Rowing through crocodile-infested waters in a flimsy canoe is not everyone’s idea of a dream vacation, but for Ashley Goldsmith it was the trip of a lifetime. She describes her experience on a safari along the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe as “the most exhilarating, frightening and slightly crazy thing” that she has ever done.
It wasn’t a trip for the faint of heart.
“Hippos are very scary,” said Goldsmith, chief human resources officer at HR software vendor Workday Inc. “They’re right there giving you all the signs that they don’t want you there, and then they go underneath the water and you just don’t know where they are. I had more adrenaline in an hour there than in a month in my normal life. It was fantastic. I can’t recommend it enough.”
She applies the same derring-do in her career. The word “crazy” has also been used to describe some of her job moves, according to Goldsmith, who joined the Pleasanton, California-based company last November. Among them was her 2007 decision to quit a key executive position at The Home Depot Inc. for a job as head of HR at a small medical company in Tucson, Arizona. She had started as a temp at the home improvement retailer in 1995 and within 12 years had worked her way up to vice president.
‘I remember going to my boss and saying that I’m going to a 600-person company as head of HR. … He looked at me like I had lost my mind, and he said, “You’re going to a popcorn stand.” ’
— Ashley Goldsmith
“I remember going to my boss and saying that I’m going to a 600-person company as head of HR,” she said. “He looked at me like I had lost my mind, and he said, ‘You’re going to a popcorn stand.’ But it turned out to be a wonderful career move.”
Later she jumped industries again and went to Polycom Inc., a Silicon Valley-based developer of video conferencing systems. She now lives in San Francisco with her husband and their two French bulldogs.
Goldsmith, 41, has surprised many in the course of her career, like her co-workers at a Home Depot store in Georgia where she was assistant manager. At the time, she was part of the company’s new executive leadership program, which rotated high-potential employees through a variety of roles. At age 24 with a college degree but no retail or home improvement experience, she joined the company’s ranks of orange-aproned workers.
“I was in my 20s and I didn’t know anything about home improvement, and yet there I was in a leadership role and you can imagine,” she said. “They looked at me like I was crazy.”
Growing up as the only child of a single mother in Marietta, Georgia, Goldsmith seems to have inherited her work ethic from Mom, who she said “worked incredibly hard to create a positive future for me.”
Goldsmith, at a petite 5-foot 3-inches tall, stood out immediately among the burly tradesmen who made up most of the sales staff. Adding to her outsider status was her psychology degree from Vanderbilt University. Most of the employees had high school diplomas only, she said. Today, Goldsmith also has an MBA from Northwestern University.
“Back in those early Home Depot days, if you had a college degree we were told not to ever talk about your education because most of the employees didn’t have it,” she said. “It was really a good thing to work your way up. So the fact that the only way you could get into the leadership program was with a college degree, made people look at you with suspicion.”
So Goldsmith made it her mission to earn the respect of her colleagues, working in every department and volunteering for the overnight shift, which frequently entailed restocking merchandise and rearranging displays — a job that is much harder than it sounds, Goldsmith said.
“You crawl out from the racks looking like you just walked out of a chimney,” she said. “So they’d be walking in in the morning, and I’d be walking out at 6 a.m. dirty and looking like I had worked really hard. By far, that was the biggest credibility-earner.”
By the time she left six months later for her next assignment, she made some good friends and earned a traditional Home Depot farewell.
“One of the things they do whenever someone leaves a Home Depot store, and I hope they still do this, is that everyone in the store signs your orange apron,” she said. “They gave me an apron and it had so many signatures — there were probably 200 people in the store. It was such an overwhelming feeling.”
That kind of initiative was no surprise to Cindy Lubitz, the supervisor who hired Goldsmith while she was a temp. Lubitz was in charge of launching Home Depot’s leadership development program and in need of someone to help her organize printed materials when Goldsmith arrived. When her temp assignment ended, Goldsmith called Lubitz at home and invited her to lunch.
“When she was leaving she said, ‘I’m just out of school and I’d like to talk to you sometime about what you do,” said Lubitz, who now runs her own talent management consulting firm in Atlanta. “A week later she called me at home. I had just had a very busy day at work. She asked me to lunch and I said, ‘Sure, or what if you come back in and help me full-time? That’s how she ended up with her first job.”
She worked with Lubitz for two years as a talent management analyst, and when Home Depot launched a leadership program for high-potential employees, Lubitz nominated Goldsmith.
“Ashley has a really nice balance of qualities,” Lubitz said. “She’s really bright and, relationally, she’s very strong. She’s someone people like working with.”
But one of her biggest career challenges lay ahead in 2005, a year after Goldsmith was promoted from head of HR for HD Supply — a distributor of industrial building supplies formerly owned by Home Depot — to vice president of HR for Home Depot.
Hurricane Katrina had struck the Atlantic Coast and traveled to the northern Gulf Coast, causing death and destruction in New Orleans and Mississippi and other areas. The Southeast had endured several hurricanes the year before, so the company was well-stocked with essential materials like sandbags and plywood, but no one could fully prepare for Katrina, she said.
Home Depot booked hundreds of hotel rooms in the region for volunteers from other stores and for local employees, many of whom manned the stores with skeleton crews until the last possible second, according to Goldsmith. Because banks were shut down and workers were unable to cash their paychecks, the company deployed armored cars to the stores to dole out cash. Meanwhile, back at company headquarters in Atlanta, Goldsmith and other company leaders coordinated workforce and rescue efforts. All told, Home Depot donated millions of dollars to Katrina recovery efforts.
Goldsmith had proven herself in a time of crisis, which is not hard to imagine given her eagerness to consort with crocodiles and other wildlife. It is that cool head that makes her a good leader, according to former colleague Elisa Gilmartin, chief human resources officer at Polycom, where Goldsmith worked before joining Workday.
“Ashley is incredibly consistent under times of stress, and she was consistent in her leadership,” Gilmartin said. “She doesn’t get ruffled. She’s also incredibly smart, agile and a benevolent leader.”
Goldsmith describes her leadership style as collaborative and agrees that she usually takes things in stride.
“I don’t tend to fly off the handle,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that I’m not stressed out internally, but there’s no point in letting that emotion run rampant through the organization. I don’t think it helps get you where you need to go.”
It is precisely those qualities that make her an ideal fit for Workday, said Grant Bassett, the company’s vice president of global talent. The developer of cloud-based HR software has been growing rapidly since it was launched in 2005 by David Duffield, the founder of PeopleSoft Inc., which was acquired in 2004 by Oracle Corp. in a hostile takeover. The company has been giving its competitors a run for their money ever since, becoming one of the fastest-growing HR technology vendors in the country. Its most recent quarterly statement reported revenue of nearly $128 million.
‘She’s really bright and, relationally, she’s very strong. She’s someone people like working with.’
—Cindy Lubitz, Home Depot
“We’re proud that we hire people who are great at what they do, but they are also really great people,” Bassett said. “We look for humility and humanity. Culturally, this place is built on bringing your whole self to work.”
“What’s interesting to me about Ashley is that she grew up grounded in HR principles at Home Depot, but she also has a business presence that gives her a seat at that proverbial table. She’s extremely sophisticated about business. She doesn’t see HR as a transaction.”
Goldsmith said that although she “fell into” HR as a Home Depot temporary worker, she developed a fascination with the power of people to help a company succeed.
“HR is such an interesting part of driving the business, and to me it is the most complicated variable,” she said. “Humans are challenging, and I like the complexity of trying to figure out how to harness this incredible asset, all these talented people, and help them not only achieve business goals but help them feel satisfied with their work. It’s an intriguing problem to solve.”
The idea that HR might have to fight for a seat at the executive table seems odd to Goldsmith. She has never thought of HR as anything less than a critical and strategic part of any business.
“What’s more strategic than how you leverage one of the most expensive variable costs in a company — your people?” she said. “I think we have an opportunity now more than ever to be strategic with technology. It allows us to not spend on low-value transactional items and gives us ample opportunity to do strategic work by bringing us more analytics and data.”
It was that passion for the potential of technology to transform HR that drew Goldsmith to Workday, a company that she said has “changed the game for HR.”
She met co-founder and CEO Duffield while she was at Polycom. Workday was seeking new business and had invited Goldsmith and other executives to spend a day at the company. The technology impressed her, but she said that Duffield’s business philosophy inspired her.
“He said, ‘Happy employees mean happy customers,’ ” she said. “I loved that it was the first thing he would say to a customer, that their employees are that important. I thought this was great coming from a CEO and a founder.”
The message resonated for Goldsmith, who still remembers the lessons learned working on the sales floor at Home Depot.
“That’s where I learned about the importance of the customer and the importance of the people that you work with,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if they went to Harvard or never went past eighth grade. If they’re the ones helping the customer, then they’re the ones that matter.”
It’s a lesson that she’s unlikely to forget. She has her signed orange apron to remind her, which hangs in a frame over her desk.