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#15 Sarah Wilson, Chief People Officer, Rokt


Sarah's Insights on HR Evolution: Merging Technology, Humanity, and Sustainability at Rokt.

Introduction: Sarah, please tell us a bit about yourself. 

I am a Canadian ex-pat who moved to the Big Apple to lead the People function at Rokt with my husband (Justin), 4 year old daughter (Colette), and 10 year old Weimaraner (Linus) about a year ago.

I started with Rokt in early 2021 (starting remotely from Toronto during covid) but I've been in the HR/TA space for about 20 years (I started when I was 10 - hah!) and have led various People organizations supporting companies with operations in Canada, the US, Europe, and APAC. When I am not working, I am either traveling, parenting, shopping, or doing yoga.

Background and Experience: You've worked in HR and Talent Acquisition for most of your career with companies like Aritzia, Indigo, SmartRecruiters, and now Rokt. What is the one pattern or truth that has consistently replicated across these diverse experiences? 

Every company wants to secure the best talent they can afford (and sometimes talent they can't afford!). The biggest concern with every company I've worked with is access to the right talent at the right time.

Perspective Shift: You have been both a buyer and a seller of HR software. How has this changed your perspective on HR and TA practices? 

The highest pressure internal HR role is one inside an HR tech company - it feels like every customer and every employee is looking to you to lead the way in the space.

Having been a seller of HR software, I feel like I know more about how my (now) vendor partners operate and can help ensure both sides have aligned commercial interests.

As a buyer of HR software, I felt uniquely positioned to help the commercial team during the time that I was working on the seller side.

Current Role: Could you share a bit about Rokt and your current role there? 

Rokt is an eCommerce technology company focused on making eCommerce more human.

One of my favourite things about Rokt is how aligned the company mission (to unleash the potential in eCommerce) aligns with the people mission (to unleash the potential in every Rokt'star).

My role at Rokt is really about helping ensure we bring the best talent into the organization and then provide them with a once in a lifetime set of experiences. We want to be the best company in the world to work for and our people are our competitive advantage.

Differences in HR and TA: HR and TA are quite different. HR is often internal-focused, while TA almost functions like a marketing division. In this scenario, how do you navigate the challenges of finding the right people for the right job? 

I think of the two as left and right hands in an organization.

Recruiting is responsible for delivering new talent to the org and the rest of the people org (HR) is responsible for creating the right environment for that talent to thrive.

I think the biggest challenge to finding the right people for the job is being clear on the role being hired for and the skillset, EQ and IQ required for a good match.

Once you have total clarity on the North star, it's up to the hiring team (which is a partnership between recruiting and the business) to create an exceptional recruiting  experience for candidates so they feel  valued, making the path to saying 'yes' to an offer from the company an easy decision.

HR Leadership Skills: Sarah, you are renowned for your interview skills and professionalism. Could you share your learnings and insights on what it takes to be a great HR leader and why you think you are where you are today? 

Blushing :). I lead with humanity. I know that sounds sort of cheesy and vague - but I often play a counterbalance role on the executive team. The higher performing the exec committee, the harder I typically lean into this side of my role (and my personality).

The biggest compliment I have ever received from a CEO is that I taught them how much further they can move the heads of their people when their hearts are engaged.

Tool Evaluation: Regarding HR tools, do you prefer best-of-breed or full suite? What are the best tools in the market, in your opinion? For instance, when it comes to programmatic advertisement, how do you diversify? Can you guide us through attract, select, and hire stages and what constitutes a great setup? 

I am a hub and spoke subscriber through and through.

I think it's critical to get the 'hub' (HRIS) right but that there isn't a one stop shop that solves every part of the employee lifecycle brilliantly. On programmatic advertising, I think every company needs to test and learn. Experimentation is how you will figure out what the best mix is for you based on the problem you are trying to solve.

In a great set-up, the attract engine is optimizing the balance between volume and quality so the selection process is highly efficient (and focused on delivering an extraordinary candidate experience) and the 'hire' process is so smooth it becomes invisible.

Impact of AI: AI is projected to change the world significantly. Where do you think it can significantly improve things in HR and TA? Are there areas where you believe it could worsen the situation? 

I am so excited about how much TIME we are getting back by leveraging AI across my team.

We are currently using AI to automate tasks that take a ton of time (like formatting job descriptions and/or editing to remove implicit bias or converting learning content into training module scripts) which then gives my teams time back to focus on the human interaction part of their work - which is where we deliver the biggest impact. I think the biggest risk is companies not being discerning about where and how they lean into technology. But this was a risk 20 years ago when companies bought a big legacy ATS thinking they could then fire all their recruiters. 5 years later and millions in technology investment, those companies have a big legacy ATS AND a huge (and frustrated) recruiting team.

HR Leadership: As an HR leader, how do you balance the need for organizational control and consistency with the desire for employee empowerment and individualism in policy development and implementation? Additionally, how do you see the role of HR leadership changing in the future with the rise of remote work and AI technology, and how are you preparing your HR team for these changes?

I believe people are inherently good as the baseline. I also believe in a pricipled approach to policy creation.

It's more important to ensure the principles are VERY clear for decision making and then provide space for employees and managers to make the right decisions. The HR team is neither the policy police nor a surrogate for the leader/manager - we are enablers and partners and strategists. I am less worried about policy impact with the rise of remote work and AI and more worried about the cultural impacts. I believe humans are social beings and worry about the isolation and disconnection that comes with remote work.

Talent Acquisition: How do you leverage data and analytics in your talent acquisition strategy to ensure you are finding the right candidates in terms of skill and cultural fit? 

From a culture perspective, we align this back to our values. We have a training program for all interviewers on how to assess candidates keeping Rokt's valuesin mind. We also have a conduct dedicated Bar Raiser interviews at the end of  the interview process that deep dives into values alignment.

We also regularly track and analyze bar raiser pass rates by interviewer and by function so we can identify issues, understand them and think of new solutions. It's more art than science but we credit our low employee churn due to culture issues to our holistic hiring process.

How do you incorporate marketing principles into your talent acquisition strategies to enhance employer branding?  

We are very fortunate to have a ton of support from our marketing team.

We've partnered on many campaigns such as using a 3rd party customer demand gen partner to run recruiting campaigns  collaborating with our internal brand team to help us with our online presence.

We track where our leads come from and we adjust based on performance - so really the top of funnel looks/feels a lot like a SAAS business top of funnel :)

Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion (DE&I): How do you ensure that the DE&I initiatives you implement genuinely transform the company culture and not merely 'check the box'? How do you measure the impact and effectiveness of your DE&I strategies, and how do you communicate these outcomes to employees and stakeholders? 

To start with, we lead with the E - as we don't want to 'start' with hiring. If we don't have the right systems to provide equality of opportunity and foster inclusion, no diverse hire is going to stick around. Our EDI steering committee is a group of individuals from across the business who represent our various pillars of diversity. We felt like if we hired a DEI 'person', the rest of the org could lean out as there is someone 'handling it'. EDI is a part of every leader's job - and our EDI initiatives are reflective of that philosophy.

Compensation Planning: Can you discuss how you approach compensation planning to balance competitive employee pay while maintaining fiscal responsibility to the organization? 

We have a fixed and transparent career ladder. This means that two people in the same role in the same location are paid the same. It ensures we are held accountable to being fair and equitable across our workforce.

We validate the ladders annually as a matter of course but also do spot reviews quarterly anytime we see either issues with recruiting or retention related to comp.

High-Growth Startups: Given the rapid pace of change in high-growth startups, how do you design a flexible leadership structure that maintains stability and clarity of roles? 

This is something that keeps me up at night.

We have made a lot of progress over the past few years with upskilling our leadership teams but this can be destabilizing and so striking the balance in a high growth company is quite challenging.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR): How can HR and TA play a significant role in driving a company's CSR initiatives? 

First and foremost, understand what the CSR strategy is for your organization. For example; Rokt invests heavily in providing access to education as part of our CSR strategy.

With this in mind, our team is working on a partnership with a non-profit in Australia (where we were founded) to support new teachers in STEM programs.

Sustainability: How do you foresee the evolving global emphasis on sustainability affecting HR practices and policies, particularly concerning talent acquisition? As organizations aim to be more sustainable, how do you integrate sustainability principles into employee benefits and wellness programs?

I think this really starts with measurement. We can fix something that we can't see.

So doing a sustainability or Carbon Impact assessment of your company is the jumping off point and then adjusting policy and programming based on the outcomes of the study is a good place to start. An easy example in recruiting is thinking about what interview step needs to be in-person.

If you move that to a last (or almost last) step in the process, you are reducing the amount of travel required for candidates who ultimately are not going to get hired - therefore reducing the carbon footprint of your recruiting cycle.

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