Five Questions with Caroline Swann

Interview With
Caroline Swann
Guest Author

In this month’s “Five Questions With…”, Swann offers compelling takes on the future of work, dealing with today’s workforce issues and labor shortages, and tells a powerful story from her days working with Secretary Carlos Gutierrez at the Department of Commerce.

Following three years as RNC comptroller, Caroline Swann served all eight years in the Bush Administration, with roles at HUD, Commerce and a four-year run as Director of White House Personnel. After almost eight years leading human resources at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Swann recently joined Invariant as Chief People Officer.  Her colleagues at the bipartisan government relations and strategic communications firm include BCAers Claude Chafin (DoD, EOP), Lindley Kratovil Sherer (EOP, Treasury), and Joey Smith (EOP, DoI). In this month’s “Five Questions With…”, Swann offers compelling takes on the future of work, dealing with today’s workforce issues and labor shortages, and tells a powerful story from her days working with Secretary Carlos Gutierrez at the Department of Commerce.

Q: What is it about your work in HR that you find most meaningful?

I think it is a great time to be working in HR – coming out of the pandemic there’s a new appreciation for the importance of taking care of people.  Where HR used to be seen as a back-office function that was very process driven, it is now at the forefront as a strategic partner to leadership to help companies reach their true potential.

I am fortunate that I have worked for leaders who intuitively understand the organization’s value proposition, what sets them apart from the competition, is their people.  I love that I help employees continue to grow, teams to be more agile, executives position the organization for success and be a thought partner to the CEO.

And as Peter Drucker said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast” – so it is exciting to help an organization be a “best place to work” that lives its values and creates a shared sense of purpose so employees can thrive and continue to grow.

Q:  As an experienced HR professional, how do you see the long-term future of work in the post-pandemic environment?

This is a fascinating time in our country in terms of work. I believe we are witnessing a seismic shift similar to other moments in history – such as the movement from farm workers to factory workers, or factory workers to office and knowledge workers.

The shift towards a remote work environment started with the birth of the internet and the pandemic has only served to accelerate that move.  It put remote work to the test and forced leaders to adjust to the idea that work can be done from anywhere.

And while that’s true for many types of work, my concern with this movement is that offices and work teams were some of the last bastions of community.  And now with many people working from home, individuals are becoming increasingly isolated and as a society we are less connected and engaged in what is happening around us.  To combat this, and continue to remain competitive, leaders must remake the workplace as a destination – and create the environment and experiences employees want to come to for collaboration and engagement. This will help create connections, shared experiences, and elevate everyone to be their best.

 Q:  Companies in every sector seem afflicted by staffing shortages and other workforce challenges. How can these issues best be addressed?

First off, I think this is probably the most challenging workforce environment I’ve seen in my entire career. The rules of what works and what doesn’t are being rewritten – in real-time.

That said, companies can address workforce shortages in several ways.  First, they need to be creative and re-consider the pools from which they are drawing to fill positions.  Can they upskill their employees and promote from within?  Can they expand their candidate pool and draw from different areas or backgrounds?  Increasing diversity among staff has proven to increase productivity, engagement, and profits.  Examples include military spouses who are typically excellent employees but often overlooked because they are seen as unreliable due to their moving every couple of years.  By reconfiguring the job to be remote, military spouses can continue working no matter where their family may be deployed.

Q:  How did your service in the Administration prepare you for your career… and do you have a favorite moment or story from those years?

My time in the Administration was invaluable in preparing me for what was to come in my career.  From the campaign onward, I learned what true leadership is and how to motivate teams by watching the incredible leaders we all were lucky to work for such as President Bush, Secretary Andy Card, and Josh Bolten. Working in the White House was absolutely a highlight.

It’s hard to pick a favorite moment but one that stands out was during my time at the Department of Commerce.  As the Director of the Advisory Councils, I was fortunate to help take the President’s Export Council to Ukraine and Russia.  I will never forget standing in front of the Hermitage with Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and seeing the Russian soldiers in the background.  I was immediately struck by the juxtaposition of the U.S. Secretary of Commerce – a former Cuban refugee who escaped communism for freedom – and Russian soldiers, who for so long had been the face of communism to the world. It was a true testament to the fact that in America, perhaps unlike anywhere else in the world, anything is possible.

Q:  Can you leave us with a leadership issue you learned during your time in the Administration that continues to serve you well today?

I was fortunate to work with so many incredible individuals and witness true leadership.  From Secretary Card, Maria Cino, Linda Gambatesa, Colleen Litkenhaus, Secretary Mel Martinez, Assistant Secretary Woody Sutton, and Secretary Gutierrez, each of these individuals showcased servant leadership.  They believed in helping everyone be their best selves so they could do their best work on behalf of the administration.  And I learned the power of hiring people smarter than you and letting them do their best work to further the President’s agenda.  When teams are working for an incredible leader and driven by a shared purpose, there is nothing that can stop them.