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Liz Heitner, MILR ’06

MILR “Just Clicked”

When Liz Heitner, MILR ’06, walked onto the Cornell campus nearly 20 years ago to start a temporary job in the university’s Division of Human Resources little did she know she would emerge with a whole new career path.

After earning her bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia in just three years, despite double majors in sociology and political science, Heitner had intended to go to law school. But, when her husband was offered a job in Cornell’s Department of Administration & University Licensing, the newlyweds headed to Ithaca and a new path was forged.

“I was a trailing spouse,” Heitner said. “And so I actually took a temporary role through the dual career program at Cornell in the HR department, and it was at a very interesting time. It was post-September 11th and organizations were looking at things like emergency preparedness in a much more focused way. So I had the opportunity to get a different feel for what human resources was all about and I gained an interest in the work. When I shared my interest with some of the great leaders in that department, they suggested I audit a class over at the ILR School.

“It just clicked for me.”

Heitner spent a year working full-time and attending the MILR program part-time before becoming a traditional graduate student.

Once she did, however, she threw herself into the program, taking a position as a teaching assistant for Professor Harry Katz, serving as the social chair of the ILR Graduate Student Association, availing herself of student consulting projects with Corning and IBM, and enjoying lots of time hiking in the many parks near campus.

Since graduating, Heitner has held positions as an associate at Mercer HR Consulting, as the HR director at NCR Corporation, and most recently as the senior vice president of talent and transformation at Synchrony Financial.

In March 2021, Heitner joined The Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company, a Fortune 1000 company. In November, she was promoted to chief human resources officer. And much like her first stint in HR after 9/11, she finds herself once again in uncharted territory with the business world reeling from an unprecedented global pandemic.

“This is an incredibly exciting time in HR,” Heitner said. “HR professionals have been exploring the realities of what the future of work will, and should look like, for a long time. So I have a very unique opportunity to work in an organization with a great culture, and help figure out what additional types of flexibility, what additional benefits we need, to support that new future of work, as well as what skills my HR team, as well as the leadership team, really needs to bring to bear in this new world.”

In doing so, Heitner finds herself still relying on ILR classes she took, and the professors she learned from – emphasizing that classes with Brad Bell, Kevin Hallock, and Gary Fields where “incredibly robust.” And while she has not been able to directly utilize the skills learned in Katz’s collective bargaining and negotiation class for which she was a graduate assistant, she said the “concepts of really finding that win-win are incredibly important in any corporate setting to understand and to think about when you're trying to influence outcomes in large dynamic matrix organizations.”

In addition to her work, Heitner is on the board of directors for Ability Beyond, an organization “dedicated to empowering every person, no matter their ability, to have the opportunity to live, work and thrive as an integral part of their community,” serving, naturally, as the organization’s Human Resources Committee chair.

“Throughout my career, and actually starting back in high school, I've done a lot of work supporting people with disabilities,” Heitner said. “At Synchrony, I ran a very successful hiring program for people with disabilities. There are so many incredibly talented and capable people in the disability community that are sometimes overlooked or feel excluded. Smart organizations are tapping into this wonderful pool of talent and not just providing jobs, but true careers and a sense of belonging.”

Hiring people with disabilities is just one of the many ways Heitner sees the future of work shifting and changing in our post-pandemic world. But, it’s an HR world she feels ready to tackle, thanks to her time at ILR. “I love that we are evolving human resources and the future of work to be more human and authentic.”

“What my degree has really prepared me for is thinking of where we can take the function of human resources and ways we can innovate and can be creative,” Heitner said. “We don't have to use the same playbooks. We can be dynamic in response to the market, social changes, and technological advancements. It’s really exciting right now to be thinking about a future when so much of this has accelerated.”