By Susan Hitchcock
Founder & Host Emerita of Women in Leadership
Teela Jackson is an exemplary leader in the talent and human resources field. Widely known and respected as a consummate professional, she’s VP of Talent Connections LLC, past president of SHRM-ATL, on the Advisory Board of HR.com, an HR Conference speaker and MC and recipient of numerous other honors.
Teela’s also a quintessential model of what I’m focusing on in 2023 – “Everyday SHEroes.” An Everyday SHEro is an inspiring woman who lives and works with purpose and passion – every day! That’s Teela to a T.
Clearly, there’s a reason people say things like this about Teela: “She goes beyond and above; exudes energy, passion and compassion; and she works harder than just about anyone I know!” That’s all true, so what’s the secret behind this much admired Everyday SHEro? Well, here’s a little insight into what makes Teela – Teela.
Early Life Influences
Teela, an only child, grew up in a predominantly African American middle-class, mostly two parent neighborhood in Nashville, TN. She was surrounded by a loving extended family and unconditional love. Her family members and neighbors were well educated professionals, community advocates and civil rights activists. “Also influential in my life were family members who were veterans, my father, a Vietnam veteran and my grandfather, a WWII veteran.”
And then there was Teela’s mom. “She was a college recruiter, and now a director at a college. She was always my inspiration and set high standards for me growing up.” Other impactful experiences included her high school and college sorority, her time in both private and public-school systems, and Girl Scouts.
As we go through life there are always choices to be made and those choices help to define us. One very significant choice Teela had to make involved the decision to transition from private to public school. “It was a choice I made that actually represents how I have made other choices later in my life, i.e., my desire to participate on a larger playing field.” Teela’s decision to attend a public high school provided a different type of competition with different encounters and relationships – all lessons for adult life and career.
That perspective of a “larger playing field” also came into play when she chose what college to attend (University of Tennessee at Martin) because she wanted a very diverse experience. After college, Teela made another big decision: moving to Atlanta, almost sight unseen and even before she had a job. While it may have been a risk, it paid off almost immediately. “I reached out to a staffing agency and reconnected with Mia Benson who I actually went to Catholic elementary school with! She was a recruiter and said ‘Come with me.’ I did and the rest is history.”
On the personal side, even though she wasn’t looking for a mate, a happenstance meeting in her apartment building parking lot turned into a very serendipitous introduction. A casual friendship turned into a dating relationship turned into a happy marriage and beautiful family. They’ll celebrate 20 years together in 2023 while also celebrating their high-achieving daughter’s HS graduation!
Purpose and Passion
Not surprisingly, Teela says, “I’m fortunate that I work in a field in which I’m extremely passionate and it fulfills my purpose – to serve others. My motto is ‘Live, Work, Serve’ and to radiate joy. My real passion is studying human behavior and its connection to people, their talent and human resources. How that impacts people’s lives is where my purpose truly lies.”
In her professional role, Teela works hard to elevate people and their careers and especially to bring diverse talent to the forefront and into the C-suite.
With such a successful career and happy life, it could be hard to identify the proudest moments, but Teela had no trouble sharing what’s at the top of the heap. “Being a wife and mother is top of the heap for sure,” she said, “and serving the community is next on the list. And while I take a lot of volunteer roles, what I can say about my job is that I’m fortunate to be paid but I’d totally do it for free – and I have!”
Another absolutely “proudest moment” Teela loves to share is that she and her mother went back to college to get their master degrees – and graduated at the same time! “My whole family values education as something you cannot take away from anyone, and we were the first to get our masters – my mom’s in Leadership and me, an MBA.”
In a later reflection, Teela credited her first boss, Linda Tiffin, with motivating her to pursue her MBA. “Linda was planning to retire in two years and inspired me to do it before she retired. She gave me space at work and supported me throughout the whole process.” Now that’s a great boss!
“BHAGS” – Big Hairy Audacious Goals
Asked about her BHAGS looking forward, Teela said, “In his concept of BHAGs, Jim Collins describes three spheres. Where they intersect is where your BHAG sits. I think about MLK’s quote, ‘Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.’ For me, I ask, ‘Where can I help? I want to impact the C-suite and the future of HR strategy and talent development. I want my daughter to see people in the C-suite that look like her. I want to be part of the bigger picture, to give back, to find the next generation of HR professionals, the CHRO, or the COO, CEO, etc. People of color, women, etc.”
Perhaps the seed for Teela’s BHAGs was planted when she saw the first black weatherman on TV in Nashville. She’d never seen anyone like him in that role, but he was the best at his job and it made her envision other people of color being the first and best in their roles.
The Rest of the Story
If there was to be a book written about Teela, wonder what the theme or title might be? “My first thought is that people often underestimate me in an initial meeting in the C-suite because I may look younger than I am. But I don’t make it my job to leave them impressed. I just walk in as me, knowing that I’m going to find them the best CHRO or the best person for whatever the job is.”
“Perhaps something like that might be the theme of a book, but I can also see a book entitled Live, Work, Serve – which is my motto.”
A Present or Future Focus?
Some people say you should live in the present, in the moment, while others focus on the future, planning their legacy. Here’s Teela’s perspective: “Focusing on the past or the future adds a lot of pressure. I say live in the present with intentionality of purpose and impact. That naturally influences the future. I think of Dr. King who lived in the present and yet built a legacy, definitely with intentionality.”
There’s no doubt that Teela follows that mantra. Ask anyone who knows her and they can tell you how she personifies purpose and passion – and how she makes a positive impact – every day.
Looking for an Everyday SHEro? Look no further.
Interview & Profile by: Susan Hitchcock, Founder of The Age of SHEroes
Explore more of Susan’s Shero interviews and articles by visiting Women in Leadership.