We love hearing from passionate, successful HR professionals and this week we spoke to Sarah Blackmore, People and Culture leader.
You’ll soon appreciate Sarah’s love and enthusiasm for the industry and her constructive outlook on things as she takes us on a journey back through her career and teaches you how to broaden your horizons to better understand the space you operate in.
During our chat, we hear about Sarah’s job history and her approach to getting on the career ladder, something she feels fell into place later in life. Addressing the ever-prominent issue a huge number of us have faced – or are currently facing- of trying to figure out what you want to do as a career, Sarah tells us her road to starting out wasn’t so smooth and how temping set her off initially.
“Temping for me was like the gateway into being able to try different environments and try different kinds of work and see what stuck.”
Admitting she only found what she truly loved doing in her thirties, we go on to learn of how her previous roles were a learning curve and steered her toward where she is now, yet not still without its setbacks. Like most us of, Sarah had those moments of feeling directionless.
“Not knowing where I wanted to go was mainly because I just didn’t know what I was capable of and what could potentially be possible for me.”
Having started in event planning in a completely different role, she has come 360 to work for Eventbase to look after their people.
“I actually think it’s the same mindset that made me happy in events that makes me really, really happy in people.”
But how are those in the event industry coping during a global pandemic? She, like many, has had to change and adapt to a new way of working and looking after people at work during this time is increasingly important.
“Our business has been completely turned on its head, which has been incredibly difficult, but also incredibly interesting from a people person’s perspective because it’s given me [the] opportunity to do things that maybe I would never have been able to do.”
Throughout our podcast, we cover a number of topics in HR and recruitment and, of course, the importance of mentoring.
“One of my big passions is middle management and middle management coaching because they typically are the guys that are left a little bit behind.”
To hear more insight from Sarah on the challenges smaller businesses face when it comes to tackling issues such as remote working, facilities and larger ongoing issues such as inclusivity, listen to this week’s Strivin & Thrivin podcast. Sharing real stories and real insight every week!
Laura: I’m your host, Laura Johnson. And today I’m lucky enough to have Hope Dawson as my wonderful co-host. Today we’re thrilled to be joined by Sarah Blackmore who’s a People and Culture Leader, who’s also on a mission to put the human back in to Human Resources.
Okay. To get us started. Can you tell us a little bit about your current role and your background?
Sarah: Well, that makes it interesting because I’m tomorrow transitioning out of my current role and into a new one. So I’ll tell you about my current role as of today.
Laura: Yup. And then we can talk about the new role.
Sarah: My current role is VP of People for a company called Eventbase, which is an app company that makes apps specifically for large corporate and public-facing events. And my role is everything and anything people related. So that’s recently included organizational design, managing benefits, employee engagement work, program development, training, recruitment, all of those wonderful things that come with people jobs.
Laura: Can you talk about your new role. Are you allowed to?
Sarah: Yeah, I can. I absolutely can. It’s already out in the public domain, but I am moving on from Eventbase and I’m moving to an organization called Riipen, spelled two Is, and Riipen is an education platform and their mission is to eliminate underemployment in graduates. So they pack graduates or near graduates with businesses to be able to gain practical skills and contribute to businesses projects for them to gain experience in the companies to get some projects done.
Laura: I love that.
Sarah: And I will be joining the numbers there, the Head of People and Culture.
Laura: I think that’s such important. There is a big thread the other day, I meant to send it to you on LinkedIn, about kind of all these entry-level jobs coming up and being like, “But must have experience. And this, this, this and this.” And you’re like, “Well, how is it an entry-level job then? How does that work?”
Sarah: Yeah. It’s insane. I personally have a huge bone to pick with post-secondary education. So this is a great place for me to just kind of start maybe some of that bone picking as well as getting to do the people work from the internal side. But yeah, school’s great if you know what you want to go do, most of them don’t. And until you actually start doing things like practical project work, you are gaining a ton of really tangible skills to go into the workforce once you’ve graduated. Hence, that you need five years as an entry-level whatever, and it doesn’t work.
Laura: It doesn’t. Okay. Without going down that rabbit hole, we’re going to go back to you and your career.
Laura: Before Eventbase, kind of what have you done? How did you get into HR? What have you kind of done in that space?
Sarah: Yeah, I left school not knowing I was one of those people that I really just didn’t know what I wanted to do. I took some courses. I didn’t find anything that I loved and I started temping and temping for me was like the gateway into being able to try different environments and try different kinds of work and see what stuck. And the thing at that point that stuck with me was event management. So I worked in hotels and I planned weddings and conferences. And to me, it was like this big puzzle that was handed to me and someone said, “Oh my God, fix it.” And I was able to deal with things around and work with the different departments and ultimately pull off what seemed like the unpull off-able. And I absolutely loved it. And honestly, I actually think it’s the same mindset that made me happy in events, that makes me really, really happy in people, because it’s so often something very similar where someone goes, “Oh my God, I don’t know what to do.”
And you’re the person that sits and solves it and builds something or identifies a gap and fills that gap. So I left events. The hours were just a little bit too much for me every Saturday and Sunday and the summer was at that point too many. And I transitioned into HR work. I started… I cut my teeth in recruitment in an agency environment, which, again, I really liked, but the thing with agency recruitment is if you’re good at it, and I was good at it, you never hear from them again because you’ve done such a good job. You’ve placed that candidate, and off they go, and they begin their career. And I wanted to get a little bit more out of it than that. I wanted to be part of talent being able to grow in their roles and see them progress and help them with that performance and allowing them to then really flourish in the workforce, which is when I transitioned into internal HR work.
Worked for a Big Four accounting consulting company, not the right culture fit and found Tech in 2014. And then that was really, honestly where my career began properly in the way that it is now, which meant that I was in my 30s when I finally found something that I really liked doing, with people I really liked doing it with, which kind of fast forward to today in 2021, I’ve stayed in Tech and stayed in those leadership roles within the people organization to forward other people’s development and growth.
Laura: I love that. I guess just thinking about your current role and I guess I’m trying not to be totally biased, because obviously, I know about your current role. As you’re the only person in your kind of department, what does an average working day look like?
Sarah: My current role is so weird because I work for an events company. We’re in the middle of pandemic. There are no events. So our business has been completely turned on its head, which has been incredibly difficult, but also incredibly interesting for me, people person’s perspective, because it’s given me opportunity to do things that maybe I would never have been able to do in my experience. So a typical day can look obviously like anything. I start my day with a leadership scrum. It’s really important that we maintain connection as a leadership team, especially being remote. So we scrum every morning at 9 AM, sort of setting priorities for the day, removing any hurdles, catching up. It’s important to maintain that other, the intimate side of it, the friendship side of it. And then it really just depends on what I’m working on.
So at the moment, I’m working on… I’ve had some active recruitment roles, so I’m screening candidates. I’m working with… Recently, we’ve been looking at revamping our… As we’re hiring, revamping our career sites. So making sure that I’m gathering assets, the things like that, talking about some of the new programs that we’ve built to support our remote workforce and making sure that that’s on the career site and that’s accurately reflected as to what it looks like to work at Eventbase. I deal with a lot of coaching with managers. One of my big passions is middle management and middle management coaching because they typically are the guys that are left a little bit behind. So I spend a lot of my day with those. I also coach up a lot. I spend a lot of time with our leadership team and making sure that we’re thinking more broadly about messaging and intention and alignment of priorities, especially as we’ve gone through such upheaval with the pandemic in our industry.
And then also, actually for a people person, I spend quite a lot of time in the financials. It’s really important that I have a really good grip on how we’re doing as a company, how much revenue is coming in, making sure that we can qualify the way in which we need to continue to operate the business. So I think that’s maybe a little bit unusual for a Head of People to be that involved in the financials and the operational strategic side of the business, but that’s one of the reasons I’ve really enjoyed my job.
Laura: So actually, something we were talking about with someone the other day, I think a big area that HR from an outside point of view, but then marketing from a marketing person point of view, falls down as understanding the numbers and actually how it all kind of comes together. And I think we could all do with a slightly better financial understanding or kind of just be a bit more vocal about our financial understanding. So the default position is, “Oh, that person doesn’t know about the numbers because they work in HR/Marketing etc”.
Sarah: Yeah, yeah. I think it’s really important. And actually, one of the things that we put into practice when I joined Eventbase three years ago and I’ve continued to implement is complete transparency when it comes to financials. Everybody should know the numbers. Everybody in every organisation should know how you generate revenue, where that revenue comes from and how that revenue is funneled into the business to achieve X, Y and Z goal. Because without that information, you can’t really do your job properly. You need to be able to build empathy for all of those functions as a really good employee to truly understand what it is you’re out there to achieve. And so financial transparency from a company perspective is a really important value to me because I think everybody should be able to see how we’re doing and make their own decisions based on that information rather than build their own narrative as to how they think it’s doing.
Laura: Yeah. That’s a really good point. I guess going back to the fact that it’s just you in your role, how do you stay on top of kind of new trends, best practices, what’s happening in the world? How do you stay on top of everything as well as fighting all the fires you’re on on a daily basis?
Sarah: Yeah. Sometimes the fires take precedence. I think what’s been interesting about my industry, as in sort of the people in human resources industry of late, is that we have really had to think in a very different way than we’ve had to in the past. With the rise in remote, the tendency for organisations to now rethink how they’re going to either transfer their workforce to an entirely remote structure or build a hybrid structure or bring them back into the office has made us do things we would never have done before. So staying on top of trends in that regard has actually been quite easy because no one knows what the heck we’re doing. In the best way possible, from my perspective, the people world, the HR world needed a transformation so desperately. There was like us kind of in Tech doing things that were weird to everybody else in the corporate world, like unlimited vacation.
And of course, you can work from home. And there was a real resistance to a lot of that creativity in the people world. So now that’s become a little bit more mainstream, sort of my cohort of peers communicate very frequently on Slack. We, again, approach our work with real transparency. If we’re doing something and someone wants to know how we do it, we’ll share all those materials. We’ll tell them what failed, what steps we took to then bring it back, provide any advice. And so that’s honestly where I got a lot of my inspiration from in terms of staying on top of trends, because by the time they’re on the internet, they’re not really trends.
Laura: Already old news.
Sarah: Yeah. Kind of. Or they’ve been big company-ified. So you’ll see something and it will have been delivered by a giant company because they have all of the money in the world to be able to do X, Y and Z. And then that becomes the new standard, which then is really difficult to achieve as a small guy.
Laura: I was having that chat with Dean the other day about diversity and inclusion. I went to a talk and I think it’s amazing that you hear what these companies are doing around inclusion perspective and what they’re doing, but it’s always big companies you appear to hear from, which is great if you’ve got a million dollar budget and 26 people to deliver it. Sure. But what about the majority of businesses, which are probably a couple of hundred people and they’ve maybe got one or two people that kind of really spearheading that? What do you do when it’s that? And I think you’re right. A lot of the things you hear about, sometimes you read, and it’s almost like, “Well, that’s completely unachievable for me”. So you kind of swipe it to the side and you’re like, “Oh, I’m going to deal with that after my other priority list of 96 things”.
Sarah: Yeah. It’s a real thing. One of the things I found really interesting at the beginning of the pandemic was going into LinkedIn and seeing big organisations like big financial institutions, very large e-commerce platforms, telling the world that they’re so, so proud that they’re going to transition their workforce to work from home. And they’re going to give them a thousand dollars a year to equip their space. And we heard so many stories on those professional social media sites around how the big guys were so generous and doing, “Oh my God, isn’t that wonderful?”, and I had no stories about how the other guys are doing. How are those 200 people at 200 people companies?
I can’t give everybody a thousand dollars. My revenue is completely tanked but I’m still solving the same problems with my workforce feeling engaged and being equipped and managing their own health and safety suddenly from their own houses. And we don’t hear enough real deal stories from the folks out there on the front lines, because these big organizations kind of dominate some of those headlines from a people perspective. And that becomes hard because then that becomes the new normal. And I can’t do that. So it’s kind of a bit of a catch-22 sometimes. It’s really difficult.
Hope: So it’s really important to obviously build a network and a community around you that kind of links you to like-minded or other businesses that are at that same level. And that’s probably even more important than looking at that trend on the internet, because like you said, when it gets on the internet, it’s already…
Sarah: It’s already… Yeah.
Hope: It’s not always adaptable to every business and to every person, is it? So I kind of think that links to our kind of our mentorships and have people that need that help to lean to a mentor that’s been through exactly what you’ve been through so they can give you that advice. So did you have a mentor through this whole global pandemics? Sorry, pandemic. Or were you a mentor to anybody?
Sarah: So I didn’t. I currently don’t have a mentor. However, I actively mentor others. So I’m incredibly lucky. And I definitely know my privilege in being able to have this at my fingertips. I’m very well connected in our local technology scene. Vancouver is a really small town. It’s a really small city. Everybody kind of knows each other. From a people perspective, it’s not a big city in comparison to Toronto. So that in itself has really helped me be able to gain inspiration from my peers rather than be mentored, which has kind of filled that need for me in a good way, but also be able to take that and then help other people. So I have a couple of people that I specifically mentor and we have regular sessions, or they can flag stuff up to me like, “Hey, what do you think about this?”.
And I think it’s really important. And we’re also then bettering our own practice. The more we can give back, the more I can pass and give back into my people, peer network, the better we all are. We raise each other up and we raise that bar of what’s possible. And it’s a difficult… Oftentimes, if you’re the only person, specifically in an HR organisation, because it’s a smaller organization, they don’t know what HR’s capable of. They’re often first time or second time founders, or maybe they’ve not grown a company. Maybe this is the biggest company they’ve ever run and every time they hire, it’s now again the biggest company they’ve ever run and they don’t really know.
And so you spend a lot of your time… I know I spend a lot my time and my career managing up in terms of what is possible. So when you have a peer network and a mentor network that is maybe fought some of those fights before, just really have success in building the things that you, as an intermediate, want to build. How do you sell that? How do you write a business case for it? How do you prove its value? And that’s where my peer network specifically has been amazing. And in turn, I’ve really been able to kind of lean in with the mentorship side. And again, that raises our collective bar to just be better.
Laura: I love the whole raising the collective bar. We only get better together.
Sarah: It’s so competitive out there and it doesn’t need to be. Just because they’re doing it, doesn’t mean we can’t. We can do it too. And we can learn from how they trailblazed before us. And then that becomes the new norm. And again, I feel so privileged that I work in perhaps maybe a more creative environment being Tech that’s maybe a little bit more open to taking risks and iteration than a traditional industry where that becomes really tough. And those old school industries tend to go into the secret side of where they couldn’t possibly share their special sauce on how they did X. Whereas my norm is everything, like, “Yeah, sure. You want a copy of that policy? 100%, here you go. Don’t plagiarise it entirely, but here’s your inspiration. Go for it”. And that really does then raise the collective bar.
Laura: And I think what’s the old saying? It’s just like, “You become the value of the five people around you”, or whatever. So if you surround yourself with good stuff, you get better. And if you’re sharing documents, somebody else might look at it and be like, “Hey, actually I did one and I did this a bit differently”. And then that kind of ups the game of what you’ve done too. Right? Because you’re just sharing that kind of collective knowledge.
Sarah: Yeah. Yeah. Totally.
Laura: And I think it’s especially important when you are in those kind of single person teams. I think we were saying it before. It can be really tough when you’ve got this huge list of things to do, not to just go, “Okay, that’s done. Next. That’s done. Next.” How are you getting better when you’re doing that? And you don’t end up just treating it as a tick box exercise. How are you improving in that day to day? And I think things like just sharing with other people in the same position is incredibly important.
Sarah: Yeah. Crowdsourcing in that regard can be super, super powerful.
Laura: I guess going back to kind of your mentees that you have, have you got any advice for anybody that’s kind of going into a mentor session as to how the best ways to prepare or how they can best get the most out of that session?
Sarah: Yeah, absolutely. So, I’m a strong believer in that nothing should feel forced. A mentor-mentee relationship can feel in the organisation of it, a pretty formal process. However, if you really want to get the best out your mentor-mentee relationship, it has to become a conversation and it has to become a real relationship and not just transactional. So, my perspective as I’m coaching mentees is to just have a clear idea of how you want to learn, understand how you absorb information, so in turn, you can communicate that to your mentor, so however they’re helping coach you feels appropriate to you. Everyone’s different. They learn differently. They absorb information differently. They converse differently. And finding that comfort, I think, with a mentor is really important. And I think also understanding somewhat what you want to learn is really helpful, especially if it’s a very broad subject in terms of what you’re being mentored on.
It’s good to be able to at least try and take that top of funnel down a little bit, because otherwise, you might not get as much out of it as you potentially could, but then, in turn, also just being really open for… There’s conversations that branch off. Be open to the branching off because actually, sometimes that can be where the real gold is. It goes in the direction that you didn’t expect and it lights you up for some reason and you need to have that fluidity to better follow that path and explore and see where it goes.
Hope: I think this links a bit to…. We’ve had some pretty good answers, but can you give us the best career advice that you have received that really resonated with you?
Sarah: Yeah. I absolutely can. So one of the best managers I ever had was when I was in that very corporate environment. And he used to get really frustrated with me because we’d have these official performance conversations. Every year, we do our performance reviews and every year, we would have to goal set as a human being to say like, “Oh, this is where I want to go. This is how I want to grow in your organisation”. And I never truly had an answer to that, which used to frustrate the hell out of me because I don’t know how to help you progress unless you kind of know where you want to go. It was one of those things where up until that point, not knowing where I wanted to go, was mainly because I just didn’t know what I was capable of and what could potentially be possible for me.
And he kind of kept digging away stuff and digging and asking why and asking why and the idea of five whys and it’s very, very effective. I got down to the point that all I wanted to do is that the decisions that the company that were being made were ridiculous. And I just wanted to be in the room and be able to give a point of view to why they were ridiculous because it was so disconnected. It was a dying organisation and it’s no disrespect to them, but yeah, it was just a little bit out of touch with actual reality. And really, that piece of advice to just keep digging and keep exploring and keep playing around with those ideas, was ultimately the best piece of career advice I could ever hope for, because that was what took me into Tech.
Knowing that I couldn’t just be a tiny cog in a big machine, the only job I think my parents have ever known the company I’ve worked for, so the only one they’ve ever really been proud of wasn’t for me, it didn’t light me up. It made me question myself and it made my day to day just not fun. And it led me to Tech where I could be in the room. I had the ability to be able to help implement those decisions. And even if I didn’t get what I wanted, I was able to provide an input and then carry through and whatever was decided, I knew how that decision was made so I could then take it onboard and go and do it and deliver it. And I don’t know if I ever would have gotten to do that had I had not had that manager and had not had been given that piece of advice. Yeah.
Hope: So good. So good that it’s still with you as well. It just shows that it’s made a huge difference because it’s like you’ve just now applied it to every role and every business. And yeah, that’s great.
Sarah: Yeah. And to be honest with you, it’s actually just gotten… It’s just gotten louder.
Sarah: Once I found out that I could be in the room and I had that realization of, “Oh my gosh, I’ve actually done the thing I set out to do. And I’m now able to help make and craft this business and make these decisions.” It’s just gotten louder as I’ve grown with responsibility. It means the pressure is more. I have to deliver on a heck of a lot more than when I was given that piece of career advice, but it meant that it was right because it’s just blossomed. I hate that word. Like it bloomed over time. Like it’s become… Yeah, it’s become actually not just even my role anymore. It’s actually become how I kind of approach the world in general.
Laura: I was about to say that. I feel like that’s just how you approach life.
Sarah: It is. It is now. I don’t think 2012 Sarah would have agreed with you at all.
Laura: All right. Just looking at time. They will do two more questions. Hope’s got a great question that we’ve been using today and then I’ll wrap up.
Hope: So I’m looking at your LinkedIn profile, your resume, through your experience that you spoke with us today. Is there anything that isn’t on there, like a life experience that has made a massive kind of effect with your career today?
Sarah: 100%, yes.
Sarah: 100%, yeah.
Hope: It’s funny. Everybody is saying that. It’s great. I feel like it opens it up this whole…
Sarah: I took a job I should never have taken. I got so caught up in being wooed and wowed by this organisation that I, in hindsight, because hindsight’s 20/20, I deliberately ignored red flags because I just didn’t want to see them. And it was the worst job I’ve ever had, like ever. And I don’t think I’ll ever experience such a toxic environment probably ever again in my working life, mainly because the thing that it taught me is how I really don’t thrive in certain environments. And now I’m incredibly specific, not just about the work that I’ll get to do, but the people I get to do it with and those people that I will have those interactions with on a daily basis. I have to really like them. I can’t work for people that I can’t ask what they have for breakfast. I need that human to human connection that is a real one and not just at face value to truly thrive in my role because when I have that, I can be my whole self.
And when I’m my whole self, I do my best work. I think just this role that I took made that so abundantly clear, really hard lesson to learn, or got hurt, but I did learn it and I have applied it ever since. And I’ve never been back in that situation where I haven’t had that thing. And it’s been interesting going through the job hunt now because it’s… Yeah, it’s actually been, and it was the deciding factor between two offers. And I remembered the lesson.
Laura: It’s such a valuable lesson though. And I think it’s something that it’s one of those you have to experience it for yourself as well. You hear someone say it and you’re like, “Oh, it makes sense”. But until you’ve kind of had that lived experience, you don’t realize quite how much those things disagree with you and how much you end up having this gut reaction almost to those situations. You’re like, “Oh my God, no!”. It was like PTSD when you go back and you’re like, “Oh no, not that one. I can’t go back in there”.
Sarah: Absolutely. And it’s so easy to be wowed and to be wooed and to ignore those red flags because you want it to work and you will completely ignore those facts. There’s red flags that are being presented to you that will show you that it will not work. Not everybody is going to fit in every company. It’s a fact. However, as a candidate, I think we want to be the first choice. We’re conditioned to want to be the first choice. And we don’t nearly spend enough time interviewing potential employers as they do interviewing us. And that’s a real pitfall early on in careers because you desperately want that experience and you want to be wanted because it’s human nature. And we, as human beings, need to be a lot more picky about who we choose to spend our nine, 10 hour days with and how they can contribute to our own growth as much as we’re contributing to their bottom line.
Laura: And I think that’s nail on the head on that. I was having a conversation a while ago with someone that’s like, “It’s got to be a two-way value exchange”. But I think, unfortunately, you don’t work that out until you’re a bit later in your career. Like you say, the first few jobs, you’re like, “Thank God I got a job. Somebody tells me I’m employable”.
Laura: And then it’s not until you put that a certain way and you’re like, “Actually, how am I going to grow in this role? What does this role do for me?” And work out that it really is this two-way exchange. I think once you get to that and you can have that really healthy place, then you do thrive at work because you can kind of… You see it from everybody’s angle, but you’re obviously in that healthy environment where they feel the same way as well. They’re like, “How can we help this person as much as how can they help us?”.
Sarah: Absolutely. And for me, it’s that human to human connection. And that’s not going to be the same for everybody else. It might be that they have a real opportunity to be creative and they’re entering roles where they have to follow a process because that’s the way they’ve always done it. That’s never going to fit both ways. They’re not going to thrive. So it’s also finding out your own, what is the thing for you? Because that’s going to be entirely unique to you.
Laura: Totally. Okay. Just interest of time, last question and I’ll let you go. Who else from a HR and TA perspective would you like to hear more from, and that we should interview?
Sarah: I personally think that the stories that are really interesting are those folks that join from an HR perspective in a fairly early growth company that then turned into something completely different and then holding on for dear life. Like how on earth… I can only imagine the stories that will come out of a Slack from one of their original HR people and how that turned into a complete unicorn of a company. The same with like a Shopify, like I want from a people perspective because it’s so shrouded in confidentiality so frequently. You’ll hear CEOs talk about how they grew their rocket company. And that’s cool. They definitely did grow that rocket ship company, but you know who else grew it? Your HR person. They hired your people. They fired your people. They wrote your policies. They managed your internal comms. They made sure people were paid fairly, that they had dental. I want to hear that stories because that’s got to be wild.
Laura: Yeah. I love that. Okay. Okay. We’re going to start hunting down some of those people.
Laura: All right. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. Thank you.