Taking Risks

HR professional shares story of her path with students
Friday, May 5, 2017

Sonia Hardaway ’96, chief learning officer at Bristol-Myers Squibb, told ILR students that she was in high school when her father, despite two master’s degrees, was looking for a job.

“I must have written over 200 cover letters helping him to apply for jobs that all started with ‘Dear Human Resources,”’ Hardaway said during a visit to Ives Hall this semester.

“That was the beginning of me understanding that there was a group that took care of staffing and open jobs,” she said, speaking to students. She met with Associate Professor Brad Bell’s Training and Development in Organizations class and Lecturer Linda Gasser’s Career Development: Theory and Practice class.

“At this time, I was visiting my brother who was an engineering student here at Cornell and I stumbled across the fact that three of the seven colleges at an Ivy League school here are public. This is really cool for New York residents,” said Hardaway, referring to ILR’s inclusion in the State University of New York system, which has lower tuition than privately-funded schools.

The ILR School has a long-standing reputation for preparing students to be job ready after graduation, which also attracted her to apply, Hardaway said.

Arriving at ILR, Hardaway was on the pre-law track until interning in human resources at Morgan Stanley.

“It was during this internship at Morgan Stanley that I understood the role of human resources holistically in attracting, developing and retaining talent for organizations, and my interest from becoming a lawyer shifted,” Hardaway said. “I found the possibility of joining the human resources field practical, pragmatic and also a field where I could have large positive impact on people.”

During her second summer at Cornell, Hardaway assisted a Johnson School professor doing research on organizational behavior.

“It was the best summer of my life living on campus,” Hardaway said. “If you ever get to stay on campus while there is no snow, I highly recommend it.”

The next year, Cigna was on campus for interviews, and a couple of master’s students dropped out at the last minute.

“The career center was embarrassed that the interviewer had come from Philadelphia and her calendar was not full,” Hardaway said. “The career center then asked if I would mind taking a spot.”

After a successful interview and summer internship, Hardaway volunteered the next summer to work at Cigna’s Phoenix office. The assignment was for her to hire 400 new customer service representatives, which she describes as “scary and exhilarating.”

“I was now 21 and had never done anything like this before,” Hardaway said. “I took a risk and did not know what I was doing. I had to learn the staffing process and how to assess for talented associates leading to hiring 400 new people by the end of the summer.”

Cigna made Hardaway an offer, which started her 20-year HR career. The first five were spent at Cigna, then she joined Bristol-Myers Squibb.

Hardaway’s most recent promotion to Chief Learning Officer began after a conversation with Simon King, head of global talent organization at Bristol-Myers Squibb.

“Simon called me two summers ago to ask me to lead learning and leadership development for BMS, which I responded that ‘I am not an expert in this area,’” Hardaway said. “Simon responded ‘I know, but you take risks and you learn. I need a leader that can take risks and build this organization.’”

“Yet again, I was given a chance to do something incredibly different and that led to my current role and deepening my expertise in learning and leadership development.  I am so grateful for the opportunity to continue to take risks and be on a journey learning and applying new skills,” Hardaway said.

Now, over a year into her role as chief learning officer at Bristol-Myers Squibb, Hardaway said she is committed to creating learner experiences for every employee who discovers, develops and delivers innovative medicines to patients with serious diseases.