Former Google exec: HR needs to be the ‘heartbeat’ of an org’s resilience

Courtney Bass Sherizen knows what resilience looks like. After all, she was senior HR business partner at Google when a shooter accessed the company’s YouTube headquarters in 2018—wounding three employees before committing suicide.

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Bass Sherizen used the tragedy to push for the creation of a unit to help Googlers through crisis—an effort that ultimately was greenlighted as the COVID-19 pandemic got underway.

Such work, she says, speaks to one of HR’s core responsibilities: guiding both the workforce and leadership through change and challenges—relying on its unique vantage point at the intersection of employees and leaders. Bass Sherizen is now bringing that commitment to new audiences with her recent appointment as chief talent and culture officer at the Wikimedia Foundation.

The 700-employee nonprofit, which operates Wikipedia and Wikimedia products, may sound like a big jump from tech giant Google, where she was director of people operations when she left—with its approximately 175,000 workers—but it aligns with Bass Sherizen’s early-career commitment to mission-driven work.

She recently shared with HRE how she plans to drive the Wikimedia Foundation’s own mission forward through its people strategy.

HRE: In what facet of people operations do you feel you most made your mark at Google during your time with the company?

Bass Sherizen: I feel I made my mark on Google HR through the creation of our HR Crisis Management Office. Previous to the creation of that team, we did a great job of showing up for Googlers in crisis, but the work was highly reactive and scattered across many HR teams. The Crisis Management Office brought many of the disparate threads together and was able to incorporate proactivity into how we prepared for, addressed and adapted after crises. I began to advocate for the team in the immediate aftermath of the shooting at YouTube in 2018.

Courtney Bass SherizenThat moment changed my life as an HR practitioner; I realized that in today’s world, an HR leader had to be prepared to help people navigate through truly anything. It took a while for others to see and understand my vision, but attitudes changed when the COVID-19 pandemic began: The team was approved and formed in spring 2020. The pandemic was such a hard moment for many reasons, but I was honored to be of service to the organization and to Googlers at such a critical moment in history.

HRE: What was it about the nonprofit world—and Wikimedia Foundation, in particular—that led you to pivot away from Google?

Bass Sherizen: When I was in business school, I made a commitment to myself that I would split my career between the for- and the not-for-profit space. I stayed faithful to that commitment for the first few years after business school: I first went into for-profit management consulting, pivoted after a few years to lead a regional HR team at a nonprofit, and then I went back to for-profit HR work at Google. To be honest, there was a time when I thought that I might spend the rest of my career at Google.

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However, as I got close to my 10th year there, I really started to feel the pullback to mission-driven work. We are at this really unique moment in human history where so much about the next 10-20 years is unknown on so many different levels: politically, socially, climatologically and technologically. When I thought about all of the different issues that are profoundly impacting humanity and our world, I felt compelled to be at an organization that was committed in both words and actions to making the best things in our world more equitable and accessible.

Transitioning to the Wikimedia Foundation felt like the perfect marriage between two things I deeply care about: the tech space and community-based movements. WMF’s work is unprecedented in bringing knowledge access to a new, global level. This movement has incredible, positive power, and I am excited to contribute to its continued growth.

HRE: What are you eyeing as your top HR priority as you settle into the new role at Wikimedia Foundation?

Bass Sherizen: Since I’m only about a month into this role, I’m still very much deciding on my top priorities. Organizational cultures are delicate beings. When a new leader, particularly a new HR leader, comes into an organization, they have to be very conscientious about maintaining the best of the existing culture and being thoughtful about any changes they want to make to improve the culture. In an effort to not “break the sauce,” at this point, I’ve not determined my top priority. I really want to understand the organization and what the right changes will be before I start to move.

That said, the Foundation has been around for 20 years, and they’ve done incredible work in that time, growing from a small team of under 10 to almost 700 staff. Some of the organization’s HR systems and ways of working make sense for who we are today, and others need updating. As the chief talent and culture officer, it is my responsibility to think about what HR this organization needs in the next 5-10 years and strengthen the infrastructure, systems, processes and culture for that new future.

HRE: What do today’s CHROs need to do to provide stability in their organizations while being mindful of continuous change?

Bass Sherizen: There are many external factors that impact HR work, so it’s critical that CHROs stay on top of the news, stay on top of organizational design and behavior research, and really follow how the outside world is impacting their workforce. Beyond that, I am a big proponent of HR organizations having distinct bodies of work that address reactive or day-to-day HR, and in keeping those separate from the bodies of work that are thinking about proactive HR work and the future.

This is a layover from my crisis management days. HR teams have a powerful opportunity to be the heartbeat of an organization’s resilience. Few other teams have such intimate insight into employee experience, leadership strengths and challenges, and the broader labor movement—input that is critical to determining how to become and stay competitive. When an HR team gets stuck only reacting to people issues and only executing people processes, it loses the opportunity to build resilience against future storms and strategically support the business long-term. The CHRO recipe for stability is to have enough thought space to notice both micro and macro change and enough clout to get the resources needed to prepare for the future.

See also: Google’s plan for expanding opportunity and access in the future of work

HRE: You started your career in education. Are there any early lessons learned in that field that have helped shape your approach to HR today?

Bass Sherizen: There are such profound lessons that you learn as a teacher. My first lesson was in humility. I went into teaching with fantasies of being every student’s favorite teacher and being loved by parents, fellow teachers and students alike. On my first day of school, one of my students came up to me and told me in quite crude language that they didn’t think I was worth much and would never survive at that school.

I didn’t agree with either assessment, and I did quite well as a teacher at that school, but his comments were a moment of realization that my experience as a teacher really wasn’t about me—or my comfort or who liked me. It was about making a meaningful difference in the lives of my students. I’ve tried to take that humility with me into all of the different jobs that I’ve had since then. I work not to be liked or to have something to do or even to pay for life but, ideally, to be in service of something worthwhile and meaningful—something that is bigger than me.

HRE: Outside of work, what or who motivates you?

Bass Sherizen: It would be hard to capture all of the things that motivate me outside of work. As I touched on earlier, I’m fascinated by the different community-led movements that are progressing on our planet right now, so a lot of what motivates me is seeing how people are coming together and working through adversity to address and solve important problems.

For example, I know some people who are doing impactful climate justice and others who are making profound inroads in building racial equity; this is work I believe has the power to last beyond their own efforts and into future generations. It’s incredibly motivating.

More personally, I’m deeply motivated by being a mother. Becoming a mother was a dream of mine from the time I was a young girl, and realizing that dream was a challenging journey that took a lot of hard work. On the upside, this journey gave me a lot of time to think about who I want to be as a mother and to try to build a life that would enable me to show up as an employee and as a parent.

It’s incredibly hard to do that—10 times harder than I imagined! Every day, I am inspired by the millions of other caregiving workers who are finding ways to do all the things—while simultaneously pushing back on the systems that unfairly ask us to do all the things.

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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].