Karen Viera explored her professional career with a summer architectural internship. Eager to learn the business and gain better insights about the company, she mustered the courage to float a lunch invitation to a room filled with men. After an awkward silence, one stood up and said that such things were simply not done. Viera suddenly realized she had picked the wrong career; that she had a calling and a desire to change how people react to different or new situations, especially in the workplace. "I'm a people person!" she thought. "That's what energizes and excites me. I need to rethink my career choice if I am going to lead changes in how people work and grow in a company."
It's only fitting that today, Viera (MSHRM '09), SPHR, SHRM-SCP, serves as senior vice president and global chief people officer at Church's Chicken/Texas Chicken. As she helps steer the company through two generation-defining moments – the COVID-19 pandemic, with Church's "People Safety First/Safety Always" strategy, and the "Equality, Diversity & Inclusion" initiative, in continued support of the Church's culture of celebrating differences and social injustice movements – Viera feels grateful for that early experience.
"At the end of the day, it was a blessing in disguise that architecture was not my destiny of choice," she said. "From that day forward, I focused on learning more about business and at the same time aligning human capital strategies that advance an organization and its people," she added. "I found my passion."
Born and raised in Miami, Viera was vice president of human resources at Assurant Inc., when she decided to pursue her Master of Science in Human Resource Management at FIU.
Three years after graduating from FIU Business with her master's degree, Viera moved to Atlanta where she worked in human resources for health insurance companies and moved into her first chief human resource officer role. Expanding her scope to include volunteer work, then-governor of Georgia Nathan Deal appointed her to the Georgia Workforce Development Board. She is currently in her third appointment and now chairs the Adult and Dislocated Workers Committee for the state of Georgia as a member of the Workforce Development Board.
"I credit my success to my education, a strong desire for continuous learning, some luck and courage along the way, special mentors that made a significant impact, and my general love of business," Viera said. "Many of the business leaders I have supported over the years have told me that they see me as a businessperson that sits in HR."
Now, in the midst of an unprecedented era of urgency, human resource professionals have found themselves front and center in a push to launch new initiatives. Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, Church's executives launched an engagement campaign to recognize its essential workers in the restaurants, implementing enhanced bonus programs, mailing cards and sending gifts (think ice cream and T-shirts!) to ensure they know they are appreciated.
Then, as the Black Lives Matter movement unfolded, Viera and her colleagues integrated equality, inclusion and diversity into the company's global initiatives, taking deliberate measures to expand cultural perspectives, strengthen and build cultural security, and instill global equality of opportunities. "BLM absolutely matters," she said. "It matters to me personally and as an executive of a billion-dollar global organization."
The key to navigating these uncharted waters? "My best advice is as simple as it is underrated," Viera said. "Communicate, communicate, communicate. Communication is not a one-hit wonder; to be effective it must be regularly scheduled with quality messaging."
Among other pearls of wisdom she accumulated throughout her career: an education is invaluable because it is something you can never lose, and while high IQ might get you hired, high EQ is what helps you be successful. In addition, Viera said, "Find an organization where you can volunteer your time and … be a mentor! It's surprising how much you might learn!"