What will trip people up in the HR world is by pitching ourselves into HR functions, HR operations like recruiting or benefits or payroll, when the reality is human resources is best served being a business partner, really understanding the business.
Episode 382: Human Resources as a Business Partner With Lisa Novak From data.world
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.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:00:46.41] Welcome to the Workology Podcast powered by Ace The HR Exam and Upskill HR. These are two of the courses I offer for certification prep and recertification for HR leaders. 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 Chief People Officer, and it’s 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. The CHRO Podcast series on Workology is sponsored by the HR Benchmark Survey. Share your insights at HRBenchmarkSurvey.com. One of the reasons I continue to do this podcast series is because there’s still a lot of mystery around the CHRO role, and I want aspiring CHROs to know the type of skills and experiences they need to promote into a future CHRO role, along with hearing from senior HR leaders about how they’re partnering and collaborating with their executive peers. Before I introduce our podcast guest, I want to hear from you. Text the word “PODCAST” to 512-548-3005 to ask questions, leave comments and make suggestions for future guests. This is my community text number. So today I’m so excited to be joined by Lisa Novak. She’s the Vice President of Employee Experience for data.world. Lisa has over 20 years of experience in staffing and human resources leadership, primarily in the technology industry for companies as they ramp up for significant growth or organizational change. In her current role at data.world, Lisa is responsible for driving the organization strategy for acquiring, developing, and retaining a diverse team of Austin’s best talent in this highly competitive market. Prior to joining data.world, she served on the executive teams for a number of organizations and also led HR organizations for companies, including RenewData, SigmaTel, and Brooktree through extensive and rapid growth and helped create positive and motivated cultures in the organizations she has served. Lisa, welcome to the Workology Podcast.
Lisa Novak: [00:03:05.82] Thank you. I’m so happy to hang out with you today.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:03:09.09] You, I’m so excited to talk with you. I was, I was talking to someone a couple of weeks ago. I was like, I have this podcast coming up and I can’t wait for it. So let’s, let’s get into it and start first with some background and maybe tell us how you got your start in HR and how your role has evolved over time into your current one, which is the VP of Employee Experience.
Lisa Novak: [00:03:33.00] Absolutely. Well, I started in the recruiting world as can often be the case, and really my career evolved from there into the full desk HR, and ultimately HR leadership over time. Because what I found was in recruiting and started at a recruiting firm, so it was outside of the corporate environment, I missed the next step. What was happening next with that candidate who I just helped change their life? And so I went inside, in-house, as a recruiter in-house, and got to really help build out that entire kind of story for our candidate and the full candidate experience, and then found myself wondering what next? And wanted to really expand on that. What was next for that new employee? How did they get onboarded? How did they learn and grow within the organization? How did the organization keep them motivated? And over time grew across all of HR with that, with that curiosity and that passion for the full employee story.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:04:38.91] I love that. So I tend to do podcasts like so many a day. And so the other person that I interviewed today, he also started in recruiting and is now in, in HR. So I think it’s a common path is to come from the recruiting staffing world and then eventually move into human resources.
Lisa Novak: [00:04:56.88] It’s not uncommon. I warn my recruiters that sometimes, too, that I’m going to pull them into HR. That there’s a real likelihood if their curiosity in their drive is strong enough and the rest of the areas that I’m going to pull them into, the rest of the areas, because I think there’s, there’s a real kind of foundational drive to help the people to understand the people. And the more we can build on that, the stronger our HR team or, in our case, employee experience team is going to be.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:05:25.11] So I want to talk about skills and experiences. You have been in this space for a while. You have a team that you lead and manage. So as you have moved into this CHRO role yourself or VP of employee experience, what skills do you feel like are essential for CHROs or VPs of Employee Experience? And maybe we just think about somebody who’s starting out like, is it recruiting? Is it something else? What things are absolutely essential?
Lisa Novak: [00:05:52.77] What will trip people up in the HR world is by pitching ourselves into HR functions, HR operations like recruiting or benefits or payroll, when the reality is human resources is best served being a business partner, really understanding the business. So foundationally, I think it’s most important to understand how businesses work and operate, because ultimately that shift from your HR generalist or your HR leader role into the, the deeper lever leadership into that CHRO level is about that ability to be an advisor across the executive team, across the rest of the leadership and management team. And to have that, to be able to really provide that, you have to understand their pieces of the business. And so when, when as a recruiter, I was not just looking to understand the role I was trying to fill, but rather understand how that fit into the business, what the actual business need was, what that departments goals were, etc. And recruiters talk about that on the regular, you know, the more we understand, the better will be at recruiting. But are we really understanding why that’s the case? And I think that’s what, that’s the key that led me into my growth across my career, is that curiosity, that desire to understand the why and the purposes behind and the kind of the business need and business understanding. If I had a nickel for every time someone told me for a recruiter, you really understand the product or for a recruiter, you really understand the business history. I think that’s what separates or sets us apart, is that ability to kind of take in the bigger picture because that makes us stronger advisors. And that’s really the key to me of the CHR role is to provide that advisorship.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:07:54.24] I think it’s interesting. I mean, I’m not surprised about the business aspect of it, but do you think that they can stay in HR or do they need to leave HR to go into like a role that’s not HR related? Like maybe go into IT or be a manager, maybe in like logistics or something?
Lisa Novak: [00:08:14.31] I absolutely think that you can do this from with an HR or just like a product manager needs to understand their business and their market. They don’t have to go into marketing to understand their market. That’s just a piece of their role. So understanding your own market, your own customer, your own space, I think anyone can do. It’s a matter of your own curiosity. And sometimes it’s also a matter of the business or the company you’re in. Do you have the, are your, are your coworkers or your peers cross-functionally in the other departments willing to lean in with you and help educate you? And do you have a strong enough curiosity to go out there and seek that knowledge? I do the research about the space that I’m in, the new industry, that I’m joining the new tool, or what does Gartner say about our competitors, etc. It’s going out there and putting in that effort so you can do that from any seat in the house.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:09:05.60] I agree. I like the curiosity component because really there’s so much information and knowledge and training out there that you can really absorb that in through questions and shadowing. You can learn about almost anything. It’s, I love that.
Lisa Novak: [00:09:21.26] Curiosity is one of our core values at data.world, as a matter of fact. We have a really unique set of values, curiosity being one of them, and that’s, we embrace that in our candidates for exactly that reason. And primarily, I’ve worked at high-growth startup going into scale, scale up and high-growth companies, and that curiosity is really critical because we don’t necessarily always have the, the tools, the education, the path in place where you’ve really got to have that drive to kind of learn yourself and find your way around the organization.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:09:52.85] Talk to us about the size of the company, your team, maybe the organizational structure where HR sits or employee experience in this case, And then who do you report to directly?
Lisa Novak: [00:10:06.32] I am fortunate to report directly to the CEO, and that’s the, get to serve on the executive management team and so have that kind of more strategic arm. And that’s the foundationally how our company set ourselves up. The founders of data.world knew that it was important and really built the company with the notion that our culture, our environment, the way that we care for our employees is going to be a critical piece of how we built our organization. So, so very quickly had that HR seat at the table, if you will. Our company as a whole is about 140 employees now. When I started just over three years ago, we were just around 30 employees. So this has been a real high growth stage for us during such a unique time in, not only in the industry, but let’s face it, in the world. So this has been an interesting ride of growth so far, and we’re on a continued trajectory at, at that rate. So data.world is in high growth mode. We’re referring to this as our big scale up stage of the organization. My team is comprised of a few leaders, including my talent acquisition and employee experience leader who oversees all of our recruiting efforts, my learning and development director who not only manages the growth of our employees, their skills and leadership development, but also the onboarding really holding the hands of those new employees and ensuring that we have the tools and the processes to drive early success and the onboarding and initial orientation stages. And then our ops team, which includes all of our payroll, our benefits, and the day-to-day operations of the organization from the office management and office functionality through bigger things like our philanthropy and our, our giving and other ways that we care with and for our employees.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:12:10.85] I want to talk more about that side of the business, the philanthropy and giving side of the business. So, I was hoping that you could talk about your company’s ethical promise. And this is as a public benefit corporation. So maybe talk to how this is speaking to the company’s corporate social responsibility and then maybe defining what a public benefit corporation is, because it’s not something that is very common. So kind of give us some insights into that.
Lisa Novak: [00:12:42.07] Thankfully becoming more common. But I have to tell you, when I started interviewing with data.world, I had to look it up, too. I had to Google it, too. You’re right. It’s not as common of a structure of an organization. When we established ourselves as a company, we set ourselves up in Delaware, like everyone else does. We set ourselves up as a PBC or public benefit corporation. Now that is not a nonprofit organization. I promise. We are in business to create business, to drive wealth, and drive revenue growth. That said, a PBC organization or PBC is structured such that not all of our dollars go toward increasing margins or driving those revenues that we are going to actively spend in our shareholders, our stakeholders. At the time, our initial investors really had to sign off on the idea that we are actively spending on contributing back to society, on building something for public good or public benefit. For data.world that starts kind of foundationally with how we built our platform. We have two things going on. We’ve got our enterprise data catalog and data management platform that we sell to our enterprise customers. But we also have and how we started was a free, open public platform. This is a space where anyone in the world can create data sets. You can find data from other people around the world. And the coolest part about it is you can collaborate, you can work with and share data and collaborate on projects with folks all over the world.
Lisa Novak: [00:14:17.74] It is why we’re called data.world. It’s free. It’s open to the public. We believe wholeheartedly that open and shared data allows people to have deeper and better insights and can solve societal problems through that shared and linked data. And so we’ve created an environment, a platform where anyone in the world can have that opportunity. And so we’re really proud of that. That is the strongest social contribution that we make here at data.world. Now, in addition to being a public benefit corporation, we have also been a B Corp certified since our inception, since very early on, and the B Corp is a third-party organization. We’re hearing more and more about the B Corp. It’s becoming much louder and more active in society. But the B Corp is an organization that evaluates organizations and their way. It’s little things like we recycle at the office and much bigger things like we don’t dump oil in the ocean, right? And they’re evaluating that societal contribution and kind of community impact and basically gives a stamp of approval or certification. And so that’s something that we very proudly earned over our years as well for just how we do business, how we treat our community, and how we take care of our employees.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:15:38.11] Thank you for sharing. I was curious when I’m, we’re having the prep call and I’m like, what is a public benefit corporation for myself? And then I’m like, Oh, I think this relates to corporate social responsibility in some way. It’s an interesting sort of a really concise way to say this is how we serve the, the better good while also driving, like you said, revenue and having a business. And I think having a unified vision mission and kind of communication, it’s clear, it’s on the website. It, it tells everyone customers, investors, shareholders, employees, exactly what you all do and how and why you do it.
Lisa Novak: [00:16:22.00] Yeah, what we stand for and who we are as a people, too. And I think that really matters and it matters more now to people than, than it really has historically. So we’re really proud that we were, that’s who we were foundationally, We’re not responding or reacting to society. This is how we stepped into our business. And I think that really matters to to our clients, to our community, and to our employees, and our, our candidates.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:16:48.37] I feel like it’s very it makes sense to me, like knowing what we know about the PBC, why your job title is the VP of Employee Experience. It, it all works, it all works together, which is why I was excited to, to have this conversation because it’s, I think, where a lot of organizations are going to be moving towards.
Lisa Novak: [00:17:11.32] I agree.
Break: [00:17:12.65] Let’s take a reset here. This is Jessica Miller-Merrell, and you’re listening to the Workology Podcast, powered by Ace The HR Exam and Upskill HR. We’re talking about the roles and responsibilities of the Chief Human Resources Officer or CHRO with Lisa Novak. She’s the VP of Employee Experience at data.world. The CHRO podcast series on Workology is sponsored by HRBenchmarkSurvey.com. I would love your feedback. You can text “PODCAST” to 512-548-3005. Ask me questions, leave comments, and make suggestions for future guests. This is my community text number and I want to hear from you.
Break: [00:17:52.76] Benchmarking and data is crucial to HR leaders. Workology’s HR Benchmark Survey is an always-on survey and just by taking the survey at HRBenchmarkSurvey.com, you’re signing up to get comprehensive quarterly results, white papers, and other research from the survey right to your inbox. It takes 10 minutes or less to complete. Visit HRBenchmarkSurvey.com.
How to Spoil Employees: Benefits Program Initiatives
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:18:18.95] So Lisa, let’s get back to it. Can you tell us a little bit about your benefits program initiatives? Because this is incredibly unique, which is why I want you to share.
Lisa Novak: [00:18:30.58] This is one of my favorite topics to talk about, and it is one of the indicators and an example of how I get to spoil our employees. This is about providing a really awesome employee experience. As I mentioned that, and you said earlier, that kind of brings everything together. The concept of our public benefit corporation, the concept of employee experience in our organization and our benefits is one really great example of that. So we care for, and I get the luxury and the joy of being able to provide an incredible benefits program to all of our employees, so we look very carefully at what’s important to our employees. We do regular surveys to ensure that we’re, we’re addressing the demographics and the needs of our employee base. data.world right now very proudly pays for 100% of the premiums for our employees’ health care, dental care, and vision care, not just for themselves, but for their entire family. So those dollars that come out of your paycheck, don’t come out of your paychec at data.world. We take care of all the premium costs, not only for those items, but also we pay for a $50,000 life insurance policy for every one of our employees.
Lisa Novak: [00:19:46.63] We ensure that every one of our employees has both short-term and long-term disability coverage, and we pay for all of our employees to have legal insurance coverage. So all of those things that are traditionally voluntary insurance that the employees would pay for, data.world pays for every bit of that. There are no premiums out of the pockets of our employees for any of those items. And that’s a way to not only show that we care in providing these great benefits, but it truly takes active care of our employees. We want our employees to not question whether their eight-year-old should go to the dentist this year. We’ve got you covered. We don’t want our employees worrying about drawing up a will someday. You’ve got legal insurance to help you through that. And so it’s that peace of mind and knowing providing that peace of mind and that comfort to our employees will activate them in a more positive way, right? If you’re not worried about those things, you can, well, let’s face it, worry about those work things and collaborate with your team on, on things that are more positive forward.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:20:52.15] I think this is great. And if you didn’t hear the whole thing, you need to go back and listen to this again because this, when I think about employee stress, one of the number one causes is financial stress. And so by eliminating the cost of benefits, the legal and some of those other things, short-term disability, right? People don’t think about it until they need it. And then they’re like, Oh, I forgot to sign up for that in the last benefits enrollment period. And then they’re without cut pay even a percentage for a long period of time. You are taking the financial stress out of their lives, you’re lessening it. So you’re right, they can focus on work or enjoying their life or just being able to show up for work or personal.
Lisa Novak: [00:21:45.64] Just one less worry. One last thing. You’re right. Mental health is certainly been a stronger topic over the last few years with all the reason. And that’s something that we want to address and we want to help mitigate and talk about. We’ve just this year really tripled down on our employee assistance program as well, that we of course, provide at no cost to all of our employees that allows for counseling services and tools and activities, not just for our employees, but for their whole families, even if they’re not under our insurance plan. So anyone in your household can take advantage now of our employee assistance program and those counseling services. So certainly addressing those mental health concerns as well. And the other thing that we’re hearing, let’s face it, finances are scary to folks. We are very fortunate that we’ve been in a position to not have to go through any downsizing or layoffs. But certainly, our employees have significant others or friends or family members who have experienced that recently and that incites that same fear. So having that piece of mind coverage, like you said, the short-term disability and long-term disability coverage that people typically have to choose and then worry about that they don’t have, we just provide that peace of mind as well.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:23:02.98] I think that is, is wonderful. Now, I didn’t hear a common benefit mentioned, which is 401(k). So first of all, how did you decide what benefits to include or not include in some cases?
Lisa Novak: [00:23:17.80] So we do have 401(k) and Roth program. So we do have a retirement savings. The company pays for all the administrative fees. We don’t do a match right now on those, but as we become profitable and the company continues to grow, that will be certainly one that we dive further into, but we absolutely have that in position and in play right now for our team members, too. In fact, we’ve probably got about 15 other benefits and benefits programs that I didn’t mention because we do get that kind of care. It’s the real highlight is the, those programs that we pay for under the health and wellness benefits that people really key into. But that’s a great point. Not only do we, are we providing the 401(k) or the retirement savings programs, but we also provide a lot of education around that. In fact, speaking back to the concerns we have with the economy right now, we’re actively pulling together education around future savings and, and setting ourselves up for comfort through the struggling times, through economic challenges for our team members. So how do we choose our benefits programs? We really listen. We look at the demographics, we use the data. Let’s face it, we’re a data company and we’re a data-driven company. So we look at that data, what are the demographics of our employees? And so therefore, what would some of the needs be based on those demographics? And then we also survey our employees, ask what, what their, their needs are. And then we’ve also got data around usage. And so we want to really double down. In fact, our employee assistance program, we had seen more usage than frankly, I had ever seen in my career. And so we knew that was an area that we really wanted to drive a bigger impact and really help people provide some really great opportunities there.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:25:05.09] I don’t think as many people as they should certainly are looking at the data usage of benefits in deciding if they’re going to keep, expand, or remove certain benefit packages. But the way you’re positioning it to me and with the additional EAP and then the financial training and support that you’re going to be providing, you’re not just helping employees now, you’re setting them up for success for five, ten, 15 years down the road because they might understand investments or savings or percentages when you’re purchasing like home loans and things like that. Things that we didn’t necessarily get taught in school, which I personally think should be part of a required curriculum.
Lisa Novak: [00:25:53.45] And it is. It’s about exactly that. It’s looking at what are the potential needs of our employees. And so many times an HR team will make those decisions based on what, what vendors are reaching out to them, what partners are selling them, what are they being sold on, what’s exciting them? Because it’s come into their inbox and they’ve taken a look and, Oh yeah, that sounds cool. I bet my employees would like that. Or with their benefits, brokers and partners are bringing to them without really looking internally, without really necessarily looking at what the needs of their employees are. And that’s really the strategic, as I talked about earlier, one of the keys is being that advisor. And to be a good advisor, you have to know who and what you’re advising on. And so it’s about understanding your, your constituents, your subject matter, the people that you’re actually serving. And that’s our, our goal and our responsibility is to serve those people. So we have to understand our people, not specifically, not necessarily what the market needs, but specifically what our people need.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:26:52.97] Curiosity and data.
Lisa Novak: [00:26:54.32] You got it.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:26:55.25] It’s hard to believe that even today, you know, you mentioned seat at the table. But it’s still a struggle. It’s still a conversation. I feel like I’ve we’ve been having it my entire career in human resources to get that executive seat at the table. What’s your strategy?
Lisa Novak: [00:27:10.37] I’m going to go back to that advisor. It’s going back to his eye and, and often when I’m in a new role, it starts in that very administrative assumption that there’s an assumption that, that’s my team. And, and the HR function is very administrative and operational in nature. And so we’ll often have to kind of prove out our strategic arm and our knowledge of the business, that advisory service, that consultative service. And so for me, it’s, it’s to learn. The big, the big trick here is not a trick at all, folks. It’s to learn, learn your business, learn your space, learn your product, learn your team, learn your executives and what their goals are, and then identify how you can be an advisor.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:27:58.58] Easy.
Lisa Novak: [00:28:00.02] Just like that.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:28:01.22] Done. Done.
Lisa Novak: [00:28:01.40] It only took me ten years.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:28:04.34] Well, I appreciate these insights because I feel like this is one of the biggest struggles for HR leaders, is they move from that administrative role and into that strategic role, and how do they balance between the two or get that credibility? Because what’s safe is what we know. Payroll, employment law, the forms, the documents, the policies. But it’s the business side that’s really new and it’s what we should be diving into instead of shying away from.
Lisa Novak: [00:28:35.24] Right. That’s right. How do you help the marketing team develop their organization and design their organization if you don’t know what their outcome goals are? For example.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:28:44.39] Well, before we leave, I wanted to ask one final question, and that’s around career advice. So what is the best career advice you’ve ever received?
Lisa Novak: [00:28:53.00] At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’m going to say it’s to learn the business.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:28:58.64] I don’t think it’s a broken record at all. We need to reinforce because if I think of the majority of podcasts or conversations or trainings that are happening in the HR space, we aren’t talking about the business. We’re talking about the latest legislative update or a policy change.
Lisa Novak: [00:29:15.89] The newest tools or systems, right? Being an expert in all HRISs is going to keep you in that administrative operational HR role. If you understand why you would select a specific HRIS because of the nature of your business or your space or your market, that’s where you shift to being an advisor.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:29:38.42] To the business, understand the business. That’s the best career advice, and I think that is the key to getting executive buy in to being part of the executive conversation because you understand the business so you can speak the same language. Lisa, thank you so much for for taking the time to chat with us today. Is there a best place for people to go to connect with you and learn more about the work that you’re doing at data.world?
Lisa Novak: [00:30:04.01] Of course you can find me on LinkedIn because that’s where you can find everyone in the world anymore. On LinkedIn, so certainly reach out there. But you can also learn more about data.world at data.world. Sign up for our free open community and dig around there or go to data.world/careers and learn more about working with us.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:30:21.92] Yeah, maybe apply to be a part of the of Lisa’s growing employee experience team.
Lisa Novak: [00:30:27.05] You got it.
Closing: [00:30:28.34] It’s so interesting to delve into the role of Chief Human Resources Officer or in this case, VP of Employee Experience, and just learn more about how the role is evolving and maybe how it will evolve in the future. I love learning how our experience is connecting us to strategy and operations of the overall business. Certainly we talked a lot about this with Lisa today. The CHRO or the VP of Employee Experience doesn’t just lead HR within a company. The company depends on this leadership role to set standards and benchmarks for everything from company benefits to learning and development. I appreciate Lisa sharing all her insights, particularly about the public benefit corporation as well as their benefits offering, because we need to hear from each other as we are looking at expanding, evolving, changing and innovating in these areas within human resources. Thank you, Lisa, for taking the time to chat with us today.
Closing: [00:31:28.85] And thank you for joining us on the Workology Podcast. I would love your feedback. Text the word “PODCAST” to 512-548-3005. You can ask me questions, leave comments, make suggestions for future guests. This is my community text number and I want to hear from you. Again, thank you for joining the Workology Podcast. We are powered by Upskill HR and Ace The HR Exam. This podcast is for the disruptive. No. The innovative workplace leader who’s tired of the status quo. My name is Jessica Miller-Merrell. Until next time you can visit Workology.com to listen to all our previous podcast episodes. Have a great day.
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