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Transitioning From Career In Finance To HR (with Carla Nordean from Squirrel Systems)

Carla jumped into HR when she heard a startup needed an HR person. Today, she shares her mindset on building an HR department in a high-growth company.

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Audio Transcription:

Tim Reitsma

My guest today made a transition from finance into HR at a fast-growing tech company about 12 years ago. She overheard that there may be a position of HR opening up the first-ever position at this organization. And she reached out and stepped up and grew in that organization. Today, my guest, Carla, is going to share her philosophy on HR and what has guided her throughout her career. She is now the leader of people and culture at Squirrel. It’s a massive tech company here in the lower mainland of British Columbia. So stay tuned as she shares her philosophy, her framework, and her journey. 

Tim Reitsma

Thanks for tuning in. I’m Tim Reitsma, the resident host of People Managing People. Welcome to the podcast. We’re people managing people. And we want to lead and manage better. We’re owners, founders, entrepreneurs, we’re middle managers, we’re team leaders. We’re managing people—and yes, we do human resources, but we’re not HR, at least not in the traditional sense. We’re on a mission to help people lead and manage their teams and organizations more effectively. So if you want to lead and manage better, if you want to become a better organizational leader and more effective people manager, then join us. Keep listening to the podcast to find the tips, tricks, and tools you need to recruit, retain, manage, and lead your people in the organization more effectively. And while listening to the show, please subscribe and join our mailing list on PeopleManagingPeople.com to stay up to date with all that’s going on.

Tim Reitsma

Thanks for joining me today, Carla. 

Tim Reitsma

I’m so excited for you to come on the podcast and tell us a little good about your self, your journey through different technology companies. And well, you know, I consider you a friend. We’ve worked together for a number of years. Not anymore, but we did in the past. And so thanks for coming on. 

Carla Nordean

Thanks for having me. And for this opportunity, I’ve never been on a podcast before, so this is an exciting new experience for me. 

Tim Reitsma

Well, you can add that to your resume or to your LinkedIn or whatever, you know, whatever you think you need. How where to put it. But, you know, as we were prepping for this podcast and learning about your journey through the company, we worked together as well as your transition to a different company. It’s going to be a great conversation and a great, you know, 30 minutes or, you know, couple hours. We’ll see what recording it goes, see where it goes. So, you know, I’d love to start off with you sharing a little bit about yourself as well as maybe one of your core values. 

Carla Nordean

Yeah, that’s great. So I’m currently the director of People and Culture to a company here in Burnaby called Squirrel. I just started five and a half weeks ago, so I’m sort of getting my feet planted here, figuring things out. But it’s a fantastic organization. Super excited to be part of a people culture team here. But I’ve been in the tech world for about 20 years. I’ve been in the HR People and Culture world for about 12 years. So starting my journey at the tech company that you and I were working together at my central core value is care. And it’s about care for people, certainly, but also just about care for everything for what you’re doing. 

Carla Nordean

Being mindful and being intentional in everything that you do. 

Tim Reitsma

I think that’s just such an important value as somebody who is in a people and culture role. If you said you didn’t care then about people, then we’d be having a different conversation. So you’ve been in technology for about 20 years, as you mentioned, and we worked together for about eight years. You’re with a company. Well, for four, twelve of your 20 years. So where did you start off if it wasn’t HR? Where did you start? 

Carla Nordean

So when I joined the tech company that we shared experience that I actually was hired into the finance departments in an entry-level role. So it was just trying to get my foot in the door into sort of the corporate world. And I knew I wanted an HR role eventually, but I was also simultaneously starting my education to get my certification in human rights management at BCIT at the time. So so I started in a finance role and that the company was about 50 people at the time. They’d never had an HR person still didn’t. And most of the HR type functions were performed either by a controller who I report it into, who is responsible for payroll benefits, you know, a lot of that sort of stuff. And then each hiring manager kind of took care of their own recruitment needs, managing their employee performance and that sort of thing. So so there was a lot of kind of, you know, wearing off many hats happening, which is difficult for a tech startup company. 

Tim Reitsma

Yeah, I think I think we should dive into that a little bit and just paint that picture to put it into perspective. So the company when you joined us, about 50 people, the company now, as you know, hundreds and hundreds of people belong to it’s a division of you know, a Fortune 500 company now. 

Tim Reitsma

So massive organization. And you had seen and been part of a lot of that growth. So but what was it like early on in tech? So you start off in finance and but what was it like? You kind of alluded to it a little bit where everyone took on a bit more responsibility. And how did that go? Did everyone buy into that? 

Carla Nordean

Well, you know, it was really distracting for all the managers because there wasn’t really, you know, a lot of clarity on how to go about things. You know, not a lot of processes were built out. A few, you know, policies were in place. But, you know, not a lot of consistency in the way that each manager was doing things and no real sort of oversight into those processes and, you know, strategizing from a people perspective. So, you know, it was distracting. And that the first thing that I jumped into was recruitment because the growth rate of the company was just incredible. And so there was constant, you know, interviews and screening and all kinds of activities, you know, reference checking and all that stuff that, you know, takes a lot of time and was, you know, needed. support for those managers who were going through that growth mode. So that was the first thing I stepped into. You know, I kind of overheard them saying, oh, you know, maybe we should get an HR manager, hire somebody to take care of this stuff. And, you know, in my little corner, I said, hey, could you give me a shot at this? Could you let me kind of step up and help out with some of this stuff? And, you know, keep doing my finance role, keep doing my AP and AR, and the other things that I was hired for. But also take on, you know, some of the recruitment activities. And that’s kind of just how I got my foot in the door to become the HR person for the company. 

Tim Reitsma

So let me just get this straight just for my own clarification, because I think it’s a fascinating story of starting off at a tech company in finance. You know, AR, AP. Overheard a conversation from one of the founders, one of the executives saying, I think we need to hire for HR because while the company was growing hand-over-fist, rapid, rapid growth in people and revenues, what half what would happen if you didn’t hear that conversation? 

Carla Nordean

You know, I don’t know what would have happened. I suppose I could have, you know, pursued the path of finance and, you know, grown my career within finance. I don’t know how long I would have enjoyed that. I do like some aspects of finance, but I probably would have hopped over to another company at some point once I’d finished my education at BCIT and started looking elsewhere. 

Well, I think that’s a that’s an unofficial take away from this podcast as if you’re a founder. Your company is growing, you know you need help in certain areas. You may actually have people on the team who are passionate about their role but may have a different passion that they want to pursue and put it out to the team and not have a conversation by the watercooler that, you know, in your case you overheard and you jumped on it. And so you jumped on this opportunity. You knew kind of knew that you wanted to pursue HR and, you know, it was the only meat in the organization at that time of 50 people just purely recruiting or were more opportunities really uncovered as you grew into that position? 

Carla Nordean

Yeah, I know there were tons of opportunities. I’d say, you know, then the next biggest thing and once I kind of started wearing that hat to some degree and some of the team members within the company. So I started to see me as sort of the go-to HR person, even though, you know, by title, I was not yet the HR person, but they started, you know, asking me questions like, you know, when’s my performance review gonna happen? I was supposed to have one, you know, last year, but it still hasn’t happened. And, you know, what’s the deal with that? And so, you know, I started digging in and, you know, trying to find the records of, you know, when what were the last performance reviews and how was it managed and what did the forum look like? And, you know, tried to start pulling those documents together. And then, you know, from there proposing a new system of, you know, tracking, monitoring, you know, managing performance, which evolved several times, you know, through the years after that. Just just as we grew and learned and I grew as an individual. So that was a huge part of it was, you know, I was taking my education at the same time. So as I’m learning, you know, in the classroom, I could take that learning and just apply it right away to what I was doing and add new ideas along the way. So it was a really great opportunity for me and I think advantageous for the company as well. 

Tim Reitsma

Well. I think you highlight a really interesting point, and that’s around how people start coming to you and asking these questions. What does my performance review when is this happening? How do I find out information about our benefits? And I’ve talked to founders and leaders and organizations who don’t have HR, but your people are asking for these things. You know, people are asking and want and crave these check-ins and the performance reviews and a bit of structure around the human side of work. So, so effectively you came in from ground zero and had to start from. Well, I think there was a little bit of a foundation, but really start from scratch when it comes to managing people. Is that correct? 

Carla Nordean

Yeah, I think so. You know, there was definitely some structure. I mean, there were some really smart people who created that company, as you know. So they had a lot of great ideas and they had, you know, some things in place that were working. And, you know, and I think they were working well enough. But without having somebody who was kind of owning that, owning, owning the people and culture, the age, our function. You know, it was really just sort of a piecemeal, you know, like sort of bits and pieces pulled together to create. You know, the basic needs being covered and, you know, those basic needs were taken care of. You know, payroll benefits, they existed there. You know, there was a performance management form that had been aligned by somebody and there was an employee handbook so that there were some pieces in place already. But it was sort of, you know, who’s looking over the whole thing and see how it fits together and sort of shepherding the whole employee experience. 

Tim Reitsma

Well, I think you’ll see. That’s another good point. Right. It doesn’t necessarily all fall on HR’s responsibility, especially in the early days. There still is a need for tracking vacation and sick days and benefits and everything also goes along with that. So, you know, it’s important to have some structure around that. But having a dedicated HR person or people, a cultured person, it streamlines a lot of that process. And it and it cut direct people two to one person. And so you’d mentioned in Corda, it’s about a hierarchy of needs or, you know, basic needs. You know, we talked offline about this, about, you know, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. And so you’ve adopted one over the years for HR. Can you share that with us? 

Carla Nordean

Yeah. No, I love this. And I can’t take credit for creating it because I saw another HR leader who presented this. And but when I saw it, I was like, oh, my gosh, this makes so much sense to me. And it just really resonated. You know, and you know, I’ve kind of adopted it to be my own philosophy on own HR and people in the culture. So yes, it’s just like the Maslow hierarchy of needs. You know, where you have the basic function, the basic needs of, you know, we need we need food and water. And then the next layer up is, you know, we need shelter. And then the next layer up is we need a connection with people. And, you know, you get all the way to the top peak of this at self-actualization. So, you know, for me that the basic core functions, that foundational level of HR are things like payroll benefits, unique processes around recruiting. You need, you know, a contract template. You need the onboarding process outlined in you to need an HRIS of some, you know, iteration. And so, you know, it’s those non-negotiables that if you don’t have these things like if you don’t pay people, that’s a problem. 

Carla Nordean

You know, and so it’s that foundational level where you start to build trust with employees like you have an agreement. If you do this work, we pay you X number of dollars. And, you know, if we don’t pay you, then you’re going to lose trust. And so there’s the functionality of that. And then there’s also the mechanisms to deal. We’re all humans, you know, payroll errors happen. So how do we deal with payroll errors in a way that’s not going to lose that trust, that we take it seriously, that we fix it as soon as possible and building out, you know, the functions around those core areas? So so that’s the foundation. And then the next area we had to move up to, you know, when we have those things established is what I called team member advocacy. And this is things like employee relations that employees have a safe place they can come to when they have, you know, something a concern where they think, oh, you know, I don’t know that this is quite right or a question, you know, or a conflict one when there were co-workers or their manager, that there is a place, a repository for that information and that assistance and support for individual team members. And that’s where you look at things like employee engagement. And how do you measure that and how do you use the information you measure to make changes and to ensure that your team members are going to be happy to stay with the company and recommend, you know, others to join and make that magnet organization that that, you know, everybody wants to create as well as developing our team members. 

Carla Nordean

So, you know, really looking at how do we assess our team members’ strengths, what are those strengths and how can we leverage them? So so that’s kind of the activities that happen at that level. And then the next level up is what I call leader advocacy. And this is where not only as individual contributors but as managers, as supervisors, as, you know, directors and people managing people or even managing managers. You know, how do we make those leaders effective in their jobs? How do we get them the right skill sets that they need to be able to coach their team and we can coach them as well? You know, if you’ve felt that trust level. You can actually be that advisor at that leadership level and help with things like workforce planning, you know, strategizing a little bit from that that management level and then at the top of the peak Risi business partnership and this is, you know, truly like the pinnacle where, you know, you can have the biggest impact on the business by being a participant in, you know, building the culture of the company, strategizing with the other leaders of the business in the future of the company and the, you know, the growth strategy and long term vision. So, you know, threw out all of that whole, you know, hierarchy. We build trust the whole way up. And if you break trust at one of the levels below, then you have to start again and you have to build your way back up again. And then the other component is just that through that whole process, you always need to have your values central to everything that you do. So you kind of become the shepherd of the values in that way as well. So that’s a little synopsis of my philosophy on HR people culture. 

Tim Reitsma

I was feverishly taking notes and a little selfish of me as I shared with you. And I started in a new position, a new role as a director of people within the non-profit sector. And effectively, I compare us to a startup where we’re creating recruiting, awesome community engagements and around youth mental health. And the organization’s been around for a while. But it’s pivoting and it’s changing everything you mentioned about payroll and team member, advocacy leader, and advocacy and business partnership culture strategy. It’s everything that’s come off this past week. But you mentioned something that’s key to everything that’s trust. So how do you build trust? I know this is an honor on our priest who is throwing this out to you. And I hope it’s OK. But in your experience, how does one build trust from just from an HR perspective or in general? 

Carla Nordean

Yeah, I think for me, you know, building trust really starts from giving trust, you know, believing that the person sitting across from you has the best intentions, you know, assuming best intentions and then just being open, be vulnerable, be willing to share, you know, failures, successes, everything along the way. And listen, that’s the other thing is, is and I think that’s, you know, for me is my strength and where my care shows up, as you know, listen, like you care, you know, and not even like I would say, even a next level up like listen, because you care like really genuinely care about what the person is saying in front of you. And then, you know, and then they’ll feel that those they’ll say, wow, I really felt heard by this person. 

Carla Nordean

And then even if you end up in a place where you disagree on a topic, they’ll know that, well, you know, at least I know I was heard by that person. And and and they can accept whatever the decision is, a little bit easier when they know they’ve been heard. So that’s yeah, that’s my approach off the cuff. 

Tim Reitsma

Off the cuff. And I can attest to that. Know up to knowing you for. For over 10 years, you know, you give trust and you genuinely care. And that comes out as your core value. And so so I hear you’re living in that you’re living. But I’m curious. So let’s say, you know, a small team is listening or a founder of a small company is listening to this and they decide, OK, I need to appoint somebody as HR Right. We don’t necessarily budget to bring somebody on, but I need to make it part of someone’s task. So they pick somebody in the organization or somebody volunteers are the best approach to then send an email and saying, hey, you can now confide in this person? Or is it more than that? Is it more than just, you know, appointing somebody to become that HR advocate? 

Carla Nordean

Yeah, no, I think I think that’s interesting. I think certainly giving that person support, you know, whether it’s an email announcement or, you know, at an all-hands meeting or something, saying, hey, listen, so-and-so has decided that they’re going to accept this responsibility for the company and they’re now going to be sort of in charge of these functions. So, you know, please consider them your go-to on all these topics and, you know, give that support in and buy-in. It’s definitely part of it. 

Carla Nordean

I think a lot of it’s going to be on the individual to start building those relationships. So so setting them up first for success is probably a really key thing. And then and then, yeah, just making sure that you pick that person with the right strengths. Who is, you know, motivated, who is is driven by the by relationship building. And you know, that they’re going to be interested in that, you know, line of their career, that they’re going to want to create those relationships long term with people. I think that’s probably a good start. But it’s yeah. It’s gonna be a lot on the individual. I’m just starting to build their own connections with the partners that they’re supporting. 

Tim Reitsma

So in other words, a lot of coffee. Okay. Hey, you know, let’s force you to come to drink coffee. No, it’s sort of you know, I said it jokingly sort of. But it’s really that setting up that one a one time. 

Carla Nordean

It is. Yeah. So, you know, I started my role here just five and a half weeks ago. And the first thing I did was, you know, I set up meeting times with every leader in the organization. And I and in that first meeting, I asked them, you know, would you be okay if I set up a regular recurring one on one for us so that we can, you know, just have a touchdown point, stay, you know, a tune of what’s going on with each other. And, you know, we’ll see each other in between. Well, you know, have hallway conversations, maybe, you know, not at this exact moment in time, but, you know, that that despite that, that we have a time that we can connect. 

Carla Nordean

And, you know, I never had a single person say, no, I don’t want to do that. So I don’t know what I would have said if that I had come up. But, you know. But now I’ve got recurring meetings. And because I’m now into this the second month here. You know, some of those meetings are starting to come around. And so I’m having those sit down discussions. And you can tell, you know, some people are like, I don’t really know what the point of this is like. What what’s the objective intention of this meeting? And so that’s usually where I start to say, listen, the intention of this meeting is for us to have a touchdown point, for us to share ideas. For me to share information that I think might be useful to you. You know, as as a member of the executive leadership team, I might have, you know, information or that can be communicated. That would be interesting for you. This from having that ear to the ground. And so it goes really well. And so when I started this and there was a colleague of ours who, you know, made this suggestion a few years back to have this regular one on one meetings that I thought, oh, my gosh, how am I going to possibly find time to meet with every leader? But she sort of prodded me, encouraged me in the right way. And I did it. And so, you know, by the end of it, I had my time at the last organisation. I had people saying, you know, I really look forward to these meetings that we have. And, you know, that was super, super gratifying. But it’s really about creating that time, creating that space. 

Carla Nordean

And, you know, the frequency that you have regular connections, it’s not just like, oh, let’s go see HR now that we have a problem. It’s, you know, let’s talk proactively. Let’s plan together. Let’s brainstorm, let’s share ideas and, you know, have fun with it rather than it being like, OK, there’s a problem. Let’s go talk to HR. So. 

Tim Reitsma

It’s bringing had a conversation with somebody recently about bringing the human back to human resources. And it’s just that I think the basics as you said, we need to get payroll benefits and those fundamentals. Right. And then but that also has a human component to it. And we only know what people need or they’re, you know, what their needs are and what areas that we can help support is by having a conversation and sitting down and driving that because I’m sure you’ve learned things in your one on ones that helped influence executive team, whether it’s out your new role or. I definitely know. Yeah. Your previous role, you know, people and more than just reviews, you know, KPIs and goals and, you know, how many sales did you close this month? It’s not. Let’s sit down on an on a personal level. 

Carla Nordean

Yeah. Yeah. And a lot of times it’s about, you know, make making connections between others. Like sometimes I have a one on one with one individual and I’m like, hey, have you talked to so-and-so about this? Because they’re thinking the same thing. You guys should get together and, you know, work on this together instead of duplicating the efforts. So there are always opportunities that come up like that’s, you know, chances to to to, you know, make connections between others to hear, you know, kind of the scoop. You know, what’s happening on the frontlines. You know what’s happening. A particular team is a great way to just kind of stay with your ear to the ground and keep a pulse on things as well. 

Tim Reitsma

Yeah, it’s a worthwhile resource. You’re a director or leader of people is a worthwhile investment in any organization. And so, you know, we kind of talked about your career and you overheard a conversation. You started off as a team of one, helped build that team, think, you know, that organization, at least this division was, you know, three or four hundred people when you’d left and are now working at a new organization. As a leader of people and culture. So, yeah, super excited for your journey. And as you know, our listeners might be thinking about, OK. So. Carla, you are super convincing, you’ve convinced me to go and hire for HR You know, what’s one or two or three takeaways our listeners can take away? You know, as they may be thinking about bringing on an HR resource. 

Carla Nordean

Yeah. I think, you know, one of the things we talked about early on is, is, you know, looking within your organization, if there are people, you know, who are interested, who want to step up and want to lead their career in the direction of people and culture. Like what better way to keep good people than to let them leverage your strengths and, you know, follow, follow their ambitions. So I think, you know, stopping letting people step up to the plate is a huge thing and then trust them and empower them. I think that’s a huge thing, especially for sort of the entrepreneurial start-up type of places. You know, we’re talking about people who’ve started a company and it’s their baby. 

Carla Nordean

You know, they’ve created everything that exists, you know, in the formulation of this organization. And so it’s hard for them to just kind of step aside and let somebody, you know, step up to the plate and take over, you know, telling people, hey, this is how the performance management process is going to go or this is what the new recruitment requirements are going to be. Or, you know, here’s the strategy for it. People in culture, you know, and of course, they want to have a say and have, you know, you know, participate like that’s of course, it’s a partnership. It’s not just OK, you’ve hired a people in a cultured person. Now they get to do whatever they want. But there’s got to be a balance. There’s gotta be some empowerment. You know, let them experiment. Let them, you know, do what they feel is right. Especially if you trust the person that you’ve you’ve hired into the position, whether it’s internal or external. So that would be sort of one major thing. The other thing I would say is, you know, focus on one thing at a time. It’s really easy to think of a gazillion great ideas and you really can’t do it all. There are always more good ideas than there is time to get them done. I can’t ever who I’m quoting, but, you know, I’ve heard that one. And I absolutely believe it. That, you know, it’s harder to say no to things to determine what you’re not going to do. And so if you can just focus and look at like what is the most impactful thing that I can do as it relates to people and culture right now, get that thing done. Get it up and running. 

And then you pick the next thing and you move on. And then eventually that pile does, you know, diminish. And you suddenly look back and go, wow, you know, we’ve got a whole, you know, people’s culture function. Now, this is really, really great. So so that’s, you know, and then just sticking back to my little model there. You know, build the foundation and then move off, whereas making sure you’re building trust along the way. And then, you know, eventually, you got to that that pinnacle there was where there are a strategy and culture movement and all that kind of stuff. So one more thing stays true to your values. That’s for tips. But, you know, I think getting aware of what your values are, you know, what do you really, really value in the behaviors, in the attitudes of the people that you want to have in your organization and then integrate that into everything you do, you know, hire and fire based on your values, like hold true to them in everything that you implement. That’s probably my my my biggest top tip. 

Tim Reitsma

Wow. I’m a little bit speechless because, again, this just applies to what I’m working on even this weekend. And so it’s very kind of reassuring. You know, it’s just focused on one thing at a time. There’s no shortage of great ideas within organizations. But I love what you said. Just look within your organization, if you’re looking at an HR Resource, whether maybe you already have a team and you’re looking to expand it. Take a look inside and trust, trust, and empower. Micromanaging is is just kills everything. It kills every good idea in my opinion and focuses on one thing and rooted in values and behaviors. 

Tim Reitsma

That’s great. And then, yeah, your model. I think we’ll have to get you to write a blog post a future just to, you know, to explain that in a little bit of detail. But some. But I really appreciate that. I think you’ve had a pretty amazing journey from, again, from finance and to HR and. Now leading people and culture at a really large organization. So it’s been a pleasure to watch your journey. And thank you for coming on, Carla. 

Carla Nordean

Yeah, thanks for having me. It’s you know, I’ve been really fortunate. You know, things have gone right for me along the way. I’ve had opportunities put out for me and, you know, and I’ve grabbed onto them and rolled with them. But some by others, there’s definitely been a lot of support along the way. And yeah, this is this has been great. It’s always great to connect with you and really appreciate the opportunity. 

Tim Reitsma

So, you know, one last thing before we wrap up. If if you’re listening to this and you’re thinking about your people management. You might have a Carla in inside your organization already. And so put it out there. You never know. You may have a rock star who’s just waiting for that opportunity. And so with that, you know, thank you again, Carla, for coming on and things for those who are listening. We’d love to hear your feedback. Please reach out on LinkedIn or via PeopleManagingPeople.com. And as always, we’d love for you to subscribe and to our podcast. So with that, I hope everyone has a great day.

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