The HR strategies this tech CHRO says will drive global growth

A chance, poor encounter with an HR leader decades ago showed Clarissa O’Connell what a good HR professional should—and shouldn’t—be. It also set her down a path that now has her leading HR strategies for the world’s leading provider of clean code solutions. Working with 7 million developers around the globe, Sonar aims to help businesses build high-quality, responsible code, eliminating inefficiencies and driving productivity.

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Those also are goals that O’Connell—who joined the Switzerland-based company with an Austin, Texas, headquarters earlier this year—has for Sonar’s internal population. The organization is rife with opportunities for an HR leader, including a new co-CEO model that has “intrigued” O’Connell and the chance to help scale the company through rapid growth. O’Connell’s team is working to revamp internal HR processes that will position Sonar for success as it grows, including efforts to maintain culture and embrace emerging technology.

O’Connell—who most recently held HR leadership roles at companies including ClearDATA and—shared with HRE the “behind the scenes” work her team is working on to drive Sonar’s continued growth.

HRE: How are you looking to AI to drive HR strategies at the organization?

Clarissa O'Connell, SonarO’Connell: We just kicked off a really big initiative to figure out how we can leverage that technology better internally than what we are now. We use AI to help improve our processes and our employee experience for things like simple benefits questions and, of course, through our recruiting process so that we can get those quality candidates in the door and make an impact here at Sonar faster.

HRE: Where are your discussions around employee use of AI at work?

O’Connell: Working with developers, they started thinking about that months ago. So, the short answer is yes, we do have some guidelines in place specifically for our internal processes, and what we call our “Mission Control Department“—the teams that manage the business. Our developers aren’t using AI at this point, but it’s all a work in progress that we’re talking about. The policies are already there, and we’re constantly looking to make sure that they’re the most efficient.

Learn how global organizations are leveraging AI for HR strategies at HRE‘s upcoming HR Technology Europe, May 2-3 in Amsterdam. Click here to register.

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HRE: Beyond emerging technology, what would you say is the most disruptive factor in the HR space today?

O’Connell: There are quite a few things that disrupt us on a regular basis. We’re a global company, so we are constantly having to ebb and flow our processes to make sure that we’re treating our employees the way that they would want to be treated in all of our global markets, while still ensuring that the processes that we have are concise and equitable. Just like everyone else, we’re really having a lot of openings and are looking for the best possible people. And we’re trying to give the best possible employee experience to those individuals in a way that aligns with our internal culture. That’s really disruptive, to have openings and try and find that right person in a timely manner.

And then, of course, we’re scaling and we’re growing, so we’re changing things internally from the way that we used to do them when we were a smaller company. And now we’re 500 people—soon to be significantly more—so we’re really building the processes behind the scenes to make sure that we’re not losing who we are as a company and are maintaining that culture.

HRE: What are you anticipating will be some of the biggest changes to Sonar’s recruiting strategy as it leans into continued growth?

O’Connell: Right now, we have a pretty good combination of practices, including proactively finding people we think would be good matches here and leveraging an internal system that uses referrals. We are actively posting and networking with multiple entities throughout our markets, and we’re really going to need to start to expand that footprint so we can continue to find those people who can help us scale and grow. We’re doing that in multiple ways by opening in new markets and expanding our viewpoint beyond just where we’re located—making sure that we’re hiring the best people regardless of their location. We want really great people, and those aren’t always in the same cities that we’re in.

HRE: As you gear up for this next stage of growth, how are you working to align HR strategies with business strategies?

O’Connell: That was one of the things that really made me excited to come work for this company: the really strong power of transparency here. We have a collaborative group that meets once a week and then a second tier of leaders that meets every six weeks. We message things down through regular all-hands, and we use multiple formats internally to share and ask for feedback.

That really allows individuals to understand where we’re going and what we’re working on so that they can understand that when they come into work every day, the work they’re doing is tied directly to what the company is trying to accomplish. We also are really proud of our open-door policy: You can reach out to anybody, at any point, for any reason, and you don’t need to ask for permission. We openly talk about the things that we’re doing—both positive and things that are works in progress—so that everybody is aligned and understanding where we’re going.

HRE: As a global organization, how do you think having those connections all around the world fuels and perhaps challenges the organizational culture?

O’Connell: We spend a lot of time and energy making sure that we understand each other—through onboarding, training, cultural training—so we know what the nuances are in each of our markets. We have a robust set of policies and procedures that identify how we communicate with each other and the ways that we would prefer that we work together, and feedback on that has been really excellent.

We’re constantly going back and looking at that on a regular basis. We also have a really tremendous policy where we allow every employee within the company to travel to other offices to interact with their peers and partners. It’s not abnormal for somebody to put in a request to go to, say, Geneva or Singapore, or likewise for those individuals to come here. That really allows us to spend more time together but also to spend off-work time to get to know who we are as people and co-workers.

HRE: What are the biggest influences in your life that shaped who you are as an HR leader?

O’Connell: I didn’t go to college to be an HR person, I went to college for something completely different and got my first job and, honestly, just had a terrible experience. I actually went to an HR leader at the company where I worked, and it was, to this day, probably the worst interaction I’ve ever had in my career.

I left that meeting, and I thought, “I could be better than that. I could treat people the way they need to be treated.” And I immediately left, fell back onto my minor, which was human resources, and I’ve been in the career field ever since. I’ve really been able to take that negative experience and focus on how I wanted to lead by example and truly be more of a partner and an advocate for both employees and a culture driver. I feel really fortunate that I’ve been able to hit some of those high bars for myself at the companies that I’ve been able to work for.

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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].