Faculty Spotlight: Keith Earley Believes in the Power of Reinvention

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Keith Earley

Photo: Keith Earley

Keith Earley keeps a quote up in his home office in Rockville, Maryland: “Everything is up until now.” It comes from a session he took at American University with Charles Seashore — a giant in the organizational development space, as Earley describes him. Another master’s student was speaking about her experience, saying, “Up until now, I’ve been having a difficult time,” “Up until now, things have been challenging.”

Seashore stopped her and said, “Everything is up until now.”

“It means, at any point in time, you have the possibility of changing your life — to reinvent yourself,” says Earley. It’s wisdom he’s kept close these past 20 years, as he’s transitioned from corporate lawyer, to human resources executive, to academic, coach and mentor. “It’s something I impart to everyone I work with — life is about taking advantage of the opportunities that present themselves to you.”

How did you get started in human resources? What drew you?

I am a corporate lawyer by training. I practiced law for a number of years with Freddie Mac. Then I got to a point where I decided that I wanted to reinvent myself in some way.

There are two kinds of lawyers: those who practice law, and those who leverage their degree to do something different. I decided to use law as a foundation for a transition into human resources. In order to facilitate that, I went back to school and got my master’s in organizational development from American University. Then I was able to transition out of legal into HR, where I was the Vice President for Employee Strategies & Practices [at Freddie Mac].

Was it a calling?

As a lawyer, I was the chief human resources legal support for Freddie Mac — so I was familiar with HR practice from a legal perspective. But I always thought being more proactive and strategic as a leader was a better approach. I would encourage leaders to get ahead of problems. I was wired in that way.

I had never heard of organizational development. But looking at individual dynamics, interpersonal dynamics, organizational culture and being able to talk about change — it resonated with me. It made perfect sense, this career move. But I did not expect it to resonate so personally with me.

How did your work in diversity and inclusion start?

I started doing diversity work at Freddie Mac. Initially it was informal; I was still in the legal department and joined a corporate task force examining diversity issues.

We had the best intentions. But it was not a strategically positioned effort. I want to say in 1995 or so the CEO gave a corporate-wide speech on the company’s commitment to diversity – but that was largely ignored. People were too busy – and the business of the company was dictating what people were focused on.

Then Freddie Mac was sued – it was a race-based class action suit. The initial reaction was outrage, in terms of thinking, We’re Freddie Mac, this could not be anything close to the truth. And then racist graffiti showed up in bathrooms. That changed the conversation completely.

That all led to a decision to take a much closer look at the question of diversity and inclusion at Freddie Mac. Another task force was convened, and over the course of 8 to 10 months of regular meetings, the conclusion was that there needed to be a Chief Diversity Officer. I got the job. That was in 1998.

When you became the Chief Diversity Officer, how did things change?

The question of diversity was embraced – fully embraced – by this time. There was a lot of publicity with the lawsuit. Jesse Jackson was on the front page of The Washington Post demanding that Freddie Mac [be investigated]. The EEOC was involved. It was very big deal.

The CEO said, We’re going to do this and do this the right way. All of his direct reports were brought into it. They didn’t know what they were signing up for – because they didn’t realize the depth of the challenges that were facing people who were traditionally under-represented [in the company]. That came out, in powerful ways. It was a transformation for the leadership team. We did a lot of work with them – all of the senior executives and direct reports of the CEO, and we went a level down, because there was no diversity in those direct reports. In order to do the education and development process, we needed more people of color and women at the table, so their stories could be told.

It was good work that we did, over about four years. A lot of work.

A lot of times organizations make the mistake thinking that diversity is only about representation, that they need to get more of this or more of that. In fact, the real work is around creating an inclusive culture and environment, so that wherever you are, people can do their best work. White men are also part of the diversity conversation. We focused on a strategy and tied it in specific ways to the business of Freddie Mac. It made sense to the business people, compared to prior efforts that were ignored, because the benefit of diversity was tied to the way business was conducted. The larger cultural change, or shift, creates longer-term benefits, as far as how people are engaged.

So, is diversity your expertise within HR?

My background, from an education standpoint, and my PhD, is in the organizational development space. If I’m doing coaching work, organizational development theory and practice is the context for my work. And it’s the framework that defines my diversity work.

What are some of the biggest challenges HR professionals face today?

I was in Baltimore at a conference and the discussion was, What is the role of HR and organizational development in a rapidly changing world? Sometimes we use the expression “in a VUCA world” — a world that filled with volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

Our world is increasingly a VUCA world. Things are much more complex — maybe even chaotic — as far as change is concerned. You have to be technologically-driven, driven by broad trends across the board. If you look at any aspect of HR practice, it’s a vastly different conversation now than it was even five years ago.

When you mentor students or coach fellow professionals, do you find yourself saying the same thing over and over?

When I think about my life, I often reflect on the qualities that are important to me. I’ve had many opportunities to share my views regarding these qualities with students and coaching clients. In some ways, this “quality of life” conversation is one that puts everything in context.

There are four elements that define the quality of my life. They begin with consideration of the relationship with something that’s greater than me – God or its spiritual equivalent. Second is the relationship with loved ones, including family or significant others. Third is doing that which brings you joy and fulfillment—personally or professionally. Right now, I’m studying Spanish in order to achieve a level of fluency. In addition, I’m planning to travel internationally over the next year and a half. I am passionate about travel and experiencing different cultures. I might even live outside the U.S. for a time. Fourth, is physical health and well-being, because once that declines, the other elements are difficult to maintain at a high level. So, I keep up my physical health. These are the things I seem to talk about with some consistency.

What excites you about teaching at Bovard College?

Because Bovard College is relatively new, there’s a recognition of the criticality of teaching and structuring classes well, delivering academic content as well as ensuring appropriate levels of student and faculty interaction. It’s a go-to institution in that way.

I have the flexibility to present content that is going to serve the students best. For example, in class, I asked students to think about examples of leadership. It’s not just the white male, 56 years old — there are other expressions of leadership. Last year, when they had the March for Our Lives, there was an 11-year-old young lady from Ethiopia. She got up in front of 800,000 people and gave a speech. That’s leadership. We’re expanding the framework and our understanding of what leadership is. Bovard not only allows that, it encourages it.

Keith Earley teaches HRM 510: Leadership in Human Resources for USC’s online Master in Human Resource Management program.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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