Working in human resources wasn’t a part of Nicole Cody’s original career plan. But after graduating from the University of New Orleans with an English degree, she moved to Memphis, Tennessee, to work as a paralegal, and a friend she made there set her on a career path in which she has found great success.
Cody remembers the friend telling her about how much she liked her career in human resources. “As it came to pass, she went to another company here in Memphis, in compensation, and they had a position where they were willing to take someone who wasn’t necessarily experienced and to train in a compensation role,” she says.
That job was at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, and Cody discovered that not only did she like the work, she also had a knack for analytics. After a few years in that role, she was contacted by International Paper.
“The reason I was interested in that position is because as a nonprofit, St. Jude had a pretty straightforward compensation program,” Cody explains. “I was interested in learning more about incentive plans, short-term and long-term, and so I did make the change, and that’s where I’ve been ever since.”
Cody joined the International Paper team more than two decades ago in the corporate compensation department, and has since held numerous roles, including human resources generalist, human resources manager, business human resources leader for global finance, and human resources director for global manufacturing. She took on her current position, as director of global compensation and benefits, in August of 2020.
“Our goals are to make sure that all of our benefit offerings are very tightly aligned with the enterprise strategy,” she says. “That they are contributing to our employees’ physical, financial, and emotional well-being, that they are offerings that are valued by employees—if something isn’t valued, I don’t know why we need to do it—and that they’re fitting with our employee relations and labor relations strategy.”
When she started her tenure with International Paper as a compensation consultant, she focused on salary compensation surveys and annual increases. “I got the chance to work on a special project where we were hiring staff at a customer service center in Krakow, Poland, and I also served as the generalist for their Brussels headquarters,” she recalls.
Her first field assignment was at a manufacturing facility in Pineville, Louisiana, in 2008; she worked there and at another mill for about four years before returning to Memphis, where the company is headquartered. In 2018, she was promoted to human resources director for International Paper’s Global Cellulose Fibers business.
Cody’s work has also been noted by her colleagues outside the company. “International Paper has a longstanding history of providing high quality and innovative benefit programs to their employees,” says Senior Vice President of Cigna National Accounts Kelly Dill. “Nicole and her team are dedicated to the well-being of their employees. It’s a pleasure working with a partner where our cultures align. Cigna is proud to have been their partner since 2008.”
One important aspect of Cody’s work involves the Health Transformation Alliance, a cooperative of self-insured employers that consists of about fifty companies across the United States and covers about four million people.
“What we want to do is work together to make sure that the healthcare system of today is really transformed going forward to one that is more transparent, more aligned with providing high-quality healthcare, and to help ensure against rising costs,” Cody notes. “Because when you think about healthcare, everybody expects that the cost goes up significantly year over year, and probably the only other area where such common increases are expected is in college tuition.”
She adds that there are a lot of incentives to keep that cost increasing, so one the company is also analyzing data to make decisions that are transparent and lead to better outcomes.
As someone who leads a team of twenty-two people in the United States, as well as another half-dozen employees around the world, mainly in Europe and Asia, Cody says that reminding herself she’s not the expert in all matters is key to her success.
“It’s important for me to ask a lot of clarifying questions to make sure that I really understand the background and the history of anything that we’re trying to accomplish before weighing in and saying, ‘Here’s the direction I think we need to go,’” she explains. “The only place where I do insert myself a little more is when we’re thinking about programs or initiatives that we’re rolling out that will require business participation or change management from our field HR team. They’re already so stretched that I want to make sure what we’re doing is understood, very much supported, and endorsed by our business leaders before we implement something.”
She is also dedicated to helping others through Bridges USA, where she serves on the Board of Directors and Executive Committee. The organization supports high school students throughout Shelby County.
“They come together and work on their voices as leaders in the community, and how to develop their own skills as leaders and advocate for things that are important to them as youth in our city,” Cody says of the students who participate in the program. “They interact with the city council and the mayor, and it’s just been really fulfilling to see how they develop those skills and get that experience.”
Cody has also been able to lend her HR expertise to Bridges USA. “They are a very lean organization, and they don’t have a dedicated HR staff,” she notes. “They’ve got some part-time folks and I’m able to help them with HR business partner questions, so it’s been a great way for me to keep my hand in that sort of broader HR support.”