Mary Gale named new VP of HR, brings passion for culture development, Northwestern mission

Liala Helal | June 01, 2015

Childhood values and upbringing shaped Gale into an impressive leader.

Mary Gale

Mary Gale learned what it was like to be part of something larger than self from a young age. Both literally and figuratively. She grew up on a 400-acre farm in New Trier, Minn. where the family planted crops for Green Giant, and raised farm animals. But Gale’s early life lessons about managing parts of an organization not only come from being on a large farm and watching her parents keep all the pieces moving smoothly, it came from being part of something larger on the big farm: a collective group of people. Gale has 13 siblings.

“We had enough kids for a baseball team,” Gale said. She was the twelve child in a family of seven boys, seven girls, and mother and father who lived in a highly organized atmosphere where every person, young or old, made difference on the farm.

“A lot of times people ask if it was chaotic there. It was never chaotic,” Gale said. “My mom is the most patient, organized person I’ve ever met in my life. She ran a tight ship. She was organized with charts, and you had accountability, and you had things that you needed to do. And I felt like I learned the value of hard work and the value of being part of something larger and all working toward a common goal, from her.”

Her parents and family instilled moral values in her of respecting other people and the meaning of being part of a larger community – the family was often involved in volunteering at church, donating, and service activities. She gained a love for serving a mission – something bigger than self.

That’s the first thing that attracted Gale to Northwestern Health Sciences University — the University’s mission and vision.

“It was so aligned personally from a health and wellness perspective in terms of the value that has in my own personal life,” Gale said. “And combined with my love for higher education, it just felt like I belong here, like this is the exact job they made exactly for me. There’s a long, rich history at Northwestern, and at a time of transformation, I want to be part of building what’s next.”

On May 18, Gale began at Northwestern in her new role as Vice President of Human Resources, a newly created position on the senior leadership team to ensure strength as Northwestern builds and enhances a strong culture of innovation, wellness and service. She joins Northwestern after almost 15 years as vice president for human resources at William Mitchell College of Law, where she achieved impressive accomplishments in development of culture. She also has a background in human resources management in the health care industry, with previous roles at Heatheast Care System and Medica Health Plans.

Gale holds a bachelor of arts degree in business administration and management from St. Catherine University, and a master of arts in organizational leadership from Concordia University in St. Paul.

“I picked this profession because it feels a natural place for me is around serving a mission,” she said. “I always felt like those were the values we were taught as kids growing up in terms of volunteering and doing things in the community, helping one another, and being team-oriented. I felt like in our family system, if someone had a particular issue going on in their life, that we were being supportive. Being part of that mission-centered piece really came from growing up in our family system.”

The children learned to accept responsibility, regardless of the difficulty, she said, as they kept a one-acre family garden and divided which rows each child would weed for the summer. Gale also learned her early negotiation skills there. She loved living out in the country, loved taking care of the garden and working outdoors, but wasn’t a fan of working in the barn.

“So I tried to always find a different task to replace that,” Gale said.

In high school and early college, Gale worked at a bank in Hastings and one day discovered what the human resources professional’s role was, although the function was called “personnel” back then.

“She was a person that helped to solve issues in the organization,” Gale said. “And I really felt that that was something that was natural for me to do. And I remember talking to her about it and she said, ‘I don’t really know if you can make a living doing it.’ It was at the point when HR was just becoming a profession.”

But Gale knew what she wanted to do. In college, although there was no human resources program at St. Catherine’s yet, she partnered with one of the other private schools in the system to take human resources classes.

“To me, it was a way of connecting the business strategies and the people strategies, and that was a good connection for me,” Gale said. Gale’s passion lies in culture development and architecting culture strategies.

“Culture is an organization’s competitive advantage,” she said. “Creating a workplace where people can bring their best self to work in a high-trust environment is really something that makes the workplace special. The work I have done in that arena was initially around creating a compelling place to work and learn.”

Her experience brings her to Northwestern understanding the difference a stronger culture can make, especially during a time of transformation.

“Every single interaction that every person has, you’re either building trust, or you’re destroying trust,” Gale explained. “So being very intentional and taking care of culture is not something that just happens. I think it needs to be very intentional, I think it needs to be front and center. It’s how you create that magic in the workplace. And places where this works, if you peel the onion back and look, are places that have been intentionally focused on culture. So I am excited about being part of an organization that is thoughtful about that and has partners to do that. It’s not work that you do alone, you want the entire organization to be part of that journey.”

 A strong culture strategy makes organizations more efficient. “If you are really clear about your values at an organization, and you’re really clear about your mission, your decisions are guided by those two things,” she said.

She is excited about being part of a leadership team that makes a difference in the world.

“The connection for me is being part of an institution that is making a difference in people’s lives — by the work that’s being done in the classroom, in the community, and work that alumni are doing,” Gale said. “In the case of Northwestern, the work our graduates are doing in terms of improving the quality of lives of other people. That, to me, was really attractive about Northwestern.”

Gale is excited to learn a new industry within higher education ― the health and wellness educational sector.

She believes in health and wellness in terms of healthy eating, nutrition, and exercise. It’s important to her to live healthy and make things from scratch, rather than eat processed foods. Like old times with her mother, Gale bakes her own breads, pies and desserts. She also recently put out a bird feeder at her home, just like her mother did on the farm.

“I was so excited when the finches showed up; I was just tickled. I was hoping they’d show up at the new place,” she said. “Growing up out in the country, it just felt like our core values as a family were respecting all beings, and all persons among them. I love nature, and gardening, and being part of all those things.”In many ways, her work is like the family garden she tended to as a child.

“It’s work that, like a garden, needs to be fertilized and watered and weeded; you have to do the same thing with culture,” Gale said. “It has the same needs, the same level of nurturing, because you don’t just go out to the garden in October and expect pumpkins to be there if you haven’t done the work to put the pumpkin in and plant it, and fertilize it, and take care of it all season. Culture is the same way, it needs to be tended to.”

Northwestern’s initiative to strengthen and develop its culture positions it well for making a bigger difference in the community.

“Culture is unique to organizations that are healthy, growing, thriving, and doing good things,” Gale said. “In higher education, people are shaping other people’s lives. They’re making a very big difference in the lives of students, who in turn go out into the community and make a very big difference in the lives of their patients and their clients. The impact you can have is so significant.”

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