Confessions from a VP of People and Culture
Throughout my three decades in human resources, I’ve gathered a pretty good library of materials on the subject of titles. In them I can see the evolution of the field during that time—a shift that I can also observe in the titles I and other HR professionals have held over the years.
We used to be human resource or personnel managers. Then we went through a period in which we were human capital managers; I think that was a well-intentioned attempt to position the function as more strategic, but it never felt right to me. It communicates the importance of people as an asset, while simultaneously dehumanizing them.
That’s why I’m delighted with my current title: vice president of people and culture. I first remember hearing titles like this about five or six years ago when friends in my professional network started migrating into the tech industry. But new naming conventions don’t just reflect the latest tech trend. Rather, I think these titles reflect real changes in the ways we think about the profession and do our jobs.
Culture as a Differentiator
Titles like my current one are solidifying a shift that’s been happening for a long time. Over the last 10 or 15 years, the topic of company culture has appeared more prominently in HR books, covering how HR leaders can help employees be more engaged, what role engagement plays in productivity and the ROI on engagement over time. Well, something has to fuel engagement—and that is company culture.
During the Great Recession, it was a buyer’s market for companies looking for great talent. Now, the unemployment rate in Oregon, where my company is located, is ridiculously low—near 3 percent—and nationally, the figure hovers around 4 percent. As competition for talent has heated up, companies are focusing on culture as a differentiator to attract people. Having a vice president of people and culture is a way to announce that difference up front.
While what I do now isn’t that different from what I’ve done in previous HR leadership roles, the way I go about it is. Seeing the words “people and culture” on my nameplate is a daily reminder of my top priorities.
It’s a title I’ve had to grow into, and that’s been possible because I’ve had the support of senior management. Our CEO, Karla Friede, conveyed to me when I came into the organization that this title reflected what was important to her. I’ve been empowered from day one to approach every single thing we do through the lens of how it’s going to affect our people and our culture, and I’ve had a lot of backup from her along the way.
Changing the “Policy Playbook”
Ours is a high-growth company, and all the policies and procedures aren’t yet in place. Based on my previous training, I probably would have put those together from some industry-standard templates and said, “Here’s the policy book. Here’s the way we do things.”
Instead, I started a communication and culture committee. We call it C3. It’s an employee group focused on creating a good working environment. People are here for a lot of hours of the day, so how do we make that the best possible experience?
It’s not just about employee perks, though we have those. People here really want to learn, not just about the company, the industry and their role, but also about things that are personally interesting to them. We also have a whole calendar built around learning, wellness challenges and serving our community.
We looked at every policy, discussed our values and the way we wanted to do things, the software we were going to bring in, the kind of events and awards we wanted to have, and even how we were going to run the C3 group and communicate what was going on. We’re currently drafting a playbook that pulls all of our culture ideas into one document.
No More Comfort Zone
Working this way has pushed me to get outside of my office and outside my comfort zone. I’m an introvert, but I’ve gotten to know people in all departments of the company to continually take the pulse of the people and the culture.
The best HR people have always cared about culture, but the right title sets the tone for where you get to go with the job, and what people expect of you. Vice presidents of people and culture still have to get all the transactional work done, but in a way that works best for the people who are there. If you have paperwork to do, you think about how to make that easy for the employees, not just what’s efficient for HR. It’s fun for me because I never really have to come up with an original idea. Employees are always willing to contribute. In this role, I get to ask people what they want, and then I figure out how to make it happen.
This title has been interesting, not just because of the effect it’s had on my own perception of my role, but also as a mirror of how others see HR. Most of the time, people introduce me as the vice president of people and culture, but when I sit with a manager in a disciplinary meeting, they always call me the “vice president of HR.” I think that’s because others think it conveys more authority (whether that’s positive or negative is an entirely different topic up for discussion). I’m guessing this means the perception of HR has not evolved as quickly as the titles have, but it’s a work in process.
I recently got to hire my first employee. In years past, we might have given her the title of HR manager because she’ll do all the things you’d normally expect in that role. Here, her title is employee experience specialist. I think it’s the next logical step in our evolution.