It feels a little self-indulgent and self-important to be starting a blog about lessons I’ve collected over the years, so I enter this endeavor with a deep sense of obligation to share things that will be helpful to others as they navigate the intersection of work-life and people dynamics. At best, I hope to leave readers with a new perspective on an old topic, or validation of a core belief, or some other small source of inspiration.
Who am I? I’m akin to the reluctant hero archetype in an action movie, if the movie were about the day-to-day challenges and victories of modern work-life (“riveting!” says The NYTimes 😁). This archetype — usually an ordinary, hum-drum person who gets pulled into the plot by a sense of righteousness, and who rises to the occasion through heroic acts — is often plagued by doubts and insecurities about his/her role as a hero. That’s totally me! I’m always wondering, “Am I really the right person to be leading our People initiatives? Don’t these amazing people deserve a much more seasoned, knowledgeable, and impressive leader?”
On the surface, I can appear to be qualified. I’m currently the Head of People for a 250+ member, mid-stage start-up in New York City. This is my second stint heading up a People function for a start-up, before which I spent 9 years in HR and talent management at two global professional services firms. I received my MBA from Harvard and my B.A. in Philosophy from Princeton, where I focused on ethics.
I relate to being an unlikely advocate for people-focused organizational practices because my original post-college plan didn’t necessarily factor in people dynamics, and where it did, people were a means to an ends, versus an ends in themselves. If you had met me then, you would have been more likely to match me to Moliere’s “The Misanthrope” than to anything written by Dale Carnegie (author of “How to Win Friends and Influence People”).
I started my career as a management consultant at a prominent global consultancy. My range of projects ranged from: extending the exclusivity period of a pharmaceutical patent; planning a headcount reduction for a multi-national chemicals company; conceiving credit card marketing programs targeted at those whose credit was less than perfect (but whose lifetime value to the issuer was high); and evaluating acquisition opportunities for an animal health company to improve poultry yields for the food industry. Nothing particularly empathetic to or pro-people.
So what happened? It didn’t take me long to figure out that I didn’t care a whole lot about client impact (which is the North Star for any management consultant worth his/her salt), but found myself gravitating towards mentoring and coaching others. Being able to impact an individual’s learning and growth trajectory felt far more meaningful than saving X company $Y. And earning the trust of colleagues to be their truth-teller and counselor made me feel far more valued and valuable than making a lot more money. Luckily, I was working at McKinsey & Company, a highly progressive firm that values people development as much as client service, and I was able to switch tracks to focus on talent development full-time.
Since then, I haven’t looked back. In fact, I am more excited than ever about being part of the future evolution of the People / HR function at work, because we — in collaboration with progressive-minded, ambitiously idealistic business leaders — have the opportunity to shape and improve the day-to-day work-life of everyone in our midst. With enough converts and success stories, this can have a domino effect across industries and geographies.
So while I don’t doubt that I’m in the right function, I’m sometimes amazed that people look to me as some kind of expert. To me, people dynamics represent the toughest problems in the world, so to be a true authority, you really need to know your shit, have a strong antenna for what’s morally right/wrong, be a super-agile critical thinker, and have the courage to speak truth to power.
That’s not me… yet. But I hope that some of what I write will strike a chord with folks and will also help me build conviction in my own beliefs.