“There's a big, strong community of HR professionals, and everybody was helping each other"
Bizzabo's Tami Golan talks to Michael Matias about how the role of HR has become more valued during the pandemic
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What is a chief people officer?
The way I see that function is we have two sides. One is to be an executive and a business partner to the executive leadership team and help take the strategy and build around it people-centered processes, procedures, programs. That's the first role.
The second side of the role is to really take care of everything that's people. Hiring, benefits, compensation, training, learning and development, fun activities, welfare, office environment— anything and everything that touches people, I consider part of the chief people officer's responsibility.
How does the chief people officer interact within a high-tech organization?
First of all, we're a service organization. We're not defining the strategy necessarily. We're involved in it. Our job is to really help build, facilitate, promote, solve problems with all of the people aspects. I think what's fascinating for me in being in this role and why I'm so passionate about it is because it's, from my perspective, the only role in the company with the exception of the CEO that has the full, broad perspective of everything and anything that's going on. We have the opportunity to really have a big impact if we do our job right.
Was it always obvious to you that this is what you want to be doing? What was the aha moment for you?
Growing up, I for sure was going to be a doctor. That was the only thing I wanted to do when I grew up. Then after the army, I figured I'm not going to spend seven years in school. I completely pivoted my whole focus to psychology, studied some criminology, and then ended up in business school in the US.
I fell in love with the business world. I definitely did not want to do HR. That was very, very clear to me. I went to graduate school and I studied organizational psychology. Then a good friend asked me to come in as their first HR person in the US, and reluctantly, I said yes. When I actually stepped into the organization and understood how powerful this position is and what it should be, that was my aha moment. I was very fortunate to be given the space and the ability to do things a little bit differently. Since then, I've been doing a combination of in-house and consultancy, but always on the people's side and operations because that's really my passion—building and understanding an organization and creating programs that can help drive value and drive the organization forward. That's really what gets me excited every morning.
From the HR perspective on a scale level, what trends have you been observing over the last two to five years?
The biggest trend is from human resources to people. Just not looking at humans as resources, but looking at them as a complete human being with emotions and lives and desires and experiences. Over the last year and a half, one of the good things that happened is that the whole dynamic changed in organizations. Literally, one morning everybody changed the way they work because we had no other choice. Since then, I think people and organizations understood finally—because we in HR have been talking about it for a very long time—that being in an office every day nine to five didn't make sense for a very, very long time. That's not what people need.
When people understood that people can operate from anywhere because we have the technology and you don't have to see them in order for them to do their job, all of a sudden there's a huge shift in how employees look at the workplace and how companies look at humans within that workspace. The last year and a half has been the most fascinating in my career from that perspective.
Your job has completely changed over the last year and a half, or at least the way that you're operating on a day-to-day basis, right?
I think the biggest shift that happened is that all of a sudden one morning it just became such an important role. I'm very fortunate that I worked with amazing leaders and CEOs that really allowed me to show the value and change things. But a lot of HR professionals for many years were not doing that, were not allowed. Then one morning, the organization woke up in a big crisis and everybody turned to their HR person to solve all of these issues. A lot of people were not equipped for that, so there was a lot of confusion. There's a big, strong community of HR professionals, and everybody was helping each other to try and navigate this crazy, crazy period.
For myself and my team, it was a pretty seamless transition to remote because everything was already there. But a lot of organizations literally had nothing there, and the HR professional needed to really figure everything out. A big shift for this profession is finally people understand the value of having somebody in this role thinking about these issues and helping advance the organization.
What are some of the bigger challenges that chief people officers are being presented with right now? How are you tackling those?
It depends on the company. There's a lot of companies who are still trying to recover from the impact of the pandemic. There are companies like Bizzabo that went to a very meaningful pivot and started to grow very fast. I think there's a few things that we're all sharing right now. The market is very hot. Everybody's hiring. Hiring, retention—very challenging right now.
Reinventing what the workplace is is something that we're investing an enormous amount of time in. I personally love to stay very connected to our employees. Right now, we have people in the office; they're excited to come. We didn't tell anyone (they had) to come to the office. But here, people really see the value of getting back to those interactions and solving problems by turning to somebody sitting next to you versus scheduling another Zoom call.
A lot of us are dealing with expectations from employees that are very different. More than ever, employees are looking at companies to solve all of the problems. They're looking at us to solve not just business problems: they're looking at solutions for mental health, physical health, emotional life, work-life balance, social justice, and things that were not part of the working world up until fairly recently. That's a big change: where do you draw the line and what's your role as an employer is something that we're all trying to figure out.
The way I tackle these changes is by learning, being open-minded, and speaking to our employees constantly. We look at this period right now as "beta testing." We keep talking to people, making changes, and testing the waters. Meet people where they are to make sure that they do the best work in the best way possible and remain engaged, happy, and productive. That's really the main goal.
I have three short questions for you. What really fascinated you as a kid?
People. I was always fascinated with what makes people tick. Even as a very young child, I asked my parents very difficult questions to really try to understand what motivates them.
Somebody or something that inspires you today?
My kids. I have three wonderfully amazing daughters. They challenge me, surprise me, and inspire me every day. I want to just be a good role model for them.
Three words that you would use to describe yourself?
Passionate. Curious. A builder.
Michael Matias, Forbes 30 Under 30, is the author of Age is Only an Int: Lessons I Learned as a Young Entrepreneur. He studies Artificial Intelligence at Stanford University, while working as a software engineer at Hippo Insurance and as a Senior Associate at J-Ventures. Matias previously served as an officer in the 8200 unit. 20MinuteLeaders is a tech entrepreneurship interview series featuring one-on-one interviews with fascinating founders, innovators and thought leaders sharing their journeys and experiences.
Contributing editors: Michael Matias, Megan Ryan