since your career first began? Where do you feel there is still room to improve?
When I first started working after college, I remember trying to have conversations about race and equity and continually had the conversations shut down. They were deemed inappropriate for the workplace and on multiple occasions was accused of being racist for wanting to talk about racism. The conversations we did have in the workplace were about the appreciation of diversity and how great it is but not wanting to acknowledge any of our short comings or the history of how our systems have kept our workplaces homogenous. I remember my first diversity training in the corporate world used the Irish Potato famine as the example for why diversity (of crops) was so important! It was like they were so afraid of offending anyone, so they opted for the superficial example of the potato famine to stay safe.
Over the last few years, I’ve seen a lot more openness to have conversations about race, systems, and how those systems create disparate impacts for people. But they continued to be difficult conversations to bring up and people had the privilege to walk away because the topic didn’t impact them directly. This past summer, after people saw the video of George Floyd’s murder, people couldn’t walk away from the conversation anymore. We had a very gruesome, concrete example of how racism is prevalent and among us. The conversation has evolved from “is this really a problem?” to “this is a real problem, what are we going to do about it”.
This is a great first step, but we need to move beyond words. Companies have made diversity statements, declared themselves anti-racist organizations, hired consultants and guest speakers, and invested in employee resource groups but those are all performative unless they’re backed up by changes to the systems that impact the end state. For example, if our recruitment process in not accessible for people with disabilities, or our workplace conduct policies are based on the normalization of white supremacist culture, or our bonus or promotion process rewards people who do not have caregiving responsibilities the words we put onto our website are meaningless.
What made you gravitate towards Human Resources within the public sector? What continues to drive your passion for this and how does that manifest itself?
I always laugh at this question because it was random chance that brought me to HR. I didn’t even know it was a career field when I was in college and when I worked in the hospitality industry, HR was the place you avoided at all costs! I started my career in HR because it was the first salaried job that was offered to me when I moved back to the US (I had applied for hundreds of positions and couldn’t get an interview). However, I stayed in HR because I realized that I could help lead the change from the inside!
Who is one woman who has been a strong role model for you in your career? Can you explain why, and how, they inspired you or helped you succeed? Concurrently - Why is it important to be a role model for other women in your field and in public service?
This is probably inappropriate for a CHRO to say but Ali Wong is the first person who came to mind. If you don’t know her, she’s a comedian where the majority of her content would be considered explicit and grounds for termination if shared in the workplace! We’re the same age and I’ve only been a fan for about four years but as an Asian-American, petite, working mother, she broke every stereotype I felt constrained by through most of my career and she did so unapologetically and with great success.
Ali Wong in “Ali Wong: Baby Cobra” on Netflix.(Alex Crick )
That’s what I hope others see in me as well: that I’m real, that I’m flawed, and that it’s ok. There’s this pressure for working moms to have it all together. The pandemic has only heightened that with research showing that even in cis-hetero dual income households that women are still taking on more of the caregiving responsibilities than their male spouses. That pressure to have it together all the time is exhausting and the impacts of that are real. The most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that millions of women have exited the labor market during the pandemic with workforce participation rates matching those of the late 1980’s. To expect that women can give 100% to their jobs and 100% to their kids just isn’t good math and something will give. Whenever I’m on a call, I try to keep my background transparent people can see my kids doing their virtual school behind me. It’s a message to all the other parents out there that if the CHRO can do it, its safe for them to do it too. I also lead a weekly call with all of our leaders across the state and share examples and personal stories of both failures and successes so that we can create a culture of learning where we can collectively grow from our mistakes. There are so many times over the years that I’ve been so exhausted or emotionally beaten down that I was on the verge of quitting because I didn’t think I could do it. If others are feeling that way, I want them to know that they’re not alone and that it will pass.
What advice would you give to the younger generation of women in this field and more broadly within public service? What is one piece of advice you wish someone had shared with you when you were just beginning your career?
This was the hardest question for me to answer. I reflected a long time on this question and ultimately what I finally concluded is that I don’t think I should be giving advice to the younger generation but instead I need to be following the example that the younger generation of women is providing me! I follow a lot of youth run social justice accounts on Twitter and Instagram and I am constantly learning from them and how they unapologetically share their convictions and their authentic selves, demanding that the system be the one that conforms instead of them. That is so inspiring and convicting to me because I feel like I’ve only gotten to where I’m at in my role because I shut off or hid parts of myself so I could fit in while at work. Now that I’m here, I look to the younger generation for the reminder that I want to change that system so that they don’t need to do that to succeed.
Instead of sharing advice that I hadn’t gotten, I wanted to share a piece of advice that I believe was instrumental to my success that I think is still relevant today. It was: that you can make an impact no matter what role you’re in. I came into my career wanting to get to leadership because that’s where true change could make but someone gave me the advice to focus on making the greatest impact in the role, you’re in and the rest will follow. That was so true for me. I leaned into every position I was in and focused on being the best in that role without ego, ultimately that’s what got me recognized and promoted into other roles.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your outlook and approach to your work? What key lessons have you learned that you have applied?