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Mary Key: Pillar Director for Leadership at i4cp

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''I have always been interested in people, and from the time I was young, I would do things like go to the grocery store with my mother and hang around near the check out to start conversations with shoppers,'' says Mary Key, human resources maven and pillar director for leadership at HR company i4cp.

Today, her people skills extend beyond grocery store chats to include conversing with Fortune 500 companies, leading research teams, working with editors and research analysts, researching and writing about best practices and next practices, maintaining and facilitating social networks, presenting research findings in conferences, and conducting seminars for members.

But between those early check-out line conversations and i4cp, Key worked, attended schools, and honed her people skills as best she could.

“My first paying job I had was working on my brother-in-law’s farm picking cucumbers, and that inspired me to be sure that I went to college and got to work with my head and heart more than just with my hands,” recalls Key.

So, she attended the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and focused on human development. During college, Key continued her high school work of babysitting, selling clothes, and counseling at camp. However, work life soon changed.

“Upon completion of my undergraduate work, I worked as a health care counselor and social worker before making the transition to working in business and in the private sector.

“I had gotten involved in some career development programs and became fascinated with the whole area of human resource development,” continues Key. “I began delivering workshops for a small consulting firm and then took a position as training specialist for a government agency.”

While working for social services, Key worked on a master’s degree from American International College in Springfield, Massachusetts. But she didn’t stop there. Key continued her education at the University of Virginia, became head of training for Blue Cross and Blue Shield while researching her dissertation, and eventually completed her Ph.D. Consulting came next along with a move to Tampa, Florida, where she currently resides.

Regarding her career path, Key says, “I’ve had the opportunity to work with companies around the world and went from a consulting role to a senior consulting role and then became vice president of the division of another consulting firm that specializes in creating customer-focused cultures.

“One of my clients wanted to hire me to run their company, and by a whole series of events, I became the President and COO of a medical device company,” Key continues. “The FDA did not cooperate, and due to some regulation problems with all medical devices in that particular sector, the company closed down. On the surface, the loss of this opportunity seemed like a hardship. In reality, it turned into one of the best things I’ve ever done, and that was to start my own consulting practice, Key Associates, Inc. The purpose of the organization was to help leaders and organizations grow, and when I look back on it all, the work that I’ve done has had that, growth, as it essence. Also, I wrote my first book, The Entrepreneurial Cat: 13 Ways to Transform Your Work and Life, during this transition time.

“Over the years, I’ve seen the power of helping leaders in organizations employ best practices. I had known one of the founders of i4cp (formerly Human Resources Institute) for many years, and when he told me about his plan to expand and become for-profit, I decided to merge my practice with i4cp.”

Founded by Kevin Oakes, Debbie McGrath, and Jay Jamrog, i4cp (The Institute for Corporate Productivity) is a “leading research organization focused on improving workforce productivity and bottom-line results within corporations,” and is one of the most “respected and well-known research firms in the human capital industry,” says Key.

One of Key’s favorite things about her job is working with i4cp’s numerous members, whom she describes as “forward thinkers in human resources.”

“I also enjoy the fast-paced entrepreneurial culture within i4cp,” she continues. “In the past, I have had the opportunity to work with both entrepreneurs and large companies. Working at i4cp allows me to work in an entrepreneurial environment and to continue to work with large organizations on many global issues.”

However, there are challenges. And for Key, those challenges include sustainability, finding the right people for the right jobs, and leadership development. But she refuses to be defeated by them. Instead, she focuses on solving these issues, using the research tools and technology that i4cp provides.

Key also addresses her concerns for measuring leadership effectiveness in the HR industry today.

“There are really four key effectiveness metrics,” she says. “The first one is the quality of who you hire, so hiring someone with the right attitude and skill set who has the desire and ability to lead is essential. Secondly, looking at time to full productivity, or how long it takes to work at maximum effectiveness, is another critical metric. Thirdly, the quality of promotion, and here we are getting at promoting the right leaders and succession planning. Lastly, the quality of separation — do people in leadership roles hang on to poor hires, or do they reinforce top performance by taking that tough stance and inviting the wrong people to leave?”

Concerns and challenges aside, Key remains confident of one thing: “Over time, I’ve realized that all experiences are part of a larger learning journey. To go back and try to change or do something over would be tampering with important lessons that not only I needed to learn, but what the others involved might have needed to learn as well.”

Her involvement in the HR industry has been vast; however, Key involves herself in other ways, too. One of her greatest accomplishments is having authored What Animals Teach Us — Love, Loyalty, Heroism and Other Important Lessons from Our Pets, which lead her to begin No More Homeless Pets (NMHP) in the Tampa Bay area.

“NMHP has as its goal to end the needless euthanizing of healthy cats and dogs; and so far we have reduced that rate by approximately 30% with the goal of 50% in 2010. I have always been an animal lover, and it gives me great joy to see NMHP make such strides. Recently, we’ve been recognized by the ASPCA nationally as one of the five communities in the U.S. to be selected for their special program called ‘Mission Orange.’ Our small initiative has turned into a model for other communities in the country.”

Along with Key’s passion for HR and animals, however, is her passion for family. Her mother, in particular, had been a strong force in Key’s life — not only did she model the importance of having a professional career, but she also demonstrated the importance of encouraging and participating with family.

“She has taught me the importance of honesty, integrity, and hard work, and has shown me that it is possible to do it with style and grace,” says Key. “My mom just passed away at the end of February. She had a great sense of humor and also showed me that when all else fails, it’s important to find something that everybody can laugh about. Mom was a take-charge person and modeled leadership skills daily. Her concern for doing the right thing in life has been a guiding principle for me.”

From developing her people skills at a young age to honing them in school, Key has grown to become a powerful HR leader who thrives in the industry. Her advice?

“I think it’s important to ask yourself, ‘who am I?’ and ‘what am I really passionate about?’ and if what’s involved is HR aligns with the answers to those questions, then a career in HR is a fit.”

Q. What do you like to do outside of HR? Any odd hobbies/interests? Are you married? Do you have children? Can you explain a little about your personal life outside of work?
A. I enjoy going to the beach, writing, and spending time in nature. In Tampa we have an annual festival every year called Gasparilla which celebrates when pirates took over our city over a hundred years ago. I’m involved in one of the all female krewes, The Krewe of Grace O’Malley.

I’m married and my husband Lewis and I have two cats, Jasper and Groucho.

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