In another life, Nancy Valdivia Antoniou might’ve been a teacher. The Los Angeles native grew up understanding the importance of education and always wanted to share that with others. In college, she completed childhood education courses while working full time as a teacher’s assistant when she wasn’t in class herself.
There was something about business that also spoke to her—so much so that she resigned from the school she worked at to pursue it. In her resignation letter, she said she’d return to the classroom one day. She never did so as a teacher but today, she nurtures her passion to educate others through other means as chief human resources officer (CHRO) for the California Times, a Southern California-based media company that includes the Los Angeles Times.
“After learning about HR and business, it became clear to me that I could still make an impact on a lot of people at the same time without being in a traditional classroom setting, grading papers and writing on a chalk board,” says Antoniou, who also serves as senior vice president of strategic operations and CHRO at NantWorks, where she’s worked for over two decades leading strategy, HR, and corporate operations initiatives. “I could do it by working to understand and advocate for others in business too.”
Bringing Change to the Times
At the center of her dual roles and responsibilities, but particularly at the Times, is building and maintaining learning and development programs for employees. When her long-time CEO Patrick Soon-Shiong acquired the Times and San Diego Union-Tribune in 2018, he tapped her to represent management and move the organizational culture in a positive direction. It was the same year that the Times newsroom, made up of about five hundred journalists, had formed a union for the first time in its history.
“Under prior ownership, there was an alleged culture of mistrust and starved resources. When I came in, I wanted to listen to the employees, develop that trust so we could focus on the business, and deliver impactful news to our subscribers,” she recalls. “I didn’t want to be viewed as a suit from corporate coming in to make changes. I really took the time to understand the history and people’s experiences in order to understand what change was needed.”
Antoniou spent eighteen months of her personal and professional life chipping away at that goal bit by bit. She ditched her suits and dressed more business casual. She regularly met with members of the union and other employees, even when she wasn’t on the clock, taking note of what was important to them. Eventually, by the end of 2019, those efforts paved the way to a historic three-year agreement. It’s one of the many highlights at the Times that she looks back fondly on.
“That was a very proud moment where both sides felt like it was a win-win,” she says.
The COVID-19 pandemic hit shortly after the agreement and put a lot of the company’s initiatives on hold. Today, Antoniou is excited to see those plans pick up steam. Some of them are tied to the significant investments the company is making in its training and learning opportunities for its employees, including hiring an executive coach and revamping onboarding for new hires. For the CHRO, those efforts are vital for her department to be the business partner the company needs.
“Our job isn’t done when we bring a highly qualified candidate through the door,” she explains. “There’s a retention component as well. Part of that retention is this journey of career growth and professional development and the way to nurture that is to offer opportunities. We’ve put a lot of emphasis on developing people competencies and having employees work cross-functionally with other departments, so those skills can shine.”
Antoniou is the kind of leader who wants company employees and her team to advance in their careers, even if they aspire to one day take on her role. She famously tells her employees, “If you want my job, come and get it.”
“I always tell my team if they want to learn something, ask me,” she says. “There’s so much work to be done in our organization that if someone else did come to be the head of HR, I’d focus on other things.”
That level of transparency helps create a work environment that’s inviting, nonthreatening, and a safe space for employees to pursue their goals. It’s also an environment where self-care is encouraged, a value that trickles down from the department’s leader, whose view on the subject has evolved over time.
“I used to think it was creating time to do things like go to the gym, working out, and meditating,” Antoniou says. “Now, I view self-care in a more holistic way. It’s mental health, physical health, and nutrition. Having that awareness prevents burnout, and I try to lead by example to pass it on to my own children at home and at work. Hard work is important and gets recognized, but there needs to also be a focus on wellness, so you can pivot for yourself when you need to.”
Her leadership stands out to the different partners she works with, as well. “Nancy is a rock and brings a quiet strength to the table. She is someone you can always count on and is one of the smartest, hardest working, and most strategic executives I’ve ever worked with. She is thoughtful, thorough, always does more than her fair share,” says An Nguyen Ruda, comanaging partner of boutique law firm Bartko Zankel Bunzel & Miller. “Nancy and I are the same age and are both parents. It has been wonderful to professionally develop with her and also share life trajectories with her.”
Antoniou’s leadership lessons started with her parents. As she grew up in Los Angeles with her siblings, she witnessed her parents’ relentless work ethic. They never missed a day, never showed up late, and always wanted to be their best. She took on those traits as she entered the workforce while pursuing an education, constantly raising her hand for new assignments—especially the difficult ones.
For those seeking similar success, Antoniou recommends finding others who can support growth, open doors, and guide you toward your desired career.
“Find a sponsor to help you navigate areas you want to develop in and work to understand the role you are trying to achieve, someone who will advocate for you when you’re not in the room,” she advises. “Also, take chances and never sell yourself short.”
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