Chelle O’Keefe graduated from Capella University in 2003 with a Master’s in Industrial/Organizational (I/O) Psychology. Today she’s the senior vice president of human resources for Associa, a worldwide community management company. She recently answered some questions about her education and work experience, and how they tie together.
Q. Please share a bit about your background and how you came to Capella.
A. I pursued my undergrad psych degree through a traditional program at Texas A&M and realized late in the game that an undergrad degree in psychology doesn’t help you much in the business world. I started going to seminary, but I’d loved working in the corporate world and decided that I wanted to go back to it. I explored master’s programs and found that Capella had one in I/O psych, which few universities did at that time.
Q. Why did you go into human resource management?
A. I’ve always been interested in human behavior, but there are many different career avenues to take. I went down four or five paths before this one, including ministry and counseling. But, in the end, I was really attracted to the field of employee engagement and leadership.
Q. What was your first job in the field?
A. My first job was in training and development at a company called The Associates, which eventually was purchased by Citibank. I come from a long line of teachers, and in my work I had multiple training roles. My favorite role became leadership development.
Q. Who had the greatest influence on your career path?
A. Growing up, I had great role models in my mom, aunt, and both grandmothers. They were all working mothers who showed me that you can have both family and a career. Beyond my family, I had a mentor at Citibank who believed in me and promoted me beyond what I would have asked for. She introduced me to the idea that leaders should lead by coaching and developing, not doing day-to-day tasks.
Q. Tell us how you use your I/O psychology degree in your human resources work.
A. I use it every day in a variety of ways. I use it in developing assessments, building engagement, and trying to develop strategies around behavior change. My job is to create positive leadership behavior that leads to more positive employee engagement. I’m a change agent for the organization.
Q. What industry trends are you seeing that will affect professionals in the next few years?
A. Finding ways to prevent burnout. People believe they always have to be accessible via phone and email, and they think true productivity is found with a device in hand. But when you’re always accessible, you lose strategic thinking, creative thinking, and you get stuck.
Q. What is the single biggest challenge facing your field right now?
A. Our greatest challenge is the fact that people are not connecting with each other, especially the younger generations, in spite of all the devices that supposedly connect us. People skills and emotional intelligence are as critical as ever in the workplace, and the challenge is to show people the importance of real connection. Put away the devices and connect. Tech should be an enabler, not a focus.
Q. Any advice for people interested in pursuing a degree in I/O psychology?
A. Remember that it’s a “people” field within business, and the degree sets you apart from MBAs and others with business degrees. People entering the field should have business experience first, so they understand the foundation of the field. This degree will take them beyond business practices into understanding the psychology of the workplace.
Q. What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?
A. “It’s better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission.” I’m very action-oriented, so that resonated with me. That said, you have to balance action with sound judgment. Another great piece of advice I received was, “You have to go create your future.” These days it’s no longer a career ladder, it’s a career jungle gym. People don’t go in one straight line in their careers anymore. When you see something that interests you, go for it. Create a plan to seize opportunity and solve a problem.
Q. What do you like to do when you’re not working?
A. I love to hang out with my two daughters and my husband. I also do adventure races and team running races. I have participated in seven Ragnar Relay Races, in a team of 6-12 people running 200 miles in a little over 24 hours.
Looking to enter a “people” field within business? Learn more about Capella’s Master’s in Industrial/Organizational Psychology degree program.