Senior Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer
People Success Insight
Facilitating opportunities for everyone to be highly engaged and to be and achieve their best.
For Sean Woodroffe, becoming a Human Resources leader started with a serendipitous career detour. But it’s easy to see how he ended up in a people-oriented role. His mom—who raised him single-handedly —worked at the United Nations for nearly four decades, sparking Sean’s fascination with humanitarian causes.
Upon earning his undergraduate degree in international relations, Sean planned to pursue a career in international law. Then an internship at Merrill Lynch paved the way for an interim position in an HR compensation role—and Sean never looked back. Sean had found the perfect career path to channel his love of helping others.
Early in his career, Sean was asked to lead HR for a division of Merrill Lynch in Tokyo. He had never worked abroad but accepted the position without hesitation. It was his first head of HR experience and his springboard for future leadership roles.
Sean eventually rose to be First Vice President and Head of International Human Resources at Merrill Lynch. After nearly 18 years at the company that launched his passion for HR, Sean continued on to a number of leading HR positions in the financial services industry. Today as the Senior Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer at TIAA, he leads human resources strategy and execution for the company’s global workforce.
“The principal role of human resources is to deliver and facilitate opportunities for associates to be highly engaged—and to be and achieve their best.”
Along the way, Sean has found inspiration in initiatives that reflect and support this core philosophy. He believes effective leadership and employee engagement are intrinsically tied. While Senior Vice President and Chief People Officer at National Life Group, Sean worked with a Chief Executive Officer who embraced the virtues of servant leadership as popularized by Robert Greenleaf, an organizational behaviorist.
As Sean explains, servant leadership is the notion that the best leaders recognize their roles are to serve and inspire—and the HR function plays a role in bringing that to life. To that end, Sean and his team created a set of servant leadership principles and developed a 360-degree tool to measure each leader in the organization according to these tenets. “We saw a direct correlation between our leaders’ activities and employee engagement,” he says.
In a similar fashion, TIAA is laser-focused on the associate experience. “We believe that a focus on the associate experience drives engagement and associate engagement drives business results,” says Sean.
More recently, Sean has been proud to see his company take care of associates during the coronavirus crisis. As Sean explains, “Our company employs 18,000 globally and has been ahead of the United States overall in making decisions that prioritize our associates’ well-being. We’re a company focused on delivering results for clients but recognize we can’t deliver those without an engaged workforce, and that starts with ensuring their safety and health.”