My journey from “accidental” People person to supporting the needs of a highly diverse workforce of 9,000 employees changing the face of healthcare
Recently, Chris Abbass invited me to join him on Hiring on All Cylinders podcast where I had the opportunity to discuss my own journey into the People space, the opportunities I see today, and how we’ve scaled culture through a period of disruption and uncertainty. Chris’ insightful questions prompted me to expand this conversation into a 3-part series for the blog. Below is part 1 of 3.
My unexpected and non-traditional career path to Chief People Officer
I consider myself an “accidental People person”. What I mean by that is that I didn’t jump into this function early in my career, and it took connecting the dots in reverse and several defining corporate experiences for me to realize this was the right domain for me. I use the term “People” rather than “HR” to reflect a progressive approach, orienting toward enablement of employees, empowerment of leaders, and bringing a mindset that our people are the core of our business, and not interchangeable resources. As an aside, did you know the phrase “human resources” dates back to the Industrial Revolution and the era of mills and factories?
In college, I studied healthcare policy and history of medicine, and had a personal health situation that required me to take a semester off school. All of that combined into a passion to work in healthcare. I went into management consulting, focused on healthcare product commercialization, and had the first chapter of my career working in very business, client, and strategy-oriented roles. I had the opportunity to hone a skillset around learning new things fast, problem solving, execution, design thinking, managing customer relationships, communication, and more.
In that chapter, I did a lot of People-y things without knowing it: I invested in new hire onboarding and became one of the first people to formalize a mentorship program. I helped ensure my new office, which was a satellite office in San Francisco, had a fun spirit and engaging camaraderie, and I thought about belonging, community service, and celebration. This was never under the name of a People function or an HR team, and was more of a “nights and weekends job” on top of my client-facing work.
When I went to business school, I focused on two areas: entrepreneurship and themes around leadership development, coaching, and building high performance teams. Again, I didn’t realize that was a job function yet, because I didn’t know anyone who was in a People or HR role.
So for my first job out of business school, I prioritized who I worked for above all else. I picked people I wanted to learn from & follow, then I wrote a dream-job job description and reached out. I ended up with a Chief of Staff role to a co-founder and a COO of a growing tech SaaS business. I witnessed a lot of things happening on the People and Culture front, but I wasn’t in a position within the company to really shape them. I saw us raise money, grow and hire really quickly, change and pivot directions, and move through some layoffs. It was the experience as a passenger on that journey that made me say “I really want to put my hat in the ring and try to do this work.”
Leaving that company and joining Datavant in 2018 was my first time jumping into a role that had true accountability on people, talent, and culture.
When I joined Datavant, we were 17 employees in a San Francisco coworking office, and I was the first person thinking full time about compensation, hiring, cultural values, onboarding. The last 4+ years have been a pretty wild ride, learning, growing and scaling our processes and practices. Today, the People team at Datavant is about 120 employees, supporting the needs of a highly diverse workforce of almost 9,000 employees.
Leaping into People was natural in some way and totally unnatural in others
There is a huge amount of “inside baseball” in a People space. There is the vocabulary and frameworks, the best practices, the regulatory requirements, compliance obligations. If you have a more common “rise through the ranks” career in People or HR, you get exposure to it. By the time you have the privilege to lead a team, you have witnessed a lot. Stepping in as an “accidental People person” meant there was a lot I had to learn from Day 1.
Yet, I think the meat of a strategic People function is in the domains like values and culture, how to shape employee experience through key moments like onboarding, mobility, or promotion, how we assess candidates fairly, how we evaluate leaders, and how we coach and partner with executives and managers, and how we align our work toward business objectives.
For me, a lot of that comes from a problem solving style anchored in “user-centric” principles, perhaps based on some of my “generalist” experience gained in the time before I found my way to the People function.
I am not the person who has seen it done at 3 other companies and can map those patterns from lived experience. So, I start a lot from first principles. Sometimes I get feedback that I seem too abstract, theoretical, or professorial — it’s not an act, it’s how my brain works (I loved geometry in high school because of axioms and logic proofs). I ask what could “great” look like if we had a blank sheet of paper? What would we do and what would we build? I relied on that and a spirit of bold thinking along the lines of “how might we…” in order to design a lot of our early practices and processes, and then checked that with my fellow People people network. “What are you doing for promotions, for comp review, announcing executive hires, and for navigating exits?” A lot of it stems from intuition and principles, validating with seasoned pros in my network, and then building it out from there and iterating and fixing all the time.
If you’re thinking of making the non-traditional pivot into People too….
To get the fastest learning, join an early stage company — a year of experience there is often akin to 3+ years in a more mature or structured environment. If you want to learn best practices with strong teachers, join a company renowned for its HR/People practices and absorb them.
If you choose the path I took, and find yourself at an early-stage startup, my advice is first, outsource everything you can, use consultants and your network, and second, know your strengths then build around them.
Are you a rigorous analyst — then maybe compensation and rewards is an area you lean into early on. Are you a deep empath and coach — then maybe build an early skill set on coaching, appreciative inquiry, and influence. My strengths were recognizing & nurturing talent, and building culture that attracted highly talented people.
There are a number of People-oriented forums, Slack channels, and newsletters. I find the People community an incredibly giving and compassionate space, and if you ping someone on LinkedIn and say, “You’ve had the career journey I hope for myself, could we connect?,” you’re very likely to get someone who will say “Sure. Let’s grab twenty minutes and chat,” because it is such a compassion and empathy-driven profession.
“What are the principles, the building blocks, the non-negotiables that we would have as a company?”
Crystallizing and scaling a culture like the “Datavant Way” through disruption, transition, and uncertainty is hard; there’s no clear playbook
There are 2 parts of this: the growth of the team (over 100x in headcount growth) and then the “how” behind scaling our intentional culture.
When I joined Datavant in 2018, we were 17 employees growing organically. We became one of the fastest growing businesses in all of SaaS (software as a service) in terms of revenue. In summer 2021, we were a 90-person, venture capital-backed private company that merged with a much larger private equity-backed nationwide services company called Ciox. Ciox had over 8,000 employees, most of whom were frontline, hourly-paid associates working in the medical records departments inside of hospitals. Operational excellence at scale and a deeply rooted customer service mindset are hallmarks of the organization that inspire me. When we merged the two organizations together, it was a massive M&A moment of expanding the population at the combined company. Today, Datavant represents the combination of those two companies, approximately 9,000 employees, the vast majority of whom are frontline, hourly associates. We have about 1,100 salaried professionals in our population today.
The journey we are on is to harness many aspects of the Datavant culture and approach to talent and compensation and growth and extend that to the whole combined organization. We’re in a strong position to do that in part because of the early days and the building blocks we set up. We also have the gift of being able to see what operating at scale can look like and have learned many lessons from how Ciox has supported thousands of employees every day — from communication cascading to align changes, goals and vision across a large, distributed, and diverse workforce, to a deep service orientation rooted in relationships with customers.
Jumping back to the founding of Datavant, we had a one-page Google document listing our cultural values before we had customers, revenue, or written a line of code. That’s unique. If you go back into the early archives of the company, we also had privacy principles written down, and they are still on our website today. We’re a business that works on securely moving healthcare data, so healthcare privacy is the crux of what we enable.
Literally, from our founding in 2017 we started saying, “What are the principles, the building blocks, the non-negotiables that we would have as a company?” That predated my coming on to the team, and we’ve had this strong DNA around who are and who we aren’t that has manifested in our cultural values, our approach to hiring, and the way we think about a lot of our People practices. That has helped us stay true and consistent, and scale in a really crystallized way through a lot of change as an organization and a team. Yet, as the business scales and changes, along with the talent market, our culture is living and evolving — we’re actually in the process of iterating on our core cultural pillars to incorporate impactful principles from both organizations.
The benefit of experienced leaders and “not my first time at the rodeo” repeat founders
Many ideas and practices came from being a second-time-around founding team. Our founder and CEO, Travis, who’s still with the company as a significant leader, had previously founded an early stage startup, called LiveRamp, then helped scale it all the way through being a public company. The very early days of founding Datavant took advantage of things he had seen, learned, and done in a prior business.
Yet, we also had a strong sense that we wanted to do something in healthcare at a global level that had never been done before. Many companies from Big Tech to novel, innovative startups, to incumbents in electronic medical records (EMRs) have tried to crack the healthcare data interoperability challenge, asking, “Why is it difficult to get my medical records?”
We knew from the beginning that there was a whole graveyard of companies that had come before us and failed in this complex, highly regulated space.
We had to do things differently. We couldn’t just follow the paths that everybody had failed at before. That shows up in our product and commercial strategy, but also in our team, talent, and People strategy. A piece of that has to do with having a really high bar for talent, hiring generalists, hiring for potential, and hiring for nimbleness and curiosity because we are committed to not just doing what all the companies before us had done. There were some very specific prescriptive things that we’ve kept true, like the rigor that we use with hiring and other practices.
Considering joining the team? Check out our careers page and see us listed on the 2022 Forbes top startup employers in America. We’re currently hiring remotely across teams and would love to speak with any new potential Datvanters who are nice, smart, get things done, and want to build the future tools for securely connecting health data and improving patient outcomes.