Johnson & Johnson Working Mother of the Year: Cancer survivor and talent guru Melissa Surdez
The 2016 nominee shares the secrets of her working-mom success. Hint: For Surdez, it starts with being “radically authentic.”
This year, Johnson & Johnson has made the respected list for the 31st year in a row.
To help celebrate the distinction, Johnson & Johnson was invited to nominate a 2016 Working Mother of the Year—an employee who possesses not only passion and resilience, but also a stellar work ethic and leadership skills.
These characteristics perfectly define 2016 nominee Melissa Surdez, 47, a Senior Human Resources Director and self-described tell-it-like-it-is Jersey girl. Surdez brings humor, candor and authenticity to everything she does, from her interactions with employees to her six-year battle with breast cancer.
We caught up with Surdez to find out what makes her such an extraordinary working mother—and why even time zones are no match for this weekday and weekend warrior.
What drew you to a career in human resources?
Melissa Surdez: I’m extremely social. I love people, listening to their stories, and finding ways to connect with others through those stories. And I’ve always had an eye for talent—I know which people will be great at what job.
I started out as a headhunter, before moving into corporate human resources roles. I came to Johnson & Johnson in 2001, when my then-employer was considering relocating me out of New Jersey. But I’m a Jersey gal through and through: Bruce Springsteen, bagels, takeout Chinese food.
It took some adjusting at first because people at Johnson & Johnson are so nice. I’m a straight-shooter and I felt like my style might not be a match. But after a few months, I decided to just be myself. I stopped trying to fit in—and fortunately people didn’t go running for the hills.
In fact, you once gave a TEDx talk and described your style as “radical authenticity.” What does that mean?
I don’t wear masks. I’m all me, all the time. And I like to get to know people by asking probing questions, like, “What did you dream about doing with your life in college?” When you ask deeper questions, you get more revealing answers. I call that type of conversation “breaking bread.” When you break bread, you don’t just talk, you connect.
What’s most rewarding about your job?
I love, love, love the talent management piece of matching people with jobs that fully use their skills. I don’t do human resources from behind a desk—I need to see people in their natural habitat.
You may not think you’re having an impact on anyone, but chances are someone is watching you—your kids, your colleagues—and being inspired by the way you handle your life.
I was in Brazil a couple of months ago and met a talented woman who wanted to come to the U.S. I came back to the office and told some people about her, and now she’s working here. Those moments fill me with such energy. It’s super-gratifying to make a successful match.
What’s your secret to juggling career and family?
I’ve always traveled for work, even when my kids, Brielle and Quinn, were little. My relationship with my husband, Lance, was built on openness and compromise—it’s the only way to really make things like starting and raising a family work successfully. Since his job is more flexible, he’s been the one to do most of the school pick-ups and drop-offs and the cooking. That works for us.
That said, I’ve never let crazy time zone conflicts stand in the way of my parenting. My daughter will call me in Mumbai in the middle of the night and ask, “Where is my jacket? I can’t find it.” And I’ll rub the sleep out of my eyes and say, “I think you left it under the table, by the door.”
We have a huge whiteboard in the kitchen with a calendar on it, and every month we write all our stuff on it, so everyone can see what’s going on. We also share a calendar on our phones. It’s like a religion in our family now. Everyone knows that the first thing they need to do when they schedule anything is to write it on the calendar.
You were diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in 2010, and had a recurrence in 2012. How did you cope?
You react to things based on what you know, and what I knew at that point was that my mom was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer at 40 and died. So my first thought was, This is it. This is how my story is going to end.
But my sister is a physician and told me that cancer is an individual sport, with everyone responding to treatment differently. My mom lost weight on chemo, so when I gained weight during treatment, I thought, This is crazy, but I think I’m gonna live.
I came back to work in January 2011, and Johnson & Johnson was fantastic in how they supported me. I even got a promotion.
The recurrence was scary at first. The cancer had metastasized to my liver and every single bone in my body. At the bottom of the PET scan, the tech had written: “Hundreds of tumors. Too many to count.” There was talk in the doctor’s office about making me “comfortable,” which is never good. But after a combination of chemotherapies , my scan showed that every tumor had, miraculously, shrunk. I had a remarkable response.
I’ll need to take the chemo cocktail once a month for the rest of my life—but I fully believe I will survive this disease.
How did it feel to win the Working Mother award?
I was shocked because I’m usually the one nominating people for these awards. But once it sunk in, I felt like it was a great teachable moment for my kids. It shows them that if you put your mind to it, you can achieve amazing things.
In my case, the most amazing things I’ve achieved are raising two confident kids, and facing cancer with energy and enthusiasm instead of an attitude of “why me?” And the award made me realize there’s power in being truly, authentically yourself.
Any parting advice for other working moms?
You may not think you’re having an impact on anyone, but chances are someone is watching you—your kids, your colleagues—and being inspired by the way you handle your life. That’s something you should always keep in mind because you’re leaving a legacy whether you know it or not.