An Interview with Kirsten Hawley of Brown-Forman Corporation

At a company with a 150-year history, its culture, tradition, and values inform everything HR does.

For a company with a 150-year history that includes five generations of family of the original founder, George Garvin Brown, Brown-Forman Corporation, based in Louisville and best known for its flagship Jack Daniel’s Whiskey, is all about values and culture. As Senior Vice President and Chief HR & Communications Officer, Kirsten Hawley’s top HR priorities include attending to the culture to make Brown-Forman a great place to work, for everyone.

One of the ways HR contributes to that is through a program and process called “Targeted Selection” of candidates when hiring.

“We do behavioral-based interviews for core competencies, but we also look for five behaviors that align with our vision and purpose,” Hawley says.

The behaviors: Be Curious, Be Courageous, Be Collaborative, Be a Champion, and Be Creative, are at the core of everything they do at Brown-Forman, so new hires must embody those qualities from the get-go.

“We are so team focused and collaborative, that if a person is very individually motivated and individually driven, they’re not going to be a good fit here,” she says. “Our core set of values is the price of admission here.”

All of it encompasses one of Hawley’s biggest efforts, a people strategy that mirrors the company’s corporate strategy. She made the shift to thinking about people in the same strategic way the company thinks about business, in terms of talent trends, a people-focused SWOT, human capital metrics, and goals.

One concrete result of that was the reallocation of funds to a talent tracking system.

“We see the war for talent as a threat, and we didn’t have the tools to sufficiently track excellent candidates,” she says.

Integrity, too, is a guiding principle at the company (and in hiring) and is the hallmark of the company’s employer brand.

“Our value of integrity can be traced all the way back to our founding father, George Garvin Brown,” she says. “He was awarded the Integrity Cup from Citizens Bank in 1887, in recognition for the payment of debts after declaring bankruptcy. Garvin Brown was not required to repay these debts, but he did anyway. Why? Because he was a man of integrity, who knew the difference between right and wrong, and in knowing that difference, chose right.”

At Brown-Forman headquarters, that Integrity Cup — an actual silver trophy — is displayed in the lobby as a symbol of their belief that having integrity matters.

“It’s been 130 years since he received that cup, but still today, stories circulate from employees, partners, suppliers, and others about our company’s integrity. George Garvin Brown inspired that in all of us, was recognized for it 130 years ago, and this value is part of our DNA.”

Now, it’s not too difficult to shepherd and uphold the company’s brand, values, and culture when you’re talking about company headquarters in Louisville, home to roughly 1,200 employees. But today, Brown-Forman is a global brand with 3,400 employees across North America, Latin America, Europe, Africa, Australia, and Asia..

“Globally, we can’t have an HQ mindset,” she says. “We share the best parts of our culture while also being mindful of local customs.”

It’s about blending the B-F culture with a country’s culture, and sometimes those two don’t blend as well as whiskey and ice. When customs and culture clash, it’s HR’s problem to fix.

One example: A country where Brown-Forman sells its brands might have a local tradition of offering tips, or even bribes, to people as a means of getting work done. “We have to explain to our employees that it might be a part of local culture, but it’s not how we do business.”

But most of the examples of culture difference come in how countries and the people within them typically deal with important life events — bereavement, personal time off, childbirth, retirement, healthcare. In some countries, benefits are mandated, and the type and length vary greatly. The solution is not creating a one-size-fits-all HR manual.

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“You need to make HR policies collaborative,” she says. And they don’t always get it right. A few years ago, HR sent out a memo to employees about summer hours, an important element of workplace flexibility.

“We got a gentle reminder from our people in the Southern Hemisphere,” Hawley chuckles. “Hey, it’s winter here.”

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