CHROs are increasingly important in the modern boardroom, providing critical insights on succession planning, compensation strategy, people, and culture. In U.S. boardrooms, over two-thirds of companies discuss people and talent matters in their quarterly earnings calls—and in nearly every boardroom and board meeting.

Innovative measures must be taken to ensure workplace and boardroom diversity, leverage and upskill workforces, and achieve strategic outcomes. Often, this is where Industrial/Organizational (I/O) Psychologists enter the field: they are specifically trained to ensure the wellbeing of employees, study human behaviors in the workplace, improve individual and organizational performance, and increase workplace productivity and satisfaction. 

In this article, we discuss industrial/organizational psychology with two women who are practicing in the field: Athena member Mia Mulrennan (a former CHRO and Korn Ferry alum who is an expert in the psychology of people and brands) and Beverly Tarulli (a CHRO/HR executive whose career took her to PepsiCo and Accenture who we recently interviewed for the Third Act podcast.) Learn the role of psychology in the C-suite and boardroom, and a firsthand account of creating impact and rising through the ranks as an I/O psychologist.

The origins of I/O Psychology

I/O Psychology dates back centuries, first emerging in the U.S. in the early twentieth century. Mia recently hosted a Virtual Salon for Athena Alliance members, describing the history and role of I/O Psychologists in the C-suite.

“The industrial side of [I/O Psychology] involves finding the best talent matches for a workplace. That’s the primary component. It involves a lot of research, hypotheses, reliability prediction to the very best capabilities possible,” Mia said. “Industrial psychology itself started before colonial American times. The East India Tea Company was the first to use an assessment, a long questionnaire they used to predict someone’s work performance and whether they would hire them.”

In the U.S., Beverly traces the origins of I/O Psychology back to World War I, “when they were conscripting hundreds and thousands of men. They needed an easy way to try to figure out, ‘Should you be in the artillery?’ So they developed tests to identify what abilities people had so they could sort them.”

There is a clear parallel to their work today, ensuring people are hired for the right roles, skills are developed in the right ways, and outcomes are met across the organization.

I/O Psychologists in the C-suite & boardroom

Today, Industrial-Organizational Psychologists apply their expertise in modern companies, helping energize employees, galvanize HR practices, and achieve business outcomes.

“We aim to find the very, very best people for the company and for the role. Finding the very, very best person to be on a board. Finding the very, very best person as a CEO,” Mia explained.

Then, they help set metrics and create processes to ensure those hires are successful in their roles.

“What I-O psychologists do is actually measure ‘In this organization, what should leadership look like?’” Mia said. “There is no such thing as an overall definition of leadership. For this company, what this company does and wants to accomplish, for our strategic goals and for our direction, and for the growth we want to pursue—what is our definition of leadership?”

Think about the typical story of a sales leader who was the best salesperson on the team, so they were promoted to manage the sales team. They were a great salesperson, but they are a not-so-great manager because sales are where their interests, skills, and passions lie.

“There’s a major problem there, because in their role now, the skills and capabilities that got them there have absolutely nothing to do with what’s expected of them as a leader,” Mia said. 

For companies and boards, there is evidence that you should invest in your HR and people function. Supporting employees and ensuring skill/labor fit is critical for the success and longevity of your organization. As Mia states, you don’t want to get to the point where “the board and CEO are looking at the overall scope of the company and asking themselves, ‘How did we get here? What went wrong? Why is this not happening?’ It comes down to psychology.”

Beverly’s path to the C-suite and beyond

Beverly’s path to the C-suite as an HR leader started at Bell South in Atlanta doing human resources research, where she created and validated employment tests.

“I was the person who was doing all of the job analysis to identify what skills were needed and then created the tests,” Beverly said. “Sometimes they were aptitude tests, sometimes they were interviews, and then I validated them to make sure that we weren’t having an adverse impact on specific diverse groups.”

She was then hired at Anderson Consulting (now Accenture) as an Associate Partner, where she practiced the skill of thinking about organizational performance as a system—one where all the small, individual parts are working together toward a common goal.

“Especially at Accenture, we had people who were experts in technology, experts in business process improvement, experts in strategy, experts in change management, people and human performance—but that’s not how the real world works,” she recalled. “The whole thing is a system and you can’t just focus on one to the detriment of the other.”

From envisioning and catalyzing organizational ecosystems to creating employee surveys to developing protocols for work-life balance, the work of an I/O Psychologist touches every aspect of an organization and its employees.

Rising through the ranks at PepsiCo in her 14-year tenure, she moved from VP of Organization & Talent Development to become CHRO of Global Functions supporting 16,000 employees, then VP of Human Capital Strategy & Workforce Analytics. As her career progressed, she realized she was ready for her third act—to move into more of an advisory role and give back through teaching.

She became a human capital advisor to EltonAI, where she applies her learnings in I/O psychology and corporate performance on a broader scale. Recently, she was asked to join the faculty at Columbia University to kick off their master’s program in human capital management. She developed their introductory course and started teaching part-time at both Columbia and NYU, giving back her time and talent to inform the next generation of I/O psychologists.

Connect with amazing members like Mia and elevate your C-suite and boardroom know-how by joining Athena. You can learn more about Beverly’s journey and expertise in Episode 4 of Third Act, releasing Dec. 8.

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