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, HR, and recruiting professional who is tired of the status quo. Now, here’s Jessica with this episode of Workology.
Episode 345: The Role of the CHRO in a Not-for-Profit Organization With Paul LaLonde
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:00:26.79] Welcome to the Workology Podcast sponsored by WorkologyCouncil.com. This podcast is part of a series on the Workology Podcast focused on the roles and responsibilities of the Chief Human Resources Officer or CHRO. The CHRO is sometimes called the VP of People or the Chief People Officer, or the CPO, and it is an executive or C-level role that deals with managing human resources as well as with organizational development and implementing policies of change to improve the overall efficiency of the company. This podcast series is powered by WorkologyCouncil.com and one of the reasons why I have wanted to do this series and why I continue to do this series is because there is a lot of mystery around that CHRO role. And I want aspiring CHROs to know what type of skills and experiences they need to promote into that role in the future, along with hearing from senior HR leadership how they are partnering and collaborating with their executive peers. So today I am so excited. I am joined by Paul LaLonde. He’s the Vice President of People and Culture for CEDA, the Community Economic Development Association in Cook County, Illinois, one of the largest private non-profit community action agencies in the country. Paul is a human resource leader with over a decade of experience specializing in organizational leadership, employee learning and development, organizational structure, diversity and inclusion, and general non-profit management. I promise you’re going to love this interview. Paul, welcome to the Workology Podcast.
Paul LaLonde: [00:02:05.58] Jessica Thank you for having me here. I’m super stoked to be joining you.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:02:11.22] First off, I wanted to ask you before we get started, how big is CEDA? How many employees do you have? How many volunteers?
Paul LaLonde: [00:02:19.80] CEDA is currently sitting at around 340 employees, and we’re looking to, to expand like I think a lot of others. But currently, we’re 340 and we’re not really a volunteer organization, but we have a volunteer board of directors, people in the community that we, we survey a lot of the time, but.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:02:43.32] Perfect. I always like to ask for context in terms of organizational size. So if people are listening, they can go OK, you know, kind of, kind of their general markers based on the size. Of course, non-profit is a little bit different, and that’s a lot of what we’re going to talk about today.
Paul LaLonde: [00:03:02.55] Yeah. Excited for that. I’ve worked in not-for-profit my whole career, so it’s something I’m really obviously passionate about.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:03:09.36] Well, you transitioned from a director role to a non, at a non-profit into HR leadership at the non-profit CEDA that you’re at now. How did your early experience lead you to your current role?
Paul LaLonde: [00:03:22.77] Yeah, so, like you said, I began my professional career as a, as a program director. It was for a community transit organization. So we were the, the senior bus, for lack of a better way of really describing it. So it was really fulfilling position. But what I found most enjoyable was really interacting with my staff. So I liked the, what you would maybe call the traditional HR functions of my role and in a lot of not for profits of our size, those are sort of dispersed amongst the leaders. There isn’t really a central HR function. So I took on a lot of those and was doing them for my program. So I was hiring, policy development, training, tracking, FMLA, and all those sorts of things. So, I started using those interests to really leverage my developed skillset towards turning that experience into an official HR function where I was. So over time, I kept consolidating more and more HR under me and eventually was named the agency’s first HR director. So I used that combination of my early program director experience and the early HR experience, and it really kind of helped me leverage where I am today.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:04:43.68] I love that, and I always ask stories about how did you end up in the job that you are in now? Because I think sometimes we look at HR pros, especially those in the senior roles, and say, wow, they just, it just happened. And there’s so many things behind the scenes, a lot of hard work. And like you said, you kind of created your own role so that you could step into this now HR role that you’re in today.
Paul LaLonde: [00:05:12.38] Yeah, it was. I think one of the more I won’t say unique or things I’m super proud of that I was able to really craft my own destiny in a lot of ways. I was very lucky to be able to do that. Now, where I am at now, I am only focused on human resources in the People Department. But where I was prior, even though I was the first HR director and heading that at a lot smaller community-based not-for-profits, they don’t have all those resources, right? So I was wearing buzzword multiple hats, right? So I really wanted to focus only on the human resources and really develop that because that was where my passion ended up lying. So when I started putting my feelers out there and working with various recruiters, the opportunity at CEDA opened up and it just was such a great fit. And again, lucky to have leveraged those early skills to make that transition more successful where I am now.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:06:12.41] I wanted to ask you, what skills and experience do you believe are absolute requirements for a VP of People or a Chief HR Officer role, especially thinking about someone who’s just starting out in the industry?
Paul LaLonde: [00:06:27.39] Yeah. There’s, when I was thinking about this question, there are three that really have served me and I think that they can serve anybody if they take them seriously in helping to develop them along their HR journey. But the first for me is non-negotiable. It’s compassion, you know, without the ability to really feel for others, the genuine want to help solve their issues and put the greatest good above all else. Nothing else really matters in my opinion. So that starts with empathy. But I’m starting to learn and believe that empathy isn’t enough. You know, empathy is. I feel your pain, but compassion is how can I help relieve your pain? So if you’re a Chief People Officer or a Chief Human Resource Officer or whatever at the top, all those things have “people,” “human” in them, so we can’t forget about that. Number two to me is having a strategic thought process. A lot of people, I think, act without really understanding the why behind it. But to me, you have to understand the why are we acting. What are we solving for? So if you want a new benefit, you just don’t grab that benefit because it’s the shiny new thing and it’s a trend. It’s will this help us solve an issue here? Does it fit with what we’re trying to accomplish at a strategic level? So always thinking strategically. And then finally, I would say a love of learning. You know, the philosopher Heraclitus had once said, you know, no man steps in the same river twice because he’s not the same man and it’s not the same river. So change is always inevitable. And the only way to really keep up with change is to continuously learn, continuously be curious, and continuously open your mind to changing what you think you know about something. So those are the three things I think have served me incredibly well over my career.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:08:21.06] I love that and such great advice, I think for, for anyone stepping into HR or trying to grow in HR.
Paul LaLonde: [00:08:28.23] Right.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:08:29.31] Can you talk about the difference between people management in the for-profit and the non-profit arenas? Maybe for someone who’s not familiar.
Paul LaLonde: [00:08:38.31] It’s funny that this is a great question and I just came across an article just this morning, so, posted by a mentor and a professor that I still keep in contact with, and she’s head of not-for-profit studies at the university where I graduated from. So I think this is something that a lot of people are curious and interested about. But at the end of the day, managing both sectors there are differences, but overall, I think they’re much more similar than, than not, you know, in both for-profit and not-for-profit. The best ones are managed fiscally responsible, you know, at the end of the day. In both sectors, everybody has clear plans and goals and then you hold people accountable in them. You know, employees are treated with respect in both. Those are all the things that a lot of, I think not-for-profits are trying to seek and to do. But when it comes down to the differences, I think the clear one that sets most not-for-profit, not all but most not-for-profits apart from the for-profit sector is that mission. You know, every not-for-profit has a mission. They exist because there’s some ill in the world that they’re trying to, to help or overcome. So we’re attracting people that are attracted to the mission.
Paul LaLonde: [00:10:06.41] So people come in already probably a little bit more engaged, not, not in all cases, but probably a little bit more engaged than some for-profit where it’s selling something or it’s a goods and services, which to me it’s not downplaying those things. We need those goods and services to help society run, right? But there’s a clear you can tangibly talk about our mission as a not-for-profit and your work will help relieve hunger for seniors or your work will help keep individual, low-income individuals lights on during the winter in a cold Chicago winter, right? So I think that’s the number one thing. And the one thing that sets them apart is probably a sense of urgency. You know, I think decision making and, and strategy in the for-profit sector, it matters. But you almost get a sense sometimes it matters more on the mission-based part of it, because if you make the wrong decision, guess what? 100 seniors might not get that meal that day or that week. You’re letting down people trying to just live their best life kind of away. So I think there’s an added sense of pressure sometimes. But that doesn’t again, doesn’t mean that it diminishes the for-profit side of things. It’s just different.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:11:31.21] And that’s why I ask because what does different mean and look like but limited, more limited resources and maybe a different level of urgency. So along with a handful of other pretty specific differences, so, but HR itself, I feel like it still serves profit or for-profit, very similarly.
Paul LaLonde: [00:12:01.04] I mean, you bring up a good point about the resources. A lot of not-for-profits I’ve worked for or worked with as a, you know, helping them consult on the side, you know, they don’t have the resources for one HR person, let alone an HR department that other for-profits have. So they don’t have that knowledge base. They don’t know what they don’t know, so they’re unsure. Do we have to follow FMLA? Do we have to do that in these? So on the outside, sometimes they might not be run necessarily as efficiently or as effectively just based on a knowledge base, but that doesn’t mean that they still don’t get the job done and do good in the community, and those types of things. So I thought that was a good point.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:12:47.50] Yeah, well, we talked about how large the organization is in terms of size. I wanted to ask you how your team is structured in the context of operations at CEDA?
Paul LaLonde: [00:12:57.47] Yeah, I talked earlier about joining the CEDA staff. One of the things that attracted me to, to CEDA was, and very open, the CEO was very open about it, was that their HR was broken. The system was broken at CEDA and you might be saying, well, why was that exciting? Why do you want to come in? That’s just my personality. To me, it was a major opportunity to come in and create something new. The CEO again told me, We need you to come in and to fix this. HR is important to CEDA. HR is important to me, the CEO. We haven’t been able to get this right. Come in and help us get this right. So that was just kind of awesome and also scary. So when I showed up, it was just the HR coordinator who had been there for 40 years. So she had this amazing base of institutional knowledge and then it was me who didn’t know a dang thing. So after those first couple of weeks, I walked into open enrollment in a whole bunch of year-end performance review stuff. So my time was just completely taken on those things. As soon as I cleared my plate, the first job got a generalist on board, so it was just the generalist, the coordinator, and then me. And then over time I made the business case to say, you know, we really need a recruiter. So we brought in a talent acquisition partner. I now have two talent acquisition partners, so that’s maybe a long-winded story of trying to say that it’s me as the VP of People Ops, which we, I was able to convince them to rebrand from human resources to people operations. So we’re VP of People and Culture and then I have my generalist coordinator and then my talent acquisition team.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:14:40.21] Interesting. And why what was important to you from people, from moving from HR to, to people operations?
Paul LaLonde: [00:14:47.89] To me, words mean something and matter. And since HR was broken for so long, I wanted to really kind of bring out to say, hey, something new is here. Something different, something you can count on, something that’s here to serve you, the people without we wouldn’t have this organization, right? So I read Redefining HR by Lars Schmidt, which was incredibly influential in my thinking, in the way I wanted to structure and organize these things. So I did more research, brought it up to my CEO, and we thought this was the great messaging as long as you can back it up. And to this day, I’m, still feel I’m proud to say that my team has been able to back it up almost to the point to where it’s starting to say, okay, we might need more people because people are relying on us so much now because we’ve been able to deliver. So I think that’s been really proud accomplishment.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:15:47.83] You rebranded HR.
Paul LaLonde: [00:15:50.08] Yeah.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:15:50.34] I like that.
Break: [00:15:51.52] Let’s take a reset. This is Jessica Miller-Merrill and you’re listening to the Workology Podcast. We’re talking about the CHRO role in a non-profit organization with Paul LaLonde. He’s the Vice President of People and Culture for CEDA. This CHRO podcast series on Workology is powered by WorkologyCouncil.com.
Break: [00:16:13.60] The WorkologyCouncil.com is a mastermind community for HR leaders. We are a group of HR professionals with a common goal: to succeed by leveraging the influence, resources, and expertise of others on an annual basis. This will be the HR business tribe that you’ve wanted to be a part of for your entire career. Learn more and apply at WorkologyCouncil.com.
Leadership Development and Ceda University
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:16:40.24] I wanted to ask you about the leadership and development program that you’ve been working on at CEDA. Can you talk to us a little bit about that?
Paul LaLonde: [00:16:48.58] Yes, this is probably one of my favorite questions when people ask me about this and it’s one of my favorite projects I’ve ever undertook. So, you know, leadership development is something that CEDA has been chasing after for, for probably five, six years or so. When I got there a few months in, this was one of the topics that was brought up. So I dug into it began looking into other leadership development models, what do other organizations do. Along the way, I came across Google’s project Oxygen, you know, and for those that don’t know what that is, Google did a two year study of all their leaders and try to dig down to what makes a great leader, because they famously did that experiment where they got rid of all managers and it was a disaster. Self-admittedly by Google, a disaster. So they wanted to know, okay, if we have managers what makes them great and they came up with their lists and everything. So I use that as my springboard based on and then other research and literature I was kind of looking at to come up with what we now call CEDA University. So CEDA University has, eventually in my my vision will have three tracks. It’ll have like a C-suite track to help train leaders on how to be good C-suite and executive leaders. We have the leadership track, which just launched this week and I’m super excited about it. And that is how to train managers, how to be managers. And then the final track is like sort of like a frontline track. You know, it’s to train new employees on how to to work at CEDAA. What are our our expectations, what are some skill sets to try and train you up.
Paul LaLonde: [00:18:37.18] So as far as the leadership track, which just launched this week, I took a, took a lot of inspiration from Oxygen, Project Oxygen. We surveyed the managers. What do you need to learn? What do you want to learn? And then, of course, best practices in the human resources world. And we came up with the curriculum. So we train on soft skills like communication, performance management, coaching. Then a little bit of harder skills. So like recognizing FMLA cases, working through worker’s comp. And then finally some important trainings that just fit the culture at CEDA. So like predictive index, we have behavioral assessments and personality assessments, through p, predictive index at CEDA. and then mental health first aid, which to me is important to try and get across to a lot of our staff that it’s okay to not be okay. So let’s train people on how to recognize that.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:19:36.70] Awesome. I will make sure to link to Google’s Project Oxygen program in the show notes on this particular episode so you can go over to Workology.com, search for Paul. You’ll be able to find this episode along with links directly to those resources and more that, that we’re talking about today. I love that, where you took inspiration from. I love that you customize it unique to CEDA and giving employees exactly what they need in order to help them be successful. Not just being able to be great managers, but being able to be great human beings, especially focused on that mental health side of things.
Paul LaLonde: [00:20:19.71] Right. It was important to us to really have their buy-in because we didn’t want it to be a top-down. You’re going to school kind of a feel where you’re going to school to learn what we want you to learn. So the surveys really came in handy to have them have a sense of ownership. It’s like you told us you want to be trained on this. We agree. Let’s do it together. So I think that was very important to have that buy-in and have them help build this along the way.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:20:47.70] Your personal blog is called HR Philosopher, and we’re going to link to that also in the show notes. And I feel like you’ve already alluded to some philosophy and some of the quotes, and I think really your perspective and point of view lens on this. But I wanted to ask how does the study of philosophy inform how you work and why are you the philosopher?
Paul LaLonde: [00:21:10.11] This is something I always try and still. I love this question. I get it, get it every once in a while. But I actually wrote a blog piece about this as well. So hopefully people go in and they check it out in a more in-depth explanation of it. But, you know, I always start out within my mind where this philosophy stuff come from. And I remember in high school, my grandpa was my hero in a lot of ways, so I would go to his house. We lived in the same town, which we were lucky to do, and I would go to his house. We sat in his back porch and I don’t remember what we were talking about. I don’t remember the conversation, but I do remember him turning to me and him just saying, you know, Paul, you’re a thinker. And that really kind of stuck with me in that moment. And that’s when I realized, you know, the importance of thinking things through coming to a better understanding of, of myself and the way I see the world and the way others see the world. So that’s kind of comes from philosophy and philosophy and thought.
Paul LaLonde: [00:22:10.86] So eventually the more I was reading and looking into stuff, I discovered they have a deep influence from Stoicism, which is an ancient philosophy from Greece and Rome, but it’s also a very vastly misunderstood philosophy. People think Stoics have no emotion, and that’s not the case. It’s about understanding, understanding and controlling your emotions so they don’t control you. But I kind of digress on that. But in, in Stoicism there’s a philosopher called Epictetus who said Philosophy is for everyone. It’s not about pontificating, it’s not about discussing theories in an ivory tower. And how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. To Epictetus, philosophy, to him was action into purpose. You study these things so that you can become a better person. You study philosophy to make the world around you better. That is a philosopher. So I took that to the extreme and in essence to me doing HR right is an act of philosophy. So that’s just kind of where I came up with the idea and how it all kind of linked together for me.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:23:25.43] I love it. Thank you. Thank you for, for sharing. I think, yeah, that’s what we’re all trying to do, right? Make the workplace better, make our environment better, make organizational culture better, make an employee’s experience better. So in a way, we’re all a philosopher helping to make a better HR.
Paul LaLonde: [00:23:50.32] I argue that all the time. And some people look at me cockeyed, but I say, you’re a philosopher. Look into it and then get back to me.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:24:00.52] I wanted to ask you, what is the most impactful thing you have learned in 2021 that you wish you’d known earlier in your career?
Paul LaLonde: [00:24:09.70] Yeah, this was, this was hard to answer because I couldn’t really think of one particular thing. 2021, to me, and me personally, was more challenging than 2020 was. You know, I think in 2020 I was pretty locked in to doing all I could to support CEDA and the people at CEDA. It was during COVID and the outbreak and all that. I was, hesitate using this word, but I was excited, again, for lack of a better word, because I was doing a ton of new things and I was working on what I call these puzzles. So I was working from home regularly, which was brand new for me and a lot of people, but building programs and policies to support our COVID response, which again was new and different. Being at home with my son and my and my wife during lunch, I mean, in some weird way, it was really special, you know, to be able to be home with them at those particular times where during a normal workday for my entire career up to that point, you couldn’t so. Eventually, though, I think it all started catching up with me in 2021. And I think like for everybody, everyone has their limits and COVID took its toll.
Paul LaLonde: [00:25:24.07] My health suffered and I had to go to the ER a couple of times. My brother passed away unexpectedly a few weeks after my ER visits. Continuing people issues at work just seemed to just keep piling on and on and it just kept adding up. But really kind of through all of that, I thought, you know, I’m still here, I’m still standing and I’m still going forward. So I credit that to my realization that what really kept me going was my community, the people around me. I think what I really learned was our support groups are more vital than we think that they are or realize they are. So I had to learn, you know, don’t block people off. Don’t think that you have it and you’re you can do more than you can. Don’t build walls. Let people in. Let them help you. So I think that’s really my number one lesson from last year was despite my introverted ways, my, my tendency being a loner, I need people. We all do. So just learn to extend grace, kindness, and openness to your community.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:26:27.94] Speaking of communities, one of my favorite communities is social media. And you’re also, you also have a presence on social. Why do you think HR professionals need to be on social media? Or maybe they don’t? And I wanted to ask you how social media has changed your career?
Paul LaLonde: [00:26:50.68] Yeah, you’re right. That segues perfectly into this next question. You know, I always think of when, when people have issues at work, where do they go? Right. Default, right or wrong, they go to HR. When HR has issues at work, where do they go? Nowhere, really, right? Where are you going to go? The mirror? So we have to really reach out to our fellow HR professionals and social media is that conduit for that connection, I believe. There was a time I was pretty burned out on social media and I remember the earliest, earliest days and dating myself, but MySpace, when that was the new thing and it was great and you’re on MySpace and then the Facebook. So I’ve been at this for a really long time and I was all in and just really didn’t limit what I was doing on social media. So I got burned out. Negativity, toxicity and quit many times, but kind of kept coming back. The last time I decided, okay, let’s give this another try, I did it from the professional angle. I was like, Okay, let me take this more seriously with my, my career and my, I think come at it from my position as a professional. So I created my Twitter account on HR and when it really clicked and started taking off was when I connected with Claire Petry.
Paul LaLonde: [00:28:10.51] And I don’t know if you’ve met Claire. No, Claire. But we connected over a recruiting question and a friendship was struck, and we’re friends to this day. We’ve been texting just earlier this week, honestly, and she was in Chicago for the SHRM National Conference. We met up, we got together and we became more than just, quote-unquote, Twitter friends. So I started meeting more and more people and so many more people really became my friends in real life. So I lean on them. They’re part of my community I talked about earlier. I get counsel from them and vice versa. So in addition to just making friends through social media, professional or otherwise, my social media accounts have just opened up so many different avenues I don’t believe I ever would have gotten if I wasn’t engaged on social media. So I’ve been on podcasts, including this one. I started my blog because I had confidence to actually start doing that, and then the blog opened up other avenues. So podcasts, I was part of the SHRM National Conference Bloggers team. I opened up my side gig consulting business and just so many other different things I don’t think I ever would have been able to do if I didn’t really use social media to create those avenues.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:29:26.17] I love that. And that’s how we met actually is from the SHRM blog squad group a couple of years ago. So I mean, obviously I’m biased. I love social media. I wrote a book on how to use Twitter. So I have a business that was built from starting a blog so people know where I stand, but I always like to hear from others because a lot of times I think HR professionals think that they don’t need to be there. And I would say that we do. If you’re looking to grow and to connect with other professionals and build relationships, it’s a great place to be.
Paul LaLonde: [00:30:03.07] 100% in with everything else you said. I mean, let’s just strip away all the other stuff. Let’s say, no, I don’t need any more friends, blah, blah, blah. I don’t need any of that. So okay. Well, just from a pure efficacy standpoint and a rational standpoint, go online and connect with these folks where you can learn stuff from. John Heyman is a, is an amazing lawyer that I follow on LinkedIn and talk with all the time and he posts great stuff about COVID almost weekly. So I follow him religiously because I’m like, When’s John going to post? When’s John going to post? Because I want to know about the next great COVID stuff so that I can implement it where I work. So I think just from boring interested in all the other stuff you and I talk about from the standpoint of logically, it just makes sense to keep learning so that you can be better at your job.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:30:55.95] I follow John for the Darwin Awards just so I can do the stupid things that managers do. Entertainment. Pure entertainment.
Paul LaLonde: [00:31:05.25] It’s comedy. Yeah, I’ll slap myself on my hand for not mentioning that as well. He is an incredibly funny human being, too.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:31:13.08] He is fantastic. Well, Paul, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us. Where can people go to learn more about you and the work that you do?
Paul LaLonde: [00:31:21.87] Well, in the spirit of the last question, connect with me on social media. Go to my Twitter account, which is @HRPaul49 and then my LinkedIn account. You just type in Paul LaLonde and I should pop up. And then of course my blog so, HRPhilosopher.com.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:31:43.32] And we will link to all those things in the show notes. So you can just go to Workology.com and and find this particular episode. And we have the transcript with all the resources that, and the ways that you can connect with Paul and creep on him using social media. I really appreciate your time, Paul.
Paul LaLonde: [00:32:01.56] Thank you so much, Jessica, for, for asking me. It was it was a privilege and an honor. And I’m happy to have talked with you today.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:32:08.94] Absolutely.
Closing: [00:32:10.32] I’m such a nerd when it comes to HR. It is so interesting to me and exciting. I just take so much joy in talking to other HR leaders, heads of HR, and learning about their experience, and seeing how it connects them to the strategy and operations of the overall business. And non-profit organizations, the non-profit sector, these HR roles that support this sector are so critical to the success of that organization. The CHRO, I believe, doesn’t just lead within a company. The company really depends on this leadership role to set standards and benchmarks for everything. And this includes manager training, company culture, employee engagement and connection, and so much more. I appreciate Paul for taking time to share his experience with us today. You can take a look at all the resources that we talked about by going back to Workology.com and taking a look at this episode show notes. And thank you for joining the Workology Podcast, which is sponsored by WorkologyCouncil.com. This podcast is for the disruptive workplace leader who’s tired of the status quo. My name is Jessica Miller-Merrell, and until next time you can visit Workology.com to listen to all our previous podcast episodes.
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