Kelly Gray, Senior Vice President, Human Resources, FedEX Ground

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As Senior Vice President of Human Resources for FedEx Ground, Kelly Gray oversees all aspects of human resource initiatives and support for the company. Her responsibilities include setting the strategic direction for workforce planning and development for the more than 61,000 team members that make up FedEx Ground. With more than 30 years’ experience, Gray’s scope of human resources includes compensation, benefits and administrative systems development. She has held leadership roles and contributed to corporate growth through critical HR initiatives including the successful integration of merging company benefit programs, the successful conversion of multiple systems to a common platform and the effective development of a compensation programming to retain talent following corporate mergers. A founding member of the Memphis Business Group on Health, she served as a board member and chairperson of the Quality Measurement Committee. Gray currently serves on the board of directors for the National Business Group on Health and is Chair of the Institute for Workforce Innovation and Well Being. Gray earned her bachelor’s degree in Health Care Management from the University of Alabama. She is also the winner of the HR Leadership Award from Pittsburgh Business Times in 2012.

Read Gray’s full bio at the end of the LifeChat

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Key Takeaways:

On personal development:

  • You have to know what you want, because sometimes you get pulled and people will try to convince you otherwise. Be secure and firm in those decisions
  • women who are going to be in leadership positions need to be strong mentally and be confident
  • Make the best of situations that are presented to you

On being a good leader:

  • Create a culture focused on promotion from within
  • The measure of a successful leader is whether they have someone ready to take their place
  • I don’t think you can be a good leader if you’re not listening

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Lifechat with Kelly Gray:

Your move to FedEx Ground came with a significant pay cut and position change from Vice President in your former company to a manager level position. Why FedEx?

That probably is the most powerful decision point I have in my story, and it happened about fifteen years ago. I was in the hospitality business, and I had already made a decision that I was ready for a change. The motivation basically was that I wanted to work for a world-class organization like FedEx, a company that was all about people, and a place to learn about quality. It was difficult for me to make that decision because I had been at the hospitality company for seventeen years. But I was no longer quite as passionate as I had been about the things I was doing there. I had done some collaborative work with peer groups at FedEx, so I knew some individuals I could talk to about my desire to work at FedEx. But I was met with some resistance…“We don’t hire officers from the outside, Kelly”, and I said, “Yes I know that.” They would also say “We’re hard to come work for, we make you jump through hoops, and have tests and panel interviews…” and I said “I understand that.”  But nothing deterred me. I was persistent, and I was finally offered a manager position, in health planning and analysis.

I’m sure you had some self-doubts. What advice would you give to someone who has to make such a drastic career move?

I was stepping out of a Vice President role – where I was one of two people responsible for all HR functions, responsible for the agenda that went to the directors, board of directors compensation, executive compensation, human recources systems, benefits – into a role with a much narrower set of responsibilities but I was really okay with that because I came to FedEx to learn about the transportation and logistics business and the company. Going from a vice president to a manager position, I did have to take a significant pay cut, a 30% cut in bonus opportunity, and I gave up all equity awards. To be perfectly honest, there was not a person in my life, except for a couple of girlfriends, who thought I was sane. This is where I come back to some of the lessons to teach others. You have to know what you want, you have to make those decisions, because sometimes you get pulled and people will try to convince you otherwise. You have to be secure and firm in those decisions. For me, I do a lot of listening from within and it’s intuition that guides me, so I knew it was what I needed to do. I viewed it as an investment in my future, and look, it turned out okay.

You’ve credited a particular individual, as someone who was instrumental in helping you jumpstart your career so many years ago. What did Neil see in you that you didn’t see in yourself at the time?

Neil, a vitally important mentor early in my career, gave me the confidence that I didn’t have. I think he saw more in me and my capabilities than I saw in myself. I was quite young and I wasn’t ready to believe I could do these things. I didn’t have the experience. He gave me the nudge and the helping hand and was always there behind me, supporting me. He just celebrated his 80th birthday a couple of years ago, and a lot of us sent him notes because his family wanted 80 wishes for him on his 80th I still get choked up thinking about it.

Should men take an active role in mentoring and developing women to better succeed in the business world?

I guess I’m a little biased in that all of my mentors have been men. I don’t know if that was a function of who was around me, but I have been fortunate to have male mentors and they definitely can play an important role, as they have in my life. Our Chairman (Fred Smith) recently received a letter from a former employee, thanking him for creating a culture focused on promotion from within and women’s leadership and development. She specifically called out two managers she worked with that had really nurtured, mentored, and encouraged her to reach her current level of success. She was leaving the company for personal reasons, but felt compelled to write him and thank him for the experience. I think there are a lot of unsung heroes out there, and some of them do it because the opportunity is there or it’s their nature, or because they are fathers. When the opportunity presents itself, some of them seize it and some of them not so much.

I’m sure you’ve had female mentors too. What does a male mentor bring to the table when mentoring women; what’s the difference?

It didn’t hit me until we started talking about this, but my female mentors are more a part of my network. Even if they were further ahead of me in their careers, they interacted with me on a peer level. For example, a close female mentor would call to warn me about potential pitfalls and that sort of thing. My male mentors approach things from a business standpoint more than a personal standpoint, but having them guide you and tell you that you are doing something right has a strong bent for confidence.

You’ve had a lot of support in your career, how has that motivated you to want to help other women develop a network of support?

About three years ago we started a women’s leadership movement at FedEx Ground. This movement brought together some of our high potential female leaders, particularly those who are out in the field in male dominated environments, to interact with some of my peer female directors and officers. These were women they could look up to and say, “They’ve actually made it where I want to go”.  We had them talk very practically about how to get to the next level in their careers and how to develop themselves. Practical, down to earth conversations about  “Here’s how I got where I am,” and “Here are the challenges you are facing…here is what you need to do about them,” and “Don’t let them say those things to you” and “Don’t let them get you down” and “Here’s how you tell them how you want to be treated”. Grassroots meetings mirroring this particular gathering began to spring up all across the country, and at the end of these meetings, we tell participants that if they’ve learned anything at all or have been helped in anyway, they have an obligation to pay it forward; find someone else they think might benefit from this knowledge and pay it forward. And I think that simple call to action is really what started it all.

We also started a formal women’s leadership program that brings together a group of women in different management functions and business areas across the company. In addition to the year-long learning experience offered by this program, we’ve found the most powerful aspect to be the networking. Women whose paths might normally never cross are now trusted colleagues, even friends.

I also work with smaller groups within FedEx Ground and with other young women outside the company that I’ve met in the community. We collaborate on initiatives to give back to the community.

Diversity and Inclusion is a priority for you and FedEx Ground. How has FedEx Ground been able to integrate the value of diversity into the company?

It really is sort of just our way of doing business. There are more structured and formal ways that we’ve also tried to integrate it into our company, including lots of opportunities for collaboration, discussion and knowledge exchange. For example, we have a formalized talent management process that includes intentional and thoughtful discussion about developing a diverse talent pool, because we really want to make sure that our bench for leadership is strong and diverse. That’s what is going to make us more successful and a great place to work; that’s what is going to translate into better business results.

FedEx Ground’s talent management process involves check-ins with our directors and officers twice a year to find out who their successors are and who they are developing. They have to have at least one diverse successor. They must be developing a diverse talent pool and need to tell us what activities they’ve done towards developing that diverse talent pool. We provide suggestions and ideas if they don’t know what to do. This process and their progress is documented, and every year the officer’s share with senior leadership and CEO what they’ve been doing to develop diverse talent. This process has become incredibly effective because there is accountability, and I think this helps move the needle in terms of opportunities for people who are ready to take the next step.

Diversity is a very broad term. What does diversity mean in the FedEx Ground culture?

In this particular example – talent development — we really talk about women and minorities. So we are looking for women and minority candidates for pipeline leadership. When we talk about diversity and inclusion, generally, we are talking about diversity of thought and inclusion of all ideas and perspectives. So that crosses a lot of different definitions.

Some women leaders want to be at “the table” to help lead discussions and not just be a part of it. What’s your advice to women that want their voices to be heard?

You absolutely have to excel at business acumen and know your discipline and your business. That gives you the seat at the table, because that gives you the ability to contribute and the credibility to be heard. It doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman, if you have business acumen and business knowledge, they want to hear from you. I’m very proud and fortunate to work for a CEO at FedEx Ground that has a leadership team that’s 50% female. When we sit at the table, I promise you, it’s not “Okay it’s her turn to talk,” or “It’s his turn to talk.”  We are a team and it’s everyone’s role, their discipline, their area of expertise, and we all contribute to the success of the company. I’m very proud of it! FedEx is also one of the few companies with a Board of Directors that is more than 20% female. If you’re not familiar with the national campaign around the importance of this level of female representation, I encourage you to check out 2020 Women on Boards (www.2020wob.com).

How would your core team at FedEx Ground describe you as a leader?

I work very much as a team player. I have one vice president and several directors, and we all work as a team. So whenever I send out a request for help on a project, etc., I generally send it out broadly to a group because I have a number of people working on multiple projects. We avoid silos and individual assignments, because working with others is more fun and enriching. I think everyone on my team will tell you that I’m tough. They tell me that with gratitude because I make them better by being tough. So if you work for me and you’re good, you’re really good because I set the bar high. And I don’t think we can be world-class if we don’t set the bar high. Also, I am always incredibly focused on development, not just because it’s a passion and responsibility of mine, but I believe it’s my obligation, as well as everyone who reports to me. It’s their obligation to be developing and preparing their replacement or successor. Whether that means moving within the company or outside, it’s their responsibility to have someone ready to step into their shoes. To me the measure of a successful leader is whether they have someone ready to take their place. Finally, I think people will say that I’m about results. What makes someone a good employee, or what makes a world-class organization in HR? It’s about getting results for the business.

Successful leaders have at least 5 mantras that they live by every day. What are your leadership mantras?

I think the most important for me is listening. I don’t think you can be a good leader if you’re not listening. Also, it’s really important to set the example. You have to know the business, have strong acumen in your discipline and in your business. That leads to credibility, which is critical to being effective.

Resiliency. When you’ve been challenged, thrown curve ball, it just makes you much stronger. You aren’t fearful of what can happen next because you’ve already faced similar challenges and you know you can overcome those challenges. I think women who are going to be in leadership positions need to be strong mentally and be confident. Know yourself and your abilities, whether it’s in business acumen, ability to handle stress, or both.

If we were to go back in time, what would you tell a twenty something year old Kelly graduating college today?

Relax. Don’t take everything so seriously. It’s all going to work out. I hated it when people used to say that to me. But it does. I think many people get stressed out that there is supposed to be this detailed plan. You need to just relax and know what you want, what’s important to you and what you enjoy doing. Make the best of situations that are presented to you. Don’t get too pre-planned in what you think your future is going to be, but be ready to be adaptive and flexible to what the future is going to bring to you.

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Full Biography of Kelly Gray:

As Senior Vice President of Human Resources for FedEx Ground, Kelly Gray oversees all aspects of human resource initiatives and support for the company. Her responsibilities include setting the strategic direction for workforce planning and development for the more than 61,000 team members that make up FedEx Ground. FedEx Ground is a leading provider of ground small package delivery services delivering over 5.6 million packages a day throughout the United States and Canada.

Gray assumed her current position in 2011 after serving as Staff Vice President of Human Resources and Chief Diversity Officer for FedEx Corporation. In this role she was responsible for the diversity programs as well as all aspects of health care and human resource initiatives for the portfolio of FedEx operating companies. Prior to this role she was the Vice President of Human Resources for FedEx Express.

With more than 30 years’ experience, Gray’s scope of human resources includes compensation, benefits and administrative systems development. Throughout her career she has held leadership roles and contributed to corporate growth through critical HR initiatives including the successful integration of merging company benefit programs, the successful conversion of multiple systems to a common platform and the effective development of a compensation programming to retain talent following corporate mergers.

Gray earned her bachelor’s degree in Health Care Management from the University of Alabama. A founding member of the Memphis Business Group on Health, she served as a board member and chairperson of the Quality Measurement Committee. Gray currently serves on the board of directors for the National Business Group on Health and is Chair of the Institute for Workforce Innovation and Well Being. In addition, she has served on the advisory boards for Met Life and World at Work and is also a council member of the Conference Board HR Executive Leaders. As an active member of the community, Kelly serves on the RFP Committee for the United Way for Women and is a strong advocate and sponsor for Teach for America. Gray is also the winner of the HR Leadership Award from Pittsburgh Business Times in 2012.