The arc of Melanie Hughes' career has taken her from prison to finance to advertising and finally to fashion.
All her jobs have allowed her to analyze people and apply psychology to organizational development. A long-time human resources executive, Hughes is now chief administrative officer of the Gilt Groupe, where she is responsible for a lot more than hiring and payroll.
Based at the online retailer's New York headquarters, Hughes oversees customer service, call centers, communications, sales operations, human resources and management of the company's office facilities. In addition, Hughes led creation of the company's Ireland office.
Hughes, 49, split her childhood between England and Wales and attended college at Brunel University in London where she studied psychology. That's how she ended up working briefly as a prison psychologist. After earning her M.B.A. at INSEAD, the French business school, she became director of human resources at UBS, the Swiss banking firm, where she helped automate the company's trading processes.
After running into DoubleClick Chief Executive Kevin Ryan at an INSEAD alumni event, Hughes joined the advertising technology company in 2000 as its senior vice president of human resources. The company was later acquired by Google for $3.1 billion. She then spent two years as senior vice president of human resources at Coach Inc. before joining Gilt Groupe in 2009.
Hughes talked with FINS about why human resources has more business value than people think, how being dangled over a balcony by a convicted murderer helped prepare her for life as an HR executive, and why young people should go off the beaten path.
Joseph Walker: Why did you decide to make your career in human resources?
Melanie Hughes: I followed a fairly unusual career route. When I was at university I did a few different jobs. One was as a prison psychologist at a male remand prison. That was a fairly tough experience for someone who's 5'4 and not male. I wanted to do something that was involving people and organizations, but perhaps in an easier community than that one. It was great preparation for my later career. Nothing is really scary after being dangled over a third floor prison balcony by a murderer.
In pretty much every job, I've been offered jobs outside of HR like marketing and operations management. A few people think I've been crazy to turn those down, but I think HR, if done very well, can be a source of great competitive advantage. Jack Welch got that. He paid his HR person more than his CFO.
JW: HR seem like an area that is more receptive to female executives. Is that true?
MH: There have been traditional areas that have been female. Marketing is generally more female, and HR is as well. It started off because it was seen as a caring function, being the mother of an organization. It attracted people who had caring personalities and that's associated with women more than men.
The function however has changed a lot. It's a very analytical function if done well. You have to be facile with numbers and understand the impact of where you put resources into an organization and what it does to the bottom line; how to extract efficiencies, as well as the softer piece which is culture. I think of it as a blend of science and magic.
JW: What do you make of the current debate about getting more women in technology?
MH: Even when I was at DoubleClick, we were really focused on how do we attract more women into the organization. We truly thought the company worked better when there was a mix of males and females.
What we found at DoubleClick was that when we did have women go into the technology area, they quickly rose to leadership and management positions. As a percentage, we tripled or quadrupled the number of female managers versus female coders. Once we got them into the organization we found they had the management and leadership skills.
JW: What was it like working as a woman at UBS in the 1990s?
MH: There were very few female executives. One of the major jobs I did there was working on a project to reorganize the bank in 1996.
There were two or three women on that team and Craig Heimark [the former chief information officer at UBS], he would ask the women a lot of questions, he was highly focused on the women, and I asked him why he did this. He said women need to be so much better to succeed in this environment, so I think I'll get the best answers from them.
Overall my experience was positive. When I moved to the U.S. with UBS, part of the reason was that I felt it was easier for women to progress in the U.S. than in the U.K., and that's probably controversial. But I feel there is less of a glass ceiling than there is in the U.K. There are all kinds of theories for that. Women take off nine months for maternity leave in the U.K., and only three months here, and I'm sure that has some bearing on it.
JW: How did you get recruited to DoubleClick, the advertising tech company?
MH: Kevin Ryan and I went to the same business school. He was a year ahead of me, but I went to an INSEAD alumni event. At the time I was at UBS and I was interested in the technology sector. Kevin was the keynote speaker because DoubleClick in 1999 was booming.
I was really skeptical about the revenue models of the dotcoms, and I bombarded Kevin with questions and after the sixth question he said, "What do you do? I think I have a job for you."
I did go to a few interviews, but [the job] really came out of that meeting.
JW: Talk about networking, eh?
MH: There's a reason people go to business schools. It gave me a good basis of education, but you can get that from going to most business schools. The reasons why people go to the good business schools, and INSEAD has a very good reputation, are the networking opportunities.
JW: Was working for a tech company different than your other working experiences?
MH: It was a massive culture shock. It wasn't that the technology was so difficult to understand, because I'd worked with tech groups at UBS. The big thing was coming from a highly structured organization with the right and wrong way to do things, to completely rethinking the whole process of getting things done and there's no right or wrong way. People would say, "Why don't we do it this way?" And I could not say, "Because that's not the way we do it." I'd say instead, "Let's try it." Some of those new ideas worked and some of them didn't. But it caused a paradigm shift in my thinking.
JW: What's the best piece of advice you've received in your career?
MH: Follow your heart in terms of what you'd like to do and what you want to do. These days, traditional career paths are not what they used to be. There are many more opportunities for lateral development and doing things that are nontraditional in developing your skill sets and career.
The Gen X and Gen Y generation can embrace this more than the tail end of the baby boomers, which I'm a part of. You can recalibrate and take on a new project and not be worried about getting off your career path.
JW: What is your advice to women?
MH: Women can be extraordinarily talented, and going back to Craig Heimark's comment that I heard a long time ago in my career, the women who make it to the top tend to be very talented. I find that women have a lack of self confidence in the workplace, and I see a lot of very talented women that perhaps don't push themselves and present themselves in an as confident a way as men do. My advice to them would be: Have the confidence and courage of your own convictions to put yourself forward in a positive way. Go for those bigger jobs and the opportunities that are presented and push yourself forward.
Write to Joseph Walker at Joseph.Walker@dowjones.com