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How To Be A Lean & Highly Effective HR Machine... And Have Fun

Dec 6, 2022 2:00:00 AM | By


Self-service unlocks the door to a highly-effective organization. Empowering each employee to leverage their autonomy supports employee development and, as a result, improves company culture. However, encouraging self-service and enhancing company culture doesn't have to be dull or cost an arm and a leg.

In this episode, Christine Maxwell, VP of People at Rippling, shares a few core strategies for curating a lean, highly-effective organization.

Join us as we discuss:

  • Cornerstones of a highly-effective organization
  • Methods for supporting employee development
  • The power of active feedback and automation



CAITLIN ALLEN: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to another episode of high growth matters, the official podcast sponsored by Opencomp. I am Caitlin Allen, your host and the VP of Marketing at open cop. And today we are going to talk about how to be a lean and highly effective HR machine while having fun as your edit. So I think the saying goes something like grow fast, don't break things and do it in a super cost effective way. If that's not how you remember it, well, maybe we can talk. That is in fact the topic of today's podcast. And we are going to speak with high growth veteran Christine Maxwell, who is currently the VP of people at rippling. Most of us know that name. It's an all in one HR it and now finance platform. And Christine's held a really unusual variety of sea level roles across comms and compensation and growth operations and people functions at Anaplan and capital Alliance, Electronic Arts and many others. So she's got a cool perspective to share with us today. Christine, thank you for being here.

CHRISTINE MAXWELL: Well, thanks for welcoming me to the program. I'm excited to have this conversation,

CAITLIN ALLEN: as am I. So let's start off with our normal question. To help our listeners get to know you in a way that's perhaps beyond the traditional what what is something your average coworker doesn't know about you?

CHRISTINE MAXWELL: Um, my secret passion is high speed things fast things. I'm like a pretty avid Formula One fan. And I am a pretty aggressive downhill skier.

CAITLIN ALLEN: I love it. So speed.

CHRISTINE MAXWELL: Actually, maybe people wouldn't guess that about me? I'm not sure.

CAITLIN ALLEN: I hope you don't have too many driving tickets to go along with that. Great. So when we did our prep call, Christine, you called yourself an accidental HR professional. Can you walk us through a bit of how you stumbled into working with high growth founders on their comp and people practices?

CHRISTINE MAXWELL: Yeah, so um, my background, my college background is actually in really quantitative subject matter. So my degree is in molecular neurobiology, and math. And I've always been really interested in learning about how people think and what motivates them. And, you know, after college as I was working at a department of neurosciences lab, I had this moment of thinking, do I want to go into business? Or do I want to stay in sciences and I thought, if I don't try business now, I might not ever do that. And so I was introduced to a competencia, which is a compensation consulting company and quickly realized that it was a great fit. For me, it was a blend of like large datasets and working with understanding what is motivating people and incentive practice and reward design. So for me, I kind of accidentally encountered this thing that was a really natural fit

CAITLIN ALLEN: is definitely one of those things that really motivates people with that, definitely. And you've gotten into what we'll call kind of a series B to D. specialty. And you said, it's something that you love. Why is that?

CHRISTINE MAXWELL: I do, you know, I love that series, do like b2b space, because I think it's a real sweet spot where you typically have a business that has demonstrated a proof of concept for a tech idea. It has, it has some sort of product market fit. You know, proof out there, and you're in a phase of your company's maturity cycle where you're entering a growth, a growth point. So there's inflection points there, there's lots of building to do, you're typically not the first person in function, but there still is a lot of like program and policy to iron out. And so it's fun, it's agile, it's fast. And I think there's a lot of opportunity to sort of step away from more of the state practices in HR and try something new and be innovative and be highly collaborative with other business leaders.

CAITLIN ALLEN: Interestingly, it kind of ties back to what you said about speed, right? It's the mechanics of speed. It's where art and science meet at a in a company lifecycle.

CHRISTINE MAXWELL: Yeah, absolutely. I really think about myself that way, but it seems like this podcast is bringing that out. Okay, you can learn something about yourself every day.

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CAITLIN ALLEN: You can pay us for the psychology lesson later. What also as it relates to the value prop of HR, then particularly in that series, B to A to D stage. Christine, you You described in our prep call kind of two sides of the fence so to speak. about how folks typically view the value of HR, what are those two different sides of the fence or camps? And which one do you typically build your house in?

CHRISTINE MAXWELL: Yeah, and actually, excuse me, I actually often use this as an interview question for people who are who I'm interviewing, to join my team to, I see there is somewhat of a bifurcated point of view on what HR is to the business, I think there's one camp and and it's respectable. Where people see HR as primarily being an interface between employees and management. And so it's, it's a function that's facilitating programming, it's coordinating messaging, etc. You know, it's handling escalations, it's, you know, funneling escalations. And that's, that's a somewhat administrative and somewhat tactical way of looking at function. And then I think there's a separate way of seeing the function as a business force multiplier, and that is a function that like, leverages human capital management expertise to uplevel leadership and management best practices. And so really, then is a function that's less about being accessible directly to employees and more about being a sort of behind the scenes, coach, guide consultant to stakeholders and leadership and managers. And so I would think that Well, I tend to build teams that anchor on that second, that latter category, because I think it's the way that you can actually accelerate the impact that the human capital management skill set enables for an organization to become a high performing organization.

CAITLIN ALLEN: Sure, it seems more strategic, less tactical, so away, almost elevating the role.

CHRISTINE MAXWELL: Yeah, so whereas the first camp I see as the kind of administrative and tactical parts of the parts of the function, the second camp I see as this sort of tactical to strategic parts of the function.

CAITLIN ALLEN: Interesting. I love that it's a good interview question, too, I feel like we all are searching for, for those sort of thank you for dropping that? 

CHRISTINE MAXWELL: Well, it helps because it really starts to get to the bottom of how people think about their work, what they value in their work, and also, what point of view that they're going to take as they approach problem solving. And when you're in high growth organizations. And you know, we may talk about this later on, but when you're in high growth organizations, it's actually really important to understand what the first principles are to operate, because that helps empower people to make decisions, decisions within the scope of their role. And when you've got a million people working in a million miles a minute, you need to make sure that everyone is aligned on what the first principles are, so that they can actually make decisions that are going to be, you know, aligned with the direction that you're trying to move the company in.

CAITLIN ALLEN: So well said, so. So well said. Let's, let's switch gears and talk about where you are now rippling, what brought you to the company, and how have you structured your team as you've started out in this role?

CHRISTINE MAXWELL: Yeah, I mean, you said, I'm a veteran, I've been in the space for a while. And I've seen a lot and the evolution of HR tech. And I actually just think that rippling rippling was presented to me by by an executive recruiting firm. And it's just a unique, it's a unique company's unique product. And I think that I happen to share Parker's near religious conviction that leveraging the employee record as the basis for internal business transactions, and workflow analytics, integrations insights. It's just a superior business systems model. And you can see from how fast our product is evolving. Our product, you know, a couple years ago was payroll and benefits administration and HR is and it's exploded, and we're well beyond an HR product suite. Now we have HR it finance clouds, and actually this week, we just announced our Global Payroll, and our EO our product line, which is really exciting.

CAITLIN ALLEN: So for the second the product line, I beg your pardon. What was the acronym used for the the new product line?

CHRISTINE MAXWELL: Oh, the employer of record, employer of record. Okay, great. That's exciting. It's really exciting, actually. And it came together. I mean, we harnessed the whole company to build this, this product suite, and it's come together. Well, it's amazing. And it came together really quickly.

CAITLIN ALLEN: Awesome, thank you. And I interrupted you, you were you were telling us why you came to rippling and then how your team is structured. And I interrupted before you got to that last bar?

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CHRISTINE MAXWELL: Yeah, no, not a problem. So our talent team is really structured into three main units. So we have our HR business partner group, which is the remit there is kind of simply to make managers awesome. Our employee experience team, their role is to build connections between employees and our business. So its mission, its values, strategies, you know, affiliation with our journey, and then also to build relationships among one another. And then we have COEs teams like Centers of Expertise like rewards, learning and development and workspace teams that build up programs that we deliver through employee experience teams and HR business partners. Our Talent Acquisition team is its standalone engine. And then of course we get great support from by our internal teams and our operations team is actually a big partnership with our product.

CAITLIN ALLEN: Love that a lot of cross functional support, and actually see some really interesting parallels to the answer to the next question I'm about to ask you, which is, you shared in our book called the three pillars of your strategy to create the lean and highly effective organization and rippling, and I think a lot of your team units follow those pillars, but what are the three pillars and then we can dive into each of them. Yeah.

CHRISTINE MAXWELL: So I, to keep our team effective and lean, I concur on self service. So that's documented well, and enabling employees and managers to source rich, rich information and rich text information. Automation. So like, this is something that is great, because we can double down on it at rippling. But I've used this slogan for many years of my teens, which is like, use tools as tools, not people as tools. So that that is sort of like a go to saying that I have every time I've come into an HR organization and just watch some of the manual processes that we have in place, which is like, document it, automate it, and then manage our effectiveness. So you know, obviously, so much research has shown that a strong manager employee relationship is one of the biggest drivers for employee engagement. And so if you really think about it, making managers awesome, it just pays big dividends across the org and certainly for HR function. So if you're your cases, Active Performance Management, and then strong communication between employees and managers, that really enables business agility, right, because there's transparency, there's communication that's constant, it's always on. And so if things need to change, or micro feedback needs to be given and micro changes need to be made, those are a lot easier to make. And so your business becomes much more responsive and agile.

CAITLIN ALLEN: Love it. So let's let's dive in into each of those. So I think there's a lot to unpack there that's really rich. And maybe we can start with the the people part of it. So scaling managers are making an awesome, which I love as a goal. I think the importance is pretty self evident. You just said that the manager relationship really impacts how how long employees stay in role and how effective they are. How does your team approach operationalizing? That goal?

CHRISTINE MAXWELL: Yeah, I mean, I'll tell you, honestly, we've grown so fast, this is definitely a work in progress still. But what we are looking to do is, is really try to design a kind of Curriculum Manager Development that teaches managers a variety of skills and uses a really multimodal approach, so that we can meet them in different places with different kinds of time commitments. And like I said, with different modalities. So we have one on one meetings, where HR business partners meet with managers, and they coach them on how to performance manage, like actively floats in their organization, right, identifying the folks who are the top talent really enables us to have a running list of the people that we can add more to their plates, right. So the people who are scaling with us well, the people who can take on additional responsibility as your business is growing quickly, you want to know who those people are, because they come into the organization and they have good context, they've demonstrated that they know how to operate effectively. And so as you grow having a shortlist of people who you can give additional responsibility to and additional assignments to it's actually really helpful from a retention, performance management and business development point of view. And then similarly, the folks that are not scaling Well, as you grow really quickly, there are obviously people who you know, are on board, but who are, you know, not, it's not a good fit for them, they're not gonna make it whatever. Making sure that managers are having really active feedback, conversations with those folks throughout their tenure here is really important. And it really facilitates making sure that people are managed up or out with respect and with speed. Right. Um, other things that we do, we have formal feedback conversations and career development conversations. So those are prompted, and those are, you know, happened three times a year, those come with documentation, that tends to be a little bit more of a traditional program that we have. We also have offered homegrown interactive LMS courses. And that's a very like practical resource that you're kind of triggered into when you come at people manager. That just sort of anchors you in what you're what you're expected, how you are expected to operate as a people manager, and then sort of takes you through the suite of resources that we have. Back to the self service point. Like here's where you go, here's the manager wiki here are the resources here, external resources, etc. Because we always try and drive everyone to self serve first before they come then to their manager and then their manager then comes to us so we do have that kind of hierarchy of how you access different information or we also have longer, more sustained managed development programs. So over four months of time, we have like facilitated group work programs that go on. We have you know, Ted Talk style Leader Live sessions that were standing up that are really like highly tactical about, you know, like HR gotchas and pitfalls and best people practices like some of the series that we're standing up for, like how to host effective one on ones How to Sell we close candidates, onboarding strategies, managing an unlimited PTO practice in practice, you know, things that kind of trip up managers that, that we can just have a conversation about, and leaders can actually just give a tutorial on that's a really practical, like, you know, don't reinvent the wheel. This is how effective people do this. And then we have some really cool summit home girl that really awesome, like, well sustained practices here, like we have a conscious business book club. And that we host, we start and launch three times a year as well. And there are, you know, anywhere from five to 15 cohorts at any one time, running just small group book clubs that are reading a book that we as a company, leverage for a lot of our other managers, Manager Development Language and jargon so that you starting to create like a common vocabulary across the organization, when you're talking about developing people and becoming effective at your craft of being a manager. 

CAITLIN ALLEN: What sounds like an extremely rich compilation of different practices and programs. And that's now the fourth time I've heard conscious business mentioned and couple weeks. So I'm pretty sure that now needs to be in my reading list.

CHRISTINE MAXWELL: Here you go. It's Fred Kaufman.

CAITLIN ALLEN: Thank you. And we'll put that in the show notes too, for this episode. As it relates to empowering self service, then, Christina, I guess my question is, how do you collect as a team, both business and employee sentiment to create those programs that are company wide, but also specific enough that that folks really engage in them?

CHRISTINE MAXWELL: Yeah, I mean, there's a couple of things there. I think culture, culture develops very organically, but I think that, especially in high growth, it deserves a little bit of curation. One of the one of the analogies that I give sometimes, you know, when you move into a new apartment, and like you have a new, empty bath, like bathroom shelves, right, like medicine cabinets empty, like, you have to kind of be thoughtful, but with what you're filling it up with, because otherwise, you'll just filled up with junk that will stay there until the next time you move, right? It's really culture can be very similar to that, that if you're not careful, it just gets filled up with the junk that people bring, like, bring with them into an organization. And so I think that in high growth, it's really important to understand like, what is your essential DNA? And then how do you make sure that you are standing up rituals, we call them rituals and practices that help curate that. And so some of those, so what we do is we design rituals that are intended to really connect people with really core parts of what our business DNA is. And so, you know, they become annual events. And they have a lot like a huge following. And if we try and change them, people get upset. But um, some examples are, you know, obviously, security awareness and fraud prevention is huge for us, right. And so we have an annual hackers on heists, security awareness and fraud prevention event. And it's kind of a week long as it is a combination of like activities and challenges and seminars, innovation and invention, and collaboration are really important for us. And so we have a half week, and that is anybody throws an idea into the mix. And then teams come together and try to figure out how would you actually build that together? And could we productize it. And there are some fantastic ideas that come from all walks of the business, from tax operations to from to HR, to security to, you know, my gosh, map, some mapping idea was just thrown into the mix this last time and I thought that my gosh, that's great for one of my work location projects, like dial me in, right. So there's just some really interesting collaboration that happens and innovation that happens through that that like curated exercise, and then sort of celebration of our values. So we do work magic awards. So one of our slogans is we make work magic and so we have work magic words, and that showcases people that are excuse me, living our values in real ways day to day across the company with our customers. So that's some kind of like curated ways that we that we do it and then we have stuff that is very organically grown. So we have a people squad and they come up with great ideas on how to interact with our teams. They host we just hosted Ripley's Believe It or Not, which is our first talent show which we hosted virtually because our company has gone global. And we had about 500 people attend. And we had about 100 submissions it was pretty amazing of people doing you know, art or poetry or yo yo tricks or like you know, yoga poses. It was really kind of cool, and really fun to see what people do and how unique they all everyone is outside of what they do here at work. I mean, we had a ballerina come and dance, you know, in her studio in, you know, in her studio and record it and post it to our channel, it was really fun. 

CAITLIN ALLEN: What an amazing way for people to bond outside of the traditional venues, that's, that's really neat. Yeah.

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CHRISTINE MAXWELL: And then we have a pulse survey product, which we use and which almost all of our managers have access to generate pulse surveys for. And so we can do that with really light touch surveys that are really specifically generated based on employee data. So we can just define like, hey, this, we want to just survey this group on this particular thing. And so it's, you know, everyone who registered for this event, or everyone who's in this function, like, it's pretty easy to do sort of quick pulse surveys that are just in system.

CAITLIN ALLEN: Okay, so a lot of listening and then almost formalizing the rituals based upon what you hear in that listening exercise.

CHRISTINE MAXWELL: Yeah, absolutely. You know, there's always more room and more work to do.

CAITLIN ALLEN: Absolutely. So then, when you get into automation, right, how, what are the guiding thoughts there? How do you decide what to automate and what not talk to me?

CHRISTINE MAXWELL: It's not going to surprise you that I automate everything I can. So it's not not really like a product plug. But it is one of the things that attracted me to rippling and it's actually one of the things that rippling really enabled us is it just enables us to automate things that would otherwise take a lot of time and create potential to introduce human error. So like, obviously, onboarding is a core part of of our of our sales pitch, right. But we do automate all of our onboarding paperwork and our hiring practices, including device issuance, and sending devices directly to house looks like, takes about two minutes. I mean, it's really fast. But the cooler stuff that I think that we automate are things like LMS course enrollment, is triggered by employee events. So if you become a people manager, you get automatically enrolled in people onboarding, or manager, people manage your onboarding programs, you then also get automatically on boarded into your locals, your local sexual harassment course, curriculum. If your certificate expires, we have that in system and you're automatically re enrolled. So there's a lot that we can do. From that point of view, Justin system. I mean, we can leverage our spend management system to automate issuing remote worker stipend, virtual credit cards to folks who've moved into full time remote roles or who work in remote work locations, expenses for transactions associated with the company sponsored events. We can block unapproved vendors, we can set limits, and all of that's done on like role level. So our spend products is is pretty cool source of automation. And then also related to anything really anchored in the employee record I automated notifications that are that I send directly to a person's manager and their designated HR business partner. For a compensation review when a person registers a change to their zip code, for example, because we geographically differentiate on pay, based on where you live. And so if someone moves, then it's easy for us to say, hey, there's someone who someone has moved, let's take a look and see if they if they need to have some sort of an adjustment. So there's lots of different examples of like triggers that happen just in day to day business operations, that can that can either automatically create a downstream propagation within the system, or that can trigger a notification that alert someone that they have to take a look at something like someone's, for example, we have a great integration with Carta. If someone's equity, vesting falls below X percent, then you can trigger a notification that notifies the compensation team or your HR business partners to say, hey, you know, this is a high performing employee who is now starting to have a lower amount of unvested equity than we want. Let's take a look. So there's a lot of really cool stuff that you can leverage the system to do through automation and workflow.

CAITLIN ALLEN: I feel like it's the best proof point for the product you're selling as an organization if your internal team is using it and drinking its own champagne, so product team as well.

CHRISTINE MAXWELL: We do test all of our products before they go live internally and rippling itself as a company is one of our larger own customers, right? So our company has what is a pretty big user of rippling. But we have lots of channels for feedback with the product team. And you know, we feel really we feel like we have a really good collaboration, a really good support with them.

CAITLIN ALLEN: It's so neat. So you've mentioned you're growing very quickly. You're scaling globally as a company. What would you say it takes to successfully manage a distributed global workforce

CHRISTINE MAXWELL: You know the challenge of managing a global workforce is multiple. There was timezone challenges, there are cultural challenges. I think the really cool thing about rippling as we are starting to see that we don't also have to include system challenges. And the way that the product has been designed very intentionally, is that anything that you do natively in the system, as a US based user, we are built, we are building that out so that you can do the same thing for your workforce across the globe. That includes paying people in a compliant way, that includes hiring people in a compliant way. That includes having a really highly integrated data set so that you don't have to cobble together a bunch of reports, to work with your finance teams on evaluating, you know, accounting entries into your global ledger, etc. So there's definitely a huge advantage to having a global system. As you're starting to expand your company globally. I think some of the timezone challenges, you know, we've started to work through because we have a great product, we have a great partner, extended team, we have 500 employees in Southern India and Bangalore. And so we've been working, you know, in this, like a, like, literally on the other side of the world, kind of a timezone difference. And so we started to get pretty good at working asynchronously. And I think that that feeds directly back into this, you know, anchor on narrative documentation. You know, make sure that you're trying to be as clear and crisp in your communication as possible skill set that we try and build out across the organization. And that reduces miscommunication due to culture, that, that enables people to work effectively across time zones. And I think that that's really important to building a global company at scale.

CAITLIN ALLEN: It is. So rounding out the podcast as we come to the end of our time. Are there any Oh, my gosh, how did that happen? It Well, I do know, we've had a good conversation. But are there any sob stories, pitfalls, success stories that rippling has encountered along the way so far that are worth sharing with our listening? 

CHRISTINE MAXWELL: You know, that was interesting. I was really thinking about that one. And, you know, from the point of view of people who are entering high growth space, which, you know, is presumably why people are listening to this podcast, right. The one pitfall that I think that we have been kind of having to dig ourselves out of, and we've been working ourselves out of out of effectively, but it's been like a little annoying is that I think some of our initial policies were designed conceptually structurally to be flexible. But what it created was just a lot of paths for assumption management. And that creates a lot of additional time and thrash. And like, it's just barriers to smooth operations. And so as we're going through, and especially, you know, to your last question, as we're sort of standing up some of our global policies and practices, we're taking a different approach to that, which is just introducing more structure and clarity. Because reducing that exception load reduces uncertainty and thrash. So I think that that's kind of like a learning that that we've had as a company, that if you know that you're going to grow fast, put those policies and put some of that structure in place in bursts so that you don't have to work through exceptions. And then I think some of the successes that we have had, have really been anchored in a skill that we are. My observation is that rippling is exceptionally good at directing resources at business problems or opportunities and executing against new priorities really quickly. So coupled with a compound startup business model that we have, in my opinion, that's one of the main reasons that our product is so powerful and has been able to evolve so quickly.

CAITLIN ALLEN: So speed again, thank you. What how do you measure if your team and your organization is effectively clearing roadblocks that tend to litter the path of high growth?

CHRISTINE MAXWELL: I actually monitor our JIRA ticketing system? Because before we implemented that earlier in our earlier in our growth is that was kind of an inbox an email inbox, right? And so we'd have eyes on the email inbox and you'd start to see some some redundant requests coming in. And you know, really, anytime you have duplicated requests coming through, either you have a process that can be automated or established, or you have something that's not been communicated very clearly and it's causing confusion. Right. And so you can see that when you can see that by listening, as you mentioned earlier to what's to what people are confused about. into the questions that are coming in. Coming into the organization from a variety of channels like the Ask Me Anything channels on Slack or through our, you know, all hands meetings or our you know, ask the CEO kind of coffee with Parker chats. So if you're listening to that, and you're noticing patterns in the questions that are coming through and you are able to eliminate the source of that confusion, you are in fact, starting to eliminate paths that are that are impeding a path to progress.

CAITLIN ALLEN: What a deeply practical answer. Love it. I could literally keep talking for most of the day, Christine, I will I will make sure that I don't do that for your calendar sake. But final question, any parting words of advice or caution to our leaders in their roles as HR execs?

CHRISTINE MAXWELL: You know, what, I really appreciate that you're asking that. I have been thinking about this, as we are facing different challenges all the time. And I think that the this concept of like work life balance comes up often. And I'm not sure that I'm like the the great like champion of work life balance, because I just love like the work hard play hard lifestyle of tech startup of startup tech. It can be like hectic, and it can be fast and be chaotic. And like at times overwhelming and overwhelming is the place where you start to fail. And so one thing too, that I would advise is to accept that you are not going to be successful or stay sane, frankly, if you try to do everything. So there are going to be dumpster fires, just let those things burn. Identify the correct priorities for yourself and your team that is going to most impact the business. And then when that noise volume starts to creep up, or the dumpster fires start to like, you know, compound a little bit, you know, ask, is there anything on my to do list today that's more important than executing against this key deliverable? That's a really good way of keeping yourself and your team focused on the work that is going to create like Real Net forward progress, because that's the only thing that matters. Right? The rest of that stuff is just noise.

CAITLIN ALLEN: Yeah. I love the concept of just admitting that you can let the dumpster fires burn. I think that's a really great piece of advice. Yeah. It's helpful. keeps you sane. Yes. Well, Christine, thank you and to our listeners, thank you as well, you can connect with Christine in her illness on LinkedIn. Pardon me that that link in the show notes as well as a link to the rippling website and make sure you check out their new finance product as well. Christine, thank you again, this has been so amazing.

CHRISTINE MAXWELL: Thank you, Caitlin, and talk to you soon.

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