September 20th, 2021

Tenia Davis is a seasoned HR leader with decades of experience in the entertainment and technology industries. She built the foundation of her career at Harpo Productions, where she learned the lasting lessons a positive corporate culture can impart. She’s continued her career transforming cultures at companies like Johnson Publishing, iManage, and Raise, currently serving as Chief Talent & Administrative Services Officer at HBR Consulting.

Below, learn about Tenia’s Ph.D. research on lessons learned working for Oprah’s production company, things HR leaders should consider during an M&A process, and why you should always have an answer to the question “How can I help you?” 

Tell me about your executive journey.

I wish I could say I had a clear strategic plan from one point to the other. As I moved between companies, I was either tapped by a former leader or it was a natural progression from my previous role. I look for a company that has a great culture with strong values where there are like-minded individuals. I never try to fit myself into an organization. I ask what value I can bring and how I can contribute to their existing infrastructure. 

I’m currently pursuing my Ph.D. in servant leadership; my thesis is a case study on the culture of Harpo Studios, where I served as VP of Human Resources. They called their team a “Tribe” and it truly was—the level of excellence expected and camaraderie that was built was truly exceptional. The culture empowered us to learn about ourselves personally and professionally, and totally tap into our own being.

I’m passionate about transforming cultures. After Harpo, when I moved to Johnson Publishing, I was excited to work for an iconic brand and help them survive. Tech was also interesting to me—I was intrigued by the freedom, creativity, and energy. I love seeing how tech companies navigate culture in an unstructured, highly innovative, and creative way. Now at HBR Consulting, I’m really enjoying working in a high-growth environment.

What is the unique value you bring to the boardroom?

I understand how to move businesses forward, what makes them successful, and what causes them to fail. I understand the motion of culture, and the landscape as businesses try to reinvent themselves and thrive. For companies in high-growth mode, I understand the landscape extremely well, particularly when it comes to building a strong culture and mobilizing talent. 

 What were some of the key lessons from your Ph.D. research?

If there’s anything that brings tears to my eyes, it’s this body of work. Of course, there’s only one Oprah, but it was bigger than that. When employees have the same heartbeat, you are able to put such goodness out in the world. As a new hire, I shadowed various departments to learn the inner workings of each group. While shadowing the production team, I was running HR by day and in the afternoon I was a production assistant for a show on Eli Weisel’s book Night. Filling these roles simultaneously—and really working in any role at Harpo—required tenacity, empathy, care, attention to detail, an openness to learn. There were no titles, just an understanding of strengths and capabilities. What people saw on TV was only a small part of the magic.

I was able to capture all these different moments through the study—and people remember them like they were yesterday. I asked myself, “Was Harpo just a place in time? Or was this experience so impactful that people implemented what they learned post-Harpo?” I personally had many ah-ha moments and transformations, both personally and professionally. And what I found was all the participants took what they learned at Harpo with them to their new jobs. It’s phenomenal when a company culture can be that impactful. 

I use the term “cultural perspicacity”. Perspicacity goes beyond awareness to deeply understand the nuances of the different cultures and individual people within a group. Good leaders take the time to understand their team and help them thrive—individually and as a collective, in the workplace and outside of it. Organizations today are demanding a different level of interaction from their leaders, and I’m not sure that we’re grooming leaders to meet that challenge.

Do companies have a responsibility to steward good corporate citizens? And if so, how?

Yes, because we’re all consumers in some way. At Harpo, the commitment to make the world better was baked into their efforts. When I’m interviewing candidates today, they want to know what we’re doing and the impact we’re making in society. You can accomplish it in different ways, but inherently people want to have a job that connects with who we are and what we care about.

Your company, HBR Consulting, recently acquired Keno Kozie. What were some of the lessons you learned in the process?

It comes back to the importance of communication. Keno scaled fast; the people who run it are passionate and have stayed with the business because they believe in it. They have loyalty, commitment, and an appreciation for what each team member contributes.

When they come into our new infrastructure, communication is critical to show a clear path for what the business looks like combined, including from a culture perspective. Finding the right intersection between cultures is key. You have to understand the way people like to work and truly listen to what people are saying. 

What brought you to Athena? What has brought the most value to your journey?

I was invited by member Gena Lovett when we were talking about legacy work. I love Athena’s Salons—you get a whole body of learning in a short amount of time, and they leave time to connect with like-minded individuals. It’s a great way to expand your network; I’ve connected with several people from these sessions. My Member Success Manager, Gabriela, is wonderful—she’s always 5 steps ahead of me! 

What advice for women leaders rising into the C-suite? 

Have a plan for what you want to do. I’ve found that people genuinely want to help you. So when someone asks “How can I help you?”, you should have an answer. Every interaction causes a reaction. And every interaction I have, I want the reaction to be positive—even if I’m firing someone. They may not like the message, but they will say they felt respected and heard. I would encourage women leaders to help women leaders reach their goals and thrive more.



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