Living Your Truth, Fueling Your Passions, and Leading with Courage

Martha May | CHRO, Varsity Brands

Martha May understands the value of self-reflection — and she’s a better HR professional because of it.

Martha, the Chief Human Resources Officer at billion-dollar academic apparel company Varsity Brands, realized something was awry several years ago while working for another firm. She felt she couldn’t move forward professionally without facing a truth that she’d long hidden: she’s attracted to women.

So, she separated from her then-husband and eventually married her wife. 

“I’m so grateful for … what that’s done to even further my authentic self in all relationships, in all aspects of my life,” Martha says. 

On this episode, host Mark Minner speaks with Martha and the Performance Lab’s Managing Director Rebecca Ellis about her biggest takeaways from 2020, how her passion fuels her work, and why it’s important to learn from your mistakes rather than run from them.

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Meet Martha May

Martha May joined Varsity Brands, the market leader in team sports, school spirit and achievement recognition, as Chief Human Resources Officer in June 2019. Her focus is to help engineer positive cultural shifts within the organization, instill a mission-based approach to elevate student experiences, create talent and inclusion initiatives that attract the very best people and develop incentive programs that drive alignment and growth.

Martha’s career affirms a unique ability to ensure that organizations harness their most important asset – their people – in pursuit of sustainable growth and a positive, inclusive culture.  Immediately prior to joining Varsity Brands, she served as EVP, Chief People and Inclusion Officer at The Freeman Company, one of the world’s leading brand experience companies.  In this capacity, Martha helped establish the human resources business partner service model as a part of the company’s human capital strategy while overseeing the successful delivery of strategies and programs to support Freeman’s business objectives.

Martha earlier served as SVP, Human Resources for Rockwell Collins where she played a critical role in achieving substantial employee engagement across the business, and significant inorganic business growth. In 2013, she was recognized as one of Diversity Journal’s “Women Worth Watching,” and in 2015 was further recognized as one of the defense industry’s most powerful women by Army Technology.

May began her career at American Airlines, where she spent more than 15 years ascending from frontline customer service roles to employee and labor relations to general management positions and, eventually, to lead organizational effectiveness in human resources. In 2006 she subsequently joined Bell Helicopter and became the CHRO leading all human resources functions, including compensation, benefits, talent acquisition and diversity. 

May earned her B.A. in Speech Communication with a concentration in Mass Media and Public Relations. She lives with her wife between residences in Texas and Florida and is very proud of their 16-year-old daughter, who is a sophomore in high-school and an avid volleyball player.


Show Notes

Martha May, the Chief Human Resources Officer at academic apparel company Varsity Brands, realized something was awry several years ago while working for another firm. While setting goals for a new year, Martha felt she couldn’t move forward professionally without confronting a long-hidden truth: she’s attracted to women.

So, she separated from her then-husband and eventually married her now wife. 

“I’m so grateful for the acceptance — and in particular, my wife’s mom and my daughter’s ability to see the strength of our love and just what that’s done to even further my authentic self in all relationships, in all aspects of my life,” Martha says. 

On this episode of Human Resolve, host Mark Minner speaks with Martha and The Performance Lab’s Managing Director, Rebecca Ellis, about Martha’s biggest takeaways from 2020, how her passion fuels her work, and the importance of putting yourself in your customer’s shoes. 

Martha also shares why it’s important to learn from our mistakes rather than run from them. She describes one such experience from 2009, while in the middle of labor negotiations during the nation’s longest strike that year. 

After six months of working long hours and missing quality time with her 5-year-old daughter, Martha received nothing but criticism from her boss. She was at a breaking point — but rather than leave her job, Martha chose to stay and reflect on what had gone wrong. 

“I could leave and go out and go around the problem, or I could go through it and be changed by it. Only when I got through to the other side did I feel like I was kind of released to take on and consider other opportunities,” she says. “That, I think, has been probably the most pivotal moment in my leadership journey.”

Notable Quotes

HR banding together to make an impact

“Whether it was in sports or even in the rare circumstances where we actually had snowfall in North Carolina, where I grew up, it was me that kind of rallied the troops in the neighborhood. We figured out how to build an igloo — by the way, it didn’t work so well at the top part, but we just put a sheet on it and kind of called it done — so I would just say I love the ability to pour into other people and help them dream bigger than they ever maybe thought possible and realize those aspirations. So this is the perfect role for me.”

Looking backward to move forward

“I tried to, at the end of each engagement, … reflect on what about this person’s approach can I take away and embed in my mind? Can I learn and kind of take that tool and put it in my toolbox? And what do I not want to repeat? What didn’t work for me or for the people I was supporting that I want to make sure I’m intentional about doing? By the way, I did that when I changed jobs, too.”

Molding your leadership style after your heroes

“I figured out what kind of leader I wanted to be based on what kind of leaders I had. And as I started growing in my scope of responsibilities, influencing skills became so much more important than domain expertise. That was important and kind of a ticket to entry, but more about ‘How do you convince and influence others’ decision-making?’ because in most instances in HR, the decisions really aren’t yours. They’re yours to influence, but they are other people’s call — typically the P and L owners.”

Putting yourself in your customer's shoes

“One of the things that I often talk about when I’m mentoring others around their career path is how valuable it was for me to sit in the chair and in the shoes of my customer. So I spent as many times and had as many roles as a general manager or frontline supervisor, ultimately running terminal B and then terminal C at DFW. … When you do that, and then you come back to HR, those are your customers. And having a chance to sort of sit in their shoes gives you a really different perspective on the job that you have to do. And so I think I’ve benefited and probably approached HR very differently as a result.”

Learning from your mistakes

“There were still moments after that [six months of tough labor negotiations] that I imagined it would have been easier to just leave. Just go somewhere else. I had plenty of job opportunities. Search firms were calling me. But then I remembered a quote that I heard Marshall Goldsmith say, which is ‘You take you with you wherever you go.’ And I thought there’s something in this I’m supposed to learn. There’s something about the way I approached this that needs to change in order for me to not have to make the same mistake again.”

Monitoring your happiness

“I remember in that moment, deciding that it wasn’t OK to not be as fulfilled at home as I was at work. I’d made all this impact in the organization, I felt like I’d really built great partnerships, but why did I not feel like that at home? And so I made the difficult decision to separate from my then-husband and only in doing that, and kind of expressing that intention did a whole other sort of set of realms open up for me to realize that since I was little, I’ve always been attracted to women. I never saw that as like a physical charge, I always saw it as admiration, until I met my now wife. … I don’t think, if I had not taken that step, that I would have ever even let myself be me.”

An impactful D&I policy requires patience

“You have to first create an openness for a mindset shift to happen. And so that’s happening in our company through dialogue and discussion. So we’ve had three or four sessions with the executive team really accelerating the dialogue around inclusivity. What does it mean to be an inclusive leader? And we’re not measuring your leadership skills and then your inclusion skills. You have a responsibility and an obligation to be inclusive because we get the best outcomes for our people and for the organization and the communities we serve when we do that.. … It’s not going to be overnight that we change it, but it’s one conversation and one person at a time.”

An org that fuels your passions

“One of the reasons I joined this organization is not just because of our mission around elevating student experiences and how relevant that was personally for me with a daughter in high school — but because I think all of us remember those moments in middle school and high school where you just wanted to crawl under a rock and die, right? Because of something that happened or something someone said. And so those formidable years — if we can change the way that human beings interact and treat one another in that moment — in those moments, we can change the way the nation treats each other. We can change the world we live in. That’s what gets my heart all jazzed and excited about doing this work.”

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