Wrigley Field Rachel O'Connell's work with the Chicago Cubs extends beyond Wrigley Field to the neighborhood of Wrigleyville, which includes several team-owned properties. (Photo courtesy Jeramey Jannene)

From Krannert to Wrigley Field

Alumna helps lead HR efforts of the Chicago Cubs

The best-known and highest-paid employees of the Chicago Cubs helped pitch and hit their team into playoff contention this season. Still, it takes an entire organization to put together a Major League baseball team. Rachel (Rush) O’Connell (LA ’08, MSHRM ’10) fields her position there as an assistant director of human resources.

In her third year (and fourth season) with the Cubs, O’Connell is part of a team that’s just beginning to realize the benefits of a few rebuilding years. That retooling process was part of what attracted her to the job in the first place. “My boss is a real advocate and champion for the strategic part of human resources,” she says. “We are building things the right way from the ground up and not just serving as HR police and paper pushers. I feel like we’re partnering with people, especially our commercial leaders, to help this organization achieve its goals over the next several years.”               

Friendly Confines rethought

Rachel O'ConnellSome changes to Wrigley Field, including a huge left field video scoreboard and the Cubs’ increased winning percentage in 2015, have had rippling effects throughout all aspects of the organization. “Once you start experiencing some success on the field, everything’s up,” O’Connell says. “Sales are up, morale is up and everything is better. It’s unlike anything I’ve experienced in other industries. The performance of the product really impacts everything.”

Years of WGN’s Superstation daily coverage have helped make the Cubs a household name. In spite of that national, even global, footprint, O’Connell works for a relatively small company with about 450 full-time employees and 800 seasonal employees. Though the baseball season brings particular challenges, the offseason can be even busier in human resources. Throughout the fall and winter months, the team is busy with training initiatives and hiring for the upcoming season.

As for landing an office job with the Cubs, O’Connell says people whose personal philosophies and competencies align with the company’s goals have the best chance of standing out in a rigorous interview process. “We typically have someone meet with four to six folks,” she says. “Each person is looking for something different, so the questions I ask are going to be different from what a salesperson might ask. It’s about as objective as you can make a hiring decision.”      

Of course, the people in suits need somehow to match the hard work of players in uniform. “You can’t work in baseball without being willing to put in a lot of hard work,” O’Connell says. “No other sport has the same schedule as baseball. The 81 home games can be pretty grueling.”

Boiler background and HR blogger

Although she attended Lafayette Jefferson High School, O’Connell says a Purdue education was not always a certainty. The more she looked at other schools, however, the better Purdue felt. She went straight from earning her undergraduate degree in communications to the Krannert School of Management.

“I questioned whether that was the right decision at the time because I didn’t have the work experience to fall back on,” says O’Connell, just 25 years old when she earned her master’s degree. “With that said, I feel like I came out having the synergies of the people who were in the program and did have the work experience.”   

Working in teams and focusing on real-life scenarios also helped bring O’Connell up to speed in her management school days. “You can’t just slide by at Krannert,” she says. “You really have to participate, which puts a bit of ‘type A’ in you. I think that really enabled me to make an impact on what I was doing quickly.”

O’Connell may have stood out in her own interviews with the Cubs because of her “big picture” philosophy. About four years ago, she started writing a blog from a human resource perspective. “I had always been kind of a writer,” she says. “I saw some things and I felt like there was a void of people talking as HR professionals about the challenges being witnessed in the workplace.”

Her reflections, called Slingshot HR, hit a collective nerve, attracting some 9,000 views and followers. In fact, the traffic received weighed down the system and she had to switch to a WordPress site.

Those big ideas and a desire to lead a human resources department continue to drive O’Connell. If she should someday be part of the team that earns the Cubs its first World Series championship since 1908, she’ll put that on her resume, too.