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Women of Leadership Profiles

Sumona De Graaf Takes Human-Centered Approach at Republic Services

Sumona De Graaf was deeply influenced by her immigrant parents who encouraged her to never lose sight of her passions and to maintain resolve, even during challenging times. With a resume that includes consultant, university professor, and human resources leader at Bloomberg, Sumona uprooted from her home in New York to the Arizona desert after being offered a tremendous opportunity as chief human resources officer at Republic Services, an innovative and sustainable recycling and waste disposal company.

Early influences: Keeping passions and interests in sight

Is there someone or something from your upbringing that influenced your career path? 

I was born in London to immigrant parents. We emigrated to the US when I was three months old. My parents are artists, and they channeled their passions while trying to make a living in a new country with young children. I watched my dad, in particular, try to hold onto both – he was a computer analyst during the week and an event photographer on the weekends. The most important lesson he taught me is to work hard, and to never lose sight of my passions and interests.

My parents’ marriage was arranged by their families. My mom married my dad at 21 after meeting him twice and then moved to a new country with him. My determination and resolve comes from my mother. To connect with people when she moved to the UK, she cold called people with recognizable last names in a local phone book. She made lifelong friends that way and taught me that when things are hard, staying committed and having good people surround you is important.

My older sister was like a surrogate mother while our mom worked full-time. She taught me what she was learning in 5th grade while I was in kindergarten and always lovingly pushed me beyond what I thought I was capable of.

 

He said, ‘Sumona, when we moved here as immigrants, we came here because it is the land of opportunity. This is your opportunity. It is exactly why we have done everything we have done.’

 

Current role: Strengthening the human side of human resources

Tell me about Republic Services.

Republic Services is a publicly traded, US-based company with 36,000 employees that specializes in providing effective solutions to make responsible recycling and waste disposal effortless for our customers. Our tagline is: “We’ll handle it from here.”

Describe your current role as Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO).

As a CHRO, I’ve been asked to strengthen the human side of human resources – which requires me to be the voice at the table who consistently and relentlessly cares about our people. My team upholds the values that are critical to creating an exceptional place to work through our HR practices, policies, processes and programs.

The job requires agility and adaptability – and an appreciation for navigating the unpredictable! I love the variety and challenge of the job – and the impact that it can have on human lives.

 

For all the liberal arts majors out there, take the accounting and finance class, and pay attention!

 

What attracted you to work for Republic Services?

Accepting this position felt like a “bigger than me” moment, particularly as a minority woman in the workplace. The people who loved me the most – including my husband, who is the most influential person in my life – said, “You have to take this job.” We had just moved back to New York, near my parents, and I thought moving to Arizona would break their hearts. I remember calling my dad and questioned if I should take the job. He said, “Sumona, when we moved here as immigrants, we came here because it is the land of opportunity. This is your opportunity. It is exactly why we have done everything we have done.” It was in that moment, with his blessing, that we decided to take the leap. 

What characteristics does someone need to be successful in a role like yours?

At my previous company, ghSMART, I had the privilege of working with leaders from all walks of life, and here are a few themes I’ve picked up on:

  • Clear vision – Know where you are going and how it ties to the bigger picture. Having a sense of purpose helps you be decisive in the moments that matter.
  • Stamina – Our CEO, Don Slager, shared his secret to great parenting: “It’s stamina. You have to outlast them.” As a mom of two young boys – this really resonates! I would say that this applies to the CHRO job, too.
  • Hard Work – There is no shortcut to working hard. Maybe it’s the immigrant mentality, but you have to put in the effort. Sometimes the work is doing it myself, or it’s enabling and supporting others to do great work.
  • Resolve – You have to be willing to say what’s important, even if it’s not popular. You may be the only person in the room standing up for something, and having a thoughtful position on a topic generates respect.

 

Being the lone voice can be hard – we have more impact together.

 

 What is most challenging?

I am a planner by nature, and this job is unpredictable. You have to reserve capacity for managing the unknown, and it is also emotionally taxing. Feeling the weight of 36,000 human lives (and their families, as our CEO reminds me!) on my shoulders is both inspiring and terrifying – but I share the weight with an incredible team.

You can also get into analysis paralysis. You can collect endless data, but part of being a leader is being decisive with imperfect information. You have to rely on your instincts, your team, and your past experiences and trust that if things don’t go well, you can always pivot. 

Career path: Embracing every opportunity

What was your very first job?

I worked at Dunkin Donuts in high school at night from 6-10 pm. It helped my family out financially, and I also discovered my love for coffee. By the time I got home from work, I had a pot of coffee in my system and was ready to do homework. I still do my best thinking at night with a cup of coffee in hand. 

How does your previous work experience at Bloomberg help in your current position?

Working at Bloomberg was fascinating; I loved working for a philanthropist because it gave me a sense of purpose. Bloomberg users are also die-hard, and everyone at the company understood that our customers rely on the products to stay informed and to make critical and consequential financial decisions. I appreciated the importance of accuracy and reliability as a cultural mindset. If we got a decimal point wrong on the Bloomberg, the whole market could change!

At Republic Services right now, we are asking transformational questions like, “How can we improve our customer experience?” and “How can we make sure that our most talented people are working on our most critical projects?” The importance of inclusion and diversity are at the forefront of our mind, given who we are and who we serve. We are always mindful that the decisions we make are consequential to our company, our customers, and our Earth.

 

Part of being a leader is being decisive with imperfect information.

 

What is your favorite part of your job? 

My favorite part of the job is giving other people courage to be a more human-centered leader, and I’m seeing that from the top to the bottom of our organization. 

Is there anything you would do differently? What do you think young professionals can learn from your path so far?

I considered doing a minor in business as an undergrad, and I wish I had. Having a core understanding of how money works – no matter what role you are in – is important. For all the liberal arts majors out there, take the accounting and finance class, and pay attention!

What inspired you to pursue an Ph.D in Industrial Organizational Psychology, and how has it impacted your career?

The answer to the question isn’t actually what, it is “Who.” I worked with Dr. Heidi Grant at Lehigh University, and she introduced me to the topic of motivation as a science, and to I/O Psychology in particular. When I discovered that it blended my passion for people and interests in leadership and motivation, I was hooked.

The degree granted me some credibility – being 100 pounds and 5’1” worked against me at times, and early in my career, knowledge became my power base. Particularly in this job, the training I received gives me an edge – and brings a dimension of diversity to our leadership team that benefits our company.

Are there important lessons in business that you always keep top-of-mind?

  • Know the priorities of the business. If your work isn’t contributing to the desired outcomes of the business, reprioritize.
  • Hire, develop and retain talented people. You are only as strong as your team.
  • Recognize the impact of your decisions on others.
  • Be clear on your values, make them known, and actively abide by them.
  • Be the kind of leader your spouse and kids would be proud of.

Final thoughts: Inspiring young people

Is there anything on your “bucket list” you’d be willing to share?

My husband and I have written a couple of children’s books that we would like to get published someday.

Is there something you can share that many people may not know about you?

I married my college sweetheart – he is my rock and my greatest source of strength and inspiration. I think folks should know that behind every seemingly strong woman is a village of people who hold her up.

Why is Forté’s mission important to you?

When women have a seat at the table and offer different perspectives, their voices are impactful and can amplify one another. Being the lone voice can be hard – we have more impact together.

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