Insights from a CHRO: Harvard Law School’s Roxanne Armbruster

When Roxanne Armbruster, the new assistant dean and CHRO at Harvard Law School, joined the U.S. Coast Guard in 2000, she served on a buoy tender.

“It was a fun and interesting experience if you like climbing up slimy buoys and scraping off all the crustaceans and all the different sea life that grows inside of them,” she says, adding that she spent the next seven years in the military practicing HR as a yeoman.

Since then, she has earned a master’s degree at Northeastern University in corporate and organizational communication and held several civilian HR jobs before accepting her current position in July.

HRE spoke with Armbruster to learn about her professional experiences, personal interests and HR insights.

Roxanne Armbruster

HRE: What are some key differences between practicing HR in the military and as a civilian?

Armbruster: In a civilian role, [employers] can’t put you in Fort Leavenworth or make you do manual labor. They can’t lock you in your house when you do something wrong. They can’t take away your pay and they can’t tell you to pick up and move your entire family every four years, regardless of whether or not you want to go anywhere.

HRE: You say that your current job was more than you anticipated. How so?

Armbruster: There’s a large group of us who meet regularly to talk about matters across the school. Then there’s a smaller group of us who meet occasionally to talk about what we’re doing in our particular school. We share best practices and learn from each other’s experiences. I [didn’t anticipate] such a rich community of peers to engage with.

HRE: Every occupation has its ups and downs. What was your worst HR experience?

Armbruster: I found myself in a role in an organization where my values were not in alignment with the values of the organization or culture. It’s particularly challenging as a lead because we’re in the people business, and people tend to be the ones who suffer first when you’re in a damaged culture.

HRE: What future challenges do you envision for HR professionals?

Armbruster: [Offering our expertise] in business operations and strategy alongside our people insight in a way that adds value … advances the goals of the organization and, ultimately, drives growth for the business. [We also must be] responsive to any potential economic softening, which would impact our business, the way we do business. We’ll continually be challenged to [think] how work will be done, by whom and where. There are things we can be doing to positively reinforce behavior. I hope that, in five years, we’ve made a lot of progress in understanding what that looks like and how to make it excellent and get the most value from the process.

HRE: How will you improve the HR function at Harvard?

Armbruster: [I plan to] engage everyone, staff included, in the intellectual life of the school. I’m also going to be focused on how we communicate our value as an employer to the community. We have so much to offer as an employer, and I don’t think that information is as robust as I’d like it to be. I’ll also focus on the way we do the work of HR. There are a lot of internal processes that I’d like to reimagine, really with an eye toward excellence and the employee and client experiences.

HRE: What career advice would you offer someone entering the HR field?

Armbruster: Find an organization that shares your values and [exposes you] to all of the different elements.  Find something that’s interesting, commit a few good years to it, develop skills so you’re one of the best people doing it. Don’t be afraid to make changes. As you continue to progress in your career, your experiences in multiple industries in different elements of HR will only make you more valuable to an employer.”

HRE: What are your own career plans?

Armbruster: I want to be doing something interesting, exciting and continue to be learning and expand my skill set in different ways. I’d like to know that I’m adding value and developing and challenging HR professionals along the way. Those are the things that are very meaningful to me.

HRE: You mentioned you’re an above-average baker. What else can you share about Roxanne, the person?

Armbruster: I’m very much the same person at work as I am outside of work. I’m an insanely proud mother, a loving wife and decent skier, although I imagine myself to be far better than I basically am.

HRE: After a long day at work, how do you unwind?

Armbruster: I usually hit my basement gym and try to get a quick workout. In the winter, I may scramble [my family] in the car and head to the local ski mountain and get in half a dozen runs before they shut the lights off at 10 p.m. If I can have a glass of wine in front of the fire, that’s fantastic. If I just finished watching a [TV] episode of West Wing, that’s even better.

To nominate yourself or another HR leader to be interviewed in Insights from a CHRO, email [email protected]

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