Why ‘just keep swimming’ became the 2020 mantra for this CHRO

Appian Corp. CHRO Dawn Mitchell says HR’s resilience through this year’s obstacles has been impressive.
By: | January 6, 2021 • 5 min read

A Disney movie tagline may not immediately come to mind as the motivator of HR’s work through the ups and downs of 2020, but for Dawn Mitchell, vice president of HR at cloud computing company Appian Corp., that’s exactly what kept her going. As the mother of two young kids, Mitchell says Finding Nemo’s iconic “Just keep swimming” refrain—which, in the movie, centers on the main characters’ quest across an ocean full of obstacles to find a lost child—immediately sprang to mind when she considered how she approached the onslaught of challenges this year brought.

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“You’ve just got to keep swimming and keep moving and figure it out as you go,” she says.

From transitioning Appian’s 1,500-person global workforce to all-remote in March to creating new modes of communication and collaboration, Mitchell notes that, while 2020 has brought considerable changes to HR, it has also illuminated its future: as a function that plays a vital, strategic role in business operations, while also supporting employees in an empathetic and authentic way. Mitchell, who has been with Appian for four years and previously led talent acquisition and recruiting at Opower and Red Hat, spoke with HRE about lessons learned in 2020, and how she plans to bring them forward to support Appian’s employees next year.

HRE: What initially sparked your interest in HR?

Dawn Mitchell

Mitchell: I came up through talent acquisition and really fell in love with employer branding. That sparked my interest in HR because it’s about selling a candidate on the culture—but the sell has to be authentic and it has to match the employee experience. I don’t think I was fully sold on traditional HR, but when I saw it through that lens—and wanting to make sure the experience I was selling was matching the experience employees were having—that kind of opened me up to a broader HR role.

HRE: Prior to 2020, what was the biggest change in the HR industry you had seen during your career?

Mitchell: Having a seat at the table, being at the executive level and viewing talent as talent—seeing people not as a commodity but recognizing that they have feelings, thoughts and backgrounds, and all that comes into the workplace. And that really being an executive-level conversation.

HRE: When the pandemic began, what was your first priority? How has that changed today?

Mitchell: It was focused on safety, communication and community. It really hasn’t changed from those three. Ensuring our employees are safe. Ensuring they’re getting what they need from us and we’re communicating effectively now that we’re dispersed. And community—how do we take this culture and ensure it sustains in a virtual format?

HRE: What has Appian done to ensure an engaged workforce, despite the disruptions of [2020]?

Mitchell: I mentioned communication; we did a lot of work there. That’s been our focus. How do we take the hallway conversations or across-the-cube conversations and ensure that sustains? That gets down to productivity. We instituted bi-weekly, not monthly, CEO livestreams. We updated our intranet to ensure employees were getting the communication they needed. We leaned heavily into chatrooms as an organization to ensure that sense of community sustained. That’s where a lot of our efforts were focused. And then ensuring our managers are leading with empathy.

HRE: Has the pandemic, and the other challenges of 2020, impacted how Appian approaches culture?

Mitchell: Kind of. I say kind of because it’s such an unknown. We were a very sticky, in-office, celebratory culture. It’s a year where people are tired—too many video conferences kind of has the opposite effect. So, we’re getting creative through how our affinity groups engage, how our perks are differentiated and how we celebrate. We have an upcoming, virtual end-of-year celebration so we’re trying to pivot the ways in which we used to come together in this virtual format. We’re trying to get creative.

HRE: In general, what do you think was HR’s shining moment in 2020? And where could HR leaders have done better this year?

Mitchell: I think talking openly about taboo topics: work/life balance, mental health. That’s where HR leaders really shined this year. I don’t have a good answer on what they could have done better because I feel like it was a year of unknowns so it’s hard to look back and say, “We could’ve done this better or we could’ve done that better.” I think just being in the moment and authentic has been the shining moment.

See also: If you’re not prioritizing mental health, you’re ‘missing the boat’

HRE: What will the world of work look like in 2021?

Mitchell: I’d say flexibility. That’s going to be the ask. My guess is it will be 18 months when we can really start to talk about being back together, and [employees] are going to want flexibility.

HRE: What do you think are three skills HR leaders should focus on in order to tackle the challenges to come in 2021?

Mitchell: Communication. Corporate communications is often a function that floats but I think it’s imperative that HR, if they aren’t owning it, that they have a hand in it and they understand how to effectively communicate. How to collaborate with your business partners to ensure you’re meeting the needs of your stakeholders. Then I would say technical aptitude is also an area of focus.

HRE: What emerging technologies should HR leaders have on their radar that can support success in the new world of work?

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Mitchell: I don’t know if there’s one tool but, knowing that we’re going into another uncertain year, [it’s important to be] doing everything you can to automate and integrate your system so that your HR folks can be present with employees and spend more time live with them than in systems and spreadsheets. Look to enhance your offerings and ensure as much is being automated as can be automated so you can do the true work of HR.

HRE: Outside of work, what are you passionate about?

Mitchell: I have kids, so they’re cute. I’m passionate about them. I really like Bravo TV; it’s how I unwind at the end of the night. I got into gardening, as I think most people did. That’s a fun area—not during winter but in the warmer months.

HRE: What was your first job?

Mitchell: My first job was at Linens ’n Things in college if you remember that. I was running the bedding and bath department. So, I can fold a fitted sheet. It’s quite a skill.

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 hreletters@lrp.com.

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