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Episode 217: Diving Into the World of HR with Jonathan Caldwell

March 08, 2023  |  By Matt Waller

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This week on the Be Epic podcast Matt sits down with Jonathan Caldwell, SVP and Chief People Officer at Valvoline. They discuss a wide range of topics in HR including human resource management and how it integrates into an organization, Jon's keys to success for leading his team, the importance of mentorship and how to create stickiness with an organization for employees to want to stay.

Episode Transcript:

Jonathan Caldwell  0:00  
A lot of organizations, you know, Valvoline included, you're sitting on so much rich data, whether it be related to, you know, talent acquisition, compensation, turnover, diversity, that can really drive the actions that you take to optimize company performance.

Matt Waller  0:22  
Excellence, professionalism, innovation, and collegiality. These are the values the Sam M. Walton College of Business explores in education, business and the lives of people we meet every day. I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Walton College and welcome to the Be Epic podcast. I have with me today, Jon Caldwell, who is Senior Vice President and Chief People Officer at Valvoline. And Jon has spent his entire career in human resources. And that's what we're going to talk about today. Thank you so much for joining me, Jon.

Jonathan Caldwell  0:58  
Thank you, Matt. Pleasure to be here. Appreciate the opportunity.

Matt Waller  1:02  
Well, congratulations on your tremendous career. You know, it's very clear to me that you've, you've done super well. And now you're Chief People Officer of Valvoline, Inc. that's quite an accomplishment.

Jonathan Caldwell  1:19  
Thank you very much. It's, you know, I joined Valvoline about six years ago with with the hope that I would end up in this role. And it actually happened a little bit sooner than I expected. So.

Matt Waller  1:33  
So before we get into your background, and in talking about human resources management, if you wouldn't mind, let's start by talking about Valvoline, Inc. I mean, everyone recognizes the brand for sure. But if you wouldn't mind telling us a little bit about the company, that'd be great.

Jonathan Caldwell  1:51  
Absolutely. So Valvoline is a is a global organization, about three and a half billion in annual revenue. And about 12,000 employees, there are two, I would say fairly distinct business segments that make up Valvoline, the retail services business, so a lot of people are going to know that by kind of the signage, the Valvoline Instant Oil Change stores that that span the US and Canada, we have about 1600 stores in the US and Canada. And then we also have a global products business segment. And it within that business segment, you really got two channels. The Do It Yourself channel, which is the consumer packaged goods side, you change your own oil, and you know, but you and you purchase it from a retailer like Walmart, AutoZone, Advanced Auto, or do it for me, which is made up of just a number of a network of installer channel, tire stores, dealerships, etc. who also utilize our our products, our oil, in vehicles that they service. So we've been in business, we were the original motor oil. We've been in business since 1866. Very proud of of, you know, the legacy the brand, and I'm especially proud of the culture that we have within our organization as well.

Matt Waller  3:15  
Well, I know, you know, one thing that comes to mind, and I don't know if this is true or not. But when I think of Valvoline, something else that comes to my mind is racing. 

Jonathan Caldwell  3:26  

Matt Waller  3:26  
and one thing that I thought of one time is I thought I can see how racing being involved in racing might be good for Valvoline creating, you know, motor oils, it probably allows your scientists to really figure out the limits, if you will, of of these kinds of products. Is that true at all?

Jonathan Caldwell  3:26  
It is you know, it does a lot for our brand and your evidence of that, right. When you thought of Valvoline it was one of the first things that you thought of so we do believe that that's been a very long standing partnership that we've had, specifically with the NASCAR team Hendrick Motorsports. They've got some of the best drivers in, you know, in the game and Kyle Larson won the Cup last year. And then he's a part of that team. And we do we have a lab here in Lexington, and some of the scientists and you know, engineers that we have in that team work closely with with Hendricks, every 10th of a second counts. 

Matt Waller  3:49  

Jonathan Caldwell  3:59  
They're looking for every single advantage and when you're at that, you know, everyone is performing at such a high level. So anywhere that that we can, you know, work with them to obtain a bit of a competitive advantage. We're happy to do so.

Matt Waller  4:43  
I know you're located in Lexington, Lexington, Kentucky.

Jonathan Caldwell  4:47  
That's correct. I grew up in the northern part of the state very close to Cincinnati. But have lived in Lexington a fair amount of my life as well. And it is it's it's kind of big enough, small enough, I'm not sure if it's a small city or a really big town. We got the we got the university here, University of Kentucky. And then I do think there are a couple of distinctive cultural elements. Where you know, it is it is bourbon country here. It's horse country. And you know, and we have a basketball team here, too, that does fairly well from from time to time. So

Matt Waller  5:24  

Jonathan Caldwell  5:26  
It's interesting, I think how we connected indirectly was through the University of Kentucky hosting the SEC MBA competition. 

Matt Waller  5:36  

Jonathan Caldwell  5:36  
this past year, and Valvoline was the sponsor for that. So 

Matt Waller  5:40  
thank you for doing that. 

Jonathan Caldwell  5:41  
Yeah, we really enjoyed it got to meet some members of the team from the University of Arkansas there as well, and just such a talented group across the board, we were happy to be a part of it. Part of the team, part of my team, the Human Resources team, we also include community involvement, corporate giving, corporate communications, and so a type of sponsorship or partnership like that with the university really, is driven by, by that team.

Matt Waller  6:10  
You've worked in human resources and banking for quite a few years. And, and now Valvoline, and now you're SVP and Chief People Officer, and you've been that, that role that level for almost three years. So you're at the top of HR now, but you've started at the very, very beginning, as in as a recruiter, and human human resources manager. So you've seen human resources from a lot of different perspectives and a lot of different companies. So I'm curious, is human resources management in banking, similar to what you would see it at Valvoline? Or is there a difference?

Jonathan Caldwell  6:57  
I would tell you, it's very similar. To me. The role in the function human resources plays is more company based leadership based versus industry driven. How does that organization view human resources? Is it a key part of the business? Is the you know, the leader of HR part of the executive team? Is it more of a, hey, we understand the talent and culture helps drive our business results? And and so you know, thus, that's how we position and view and partner with human resources? Or is it more of policy procedure, you know, payroll benefits, the things that you do have to provide employees. And so that may, that may lead you down a little different path and view of what the HR function looks like for an organization. I tell people, ironically, there are a lot of similarities in banking. So I was at Fifth Third Bank for about 14 years. And you've got a commercial bank and a retail bank and branch banking. And if you think about even my description of Valvoline, where we have these two distinct businesses, you've got the retail side of the business, which is our Valvoline Instant Oil, change storefronts, just like branch banking. And then you've got kind of the commercial part of our business where we sell through retailers like Walmart, AutoZone, or installer channel customer. So in that way, there are a lot of similarities, then, of course, you have the same types of corporate functions that you support, finance, IT marketing, legal, etc. It's certainly a different, there are some differences, you know, certainly in the types of roles, but in an odd twist, the structures, the business setup is similar. And then in the end, it really is all about people and supporting leaders, the best we can.

Matt Waller  8:51  
Well, absolutely. And that's one of the reasons why I wanted to really talk about this I mean, leadership. I mean, business is about people, the more you are in business, the more you realize business is about people now you've got to be able to deliver something you've got to have, you've got to be conscientious, you've got to be trustworthy, and you've got to have competence and capabilities. But it's all about people.

Jonathan Caldwell  9:19  
Absolutely. And, you know, I would tell you my strategic, you know, guideposts as it relates to leading, leading our HR team, you know, when I took this role, about two and a half years ago, developed a few keys to success for our team. And one of those really was, you know, driving results through our people leaders, equipping our people leaders, enabling them, empowering them, holding them accountable, to really provide the right experience the right workplace, to bring the team together to enable those results. It, it's it's not that that's some groundbreaking by any stretch. But but it was the one thing that that was a mindset shift for our team was, it was almost kind of disproportionally investing in our people leaders, given the role that they play in delivering that great workplace experience. And so I did have a handful of team members that that felt like, well, I don't want to leave all employees behind, right? I mean, hey, we're here for all employees. And, of course, that's correct. But, you know, in my mind, if we really focus on building great people leaders, those people leaders will build a great workplace for our team.

Matt Waller  10:44  
Absolutely. You know, that kind of gets to something interesting. A couple of colleagues of mine, and I, we worked on a book for a few years, called Values Driven Authentic Leadership. But we, we interviewed lots of leaders in various areas, I mean, everything from Mike Duke, who's the former CEO of Walmart, to the former CEO of Tyson, to the chancellor of the university, and really a wide variety of industries. But we asked them, you know, what are the your top values, personally as an- and as a company, of course, the the number one value mentioned was integrity. But in in the discussions, we became clear that a lot of these very successful leaders really thought mentoring was important that is being mentored and mentoring both formally, not just informally. I was curious, what- what's your experience with mentorship and its importance?

Jonathan Caldwell  11:59  
You know, I would, I would agree, that mentorship, that connectivity to the organization, when you're newer into your career, if you can, you can learn a lot from someone who isn't your direct manager or in your chain of command, if you will, who's willing to pour into you and kind of, you know, pay it forward, if you will, and share with them things that they wish they knew, when they were in their 20s that have that have, maybe they tripped over or that have helped them get to where they are, I think you use the term Matt, informal and formal. And I would agree with that, I think it's finding the right balance. So for us, last year, we implemented a new mentor program, we partnered with with a third party had about 25 mentor partnerships that we assigned. And we really focused the formal mentor program there on inclusive leadership, not that the conversation couldn't vary. But we wanted to provide a topic for our leaders to talk with their mentees about because sometimes, that's hard, you know, I don't know where to start, if I've never done this before. So we found that to be very successful, that focus on inclusive leadership, and hoping that if you introduce mentoring in a formal way into an organization, that it kind of jumpstarts and builds that muscle within the organization so that now they can be more prevalent, and occur more informally, I do think that they're generally going to be more productive if you can, if those you know, mentoring, relationships kind of form, naturally versus being prescribed by an organization, your hit rate is going to be a lot better. But I do think that where our organization was and where a lot of organizations are, sometimes you do need to plant some seeds for that muscle to be built.

Matt Waller  13:55  
So I have a rule that I always have at least one mentor, at any given point in time right now I've got two. And I always am mentoring at least one person. Right now I'm mentoring more than that, formally. And of course, I mentor people informally, like, you know, Associate Deans and things like that. But I really have tried to be very intentional about being other focused. In other words, rather than focusing on me and my career, and how am I going to succeed, really trying to help other people succeed. And I really feel like it's given me an advantage, focusing on others and really trying to rejoice in their successes when they succeed, really being able to mourn with them in their failures, learning to have that kind of empathy you know is so powerful.

Jonathan Caldwell  14:54  
Absolutely. And my guess is and we've learned this through our formal mentoring program last year. Here when we had kind of a celebration at the, at the conclusion of the program, that the mentors over and over again talked about, I feel like I gained and learned more from this partnership than than my mentee did. And, and, you know, so I think some of that is probably the feel good of giving back. But then I think they also learned that it was a two way street that hey, I may be, you know, a decade or two older than this individual or grade level or two higher in the organization than this individual, but boy, they can teach me a lot, you know, through the, through this conversation?

Matt Waller  15:34  
Well, you know, I, I saw a study that was, you know, this concept of belonging, right. You know, they found that one real key success factor in belonging is volunteerism of all things, in other words, to be, say, an MBA group, a group of MBAs, if they engage in volunteerism together, where they're, they're giving to some group or entity together, that increases the degree to which they feel like they belong more than just saying, Hey, you belong, we want you to belong,

Jonathan Caldwell  16:16  
You can always find 10% more base salary somewhere else. I mean, you know, the most talented employees are always going to be able to find a higher salary, you know, a different role, you know, somewhere else, and then they go there, and they can probably find 10% more somewhere else, right. But I do think, to your point, Matt, what really creates that stickiness with an organization is the satisfaction that comes from being part of something bigger than the job that I do or the paycheck that I receive. And so I think that starts with the connection with your team. And then if you and your team, you know, and you see, you're also part of an organization that gives back to the community, I think people really want to feel good about not just the role that they play, but the organization that they work for. And they want to feel connected to the broader team, that they're a part of.

Matt Waller  17:12  
You mentioned something I'm going to want to ask you about, because I, I should know the answer to this, and I don't. And that is total rewards. That's I know, I'm sure that's been around for a long time, but it's kind of new to me. What does what does that mean,

Jonathan Caldwell  17:28  
Total rewards is largely comp and benefits, but it's also making sure that, you know, are you providing the right workplace experience? The right recognition? It can, it can extend into cultural, you know, what do you provide as a workplace culture? It's kind of a, what do you get, as part of the employment agreement as being an employee of Valvoline or any any other organization? You know, what's provided to you?

Matt Waller  17:29  
So is that fairly? I mean, I'm sure it's been around awhile, but is it kind of fairly new from popularity? First-

Jonathan Caldwell  18:04  
Probably for I would say, the last decade or so 10 to 10 to 15 years, but-

Matt Waller  18:10  
Well I'm usually about 15 years behind, so that that makes sense. But, well, yeah, I even saw a position post to that local company here. It was, like, Senior VP of Total Rewards. And like, wow, I'm seeing this all over the place now. I had never seen it in the title before.

Jonathan Caldwell  18:30  
It's, you know, it is one of the interesting things, one of the things I've enjoyed about HR is, you know, I think a lot of times if someone who's outside of HR, what do you think of where you think of maybe the employee relations angle with the talent acquisition angle, payroll, right. I mean, some of the core tenants of, of HR, but you do have a varying degree of roles and skill sets required. So something in a comp and benefits. I mean, you know, the lady who's our Director of Benefits here, is a CPA, there is a ton of math and statistics and analytical work required, you know, working with actuarial, you know, things like that. Comp is the same way, you know, the talent acquisition role, there's a lot of, you know, a sales acumen or skill set that can be involved there, right, because you're really marketing and promoting roles, to prospective candidates, and so on and so forth. So it is a, I would say, generally a broader field than most would imagine. But a lot of organizations, you know, Valvoline included, you're sitting on so much rich data, whether it be related to you know, talent acquisition, compensation, turnover, diversity, you know, engagement surveys, or any lifecycle surveys, onboarding, engagement, exit surveys, that can really drive the actions that you take to optimize company performance. So you know, there's so much knowledge that can be derived by hey, the best hires, the ones that stay the longest are the ones that we were able to promote within our stores. Where do they come from? You know, what, what questions or responses do we receive to particular questions that help us predict, you know, turnover down the road?

Matt Waller  20:24  
So, John, I've heard good things about the culture at Valvoline. But I know that you've been really driving the advancement, strengthening the culture there. Would you mind talking a little bit about that? How you've done that?

Jonathan Caldwell  20:41  
Yes, I would tell you one thing that brought me here to Valvoline almost six years ago was the feel from the culture and the people that I met through the interview process. And that's one of the things that certainly keeps me here, six years later. A couple of years ago, I moved into this Chief People Officer role. And, you know, we've got a strong set of core values like many organizations do, and my CEO, and I were trying to determine how do we best bring this to life. And we have a number of people who have been with Valvoline here in the Lexington market, especially for many years, in some cases, maybe their entire career, 15, 20, 25, 30 years. But then we, like myself, many joined the organization in 2016 2017 2018, as we separated from Ashland, to become our own publicly traded company. So we were trying to really kind of refresh our values, renew the culture, understanding that we had this mix of people who've been here for a really long time, and others who have joined the organization more recently. So the way that I think we did that, and ironically, it was, it was an idea from, from, from my CEO, our CEO, and, and if you ever want to change effort to really stick from an HR perspective, there's nothing better than if it's leader driven, or executive driven. And so he had been recommended and read a book by Patrick Lencioni, called the ideal team player. And in the book, it basically kind of spoke to three cultural attributes that that he found critical, that if individuals who are truly team players, and then create that ideal team culture, are hungry, humble, and smart. And, and by smart, not IQ, but more EQ, or people smart. And so we actually partnered with Lencioni's consulting firm, the table group, and started, you know, kind of with this book with these teachings at an executive team level. So our executive team kind of went through an engagement with them, really understood what it meant to be the ideal team player, living out those three attributes of hungry, humble and smart, and then also operating more as a first team. So you know, the other thing we learned there as part of being a team player is, how do you define your team. And for us, our role was, hey, we need to spend more time as an executive team, than we do with our direct report teams even. And so those two concepts, I think, have really advanced our culture in the last couple of years, both, you know, kind of keeping our head up, how do we operate as a first team in a better way to play a broader leadership role in the organization, then I just lead HR, and Mary is our CFO, so she leads finance. No, Mary and I and the rest of our leadership team, we really lead the organization. So how do we best do that? And then, you know, back to the hungry, humble and smart, the value in in those attributes, those ideal team player attributes, I think one is when you really pause and think about it, you know, who are the people that you've enjoyed working with through your career the most? They're hungry. So they're, they're, they're, they're, you know, they're really, they're achievers. They're working hard. They're asking, what else can I do to- to help out? They're humble, they don't need to be out in front pounding their own chest. They lift up the team around them. And then again, smart, are people smart. The way I simply kind of think about that person is back when we had office phones, and you'd see someone come up on caller ID like the name there are certain people who when they call you, you're like, oh, I'm excited to talk to this person. Then there's others that are kind of like, oh, boy, you know. So, you know, those people that really build great relationships and are people smart. Those are the people that you want to work with as well. And we found that one the value of that was just the simplicity of it, it was very memorable. It's simple, it's easy to understand. And then two, it did seem to describe Valvoline when we're at our best. So I don't want to tell you that all 12,000 of our employees are hungry, humble and smart. But I think a lot of us really are. And when we're at our best we're operating in that, in that mode hungry, humble and smart.

Matt Waller  25:22  
Yeah. And I think if you know what you're shooting for, you're more likely to hit it. 

Jonathan Caldwell  25:29  

Matt Waller  25:30  
So knowing that you want to have a team that is hungry, humble, and people smart. You're more likely to get there if you know, that's what you're trying to do. I think it also helps people learn, it can also help you evaluate them. I could see if you're evaluating people based on humble, hungry, humble and smart, you know, it's kind of like, hungry. There's some people that will just jump in there and volunteer to help or do something. They're hungry. Even if they're busy, they'll they'll, how can how can I help you with that? Or they'll send you hey, I know you're trying to work on this, I found this article, it might help you. But the humble piece, I think is so important, too. It would be hard to live life very long, and not really be humble if you're seeing things clearly, you know.

Jonathan Caldwell  25:31  
Yeah. well, and I think I think you use the a couple of terms that I think are earlier map that are related around authentic, you know, I would add vulnerable, self deprecating, and even if you think I think this also speaks to the elevated role that the HR function plays within organizations now as even as a society, I think, you know, we we're starting to realize that, you know, those things matter. And people follow, you know, originality and authenticity and vulnerability. And it's okay to say, I don't know the answer here. I need your help. And I think you know, a lot of those traits are similar to people that you would also describe as humble. And even to your point, it's been it's been a game changer for us. And it is something that we've even woven into our our talent acquisition and interview process.

Matt Waller  27:18  
Well, John, this has been really interesting. Thank you so much. I feel like I've, I've learned a lot from this talk and, and also, congratulations on your amazing success in your career in human resources. That's very impressive.

Jonathan Caldwell  27:37  
Thank you very much, Matt. I appreciate the opportunity and have enjoyed it as well.

Matt Waller  27:43  
On behalf of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, I want to thank everyone for spending time with us for another engaging conversation. You can subscribe by going to your favorite podcast service and searching. be epic. B E, E P I C.

Matt WallerMatthew A. Waller is the dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, Sam M. Walton Leadership Chair and professor of supply chain management. He is also the host for the Be EPIC Podcast for Walton College.


Walton College's EPIC values -- Excellence, Professionalism, Innovation and Collegiality -- are the heart of Dean Waller’s podcast. Since the beginning of the series, Waller has interviewed business professionals, industry experts, CEOs and Walton College students to bring listeners first-hand accounts directly from the entrepreneurial world.


Waller is an SEC Academic Leadership Fellow and coauthor of “The Definitive Guide to Inventory Management: Principles and Strategies for the Efficient Flow of Inventory across the Supply Chain,” published by Pearson Education. He is the former co-editor-in-chief of Journal of Business Logistics. His opinion pieces have appeared in Wall Street Journal Asia and Financial Times.


Waller received an M.S. and Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University and a B.S.B.A., summa cum laude, from the University of Missouri.

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Walton College of Business

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We're sitting down with innovators and business mavericks to discuss strategy, leadership and entrepreneurship. The Be EPIC Podcast is hosted by Matthew Waller, dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Learn more...

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