Last month, Roxanne Armbruster joined Harvard Law School as assistant dean and chief human resources officer. She brings a wealth of private and public sector experience to the position, having served as director of business operations at Ropes & Gray in Boston, as human resources business partner at TJX Companies and as a yeoman for eight years in the U.S. Coast Guard. In a conversation with Harvard Law Today, she talks about her wide-ranging career experiences, from tending buoys in Maine to building an HR business partner model in Boston.
What led you to join the Coast Guard?
I grew up in Connecticut, a little bit south of Hartford in a town called Rocky Hill. I had an opportunity to go to college at Marist, in Poughkeepsie, New York. I was interested in human behavior, and why people did what they did. The 17-year-old version of what that looks like as a professional career was, of course, the FBI, and behavioral analysis, and figuring out why arguably the worst of humanity did what they did.
I was also interested in military service, specifically the United States Coast Guard, because they were the only branch of the armed services that has a law enforcement arm, so I thought the two tied together quite nicely. At the end of the senior year, I realized that my family did not have the means to send me to college, and the aid package I had gotten wasn’t going to do the trick either. I knew the Coast Guard also came with some educational benefits, so I ended up going on to active duty.
I had intended to serve two years, and it turned into eight. The military ended up paying for all of my college degrees, for which I was immensely grateful.
What was boot camp like for you?
Boot camp was the best and worst eight weeks of my life. Their job in boot camp is to break down who you are as an individual, and build you back up as someone who can be a member of their service. They need you to be able to follow orders without thinking, to understand the hierarchy, and to do what is being asked of you immediately without blinking, because in many cases, someone’s life, including yours, may depend on it. So they broke me, and then they built me back up again, and gave me a lot of tools I don’t think I would have gotten through any other path or life experience.
How did you begin working in human resources in the Coast Guard?
I first went to a buoy tender in northern Maine, called the Abbie Burgess, it was one of the lighthouse-keeper-class ships. This unit was responsible for all of the buoys along the northern coastline. It’s a 175-foot cutter with a piece missing in the middle and a crane that swings over, picks up the buoy and drops it on the deck of the ship. Then all the little worker bees come out, chain it down, clean it, service it, make sure the solar panels are working, and make sure it’s positioned correctly, so that mariners can use it to navigate, and avoid treacherous waters. We’d go out for three or four days at a time. I reported to that unit in January, so I’m sure you can imagine what that initial experience was like: cold, wet, and dirty.
I should have been at that unit for about four years, but I left the buoy tender after six months, and started working for the First Coast Guard District Admiral as his enlisted assistant in Boston. It just so happened that was also where the district’s human resources unit was located. They were working on interesting, challenging, complex issues around people and behavior, and why people did the things that they did. So, I decided to go into human resources.
Then you started a family and the Coast Guard helped you earn your degree at Northeastern?
Yes, I got married, had three kids, and decided to take advantage of the education benefits that I had joined the military to take advantage of. I went to Northeastern full-time at night while I was working.
Why did you leave the Coast Guard?
They called me one day and said: “Hey, I’ve got some really bad news for you. We’re going to send your job—not you, but your job—to Virginia, and the options for your next duty station include a remote station in Minnesota or a 378-foot cutter doing drug interdiction off the waters of Colombia for 9 months each year. I happened to be in a place in my service where I couldn’t transfer without signing a contract for more service. So, I decided not to sign that contract. That was it. It was sad. It was so abrupt. But it was definitely the right decision for me and my family. I would’ve been away from the children for nine months at a time for four years. And that just wasn’t something I was willing to do.
So, I started looking for a job and TJX Companies recruited me to a role in their distribution center in Worcester, working second shift. The job had a lot of responsibility and I thought it was a good way to segue from military human resources into the civilian world.
I imagine that was a big change. Can you tell me a little bit about how that transition went?
You know, it’s funny. I thought it was going to be a shock to the system. But very quickly, I realized that people are people, and that organizations are organizations. The one difference between the civilian world and the military was that these people also happened to have free will. That’s not the case in the military, where you follow the uniform Code of Military Justice. If you break the rules, you could literally go to prison. You could have your pay taken away. And you can’t leave. That’s the key—you do not have free will to leave.
It creates a completely different environment in terms of morale and engagement. You’re not really worried about morale and engagement in the military outside of ensuring people are getting the job done. But if they don’t get the job done, you have a lot of sticks in the military to make sure that they do.
When I got to TJX, I realized that instead of sticks, you really mostly are using carrots, you need to engage people, you need to incentivize them. You need to figure out why they’re here and help them succeed. That made the job much more interesting and exciting, because it was a whole new set of challenges.
You ultimately moved on to Ropes and Gray. What inspired that move?
I ended up at TJX for five years—eventually moving to their corporate office. Then Ropes and Gray called one day, and said, “Hey, we’re doing something really interesting over here. We’re building a new HR model. We’re moving from a transactional HR service model to a business partner model,” which is more of a strategic, thought-partner relationship to the client, where the HR partner is plugged into the business unit, and is as accountable for the success of the business as anyone else at the table. After meeting with the folks at the firm, I was very impressed by the quality of the people and thought that I would learn a lot in that environment.
And I did. Ropes and Gray is fantastic. I was there for two years in human resources, before accepting a new role working for the COO and helping him run the trains. It involved looking across the organization and allowed me to bring my talent and the people expertise to bear on the business strategy.
What was your biggest takeaway from that experience?
Organizations are extremely complicated, but people are still the most complicated thing in an organization. I thought that by stepping back from HR, I might uncover a new set of challenges that might prove much more complex and interesting. And they were complex, and they were interesting. But the big takeaway for me was that people are still the most complex and challenging thing I’ve worked with. And that energizes me.
What drew you to Harvard Law School?
Well, I think when Harvard Law School calls, that’s a call you take whether you’re in the job market or not. Then, when I heard more about what they were looking for in a chief human resources officer, I realized that it was the type of position that would enable me to bring together all of the things that I had done over the course of my career—from my HR experience in the military, at TJX and in both HR and business operations at Ropes & Gray. So I pursued the role and put all my cards on the table. When I got the offer, I was through the moon. Just absolutely thrilled.
You’ve been at HLS for a couple of weeks now. What are your early observations?
I hadn’t really anticipated how different it would be working for an academic institution, in the sense that they’re not a profit-based organization. Outside the military, my previous employers had a strong profit motive. TJX is a publicly-traded company, where shareholder value and profit margins are the number one focus. The law firm is a partnership driven by distributable net income and profit per partner. Of course, both of those organizations did wonderful things for the community, and they had a mission, a vision, and their own set of principles but profits were at the core of just about everything.
At Harvard Law School, it’s different. The mission is not profits. Everybody comes to work to provide the best possible educational experience they can for the students, and to make this a fantastic place. And every student who leaves here could become a leader in their communities, in the nation, in the world. That’s the vision, the underlying goal—preparing the next generation of leaders and lawyers for the amazing things they’ll do in this world. I think it changes the way you think about your work.
Do you have a theory of human resource management? How do you think about this space generally?
I have been thinking about this a lot because I’m reading “Start With Why” by Simon Sinek. The basic premise of the book is that organizations or people who are successful all think and act in a very similar way, and it’s very different than the way that everyone else does. Throughout this book, he creates this compelling case that you should always start by understanding and communicating your ‘why’, your guiding principle. That got me thinking about how the HLS HR office might communicate to the community our ‘why’. Our ‘why’, or, our vision or purpose, should inform our ‘how’, the processes and means we use to make that real, which helps us to create our ‘what’, which is the final product or outcome. At all times our ‘how’ and ‘what’ should match our ‘why’. So, I think it’s important for the community to understand our ‘why’.
Personally, for me, I enjoy working with people. I enjoy helping people. And I enjoy solving problems and partnering on thoughtful outcomes. I think that HR is here to help Harvard Law School achieve its goals through its people. It is the people who create our value, our product, who make all of this possible. I view our job as aligning the people to—and engaging people in—the strategy and mission of HLS. Making sure we have the right people, in the right places, doing the right things to succeed, in an environment where they feel safe and fulfilled.
How we do that is by partnering with all levels of the organization and leveraging the many tools available to us—recruiting talented people, helping to keep them engaged, helping to establish a strong sense of culture, place and purpose, by helping people develop their performance, ensuring they’re fairly compensated, that we have the right structure and organizational design in place. The list goes on. Suffice it to say, we are here to help with just about anything that involves people.
You mentioned what you were reading. What are you watching?
I’ve actually been watching Game of Thrones. I’ve always found the show to be fascinating. It was very well done. I think it’s a really interesting show about human behavior and how complicated they are.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for length and clarity.