Putting People First

Leadership Profile
Written by Linda Luty

Tamla Oates-Forney

Chief People Officer

Waste Management

June 2020

How many leaders can say that they have found their true calling – especially when they were just 15 years old?

That happened to Tamla Oates-Forney, chief people officer at Waste Management.

Thanks to the transformative experiences she had at her afterschool and summer jobs at the employment security commission in her hometown of Lincolnton, North Carolina, she discovered a passion that led her to a successful career in Human Resources.

When I started working with people and matching their skill sets with opportunity and changing the trajectory of their lives because they had employment, that was so immediately gratifying.


“To hear people thank me for bringing out the best in them and highlighting things they didn’t know about themselves that would make them qualified to do the role, I knew that I had found my calling. Having that level of impact at such a young age, I knew I wanted to do this,” she said.


HR is Not For The Faint of Heart

As a leader, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to live and work on the continent of Africa to stand up GE’s Human Resources strategy and infrastructure turned out to be a formative experience for Oates-Forney.

“I had to learn different techniques and leverage skills I never knew I had,” she explained. “Influencing became very critical when building a team and taking risks.”

In addition, Oates-Forney discovered that being open and receptive to not knowing all the answers because she was in a foreign place was very important. “The only thing in common was the color of our skin,” she said. “There are many different nuances in terms of tribalism, sexism, nationalism and all those things I had to understand in order to be effective. But I was in a very influential role, establishing GE on the continent of Africa.”

This experience changed her point of view. “I was never the same personally or professionally because I had to do things differently there to be successful,” she said.

“Listening and patience took on a different shape and form. The ability to influence and drive change through others took on a different shape and form. I exercised them all there and grew as a leader because my success was not based on my own intellect and competency, it was based on my ability to influence and drive change through other people, and I carried that with me from my time there up until now,” she explained.

Therefore, Oates-Forney was well prepared to stay calm amidst the COVID-19 global pandemic, having already experienced the Ebola epidemic and a tumultuous political climate in Lagos, Nigeria and Nairobi, Kenya where she and her family lived for almost five years. That experience, she said, transformed her into the leader she is today.


Humble, Open, Transparent

Shaping the culture of an organization and influencing the future of work requires a well-defined leadership philosophy.

“When people ask me who I am as a leader, I am humble, open, and transparent, or HOT. That is just who I am, and I try to lead with humility and compassion. That goes a long way,” she said.

“My team would tell you that I am open and transparent, I share my vulnerabilities, and I share my weaknesses. I’m not perfect. To err or make mistakes is human and that has created an open environment that I don’t think I would have otherwise if I didn’t share my own level of humility, openness, and transparency,” Oates-Forney added.

Creating an environment of striving for progress over perfection is an important part of leading a high-performing team. But simply having a strategy is not everything; you need to have the right people in place to execute.

According to Oates-Forney, the talent strategy at Waste Management is affectionately known as the Right Six — “right people, in the right role, with the right skills, at the right time, given the right tools, the right incentives.”

“It’s important to understand that you’re managing your talent as your most important asset,” she said.


The Future of Work

Human Resources leaders are in a critical position to influence the culture of an organization. Gone are the days when the department was thought of as simply a hiring and benefits administration team.

COVID-19 has accelerated the transformation of what the future of work will look like for many organizations, including Waste Management. But Oates-Forney said one consistent message remains – people need to come first.

“When Jim Fish became CEO in November of 2016, he made a public declaration that he wanted the company to be a people first culture, making Waste Management a great place to work,” she said.

Waste Management’s clearly defined message starts from the top and has been integral in making their employees feel safe and supported. Current events have strengthened the relationships amongst the C-suite, and their leadership teams have come together to lead with one voice, communicating frequently and consistently with an organization that employs over 45,000 people.

Human Resources is at the helm of shaping the future of work, strategically partnering with leadership, and impacting the culture of the company. Strong partnerships within the C-suite is pivotal to the success of an organization. The most critical of these relationships has to be what Oates-Forney described as a three-legged stool with the CEO, CFO, and CHRO, because “nothing happens without human capital and financial capital.”

“We had good relationships before, but this is unlike anything any of us has experienced and we don’t have all the answers,” she said. “There are no experts in this regard, so we were writing the playbook together and it strengthened us.”

Out of necessity, the future of work is happening at this moment. Waste Management is approaching this in a thoughtful way by instituting a workforce evolution task force to address the work, the worker and the workplace.

“We’ve accelerated the future of work in a very deliberate way and that is why we’re calling it ‘workforce evolution’ because it’s more than just a return to work strategy, it’s the future of work strategy where returning to work, remote work and hybrid are all elements of what the future will be,” she said.


Business Continues

 COVID-19 stress-tested business continuity plans in a way that was unprecedented for many organizations. While most had plans in place to account for natural disasters and other more common scenarios, a long-lasting pandemic requiring a profound shift in work was not anticipated.

Waste Management responded by adopting a more robust plan that included a core business continuity plan that could flex to their 17 different market areas that have different regional needs. The development of this plan included feedback from regional leaders to help shape the policy, which now includes many more scenarios.

“What we learned from this is that we need to lead from the center. This is not the time to go off and do your own thing. So, there are some principles that are core to how we operate as a company, and then there are going to be some things that are location specific. But what we have found is that the fundamentals need to be the same irrespective of where you are,” Oates-Forney said.

Leading an organization through a global pandemic where “normal work” paradigms are being challenged is not for everyone. Anyone can lead when times are easy, the test of a leader really shows through in turbulent times.

Oates-Forney and her team have risen to the challenge as they continue to focus on people and underscore the company culture at Waste Management.

“I am really privileged to work with such an amazing team and company and I think going through this crisis, both COVID-19 and race relations, has really shown the best of who we are,” she said. “How this team and my peers have shown up during this time has made me extremely proud and I’m very hopeful in all regards.”

People first is real, and it’s not just what we say,” Oates-Forney said. “It’s what our employees feel."


Special thanks to Tamla Oates-Forney and Waste Management.

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