5 minutes with…Johanna Aiken, cleverbridge HR director

Time and again, cleverbridge has been named on lists of best places to work, so we decided to gather secrets of success from the company's HR director

Johanna Aiken, Human Resources Director at cleverbridge, a global e-commerce provider, helped create a workplace that was recently named among Chicago Business Journal’s Best Places to Work for 2013. Last year, it was also named in Brill Street’s list of Top 50 Employers for Gen Y Emerging Talent in Chicago, and the company’s German office was named #11 in the top 40 IT companies to work for in Germany by Great Place to Work Institute
How did you end up in HR?
Someone recommended HR to me while I was in college because I was a ‘people person’. I started in recruiting, then moved onto training, and developed into a generalist function as there were many aspects within HR that I liked.
Why did you choose to work at cleverbridge?
When I was hired, cleverbridge didn’t have anyone in the HR function. I took the position for 3 reasons: 1) because it was an amazing opportunity to develop a department from scratch; 2) I wanted to make an impact and partner with management and employees to develop the staff and help grow the company; and 3) cleverbridge’s culture is unlike anywhere I’ve ever worked, including the internet Industry during the boom in the 90’s. The office space, entrepreneurial spirit and management accountability is refreshing.
How would you change the HR industry?
So many people see HR as an obstacle – its sole purpose to create and enforce rules. I see HR as an advocate and an advisor. Once people I work with have gotten to know me, they say, “You’re not like the HR person at my last company.” I take that as a compliment. I work hard to get to know the employees, advocating for them, as well as being a business partner for the company, looking out for its best interest. It’s a fine line to walk, but if HR is going to continue to be a valued member of the management team, we have to actively listen to the needs of the company and employees, advocating for programs and resources that will help them both. That means HR shouldn’t be sitting in an office all the time – they should walk the floor, get to know the staff and let people see they are a real person too.  HR should be proactively asking questions and suggesting solutions, whether that be hiring more staff, training where there’s a knowledge gap, or suggesting a change to a process/policy that is cumbersome or antiquated.
What has been the highlight of your career?
I don’t think I’ve had one yet. I still feel like a sponge, taking in information and learning how to consistently be a better HR professional. I would hope a highlight of my career would be to grow and develop staff to be promoted and know they’re successful, in part, because I helped develop them.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve done on the job?
Our company gets very into dressing up for Halloween - we even have a costume fashion show and pumpkin carving contest. My first year here, I dressed head to toe in a Goth costume, putting white makeup on my face, with heavy black eyeliner and lipstick, and I straightened my curly hair. Some employees were shocked, others didn’t even know who I was under all the makeup and costume. I love Halloween and felt the more outlandish the costume, the more employees would see me as Johanna – just a regular person who likes Halloween rather than the HR Director.
Complete this sentence: If I wasn’t in HR, I would be… a pastry chef and an owner of a bakery. I love to bake and planned to go to culinary school after college. I withdrew from culinary school 5 days prior to starting, deciding I wanted to try my hand at HR…


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