Cerius Business Today: Meet Kara Vega

Kara Vega, Interim Chief Human Resource Officer

Interview by Kristen McAlister, President of Cerius Executives

Kristen McAlister:

Hello, this is Kristen McAlister, president of Cerius Executives, and we are bringing to you today, Cerius Business Today with Kara Vega. She is an interim Chief Human Resources Officer with quite the career, both domestically and worldwide. Thank you for joining us today.

Kara Vega:

Thanks for having me.

Kristen McAlister:

So, Kara, before we go into your background, first, let’s clarify: Interim Chief Human Resources officer, what is that exactly?

Kara Vega:

So that basically is a head of HR, a Chief Human Resource Officer. Think of it as being a strategic partner to the CEO, that right-hand advisor that is looking to be able to have that voice for the employees, but also think about, at the same time, what’s best for the company, and to have that be a partnership between the CEO and the employees.

Kristen McAlister:

Thanks for clarifying that because I often get, “I have a head of HR. Do I call her director of HR, VP of HR or CHRO?” What’s the difference?

Kara Vega:

First and foremost, I think it’s a cultural difference on what it is that people call one another from a title perspective.

However, I do think that there will always be the tactical or transactional things like payroll benefits that are important for HR, but when you think of a CHRO and someone that’s going to have really that c-level title, it’s someone that’s really understanding the business, someone that’s being able to strategically advise where the company should go, what that structure looks like and really help through the different phases of growth. So that’s what you may find in somebody that’s at a director level.

There’s lots of different levels within HR that are that true business partner. But if you’re really speaking about a CHRO, it’s somebody that’s got a seat at the table and is really understanding the business to be able to advise from a people operations perspective.

Kristen McAlister:

Thank you. That was very helpful.

In looking at that, I think maybe some background on you and what you’ve done in your career to be able to step in on an interim basis quickly assess and help companies as an interim CHRO.

Kara Vega:

Sure. So, I, interestingly enough, have an international business degree, and if you would’ve asked me back then, if I would have ended up in HR the answer probably would have been “no.” I’m very thankful that I did because I’ve really enjoyed my career.

But I was really blessed because I was starting HR – even back then, there were companies that were really thinking of HR differently in that real business partner. Anywhere from, I’ve worked at 20th century, Fox, Sony Pictures, Technicolor, one of the biggest global property services company of Cushman and Wakefield, or DTZ, Vitech Video Com. There have been quite a few companies that I’ve worked for.

And a lot of my time has really been about change management, helping people through how they get to the next stage of growth. So anywhere from a startup to $5 billion+, anywhere from 25 employees to 50,000+. Most of the companies that I’ve worked for have been in global roles and they have been where they have had employees in over 30 countries.

And so, although there has been a large population in the US, there have also been the nuances that come along with having people in other countries and making sure that they’re feeling part of that company as a whole.

Kristen McAlister:  

Fantastic. You mentioned that even back then, you were fortunate to be in companies that really were forward-thinking. When they were starting to talk about strategic planning and thinking about, “what direction do we go into next year?” they brought their head of HR into that conversation. Why was that? What was it that made them different to think, “let’s have our head of people in on this conversation of where we’re going?” Where do they really get the value?

Kara Vega:

I think that’s an interesting question because at the end of the day, not everyone naturally gravitates towards HR being a business partner.

So, when I say that I’ve been fortunate to be at a lot of organizations that have had that, it’s not to say that that was just given. A lot of our job of being that strategic HR business partner is to show the value of what HR has to offer in that type of role. So, some organizations have invited them. And when I say “them” I mean whether it be myself or my bosses at the time or whatever the case may be, where HR is really invited in to have a seat at the table and really advise.

But I would say the number one priority for anyone within HR is about building relationships. And so, it really is about gaining that trust in that strategic business partner role. And once you have that trust, it’s very easy to be invited in and to be helping an organization through their growth and change, and really have that voice.

Kristen McAlister:

When I speak with CEOs the automatic tendency is, “I’m not a billion dollar company. I don’t need a CHRO.”

What size of companies or situations have you worked in where there’s a lot of value that can be brought regardless of the size?

Kara Vega:

It’s interesting that you say that because what I would say is that every organization needs a CHRO.

Now, again, if you feel that the title needs to be a director of HR or an executive director of HR VP, to me, it’s not necessarily about the title, it’s about the responsibility and about the relationship that an organization can have with a strategic HR business partner.

When I worked for Fox Mobile, they were a startup division. The first time that was happening from a technology standpoint within mobile and having that partnership from news corp perspective and Fox perspective and having those properties, they really needed someone to lead that organization through a very beginning stage of growth. We were only 25 employees when I joined, all the way up to then 1200 by the time I moved over to another role within Fox.

So, I would say that it really isn’t about the size of the organization. It’s about whether or not having a true business partner that can help advise on the human capital needs of the business and what that might look like and really to understand the business as a whole, whether or not that’s needed.

If you’re an organization that’s growing and at a certain size and is looking to grow, you need somebody that’s a true HR strategic business partner.

Kristen McAlister:

Thank you. You answered the question perfectly.

I was going to ask, what are some questions typically that you would ask a business owner or CEO to really assess if either their strategy or their business model or where they’re at could benefit from having a, either somewhat, a part-time interim basis, just come in and help with that strategic level thinking on talent?

Kara Vega:

I can speak for myself and that a big part of my wheelhouse is change management. I think if you look at our times right now with going through a global pandemic, but even before that, most companies don’t know what they don’t know. So, you can have an amazing leader that knows anything and everything about his or her business, but having that partner help look and analyze it into the business of, “could there be something structurally different, could there be a different efficient process? Or could we be doing something differently when it comes to cost savings?” I can’t tell you how many organizations that I’ve gone into immediately have low hanging fruit that have been there for a very long time. Significant savings right off the bat.

A business owner, or really just management in general, shouldn’t necessarily have to spend their time analyzing what those things are. That is the role of a good HR business partner. And so, it is about coming in understanding the strategy, understanding the goals of the business and the management, and then working together to identify those areas in which that person should spend time.

I have yet to go into an organization that has been just really great and everything’s working perfectly and that there is no need for improvement.

Kristen McAlister:

I will say over the past nine months and in the pandemic, I think it’s been very humbling for business owners and where we used to be able to say, “no one can know my business better than I do. I’ve been living it for 20 years.”

A lot has shifted to where it’s, “I feel like I don’t even know my business anymore.” And a lot of advisors and strategic fund advisors are being brought in to help them figure out, “how does that roadmap now look? Because the path we’re going down no longer exists. We need to find a new path.”

Now, you talked about, change management, are you seeing an increased need for that change management? And what does that mean to that CEO? Because we know there’s a lot of change going on. To put the two words together: How do we manage that change? What does that look like?

Kara Vega:

I would say it looks different for every company just because we are in a unique situation because the entire world, no matter who you are, no matter what business you have, is going through the global pandemic and the changes that are happening from that.

So, even on the other side of this, when there is no more pandemic, what does your business look like? What does your workforce look like? We are absolutely seeing that companies are really trying to embrace not only from a technology standpoint, but also, in the future, what does that workforce look like?

To give you an example, you may have a lot of people that are currently working remotely only because you’re forced to do that, to be able to make sure that everyone is safe and whatnot, but what does that look like in the future? Most companies and most business owners will tell you that they will continue with some sort of hybrid workforce in which there’s always going to be people from a remote standpoint and then some people in the office. What does that mix look like?

So, what do we need to do to be able to make changes permanently or for the future? And I would say a lot of them stem from technology.

Now, I’ve always been a person that brings technology into the human capital space anyways. I’m a big proponent on technology and the efficiency that it brings. And, especially being in global roles, remote workforce is nothing new to me. And so, really being able to look at the technologies that are out there and see how it is that we can make the most out of having some of our workforce remain remote. And what does that look like?

Kristen McAlister:

I’m glad that you brought up the global workforce and the technologies. I know that you are a speaker at a number of conferences both last year and coming up here and you speak a lot to technology in that. What are some of the trends that you’re seeing over the next couple of years with regard to technology in the workforce?

Kara Vega:

There are so many, but what I can say is that I’ve always been a big proponent. If you look at even learning and development, right? So typically, companies will bring people together to learn something. Let’s take management training or leadership training as an example, does that always have to be in person? Can that be remote? And what does that look like remote? And how can you have the same kind of connectiveness being remote?

There are gamification platforms where people can actually learn a compliance training, which typically leans to the more boring side versus management training. But you can do those things by playing a game on your own, on your cell phone. You can look at different ways of doing things.

One of my current clients has come out with a new technology that really can tell whether or not someone is paying attention to the content in which you’re presenting, whether you’re live speaking in a meeting, in a town hall for a CEO, or whether or not in asynchronous training, meaning training that’s already prerecorded and being played, whether or not someone is actually paying attention, where are they losing their connectiveness and being able to see whether they’re happy or sad.

This knowledge and data for business leaders and owners is really imperative, especially as we have more workforce working remotely. I think it’s really important if you look at how companies have always talked about wellness and making sure that we have the right programs in place from a wellness perspective.

Well, it isn’t just about programs right now. I would say more than ever, it’s about truly making sure that your employees have the ability to have work-life balance. Most of them are working from their home and have many other responsibilities in their life and family. And so really making sure that those employees have their needs being met.

I was just reading an article last night about how a lot of companies have perks of having a canteen and a wonderful food when people are at work and people were relying on that food, having one or two meals a day at work. So now companies have the opportunity to provide that at home and providing delivery of food and other ways to look at things.

Really, the possibilities are endless, and technology affords us the ability to do that. The amount of cost savings that can be had with AI and other technology is really quite significant.

Kristen McAlister:

You mentioned the level of areas that they can help it with employees like the meals.

And I look at what they’re doing with school systems and you look at what they’re doing to support those families. The families are going up in there and picking up meals every day, because that’s how they were supporting their children. And looking at the variety of the workforce, I can see now strategically all the different areas that you’re looking at and bringing new ideas of how to support the workforce, just in a different way, in a different environment. That’s incredible.

When you look at top priorities for companies going into this year, I know we’re kind of at the beginning of it when we’re recording it. Well, whether it be us or international, what do you see as some of the top priorities of HR leaders?

Kara Vega:

Well if I’m speaking about what’s really happened in the last year, a lot of organizations and a lot of HR leaders have been in survival mode. And spending a lot of time on revamping what it is that their processes are and policies because they were overnight forced into a situation that was very unexpected.

And so now it’s really about organizations pivoting for the future. And what does that look like for their workforce? Having the programs and the processes in place, but really looking at, what is that structure truly going to look like going forward? And I would say there has yet to be a business that has not pivoted somehow in the current environment.

And so, there’s a lot of different revenue streams that have come out of the global pandemic and being able to change to be able to survive or to be able to continue to grow and increase the revenue. So, it’s really about how do we get the return on investment for the changes that we’ve had with our workforce and how do we make sure that our employees are truly happy in the environment that we have?

Something that’s really come up a lot is that not everyone likes working remotely. So, companies may be making these decisions, but what is it that your employees want? And really making sure that we have options that are safe for employees to also have the option to either come into a workplace or should there be a need to have some sort of place to go outside of their home, whatever that may be, that we really look at some of those options. But it really is about, strategically, where is it that we want to go for the future? Versus being able to survive in a pandemic and really setting us up for success for the future.

Kristen McAlister:

So, pulling this all together. When you look at being that strategic advisor to the CEO, what would be a couple of top pieces of advice you would give CEOs this year?

Kara Vega:

It really depends on their business, but I would say that one of the number one priorities for CEOs needs to be the wellbeing of their employees.

I think people cannot underestimate the challenges that people have in their home life. And Even though we may believe that everyone is adjusting to the changes that have occurred within businesses. I think it’s really important for CEOs to make sure that they understand their current workforce.

What does it look like for the future and really make sure that you’re taking care of your employees from a wellbeing perspective? I think that’s probably the number one priority because at the end of the day, whether you’re selling widgets or rocket ships, it doesn’t matter. You have to have employees to be able to have that be successful.

If your employees are not well and that talent isn’t taken care of from that standpoint, it’s very difficult to continue to be successful.

I think the other thing, when we’re talking about really working with HR, again, it’s always important to have the tactical transactional part of HR working flawlessly.

If employees don’t get paid or don’t have their benefits, well, they don’t care about other things, but what’s really important is to let that HR person in. And if you don’t have that person hire that right person to be able to really help advise the business on what it is that the future looks like.

And how is it that you can continue to be successful and get the most return on investment in the future? I think a lot of people really just don’t know what they don’t know. And so, having that true business partner and enabled to having that strong relationship to be able to advise on the value, I think those are probably the two top priorities.

To be honest, I think there’s a lot of priorities and they’re all competing. And I would say that a lot of CEOs are struggling with the fact that they have had to pivot their business. And there’s been some pretty significant changes that people have had to make whether they’re a small mom and pop business or whether they’re a $5 billion+ business. Everyone has had to make some sort of change. And so, it’s really about that change management and doing it right. And not putting a Band-Aid on a situation that has occurred because this really has changed the way that we’re going to do things for the future.

Kristen McAlister:

Thank you. And there’s a couple of things that I’ve heard throughout our session today, as you look at sitting in the CEO spot around the table, there’s a number of resources that you can go to as you look at the pivot that you’re making the strategic direction of the company.

One of the biggest pieces of advice here is making sure that your HR leader is there, whether it’s someone you currently have, or you bring in an interim or part-time CHRO, you’ve got the HR leader there to help determine in order to execute our strategy. How do we align our talent with that? What is the workforce of the future look like and how do we support the workforce? Whether it be technology or looking out for their wellbeing, and that’s how you’re going to get there. It’s almost like having a crystal ball. Kara, the planning process you give CEOs is exactly that crystal ball to look in.

And we have been so lucky to have you here today and sharing your expert advice. I know that you get called on for many conferences as you’re a keynote speaker, world renowned, and we have been very thankful to have you share your advice and your perspective with us today.

Kara Vega:

Well, thank you very much for having me.

To learn more about Cerius Executives or to get connected with Kara Vega, you can contact us at [email protected]. Thank you for joining.

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