Cathy Peffen’s road to human resources wasn’t the most traditional. Peffen was initially interested in the life sciences. But after two years at Notre Dame, she realized that biology, and the individual research required, wasn’t the right fit. And while she did graduate with a biology degree, a more socially interactive occupation called. Two years later, she graduated from Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management with a master’s in human resources and organization design. Peffen had finally found her calling.
How did a biology degree in undergrad lead to HR?
Biology was my love since I was a child. I really thought I was going to stay in a science. I wanted to be a genetic counselor. One day, my junior year [of college], one of my teaching assistants said to me, “I can’t see you doing research.” And it wasn’t that I wasn’t good at doing research; I just knew that I got my energy from being around people. He suggested that with my background in biology, “I think it would be great if you considered working for a hospital. You’d be able to relate to the doctors and nurses, the science.” So I decided to still graduate with a biology degree, but not to pursue the intense sciences my senior year.
How thankful are you that you made the realization as a junior, and what does it say about you as a person to know you need to work with people?
I always knew I was more extroverted. In high school, I’d always gravitate toward activities that required you to be extroverted. It was a bit tough to step back and say to yourself, “You know, I always thought I’d be on this path. Why am I now changing this path, and is it too risky?” I’m grateful I was able to choose a school like Vanderbilt, one that had a strong faculty and had a focus on general business students. My mentor, fortunately, was the VP of HR at Jack Daniel’s Distillery, which had its perks!
I have a quote in my office, from Lord of the Rings, where Gandalf says to Frodo: “Do not trouble your hearts overmuch with thought of the road ahead. Maybe the paths that you shall each tread are already laid before your feet, even though you do not see them.” For me, that’s been true. Take the journey that presents itself, even if it wasn’t in the plan.
You’ve been with the Marriott family of companies, under their various umbrellas, for quite some time. What is it that keeps you there? What do you enjoy most about the company?
What keeps me in the Marriott family is a couple of things. The first is an exceptional leader who ensures that the journey is one you want to be on. It has really allowed me the opportunity to develop my career in a very supportive culture and environment that respected what we were doing.
Challenges at work: How about a time when you had to push the status quo?
We consistently challenge each other to think differently. Sometimes it’s hard to move a mountain or a battle-ship. I’d rather be a speedboat. So my first 13 years with Marriott, I wasn’t pigeonholed into one area or another. I took every opportunity I could, even if it wasn’t typical for my role. And then when we spun off in 2011, I was asked to stay but I decided to remain with the time-share business for a few reasons: 1) because we were building; 2) I didn’t have to relocate; and 3) did I want to be part of a 150,000-employee company, or did I want to be part of a 10,000-employee company? I made the decision that being a bigger fish in a little pond would allow me to be exposed to many different things and regain my breadth of compensation experience.
Do you feel you have a gift for working in the HR field? What is it about you that allows you to thrive in HR?
I thrive in the more technical side of HR. But I’m often asked: “How do you build the relationships with the leaders or the departments?” There are two things: You have to understand your dialogue and your approach. A lot of the time, you’re thinking the same thing as the other side, it’s just that they are coming in at a definitive, as opposed to exploring options and possibilities. That way, you end up in a better place. Also, I really do recognize when to stick my feet in the ground and firmly not change my position versus when I can look at the business and say, “Listen, I’ve outlined the risk, but it’s ultimately your decision. If you want to do it, I’ll figure out how to help you do it.” I have the ability to listen and I understand the business. You’ve got to learn how it operates. And working in HR for 32 years, those are the things I’ve learned.
As far as interests away from work, what stands out? Any charities, travel or specific extracurriculars that enrich your life?
Working for the Marriott branded businesses, you get a little bit of a perk in discounted room nights. We’ve been to almost all of the Marriott Vacation Club properties, which has been great, especially when we’ve been able to have those experiences with our daughter. I have a goal to visit every national park. I’m not quite there, a little less than halfway. So my husband and I enjoy that pursuit. I will turn off an interstate when I see a brown sign!
Why the national park goal?
Growing up in and around Washington, D.C., you don’t realize all the national parks you’re around. But you are. There are so many. Pictures don’t do them justice. To step back and really take it all in — the environment, the culture, the people, the history — it is quite amazing! If you’re able to just step back and observe what both nature and history have provided, you can’t look away.