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Advice / Career Paths / Career Stories

“Fake It Till You Make It:” How Embracing the Unknown Worked Wonders for This HR Manager’s Career

Colleen Irwin, a senior manager at KinderCare
Colleen Irwin, an HRIS senior manager at KinderCare Learning Companies.
| Courtesy of Colleen Irwin

When Colleen Irwin landed a temp job doing data entry at KinderCare Learning Companies in the midst of the 2009 recession, she was thrilled to have found any job at all. But Irwin soon realized that the company had so much to offer, including professional development and a tight-knit environment. “I became fast friends with many of my coworkers and loved the sense of community,” she says.

Over the last 13 years with KinderCare, Irwin has had opportunities to work on different teams, learn new skills, and advance her career to become a subject-matter expert as a senior manager on the human resources information system (HRIS) team.

Here, Irwin talks about her journey at KinderCare, what she’s learned throughout her tenure at the company, and how others can set themselves up for a promotion.

Describe your career path over the last 13 years at KinderCare, and how the company encourages development and internal mobility.

I have been lucky to have had managers who recognized that talent is just as important as experience. I moved from an operational data-entry role to a customer care position early in my career at KinderCare. My manager at the time noticed I had a knack for learning systems, and I became the guinea pig on trying out new features. From there, I became the point person for learning new processes and training the rest of the team.

I then heard about an opening in HR, which was in the process of rolling out a new recruiting system (Taleo). I was one of the first hires on the team as they were building out the program and quickly learned what went into launching an enterprise system—blood, sweat, tears and a lot of begging people to push buttons. I again found myself loving the intersection of people and systems as I worked in recruiting ops. After getting a taste of project management with our Taleo roll out, I asked my manager if I could sit in on more projects.

When a position eventually opened on the HRIS team, I was hesitant to apply because I had no real idea what HRIS did, other than correct all the data issues we created in Taleo. But my manager told me that this was the right move, and I took a leap of faith. It ended up being the best decision of my career. I spent several years as an HRIS analyst supporting our recruiting ecosystem before I transitioned into an HRIS operations supervisor, and eventually took over all HRIS system projects in my current role.

What are you responsible for as a HRIS senior manager?

I oversee HRIS operations, all HRIS systems, and our HRIS projects, as well as our company’s I-9 (employment eligibility verification) program. I make it so our systems are easy to use while ensuring we are compliant. I also partner with the analytics team to ensure we capture the right data up front.

Tell us about a project you’re most proud of and the impact it had.

I am proud of the work I did as an analyst to create an automated process to create and refresh requisitions on a monthly basis in Taleo. This change removed operational work from our field leaders and coordinators, which allowed them to focus on more candidate-facing work. It also ensured our job openings stayed up to date on the job boards. This is a great example of systems creating space for relationship-based work, instead of detracting from it.

As a leader, I guided the team through a major acquisition that integrated employees into all HR systems and other systems throughout the company. It was rewarding to see the team achieve goals they did not know were possible, and to create a new line of business at our company.

What lessons or skills did you learn in previous cross-functional roles that have helped you become the leader you are today?

That old saying, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together,” is true. I don’t know how many teams I’ve worked on that have tried to solve problems in silos. As I’ve moved around the company, I’ve come to realize that it’s one big, connected organism. So many decisions impact other teams in ways you could not imagine. Connecting with others often helps build sustainable solutions.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced during your time at KinderCare, and how did you overcome it?

The COVID-19 pandemic has been the biggest challenge. It was such a time of uncertainty. It was a dark time for HR as you’re processing leaves and terms for people you regularly work with. I’m proud of the decisions our company made during the pandemic, because we were always looking for people-centric solutions. For example, we ensured that those who could not work were able to collect unemployment and keep their benefits. I overcame this by rallying the team to look for opportunities to help our employees. There was so much creativity that came out of this time, when many of our resources were cut off or cut back, and it forced us to think differently.

What advice do you have for those looking to earn a promotion within their company? What has helped you succeed in doing just that?

Be vocal with your manager and others about where you want to go. You don’t have to be aiming for an exact role. You could simply want to learn a new skill or connect with different teams outside of your current job responsibilities. All of that will be valuable experience when the right opportunity comes along. Do not feel like you have to have everything figured out before talking with your leader. Take the guesswork out of developing your career journey for your manager.

What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?

Fake it till you make it! I so badly wanted to have all the answers when I’d jump into a new role, and this would hold me back from fully contributing. It came from a place of not wanting to mess up, instead of embracing the unknown with confidence. I used to think not knowing everything was a hindrance, but now I know it is my superpower. By seeking clarity for myself, I often found that other people had similar questions, and it opened the door for other people to voice their concerns.