Abbie Buck on why learning is ‘part of the fun’

Starting a new position is a daunting task for anyone–diving into the top HR role at a company focused on simplifying employer-sponsored healthcare in the midst of a crippling global pandemic is another challenge entirely.

That’s the reality that faced Abbie Buck as she stepped into the chief people officer role at Collective Health in early April. The California-based tech start-up, which has been named to Fortune’s Best Small & Medium Workplaces list, offers an integrated solution to support self-funded employers in administering healthcare plans and controlling costs. Clients include Pinterest and Red Bull, along with more than 50 other enterprise companies.

To help the organization continue its upward trajectory, Buck will tap into her two decades in HR, including senior HR roles at IBM, eBay and PayPal. Most recently, she served as vice president of HR for software company Splunk.

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Buck: It has certainly been a unique experience. I was the first hire to be onboarded remotely at Collective Health and being the guinea pig as we worked out the (very few) kinks was a great way to begin to get to know my team and understand the experience we’ve created to introduce new team members to Collective Health. In terms of decisions, I jumped into the proverbial deep end of the pool. I started after the initial shift to working from home occurred, so early areas of focus have been on ensuring we have a balanced set of messages for employees that maintain a vision for the future while also contextualizing actions we’re taking to navigate through choppy waters. In addition, I’m focused on making sure we care for our employees as they help our members navigate their own care so I was pleased to enhance the Collective Health sick-leave benefit rolled out under the FFCRA. I am also responsible for our workplaces, and am actively working with my team and others on our return-to-work plan.

HRE: Did you have to adjust your short- and long-term goals for Collective Health’s HR future, given current conditions? 

Buck: There are certainly areas I’ve been more focused on as a result of COVID-19. However, more than anything, it’s emphasized for me that, among other strategically important work, being excellent at foundational management practices is more important than ever. Whether it’s enabling people managers to support, coach and lead their teams, our ability to give and receive feedback, rigor around goal-setting to create clarity, and being creative and empathetic in how we respond to needs, these (and other) things done well have a multiplier effect on the commitment and engagement of our team.

HRE: What are a few of the lasting impacts the pandemic will have on the world of work? 

Buck: I can imagine a number of lasting impacts. Clearly, the shift to working from home has opened the aperture on both flexibility to work from anywhere and is also likely to shift companies’ real-estate strategies. Video technology and collaboration tools have gotten so good–the level playing field they create for teams working across multiple locations has been a point of surprise and delight for many, I think. I also anticipate profound effects in terms of how we think about the wellbeing and safety of our workforces and I expect how we engage with and care for (e.g. via benefits and wellness offerings) employees will change as a result of COVID-19.

HRE: How did you first get your start in HR? 

Buck: Shortly after graduating from college, I started my career in sales and became interested in human resources while observing the management of the team I was on at the time. I decided to go to business school and, after completing my MBA, I was fortunate to start my HR career in the HR Leadership Development program at IBM. It was a phenomenal experience and I’m grateful for the time I spent there, learning and growing alongside world-class colleagues.

HRE: Is there a lesson you learned, or advice you were given, early on that has stuck with you throughout your career? 

Buck: Early in my career, I was interviewing for a new position with a general manager at IBM and told her that, while I was interested, I had to admit there were aspects to the role I had never done before. At the time, she told me that I wouldn’t want the job if I had done it before–that learning was part of the fun. As someone earlier in their career at the time, it was powerful encouragement and has stayed with me. The more time I’ve spent working, the more I’ve appreciated that having a growth mindset and staying curious is critical. This mindset is important not only for continued growth and innovation but also to connect and build inclusive environments.

HRE: It seems like many of your positions over the years gradually moved from HR-specific titles to those that include “People” in the official title. Do you think that’s a trend industry-wide, and if so, what does that say about the direction of HR? 

Buck: While not new, I do see it as a trend that is accelerating, which speaks to the value proposition and importance of this function. When you consider that, for many companies (all in the industries I’ve worked in), your workforce is the biggest investment you make and we’re operating in competitive labor markets, the naming of the function and the role conveys, for me, the focus and emphasis on the value people create. There is both an emphasis and focus on the fact that, as leaders in the space, we’re helping companies to unlock employees’ capabilities, design experiences, set up infrastructure and work while also understanding that the culture and experience we create is vital to achieving that.

HRE: Can you talk about one or two instances in a previous position in which you were particularly challenged to meet the needs of your workforce; and how do you rise to that challenge?

Buck: In global organizations, it’s natural to index investment towards headquarter locations, often at the expense of offices around the world. At the same time, those offices often have more complexity, less corporate infrastructure and fewer leaders on the ground. In my last role, I was tackling increasing our investment to support our business in 31 countries on one hand while also leading efforts around workforce strategy to, among other things, be intentional about the placement of work across all functions. In a hyper-growth environment with numerous emerging markets, this was not easy but, working with the rest of the business to prioritize markets, define expected levels of investment and also deeply understand and commit to the full cost of operating in new markets, we made headway.

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Buck: Oh gosh. My very first (and short-lived) job out of college was also my worst. I worked briefly for a screenwriter in Los Angeles. She was what I imagine (probably unfairly) as quintessentially Hollywood: demanding, eccentric, inflexible and unappreciative. The silver lining in that experience was gaining my first professional insights into the very direct link between the experience one has and their commitment and willingness to expend discretionary effort.

HRE: Do you have any interests or hobbies people may be surprised to know? 

Buck: I don’t think any of my hobbies are particularly surprising. When not working, my family is my top priority. My daughters are in high school and one will be headed to college in the fall. Spending time with my husband and kids–especially outdoors–feels very precious right now and I’m trying to soak in the time we have together.

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].