Whitney Harper is the Senior Vice President of People at Extra Space Storage, a role that she says she’s thrilled to be taking on. Harper joined the self storage organization in January 2021 and will be focusing on supporting the company’s workforce so that they can perform their best day in and day out.
In the following Q&A, Harper shares more about her career, including the most challenging aspect of her work and the experiences she’s most proud of.
Q: How did your career path lead you to Extra Space Storage?
A: I studied hospitality management in college. I’ve always loved to cook, eat, and travel. After my undergraduate studies, I started working at the Ritz-Carlton in Singapore. Eventually, the General Manager approached me with a new opportunity. He thought I would be a good fit as the Training and Organizational Effectiveness Director. I hadn’t worked in Human Resources before but quickly found a deep passion for helping others grow and excel in their careers.
After a few additional career stops, I joined a hospitality consulting firm, HVS, as their head of Human Resources. I built out the human resource functions across 35 offices worldwide and participated on their board of directors. During my tenure at HVS, I had the good fortune of being the internal partner to an external consulting firm for an enterprise-wide strategy project. My next career stop was joining that consulting firm, Navalent, where I worked with various clients, including global Fortune 500 companies, high-growth startups, nonprofits, and venture capital firms. During my consulting years, I gained a much broader understanding of how organizations function, develop their leaders, and implement strategies. Although I’ve had a winding career path that has taken me across multiple continents, the common thread has always been helping individuals and organizations thrive.
In 2019, we moved to Salt Lake City. When the opportunity at Extra Space Storage came across my radar, I was immediately intrigued. The more I learned about the organization, the more I wanted to be part of its future and see how I might contribute to building upon the incredible legacy this company has created.
Q: Which experience(s) in your career influenced who you are today?
A: My first job out of college was in hospitality services at the Athlete’s Village for the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece. The Athlete’s Village is where most Olympic athletes stay during the games. Within the village, there was a cafeteria where the athletes came to eat, but it was also where they would connect and celebrate with each other. I would see athletes hugging each other when they proudly walked in, wearing their gold, silver, or bronze medals around their necks. They would recognize in awe the strengths and talents of each other, asking each other for autographs, and showing up after the closing ceremonies in togas dancing on the tables together in a joyous celebration of the incredible experience of being at the Olympics. Seeing representatives from around the globe who were each at their peak performance celebrating what was unique about their talents was awe-inspiring and also gave me my first glimpse of what a truly diverse and inclusive environment felt like.
A week after the Olympic Games finished, the Paralympic Games began. Similarly, I saw athletes congregating and hugging each other like it was a family reunion as they reconnected with friends from all over the world. There were rugby players in wheelchairs, sight-impaired football players, and swimmers with multiple limb losses. Their abilities were different, but their desire to represent their countries, showcase their athletic accomplishments, and support each other was no different than the Olympians from the previous week.
Back-to-back, these experiences shaped my optimism around diversity and inclusion. People were celebrated for their unique talents and power as individuals. And they were each integral members of a team. These experiences have had a lasting impact on my desire to create spaces for others to experience the power of a diverse and inclusive organization.
Q: What has been the most challenging aspect of your career?
A: The most challenging times in my career have been navigating the personal transitions. When I was young and single, I could make bold moves that didn’t require negotiating tradeoffs with anyone else. Working six weeks straight at an Olympic Games or taking a job in a new country were decisions that only impacted me.
When my husband and I got married, we had to navigate two careers and make some tradeoffs to support each other. My husband has been incredibly supportive and an excellent partner. Moving to Singapore for my job is one example. When he wanted to pursue a master’s degree, we made intentional choices to move to the area of his first choice for graduate school. When each of our daughters arrived, we had to make adjustments to be the parents we wanted to be, the partners we wanted to be for each other, and still fulfill our career ambitions. Navigating through each transition has required a lot of growth, a network of support, and constant communication to keep our priorities front and center.
Q: What has been the most fulfilling aspect of your career?
A: I’ve been fortunate in my career to serve as an executive coach to senior leaders. It was always a proud and fulfilling moment when leaders were able to leap forward in their career to that next significant position or achieve a goal they were working toward. I’ve also found great fulfillment in seeing team members who I interviewed rise to prominent roles in their careers.
Another aspect of Human Resources is the role of an unlicensed therapist. Helping colleagues navigate challenging problems or considering the vulnerability of someone working to be a better version of themselves is part of the job that I hold sacred.
Q: What advice would you give to future leaders?
A: Know thyself, and as said in Hamlet, “to thine own self be true.” Doing the work to know who you are as a leader, your values, and your triggers is a lifetime’s work, and one that is well worth the effort.
I have found that some leaders try to emulate a mentor or boss early in their careers. That is a normal progression in leadership and a path I certainly tried. However, a leader that is confident in who they are as a person is powerful. They know themselves—their strengths and weaknesses—and don’t feel the need to hide or compensate for their shortcomings. I have worked with some wonderful leaders over the years. Those with a keen sense of who they are, in my experience, is what sets apart the truly exceptional leaders.
This article is part of an ongoing series of interviews with Extra Space Storage (NYSE: EXR) team members. Whitney Harper is the Senior Vice President of People at Extra Space Storage.