Voice of Experience: Kathleen Weslock, Head of Human Resources, SunGard

Kathleen Weslockby Pamela Weinsaft (New York)

“A career isn’t just climbing straight up a ladder – it is more like a garden lattice. There are many steps along the way and at each juncture, a chance to learn a lot about yourself and your profession,” said Kathleen Weslock, the head of Human Resources at leading software and IT services company, SunGard Data Systems.

The Crooked Career Path

A Spanish and psychology double major at Hood College in Maryland, Weslock started her career as a switchboard operator at the Pan American Health Organization. Because she was fluent in Spanish, less than six months later, she was “promoted” to secretary in the human resources department. The head of employee relations needed someone who could keep information confidential and who could translate for her. “While this job may seem menial to many, I learned a lot from this position and from Mariko; she taught me the importance of having a solid work ethic at an early stage in my career. I learned so much, from basic level employee relations to discretion to the proper code of conduct. She was a marvelous woman,” explained Weslock.

She then went to work as a secretary in the HR and training department of the US Chamber of Commerce and worked her way up to the assistant director, where she ran training programs that taught business executives how to lobby in Washington, DC. “But I was still typing,” laughed Weslock.

She then went to work as a secretary in the training department of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and worked her way up to teaching business executives how to lobby in Washington, D.C. She was also rubbing elbows with business leaders, top columnists, and powerful business executives. “But I was still typing,” laughed Weslock.

At one of the labor relation sessions she organized, some of the influential executives encouraged her to go to grad school or law school and pursue labor relations as a career. “At that point I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do with my career. I didn’t think I wanted to be a lawyer, but I did find the thought of a career in labor relations interesting. So it was really a chance meeting with individuals who really cared about helping young people with their careers that gave me the impetus to decide to go back to graduate school.”

But her initial application to the prestigious graduate program at New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University was rejected. “I called the dean of the school to say that I was disappointed that I hadn’t been accepted and that I never got to meet with him face-to-face to tell him why I should be a student. I think because it was such a direct way of promoting myself and pretty unusual, he agreed to meet with me.” At the meeting, the dean told her what she needed to do to get into the program; she did it and reapplied several months later. “I just called him back and said, ‘when do I start?’”

Weslock added, “This sort of perseverance is important in the workplace as well. If you really want something, you have to be persistent and you have to always take ‘no’ in a diplomatic way. All good things take time. You need that persistence and resilience to see things through. Learning how to play chess is a good skill to have because you have to think of not only what you are going to do next but also of the alternative. You are looking for the end game.”

Upon graduation, Weslock joined GTE (now Verizon), where she said she really honed the skills of her trade. “I had a lot of great mentors there; many great HR practitioners came out of that organization.” Those mentors—especially the senior vice president of human resources and labor relations—encouraged her to go back to get her law degree. And she did, working during the day and attending Pace University School of Law at night.

When GTE decided to move its corporate headquarters to Dallas, Weslock opted not to relocate and to join Mercer HR consulting. During her 8- year high-powered career there, she and two other people started up a stock advisory practice within the company. “I would work with Fortune 500 companies like Sara Lee and Pepsico on a number of international HR issues such as stock programs and international redundancy, which brought me to the field of international HR back in 1988, before it really became hot.”

With two young kids at home, she decided that it was time to stop traveling as much as she was while at Mercer. Weslock briefly worked in the private client division at Lehman Brothers, working in HR in their private client division, but it was not a perfect fit. “My job was about firing people – not about development. I stayed only two years.”

Weslock decided to go out on her own, first establishing her own solo consulting practice, then starting her own business importing children’s layette and pajamas from Greece. “I had two young children and was going back forth to Greece with my [Greek] husband. I’d always admired the cotton there so I started importing it on my own. It eventually grew to the point where I was making children’s pajamas in Greece and selling them in the U.S.,” she explained.

And while the businesses were successful, they weren’t her passion. “It was fun, but my heart wasn’t into it: I was always ‘consulting and HR’. I did it because, at the time, my husband, who is an architect, and I thought I needed a break. And I wanted to be around more for the children and have more freedom. In the end, though, between the consulting and the import business, I was working harder on my own than I had when I had my corporate job. ” She ended up getting a position with the law firm, Sherman & Sterling, where she stayed for five years until joining Deloitte in New York as the head of HR for the financial advisory services.

She was headhunted out of Deloitte into her current position as head of HR with SunGard, where she now works directly with SunGard’s CEO on “the whole gamut of HR” from organizational redesign and training to employee relations and recruiting. Weslock said, “It is a wonderful company with a terrific culture. And I work with people I respect and who are some of the smartest and nicest people I’ve ever met. I’m fortunate to have an HR team that is truly world class. I couldn’t ask for a better job.”

A Different Approach to Work-Life Balance

Throughout the years, Weslock, who has worked in accounting firms, consulting and on Wall Street, has taken a different approach to work-life balance than most: she purposely planned her career so that she could have the flexibility to be around for her two boys when they were older. “That was the choice I made that very few people were making back then. I think it was really smart, though, because my kids needed me more in their teenage years than they did as babies—and I had progressed up the ranks and could be there when I needed to be with them, even if we spoke on a pre-arranged conference call. I travel a lot and toggle between our King of Prussia and New York City offices—and I try to be home at least two nights during the week for them when they get home,” she explained, adding facetiously, “that is if they should choose to want to talk.”

In her time off from work, when not with her sons and her husband, she spends her time riding, a passion she didn’t discover until a few years ago. “During my 40s, I decided I would learn how to ride horses. Now, whenever I can, I sneak away to the barn and ride. I love to spend time there, not only to ride, but also because I’m in the company of other smart, athletic women who enjoy each other’s company.”

Weslock uses riding to relax and stay centered. “To be able to ride well, you have to be completely centered and focused and work in tandem with an animal that is way more powerful than you’ll ever be. It is a discipline that requires emotional calmness and focus, as well as a lot of patience. If I have a real hard problem that I’m working on at work, I know I can get through it after a good ride. It is better than an executive coach or therapy.”

The Advancement of Women in Technology

Weslock acknowledges that tech can be a male-dominated field but points out that things have come a long way. “I am very proud of the composition of our senior executive team in terms of diversity; there are four women—our General Counsel, Controller, Tax VP, and myself. Many women get started in sales and professional areas. We have to start grooming girls as students to think about IT as a potential occupation. There are more women entering the field every year – and we just have to make sure that we recruit and retain them.”

She certainly does her part. “I take it as my responsibility to find and promote wonderful women in technology. Of course, it has to be the right fit and the right skills but I will make sure that we leave no stone unturned when we are looking for advancement positions for a talented female professional.”