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A Day in the Life of Terri Wolfe Maintaining Corporate Culture

Workforce spent the day with Terri Wolfe, director of HR for Patagonia. Admired for its work/life balance, Patagonia recruits individuals with diverse interests outside of their jobs. Employees openly bring other parts of their lives into work.

June 1, 1998
Related Topics: The HR Profession
Thursday, April 16

Ventura, California—Terri Wolfe is a powerhouse contained in an attractive, but diminutive and unpretentious package. As director of HR for Ventura, California-based Patagonia, she is energetic, casual, disarmingly honest, and visibly committed to her product and people.

Admired for its work/life balance, Patagonia recruits individuals with diverse interests outside of their jobs. Whether it’s family commitments or personal activities, employees openly bring other parts of their lives into work. Taking time to surf receives the same nod of approval as does taking time for parent-teacher conferences. Employees are vigilant about protecting the environment, about recycling, and about enjoying work as a part of their lives.

1:00 p.m.
Sporting a casual corporate culture.
Breezing into the airy reception area to greet me, Terri glances at the blackboard that welcomes guests and reports the daily surf and ski conditions. Quickly and graciously, she beckons me to fall in step with her back to her work area, lest she fall behind in her day’s schedule.

The walk to her office takes us outside into the breezy sea air, past co-workers dressed in shorts and T-shirts, overalls and sandals. They gather around Patagonia’s Magic Bus, a recreational vehicle that will go on-site at kayaking, skiing and mountain biking events to rent equipment. Patagonia, she explains, loans products for testing to real enthusiasts who haven’t used its products before. One employee has won the plum job of living in the van and following sports enthusiasts as a way to promote Patagonia product lines.

We continue walking through cedar-wood beamed corridors, past the homey cafeteria to her office area. Several people work here in an open space with huge windows, ceiling fans and live plants. There are no dividers and cubicles.

1:15 p.m.
Conducting interviews through teleconferencing.
We settle into a small conference room where she conducts a recruitment interview. Terri brims with excitement about the morning’s videoconference that was held between eight locations to train retail managers on the new performance management system. "It was really cool," she says, "the first time the company has tried it." She’s animated as she casually moves the large speakerphone into the middle of the table so she can conduct the interview.

This is an initial interview with a candidate who wants to be the leader of a product team. It’s an important position, and Terri has six candidates to interview via phone. She’ll screen out two or three. The others will visit the Ventura corporate headquarters for in-person interviews. Terri conducts all first interviews. "I screen for corporate culture fit," she explains.

She introduces herself to the candidate, who says, "Thank you, Mrs. Wolfe."

"Mrs. Wolfe is my mother-in-law. Call me, Terri," she says, smiling as she looks at the candidate’s resume on the table in front of her. She describes the job, and then asks him to talk about his experience. "Now, tell me a little about the team you led and your leadership philosophy," she asks.

The candidate begins and then falters a bit. Maybe he’s nervous. Terri waits. He’s still quiet. Then she says, "It’s OK. Take your time." Finally, as she hears him struggle more, she suggests, "Let me help you a little. What were the environments you enjoy working in the most? The least?"

He sighs, gratefully and says, "Yes, I can answer it that way."

Then she asks him tough, pointed questions about his experience and philosophy regarding the environment. What has he done in the past? How has he demonstrated his ease and commitment to ecological issues? She later explains to me, "Patagonia has very strong stands on environmental issues and on quality. We need people who are highly motivated by that and find it energizing," she says. "If they think it’s a burden, they’re not a right fit."

Next, she asks in her easy-going style, "Tell me about the sports you’re in." He perks up and talks about his rock climbing, kayaking, mountain biking and snow boarding. He goes on at length, and she encourages him. "What kind of snow boarding do you do? Back country?" she asks, and probes even a little more as he talks expansively about his sports.

When the interview is over, she explains to me that the questions were not idle conversation. "In this corporate culture," she says, "if you say you’re an avid back country snow boarder, you better be. If it turns out that you are simply saying that, you are going to be in trouble. People will say it is self-promoting, and they’ll be very put-off."

After the interview is over, Terri sweeps out of the small room and checks voice mail.

2:15 p.m.
A reason to celebrate.
A meeting with the head of administrative services and purchasing, who’s finalizing plans for a large company party the following week to celebrate their new product lines. Another objective of the event is to bring domestic and international employees together in a casual setting.

Moving from issues about strategic hiring practices, Terri now focuses on the minute details of the event: clearing the parking lot by noon so the band and caterers can set up, the number of folding tables and chairs; the decision to use recycled paper plates instead of china. They talk about the biathlon—preceding the party—that already has attracted 100 employees.

2:30 p.m.
Dropping in on the kids.
Terri takes a deep breath, smiles and says, "Now, let’s go visit [my daughter] Abby." We exit to the outdoors again, heading to the Child Development Center. We enter the building that houses the two-year-olds. (There are others for infants, toddlers, three-, four- and five-year-olds, kindergarten, and school-aged children.)

Terri walks in and tiptoes past the dozen-or-so sleeping two-year-olds to Abby’s little mattress and quilt, and bends down to wake her up. She emerges with a tiny, curly, blonde-haired tot who cuddles with her, nuzzling her face into Terri’s shoulder. After waiting a few moments, she says, "Let’s go visit Taylor," who is Terri’s five-year-old. He’s usually at school, but is using daycare today because of Spring vacation.

We walk the length of the facility and come to a building separated from the others by asphalt areas marked for basketball, four-square and handball. We cross the gated yard, over the sand and grassy areas, and enter a large classroom. "Hey, Taylor, whattaya doing?" she asks, and kneels with the baby on the floor. Soon, we take the baby back to her area, where one of the child development workers greets her. "I usually have lunch with her, but I couldn’t today because of the morning’s videoconference," says Terri.

"Not only [are these services] great for me and great for my kids, but it’s absolutely necessary as HR director and one of the members of management of the company. It gives the message that this is OK, and this is what we want to do."

3:15 p.m.
Global ethics and corporate culture.
Terri is checking her watch regularly. Next meeting? With John Moore, the new general manager of Patagonia Japan. He’s spending a week in Ventura to meet with everyone so he can fully understand the workings and the culture of Patagonia. Terri is no nonsense, but smiles as she tells him they should be able to accomplish everything in an hour’s meeting, and asks him what issues he wants to discuss. As the director of global human resources, all of the international personnel issues fall under her guidance.

The two of them discuss the issue of long-term temporary workers. "It’s philosophically misaligned with the rest of the company," she explains. "And I personally find it unethical. It’s not that I care so much about my personal feelings," she emphasizes, "but I am the conscience of the company. Two of our big core values are integrity and respect."

John agrees, and the two set about a recruiting plan to implement the change. They agree that there are going to be certain areas in which headquarters can dictate a global corporate culture and others where John should tell Terri that headquarters is pushing up against a national cultural barrier that can’t be changed. Case-in-point, Ito-san (not her real name) is the only female manager at Patagonia Japan.

Although the manager has been with the company more than seven years, she is now experiencing difficulty because she’s a working mother taking advantage of the company’s policies regarding working parents. She brings her little girl into work, and there has been resistance to it. She is quite upset because some of the males have been saying unkind things about her. Both John and Terri are concerned because she is one of their best managers. They begin to hammer out a way to help her.

"This is hugely important," says Terri to John. "Being a pioneer is never easy."

4:15 p.m.
HR and budget meetings.
After several other topics, they end the meeting. Terri already has told me that everyone leaves between 5:00 and 5:15 p.m. She reiterates how important it is for her to model that behavior. Still, she has an HR staff meeting and a budget consultation with the head of the Child Development Center. Graciously, she walks me back outside and to the front.

"Am I lucky to have caught you on a day where so much was happening?" I ask her. "Oh," she glances at me casually, "This isn’t anything unusual. It’s a typical day."

Workforce, June 1998, Vol. 77, No. 6, pp. 94-95.

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