"Listening was my most powerful tool as a leader. It was a truly defining experience and started me on a leadership path." — Jen Phillips Kirkwood, ADP VP Future of Work

Imagine needing the most creative jam session to solve problems. One day you hit the pavement running and it's a loud jam into Mozart's score with violin … the next, thundering Imagine Dragons or riffing to Alicia Keys … and then it's some serious, cantankerous Eminem. And you likely want to stay out of her way.

The creative score in Jen Phillips Kirkwood's mind is the key for her as she unlocks her love for music and the sequencing of technology. It's here her passions for music, data, technology and leadership collide with her creativity.

"The music connection? As a child whose parents had the immense patience to let me experience learning Suzuki Violin at two, I learned by ear how to play music," she says. "This continued all my life in playing instruments. I believe their gift is what led me to the technology side as I see in my mind's eye the connection of patterns in musical scores, sequencing, mathematically, which has led me to technology.

Jen, Violin 2 years old

Jen learning the Violin, 2 years old

"If I have problems to solve and need to create, music goes on!" she says with a laugh. "Gosh, sibling rivalry could have been a whole lot smoother if I took this route with my brother." (Humor also seems to be her sidekick.)

Jen majored in business with a minor in chemistry at Michigan State University while serving as a resident advisor. At a time when most are partying in college, she was studying and working two jobs in technology and as an RA, where she worked experienced the importance of connecting with people of diversity in race, religion, sexuality, gender, and ideas.

"When you are helping such a big population such as MSU in dorms 24/7 cope with social issues, rape and domestic violence, to suicide, crushes, bullying, academics and celebrations, all at once, it truly feels like a every possible music channel dialed up at the same time," Jen says. "It could flood me as someone so new to leadership and under pressure to perform myself. I was given the best advice by mentor, my mom. I leaned in and listened. I didn't know firsthand many of the experiences that so many endured from all over the world. But I needed to support and help. Listening was my most powerful tool as a leader. It was a truly defining experience and started me on a leadership path."

During her time at MSU, Jen also found her way into two very special technology experiences, first with Apple and then with IBM. They were both starting to break into the education market and were recruiting students to work testing new products and programs. Jen was testing user experience designs, providing feedback, taking this to educators, testing their user experience feedback, and continued on to work with AS400, Apples OS and IBMs OS and the like. This experience jump started her fascination with the intersection of people and technology.

"Computers should be putting humans forward. Tech should be in the background, muscling through information and presenting insight when needed," Jen says. "At the same time, we as leaders have to look at our organizations and the people in them. A business is also a machine; it has no heart. As leaders, it is up to US to bring the heart, the authentic human."

Coming to ADP

Graduating from MSU, Jen already had a job offer thanks to her leadership and technology experience. She didn't want a traditional job. And she didn't land a traditional job.

"It's funny," she notes with a grin, "I saw the career fairs at colleges as cattle herds. How can you possibly stand out? Online recruiting was just starting, I found ADP online and worked with a brilliant, forward thinking recruiter. She saw my application and essay were unique. After our interview, she called hiring managers about me. They told her, 'She's different!' What really mattered in this essay, they explained, were my answers around tech and the leadership. They didn't expect that from a new college grad. They created a new pilot position for me. I'd like to think it was an early glimpse of breaking job descriptions around the 'Future of Work.'"

Jen adds, "It's amazing how much the right experiences, notably around leadership, diversity and inclusion, and technology can advance offers even today as I help other young women in STEM."

Jen came to ADP 24 years ago. Since then, she has changed positions seven times, including three positions that were created for her as she saw new opportunities and brought new skills forward.

Jen Phillips Kirkwood headshot

Jen Phillips Kirkwood

Leading "By Ear"

Today, Jen leads a global dream team of innovation specialists and technologists in what is essentially a consultancy. "It's a privilege to work and lead brilliant minds and exceptional talent that was hand selected in an Ocean's 11 style. Mind you, no crimes were committed in this recruiting. But we literally went all over to find this dream team."

Jen's team is brought in by sales to help companies understand what problems the organizations face, especially during this new world of work. They specialize heavily in data to give struggling and recovering businesses the insights they need to see and approach the issues they are facing.

"Tech changes lives. Data reveals so much about the how and why. At the core of all trends and challenges we are trying to understand, data is always at the root," Jen says. "With great data, we can understand and change so much. We are spoiled in my team, working with the best workforce data. We have an amazing experience in storytelling and uncovering so much in data! It's thrilling and a daily reveal we nerd out about."

Jen learned to lead from a mentor she has had all her career. She helped her learn to be the authentic, transparent, and careful in her decision making. "My mentor taught me to listen to people, manage to strengths, and help them learn new skills," she says. "Many leaders I know are shocked that I encourage my team to learn new skills and as they worry about flight risk. 'What if they learn and they leave?' I have replied, 'What if they stay and never learn?' I am very focused on building their profile and their future. I want them invested now. In return, I am fortunate to have a time share with them, and it's my honor to help them build the runway for their careers. And that means we must be thinking about the skills they need to grow or continue to polish where they are to always aspire to be happy and find meaning in their work."

She has continued her own learning as well. The importance of learning was instilled in her from an early mentor in data science who influenced her technology learning. He challenged her and opened doors to expand and deepen her knowledge in data science. This led to a specialization in data science in her studies at Johns Hopkins University and additional learning at the University of Pennsylvania in the The Wharton School for Machine Learning. Jen also loves to teach, speaking regularly about the application of data for businesses and use cases in the "New World of Work."

JPK at HR Tech

Jen was a contributor to the ADP DataCloud pay equity model and presented it on stage at HR Tech.

Best Advice

"Be bold! It's really OK to want to be different and stand out," Jen says. "Break glass and find a way to bring your personal branding in and understand which values and skills you want to hone to be part of your authentic self.

"Leadership comes with listening. We may not understand all experiences. Listening is a powerful tool that is greatly overlooked. It's a strength to build on.

"Technology. Tech is fantastic and is something everyone should lean into, and we should work hard to ensure all have an opportunity. But most important to tech is the human. Humanity should always be the center and guiding the tech. Humanity should be forefront and tech in the background."

Kirkwood family

Jen with her husband Chase, daughter Katie and son Connor.

Ready for more?

Explore the stories of these and other ADP Women in STEM, and learn about careers at ADP.

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