Transforming HR into a Strategic Partner at the Carolina Panthers
Written by Amanda Baldwin
Chief People Officer
The sports industry has the stigma of being a “good old boys club,” but Kisha Smith is challenging that stereotype. As the first Chief People Officer for the Carolina Panthers and Charlotte FC, Kisha is pioneering human resources in the sports industry and showing how inclusivity can drive businesses forward.
I want HR to be the hub of the organization that allows us to thrive.”
When Kisha accepted the role in the summer of 2019, she quickly learned just how much the sports industry has been lacking in this type of support, stating, “HR is still in its infancy in sports… It's fulfilling to know there’s a need for HR’s presence. Not just here, but in sports in general.”
The talent crises of the past few years have proven how people are the heart of business success, and Kisha is making strides at her organization through strategic partnerships, inclusivity, continuous learning, and by, as she puts it, being “respectfully real.”
CHROs as Strategic Business Partners
Over the past few years, the role of the Chief Human Resources Officer has evolved from a functional area to “truly a strategic partner for the business.” Kisha joined the Carolina Panthers to help with their transformation from a professional football team into a leading sports and entertainment business, and to achieve this goal, she knew she needed to work closely with her peers across the C-suite. She stated, “For us as a leadership team and as an organization, I think we have truly found the value in communication and collaboration - not going about the business in a siloed approach.”
We [CHROs] have made it to the top of our game by being influential business leaders. So now what?”
In terms of how she is navigating this partnership, she shared how her influence is slow, strategic, methodical and steady. Divulging, “I don't want to be the HR of the past where you're the paper pushing organization that just made sure everybody's benefits are taken care of. I want to continue to influence what we're doing from a business perspective. And for my business partners - the owners and my most senior leaders - to trust that I have their best interests at heart. Not just for the people of the business, but what’s best for the organization as a whole.”
She expressed how patience is key to developing trusted partnerships, as it does not happen overnight. Some of the processes she influenced over two and a half years ago are just now taking hold and they are seeing the benefits. Her peers have confidence that she is assisting with leading positive change, and she aptly stated, “It feels really good to be included and valued.”
Emphasizing the “I” in DE&I
Kisha detailed how they have become more intentional about making inclusion and belonging a natural part of their company culture. She stated, “One of the things I'm proud of is the fact that our ownership takes D&I very seriously. So much so, we work to make this who we are, not what we’re doing.
As an organization, we recognize the importance of our people and how everything we say, do, act and how we show up and behave, all in some way shape or form impacts our people.”
To ensure widespread adoption, Kisha articulated that she is being particularly careful about the terminology they are using, leading her organization to focus on the “I” in DE&I. She shared that, unfortunately, when people hear the word “diversity”, it can sometimes be misconstrued to only be about race, but there are many other facets to it. Kisha indicated that her greatest challenge is creating an organizational culture that is engaging for individuals of varying backgrounds across five different generations.
By centering the business on humanness and inclusion, Kisha intends for everyone to feel like they are being taken care of and that they belong. She stated, “We are learning the dynamics of taking care of your people; All of them, no matter what age, shape, color, or size, in order to actually move the business forward in the most successful way.”
Creating an Inclusive Organizational Culture
Kisha made it clear that she’s “not trying to just check off boxes and do a bunch of things” when it comes to DE&I. She explains how CHROs have an obligation to their people, and they have the power to invoke meaningful change for them throughout the business. She stated, “I feel like it's something that we owe to our people. We've got to be that employee advocate and the person who's always thinking differently, probably more than most of the people in the room. I think we should value that and take advantage of the opportunity that's been presented to us as CHROs probably now more than ever.”
Although there have been some growing pains - as her organization is going through major transformation, Kisha’s team has successfully implemented processes to ensure employees can “just be who they are.” These are just a few ways they are embracing an inclusive culture:
- Establishing a Diversity & Inclusion Council - The D&I Council was created for the organization to be more intentional about their corporate culture and to hold them accountable towards their goals.
- Hiring a Director of Inclusion and Belonging - This individual supports Kisha and the D&I Council in their strategic efforts to be a more inclusive organization (i.e., They were responsible for revising the hiring process to prevent biases from influencing decision making).
- Creating Employee Resource Groups - Five ERGs are represented across the organization.
- Being Active in their Community - They participate in the Charlotte Difference Makers Sports Fellowship program in partnership with other local organizations (i.e., Sports Business Journal, NASCAR, and more) to nurture diverse talent interested in the sports industry through exposure to senior leadership, resources and experience.
Kisha’s team is continuing to evolve on their cultural journey, but seeing the initial progress is encouraging to both senior leadership and their employees. She said, “It takes time for people to see and experience change in a way where they actually get it. You can say so much, but until you see, feel and experience change - that's when I think the difference is made, and that's what we've been doing in the D&I space.”
Building Trust through Curiosity and Authenticity
In Kisha’s almost 20-year career in the HR profession, she has never lost her unending curiosity. She believes having this resolve keeps leaders at the top of their game and builds trust as a leader. She says, “Although I do feel like I have worked hard and I have earned the right to be at the top of my career, I'm still hungry - not necessarily for another title or position, but from a development perspective. The beauty of this particular role, and this profession right now, is that things are changing and they're changing rapidly. So, I must keep up with the change, or I will be left behind.”
Although you can feel like you have made it to the mountain top of the HR profession with a title such as CHRO, never stop growing, developing and learning for yourself. That's the one thing I've been trying to be very intentional about.”
Kisha continues to invest in herself, and she mentioned how she specifically looks outside her organization for development opportunities. In the past, Kisha says networking was not one of her strengths and she always felt too busy to engage in those efforts, but she’s learned and experienced how critical it is to propel her career forward - especially as she’s trying to understand the dynamics of leading five generations of employees.
Besides her hunger for growth, Kisha believes authenticity goes a long way when building trusted working relationships. She refers to her personality as “respectfully real,” and she aims to lead others the way she wants to be led. By trusting, empowering and valuing her employees, she says this makes all the difference in her leadership style.
Kisha Smith, Chief People Officer at the Carolina Panthers and Charlotte FC, was a featured speaker at Evanta’s Atlanta CHRO Executive Summit in a session entitled, “Diversifying the Leadership Bench Through Strategy.” To hear from and connect with CHRO peers on mission critical topics, such as DE&I, join your local Evanta CHRO Community and reserve your spot at one of Evanta’s Executive Summits this fall.
Special thanks to Kisha Smith and Carolina Panthers.
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