5 minutes with Thrivent’s chief human resources officer

Whether you’re in need of a human resources pro or a travel agent, Kelly Baker, chief human resources officer at financial services organization Thrivent, is ready to take charge. 

As a Black, female leader at a Fortune 500 company, Baker has been able to use her platform to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace and help other HR professionals climb the corporate ladder. 

She served in HR roles at General Mills and Pentair before joining Thrivent in 2021.

This conversation was edited for clarity and length.

HR DIVE: How do you define sponsorship in the workplace?

KELLY BAKER: Sponsorship is very different from mentorship. I see that as a higher stakes relationship that requires a sponsor to really lean in and champion and invest. There are times that people may not realize they have sponsors in the room, because they’re championing them and maybe they’ve invested in them in other ways that the person being sponsored doesn’t fully realize. It’s higher stakes, particularly for the sponsors, who really are putting their name and their reputation behind someone. 

Has someone been a sponsor for you?

I’m definitely the case of someone who didn’t realize someone was sponsoring me. I didn’t know until way after the fact. I think about one person, in particular, much earlier in my career, when I first joined General Mills.

The senior leaders within HR, they were all men. They were all White men about the same age. I had a great career there: lots of challenges, lots of opportunities and I was promoted several times. 

But it wasn’t until much later in my career that I learned that one person, in particular, was always the one in the room bringing my name up, always the one reinforcing a positive comment or bringing up something that I had done and making it really clear that I was a player. He’s turned into a great friend and mentor. I didn’t realize how much he was leaning in on my behalf and how instrumental he was to my ascension at the company.

Have you served as a sponsor for others?

Absolutely, and I think it’s extremely important. It’s those who I feel really strongly about their potential, and I feel really strongly about their contribution. 

I have found that it is in asking the right questions, asking about people who aren’t maybe being talked about, ensuring that a conversation is happening, ensuring that we’re focusing on contributions, not other things like preferences, skills, personality, the things that sometimes take over conversations. 

I do think HR people sit in a really important space to be able to make room for others who may not have that person advocating in the room for them or may be being overlooked. I think the way we move through and facilitate our talent processes can really help us lean in and level the playing field. 

What tools have helped get you to where you are now?

Having access to role models in leadership. I’ve looked at other women, other African American women, women with young kids. But it’s important to have access to them to understand it’s all not perfect and to understand what kind of choices they make and how they make those choices. It doesn’t always have to be a formal relationship. I’ve found I’ve very much benefited from that as I’ve created my path. 

The other thing I’ve benefited from is organizations that had development as a priority. They believed in investing in talent, investing in their people. I was able to take full advantage of that almost everywhere that I’ve been, certainly in my formative years early on at General Mills, and up to and including my time here at Thrivent.

Throughout your career in HR, how have you seen the field change?

There’s a much clearer, sharper focus on the importance of centering around talent and all things talent management: securing the right talent, developing that talent and finding unique ways to make sure your proposition is compelling enough. I’ve seen that take complete center stage and really define all of the other work of HR professionals. The currency of great organizations is how well and how focused they are on having phenomenal talent. And it’s very hard work. 

Is there anything outside of work about you that you think people would be surprised by?

I am the family travel agent and activity director. I love to do all things family planning. We travel a lot as a family. Whether it’s picking the location and the accommodations, the activities, the food, who’s going to stay, that’s just kind of my thing. I absolutely believe I could run a boutique travel agency.

Where are your favorite places to travel?

We did a trip to South Africa in the summer of ‘22. By a mile, it was a trip of a lifetime and whet our appetite on the continent. It was a bucket list trip. 

Does the family still travel together?

We actually do. For large trips like Africa or Japan, adult kids get sponsored every three years. You’re welcome to join us at any time; you’re going to be buying your own plane ticket, but we will cover the accommodations. 

What is your favorite hobby outside of work?

We’ve been doing kids’ sports and activities forever. So, by a mile, it’s participating and watching them. We’re down to one who’s a junior and he’s a pretty big soccer player and golfer.