Peter Ramjug pivoted from a wire service journalism career to writing and strategizing executive communications. He helps thought leaders gather their thoughts.
Peter RamjugMarch 5, 2024
Topics: Customer Stories

Trained as a Psychologist, She Got into HR by Accident and Has Never Looked Back

At first blush, Michelle Kligman’s rise to the pinnacle of the Human Resources profession would strike some people as rather unorthodox. 

She had a successful private psychology practice in Manhattan before her current position as Senior Vice President of Human Resources for Jackson Health, a large hospital system in Miami with about 15,000 employees.

Jackson is structured as a taxpayer-owned system that guarantees care for all residents of Miami-Dade County. The non-profit remains firmly committed to the bottom line, but not so it can make a buck for buck’s sake. Rather, it’s to drive successful outcomes for patients without nickel and diming them. “We give everybody that VIP kind of service,” Kligman said.

So much for the old “no margins, no money, no mission” mandate about finances. Jackson finds it possible to do both money and mission.

The leap she made from private practice doesn’t seem so strange when taking into account what she witnessed growing up in Miami. It was there she saw Jackson’s impact on the city’s large community of Haitians and Cubans seeking health care. Jackson’s policy is to never turn anyone away, regardless of their ability to pay.

“I saw that growing up, and so that plays a huge part in my connection to Jackson and being able to be a part of the amazing mission of this organization.”

In addition to overseeing talent acquisition and other HR operations, Kligman takes pride in making sure the culture of the organization is aligned with the business side. “But more than that, I am the friend, confidant, and therapist for our team,” she said. “We have a very cohesive team and I think that's the secret sauce that makes this HR team work.”

Finding Purpose in Mental Health

More than a thousand miles separate Miami from Manhattan. Kligman’s journey to the Big Apple was fueled by post-doc studies at Columbia University. After graduating, she hung a shingle on 5th Avenue and 37th Street with a few colleagues and was well on her way to fulfilling a dream of helping people with mental health issues.

“It was a great way to enter into that world,” she recalled of her time in New York City.

Getting Into HR By Accident

Kligman’s career pivot into HR came about by happenstance. She was working for a firm that analyzed executives who were struggling with leadership issues when she had a light bulb moment.

“I started recognizing that a lot of the dynamics that I was seeing in my private practice were playing out at the executive level in the way that they lead people, but they never treated those issues,” she said. “They didn't have enough sense to have some self-reflection and they never went to therapy. So they were like, ‘Why am I having a hard time leading people in the workplace?’”

She instantly saw the connection. The executives were carrying their personal dysfunction into the workplace, and it was having a negative impact on the way they lead people. No one had ever made that connection for the executives until Kligman brought it up.

“That was kind of my putting my toe in the water in the HR space and then it evolved from there,” she said. Kligman started getting bigger assignments and was doing more work on organizational health matters. She even worked with companies that were in the process of being acquired to help them understand the mixing of different cultures.

Related reading: How Are You? The CHRO’s Role in Destigmatizing Mental Health

The transition into HR was now set in motion. And it all came as a result of Kligman’s desire to help people be their best. But not everyone gets to follow their passion, either because of excuses (“I don’t have the right background”) or they don’t exactly know what their calling is. But it’s OK not to know, Kligman assured.

Listen to Intuition

The biggest gift people can give themselves is intuition. “Ruling out is just as important as selecting in” when it comes to a career, she advised. “Because you don't want to go into a career that you're not going to be passionate about.”

Profound words coming from someone who invested all this time and energy to be a licensed psychologist, yet she still listened to that little voice. It would be natural to think that as a person becomes certified in a particular field of study and has accrued knowledge, that the likelihood of doing a career about-face diminishes greatly. I mean, what does it take for someone to knowingly start out again on the bottom rung of the career ladder?

“It takes courage,” Kligman said.

Mentorship vs. Advocacy

The conversation pivoted to the difference between mentors and advocates, an important subject since most people will spend a good 80% of their lives working.

Mentors, Kligman explained, are those who will take others who are less experienced under their professional wings and show them the ropes. Advocates, on the other hand, are people in the organization with influence who will put in a good word on behalf of someone with potential.

“I always say you don't make it alone. So it's important for you to have mentors, and it's even more important to have advocacy,” she said. For women supporting one another, it’s even more so. “We hear a lot about how catty women could be, particularly when they get to certain levels of an organization. It's really frowned upon now.”

Helping one another takes on greater importance considering the immense expectations people face when they land a big leadership role. The assumption is that the new leader has it all together and doesn’t need help from anyone. But that’s not necessarily true, Kligman said.

“It’s scary”

“Everybody's scared when they go into a new leadership role.”

That was certainly the case when she accepted an HR role for the city of Miami, her first formal HR leadership position.

Other HR leaders can certainly relate to the mixed emotions of their first big role. Excitement sometimes gives way to Imposter Syndrome. But others can learn from Kligman’s experience by falling back on past experiences or skills as well as thinking about leveraging the strengths of their teams.

“I don't pretend to be good at everything, but I rely on the people on my team who may have a strength that I just don’t have,” she said.

Sage advice, and a great note to close on. 

Do you have a mentor or advocate who vouched for you on your way up the ladder? Did skills from one role transfer over to another role? Check out all you need to know about skills right here.

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