Episode 256: The Role of the CHRO in the First 90 Days

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Episode 256: The Role of the CHRO in the First 90 Days

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Welcome to the Workology Podcast, a podcast for the disruptive workplace leader. Join host Jessica Miller-Merrell, founder of Workology.com, as she sits down and gets to the bottom of trends, tools and case studies for the business leader, H.R. and recruiting professional who is tired of the status quo. Now, here’s Jessica with this episode of Workology.

Episode 256: The Role of the CHRO in the First 90 Days with Michelle Mitchell (@MichelleMitchell


Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:00:26.65] Welcome to the Workology podcast sponsored by Workology. Today’s podcast is part of an ongoing series on the Workology podcast, focused on the roles and responsibilities of the Chief Human Resources Officer, or CHRO. The CHRO is an executive or C-level role that deals with managing human resources, as well as organizational development and implementing policies of change to improve the overall efficiency of the company. This CHRO podcast series is powered by HUB International. According to a 2019 survey from Korn Ferry, when it comes to see HRO valuable workplace experience, the most valuable experience that CHROs can have in their careers is on the focus of transformation. In fact, 45 percent of Korn Ferry’s CHRO said that working at a company going through a transformation was the most valuable, followed by strategic thinking. Strategic thinking is one of the most important capability gaps. So we’re going to dive in to some great conversation and content focused on strategic thinking along with different capability gaps. Today, I’m joined by Michelle Mitchell. She’s the Chief Human Resources Officer at Aryaka Networks. Michelle has two decades of experience, but her role at Aryaka is a new one. And we’ll talk about what her first hundred days on the job has looked like and what she’s been focused on. Michelle. Welcome to the Workology podcast.

Michelle Mitchell: [00:02:01.24] Thank you, Jessica. I’m thrilled to have been asked to join and I’m excited to be here today.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:02:06.40] Let’s start with your background. You’ve been in H.R. management for more than 20 years. How did your experience and job titles evolve over time into your current role as the CHRO?

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Michelle Mitchell: [00:02:18.45] So I was a graduate of Santa Clara University, and I thought I was going to take my career immediately into the world of education, but I did not. Landing my first job with a company called Audio at the time, doing on-site Cisco recruiting and headhunting placement for them. And I knew pretty early on that I wasn’t going to be destined to be a recruiter. While I liked it, I was interested in learning more about other aspects of H.R. and I was recruited by a company called Telogy in Menlo Park to join their team in a more holistic get-your-hands-dirty and all the different avenues of H.R., so I started out as a H.R. coordinator for them, learning about benefits, compensation, employee relations, events, so many different events in human resources we never even think about that side of the house. And from there, I followed my boss actually to Riverstone Networks, worked with her as her benefits manager and lead there for seven and a half years, ultimately becoming vice president of Riverstone after she left, worked there through an IPO, very exciting time, and then ultimate an acquisition by Lucent Technologies.

Michelle Mitchell: [00:03:26.91] I left Lucent after the acquisition and had been offered a role with them, but decided pretty quickly that I’m not a big company, H.R. professional. I like to really be in touch with the employees and be able to make difference in people’s lives so I left and decided to take a year off with my children and it only lasted 10 days before I was called by Yodlee and where I spent 12 and a half years as their director and ultimately vice president of human resources for Yodlee, doing an IPO and eventually an acquisition by investment. I left them, did take an official hiatus year off work, and I just joined Aryaka Networks as their CHRO about 100 days ago.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:04:11.70] Well, welcome back.

Michelle Mitchell: [00:04:12.99] Thank you. It’s such an interesting time to try and jump in the mix, right?

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:04:17.52] Yeah. You picked a, yeah, you picked an unusual one for sure. You have such a vast experience. I don’t know very many heads of HR that have been through two IPOs and acquisitions and all these everything, so this is fascinating. I can’t wait to hear more from you during this interview. One of the things I wanted to ask because of all your various experiences, I wanted to ask about the skills and work experience that you feel are absolute requirements for a CHRO to be successful in their role today.

Michelle Mitchell: [00:04:53.85] I highlighted a couple of things while I thought about this question. And, and there’s some things that I think are really critical. It’s one obviously having integrity, right? You can’t be in the, in the head seat as a CHRO and not have integrity. You have to be very transparent with your employees. I try and be as transparent as possible. Right. So that they understand, especially working through two IPOs, which creates a lot of angst for the employee base and even more so when you’re being acquired. What’s coming? What information can we provide them quickly and responsibly? Speaking with candor. Right. Working with the employees again in the leadership team, I spend a lot of my time coaching and managing executives and teaching them and hopefully that they learn that speaking with candor, although difficult at times, does lead to the best outcome. I think it’s important that you can build trust. So one of the things that’s really interesting for me, having changed jobs after twelve and a half years and being home is coming in and building that trust with my new team here at Aryaka and obviously being a bit politically savvy is important, too, right? I’m learning very quickly who the players are within Aryaka.

Michelle Mitchell: [00:06:08.61] I am very blessed to have a CEO, Matt Carter, who was amazing to work with and one of the key reasons why I joined here. But we’ve got various degrees of experience and tenure on our leadership team, including even a founder. So learning how to navigate all of the landscape is so important.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:06:27.15] What’s the company size of Aryaka and how big is your HR team for, for those who maybe aren’t familiar with the company?

Michelle Mitchell: [00:06:34.02] So the Aryaka is a little over four hundred employees. My team here, actually in the US, so I have worldwide responsibility. My team here in the US is two and my team over in India is five and we intend to grow those in both areas. I also have responsibility for global payroll and expenses underneath my HR role as well.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:06:57.81] Global payroll. That is a whole another series of podcasts talking about it.

Michelle Mitchell: [00:07:03.36] You can call me on that one next.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:07:05.43] All right. I might take you up on that. So you have been at Aryaka for about one hundred days and you stepped into a role of CHRO during the pandemic. What has been your focus during your first 90 days?

Michelle Mitchell: [00:07:23.13] I was really lucky during my interviewing process, so all of my interviews were on Zoom, so very interesting to go through where you don’t meet senior leadership or your board members. You’re meeting them on a Zoom here and there, having not even stepped into the Aryaka offices. But I was very fortunate that they were all very clear with me what the CHRO at Aryaka needed in the first 90 days or so. So I’ve had a very clear direction on talent acquisition. Luckily, our benefits have been amazing. And we’re also working through a lot of initiatives in compensation, market level, bringing in surveys and data. I tend to be a very data-focused H.R. executive. The results are there, so let’s go find them. I’ve got some performance and also some training components that I need to look into, but those will be probably in my second hundred days.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:08:16.83] You mentioned when we spoke previously and our prep call and you talked about it here, that you took a hiatus from work before joining Aryaka. Can you talk a bit about this period of time and how you felt like taking time off work, a sabbatical has impacted your career negative or positively?

Michelle Mitchell: [00:08:37.35] Absolutely. So I think one hundred percent has impacted me positively, having worked nearly 20 years without a break, being a family person, working mom here and in San Mateo, I’ve always done that juggling balance between my kids who are five three of them and my career. And I’ve been very successful at that, growing quickly throughout my time. So that year off, I think, renewed my passion and enthusiasm for human resources, not that it ever really wavered. I also spent time during that hiatus in the classroom, which was my original passion, what I thought I was going to graduate and do. And it reinforced for me that I’m a better H.R. professional than I ever would be a teacher. So I think that it really brought me home to where I knew I wanted to land and focus my opportunities on and my career, getting the opportunity to collaborate with people to bring in change, to help them be successful. My number one focus is I never want employees spending time on things that aren’t job-focused. If their benefits aren’t working well, that they’re worried about compensation, if they’re worried about employee relations, I want them to bring that to me. That’s something that my team should be worrying about for them. They need to be focused on the job. So I think that you’re off really honed in on making sure that that was still what I was passionate about and where I wanted to make sure I could make an impact and joining Aryaka.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:10:07.98] I just feel like it speaks volumes because you are taking time off work, focused on the family, giving yourself a mental and physical break. And it just says to me that you really value personal time, mental health and wellness. And these are all things I think right now, given our current situation, the world we’re in, we really need more of.

Michelle Mitchell: [00:10:32.13] It’s absolutely true. And I think one of the things that I have really decided when I joined Aryaka and started looking at new companies, I knew that what was going to be one of the things that I wanted to make a difference in and bring to a company, either enhance if they already had it or bring it entirely, if not new, was this focus around mental health. Joining in a pandemic, having spent that year with my family, watching my friends and other family members navigate this strange new world and really focused on really what’s up and coming for us, our children are our next phase of the workforce and they’ve had a dramatic change to what they are seeing and how they’re living, zooming in from home, not seeing their friends. I always joke that sometimes some of my human resources experiences are people that I’ve ever wondered if they played well in the sandbox with others, because I wonder if when they’re arguing in the workplace, did they ever have to share a ball or play tag or do other things? And now I’m looking at these kids across the country that can’t do those things and so really focused on mental health, making sure our employees felt like they had the resources available to them. And we were really lucky here at Aryaka. We did have a lot of resources already in place, but we weren’t leveraging them. So we’ve been really making sure that we communicate, put out information, make sure our hotlines are open, and ensuring that not only the employees, but their families have the opportunity to make sure that they feel empowered to help themselves or anyone during this time.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:12:13.47] I love that you said families, because sometimes I think we forget, we just think, oh, you know, employee, we don’t think about their kids or partners or whoever might be living or is part of that nuclear unit. So your guy’s focus on that, I think is one that other companies should be really taking a stronger, harder look at.

Michelle Mitchell: [00:12:36.30] It’s interesting, Jessica, that you say that. So I’ve talked with friends in the industry and, and obviously colleagues and folks. And it’s interesting, I have talked to several people that say that they absolutely do not feel that their families or anyone can be seen in their Zooms and the magnified stress that that provides when everybody’s working from home. And I’ll tell you here at Aryaka, like I’ve been on the phone with someone and their five-year-old, has run through and I was like, can I get an introduction? And you can see the level of stress and the deep breath that comes in place for that employee because. Right. They’re probably nervous. They’re on the phone with the CHRO. They’re on Zoom. Their child has run through. The dog has barked. Something has happened. And my goal is to de-escalate that situation and provide a level of comfort. I’ve been there. We have a brand-new puppy at home. I have three kids. It happens. So that’s the reality. And I and I hate to hear for other people the extra stress that that brings when they feel like that incident can’t happen for them. They’re so paranoid about what could happen on their Zoom. They’re shutting doors. They’re locking themselves in. You become even more remote in a remote situation.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:13:51.21] I couldn’t work for a company like that just just personally. And I can’t I don’t expect my team to, to have to operate like that. That’s just life. And it’s it hurts me to hear that people are having to work that way. It really does.

Michelle Mitchell: [00:14:10.26] Well, I feel very fortunate, again, to bring this to Aryaka and be able to ensure that that’s the culture that we’re leading with now, that life, that life happens. We are all part of a bigger thing than just growing Aryaka. We’re part of our families. We’re part of our communities.

Break: [00:14:28.80] Let’s take a reset. This is Jessica Miller-Merrell and you are listening to the Workology podcast sponsored by Workology. Today, we’re talking about strategic, decision-making in human resources with CHRO Michelle Mitchell. Now, this podcast is part of our CHRO series, and it is powered by HUB International.

Break: [00:14:50.25] This episode is sponsored by HUB International. Your full-service employee benefits broker, HUB International helps you power forward with a tailored employee benefit strategy that evolves and adapts to new workforce challenges, personalized benefits, engage employees and manage costs. Visit HUBInternational.com today.

Getting a Ranking on ‘Great Places to Work’


Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:15:15.72] Talk to me about onboarding, because you’re a new employee being onboarded during a pandemic. What has that looked like for you and maybe new people that are joining the organization?

Michelle Mitchell: [00:15:29.21] Well, as you can imagine, our onboarding process is 100 percent remote, computers are shipped out to employees. And one of the things that I’ve done since coming on board is wanted to streamline that and get messages out from that the CEO welcoming messages, so we’re building in also a new manager’s expectation of what that first week should look like from a distance, you know, making sure they get added. You know, I had the experience of obviously, like you said, being onboarded and I didn’t even know what meetings to ask for. And so I get pinged every so often, like, oh, you’re not on the group sales call and I was like, I didn’t know about the sales call.

Michelle Mitchell: [00:16:12.98] So trying to make sure that everybody in the onboarding process now has all of the information and the tools that they need within the first twenty-four to forty-eight hours, and also that they have a bloody contact within the company. We’re adding that element to our onboarding because while typically you might have a buddy assigned to go to lunch that first week, who’s going to touch base with you while you’re working remotely another name and face that you can tie into and ask questions? And eventually, we’ll hopefully go back to a place where we can do some more recordings of our leadership team and more trainings that we can get blasted out to the employees in the first week.

Michelle Mitchell: [00:16:53.42] But it is a difficult time to onboard when the computer is being sent to you. But I think Aryaka does an excellent job. We onboard on Mondays. I have a gentleman by the name of Dennis who does a lovely Zoom and training and resources for you. So but there’s a lot of improvement that can be done on the onboarding side, especially when we don’t see a line of sight to coming back to the offices to sit.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:17:17.24] And when do you think that your you guys are planning on coming back to the office?

Michelle Mitchell: [00:17:21.74] We right now we’re looking at the pandemic on a rolling six-month basis. So when I joined Aryaka, the scheduled time to return was January 2021. I know many companies out here in the Bay Area have already called, not returning until July of 2021, and I just couldn’t do that yet. So starting in October, we’re looking at it every rolling quarter. So we already have pushed to April 2021 and didn’t have it in my heart to call July yet. And then in January we will make a decision if April will hold pending in the pandemic and where we’re at, or if we will start to push again until July. One of the reasons, again, allowing our families and our employees time to figure out what returning would look like. Do they have adequate care at home, how secure they’re going to be so trying to give enough notice to what it would look like when we do return.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:18:17.42] Thank you for sharing, because I know that a lot of HR people are, are unsure what this is supposed to look like. And I feel like you guys have a pretty good system in place that’s that’s worth sharing with others.

Michelle Mitchell: [00:18:30.16] I think I probably am more well-read on the virus and the CDC and certainly the changes that are happening with Dale County than I probably normally would be. But I think it’s really important so that everyone knows that somebody at the company is monitoring it. And obviously the health and safety returning our employees is so important. We know we’re probably, when we do return, going to be in a situation where social distancing and masks and, you know, we just moved across the street since I joined. So I’m sitting in a new office that actually would not accommodate two people under the current regulations for social distancing. So how does so I am in an office, but I couldn’t have a second person in here with me now. So how do we make sure that we’re adhering to all those things is really top of mind.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:19:19.06] It’s going to be a whole new world when we do go back to the office. One of the other questions I wanted to ask you about is because right this minute, as we were recording this, many of us are going through annual benefits enrollment right now. How does that work for you guys? And what is important in terms of benefits that you’re seeing for your employees moving forward?

Michelle Mitchell: [00:19:43.03] So, yes, we just closed our annual open enrollment. We luckily have a phenomenal set of benefits here at Aryaka so really well done on the two lines of health care coverage. So Kaiser for United, we have an offering for our vision plan and dental. We didn’t have to do too much this year. We did, of course, make sure that the mental health aspects were in place offering in any additional things that we could do for the employees, making sure coverage levels were high enough office visits or virtual visits. But we didn’t have to change too many things. We have a really good program in place and making sure we did not change employee contributions. We didn’t feel that this was the year knowing that some of our employees had spouses or partners had lost jobs. Our contribution schedule has remained the same and actually it’s been the same contribution schedule for the last five years. So being able to offer the increase in coverage without increasing the employee contribution has been great.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:20:55.09] One of the things I wanted to make sure to ask you during this interview is that Aryaka was named one of the great places to work in the US. And right now you’re working on getting certified for all your employees globally. Can you talk a little bit about the certification process and, and how that works for you and your company?

Michelle Mitchell: [00:21:16.81] Yes, it is. We are. Our survey actually closes on Friday. We were certified as a US company last year, so it was exciting to come in and join Aryaka and see that we have been named a great place to work. But what was important to me in the recertification process was making sure that we did that worldwide. We have already, as of today, over 80 percent participation in the Great Places to Work survey. And the way I look at the survey opportunities for us is one not also for brand and all the pomp and circumstance that comes with being named as a great place to work, but also internally using it as an engagement survey.

Michelle Mitchell: [00:22:02.47] So there’s a lot of great questions in there that you can tie in based upon region and employee classification and really start to drill in on things that you could improve on. So we are using it in two different ways, one for the branding and the recognition, but also internally so that we can see how the pulse of the company is. What are we doing right? What can we improve upon? Last year we made three strategic improvements. One was to our training and development program. One was to corporate communication. We added town hall meetings and one was to adding a work from Home Office policy. So we do look at the survey and we will expect that once our results are in, that we will continue to make changes as the voice of the employees have spoken to us.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:22:53.14] I love that you’re using the survey as a regular employee survey. I don’t think everybody looks at it that way. They’re like, oh, I want to get on this list and I want all the recognition, not necessarily leading with, oh, how do I make changes to my organization and use it to hear the voice of the employees?

Michelle Mitchell: [00:23:12.22] I think it’s really important and what I look at and in all of the tools that I purchase. Right. H.R. has not typically the largest budget in organizations. And so how can I use things for dual purpose? Right? Not only that certification but for engagement as well, what other tools do I have out there? I joked with my finance team the other day because I was trying to get things into the budget and they wanted me to. What do you want to swap, Michelle? How do you want to make changes within your budget? And I’m like, I’m not marketing. I don’t have programs and initiatives.

Michelle Mitchell: [00:23:49.35] I have a pretty finite budget and I can only do so much. So it was great to take this and take a different lens and look at how you can use it as an engagement tool. I think it’s a great opportunity and hopefully, maybe others will take a different lens and look at it that way.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:24:07.08] That’s why I wanted to make sure we asked we talked about the Great Places to work survey, because I don’t think everybody looks at it that way. But, and I think this is so smart. Like you said, it’s dual purpose. It’s putting some extra dollars back into your budget to maybe use them in different areas.

Michelle Mitchell: [00:24:25.66] Yeah, I think HR budgets are tough and times are always tight and finding ways that you can maximize. And at the end of the day, being able to deliver something to your employees is my end goal at every time I’m looking at a budget move so it’s really important.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:24:41.61] Well, thank you so much, Michelle, for, for taking the time to talk with us today on your first podcast interview. We were joking before we, we started recording. So you did great. And.

Michelle Mitchell: [00:24:52.08] Thank you.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:24:52.86] I wanted to ask where people can go to connect with you and also learn more about Aryaka.

Michelle Mitchell: [00:24:59.64] Perfect. I am up to date on LinkedIn. So again then Michelle Mitchell at Aryaka on my LinkedIn profile. So I would love to connect with anyone and share experiences and opportunities as we all navigate not only the world of HR but the world of HR during the pandemic.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:25:18.96] We’re all in this together. I know that sounds cliche, but in H.R., I think there’s a small group of us that are all in this together because we all have the job as an H.R. leader for organizations.

Michelle Mitchell: [00:25:31.11] Great.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:25:31.68] Well, thank you again. I really appreciate your time and all this great resources and knowledge and stories I’ve been able to share super helpful to anyone currently in a senior HR role or aspiring to move into a role within their organization or outside.

Michelle Mitchell: [00:25:49.41] Great. Well, thank you again and thank you to the Workology podcast.

Closing: [00:25:53.28] I love Michelle’s organizational focus and her interest in mental health. So many of us are going through and still going through massive personal and professional change, some of it related to covid and the pandemic that we’re currently experiencing and others because of just life. You know, there have been so many changes in the past decade, especially in human resources, but I feel like we’ve never lost our focus. And right now that focus is on people. HR teams are now being formed around an executive level role, like the CHRO or Chief People Officer who are more connected to strategy and operations of the overall business. I appreciate Michelle taking the time to share her experience with us today. Thank you for joining the Workology podcast sponsored by Workology. This is part of our CHRO series and it is powered by our friends at HUB International. This podcast is for the disruptive workplace leader who’s tired of the status quo. My name is Jessica Miller-Merrell. Until next time, visit Workology.com to listen to all our previous podcast episodes.

Closing: [00:26:58.77] Are you studying for your HRCI or SHRM exams? Join our free H.R. Certification Study Group on Facebook, search for HR Certification Study Group, or go to HRCertificationStudyGroup.com. ACE your H.R. exams with the H.R. Certification Study Group.

Connect with Michell Mitchell.



– Michelle Mitchell on LinkedIn

– Aryaka Networks Twitter

– CHRO Job Description

– Great Places to Work 

– List of Company Culture Awards and Recognition 

– Your Guide to the HR Organization and Team Structures  

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