People & Culture expert Rochelle DiRe on how HR has evolved over the past 20+ years
In 1994, Rochelle DiRe left the art world for a career in HR and hasn’t looked back. Since, she’s worked in the rapidly evolving media industry (including for Time Warner and Martha Stewart Omnimedia) as well as for a host of NYC startups (LimeWire, Quirky, Intent Media Inc, and Managed by Q). She is now the Chief People Officer at Blink Health.
What was HR like when you first started?
I was lucky enough to work with leaders who intentionally cared about company culture, but that was a bit of an anomaly in the 1990s. My early days were the end of the era where HR was seen as somewhere between the “assistant vice principal's office” and “where I get my benefits from.” Crafting a progressive employee experience wasn't yet viewed as important, strategic, or a differentiating business advantage. Companies in the ‘90s were more typically powered by a command-and-control philosophy. It was the final embers of the industrial age.
What has changed since then?
The crux of the People and Culture discipline now is being the product manager for the employee's experience.
Ideally, you enlist the brightest, most talented, inspired people who love your mission and want to solve big, important problems. As a people leader, your job is to provide the most favorable conditions for them to do their best work - you set the table for your team to tackle things that they have never been done before.
What does that entail?
Think of the Maslow Pyramid. People need to believe that the People team has their shit together and that they do their work with integrity. If your team doesn't feel that the basic machinery isn't well oiled -- that they're going to get paid on time, that their benefits are good, that we are fair and are conducting ourselves with the highest intentions --- all the higher order functions (learning and development, for instance) really won't resonate, won’t matter in the end.
Secondly -- and this is a harder thing to pin down -- psychological safety is really important. As people leaders, we have to encourage the conditions where everyone stays brave, receptive, and high minded. Without psychological safety as a constant North Star, people just stop talking about things, stop attempting to state the truth and stop solving root issues. This requires the People team to say, "Listen, we actually care about you and your point of view. I am going to make it okay for us to talk about things, this stubborn crud at the bottom of the barrel. We're going to face and solve this issue." At our best, we are the Jiminy Crickets of the organization, pushing people to be their best selves.
After that, it’s about helping the leadership team evolve. It’s about figuring out how they need to be complemented and what they need to learn to be the best leaders they can be.
Every place is unique, every founding team is a snowflake. Every company has its own complexities -- values, norms, industry, leadership, history. Watch out for People leaders who swear by playbooks -- they are more interested in compliance and staying in the boundaries. That thinking will stunt your culture.
When’s the right time to hire an HR person?
The ideal moment for someone like me to join is when a company is post-survival but before strong, suboptimal habits really set in, before the cement dries. The moment just past the scramble when you first have the luxury to start to think about what things could look like at scale. There's this beautiful moment where everyone is very optimistic, you can dismiss all that has happened because it's all been in the early going. People are really eager to know what we're going to be like when we grow up. That's kind of the ideal moment: that inflection point when you need to figure out how to keep the magic while you build for scale.
There are also instances where companies, likely because the CEO or someone on the founding team is very culturally driven and attentive to people stuff, have many, many wonderful attributes and things going on. They just need someone to operationalize it, figure out how to do it sustainably. That's a wonderful moment to walk into. And I wouldn't say that’s a rare situation. Most companies have some cherished early norms that just need to be nurtured, but usually there isn’t a suite of things that all cohesively fit together. They’ll only have these one or two cultural features that are awesome, but they haven't thought through other things.That’s our job.
What happens if you hire an HR person at the wrong time?
I think companies often wait too long to hire this role. They sorely need a person who can take control of things and overcome, again, the deficiencies of an organization, or help augment the executive team. For instance, conflict aversion is sometimes huge. Often, they're like, "When we finally hire someone senior in HR, we'll finally deal with those people who haven't been working out, or that operational thorn in everyone’s paw that no one is dealing with."
That's a a hard way to start at a company and it's terrible for your brand. If you come in and start swinging the hatchet people think, "Oh, that's what she's here to do."
Other times, it’s that they’ve paid no attention to learning and development or reviews or compensation. We can walk into a lot of “organizational debt.”
What do you usually do when you’re first hired?
One of my favorite sayings is “If you build good relationships, the work is easy.” When I start at a company, I schedule meetings with everyone I can, at every level. I want to start a relationship with as many people as possible before the work get consuming. You want to get to know them as people, understand their point of view and their piece of the puzzle. You want to avoid any situation where the first time you speak to someone, it’s because something is wrong. During this listening tour, I ask a whole lot of open ended questions like "How has this place evolved? What are we on the verge of, for good or bad? What are our breakthroughs, and what are we in danger of giving up as we scale? What do you see? What do you want to protect? What do you see as the gaping holes?" I ask them, depending on who they are and how long they've been here, "What should I be working on? What's on your mind that I can help solve?"
And most people are really great in these moments. They'll tell you extremely valuable information - they accelerate your learning. You also convey the sense that you are there to help, you are there to provide solutions.
Has your approach changed with the use of HR software?
Over the past few years, a number of new People tools and platforms have been launched that are appropriate for the challenges of startups. That’s really helped my discipline. I remember, early on, there just weren't any appropriate tools for startups. Everything on the market felt like a total mismatch. So you avoided the enterprise tools and tried to do something homegrown, which is never efficient or scalable. HR technology for startups is coming into its own right now. A lovely ecosystem is being created.
How does an HR person contribute to a company’s values and culture?
Your founding team provided the company’s DNA. My role is to help operationalize and execute on that vision and help articulate the best version of it. My role is to get everything lined up to the value system and root out anything that doesn’t authentically fit. Every little thing - how we celebrate, how we reward, how we challenge people, hell, even how we pay expenses - everything should directly speak to the company’s values. In those cultures where everything aligns, people know it. t is in those companies that the team feels the company is charismatic and notable and fun and inspiring. They know what the place is about.
I think step one in influencing culture is genuinely partnering with top leadership. You need understanding the original DNA, the true intentions. You have to be patient and persistent to have an influence. Even if it takes a year, spending the time, strength, and political capital towards mutual understanding is worth it. Leadership and the People team needs to be all singing from the same hymn book, otherwise change does not take root.
Unless leadership is living and mentoring others on values, they’re just words. There’s a world of difference between the leadership team teaching how to be better as opposed to it being just a training initiative.
How do you direct and advise managers?
Getting managers to articulate a clear point of view for every person on their team and developing a strategy around how to help each person improve is everything. Leaders love to focus on a couple of team members - the outliers, the stars, or often the trouble people - or alternatively, they just hate all feedback and development. Some people have to leave their comfort zone to become a good manager.
There should be no orphans in the company -- either because they are an unsung hero or they’re radioactive. Where each person stands in relation to the company should be understood and articulated.
I really feel it's incumbent on every manager to really know their people. Everything I'm going to say, there's nothing exotic here, but people have to spend time with their people and understand what motivates them and what their unique gifts are. Some people like to skip that step, but how are you going to manage someone you don't know? Then it's just a bunch of either mechanical commands or you're making an assumption about someone that might not apply and you're going to lose them. If people don't feel understood, you've already lost them, really.
I think one-on-ones are really important. Those are the building blocks towards development and reviews and everything. When you make sustained effort, your understanding quickly compounds. The manager-employee relationship is continuous like any other relationship and is, hopefully, always deepening and getting more honest and becoming more robust as you go. I think it really starts with wanting to really know the people. At least that's how I see it.