How a legal background helped this leader build a new HR function
Hoyun Kim didn’t take the traditional career path into HR.
With a law degree from George Washington University, Kim spent several years as a senior associate attorney at a D.C. area firm, focusing on commercial transactions and litigation, financial reorganization and bankruptcy cases. She went on to co-found a digital media strategy company and later became general counsel for a global information services firm.
It was at that company that Kim made her foray into HR, after first turning down the offer out of fear she wasn’t qualified—but eventually coming to see the parallels between managing a people function and her own diverse career history. Then in 2016, Kim fused her legal and HR backgrounds to become the chief legal and people officer and corporate secretary of ExecOnline, an ed-tech company.
At the time, the company was quite young—so Kim had the opportunity to build the HR organization from the ground up. She recently shared with us what that experience was like.
HRE: What were some of the early HR challenges you faced when you took on the CHRO position?
Kim: ExecOnline was only three years old when I joined; I came to the company as the first and only HR hire, so I was both leader and staff. During the early days of any business, bigger ideas have to incubate and mature while you deal with everyday tactical needs—hiring fast, onboarding fast and solving problems.
And, of course, in the beginning, you don’t have a lot of tools to help you do these things. I was eager to get to a place where we could engage in longer-term planning, think about employer branding and engage with employees in a more meaningful way. Things started to change as I grew a small team of really smart, ambitious people who wanted to build things with me. We had that great start-up energy in the company, and my peers on the senior management team were very receptive to our ideas, which gave my team a lot of confidence and early opportunity to be a part of the growth story.
HRE: How has the pandemic impacted your priorities as CHRO?
Kim: Because our company is in the business of providing online learning, the shift to remote work was fairly organic for us. We were in many ways “business as usual” from the start. But what I didn’t fully appreciate until later was how much of my pre-pandemic focus and energy went into working with our staff and employees on things that surfaced through casual and accidental observations and interactions.
I’ve had to shift to making more deliberate efforts to take the pulse of teams and individuals, to get a read on how things are going for people and what concerns they have. In this environment, more junior-level people can miss out on opportunities to connect with people outside of their functions, and benefit from the informal mentoring that comes from conversations with more experienced people who are in roles they have an interest in or who have a perspective that can help them think about their career paths.
Inspiration and influence on that personal level don’t jump off the pages of a meeting agenda. You have to bump into people, and you can still do that virtually. Every interaction doesn’t have to be on the calendar.
HRE: How has ExecOnline sought to embed diversity, equity and inclusion across your people practices? And have you pursued new initiatives or programs in the last year in this area?
Kim: Our business is rooted in the realization that high-quality leadership development has traditionally been available to a very narrow set of people. In turn, the company’s DE&I mission is part of our foundation and purpose. But we still recognize the need to examine our own performance.
This past year, our talent acquisition team initiated an effort with our data expert to dig into our own employee data to identify areas where we were doing well and areas where we need to improve. The study yielded some interesting insight that we wouldn’t have if we hadn’t put ourselves through that microscope.
On the culture side, we developed new practices to include everyone in the DE&I effort. We turned what used to be our anti-harassment training into a newly themed “Inclusive Workplace Awareness Week.” The interactive training sessions gave people space to tell their own stories, and it culminated in a town hall at the end of the week (we’ve learned that the town hall format in general has worked well for us this past year).
We also held town hall meetings to discuss the impact of COVID-19 and later to talk about racial justice after the killing of George Floyd.
HRE: Your career has blended both legal and HR responsibilities. How do your skill sets in both areas complement one another?
Kim: Legal and HR are increasingly integrated functions, and I’ve led both functions at two different companies for almost a decade, so it feels somewhat natural. When the two functions were still under separate management at my last company when I served as general counsel, I of course had frequent interactions with the HR team. In some situations, we represented different interests, and I still sometimes do that balancing act of considering the different points of view as if I were two different people.
This means that I talk to myself quite a bit, but luckily, I have inside and outside advisors to turn to when I need to break through stalemates in my own mind. I like to believe that, with the dual role, I somewhat humanize the legal perspective on employee relations, and make the people function smarter when it comes to our legal responsibilities.
HRE: Is there any advice you received early in your career that still resonates with you today?
Kim: My work in HR started later in my career, after I’d been a lawyer for many years. When I was first asked to lead the HR function, I declined the offer on the basis that I didn’t have the experience in HR to be credible as a leader. Then I spoke to my friend Charlie Jacobs, who wrote the book Management Rewired, which looks at people management through the lens of neuroscience and challenges old assumptions about what motivates people. I told him I didn’t want the job because I didn’t have the full toolbox of methods for running HR. He confidently replied that this might be a really good thing because I wouldn’t adhere to traditional ideas just because they were well-established, that I would question old notions, be thoughtful and bring my own fresh ideas to the profession. I think about that conversation whenever I start to doubt my instincts.
HRE: Outside of work, what are you passionate about?
Kim: I’ve always been obsessed with technology that makes life easier and more fun. I even spent a few years working in consumer technology marketing, which was a blast and an incredible learning experience. Mostly what I learned in those years is that I love learning new things, and maybe that was the spark that eventually led me here, to a learning company. My latest tech discovery is virtual reality fitness games. I’ve never been a gamer, and I’ve never been a fitness addict, but suddenly I’m a little bit of both. My 11- year-old nephew has the same VR headset as I do and we talk about it endlessly. It’s ridiculous.