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Most leaders don’t know how to employ HR as a strategic pillar of the business and this leaves a lot of professionals feeling somewhat frustrated.

In this interview series, we talk to HR professionals and business leaders to get their insights on what businesses can gain by having HR in the boardroom and how HR can help drive company decisions. 

Donna Scarola

Donna Scarola is a new breed of HR leaders with experience in HR product innovation, HR tech adoption and process transformation, and equally effective at leading HR functions at large organizations and startups. Donna is currently the Chief People, Purpose & Culture Officer at Parcl and is an adjunct faculty member at NYU. The thread throughout her career has been her curiosity in connecting behavioral science and technology in the world of work.

Thank you so much for your time! I know you are a very busy person. Before we drive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you got started?

It’s funny, I originally thought I wanted to be in the medical field. I did clinical internships in inpatient psychiatry and rehabilitation settings. I was always fascinated by behavioral science and the human disposition. 

After an inflection point, I decided to change paths and drop out of graduate school only to apply to graduate school… in HR. 

I remember my family and friends being confused about my decision, but I am glad I did. After graduate school, I worked in product management, which allowed me to learn the business side of talent strategy and software development, and then eventually I made the switch to in-house talent strategy. 

I’ve been very lucky and am incredibly grateful for the range of experiences I have had so far, and looking back they have all built on one another. 

It’s said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I once was in a meeting with an executive and didn’t look up their LinkedIn; I referenced a strategy from a company they used to work for and I stated that it was an illogical idea– that experience taught me to not only be more careful at what I say, but to also do your research before a meeting. 

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

My parents never had office jobs, so a friend’s father, John Harvey, who had a robust talent career, generously offered to introduce me to his closest colleagues, all of whom were incredibly accomplished HR professionals. All of them interviewed me and I had multiple offers. I undoubtedly owe my initial career experiences to him (special mention to Clint Kofford and Greg Pryor as well). 

If you want to create good people practices, you should trust, include, and respect HR as a function, just as you would for marketing.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Growing up I always wanted to be a comedy writer. Saturday Night Live was my childhood dream and, clearly, that never came to be. However, a quote from Steve Martin has always been a guiding principle for me: “be so good they can’t ignore you”. 

Meaning, do your research, be thorough, be kind, and always try your hardest because, if you are consistently great, people will only know you as great. I think people underestimate how difficult it is to dispute consistency. 

Thinking back on your own career, what would you tell your younger self?

I would tell myself not to worry so much about how you are perceived. Instead, focus on learning and continuing to work hard. A lot of our early career is spent worrying if people like us and not enough on how we are growing and intentionally focusing on the skills and experiences we need to develop. 

Let’s now move to the central part of our interview about HR. Why do you think HR deserves a place in the boardroom and in high-level decision-making?

I think this has been a well-discussed topic over the past decade, so I am not sure I will add much more, but I believe that HR is no different than a function (marketing, operations, legal, etc.). 

As Simon Sinek famously said, “100% of your investors, employees, and customers are made up of people, if you don’t understand people, you don’t understand business.” So, if you want to create good people practices, you should trust, include, and respect HR as a function, just as you would for marketing.

I think organizations have a lot to gain from investing in people, designing scalable practices, creating cultures that promote positivity, etc, and there are many ways to measure this. But, the most profound benefit is, that if done well, HR integrates the people strategy in unison with the business, unlocking the potential of teams and people who are the core of making your most vital decisions.

From your experience, how can HR people and culture professionals ensure they’re involved in strategic planning processes? 

There are two parts. First, ensure you understand the business strategy and how it works. Understand every aspect, the customer, the profit streams, the market, etc, because everyone, especially the HR professional should understand the business as well as they understand the people. 

Second, create practices and strategies that align with the outcomes the organization is seeking while remaining rooted in science. Meaning, if the business is transforming itself in order to be more competitive in the market, think about the implications to the people strategy.

Is it hiring, upskilling or developing talent to support these efforts? And, lastly, whatever strategy you create to address said business outcome, ensure that you have a methodology that is measurable and rooted in research, not just the latest trend.  

Donne Scarola quote

A lot of folks believe that CHROs would make great CEOs, but often they’re overlooked. Why do you think that is?

This is a complex question, so I feel I must give a multi-faceted answer. I think there are many factors associated with the reasons why CHROs are overlooked. Historically, and even today, HR is the function that is most feared, yet not respected or admired. 

The reason I know this is because people have questioned my own decision to go into HR after working in product roles. Second, HR is predominantly female. Third, HR needs a rebrand for what it provides organizations in value—it has poor branding which contributes to how it is perceived. Many still see HR as a policy-creating, risk-averse, static function that lacks modern skills, i.e. data, analytics, content creation, human-centered design, etc. 

What skills can HR folks work on to become more effective business partners? 

They need to focus on the end-to-end experience, communication, and measurement of their users (employees), i.e. are employees happy, are people leaders being coached and supported, are people being invested in, is key pipeline talent being stretched and given opportunities to grow? To do these things well, you should be well versed in coaching, data, and technology stack used (i..e HRIS, talent systems, payroll, etc.).

Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important ways that HR can help drive company decisions? Please share a story or an example for each.

1 . Understand your user. The way business leaders obsess over users is the same level of interest HR must-have for their employees. Understand their needs, their pain points, what challenges they face, what skills they are seeking, etc.

By understanding employees, you will be able to predict what needs to be created next. For example, something I like to do is create personas for employees. After collecting data via interviewing and surveys, create personas based on the needs, pain points, interests and roles in your organization. This will help you decide where to focus your strategy and prioritize what is needed first. 

2 . Utilize research to support your hypotheses and decisions. It is easy to go off of hunches, and hunches often come from squeaky wheels or leaders. While this often leads you on the right path, it does not uncover the root problem in the organization because they often have only part of the story. 

For example, if a leader asks you to begin working on an engagement strategy, maybe step back, ask what it is we are solving for, then find ways to uncover the root issues through surveys, interviews, and focus groups. You may discover it is not engagement, but burnout or lack of career paths. 

3 . Believe that what you do matters, because it does. So often, HR spends a lot of time and energy proving their own worth, and I think this effort could be better spent jumping into analysis and problem-solving. For example, time spent explaining the cost of engagement to a business leader is rudimentary, just jump into the issues: here is why we should focus on this one first and so forth. . .

4 . Always focus on the future. The same way in which business leaders use indicators and data to model sales, profits, etc, use tools and data to model what the organization might look like or need to look like. Often it can feel as if hiring or organizational design is on the back foot, but by asking leaders important questions coupled with data you can help model out scenarios that reduce stress and reactivity. 

5 . Measure the formerly immeasurable. When measuring people, we are often measuring behaviors or feelings. And there is a lot of science that allows us to measure this, but HR must be creative in how to capture sentiment. So, by utilizing organizational psychology and data science techniques, i.e. natural language processing, you can provide valuable insights to the business that formerly would be highly tactical to gather.

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen businesses make when faced with hard decisions? What should one keep in mind to avoid that? 

1. Focusing too much on short-term needs or issues. An over-index on immediate needs can disguise needs that are on the horizon, especially when it comes to HR strategy, i.e. hiring, re-orgs, talent strategies, etc. 

It is more valuable to step back and evaluate what will be needed now and in the future, and often the solutions are different, so collaborating with the business on the paths forward, I have found you often land on the decision that benefits the long term. I understand this is not always the case, but, more often than not, when you think the short term you miss opportunities that otherwise would be written off. 

2. Underestimating how much employees pick up on. Index on greater transparency with kindness; people can handle as much as you give them (within reason).

For example, if there are market impacts or dilemmas, it is important for leaders to share their feelings and insights with their teams, so speak openly about the problems they are facing, instead of pretending it doesn’t exist. Building trust is core to an effective organization. 

3. Forgetting that employees are investments, not costs. People are often one of the most expensive assets to an organization, but they are appreciating—meaning as you invest in them, your company can become better. 

When it comes to cost-cutting, often people are the first to go, and while sometimes this is necessary in times of economic downturn, I think companies often don’t look at other options i.e. no travel for a while, or cutting back frivolous benefits that might not be as necessary as keeping and investing in someone who could impact the business.

That being said, if you have excessive bloat in your organization, that is a real problem but that also means it is often due to poor workforce planning. 

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private lunch with, and why?

Dr. Andrew Huberman. He is an incredibly fascinating researcher and speaker. I enjoy listening to his podcast, and the research he often references can be applied to all aspects of life, including work. 

Thank you for your insights, Donna! How can people follow your work?

I mostly write on LinkedIn or on the Parcl blog.

More insights from the series:

By Finn Bartram

Finn is an editor at People Managing People. He's passionate about growing organizations where people are empowered to continuously improve and genuinely enjoy coming to work. If not at his desk, you can find him playing sports or enjoying the great outdoors.