Rising Star finds success building an HR function from the ground up

It’s not every day that an HR director is also a country leader and a company spokesperson who is well-versed on cybersecurity issues. Nor do many have a career trajectory that took them from a Fortune 500 firm to the wild world of tech start-ups.

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That’s just part of Mafalda Garcês’ career story, which landed her at cybersecurity company Dashlane three years ago. She’s people director for worldwide customer support operations and L&D, as well as interim leader of the global talent acquisition operations—and now, one of HRE’s Rising Stars of HR for 2022.

The password management and digital wallet app developer, based in New York and with operations in France, hired Garcês to set up operations in Portugal from scratch. Now, she not only runs the Lisbon-based operations from A to Z but has become an oft-quoted thought leader on cybersecurity.

Mafalda Garcês’ Dashlane
Mafalda Garcês’

“Mafalda’s ability to wear multiple hats, execute on complex projects at the same time and drive results make her a phenomenal Rising Star award recipient,” says Rising Stars judge John Klein, a talent acquisition strategic consultant operating in San Jose and Reno and a 2021 Rising Stars winner.

Road to diverse responsibilities

After earning a master’s in social and organizational psychology, Garcês worked as an HR business partner at RAY Human Capital in Portugal and then joined Philip Morris International (PMI) as a management and organizational development and talent acquisition executive.

“It was always my dream to work in a big company, and I don’t think we can get much bigger than PMI,” she says.

There, she learned the importance of developing HR processes with clear outcomes that can be rolled out across a wide organization. Then, she was recruited to be an HR business partner at a growing French tech company called Webhelp.

Greatest accomplishment: Developing extensive national and international expansions for three different tech companies, growing from them from one to about 500 employees while earning top engagement scores in the organizations. Additionally, Garcês says, she’s particularly proud of developing HR team members from internships to senior-level professionals.

“I decided to take the leap of faith of joining a start-up,” she says. “What I brought with me was the ability to actually know what processes exist out there, having learned from the best, and being able to help others think about what makes sense for their business so we can create something together.”

As HR business partner at Webhelp, she scaled up the company’s Portuguese operations from two to more than 500 people working in three offices and managed the TA team. She also became a trusted advisor to senior leadership and even customers.

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She took those experiences and helped expand another tech start-up in Portugal—Farfetch—before joining Dashlane, where she was also tasked with building a team from scratch.

A true business leader

To do justice to her role as country leader, Garcês educated herself on a wide range of cybersecurity issues and has gone on to represent Dashlane to the media, including Forbes, ITSecurity, Jornal Económico and other outlets.

Recently, she showcased the launch of a cybersecurity guide for kids in the Lisbon market, demonstrating the company’s continuous effort to educate on cybersecurity—and build Dashlane’s reputation as an employer of choice in the Portuguese start-up community.

Why the interest to become a thought leader on cybersecurity? Garcês says it stemmed, in part, from growing up in a dangerous area of Portugal and being constantly aware of physical security. Later, she considered the risks of constantly being online and went beyond her HR purview to educate herself about cybersecurity risks. And, she adds, she appreciates the need for HR professionals to also have a strong business acumen.

“I’m a firm believer that being a part of the business and not really understanding what we are doing is not viable because a huge part of what we do in HR requires building rapport and influencing others,” she says. “So, how do you influence others if you don’t understand what they are doing?”

Redesigning L&D

Elsewhere in her work, Garcês strategic and practical overhaul of Dashlane’s L&D approach was impressive, especially in light of her wide variety of other responsibilities, Klein says. “She was able to outperform by developing and implementing a new strategy: a competency-based model for L&D,” he notes.

The new plan prioritizes level- and role-specific competencies that predict success. It also features on-the-job continuous improvement through stretch assignments, internal internships and shadowing programs. Plus, managers are coached on how to give assignments that tackle a given competency.

As a result, Garcês says, Dashlaners make the most of their daily experiences and gain insight about their learnings through practice “without spending a dime,” she explains.

Garcês also led new L&D approaches that include the creation of informal groups to share internal knowledge about topics such as project management, and employees are encouraged to leverage Slack channels for learning. For instance, she says, the platform can provide a place for asking questions that tap into colleagues’ expertise and help employees learn about how to use project management tools, instead of “creating something from scratch.”

Guiding principles

In the Rising Stars nomination, Dashlane Chief People Officer Ciara Lakhani says that, in regards to her interim talent acquisition responsibility, Garcês “revolutionized the way the [TA] team worked [and] quickly pivoted recruiting capacity to align with the changes in business headcount strategy.”

In addition, she enhanced employer branding, including the launch of a career website for the company and the creation of dedicated content to target engineers. She also was integral to improving key metrics: Close time decreased from 87 days to 53, time to offer met the company’s 30-day target and candidates joining through direct outreach rose from 17% to 32%.

While she has worn many hats in addition to this TA work, Garcês reflects that she’s enjoyed the challenges that come with having a diverse range of responsibilities.

“It’s so good to be in an agile company, where you can actually ‘make the elephant dance,’” she notes. That’s different than larger companies, where “you may need to move faster, but the ‘elephant’ is so big that sometimes it takes months. But here, we are really, really agile and fast-paced.”

Looking back on her experiences, Garcês says one of her guiding principles has been doing things in a different way—and always being willing to try something new—which sums up many of her career achievements to date.

“It’s normal to be proud of things you did in the past,” Garcês concludes. “But because they worked in the past, it doesn’t mean that they will work now or in the future.”

Greatest challenge: Creating a new subsidiary that was aligned with the group’s values while retaining its own personality challenged Garcês but was also rewarding. She has also worked to conquer other people’s pre-conceived expectations of her because of her age and gender.

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Maura C. Ciccarelli
Maura Ciccarelli is freelance writer based in Southeastern Pennsylvania. She can be reached at [email protected]