Spending more than 20 years in corporate America can teach you more than a few things. And Joan G. Wilmer likes to share her experiences to help others maneuver the corporate ladder.
As a leader for some of the most respected brands has positioned her to be a highly regarded expert in the human capital management arena. She is an accomplished human resources executive, entrepreneur, community advocate, and public speaker.
Wilmer was previously the Human Resources Director at American Red Cross and both Assistant Vice President and President of Human Resources at Citigroup. Wilmer, who grew up in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, led Caesars Entertainment’s largest and most successful recruitment effort that resulted in over 40,000 applicants and over 2,000 hirees at their new construction venture in Baltimore, Maryland. She also created Citigroup’s Employment of Choice strategy in 13 Southern African countries.
In January 2018, Wilmer was appointed to the Norfolk State University Board of Visitors.
Moreover, she founded the Joan K. Wilmer Memorial Foundation in honor of her late mother. The organization’s mission is to create opportunities and develop minority leaders through mentoring and building stronger families in evolving communities.
TNJ.com interviewed Wilmer about her new role on Norfolk State University’s Board of Visitors and more.
TNJ.com: What are you most excited about having been appointed by Governor Terry McAuliffe to Norfolk State University’s Board of Visitors?
Joan Wilmer: Getting the call from the Governor’s office asking me to be a member of the leadership team entrusted to guide Norfolk State University, an institution that has a rich history and wonderful promise, was humbling and an honor.
I believe in the power and the divine purpose of opportunities that we, African Americans, have opened for ourselves. Through the years, Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) were founded to provide us with opportunity, education and access to an economy and world that has historically been kept from us. These precious institutions have served as a major stepping-stone in the advancement of our people. I’m honored to be a part of that legacy, and with all of the world events that continue to perpetuate history, the need for these institutions is in greater demand.
When I attended Norfolk State University, I was a first-generation college student. My family, a long history of ministers, did the best they could to prepare me for this life experience. Still, I grew up in a small town where access to black history and an understanding of my culture was minimal. Norfolk State University gave me a place where I felt accepted. Students were kept safe, education was placed first, and they treated as if I was the most important person on earth. Moreover, I was given the skills to flourish in my career.
My focus throughout my term is to support the State of Virginia, the Governor, Norfolk State University’s president and staff as a trustee who comes with deep roots in corporate America, executive experience in building new and evolving organizations, and a leader who has a passion for learning and seeing others succeed. In turn, I aim to focus on enterprise strategies and governance on the students to ensure they graduate with excellence.
TNJ.com: What has been the major challenge you faced in climbing up the corporate ladder?
Joan Wilmer: The major challenge I faced is representation.
Prior to working on Wall Street, I worked full time as an entry-level human resources professional with organizations such as Nations Bank, which is now Bank of America, and INROADS, Incorporated. At the same time, I also attended graduate school full time at the University of Texas in pursuit of a MBA degree. Whether I was in a classroom or partnering with human capital leaders (as a member of the INROADS, Incorporated professional development team) at Frito Lay, Transamerica or the “big eight” accounting firms, I was often the only one (or two) woman and/or person of color.
The challenges back then included the representation of women and minorities seated at the table, which is still a problem today. Low representation can stifle inclusion, someone’s voice, thought leadership, opportunity and professional growth. Therefore, I had to learn how to navigate those environments, which helped me grow and thrive with value. Through the years, I have learned–and am still learning–strategies for women and minorities to increase our presence in the C-Suite as executives. We have made great strides, but there is still much work to be done.
TNJ.com: How did you overcome this challenge?
Joan Wilmer: I’m a relationship builder, and the key to building relationships is getting to know people and becoming a part of their environment. This doesn’t mean becoming the environment. But instead, it means I had to take time to learn who was around me, which included those who looked like me and those who didn’t look like me.
I also took the time to learn the various organizations I worked for so that I could truly become a part of them. I knew the numbers of these organizations, I took the time to study their history, I knew their positions in the marketplace, and I focused on delivering results in my role that went well beyond what was expected.
In turn, all of this helped me to build credibility and a solid brand. It allowed me to build relationships with my corporate leaders who grew to trust my advisement. Moreover, it allowed me to have influence, so when leadership roles became available and leaders were developing slates for candidates, I was equipped to provide the sound consultation they wanted (and needed) to hear.
TNJ.com: What do you feel is the most common mistake professional women make in their rise up the ladder?
Joan Wilmer: The most common mistake professional women make is feeling like they have to do their jobs alone. Too often, women believe they should be the only woman at the table, too. This stems from not recognizing the value in increasing representation. With stronger representation comes greater advocacy, influence, mentorship, and development across the board.
TNJ.com: What do you feel is the biggest misconception of Black female executives?
Joan Wilmer: The biggest misconception of Black female executives is that we don’t know our businesses. When it comes to promotions, the magic question that affects who makes the list is, “How well does she know the business?” This includes knowing “product” and the “key players” plus winning over the trust of others. Those in charge need to know we can handle the great responsibilities associated with executive-level roles. To ensure our readiness as black women, we need to start early. Training for careers in corporate America should be instituted as early as grade school through leadership programs and should reach a broader footprint of participants than they do now.
TNJ.com: What advice would you give to women working in industries dominated by men?
Joan Wilmer: It’s important to become engaged and to be seen as a member of your team. This approach has so many benefits. Not only will you learn more about your organization and aspects of its culture, but you’ll also note what’s important to the company’s bottom line and strategy plus how decisions are made.
Don’t strive to stay “busy” just for the sake of staying busy. Instead, strive to add value. People can read between the lines and distinguish between the two.
Keep yourself in a continuous learning mode. You’ll open yourself up to endless possibilities and outstanding mentorship if stay hungry to learn. Some of the most amazing leaders I work with are curious, meaning they ask questions and request for others to teach them what they don’t know. In turn, they have more talents to leverage in the long haul.
Get a career team! This should include three figures: (1) a sponsor, (2) a champion, and (3) a mentor. A sponsor is someone who can vouch for your work ethic. A champion is someone who can aid you in getting noticed for your work ethic. A mentor is someone who trains you and gives you the tools to build upon your work ethic.
In addition to your day-to-day operations, investigate where else you can add value and solidify your brand within your organization. Be flexible; don’t be afraid of rolling up your sleeves to help. I moved a lot in my career, and staying open to new opportunities led to me becoming a leader in demand.
Lastly, you’ve got to believe that working with and supporting other women is a great thing. Don’t think collaborating with those who aren’t men will hinder your exposure or growth. There is power in numbers.