“Keep true to your core values, operate with integrity, and do the best you can.”
With Nicole Keegan, VP of People Operations for CMT
How do you handle imposter syndrome?
In our second edition of Women in Leadership, CMT’s VP of People Operations, Nicole Keegan, shares her advice on how to cope with imposter syndrome, the north star she gives her team, and how to balance what’s important to you both professionally and personally.
Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CMT: Hi Nicole. Thanks for joining me today. To start off, can you tell me about your role as VP of People Operations?
Nicole: I may be biased, but I think I have the best job at the company. I lead our people functions. So that is HR, Talent, Operations, and Diversity and Development. Our group manages everything in the employee lifecycle. So, from the second we decide that we have a vacancy and a need to hire, our team handles finding that talent, bringing them on board, and setting them up for success in their role, making sure they are happy and engaged and motivated while they’re here and take care of literally everything and anything in between.
And then of course the more standard and operational and administrative functions that come along with that like payroll, compliance, facilities, and kind of keeping the lights on. That’s how we joke about it. Basically, everything and anything that has to do with people comes through us. I feel really lucky because we get to have our hands in a little bit of everything and get to know everybody.
CMT: You were recently promoted to VP and I heard you have a really awesome story of how you found out about the promotion. Can you share that with us?
Nicole: I will literally never forget it. I was a Senior HR Director and I’ve been with the company for four and a half years, so I’ve been with the company for a while. I was hired when there was about 30 of us. And now we’re going to be 500 either at the end of this year or very soon. We’re in the 400s now and rapidly growing. I’ve been with the company through a lot and as most people know we went through a really big merger last year between CMT and TrueMotion. It’s just been a crazy year and so busy, especially for people operations. For mergers, in particular, people operations work is the heavy-handed part in the beginning, putting two companies together with the legal and administrative piece and also merging two cultures, teams, and environments.
It’s been a whirlwind of a year and it was in March-April time, kind of between the months, I was going on PTO and it was my last phone call of the day and it was our CEO calling me and he just wanted to tell me the good news. I had no idea that I was being promoted to VP. I could not believe it. I was literally packing my kids up to go to Disney for a week and it was just so wonderful. It was just the most wonderful phone call. I was really caught off guard and he was just thanking me for such a hard year and just making sure that I was taking the week truly off, that I wouldn’t answer phone calls and emails and really take space for myself to be with my kids.
We had never been to Disney — my husband had never been, my mom… it was a big family vacation. I got nervous too. I was thinking I just got promoted to VP, I have to open my laptop and start working harder. And I actually took a week off. No one called me, he didn’t call me, no one called me and I didn’t get emails. It was a truly shut-off period. I remember the whole time, the reason it was so special to me is because I was like in what world do I get promoted as Vice President and get to take a week off to be in Disney, unbothered, with my two wonderful kids. I just felt like I hit a gold mine of luckiness.
CMT: How do you manage being a mom and full-time VP?
Nicole: It is having two full-time jobs. And I think it’s two things. One is having a support system and that’s both [at home and at work]. I have such a huge support system at CMT (and I know I keep mentioning them and it’s not fake). I have such a support system in the company. When I need to be in the company, I am supported and have cheerleaders. And when I need to leave mid-day to go to a doctor’s appointment with my kids or a piano lesson or if something, my children are babies, so that doesn’t apply… but there’s always something with kids. I have that support system in the company.
This is super important: I have a supportive family. I think it was really important early on for me to establish that I am career-focused and I am really passionate about CMT, HR, and my employees. I see them as a second family. So, I’ve always made that really clear with my partner, my husband, my mom, and everyone in my personal life. And I’ve never been made to feel guilty about that.
CMT: How do you manage challenges and stresses at work?
Nicole: I mean, it is hard. Especially in a company like ours that is constantly growing. There is always work to be done. I was actually just saying this in a one-to-one with someone on my team quite recently. I think particularly as a people ops professional in HR, I think you need to invest in stress management techniques and coping skills as much as you need to invest in your HR knowledge or technical knowledge.
In this type of role, we are dealing with people. And that can be so emotional and stressful. And we care so much about our employees that it’s really hard to kind of shut off at the end of the day because you want to help people. That’s why most people are in HR. Particularly early in my career, I was awful at this. It’s not even just about shutting off and not physically working, it’s one thing to close your laptop. It’s another when you can’t stop thinking about work. That’s something I was really bad at early on in my career. I’ve had to have that boundary and carve out space of like you have to invest in stress management techniques, you have to invest in ways to shut off.
It’s something I feel like I am relatively good at now. I think it’s because I love both things in my life so much that when I’m at work, I am fully focused. Like obviously if something popped up, my husband would call me or text me if it was a true emergency, I would of course pivot toward my family and children. But when I’m at work I am so, like blinders-on-a-horse-focused. Likewise, when I close that laptop at night, my children deserve that type of attention and care. So I’ve just had to train my brain and whether you have an end-of-the-day routine, or you do something to trick your brain to start shutting down and focusing on home life. Whether it’s your commute, or music you listen to, something to kind of decompress. When I’m with my children, I feel like they deserve my entire attention, and so does CMT when I’m on the clock. So I’ve just tried to really have that boundary and treat both entities the same.
CMT: People in the workforce often wonder if they have to choose between having a family and pursuing a career. Luckily, at CMT, we don’t have to choose and can do both. For those people who do not work for a flexible and family-friendly company, can you share a piece of advice?
Nicole: I had a mentor early on in my career and they were like you are a talented person and a company would be lucky to have you, so choose one that deserves you. I think that was really powerful advice. That’s how I feel every day — it’s a relationship. I choose CMT and CMT chooses me. It’s mutually beneficial.
You have to choose what’s important to you. For me, that is first and foremost my children and family. And then, secondary is my career. I am so stupidly passionate about CMT and our team. When I’m not with my family, I genuinely want to be working — that’s how much I love my job.
CMT: Those are two great pieces of advice. Know your worth and value, and checking in on your priorities is not only great work advice but great life advice.
Nicole: I don’t do either perfectly, but it’s something I’m striving for. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I have imposter syndrome. I think so many women do. It’s so hard to be an advocate for yourself and recognize your worth without seeming conceited, or like you have an ego. It’s such a delicate balance. So many women face this internal conflict of “Oh, I’m not good enough. But don’t say you’re too good, because you don’t want people to think you’re boastful.” It was a female mentor who gave me that advice of you deserve to be here and you deserve to take up space. You are talented. A company gets to deserve to have you. You get to choose who that is. Don’t settle. That is something I still try to strive for.
CMT: Do you think once you “make it” to a certain career level, the imposter syndrome goes away?
Nicole: I’m a VP now and it’s still there. I know we were saying this earlier, but now I am in these executive calls with all the other VPs, presidents, chief executives, and it’s so intimidating because these are such intelligent and wonderful people and I can feel really intimidated — like I don’t deserve to speak up in these meetings. Like, you’re there to listen and to be quiet — you don’t have the experience. I report to our CEO, Bill. He’s been so empowering, like “No, no, you can speak up even if I don’t have the answers. You’re allowed to brainstorm and ask questions and not be right.”
I love the Brené Brown quote, “You don’t have to be right. You have to get it right.” And that means not always expecting to have the answers. That’s something our CEO has really worked with me on and coaching me. Like just speak up. And it’s okay if I don’t have the right answer. You’re in the room to help the company get it right. That’s something I’m working on. And it’s helping a bit with the imposter syndrome.
CMT: How do you manage your team when they come to you about an issue?
Nicole: It’s funny how you can give all this advice to other people, and then you’re so harsh on yourself. Like you really are your worst critic. I was just saying to someone that I was coaching that all you can do is have your core values as a person, operate with integrity, and do the best you can with the information that you have. That’s all we can do.
A lot of the stuff in HR, there is no right answer. It’s all gray. There are multiple ways you can do something, multiple ways different people would do something, and you just have to make the one that feels right to your values. Act with integrity. And if it was the wrong choice, we’ll fix it.