In this episode, we have a conversation with Krystall Fierens-Lee, Chief People Experience Officer at Proxyclick. We cover many topics, including how Krystall is creating a consistent employee experience across Proxyclick’s global offices, how she would advise someone looking for their first role as a Head of People, and the differences between working in HR in a corporate environment compared to startups and scaleups.
- Books that Krystall mentions: “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” and “What You Do Is Who You Are,” both by Ben Horowitz.
- Krystall mentions Claude Silver, Chief Heart Officer at VaynerMedia as a great person to follow on social media.
- Krystall recommends the Getting Things Done method by David Allen.
- Krystall also recommends training by Dr. Marshall Goldsmith.
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Andy Parker (Host) (00:03)
Okay, Krystall, thank you for joining us today on the People Over Perks podcast, and whereabouts in the world are you right now?
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (00:12)
So I’m based out of Antwerp, which is a city in Belgium just North of Brussels. That’s where I live. And I’m calling you from home.
Andy Parker (Host) (00:22)
Nice. And that is where Proxyclick’s head office is as well. Right.
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (00:25)
So Proxyclick is headquartered in Brussels. Absolutely. Yeah. In Belgium, we have offices in Singapore, New York and the number of people who work remotely and we’ve all been remote since March pretty much so, but yeah, that’s our headquarters. Yeah.
Andy Parker (Host) (00:40)
Absolutely. Obviously the COVID-19 pandemic has caused complications for all of us, isn’t it, but we’ll, we’ll come back to that in a bit. And so so you are the chief people experience officer at Proxyclick. Can you give us an overview as to what Proxyclick is and also how you describe your role there?
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (00:59)
Sure. So Proxyclick is a B2B SaaS basically. It’s a cloud-based software used by enterprises like L’Oréal, PepsiCo., Audi to transform how their employees, visitors and contractors are welcomed in their corporate offices around the world. And we’re making that whole journey seamless and safe from start to finish. We originated as a, more of a visitor management system, but again, with COVID in the current environment, we’ve been able to kind of expand our product out to, to look out for themselves as well.
Andy Parker (Host) (01:26)
Okay. Interesting. Thank you. And and with regards to your role, how, how do you describe the role?
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (01:34)
Yeah, the Chief People Experience officer, I sometimes call myself the C3PO because it’s the chief of people, passion and performance. So maybe that’s the quick way of doing it. I think fundamentally my role is help us understand performance the people’s experience, just how they come to work and experience work, and, you know, we’re, we’re a startup, we’re a scale-up, so we really want people to be passionate about what we’re doing because that fuels the engine for growth.
Andy Parker (Host) (01:58)
Absolutely. Excellent. Thank you. And and so, so jumping back to the beginning of your career what made you get into HR in the first place?
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (02:06)
I wish I had a really like, deliberate answer for you, but I don’t circumstances and opportunity, I think, so my background is in international relations and women’s studies I’m Canadian and I ended up in London and it just so happened. I was kind of trying to figure out what the opportunity was when you do a studies like that. It doesn’t necessarily lead to an obvious job. And I found myself in the city in London and it was really looking for a job I can say like that. And they were looking for an assistant in training and development at Goldman Sachs and a big US investment bank. And that’s how I kind of started in training and development and went and grew from there. And if you look back on it, it makes sense in terms of all the things I’m interested in. But it was really, yeah. Coincidental in a way.
Andy Parker (Host) (02:56)
And so, so tell me more about that when you say it’s a, it adds up from in terms of the things that you’re interested in. What, what do you mean by that?
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (03:04)
So I think the, you know, I, in my undergraduate, I studied Women’s Studies, which is sort of the gateway to thinking about diversity & inclusion. And so that’s kind of the red thread. If I think about my career, what I’m passionate about, it’s something that’s always really been very important to me. So a large part of my time at Goldman Sachs was spent doing global leadership and diversity. So working on diversity inclusion. This is kind of a while ago. This is almost more than 10 years ago. Just to put it in context of where we are today. And then on top of that, I was just always interested in a lot of things about people. I was a theater kid. So I was comfortable with public speaking, storytelling, all these kinds of creative things. And when you think about people in a company you’re talking about everybody’s story, everybody’s individual narrative and how they’re putting that together, they’re all characters are on their own stage and experiencing things. So that’s just naturally interesting to me and a large part of my work back then, and still today is thinking about the message, thinking about what you want people to take away and experience and, and that, yeah, I think that that all kind of goes back to thinking about theater, communications, storytelling, those kinds of things.
Andy Parker (Host) (04:14)
Excellent. Thank you. Thank you for that. And so obviously, yeah, as you mentioned, you spent many years at Goldman Sachs huge, huge organization, obviously. And, and remind me how, how large is Proxyclick right now?
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (04:27)
Well, at the beginning of the year, we were about just under 50 and today we’re about 82, so we’ve doubled over in a year, so we’re still small, but for us it’s quite a big jump. Yeah.
Andy Parker (Host) (04:38)
Absolutely. Nice. And so I, I’m curious as to, you know, obviously your experience in the, the sort of large enterprise versus you know, smaller you know, hyper-growth companies as it were what sort of things did you take from your experience at Goldman Sachs that you could then apply into these roles in smaller companies versus the things that you had to relearn?
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (05:01)
Yeah. You know, it’s interesting because there’s often a debate when you’re working in a startup about, do you want folks that are coming from larger companies or do you want people who just are starting in startups because there’s there’s advantages and disadvantages to both. For myself, what the great thing about working at Goldman — and I don’t think Goldman’s a typical big company because it was actually relatively small relative to its competitors, and it is a company that is very demanding of its people in terms of what it expects from a performance point of view — so the benefit for me was you really learn discipline. You really have an incredibly strong foundation of skills early on in your career when you were learning very quickly about what’s expected at a high level of professionalism, execution, excellence, attention to detail. I mean, I remember sitting with someone when I was just starting and they could point out when I had too many spaces in my email and they’d suggest that I go look up every full stop in my sentence to make sure I have the right spacing.
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (05:59)
I mean, that was the level of attention you would have. And I think, well today that doesn’t necessarily feel practical for where I sit, that foundation, that discipline, that rigor, I think pays in spades later on in, in your career and your life. So I give a lot of credit to my time there to build that, that, that robustness, that rigor you also get to learn a lot about structure, about what a process should look like, how important it is to kick something off how to do a debrief. You learn a lot about stakeholder management. So realizing it’s not just — especially in a people zone — doing what your manager tells you, there’s all these other people involved in things. So I think that’s what I really took away. Of course, they also have excellent access to resources. So you get training, you get development.
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (06:45)
They’re not thinking about budget in the same way as some smaller companies have to. So that’s what I would say is what I learned. And what’s interesting is you take that and you can kind of go two ways. You can kind of say that’s how something should be done and you try and replicate that everywhere. But what’s interesting is when you go to a much smaller company and a startup hypergrowth company, in the very beginning, you, you don’t maybe don’t need all of that structure. And then as you’re scaling, you start to need structure, but how much of it do you need? So for me, what I was, what I I’ve been able to do is take the structure that I learned from this larger organization. And then you kind of test the walls and you say, okay, what’s a supporting beam that has to be there.
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (07:24)
There’s a really good reason for it to be there. And what’s there that I don’t know, it doesn’t really need to be there. And so you start to pull things out until you’re left with kind of the bare minimum process you need. And then you can have a lot more flexibility and agility around that. So for me to do what I’m doing now in a, in more of a scale up situation, that foundation is super important, because then I know what to take away. Whereas I think if I had gone in without knowing that I would, I wouldn’t know what has to be there and what has to be taken away. And it would be much more of a guessing test, I think.
Andy Parker (Host) (07:58)
Interesting. Thank you for that. And so throughout your experience, would you say that you have developed a particular specialty within HR or obviously now you’re operating as the leader and so I imagine, you know, you cover all topic areas, but yeah. Would you say that you have a have a specialty so to say?
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (08:17)
So I started with more of a specialty. I started in, in training and development and which brings a lot of project management skills. And then as I mentioned, I spent a lot of time in diversity, equity and inclusion. So that’s kind of my core specialty. In a scale-up, you, you kind of do have to be a Jack of all trades in terms of touching everything from comp to, to training to recruitment. What I think my specialty is, I’m maybe not the, a great static operational HR business partner profile. I’m much more excited. I think I do better work when I’m creating and I’m building and I’m scaling, which is why scale-ups and startups are so interesting because I really love this momentum and this adrenaline that comes from building something and navigating it when it’s all sort of steady state, then, then for me, it’s, it becomes less interesting. So not so much a specialization in a field, but more a specialization in where I think my work is most useful and most meaningful to, to an organization.
Andy Parker (Host) (09:20)
Yeah. So it’s much more about the, the stage and the, the sort of the, the type of organization that will benefit from your skillsets and also where you feel most comfortable and at home.
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (09:31)
I love it when there’s nothing, or I love it when there’s something or I like it when it’s broken, it needs fixing. If it’s all running and ticking along then, I’m like, well, what are you, what do you need me for in a way?
Andy Parker (Host) (09:40)
Yeah. Yeah. I can see that. Interesting. Thank you. And and so also obviously you’re now in the, the Chief People Experience Officer role but you’ve also held a number of very senior level HR roles in your previous companies as well, but all with slightly varying job titles. Can you walk me through, you know, what those previous roles were and how you see the differences between them?
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (10:05)
Well, I think, I mean, I’m going to assume you’re talking more to the startup roles that I did as opposed to the larger company roles, I guess first, I’m not sure there’s so much in a title. I’m kind of one of these people that, okay, I need a title to make it sort of digestible for others, but I not very limited by the title. Um I’m sort of self-driven in that way, but I, I think when I joined Ubeeqo, which was, at that moment in time, it was starting up and it scaled very quickly, very fast. Um, in most of these situations, there was never a Head of People. There was just no one looking out for that. So in all three of the roles, I was the first one to come in and say, okay, it’s time to do something in this space. What do we do? And what we decided at Ubeeqo was Head of People and Culture. In all cases, we wanted to avoid the word HR, maybe that’s the, the, the golden rule from all of these roles. Okay.
Andy Parker (Host) (10:56)
Why is that before we move on?
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (10:58)
It has a connotation for a lot of startups, a feeling more conservative, more traditional, more like rubber stamping your time off. So I’m not sure it’s fair, but that’s it’s, it’s kind of a way of breaking with tradition, I suppose. And at Ubeeqo was Head of People and Culture, because for them, the founders at that time culture was super important. They were much more interested in how I was going to preserve culture as they scaled versus thinking about things like performance management and training. And of course, those go hand in hand, but they were really driven about try- being able to take their spirit as founders and spreading that across the company through culture. So that was why it was sort of people in culture. And I moved to a company called Sentiance. And they were looking for a VP of People. And that’s basically, it was people and, and everything that kind of went with it from, you know, the nuts and bolts, the recruitment, the performance management, but also the culture as well.
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (11:49)
But it was more of a high tech. It was like 70 percent software engineer based. So a bit more niche and, and my role was sort of more general sounding to the people. And then where I’m right now, it’s funny. I kind of got to make up my title. I came in thinking head of people and I was sort of told, no, you have to be a chief of people. I said, okay. And as I said, I, I liked, I would call myself the C3PO, but because I I’m very tongue in cheek about this stuff, but of course in the external world, you’d have to be a bit more serious. And I, I like the term people experience because I don’t always feel that it’s our role to be responsible for culture. I think we can help guard it and nurture it, but culture is something that the blooms from everyone, it’s not my job alone. So I kind of avoided that. (Head of) People could have worked, but I, I really liked the idea of people experienced because at Proxyclick, we’re really focused on people having an experience. You know, we recognize people will come and people will go, but we want their time there to feel nutritious and full.
Andy Parker (Host) (12:52)
Yeah. I like that a lot. I like that. And in each of those roles, do you always report directly into the founders?
New Speaker (12:59)
I have. Yes.
Andy Parker (Host) (13:00)
You have. Interesting. Okay. And so so yeah, I mean, it sounds sounds to me like you, you, you’ve really kind of you know, taken on a very similar role in these, these three organizations and when you’ve joined each of them have you had like a playbook as such that you’d like to roll out in terms of the processes that you implement or, you know, what, what is your first, I don’t know, sort of three to six months look like when you, when you joined those businesses?
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (13:25)
Well, and it changes, right? Because to be honest with you, when I started at Ubeeqo, I had never done it before. So I was really figuring it out as I go and kind of indeed going back to the playbook of, of my time at a places like Goldman and saying, okay, what did we do then and how would that work here? And of course, but what’s super different is in a large company there’s resources, you can go to, there’s a specialist on all sorts of things and in a startup, it’s just you. So you learned to be entrepreneurial and pragmatic really quickly. And then as I, as I moved you, you can kind of internalize that previous experience. So you have a bit of a skeleton. I think that the trick though is not to assume the playbook, because then you end up repeating exactly the thing of what traditional big companies might do.
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (14:12)
If you kind of just put this framework on top of a top, an organization, and a lot of these companies, when you’re joining, they have a culture, they kind of know what they want, but maybe they haven’t articulated it yet. So you’re trying to extract it out from what you see. So my first, like my first one to two months is I just talked to everybody and literally just do like a tour. And I’m talking to everybody about what is this place? What do they expect from me? Recognizing that there almost always, isn’t a really clear job description on this role. So my big one is what do you expect from me? What do you think I’m going to do? What should I be doing? And I’m kind of calibrating that as I go. And at the same time, trying to introduce what I think my role is.
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (14:50)
And I often describe as glue. I’m like, I’m like people glue, I’m kind of here to make everything stick as it’s going on so quickly. And that’s glue for people and their managers, managers to managers, founders to people, wherever it is. So I’m kind of everywhere and, and goopy, you know, I kinda, there’s no clean place that I can sit and that’s sort of how I see my role. And I also feel like that role only works if people trust you. So, and that comes with time. So everything I say, whatever process we, we put together, if you don’t have credibility and trust and it just isn’t going to work. And I tell people that. So that’s no playbook per se, but it always starts from there. And as I’m learning what that culture is, then I’m trying to figure out from the various tools and ideas I have, what would work, what wouldn’t work what’s expected. And it is really different every time. Because if you start with the culture, even if you’re rolling out the same performance management process, you have to adapt it to the people in those seats and the structure, and again, that’s, that’s where scale-ups are maybe different from larger organizations where the organization sits in, the people fit in it and scale-ups and startups, you start with the people, and then you have to kind of adapt this organization to work for that.
Andy Parker (Host) (16:00)
Yeah. Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. And you know, when you’ve joined these companies, have you experienced very common challenges across them all? Or are there any themes that you can say that you could pull out that you’ve had to help all of them navigate through?
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (16:18)
Yes, very much so. Probably the number one is they always think they’re hiring me to help recruitment because they’re thinking about growth. And when you ask them about, you know, retention or culture, they’ll tell you, our culture is fine. All of that’s fine. We need someone to grow our team, and they tend not to realize that that growth automatically affects the whole experience throughout. So that’s the number one thing is they think they just want that. And I know actually you need, you’re going to, if you want to go that way, there’s all this other stuff to take into account. So that’s, that’s always the case with any startup or scale up, they think they just want to recruiter, but in fact, they need to think about the whole people experience. That’s one. And I think, again, there’s that balance of structure of what’s appropriate for which company at that moment to time and adding and taking out. What that structure should be, will be different for each of them.
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (17:16)
But I think moving to structure in itself is a theme that they all have, the, the discomfort of that, because then it, you know, does it start to become bureaucratic? Is it replacing some, some kind of magic “je ne sais quoi” that they had before? So founders or CEOs, they’re struggling to kind of have the vision and how to make that sort of practical. So that’s the general theme. And then almost in all cases, you end up recruiting senior leaders into your company. And when you do that, you not change culture, but culture moves, right. You added something to it. And it always, when you bringing people in there’s this moment of that new person comes in and they’re trying to navigate this company that they thought they understood when they interviewed. But now that they’re here, it’s a bit different. So I’m often playing that glue role with them, trying to help them navigate how to help the company navigate them. And that’s something that I’ve consistently seen across all of these roles.
Andy Parker (Host) (18:13)
Okay. Thank you. And and so really when, you know, you, you talked about being the glue within the organization. Are there any like specific metrics or like things that you are looking at on a really frequent basis that help, you know that you’re heading in the right direction and know that you are being successful in your role?
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (18:34)
Yeah, I’m probably not as many metrics as I would like, but again, often the numbers are very small, so you have to be careful with the law of small numbers that they’re, they’re swinging things. Definitely probably the most important one is some kind of engagement metrics. So whether, you know, there’s pulse surveys that can run every week or every month, you have to kind of know for your company, if that’s, if that gets diminished returns, because people feel like it’s too repetitive. We’ve tended to go quarterly because I think I can, I can build enough momentum around that moment and it’s frequent enough. And we pay a lot attention to the comments and, you know, the eNPS and things like that as a way to kind of measure the experience over time. That’s probably a really important metric. Of course, recruitment metrics are always really important in terms of, yeah, how fast you’re moving, how many acceptances you’re getting, whether you get them.
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (19:26)
You know, ideally you’re looking at kind of the level of diversity in your talent pool, those kinds of things. And then we’re too small to be kind of measuring things like cycles of promotion or number of tenure, or people will say, how long do I spend in this role before I can move? Those answers are really hard to give when, when you’re newer. So probably other batch numbers I would look at is we look at turnover. It’s also a really tricky one because when you scale, I’m not always sure it’s realistic to expect a hundred percent retention as you scale, you will have people that blossom and do best at early stage, and you will have people who do best at scale. And that might not be the same person. And that doesn’t mean it’s a failure of them or a failure of the company.
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (20:09)
That’s just how that curve tends to work. So I think you have to be careful with turnover to hold it with a bit of grain of salt as to where you are as a growth company, because you can’t think of yourself in like a standard stable state company. That said, the turnover itself is one number, but then the, the one I’m always interested in is kind of real attrition, real retention. So basically if you have a bunch of people at the beginning of the year, how many of those people are still here at the end? Cause turnover just measures who’s coming in, who’s coming out with their kind of, whether it’s Joe that came in or Amy that left, it doesn’t really matter. But when you’re looking at real nutrition, you’re wanting to know if Joe has been there for years is still there. And that’s a really interesting thing, especially if one of your goals is culture retention. Do people feel like this place is still there? So that’s a number I tend to look at.
Andy Parker (Host) (20:55)
Okay. That makes sense. And I assume in many cases, those early employees who have helped shape the culture very early are, you know, the, the kind of constant rocks as such as the, as the culture continues to move and develop.
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (21:10)
Yeah. You hope so. Anyways, it’s not always the case, but you hope so.
Andy Parker (Host) (21:13)
Yeah. Excellent. And and so you, you touched on measuring engagement metrics and you said that you know, you’re, you’re running quarterly surveys as your kind of preferred cadence. What does your process look like for taking those results and turning that into some sort of an action plan you know, with things to then improve on?
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (21:35)
You know, I kind of feel like I feel a little bit guilty. Some of these answers I’m giving, because I know when I was in a big company and we talk about what you do with metrics and how you should look at them and all of this stuff. I know all of that. And again, I sometimes I’m consciously rejecting those because as much as I just told you that we look at engagement metrics, it’s much more art than science in a way, right? Because things are moving so quickly and then take this, take the world today. Like it’s, it’s naive to think that the externality of COVID is not affecting how people are putting those numbers in, even on a question that should be isolated from COVID, but they, of course they influence. In other words, it’s to say, w we look at the numbers, I’m always more interested in the Delta.
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (22:16)
So, you know, I understand that a lot of- my CEO, for example, he has a target eNPS he wants to see, and I get that, but I’m much more interested to see how the thing moves, but what’s the volatility on the experience. And if we’re on a slow up, or are we flat, that’s interesting to me. And then the other thing is our engagement survey allows qualitative comments. And so that’s, that’s the gold. I always say, that’s where you really can kind of hear what’s on people’s mind. And the tool we have today allows us to respond. So we can respond to all of those comments individually and anonymously. And I think, you know, part of the value of doing engagement survey is the fact that we do that. I read every comment. I don’t answer all of them, but we acknowledge a lot and we answer it and I pick up, and my goal is one day, I want some, it happened at one of my companies where someone would just say, by the way, this is Bob, because they just felt, they could just say who they were, and this was the vehicle to do it, as opposed to everyone feeling it had to be anonymous.
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (23:07)
So you know, that data’s important, but it’s kind of, what’s underneath the data. That’s interesting. We also have a, like a performance development process, and again, it’s about trying to understand how people are doing and the same thing. I’m always, I’m not really interested if someone was meeting expectations or if they need a bit of help. I’m much more interested in the Delta from, from quarter to quarter.
Andy Parker (Host) (23:30)
Okay. That, that makes a lot of sense. And then when, when you’re looking at the the the qualitative comments do you kind of like theme them and batch them and then sit down, I don’t know with me with the founders or your team and review, you know, the the kind of the outlook for the company then and build some some initiatives around that.
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (23:48)
So all the managers and the team have access to their own team, and the expectation is that they will go in there and look themselves and address it themselves because, you know, that’s, that’s their job. And the CEO also reads through everything and answers everything. And that was the case, both where I am today and in my previous company, because I think that is a huge part of what this experience is. You know, someone once got an answer and said, I didn’t realize you actually answer this, and I didn’t realize the CEO would answer it. So I think that’s, that’s one way we do it. So everyone is clear that that’s something they need to pay attention to, and they do it. They go, and they look and they pay attention. And they’re often pinging me going, can we talk about this thing that I see here, what it means, which is great.
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (24:27)
I look at them, the tool is kind of already putting these things into themes in categories for us, to an extent I put together a synthesis every quarter to kind of say, here are the top level things. Here are the things that are kind of concerning. Here’s the things that we’re always seeing, and these are the changes and, and yeah. And what we can, where there’s an action plan that we can do to address it, that’s what we do. I find sometimes that as you’re doing these, depending on the state of the world, of course, that sometimes there isn’t a whole lot of action you can do that. You’re not already doing. And, and I also think it’s not about putting band-aids on things. It’s thinking more holistically about the solution, but yeah, there’s every quarter, a synthesis and a summary and a discussion of where we,
Andy Parker (Host) (25:07)
And you, you mentioned at the start that Proxyclick has multiple offices all over the world. How, are you thinking about building a consistent employee experience across those different geographies?
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (25:20)
That’s a hard question to give you a succinct answer to because I think it’s, you said the word consistent people experience, and I think that’s a good choice of words, because I think sometimes when we’re tackling this, the question is, is it about giving people the same experience or any equivalent experience or a like for like, and that’s, that’s important to kind of understand what are you giving all your people and why do you give them? And so, for example, things like performance development feedback those kinds of things should absolutely be consistent no matter what your contract or your set up is. Right? In terms of, if you’re in the office and there’s a free lunch or a yoga class, is that about something you have to somehow replicate for all of the different situations, or not. And I think that begs, you know, there’s sometimes debate of, yeah, everybody should get the same, but I think you have to go one step further and saying, why are you giving those things?
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (26:17)
And based- if the “why” means that you need to give something different to another population, then you should. Then I think the exchange is you should be clear about that. You know, if you can explain the reason I offer this when you’re in the office, but I offer that when you’re not is because the objective is the following. And I think we, it’s our job to be clear about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. Cause otherwise people could get confused, but it doesn’t necessarily mean everyone. There’s a lunch in the office Friday. It doesn’t mean everybody is getting some kind of lunch by themselves every Friday, because I don’t think it meets the same objective. But in terms of consistency, it’s, we’re trying, I think this is not something that in the past we’ve done as well as we could. We’re trying to improve that. I think COVID has been a really good kick in the butt to do that better in terms of, being more consistent because all of the folks that were used to an office are suddenly knowing life as a remote worker. So there’s a lot more empathy, I think, for how it is to be on a call and be the only one, you know, not in the room and things like that. But the nuts and bolts in terms of getting feedback, being managed, that should absolutely be consistent.
Andy Parker (Host) (27:23)
Yeah. Yeah. And maybe that’s a good segue to talk about the pandemic. You you joined Proxyclick back in April, I believe?
New Speaker (27:31)
Early March, early March.
Andy Parker (Host) (27:33)
Early March. Okay. So yeah, obviously just when when things really started to take a turn for the worse. And so what has that experience been like for you and how, you know, what are the, like, obviously there are the remote challenges and, you know, what are the, maybe, perhaps some of the the non-obvious things that you have had to face as a challenge as well, and how have you navigated that as a business?
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (28:01)
That’s a very large question. So yes, I started two weeks before COVID kind of really took off. And so two weeks after I started full-time, I sent everybody home. I think at that moment, there might’ve been a few people that thought I was overreacting, in terms of, they didn’t, we didn’t necessarily understand what this was or how big a deal it was going to be. And we have a lot of sort of younger folks in our team. So they were like, well, we’re fine, we’re good, we’re healthy. And I’m like, it’s not about you. It’s about, you know, our citizenship and our responsibility for spread. So we were, we were early movers in terms of sending people home and knock on wood. Luckily that was the right call. When you look back on it.
Andy Parker (Host) (28:42)
And did you do that for all locations at the same time?
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (28:46)
Pretty much. Yeah. I pretty much said everybody goes. And it was very interesting to start a role in that time, because of course, how do you meet the people when you can’t meet the people? So on the one hand, it was much harder to, as I said before, when I started role, I’m talking to everybody and I’m trying to understand, suddenly there’s this sort of limitation in a way of being able to reach out and absorb the informalness of Proxyclick. At the same time, because this is happening, it really focuses you as a people professional to say, okay, these are, this is clearly a people wellbeing issue, there’s no doubt about your seat at the table right now, what are you supposed to do? So it really, helped me not get distracted by other things, right. Like I like to be liked.
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (29:32)
So one of the things, when you start a new role, as you’re trying to figure out do people like me or not, now, I didn’t have time for that because I’m too busy trying to make sure we’re making the right call for society, for the team, for people’s wellbeing. So in that sense, the, the silver lining was, I got focused really quickly about the priorities for our people. And then it was super intense, I think. At least we’re largely in Europe, so I think that the States was a little bit delayed, in terms of where they were on that, on that curve. But we were, everybody was at home, everyone was sitting their kids, and everyone was trying to cope with this through March, April may very, very intense in terms of thinking of what the people experience look like. And, and we have such a generous management team, honestly, in terms of, you know, we could see zoom fatigue.
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (30:17)
We could, people see just being fed up, stuck in their chair. And we were like, let’s have a blackout Friday where there’s no Slack, no zoom, no email. And just people can kind of manage all of what’s happening. And, and our CEO was like, yeah, do it like very little pushback, which is, you know, one of the reasons I joined Proxyclick is for that kind of leadership. So it focused things. We were able to do a lot. Some of the challenges that are non-obvious? I think it’s been just trying to navigate the constantly shifting landscape of this. As I said in the beginning was very intense, but very adrenaline fueled about what you needed to do right then, and there, quite crisis management, and you could talk about wellbeing and you could do that blackout Friday, and then you reach a point where you’re unfortunately kind of normalizing this, or you, you feel that you need to sort of normalize a bit of it in order to, to cope.
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (31:11)
So we opened our offices in early July, at least in Brussels as a resource. We didn’t force people back, but we said, for those of you that really need that space and to go to we’ll open it up and we had to make it safe. So transitioning from all these different stages to then the summer where things felt a bit more free. And then, yeah, people asking, when do we come back? Do we go back? What’s the right call on that? And I don’t have a crystal ball, you know, so we’re all figuring it out and kind of trying to listen to contradictory advice, coming from governments and different cities and different regions, recognizing that our New York office, which is pretty much now where we were in April and trying to navigate all the different sentiments around it. That’s been really hard to stay ahead because the people are asking you, where do we go from here?
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (31:58)
And, and it’s not like you have extra information. So it’s, it’s the judgment call that has been very heavy. And again, in a big company, you have a lot of resources that are maybe able to feed you with information, but in a small company, you don’t. So you, you really have to kind of take the bet. I think that’s been very hard managing the longer term effects of, of people’s wellbeing of burnout. That’s been tricky. And I think one that’s coming up more recently is we’ve tried to be really understanding about how this is affecting people’s lives on top of other things going on in the world that’s affecting people’s lives. And at the same time you’re running a business, right? At the same time, you’re trying to grow a business. You’re trying to be performant. You want your people to be performant. And I know there was a moment in time where there was a lot of HR literature about don’t do your performance reviews right now in a time of COVID, which I totally understood.
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (32:52)
And at the same time, as this continues month after month after month, you have to, you have to balance the fact that people are at work and they need to be connected and they need to have purpose and they need still feedback. So that’s been tricky and I, I hope we’re getting it right. Where we are now is the impact that this has on culture, because I think again, everyone was like, remote working is a future. This totally works. And now you, I think you can feel that from a cultural point of view, it’s harder to maintain that connection. It’s great for productivity, but maybe not good for longevity around culture. So I’m right now, my, a lot of my focus is how do you, how do you keep Proxyclick this culture that people know and love? How do you get people to stay connected when you are robbed of a lot of the obvious things that you can use? You know, at Proxyclick, we have a really exciting remote working trip that happens every year where the whole team flies to one location and they kind of work together. And it’s, it’s huge for people. It fuels them for like half a year, very unlikely we can do that this year. And so it becomes interesting. What is your culture when you can’t rely on those indicators anymore? So that’s, that’s a non-obvious thing that comes up when you’re navigating the pendant.
Andy Parker (Host) (34:06)
No, completely, completely. Yeah. And obviously there’s still a lot of uncertainty with how this is going to play out. And so do you have a, like a medium term plan in terms of, are you continuing to be remote first or are you a bit of a bit of a hybrid right now?
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (34:26)
Yeah. So the first thing we’re trying to do is time bound these things indeed. So we can’t see the total future right now. So we’re, so to not feed false assumptions, we’ve sort of said, this is the plan from now until the end of this calendar year, and then we’ll revisit. And what we’ve basically said is first of all, we listened to whatever our local governments are telling us to do. That’s important to say that we support all of that with bearing in mind, we’re looking at probably four or five different governments because of where we have people based. And what we’re saying is we’re encouraging people to find a way to, if they can, spend a bit of time in the office, because it’s our belief that, that balances out that transactional, what am I doing here, risk of working with the need to feel connected and purpose and engaged, and like, you want to still be doing this.
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (35:22)
So we’re not forcing it at all. We have people that will want to come in more because that’s what they need. And we have people that do not feel they can do that at all. And that’s okay. The office is a resource. That’s kind of how I’m thinking about it today. It’s a resource for those who need it. And I, even for myself, I’m trying to go once a week and it’s, it, it feeds you something, it gives you something. And so we’re trying to remind people that people don’t like rules. So when you mandate people to come back to the rule itself, doesn’t feel very nice, but if they can, they have a responsibility to themselves to figure out what the right balance is to stay connected and to feel that they stay safe. And we kind of trust that judgment, but they need to make calibrate that also we’re heading into winter, there’s going to be less daylight. It’s, you know, the summertime it’s, it’s easy to kind of get your vitamin D and feel really plugged in. That’s going to get harder as we get into the winter. And so an office can, can, depending on that office, of course help you feel like, yeah, I’m part of something. And so that’s why we’re encouraging it. Not because we are interested in taking attendance.
Andy Parker (Host) (36:26)
Definitely. Yeah, I think yeah, of course the office, as you say, you know, just creates a, a hub for those, those you know, many of those spontaneous connections and you just do not get that same experience over zoom, which is a difficult thing to replicate. So shifting gears slightly can you tell me a bit about your team structure? So as a, you know, as, as obviously the leader of the people function what does your team setup look like at Proxyclick?
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (36:57)
So I think it’s almost the largest team I’ve ever had in a, in a scale-up I’m quite used to having to do a lot of it by myself with some incredible interns or office managers, such as the nature of, of startup world. So but here we have a team. So first of all, we’re because we’re based out of Belgium, we have quite a nice, hefty social labor regulation, so we have someone who’s really helping us navigate that, which is great because they’re an expert in what they do and it allows me to focus on activities I’m better suited to do then understanding kind of labor regulations, but that’s obvious we have someone that’s kind of takes over more of the HR operations. And I have someone who is really spearheading our talent acquisition effort. Again, I’m used to having to do it all.
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (37:45)
So it’s been such a luxury in a way to have someone who’s fully focused on, on growing the team, really thinking about the people coming in and working with the managers to make sure that process is happening. There’s me, that kind of covers from a, like a senior point of view, all everything in between also because we’re building a lot of that stuff. And so it’s architecting it. And then I have sort of two members in my team that are really there to help us execute, of course, in terms of getting stuff done, but also in some ways, have a relationship with the people in a way that that is harder for me to get to is as you get bigger by nature, this, this big job title you carry means people become more like *gasps* about you and they don’t feel, you know, there’s that hier- — it’s kind of hard to avoid that hierarchy as much as I don’t like it that it’s there — but team are kind of ambassadors. So they’re, they can kind of go out there and be seen differently than I can. But we’re not, we’re not a large team, but we’re not a small team today.
Andy Parker (Host) (38:44)
Okay. Interesting. And so a quick question about career advice. If somebody came to you and and asked the question that they were thinking about jumping into their first role as a, as a Head of People how, how would you advise that person as to you know, what to look for in a type of business to join? How would they know if it’s the right time for them to take on that role? And so on?
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (39:12)
That’s a good question. I don’t know if I have a good answer. I think you want to look at the culture of that company and feel how much it really resonates for you personally. And I think you have to take a good, hard look at your CEO and not just, I mean, assuming you report to the CEO, but you might not, but just taking a really good, hard look at your leadership and saying, is this someone who traditionally used to say, well, give me a seat at the table. But is this someone who’s going to listen to me? Who’s going to challenge me where I feel we can really have that rapport? I think that’s a huge, huge part of it. If you want to do the role the way you want to do it, because if that’s not aligned, it’s, it’s, it’s constantly going to become kind of destabilized for you. I think Head of People, role.
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (40:04)
Yeah, I don’t, I think it’s so depends on the situation if I’m honest, right? Like it depends if you’re talking about a group of 30, 40 people, or if you’re talking already about a group of a hundred, how that’s going to look and how close you’re getting to everything. I would say, think about your ability to unlearn. So everything you knew, especially if you came from a larger company, how good are you at stepping away from that and breaking that down? So again, I’m focusing this more on kind of scale up, how good are you getting your hands, dirty, your elbows into the grease and really hands-on, but also being able to zoom out. So to be able to zoom in and zoom out becomes really important. And, and the, the ability to context switch is really important.
Andy Parker (Host) (40:46)
Okay. Interesting. Thank you. And and so let’s talk a little bit about where you see HR heading. And I know you, obviously, you mentioned that you particularly like the phrase HR, but as a you know, as a broad field what are some of the trends that you’re most excited about?
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (41:05)
It’s a really interesting question, because I think I’ve been very lucky that even from the beginning of my career at Goldman, where I was, I was privileged to see HR work in a very advanced way. You know, they were talking about 360s and competency and diversity equity and inclusion good, you know, 10, 15 years ago. So for me that doesn’t feel advanced, but as I’ve as kind of evolved in my career and stepped outside of the, the Goldman Sachs bubble and realize that that isn’t the case for, for lots of other companies. So, but in terms of where I think it’s interesting. I know for a while, the big thing was HR and data. Data-driven, data-driven, which I get. But again, when you’re a small company, that data, you need a lot more data in order to be insightful. I think if you’re small, if you can, you, you know, it by the people, not by the data.
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (42:00)
And I feel like that HR data thing it’s important certainly for larger companies, but I don’t think it fully substitutes what a people professional really brings to the mix, which is more of the arts and the emotional intelligence side of it. And I don’t think data substitutes that at all. And if anything, more and more leadership people experience emotional intelligence becomes the thing and that data can help. Maybe you refine that or know where to focus it, but it doesn’t do it for you. Trends aside from that, I think the, you know, my role often today is, is glue. Or another way to think about is, is advisory, I really sit with managers. And we, you know, I’m there to internally coach I’m there internally coach the CEO. I’m also there to internally coach the new hire. Who’s trying to figure the place out too.
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (42:47)
And I love that. So I love these people roles that, where we really get to partner with the people to be their best selves, and that you, you do it empathically that, you know, servant leadership, all that kind of stuff. That that’s really exciting to me. You know, in the old, in my time before, it was always like, there’s a manager job, and then there’s like the HR job, and that’s probably right from a theoretical perspective. But if you’re thinking very pragmatically, sometimes the people role is really in there with the manager and that’s, it’s a delicate balance. I don’t think one should replace the other, but it’s really a partnership. So that excites me when roles start to really be taken in that way. And, you know, there’s this, Claude Silver, she’s the Chief Heart Officer for VaynerMedia. She’s always on LinkedIn.
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (43:30)
I find, I find her refreshing to listen to, I maybe I don’t always know how that works practically, but I find that a good North star for me also, in terms of HR trends to think, to not feel so apologetic about heart driven leadership, or just that, that desire to have people have a fulsome experience, not at the cost of your business performance, but I, you know, I grew up in an area where, you know, HR wanted to be credible to the business. We wanted to be seen as business people. And that sometimes meant suppressing that emotional intelligence side. And I’m very excited that today I get to do roles where I can really leverage that. And that, that is in fact seen as a driver of commercial performance.
Andy Parker (Host) (44:13)
Great, great. I think yeah, you, you touched on many, many important topics there and and I’d also love to hear you talk a bit about diversity, equity and inclusion. As you said, you know, something that is you know, a field that you’ve worked in on for many years, and when you joined Proxyclick as an example what are some of the things that you immediately look at and implement on that topic?
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (44:42)
So it was really interesting cause it’s, it’s one of the things I learned doing this work for a long time was if you can build the systems right from the beginning, it saves you a lot of pain when you realize you’ve forgotten it. So you can teach managers to manage well, if you can build your recruitment process so it’s inclusive and meritocratic, if you build your performance development, your competency criteria to automatically think about diversity equity inclusion. You start with the best possible circumstances. And if you just kind of blindly go along and then realize you’ve got a remedial issue to fix. So that was kind of always in my mind that if I have the opportunity to do that, that’s something to think about. So it was always there. And then, you know, George Floyd black lives matter that happened in June really accelerated this because our population is very engaged on this topic.
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (45:31)
There was a lot of discussion in our Slack world around it, and a lot of interest and desire. And I don’t think I’d ever seen a company so engaged with wanting to see progress that, you know, you sometimes hear DEI professionals say, how do I get my, my people, my business in line with this. I had the issue of how do I, how do I move fast enough to keep up with what people want to see and how do I also make sure that we don’t have a bandwagon effect of thinking that we solved the problem by this quick solution? When I know that the answer is so much more holistic, so that was kind of the dilemma we had here.
Andy Parker (Host) (46:09)
I think that’s a good problem to have.
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (46:10)
It is but I have to be honest. I felt quite incompetent in that moment. So in terms of where we are today, a couple of things, one is, you know, we talked about it, we talked about it to people. I talked about it with our leadership. But I also refused to kind of react too quickly to it. We started with sort of a listening tour where we heard people out where we tried to really understand what the expectations were after the dust had settled a little bit from the high emotions around those events. And then the plan that was kind of always in my back pocket, just got moved up a lot in terms of things that we needed to do, because we had the attention of people, which was great. So we did an inclusivity audit. So we were able to get hold of it’s, it’s kind of out there in the Google world, the playbook of things companies should be doing based off best practice.
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (46:58)
And we audit ourselves, what do we have? What don’t we have? What are we missing? So we do that and we realized there’s some quick things we needed to do like a diversity and inclusion policy. I think it was always in the DNA, but maybe, you know, there was something for people coming to actually see a policy was really important. So we had that in there. We’ve, you know, I’m increasingly looking at are certainly on gender statistics. That’s something that’s relatively easy for us to measure. It’s harder for us to kind of get into ethnicity, race, historically underrepresented groups, particularly in Europe in terms of the rules and regulations around that. And then the other thing I was super lucky to be able to do is we have a quarterly series where we’ve agreed, we’ll bring our community, our Proxyclick community together to reflect and talk about diversity, equity and inclusion.
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (47:45)
And we just held our event two weeks ago, where I was super fortunate to be able to call in some favors and have colleagues that I worked with before Goldman who’ve gone on to work as, you know, diversity at Google or, you know, PVH, large consumer brands. They volunteered their time on a panel to come and sit with me and talk about, DEI efforts in the workplace, the experience right now in the United States. And that was for our people to, to engage with in a way that didn’t feel driven by Proxyclick agenda, per se, but just to have the knowledge and insight. And that was our first kickoff event for this quarterly series. And our commitment is every quarter, we’ll do some kind of connection point or intervention where we’re talking about this and the commitment that we’re getting this right from the beginning.
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (48:28)
And I’ll give you one example is we’re growing heavily in our product and tech world is maybe, you know, product and tech is quite difficult to find a lot of diversity in the hiring pool for tons of reasons, and I just raised the flag. I said, if we are growing in that area specifically, and if we don’t pay attention and try to have, you know, a diverse pipeline there, we will dilute our representation of women. And that’s an important thing to realize, because it’s, before that moment, you don’t want to be saying that when it’s already happened and you were like, Oh, how did we get there? Because how do undo that? Yep. So things like that.
Andy Parker (Host) (49:08)
Yeah. I think that’s a, that’s an interesting point that you make there, obviously these things have to be thought through very proactively before you know, before, as you say, you’re reflecting on the situation and realizing how did this happen? So great. Well Krystall, we, we touched on many, many important topics. I have, I have one last question before we dive into some quickfire questions. If you could have one wish, in terms of a particular HR problem, that could be solved. What would that problem be?
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (49:48)
I struggled with this question. Can I, I’m sorry. I’m thinking, I feel like, I...
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (50:01)
I think as much as I said that, you know, we’re really partnering with managers. There’s a lot, I don’t get to control. I mean, there’s just, so I’m the Chief of People Experience, but there’s so much, I don’t control, I’m a facilitator, an advisor, and sometimes I can make things happen, but I don’t often hold that relationship or that decision in my hands. Some people think I do, but I don’t. And so the, if you, if managers could just really be great, truthful, authentic managers, I could retire. Right. So I think that would be the magic wand. We wouldn’t maybe need me if all the managers could really fulfill the huge ask that’s on them.
Andy Parker (Host) (50:43)
Interesting. And so, so really to summarize that, then you’re, you know, a lot of the challenges that you face is enabling the, the managers within your organization to also be great leaders and you know, be sort of the empathetic leaders that are needed within an organization.
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (51:01)
Yeah. Every manager should, should be an HR manager too. Yeah.
Andy Parker (Host) (51:05)
Excellent. That’s a, that’s a really good closing thoughts. Okay. A couple of quickfire questions from, from my side. So is there a book that you would recommend that every every HR or People Operations professional should read?
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (51:19)
There were tons that I thought of. There was one book, I think it’s Adrian Horowitz and people always know The Hard Thing About Hard Things. That’s the one everybody knows, but he wrote another one called What You Do is Who You Are. And it’s a bit of a weird book in terms of the case studies he’s doing. But what he does is he’s looking at cultures and talking about what drives that culture. And it’s a really interesting reflection about how company cultures are made and what gets controlled. And it felt a little bit odd when I first started reading it, but a lot of it stuck with me in terms of how to understand, especially as you’re scaling culture, things to bear in mind. So that’s a good one.
Andy Parker (Host) (51:55)
Cool. Excellent. Well, we’ll link to that in the show notes. And and then the next question would be is there a particular training that you have done that has been really impactful on your career?
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (52:05)
I would say three things really quickly. So one is very boring, but time management. Way back when, pre-smartphones, I took a David Allen time management, and this is when you use paper to do everything, but that was a really key skill to understand how to prioritize your time. And I think there’s modern day versions of that today using all the digital tools we have, but that was a good one early on to just understand how to prioritize what gets done. Second one is that I did a training with, I think it’s Marshall Goldsmith, where they talked about skill and will and understanding when you’re talking about managing people and you’re talking to performance, understanding that there’s very simply as a tool skill and will capability and willingness. And if you can understand those things and adapt accordingly, mhat really helps with managing coaching delegating and all that.
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (52:52)
And that’s something I’ve used and try to help other managers understand because it’s practical. It’s, it’s not too complicated, but it’s useful. And the last one I think is I’m going to say radical candor. I know sometimes it got a bit of a funny name and in the world, but I think, you know, what the problem with empathy is it can become exactly what did she call it? I don’t, it can be a disservice, even though you think you are going in with the best of intentions. And I think radical candor of being able to show the compassion for that person, but also part of that compassion means being really straight with the truth. I think that for me personally, that’s been a really helpful way to balance my own like empathy quotient with what I need to do professionally.
Andy Parker (Host) (53:34)
Excellent. And and then the final question would be any other resources that that you recommend, any, any other sources that you go to to make sure that your skillsets and that you’re sort of learning the most up-to-date information.
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (53:47)
So, you know, when you work on a scale of actually you really have to do it because there’s no one internal to rely on. So I find myself kind of with an open ear in mind, to a lot of things more than I maybe used to be. And that’s everything from, you know, all those quick little HBR, Harvard business review articles that you’ll see, I’m constantly picking. And it’s like two minutes of your time to read and kind of do a quick sanity check with yourself, maybe pick up an insight, but also, you know, it’s kind of a recent discovery. There’s all these sort of Slack communities that are out there for people professionals today. And again, from where I’m sitting, it’s really helpful because you learn what other companies are doing, what other questions people are dealing with. And particularly now with confidence, I think that global community out there, the open playbooks that are happening is it’s really beneficial that you, would be silly not to take advantage of all that information that’s there.
Andy Parker (Host) (54:38)
Excellent. Well, Krystall, thank you so much. This has been an amazing conversation. I hope you’ve enjoyed it as well.
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (54:45)
Yes, it’s good to have some self-reflection sometimes. So thank you. I hope it’s, I hope it’s interesting for others too.
Andy Parker (Host) (54:51)
Absolutely. Sure. It will be. Thank you very much.
Krystall Fierens-Lee (Guest) (54:53)
Andy Parker (Host) (54:54)