Faces of HR

Lessons Learned from an HR Professional Starting a New Job During the Crisis

The path through life can take interesting turns, and before you know it, you turn around and realize you ended up very far from where you started. That journey shapes you and often makes you strong. I recently spoke with Tami Rosen, Chief People Officer of Atlassian, about her career path. She joined Atlassian just a few weeks before the pandemic began hitting hard in the United States, and she shares her insights here.

How did you get into HR?

After graduating college, I was a loan officer at NatWest Bank. It was a great opportunity because there was a training program. I sort of got my MBA while going to work. It wasn’t a true MBA, but it kind of mirrored that and gave me the great background of being able to be a loan officer and understand the quantitative and qualitative of why people needed loans, as well as really getting to work with people and see them build a business. I started to realize very quickly that I gravitated more to the people side and to helping people than I did to being behind the desk and writing up a loan brief. The experience led me to a recruiting firm, and that firm was my first foray into HR.

It was a technical recruiting firm, so I learned about technical recruiting on Wall Street. That led me to decide that maybe I wanted to start my own recruiting firm because recruiting firms back then didn’t have the best of reputations. They were known as the “head hunters.” I thought there was a better way to do this that can really help people develop careers—a way that wasn’t just about placing people for money but was rather about giving them an opportunity to develop a career and an opportunity to share that with others. I believed that approach would lead to more referrals because people would see you are doing it for the right reasons and not just for the financial reasons. I left that recruiting firm with the idea that I would take a contract at one of the major banks to make some money, find a partner, and start the company.

I soon started at Goldman Sachs as one of the company’s first contract tech recruiters. I figured after 6 months, I’d find a partner and start my own firm, but then I fell in love with the company, the culture, and the entrepreneurial spirit that was there. I realized that I could have a career at Goldman, so I converted to an employee and spent almost 17 years, from contract recruiter to managing director, running large portions of Goldman Sachs HR.

Wow. Do you think recruiting’s still your favorite part of HR, or was that just sort of the base?

Well, once a recruiter, always a recruiter, I say, so you can take me out of the role, but I think I’ll always be a recruiter at heart. One of my favorite parts of the job is the connections you make and that puzzle piece of finding the right person for the right role. When that match happens, it’s just a great experience for me. I think in everything I do, there’s a recruitment element to it –whether it’s helping people find their potential at a company, finding a new role within a company, or finding a new project.

It’s probably a pretty healthy perspective for an HR professional to have, given the value of recruiting, especially because it’s so often overlooked.

It’s actually played out very well for me as I’ve grown in my career. A lot of times, recruiting is seen as being on the sidelines of HR, not integrated into HR. I’ve spent so much time in the area that I’ve been making sure that recruiting, business partners, and everything else is integrated and working together to support the business.

It makes sense, right? I mean, when you look at the onboarding process, the best experts say it’s not enough to just get them in the door and then stop thinking about it. It’s an ongoing process, and transitioning them into your culture and how you do that really make a huge difference, especially over the long run, in the success of your organization. Meanwhile, on the other side of that is just people rushing to fill the slots because they’re like, “We got to get going now.”

Honestly, it’s a great point because that’s the first point when you actually join a company and that promise of what that company is going to provide you. If I think about my own career, Atlassian recruited me only a few short months ago to come join the company. It was such a great match because of Atlassian’s culture: the company’s values of playing as a team, its open culture, and its focus on culture and HR transformation, diversity, inclusion, and leadership development. Atlassian as a company values, cares about, talks about, and shares its culture, so that we help not only ourselves but also others in the industry.

When were you hired?

I joined Atlassian in the last week of January.

Just before everything got really crazy over here. Right? What an interesting time to be changing jobs.

It was a super interesting time to change jobs. On the one hand, people probably wouldn’t want to be entering a company during a pandemic. But on the other side, it really does show the beauty of a culture and the character of the people – the age-old question of whether you run to a fire or away from it. Atlassian people run to that fire, and they want to help. The team works together cross-functionally to solve a problem. For me, it doubled down the reason I joined and really showed that the people, the culture, and the company care about not only ourselves but also the communities in which we work.

I’m always curious about people who developed really well-established careers after moving to another position at another company. There’s something about it that’s just so delicate. A lot of people’s identity is established in where they work. So when you change jobs, you really kind of change who you are, or at least you have an opportunity to, and doing it in a time like this can result in a very serious set of changes. It’s not something you’d do on a whim, right? Were you, right from the get-go, “Yes, Atlassian. That’s where I’m going to go.”

I wasn’t looking for a position, but I will say that I’d always admired Atlassian’s culture. I don’t even know if Atlassian knows this, but I used to teach at Apple University as a faculty member on culture. When I left Apple and went to some of the start-ups, I used the Atlassian culture video as a way of showcasing how we define and articulate a culture that is actually living and breathing, not only in products but also in people and the company. I had this admiration for Atlassian even before coming in. When I was called about this opportunity, I couldn’t pass up the call, even though I was super happy where I was. When I met the people and then got to actually join, it was amazing to see that everything I saw on the outside in its products was really happening every day there. Frankly, I feel very blessed.

That’s really important. It’s that whole connection between your employer branding, your external brand, HR, and leadership. When those are all working together, they make the best organizations. It sounds like you got really lucky.

When I joined, I went to an executive off-site in Australia immediately. Then, 2-3 weeks later, the pandemic happened. In all of that, there was an instant feeling of it feeling like home. It felt like my identity, my cultural values, and the things I’ve learned in my career were who Atlassian is, and it made work really great.

There’s so much going on with the pandemic, and being able to feel like you connect and integrate well helps you really do your best work. I was really starting to think about how to support our employees during this time – really leading with empathy and care and building trust with them. Being new to an organization and saying, “You know what? We think you need to be working from home now,” making some hard decisions, and moving the entire workforce remote to protect them are big things.

You can’t make those changes without having a supportive executive team, having colleagues there to work with you and show you your way, and taking a little risk – knowing that from the culture to people, you can actually take risks in a good way to prioritize the right outcomes for people.

One thing I don’t know if you’ve heard from us is that we’re focused a lot on this two-way dialogue and taking the guesswork out of what’s happening for our people and what they’re thinking. We’ve developed an ongoing survey, which we started almost immediately upon people working remotely, and we’ve been doing it every other week since.

Tell me more about the survey.

It’s sent through one of the survey providers, and the focus for the survey has really evolved since it began. It started out with looking at three key areas: The first is personal impact. How is it for you to be able to work from home? Do you have the right setup? Do you have distractions? Are you a caretaker? Are you living with seven other people? Whatever it may be. Then we want to understand how people are reacting to that piece.

The second piece is going further into the details about working from home and understanding what we can do to support people in making that better and faster.

Third is just connecting to teams and making sure they have the right company support virtually. And through our evolution of that, we’ve learned a couple things. First, people weren’t set up—as you can imagine. How could they be? They never planned to work remotely, at least not for this length of time. And while we had a remote workforce and we are set up to do this through our tools, not everybody was able to do it all the time. So that was a big learning curve for us.

It must be very difficult to get a pulse on your culture when everyone is home.

It’s definitely a challenge. I think one thing that helps us with that challenge is that we do have an open company, and we’re geared toward empowering our employees to tell us how they think and feel through many different types of mediums. Whether it’s through internal blogging or Q&As in our global and regional town halls,  they feel comfortable and are free to share their thinking. When we go out with a survey, people are honest, and they tell us what’s working and what’s not working. When they told us they didn’t have the right equipment and that they needed support on that, we immediately responded with giving them an expense to go ahead and get the chair they needed, the desk they needed, or the monitor and tools so they could get that out of the way and get set up to be focused.

At some point when you are working from home, you sort of develop this idea that, “Well, this is my life and my home. And I know I get paid for this, but at the same time, I’m really giving my company a lot of me.” And it’s really important that the people on the other side understand that. It sounds like you guys do.

We’ve been leading with the health and well-being of our people. We’ve also sent out virtual ergonomics for people and shared how people can work more effectively so that they’re not actually damaging their back; and because we’ve heard this in our survey, we came back with a little competition to get people away from their desk. We spun up something called the Walk this Way Challenge. The point of the Walk this Way Challenge was to get into teams of four, connect, engage, and then go out and walk and get 10,000 to 15,000 steps a day. We had over 400 teams. We ended up walking over 77 miles in a month’s time. Not only did it get people moving—and physical health during this time is important—but it also got people connected to people they didn’t know at the company, and that’s important when you’re working remotely.

That leads me to another thing we’ve learned in our surveys, which is that people are lonely and isolated, and that has an impact on their ability to be focused and connect with their colleagues. Through that information, we’re understanding that mental health is a key component to people’s ability to do their best work; we are focused right now on that and on putting together something called Resiliency Week. What’s great about the surveys is that we will continue to hear their feedback. It’s taking the guesswork out of things. Then we can respond with tools and different types of events and things to help them feel connected and meet them where they are. It’s been great.

Do you feel like your flow throughout your life to this point has followed like a natural arc?

I don’t think so. I would say everything’s always a journey, and in a journey, you have tons of different experiences. It’s only when you look back that they have kind of made sense. As you’re going through them, you’re kind of not sure this is going to be the right thing or the next thing, but then you learn and you acquire things through that.

If I’m thinking about that journey to today, when I was at Goldman and going through a massive number of crises, whether it was 9/11 or it was 2008 or any of the natural disasters or a steam pipe bursting at the bottom of Manhattan, you have to figure out what you do with those things. You learn first and foremost the importance of leadership’s communication. If you’re not communicating, you’re missing out on connecting to your employees. They’re going to be concerned about the “what ifs” and not focused. That’s the first thing I learned.

The second thing I learned, which we’re using today, is to take the guesswork out and simply ask people what they need, how they’re doing, and how they’re feeling. Lead with empathy and make sure you can help people stay motivated.

Then the third thing is just to be agile and continue to iterate and evolve your thinking because things are changing very fast. One of the things we care deeply about is not only taking this journey ourselves but also sharing it with others. We’re going to be posting on atlassian.com/remote our survey questions, all the tools we’re using, and all the different things we’ve been using to support employees – whether it’s adding the stipend for special needs, the Resiliency Week, or the Walk this Way Challenge – so others can use them as well. Going back to your question about the journey, I love working in a team. I love making the team successful, both within Atlassian and in the community with HR. I’ve been on a number of CHRO calls, sharing our lessons learned to empower them with some of the work we’re doing, and learning from them as well.

What was a time when you realized you had it all wrong, and how did you adjust to that?

That’s a great question. When did I have it all wrong? When I left Apple and decided I was going to go work in the start-up realm because I thought there was an opportunity to really help reimagine what HR can be. In bigger companies, a lot of times, there’s already a culture established. There’s a rhythm. It’s sometimes harder to make meaningful change, especially if the company and culture are well-established. Going to a start-up was my way of trying to see if I can help impact going from a transaction to a transformation in HR at a start-up. I guess my first foray into that didn’t go as well as I thought because the people within that culture were not really ready for that change. They weren’t ready to be thinking about aligning their people strategy and their product strategy and didn’t realize that you don’t really have a product strategy without a good people strategy. Even my best attempts to make that work didn’t work.

There’s something to be said for tradition. It can help you stay aligned with your values, but it can’t be the only thing. There has to be innovation. You should examine the things that are working the best rather than just looking at the problems and saying, “Why is it working, and what are the assumptions we’ve made about it?” You know, because maybe they’ve changed and there’s some room for improvement there.

One of the things I reflect on is the fact that Atlassian has this agile mind-set, as do I. I like to be in a situation where you try things, it doesn’t work, you iterate, and you make it better. I think that’s the best part about Atlassian—it’s built on that and that’s how I think about things. We can continue through our surveys and through the things we’re doing to support our employees during this time; we can make decisions; and as things are moving around us, we could also shift and be flexible and think about how to do better. That’s what makes such a great match for me at Atlassian.

What’s something you’ve accomplished that you’re particularly proud of?

I would say it was starting the Ally Program at Goldman Sachs. To this day, I’m sort of known as the first ally of Goldman, but when it started in 2007/2008, there was probably not a strong focus on diversity and inclusion when a massive recession was about to hit. I was realizing that there was a group of people who were not really feeling they could be included, and I became an advocate. I aimed to galvanize the company around the importance of having allies to support that population. To this day, what I’m proud of is that Goldman is still known as the top employer for LGBTQ. We won the HRC award in 2011 for innovation in this space. We helped Wall Street think about allies, and we flew the beautiful rainbow flag during Pride Week as the first company to ever do that. To me, that, from the CEO to the most junior person, has made a huge impact on the company and in the industry.