Christine Song on the common ground between HR and the CEO

Not too long ago, “human resources” was a dirty word. It conjured images of pushing paperwork in a back-office cubicle. Now HR – or any other name that companies use – is about delivering business value through curating the right team.

This shift from back office to strategic partner is exactly what Christine Song of BioConnect has been waiting for. In her words, HR is ‘hot’ now.

Soft-spoken yet energetic, she has built a ten-year career in strategic HR and is brash when it comes to her views on a CEO’s duty to maintain culture, the true position of HR in a company, and how some tech employees have grown a little too entitled.

Journalist turned recruiter

Starting our conversation, I asked Song about her career path to date and what led her into HR. As it turns out, Song actually wanted to be a journalist before she got into HR.

“Everyone has a story. I loved to learn about other people, asking the questions others might feel awkward to ask. I thought ‘hey, that’s what journalists do.’ I wanted to be a talk show host like Oprah Winfrey, so I could dig into people’s lives.”

After a dose of realism – “I needed to make a living” – Song went into HR since it provided her the opportunity to learn about people and what they might bring to a company.

She hasn’t left the profession since and says she loves it because HR leadership is the only executive tasked with the same organization-wide scope as the CEO. Where other department leads need to be aware of the organization’s whole direction, their work is focused on their own team and their target output. HR has to look at the CEO’s vision and then build the best team to achieve that vision. This not only means filling roles in every department but cultivating culture, holding executives accountable to culture, and continually evaluating the living organism that is an employee base.

Diversity, gratitude, and executive coaching

When it comes to building a team, Song is a big believer in recruiting for ‘culture add’ rather than ‘culture fit.’ “You need somebody who has something that maybe the organization has never seen before.”

This person, for Song, is the one who will challenge the status quo and help the organization grow, innovate, and move faster. When everyone is like this, you reach perfect chaotic harmony.

Naturally, diversity and inclusion came up as part of this conversation, since the data is clear that diverse teams are more likely to have healthy disagreements or ‘challenge the status quo’. While she agreed with the premise that focusing on diversity and inclusion helps you build a team that will challenge the status quo, she feels most organizations do D&I wrong. She thinks the best way to focus on diversity is holistic, considering visible and invisible elements such as background and personality types that she feels some organizations forget about.

If her belief that everyone has a story is what got Song into HR, her belief that “everyone has something in them they want to unleash” is what drives her beliefs about diversity and inclusion. She said that “if you can dig into [what people want to unleash], you’ll know what someone will be like at work.”

From there, finding the person who will add to your culture doesn’t seem like such a daunting task if HR already has organization-wide purview and the executive team lives and breathes a culture of supporting those who challenge the status quo.

Prioritizing culture

“There’s a saying that I love, ‘culture is driven by the worst behaviour that the CEO is willing to tolerate,’” she said as she sipped her coffee and smiled.

As soon as culture came up, she was ready to dive in. The soft-spoken executive turned passionate. It became clear we touched on a nerve. Continuing her thought pattern, she shared her view that if you don’t live and breathe your stated cultural values, they are worth little more than paper they are written on.

“If you truly exemplify your core values, you make decisions based on those values. Everyone’s watching HR and the executive team to see what they are going to do. If you want an open and autonomous culture, for example, you must be transparent. But culture is more than that – it’s how you feel when you walk in, how you interact with coworkers, who gets promoted… and who doesn’t belong.”

For Song, culture is as much about the people who won’t fit as it is the people who will. “It depends on the business, its goals, and what you aspire to be,” she said. And in that world, you must be aware that sometimes people need to go if they don’t fit the culture.

She advocates, on a simple level, culling people if they don’t follow and exhibit core values. It can be tough to do, and people should always be afforded learning opportunities, the chance to give feedback, and the time to grow, but it’s necessary.

Easier said than done, though, if the person in question is the CEO him, or her, self. “The best thing you can do as an executive team or HR [if the CEO is the one not exhibiting cultural behaviours] is to get the CEO executive coaching. Coaches exist for a reason.”

On the flip side, Song half-joked that one cultural value she’d like to see in more companies is “gratitude”.

“We’ve lost the real purpose of what it means to join a startup company or fast-growing organization. Sometimes employees are only looking for the next big thing like a larger beer keg or unlimited vacation days. You forget you’re going into work to build something.”

The secret formula to accelerate career development

Despite spending her entire career in one field, Song has a secret weapon behind how she continues to learn and grow; take a job where 30-40% is made up of things you’ve never done before. “If you’re too comfortable, you’re not learning,” she said.

This not only serves the task of ensuring that employees are always learning on the job but also helps people accelerate their career faster, since they can take larger jumps knowing a 30-40% knowledge gap is acceptable – even preferred.

For learning through that knowledge gap, Song strongly advocates for finding people in similar situations to you who know what you’re going through. Song found her people at Peerscale. “All the members of my HR peer group are part of high-growth tech companies, a lot bootstrapped. Why not join a network where we can share problems, find resolutions, and have a good time? Everyone needs a circle they can share with where there’s a sense of trust.”

With new learning to apply every day, Song is pushing to remove as much administrative work as possible from HR. For example, she believes payroll and benefits administration should be moved to Finance and away from HR. This isn’t a surprising viewpoint for Song, since payroll and benefits administration is one of the last big examples that casts HR as a back office function. While she believes HR should be part of the strategic elements such as choosing benefits and providers, she believes there’s no point in keeping the day-to-day tasks within HR since it’s functionally just paying for the services rendered, a finance task.

And while she’s pushing to remove administrative work off her plate, she’s adamant to not give up recruiting even as she becomes more senior, bucking the understood trend that the more senior you get, the less direct execution on tasks you do.

“Some HR professionals at a very senior level hire a talent team and they don’t recruit anymore. I think that’s the wrong approach. If you step away from recruitment, you lose touch of the culture you want to create.”

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