Janice Nilsen, Ph.D., has used her natural “people person” abilities to grow in a human resources career that has evolved over time.
She has spent years in the business world, including high-level training and human resources roles at Sears and Office Max. She has also valued education by earning her MBA at the University of Notre Dame and her Ph.D. in Organizational Development at Benedictine University (in 2016).
Then she made a foray into teaching. Most recently, she took the helm of National Louis University’s new dual master’s degree program. It merged Human Resources Management and Development with Industrial/Organizational Psychology, and she has big plans for it.
Human Resources established; I/O Psych is new
“The Human Resources Management and Development program is a mature, well-respected degree, it just needs icing on the cake,” she said.
“The I/O Psych program is new, and we’re trying to put some infrastructure behind it. Our challenge is to turn a good curriculum into a great cohort experience.”
She feels there’s a great synergy between I/O Psych, which looks at data, and Human Resources, which deals with talent management.
“It’s exciting, because if you’re trying to move up in an organization, it’s great to have those two sets of skills,” she said.
Organizational culture: when values meet actions
Over her career evolution, Nilsen became fascinated with organizational culture and has developed an expertise in it. However, she says can be hard to define.
“Organizational culture is related to an organization’s mission and values,” Nilsen said. “Most definitions of it talk about an alignment between an organization’s values and ‘the way things are done.’ This often sits at the root of organizational culture.”
She recalled an example from her days at Office Max, saying the retailer really stressed excellent customer service. On one occasion, this caused a VP to turn down a large contract. He didn’t think Office Max could deliver what the clients needed in a fashion that could build a long-term relationship. The clients went to a competitor who overpromised and under-delivered. Sadder but wiser, the clients came back to work with Office Max, which had been honest with them, she recounted.
Organizational culture gets complex
Nilsen wrote her dissertation on “A Grounded Theory Study: Can a New CEO Proactively Evolve and Manage Organizational Culture?” The short answer to that question is “yes.” The longer answer is that, “in the study I conducted, I found that a number of factors, when carefully combined, enabled the CEO to significantly impact the organizational culture. Those factors included a focus on the top management team, an intense commitment to company-wide employee engagement, cascading empowerment, trust and values alignment.”
“The bottom line is that organizational culture is quite complex and a CEO needs to have an appreciation for the value of organizational culture and a good understanding of influencing factors.”
Progressing in the human resources field
She conducted that study while serving as Senior Director of Human Resources at Office Max, where she provided insights about organizational culture and employee engagement to the executive leadership team throughout the company’s merger process with Office Depot.
Before that role, she served as Senior Director of Learning and Development at Office Max. She was responsible for talent management, organizational development and change management for the company’s 30,000 employees.
In this role, she led an award-winning training and development team. They created and launched a management development curriculum, compliance training program, individual development plan process, career path toolkits and business training solutions.