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Leadership during a pandemic: How In HER Element helped Michelle Mullen to stay grounded.


When the world turns upside down, how do you stay grounded?


No one knew the pandemic was going to hit when it did. There was no training, no warning, and no timeline for what the world would have to endure. Michelle Mullen, Vice President of Total Rewards, Medical and People Systems at CSX, found herself to be one of the lucky ones going into the pandemic.


Michelle had just completed In HER Element with a cohort of CSX coworkers as the COVID-19 pandemic started. The program gave her direction in a directionless world. It helped equip her to lead and connect remotely with her team while also giving her a purpose that has grounded her for the past year.


We talked with Michelle about her story and how In HER Element helped her navigate her leadership role through a global pandemic.


Michelle, your role requires responsibility for many people and systems. Was that part of your career plan?


The theme of my career is that it’s been very organic. I haven’t really had a plan, per se. I graduated from undergrad with a degree in International Trade and Finance and didn’t really know what I wanted to do after graduation. I spent my first few years in pension plans administration, then moved to executive compensation where I found I was able to move up through the ranks to leading a department.


At CSX, I decided to try some different things in the HR world. I joined as Director of Benefits and then had opportunities to become an HR Business Partner and lead our Talent Acquisition department. Then with a combination of hard work and being in the “right place, right time”, I was promoted to the Head of Compensation and Benefits in 2017. I now lead our Total Rewards, Medical and People Systems team. It took hard work, building relationships, and being patient! Of course, I could not do any of this without the strong teams I have had the privilege to lead and encourage.


What was your experience like with the IHE program?

I was definitely excited, but also a little skeptical. I love coaching and brain science so I was intrigued about that piece, but I was skeptical because I couldn’t figure out how it was going to work in the corporate world. I had had executive coaches in the past that had been very focused on my development and how it translates back to the company but In HER Element brings a different spin to it.


As we got into the program, I started to visualize the differences between In HER Element and other executive coaching programs. In HER Element still has the same goal of learning how to show up as your best self for the company, but it also focuses on the whole picture including your personal life. If you aren’t your best self in your personal life, then you can’t bring your best self into your professional life. At the end of the day, it wound up being an excellent experience.




How did In HER Element help you to stay grounded during the pandemic?


Timing was everything. Our program wrapped up just before the pandemic hit. We went into the pandemic having had that life coaching experience and time to reflect, so it really helped me through the last year. If it wasn’t for In HER Element, I probably would have been floundering a little. But instead, I was able to step into a remote leadership role, which was a very different experience to what I had been used to.


Things got very stressful during the pandemic, especially with the medical function coming under my leadership in the midst of it. I set up my home office with my brand statement that we had created for ourselves during In HER Element. That brand statement helps me to answer the question, “What is my purpose in life?”. Every time things got stressful during the past year, I kept going back to that and it helped me manage my stress. Thinking about the bigger picture, my purpose in life and my purpose at CSX helped to ground me.


What was the biggest theme for your purpose?


It goes back to remembering to be human. Remembering that people are involved, lives are involved and remembering to connect with people so that you can bring out the best in others. Sometimes you can get sucked into the checklist and you forget about the people, and so remembering to be human helped me to be a better leader.


What was it like to experience In HER Element with women from your company?


I had worked with some of the women very closely but others I didn’t know at all. However, it felt good to be in an environment surrounded by other women, and we came out with new relationships with our female coworkers. We were able to create stronger bonds over more than just work. We still reach out to each other and have a natural network that might have not happened otherwise. It gave us time to get to know each other in the midst of being busy.


CSX calls itself “the nation’s best run railroad.” What is your experience of working in a male dominated industry?


It can be challenging at times. You can find yourself as the only female voice in a room and maybe feel like you aren’t being heard. That was another thing that came out of In HER Element – we, as women, became unified and were seen as one voice versus our individual voices.


In HER Element is a 9-month program. How did you work your life around it?

We had executive leadership support. They knew that we were going to “disappear” on a regular basis and they respected that time so that we could focus on the program. That support was key to making it all work. We also “checked in and out” to each session – we would let go of something and verbally agree to be “in” the session and then check out at the end as we returned to the day. I definitely looked forward to it each month.


What would you say about the program to others?


It’s really more than just executive coaching. It’s life coaching that is helping you bring different pieces of your world together. We are all striving for work/life integration and the program helps you to find that. It also pushes you to focus on your own well-being because you can’t bring your best self to either your family or your work family without putting some time into you.


About the In HER Element program:

The In HER Element Program is a transformative leadership development cohort program for women that combines mindfulness and neuroscience with one-on-one coaching and community. Our goal for this program is to build upon women’s leadership skills and empower them to be their best self. Click here to learn more.