36 min read

Episode 15: Employee engagement

The People leader focused on building flexible workplaces.
Episode 15: Employee engagement

This month, we're talking to a people ops leader who's spending her days thinking about employee engagement and flexibility. (Among a million other things.)

These are always great topics to dive into but I think they’re especially important to think about right now.

Things have gotten a little tough in tech recently! And it’s easy to deprioritize the “people stuff” when budgets get cut and hiring slows, but so often that comes back to bite us later.

So, I’m excited to chat with Vanesa about how she found herself in people ops, what her day to day looks like as a VP of People and Culture, and what her and her team are prioritizing this year.

About Our Guest

Our guest is Vanesa Cotlar, VP of People & Culture at PolicyMe.

Previously, she worked as the Director of People Operations at iQmetrix, as a Management Consultant at Monitor Deloitte Canada, and as Co-Founder and CEO of her own HR-tech startup.

Vanesa is passionate about building flexible workplaces and advocates for work-from-anywhere practices as well as transparency and ongoing feedback from employees to increase attraction, retention and satisfaction.

About this Episode

In this episode, we chat about:

  • How she structures her day to be responsive for the 'people' stuff that inevitably pops up and still prioritize long-term initiatives
  • Why she was explicit about putting 'culture' in her job title
  • Tips for building a strong culture on a remote/hybrid team
  • How the team prioritizes flexibility at PolicyMe
  • And how she built a robust manager training program with limited resources!

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Show Notes

Stay in Touch


Welcome to Opsy, a podcast for people doing opsy work in tech. I'm your host, Caro Griffin. Every month I dig into what Opsy work really is by talking to an operations pro who has something really cool to teach us—in a traditional part of ops like HR or finance, or a newer specialty like no-code ops or marketing ops. Thanks for listening!

Caro 00:26
Today I'm here with Vanesa Koltlar, VP of People and Culture at PolicyMe, an insurance tech startup based in Canada.

Vanesa is a thought leader in the people operations space and can often be found sharing best practices for hybrid and remote teams, especially as it pertains to employee engagement and the importance of flexibility.

These are always great topics to dive into, but I think they're especially important to think about right now. Things have gotten a little tough in tech recently, and it's easy to deprioritize the people stuff when budgets get cut and hiring slows. Often, that's when we really do need to focus on it, and it comes back to bite us later.

So, I'm excited to chat with Vanesa about how she found herself in PeopleOps, what her day-to-day looks like as a VP of People and Culture, and a few of her pro tips for supporting team members in times like these.

So, welcome, Vanesa. Thanks so much for coming on and sharing your story with us.

Yeah, of course. Thank you so much for having me.

So, I guess let's just start at the present day. Tell us a little bit about your current role and the company.

Vanesa 01:25
Yeah, of course. It's lovely to be here to share a little bit more with you. Feel free to ask me any follow-ups…

So, in terms of my day-to-day, I oversee everything on the People side of things at PolicyMe. That basically means the entire gamut of recruitment, employee experience, onboarding, off-boarding.

How do we make people love their day-to-day? How do we create culture remotely? When do we need to get together in person? Basically, everything under the umbrella of People and Culture is what sits within me.

I also sit on the leadership team of our company. So, I would say about 80% of my time is fully People and Culture, and then 20% is more around, ‘What is the direction of our organization? Where are we going, things around our structure? How do we support our strategic initiatives?

And in terms of PolicyMe, like you said, [we’re a] digital insurance company based out of Toronto. We are just over 50 employees now, which is great to see. We've been growing steadily over the last few years and we're just about five years old. So, it's been a really exciting time for us over the last few months.

Caro 2:30
Yeah, I mean, 20%, that's a pretty substantial amount of your time. I don't know what I would expect it to be… Tell us a little bit more about what a VP of people and culture does. Like, what does your day to day look like?

Vanesa 2:46
I think it's hard because there's no one standard day. When people always ask me the day to day question, I always very literally pull up my calendar and look at the day before and walk them through what I did. So, I'm going to do that while we're doing this so that I can tell you…

Okay, so I'm going to tell you like a mix of Monday and Tuesday, just so you can get a good sense of what things included.

Usually, I have a meeting with the two people on my team. I recently brought on a second person in February and another person that does recruitment full-time and another person that does about half recruitment and then half People and Culture, just depending on the needs of the business.

We level set, we go through the pipeline to make sure the pipelines are healthy. We think about, okay, if there's a role we're struggling with, what are we going to do for it? So, thinking through the recruitment strategies - Do we need to be promoting this role in LinkedIn? Do we need to be going to more events? Speaking to more people? Doing more outreach? What really are the ways that we're going to [fill] the top of the funnel?

And then, if there's issues later through the funnel, understand what's going on with hiring managers, really get into their heads, see where we're missing the mark and where we need to do better.

So, I would definitely say there's a recruitment component to my day-to-day, just given the nature of the fact that we are generally always hiring. In addition to that, this one was just particular to this week, we do a quarterly engagement survey. And, basically, the purpose of that is to get a sense of how people are feeling across the entire organization. This is going to be our seventh since I've started doing it.

We have quite a lot of data now as to how things have been progressing each quarter. We use a tool called Culture Amp and we compare ourselves against [past surveys of ours] and also companies like us so we can get a sense of how we're doing.

The really neat part about that is we share results with the entire company and, every quarter as a people team, we take a direct piece that's recommended as an action out of that survey and include it in our roadmap for the following quarter so that it's really responsive to the needs of our people.

I also had a couple coaching calls with our managers. So, essentially, understanding what's going on with their teams, things that they may need help or support with, chatting through different strategies.

We are gearing up to plan our next in-person event. We do three of these a year and our next one is late May. So we're just finalizing the evening component. We are set on the daytime component, but it's still a secret. We haven't told the company yet so, unfortunately, I can't tell you today. [Laughs] I'll tell you a little bit more about the past ones and kind of what we're thinking for this one…

I also had a check-in with our founders just around things that are going on for them. We're always chatting on a weekly basis, sometimes more, just about the things that we need to be prioritizing.

So yeah, I think that gives you like a little bit of a sample. There's lots of different things that go on as well. So, if there's any employee that's having issues, I may be having a conversation about that.

If it’s getting closer to performance review season, I may be looking at compensation and what that looks like.

We are really focused on continuous feedback as a company, too. So, if I see that that's not happening, [I’ll look for] ways to focus on that.

And then, maybe the last thing I will add is yesterday I was also working on… we're doing a six month manager training program and leadership training program. We have two cohorts going on right now and session five for our managers is this Friday. So, yesterday I was just doing a little bit of prep for that and then session seven for our leadership team is coming up as well.

We actually have a really good partner in the US called Elevate, and they help me co-create content. So, I run the sessions, the delivery, but the content component is built with them. They've been an incredible, incredible partner.

Caro 6:50
That's a really nice distribution, especially when you're a small People team that has a lot of competing priorities.

So, speaking of those, I feel something we all struggle with these days, especially with Slack always pinging in the background… How do you juggle the competing priorities of these long-term initiatives and you know, even performance review season and these bigger projects with the reactive nature that is People Ops sometimes, right?

Like, people are unpredictable and sometimes individual situations come up. I’d love to hear how you think about that balance.

Vanesa 7:24
Yeah. So it's actually interesting. We talked about this with our founders in terms of, ‘how much of Vanesa’s capacity needs to remain open for the day to day,’ which is like this bucket of things that we can't predict. Over time, we can sort of predict [it] a little bit better. People that need my time, questions [about] this or that, or things that are going on that I get pulled in different directions.

I usually find there's like a fluctuation of like 30 ish percent in my day. This is not exact science. I know I'm saying very specific percentages, but you know… I'd say about 30% of my day goes towards things that come up on a daily basis. And then, otherwise, I would say I can pretty much predict what I'll be working on. So, I organize my weeks and my time based on the highest priority items. Like you said, some are longer term projects, some are quarterly projects, and it just depends on what we need. Right? We're still growing as a company. I think there are certain things that we need to continue to lay the foundation for as we continue to get bigger.

It's more like what I was talking about before. Maybe something comes out of an engagement survey that requires immediate action the next quarter.

So, it's really balancing all of those things. But, I always say, if you're in the People space, you can't have your entire day booked because things come up every day. Part of the role is being there to support the day-to-day of the business and all of those needs that come up.

Caro 8:55
Yeah, absolutely. And it's great that you and your team are recognizing that, right? It sounds like you’ve had that conversation with your founders… sometimes that's a harder pill for founders to swallow. I'm glad that that's been worked into your role.

Speaking of that, let's talk about the culture piece of your title a little bit. This isn't completely uncommon in tech, and even when it's not explicitly part of the title, culture is usually de facto owned by the People Ops people at a company.

Was it important to you to explicitly state that in your title? Tell us a little bit about how that came about.

Vanesa 09:26
When I first joined, the title was Head of People Operations, and we progressed to Head of People and Culture and then VP of People and Culture, just as the role evolved and things moved on. I would say it's funny… I think People Operations, People and Culture, the roles are very, very similar.

I think where I prefer the People and Culture title is it just creates that call out to the fact that this is a really important component of it. We want to make sure that this is a really great place where people love to show up every day. But I will say that my peers, the VPs of People Operations are also owning that cultural agenda.

I do think something to be mindful of is I really don't think that People Operations, or the People and Culture team, should be the sole owner of culture. That is really not a good way to create something that scales, to create something that is truly the culture and permeated throughout the organization.

It really needs to be… What is the founder's vision for this company? What do we want it to be? Let's create values that we actually feel are true for us, that we're aligned to. Let's make sure we're co-creating with the rest of the leadership team. Let's make sure that all the employees understand these. How do they come up? What do they mean? How do we live them out?

So, I really think it's broader than just any one team owning it.

Caro 10:46
Yeah, absolutely. And I think a good culture is, right?

It's like you said… you spoke a little bit about the values. And so often, they're just words on a wall. They're aspirational instead of what we actually are. So that co-creation piece is so important.

How do we use PeopleOps as a facilitator or a leader, in that it’s something to help us co-author… I really like that way of putting it.

You’re obviously in a big role. Lots on your plate. Sounds like culture is a really big piece of it.

How would you describe the guiding light for your role? How does it tie into the mission of the business?

Vanesa 11:22
Yeah, I don't want this to sound simple, but I think building a place where people love to show up every day really is what it's about. There's so much behind that, right? It really is about listening to what do your employees need, listening to where is the market going, what is the vision of the founders, how are we evolving as a business, how do we continue to incorporate new things that are happening versus the business needs and like managing all of that and balancing how we want to be structured and set up as a business.

When I think about the guiding or north star for me, it really is, “Let's build a place where people love to show up every day.”

I think we spend so much time at work… and we all know this. This is not new, but it's still so common that people say, “I don’t really like my job that much.” Or, when you talk to people candidly, I don't know about you, but a lot of people say to me, “Yeah, our culture's okay.” Or, “People say that it's gonna be really great, and then it's kind of like, meh.”

I think for me, I'm very open, very honest, very transparent, and we just try to tackle the things as best as we can. We’re not perfect. It would be unrealistic to say we're ever going to be, but we just keep working on it together.

Caro 12:34
Totally. And, before you dig into it, it does sound really simple, but it is the most simple things that are often the most challenging, right? Because they sound easy and they get underestimated.

I think you and I have this in common in that that's how I think about it a lot too. Even now that I'm not in a People Ops dedicated role anymore, I still want to build a good business that's sustainable and that I can be proud of.

I think earlier in my career, I really thought I had to be at a nonprofit, right? Or I had to be at this company that was really focused on the “better good” and “mission-driven,” as it's so often referred to. And I think you can be mission-driven and still be focused on your business and running a business, right? And, at the end of the day, I was like… you know, I think I can be proud of just building a company where 30 people enjoy coming to work and can bring their full selves to work.

Like you said, it's such a big part of their lives, of their day, but also their families and their communities and that has such a ripple of impact.

Vanesa 13:29
It truly does.

Caro 13:30
Let's talk a little bit more about how you found yourself in this role and People Ops in general. What do you love about PeopleOps and what drew you to it?

Vanesa 13:40
Yeah, so I would say I've spoken to other peers about this and I don't really think there's like a conventional path to end up here because, you know, I would say there's the people that knew the whole time and grew up through the HR world, but then there's a big chunk of us that just didn't.

I actually started out in management consulting. [I was] doing strategy consulting for Monitor Deloitte, which is the strategy group at Deloitte. So, big strategy projects, lots of travel internationally. And there were kind of two things there.

First, I was always thinking about, what is the impact on the people of the work we're recommending? And second, I used to lead recruitment for Queen's University, which is where I went to undergrad. And I loved bringing people into the business. I was just so passionate about it.

And back in 2018, I ended up co-founding an HR Tech Startup. I moved to Germany with it. It was like a whole different part of my life.

Caro 14:29
I love that you just thew that in there. NBD, moved to Germany, started an HR tech startup. [Laughs]

Vanesa 14:33
[Laughs] Yeah, going around the world with it. It was like a whole moment.

Then, after that… you know, like most startups, it didn't work out. I ended up just moving into the People space more fully. And yeah, I haven't looked back since. And I really do love it.

Similar to what you were saying before… I think, earlier in my career, I also felt that nonprofits are the place to have an impact. But now I really do think that you can impact people’s day-to-day lives.

It's really not about the millions but, how do I create a great place for these humans and for myself and for us to enjoy our lives? So yeah, it's been really meaningful.

Caro 15:11
Yeah, so actually a little bit of a pivot here. So PolicyMe is a hybrid team, right? So, you're somewhat remote, but you have an in-person location?

Vanesa 15:20
We do, but we are flexible, right? I wouldn’t call us hybrid because there's no requirement to go into the office.

Caro 15:28
That's a good point, yeah.

Vanesa 15:30
Yeah, so it really is [that] you work from wherever you work best. We did have employees ask for a place in person in Toronto. This is our second year now with office space. We had a different office last year and we moved into a new space this year. So, it's there. I would say anywhere from like one to ten people go in every day. And then when we get together in person, that's, you know, the broader group of like the 50 of us that are in person.

Caro 15:56
Oh, nice. That just really speaks to the fact that there is no requirement to be in person. It is flexible. Everyone gets to live their own life... And I know you’re a girl after my own heart so yours involves a lot of travel. And actually, I think we're both in different parts of Mexico right now. But, you know, you get to do that and people who want to be in an office get to do that. It sounds like y'all really…

Vanesa 16:15
Exactly. Yeah, it's about personal choice.

Caro 16:18
It feels like you've really prioritized flexibility when you think about the kind of policies that you've put in place and the structures. I feel like this requires really good asynchronous communication, and that's something a lot of teams struggle with, particularly when there is a really big remote component. So, is this something you prioritize as a team? If so, how do you prioritize it? Would love to hear how you are approaching that.

Vanesa 16:40
Yeah, it's a really good question. I don't know about you, but I've read so many of the articles that are like, ‘This company is canceling all meetings. This company is getting rid of Slack. This company doesn't do email.’

We’re not as prescriptive about, “don’t do this” or “only do this.” One of the things we found is that different teams work a little bit differently and therefore we don't want to be very rules heavy. I will say there's some things we've seen in terms of themes, and things that work or don't work super well.

For example, email is not something we use internally. It's just something that has come up as PolicyMe kind of grew up and we don't email each other. It's more something we do externally. I just wouldn't be messaging anyone on my team via email, unless it was about an event or something that came through email in that type of way.

We do use Slack. I know people have mixed opinions of what that means. I'll tell you why though, for us, it works well.

I think one of the things that we sometimes forget is that we're not robots, right? We don't have just one way of operating that is optimal. We're all different people. And for some, it really is about being able to message someone, being able to connect with someone.

We do a lot of, “Hey, do you have five minutes for a quick call?” Which is very similar to stopping by someone's desk and being like, “Hey, can I ask you a quick question?” And what we do is we have like that Zoom integration where you just go like backslash Zoom, just pop right in. And you do just like a really quick call about something and then you're done. So, what we find is that we do a lot more of those little tag ups when something is needed and then we continue with our days.

I always say, if it's a bigger thing, let's save it for our one-on-one [when it’s] someone on my team and then we essentially focus on it then but, if it's just a quick thing it's easy to unblock and move forward be it someone on my team really or anyone else in the company.

Something else that I've really pushed for with my meetings and that I know a lot of others are doing now too, is, when you are remote, it is super easy to end up on your screen all day, in meetings, in Zoom calls. And that's not really healthy. It's just not great for our eyes, for our heads. So I am a really big proponent of walk-and-talks.

If it wasn't for the fact that this is a video recorded podcast, and I mean, and we're recording, so I wouldn't want to put you through the Mexico traffic while we're doing this. [Laughs]

For most people that I have a conversation with, be it someone on my team, be it external, be it one of our founders, be it a manager, be it a coaching call, if there's no screen sharing that's required, I say, “Hey, why don’t we go on a walk?”

We do a lot of these. And what I find is it really breaks up your day, you can still have a meaningful conversation. In fact, sometimes even more because you're not distracted by Slack messages popping up, because you're really just focused on talking to the person as you go for a walk.

So, I think those types of spaces have been really, really helpful for people to take advantage of the fact that we are flexible. And you don't need to do all your meetings on a computer. No one said it needed to be done that way. So, for anything that we can think of different ways to do it, we try… and we are very okay with canceling meetings.

This is not a culture where like if I were to say, “Oh, we have a meeting scheduled. Should I tell you that I don't really think it's needed…?” No. We need to cancel. And that's what we do. And sometimes we just hold time in case we need it, you know, with someone that you work with closely or things like that. But if you don't need it, you just cancel it. Give yourself some time back.

I think it’s important to set the norm that it’s not about you, it’s about the work. It's really about each person trying to optimize their day and make the best use of the time that they can.

So, when we think about asynchronous communication and what works best, I think like with many other things, just being open and transparent about, “Hey, this is working for me, this isn't,” or, “Hey, I need this differently,” or, “Hey, can we cancel this meeting?” And there being no hard feelings, it's just super, super helpful. Does that make sense?

Caro 20:56
Yeah, totally. And it really does speak to different things working for different people, right? You just kind of have to negotiate that as individual coworkers, as a team, as like a larger company… What we mandate and what we just let people figure out and give them that space to say, “Hey, I want to do this walking. I don't think you need to see me right now.” Like, it's fine.

As you've implemented these kinds of structures at PolicyMe, it feels like you've put a real emphasis on the employee engagement side and I know that’s something you talk about online a lot.

Are there any things that you've implemented that you feel like have been a real game changer for the employee experience? Anything that other people ops pros should maybe consider implementing on their own team?

Vanesa 21:37
Yeah, I think we just talked a lot about the norms around communication, which I think is really important. But I do think, and you know, I'm a huge proponent of like, how can we give people the most flexibility? Work from anywhere, like those sorts of things. But I do think there's something to be said for creating that culture of how are we going to build relationships remotely, and when do we need to be in person.

I do think that meeting in real life a few times a year is irreplaceable. Others may disagree, but there's something to be said about meeting the humans you work with a few times a year just helps you feel so much closer. What we do is we bring everyone together in person three times a year. And, when we're together in person, the focus is social connection.

We're not doing company updates, brainstorming as a company, we're not sharing progress. We can do all that remotely. It's really about how do we create a day where people get to do something a little different, get to enjoy each other's company.

And that's why I'm saying I can't quite tell you what the end of May one is, but what I can tell you is that the one that we did in January, our winter ones are always like a little bit more indoors because… just Canada. [Laughs] And Toronto in January, it's so unpredictable. But we did lunch at the office, in-person afternoon games with team building. We had these like PolicyMe cakes. We celebrated birthdays, anniversaries. It was super fun.

And then in the evening… Normally we do things between a venue or something a little bit smaller, like someone's house, just depending on the time of the year and what we're feeling. Now that we're bigger, it's kind of harder to do like the backyard thing. But we went to Spin, which is like a ping pong place. So we were playing ping pong, we did dinner there, got to hang out and then some people went out afterwards. We just kind of let the evening go as people want.

We build our events in a modular capacity so that there is a daytime component so that, for anyone that's a parent or needs to leave earlier, can still get to know everyone and enjoy the part of the day. We really focus on it being something that's accessible for everyone. And I will say that last summer we actually did a scavenger hunt during the day and then we went to another really cool spot in the evening… we do like fun new hire intros in person too.

I do a lot of these remotely. So when you're [asking about] other things that we've done, I do actually introduce all of our new hires at the monthly town halls or at the in-person events. And we do like fun intros on everyone. We ask them questions and it's just become like a big thing in our company. And I think what that does is it makes people feel welcome to the team and beyond just like posting in #general, you know, on Slack and saying, “Hey, I'm so and so here's my intro.” It brings it to life. It helps people see shared interests.

What other things can I tell you?

We actually do a monthly social component. There are three in person events like I was just talking about, there's three virtual company-wide ones, and then there's six virtual, or depending on the team, some of them do them in person, six team socials. So, every month there's something.

We give every team budget to do these so that they can organize something for themselves. They have the time, they have the ability to really plan a good activity.

And, for our company-wide one, we actually just had it last Friday, the virtual one. We did a paint by numbers activity, just based on something we're working on product-wise. We always do different things. Some are more educational, some are just more fun…

Caro 25:15
Do you have an example of what one of the team ones can look like?

Vanesa 25:20
Yeah, so there's lots of things that teams have done. Virtual escape rooms, in-person escape rooms are still quite popular. Someone organized a beer tasting and then there also was like a non-alcoholic option for people that didn't drink - they just sent them a bunch of kombucha - which was so fun. They just like did it as a team, which was really cool, on a Friday. They've done team trivia, depending on like if it's a bigger team or a smaller team. We've done Code Names Lunch, so we play virtual code names and I'll order lunch in. One time, we did “buy someone a funny thing and ship it to their home”...

So we just try to do things that are like fun that get us to kind of step out of our day to day and get to know each other a little bit better.

Caro 26:10
Yeah, maybe there's no surprise in that “surprise and delight” but there kind of is, and I feel like delight is the word I think of when you're describing these monthly moments. They’re a little different, they break up the day to day, the week to week, you know, and that's a really nice treat.

Vanesa 26:26
I feel like there's so much more that I can tell you though, in terms of things we've done from employee experience. I just want to be mindful of time. I'm going to tell you one more thing that's totally unrelated to the social aspect. And then maybe we can move on. I feel like we could just have a whole conversation just on this….

Caro 26:40
Oh yeah, we could do a whole episode about this.

Vanesa 26:42
We really could. Maybe we should. [Laughs]

We do have a new hire buddy program, which are PM Pals, so PolicyMe Pals. And they get assigned based on the new hire. We pick them each time based on who we think is going to be a good pal for someone. It's usually a person outside their team, so they get to know someone else in the company.

This is a person that's there for them week one, ask any questions, get to know them. What's cool is, because we are remote first, these people don't meet until they see each other in person either for the most part. Then, when you're getting together in person, you're not just like, oh, I finally get to meet my team. You also get to meet your PM pal. There's a really cool connection outside of your team that you can immediately go towards and have someone else that you know.

We really just try to make sure that, especially as we're getting a little bit bigger, that there's connection outside of just the core team that you're on so that you really feel like you understand the broader organization too.

Caro 27:39
Yeah, it's so important. That's always what I've tried to do when I've had similar buddy programs is like… How do I find someone kind of on a similar level who's on a different team? So you have a different perspective outside of your team, you can hear how other teams are doing things. And then there is that cross-team sharing, right? Both for team projects, and just best practices for work and collaboration and async and all of those things. Love that.

Vanesa 28:00
I am so sorry. I have to tell you one more. This is just like… I can't with myself. [Laughs] I'm like, I'm giving tips. They have to be all inclusive. So there's two more things that we do. And then one we stopped doing, which I think is interesting to hear about too.

So, we do demos so that people can showcase their work every two weeks and people can just share updates on what they're working on. And then we also do warm and fuzzies at the end of those, so just shoutouts for what people have been really great at. And then we also do a monthly town hall with the company updates. So that's run by our founders.

We used to do an every other Monday social to start the week… and we cut it out. It wasn't working. We had too much. As you can tell, we were doing a lot and we realized with these other initiatives, we just didn't need it. So, we got rid of it because we got a lot of feedback that that wasn't quite what people want anymore.

The most important thing to remember especially when you're operating remote-first is that you have to listen and you have to take that feedback. And if it's not working, get rid of it. Try something else. If that doesn't work, try something else. You just have to keep trying until you find what works.

I think people are very receptive when they see that they can give feedback and that that feedback is actioned on. And then they give you more feedback and that's how you build that great environment.

Caro 27:20
Totally. And I think that really speaks to building it together like we were talking about earlier, right? This is a group effort. This is a collaborative culture. It's not a top-down initiative where we’re saying, “We're going to do a social hour every Monday.” It's like, no, do you all want to send each other fun gifts? Or do you want to do a virtual escape room? There's autonomy there. And it gives room for each team to put their own spin on it.

There are so many things that my team did at my last company, where I think from an outside perspective, other People Ops people would be like… “You did what with your team??” And you're like, well, that's what they wanted to do. That was part of our inside joke. That was part of our culture. Whatever. Love all these fun suggestions.

Let's talk about a little bit of a tougher topic. Tech is going through a rough time right now. There are lots of layoffs and scary news stories. And I think it's having a lot of impact on People Ops people specifically, because we take on so much of that emotional labor and, and people stuff. Is this having any impact on how you and your team are thinking about your priorities or strategy for this year?

Vanesa 30:20
Yeah, you and I were talking about this in advance of today. I think a really big thing for us has been just ruthlessly re-prioritizing. Especially on the hiring side of things, we actually made a big change about a year ago from the “let's grow at all costs, let's keep hiring” to “how do we do this sustainably?”

We knew that in order for us to be able to really grow as a team in a way that made sense, it wasn't going to be, you know, something we'd compromise on. We couldn't just keep adding more people because, if the money runs out, how do you pay those people? Again, it seems simple, but it’s what a lot of companies are going through right now. And we just said, we prefer to wait until we absolutely need to hire someone until we get to a point where it's really at the moment where we really, really need that person to keep growing. And then we'll bring them on.

We actually do have a set of questions that we make every manager go through, which are like questions for consideration ahead of even thinking of hiring. And it's like, can this work be reallocated? Can anyone on your team take this on? Does anyone on your team want to upskill or grow in that space? Have you talked to them about it? So that, we do really have the ability to essentially be able to be sure that we really need that person.

And then, beyond that, beyond the hiring component, it really is about like, how can we keep essentially focusing on the areas where, as a business, we see the most potential. And one of the things we've been talking a lot about is just like being open to piloting new things and comfort with change. And that means internally, you know, we may be reprioritizing projects that we didn’t feel as sure about if something bigger comes through. Feeling like, hey, it's okay to change. And when we're measuring OKRs and people's progress. Your work may change more than we originally thought, but it's to align with the market and to ensure that we can succeed as a business and just helping people feel comfortable with that change.

Caro 32:15
Yeah, totally. And that's part of being at a startup, right? That's part of being in tech is that we do move quicker. And not everyone wants to work at that speed. And there's a speed at which it is reckless and a little ridiculous, and we need to try to corral it. But I think, oftentimes, it's also just about giving people the support and the skills they need to figure out if that's the right environment for them.

And I'm a big fan of ruthless reprioritization. It's again, one of those things that sounds simple, but it's a lot harder than it actually is sometimes where you're like, Yeah, I'm really attached to this, or it's kind of working, or maybe it's just not working yet. You know, like, maybe we need to give it a little bit more…

So, yeah, props to prioritizing that. It’s something I'm always trying to get better at, for sure. And so maybe kind of back to like this kind of advice… What advice would you give to someone who wants to do the kind of work that you want to do?

Vanesa 33:10
I wrote a list, so I'm just making sure I don't forget any points. [Caro laughs] Very me-like, but you know, very operational.

There isn't a clear way to get into the People space. If you're set on it when you're in your studies and you go right into it, perhaps it's just the path you take. But if you’re not into it and you’re thinking of getting into it, I always say, start building a network before you need one. And that looks different.

That looks like getting on LinkedIn and starting to comment and like, and be a part of conversations that other people are sharing. It means starting your own conversations. It means going to events in person, those exist again, and meeting other humans and talking to them about what they do. It means being the type of person that's going to offer help when you see someone asking so that you are filling up that good karma for when you need it. I always say to try to have as many conversations as you can. This is just general advice to start to understand what it looks like.

And then, one of my approaches for trying to figure out is this the right role for you, is really come up with your set list of questions of what are you trying to find out. Then come up with a list of people of who you think would be interesting to talk to about this. I also think it’s super important to think about what level would you be going into and actually talking to people in your role. Because, if you're going to be going in as, you know, just an entry level people and culture generalist role, amazing, but like find those people.

Don't find the manager of those people because that manager is not going to be necessarily able to tell you what that looks like and answer all your questions. Maybe that manager is a great person to say hi to and say, “Hey, I've been talking to people about this role. I've learned XYZ said I'm super keen. I saw you have an opening on your team.” But they're not the person necessarily to go to about what would it look like to be a generalist. So, really think about whose role it makes sense to dive deeper into.

And then I always say when you're asking for someone's time, just think like, what can you give them back? Right? Because it really is one of those things where people are so busy, there's so much going on, budgets are cut like we've been talking about, everyone is doing more with less. So, I always say, when I personally ask for someone's time, I always say, if there's something you're trying to do, intros, engaging with your content, whatever, just tell me and I'm happy to do it. And I think that's a really good way to just build good relationships.

And then I was talking to someone else about this. I do think one of the best things you can do also is join people operations communities. Actually just wrote about this on LinkedIn today. There's a bunch, some that are just like Slack communities you can join, some that are like invitation only groups, but that you can apply to and based on your role, they kind of let you in and you meet other like-minded people. And those places are really where you can start to understand the differences and similarities.

I will say the role is not the same in all the companies, right? In some companies, like I said to you, I own strategy. And in some companies, the founders fully own strategy. I'm saying I own it, but obviously I work with founders on it. But it's the difference between truly being at the table versus being more of a supporting role and thinking about what role you want to play. What drives you? What motivates you?

So I think my best piece of advice, just to sum it up, would be to figure out why you like the space, what part of the space you like, and then target there.

Because when people just say to me, “Hey, I want to move into people and culture space.” Okay, what do you like about it? What part? Do you want to be a recruiter? Do you want to be a generalist? Are you motivated by bringing people into a business? Are you motivated by learning and development? It's just so big. It's just important to understand why.

And if you say, “I like all of it.” Okay, well, probably a generalist role. You know, that would be a good place to start. You get to touch a little bit of everything. But it's just, it's good to understand when you say, I like everything. Why? And I think that really helps give that clarity.

Caro 37:10
Totally. And I think some people… This is true about everything, that sometimes we go general because we think that that's how to cast the widest net, but actually there's power in specificity because it makes it easier for people to help you, right? Like if someone's reaching out and saying, “Hey, I want to get into this space and I like everything.” That's like… [Sounding pained] “Ok, cool but can you give me a little more? Are you prioritizing fintech companies or generalist roles? Or generalist roles at fintech companies?” Give me something so I can like…

Vanesa 37:34
Also, a whole other bucket is like company size, right? Some people are like, I want to work at a 10 person startup. I want a 50 person startup. I want to work at a thousand plus person company. These roles are so different.

Caro 37:45
So different. Absolutely. Yeah, that's a really good point. I forget about that one.

So yeah, I think the more specific you can be… and then you can always give it the caveat of like, you know, “I'm open to other stuff but this would be the dream, right?” Like, you have a dream. Tell me the dream. Let's focus on that and then work outwards.

Well, I guess before we wrap up, I like to end these episodes with what I call the brag book because so much of operations work happens behind closed doors and in a silo and oftentimes with people who aren't necessarily big braggers. And so let's talk about a project that you're really proud of, whether it was at PolicyMe or in another role.

Set the stage for us. What were you trying to do? What did you do? And what happened?

Vanesa 38:25
Yeah, so we talked a little bit about this one. And I was really thinking, there's so many different things I could share, but this one… there's a few different reasons why I'm really proud of this one. I'm going to just tell you the context and what happened.

As we started growing, some people started moving into manager roles that were first time managers. I started coaching people one-on-one and I started getting a lot of the same questions. And then our founders also said, “Hey, like, looks like we might need to do some manager training.” And I said, “Okay, perfect. I'm going to build this. I know how to build this. Excellent.” And then I started. [Both laugh] It was so time consuming to build all this content and deliver it.

I started asking, you know, in those communities that I'm a part of, what has everyone used? What do you find? Did you like it? Did you not like it? And I'm in a senior HR leaders group and someone there connected me with someone else, her name's Susie. And she said to me, “Have you heard of Elevate Leadership?”

They're a startup out of the US. Basically, they build the content, and you use it to deliver it. You can tweak it so you can kind of make it your own, and you can choose from a bunch of stuff and build a program that makes sense for you. And I said, great, let's talk to them.

So, we set up time, met one of the founders, Lindsay, and she was amazing. They had just brought on Melissa from Google, she used to lead L&D there. And the two of them were just like, yeah, this is how we can do it. This is what it would look like to work together. And I said to them, look, I don't have a huge budget and they're like, “That's okay, we're a startup too. Like, let's build this together.”

We started working together late last year, around like October, November, on what this was gonna look like. How are we gonna build a six month program? What's gonna be included? How do we make sure it's tangible and really targeted?

They have these videos that are, you know, four to ten minutes, and then they have a guide for a class. So, I run a class and have discussions with the group and the classes end up being 45 to 60 minutes, a little bit based on our own needs.

The feedback that we've gotten has just been amazing. And one of the best things that happened was… We had gotten this feedback in the [engagement] survey, that people were looking for [this training]. And then as soon as they started seeing what it was gonna be like, even that first survey at the start of Q1 of this year, people were so excited about it. There were so many comments [from employees who were] so excited for manager training, so excited to learn more about leadership. And it was just so cool to see that they felt so heard by the thing we were gonna be launching.

I'm actually running our next engagement survey starting next week. So, I'm super curious to see how they're feeling now that we're about halfway through. And I already know, anecdotally, the feedback we've gotten has been super good in terms of the content, how useful it is.

People also have access to the platform so they can look at content on their own and reinforce it. Or, when we have questions, we can refer back to it together. There's one page summaries. So it just really became this tool to leverage, as a people and culture team of one at that moment. I just had one recruiter on my team but she was not focused on this and it just totally amplified my ability to deliver and I would say the quality of the training we're offering is incredible.

I wish I would have had this back when I was a first-time manager. It's everything from how to give feedback, how to receive feedback, how to give praise, how to run effectively 1:1s, psychological safety, how to ensure you're having good career development conversations… it's everything.

I feel so empowered by this partnership and just like how we run it, how we go about it. And we're going to run a cohort every six months so that all the new managers we hire are able to go through it as well.Maybe there'll be some times where we do one a year instead of two a year. We'll see based on how much hiring happens, but we can even run smaller. You know what I mean? It can be a five person cohort instead of a 12 person one.

So, it's just really cool to have been able to build that. We spun it up quickly. The feedback has been so good.

It's just one of those things that you know, where you're like… I have this idea. I think we need to do this. This is what I think it could look like. Then you start it and you're like, this was a lot more than I thought it was going to be. And then you find a solution that is amazing. And you're just like, this made so much sense for us. This is so good.

They’ve been working with a lot of other big companies too, that are bigger than us. And it's just like, it's been such a blessing to have them as a partner. And I can only say… this feels like a promotion for them. But it's just one of those things where, you know, sometimes you find partners that you're like, you feel like you're an extension of my team. And those are the people that you continue to go to and you talk to one another and you're kind of like in that same space together. And that's also how you build those meaningful connections.

So, it kind of comes full circle to what we're talking about, right? Like how do you continue to grow in a space? What does it really look like to be in this role? And it really is about finding your humans that are gonna really help you thrive through it as well, especially in the smaller stuff.

Caro 43:40
Yeah, absolutely. And that project just has so many wins, right? It's awesome that your new managers were so excited for it because like, first of all, that's a great sign. That is something that so few managers get and that every single one needs, myself included. And just to be able to give them such comprehensive training is such a service to them and your team.

That's just one of those things that's such a great investment and pays dividends, but is such a hard nut to crack when you're sitting at the beginning and you're like, where do I start? And then, for it to pay off so directly in the feedback survey. I love it.

Well, everyone who's looking at that long outline they just wrote for new manager training… Maybe check out Elevate because you got a ringing endorsement here.

Vanesa, thank you so much for taking the time and sharing all your engagement pro tips and all your insights. Really appreciate your time.

Vanesa 44:32
Yeah, thank you so much. It was so lovely speaking.

Caro 44:44
All right. Well, thanks, everybody.

Thanks for listening to Opsy. You can find resources and links from this episode in the show notes at opsy.work. While you're there, I hope you'll take a second to join our free community where we share resources and opportunities that help us all level up in our ops careers. Again, that link is opsy.work. Until next time, stay Opsy, friends.

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