In February, the Actionable team is delighted to welcome several new staff members to our merry band. Jane Watson is the author behind the insightful Talent Vanguard blog, where she discusses trends and challenges from the leading edge of human resources. As Head of People for Actionable.co, Jane identifies, develops, and delivers people strategies and solutions that enable Actionable to fully deliver on its business strategy, provide an environment where team members can accomplish their best work, and set an example as a world class virtual workplace.
Jane has nearly 15 years of experience in Human Resources in a range of industries and organizations. In 2015 she was honoured to be a finalist for the HR Rising Star of the Year Award from Canadian HR and Beyond Boardrooms, and her blog has earned her a Top 40 Under 40 HR Bloggers nod.
I was delighted to chat with Jane about the extensive experience she brings to the Actionable team and her vision for the future of the company.
How did you originally get involved with Actionable?
I met Chris Taylor, the Founder of Actionable, when I was the HR Manager at an organization that was an early adopter of the original Conversations offering back in 2013. I guess you could say that I’m a long-time fan!
Alyssa Burkus recently wrote about her decision to accept a full-time role at Actionable. How did you approach your decision to come aboard full time?
Chris and I had spoken about the possibility of me working with Actionable a while ago, but I wasn’t sure that I was a ‘start-up’ kind of person. Then I had the opportunity to drop in on an Actionable team retreat early last year and meet the (at the time much smaller) team. Aside from everyone being incredibly welcoming, smart, and engaged with the work that Actionable was doing, I was struck by the degree to which everyone around the table had a voice in so many aspects of the business. I realized the impact that I could have as part of a smaller team that was evolving quickly, and that really appealed to me. The more I saw of the team and the work they were doing, the more opportunities I saw to support their amazing trajectory.
You moved from a large corporate firm to our scrappy startup culture. What is the biggest difference so far? What can our startup learn from a large corporation? And what can large corporate cultures learn from a startup?
There’s definitely a lot more blank canvas at Actionable than in a larger, more established organization. Organizations that have been around for a while have accumulated more structure, process (some good, some not), and been through successes and failures that shape their approach to risk taking and change. Actionable is building and growing, and there’s still a lot of story to be written, which is exciting and a little scary (in a good way)!
I think that it’s hard to generalize about large corporate cultures, or startup cultures for that matter. Regardless of size or age, organizations can have a culture that supports their mission and objectives, or a culture that doesn’t. As a startup, there’s an incredible opportunity for Chris and every member of the team to be really deliberate about shaping a culture that will help Actionable achieve its objectives, and make it a great place to work, now and as we grow. When you’re a small group, each person’s behavior and daily interactions has a proportionally bigger influence on culture than at a large company—and with that power comes the responsibility to make sure we’re all creating and reinforcing the culture we want and need!
What are you most excited to work on?
Growing the team is going to be a critical focus for the foreseeable future, and that is incredibly exciting! As a virtual, results only work environment, we have the advantage of not being limited by geography. On the other hand, the complexity of effectively collaborating remotely to hire people who will themselves thrive in a collaborative and remote organization is a ‘meta’ challenge!
What is the biggest misconception that people (or businesses) have about the function of HR?
A lot of HR is done behind the scenes, so I think one misconception is that we only deal with problems or policy. Done well, HR should be focused on hiring the right people for the organization, and enabling them to do their best work. That has to be a collaborative effort between HR, leaders, and team members. In my past roles that’s meant everything from project and program development, to being an ongoing source of advice for leaders and team members.
Unfortunately, this misconception is not entirely undeserved. There are lots of organizations and HR teams that inadvertently create or perpetuate an adult-child dynamic with employees, in which HR ends up implementing policies or practices that infantilize employees and take the worst case scenario as a starting point. Many of us will have worked for companies where the number and nature of the ‘rules’ seemed to be created to address outlier behavior, rather than serve as helpful guidance to the vast majority of sensible people interested in doing good work. In those cases, one has to wonder who hired the people these policies were written for, and why any individual concerns weren’t simply addressed directly, one-on-one.
What’s the biggest challenge facing organizations today? What’s your advice on how to solve this?
That is a big question! I think that the biggest of many challenges facing organizations today is that many are still working in ways inspired by “best practices” from 10 or even 20 years ago, diligently working to optimize these approaches. In the meantime, vast swaths of the economy and work landscape have changed, and continue to change at increasingly rapid speeds.
There’s been a dramatic increase in the volume of information, data, and communications that almost all professionals grapple with in their jobs, often coinciding with the need to do more complex, abstract work. Yet many organizations are still using e-mail in almost exactly the same way they did when I entered the workforce 15 years ago. Organizations are still blocking access to Facebook, or equating presence at one’s desk with productivity, when all of us have smartphones, and many employees would likely be capable of more focused work if they could free themselves from the many needless interruptions at the office, or decline some of the unproductive meetings they’re invited to. And don’t even get me started on open concept offices.
That’s why I love the fact that Actionable is a virtual and results only work environment. I think that by trusting each other to organize our own work to meet our objectives, and to collaborate online, we’re each free to work in ways that maximize our individual productivity and focus. I’m personally finding it to be a game-changer, although I’m still sorting out the cat interruptions.
What websites do you read frequently to stay on top of trends?
Way too many. I cast a wide net and spend a lot of time reading… HBR, Quartz, First Round Review, as well as tons of HR blogs, Medium, and my Twitter feed, which are all tremendous sources of knowledge and discussion with others doing great work. I also read a lot of academic writing. It’s interesting to see how management and HR practices align or diverge from academic research.
What are your favorite productivity processes or tools?
Exercising regularly makes me much better at life. Day to day I prioritize the one most important thing (that gets my focus first), followed by second and third order priorities and so on (instead of staring at a massive, undifferentiated to-do list). I also love using a Pomodoro app to stay focused on certain types of work (I can be easily distracted).
What are your current favorite podcasts?
Best book you’ve read in the last 12 months?
That’s a tough one. The Conversational Firm by Catherine J Turco was fascinating (I studied Anthropology so I’m a sucker for corporate ethnographies), but I read Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries on the beach in Mexico, so that’s hard to beat.
Book you’ve given as a gift most often?
The Hungry Caterpillar. I give it to everyone who has a kid. I’m like the Oprah of that book – “You get a Hungry Caterpillar! And you get a Hungry Caterpillar!”
What is the best way to expand your network?
Figure out what you are really, really interested in, and then go hang out with people that are interested in the same thing. Most people think that networking is about being interesting, or figuring out how to get something from others, but that makes it really stressful and unpleasant for everyone involved. Find your tribe and the ‘networking’ part follows automatically. I’ve also met a lot of amazing people via blogging and Twitter.
I loved your post about how annoying it is to hear people describe their business as “The Uber of…” Are there other trends you’d like to shut down with an airhorn?
Ha ha…yes. The over-reliance on generational stereotypes is one that comes to mind. I get why this is a thing; with the current pace of change, I think we use generational categories as a proxy for the vastly different world that we experienced as people of different ages growing up. The notion that we want to recognize those differences is well meant, but when it reduces people to stereotypes or leads to rigid assumptions about what people want, or the work ethic they have based on their age, I think that’s really problematic, and I prefer to avoid it. When people generalize about an entire generation not being tech-savvy, or being entitled, an airhorn might be justified.