Faces of HR

The Power of Boundaries in Open Communication

The value of communication cannot be understated. Learning how to connect with employees and leaders and knowing where the boundaries of that communication exist require strong communication skills. When HR successfully navigates that space, it stitches together leaders, managers, and employees in a powerful way.

Meet Nicole Olver, Chief People Officer at Sendle, the first 100% carbon neutral shipping carrier, designed for small business.

How did you find yourself in HR?

Very non traditionally. I came from a music background, but I loved people management and working with volunteers and training, and those sorts of elements were always spliced into my work history. I had one of those moments when I was in a company that didn’t have an established HR department, and the CEO said, “Nicole, would you have interest?” I said, “Absolutely. I can do this. I love this stuff.” It really was someone seeing that in me, believing it in myself, and then just going for it. I can’t believe I didn’t find this career earlier. I think so much of it aligns with what I love doing. I really view it as quite a strong advocacy role. I never saw the old traditional stodgy thing that we have all escaped and tried to fearlessly rebrand from.

I kind of rode the tech wave when it was much more human-centric—much more of the people for the people by the people. That’s been really interesting for me. I’ve had great leaders, great support, and great mentors. I’m a super curious human by nature. I love watching people. I love learning and seeking out information. I’ve found the community now in the HR world incredibly strong and robust. We worked together, and I think if you look at the last year’s recent events, we had to. None of us were crisis comms experts. None of us were public health experts. We had to rely on each other to kind of get the best information and figure out: How do we deliver it? How do we support our people in the best way? I would never look back. 

So, in many ways, it was nontraditional but obviously the perfect fit.

You mentioned relying on each other. Do you mean within your organization, or do you have networks?

Externally. I found particularly in New York, there’s a really robust group. The venture capital firms were really big at connecting HR leaders together at the beginning with their companies because obviously, it makes sense. The more success you have as leaders working together, the greater all the portfolios will be. But that sort of branched out, and I was actually part of a group of 120 people heads for tech companies around New York. We would meet monthly. We would spend a lot of time sharing resources and bouncing ideas off each other because that’s the other thing: HR can be a fairly lonely world. There’s so much confidentiality. There’s so much you can’t talk about, particularly with maybe your peers on the executive team. It was great to find people as a resource to be like “Hey, am I crazy? Or is this a sane idea?”

Just having those people is so important. I think more than ever, we need support in a role like this to do it well and to survive.

There were groups like that before obviously, but I’ve heard a lot about them lately. People weren’t really talking about it before. It’s really nice to hear, and it’s something I’m going to be trying to find my way into because some of the best conversations I’ve had with HR people have been at expos and conventions—the times between the sessions when HR people are talking to each other and sharing ideas, and people sort of dispense of all the introductory language and really get into the meat of it in a way that articles and podcasts and things don’t.

Yep. Exactly. We do that monthly. I’ve got one this week, and we just pick a topic and debate and throw ideas around. It’s a safe environment where you don’t have to have all the answers and be put together and lead the charge. It’s much more like “OK, what are the tactics here? How do we think about this?” It’s a great support structure and learning opportunity. Things like that have made the role much more interesting. 

There is a tendency for this role to become quite isolated. You really partner strongly with a CEO. Maybe you have a professional mentor, but outside of that, that’s pretty much it. You obviously partner strongly with your CFO, but there were many times I would be with a peer from another department. The person would say, “What’s going on?”, and I’d have to say, “I can’t. I’m really sorry.” You carry the weight of having to bring that to the role, which is important but also lonely. I think this emergence of connection has been really exciting.

It’s one of those things that I think really makes it difficult for HR initiatives to get off the ground; you can’t make true connections with employees because at some point, that might be a conflict of interest. And yet, you also have to connect with them. How do you navigate that sort of no man’s land?

A lot of listening. You can build a lot of relationships based on just having great conversations. It doesn’t have to be about work things in particular. I think there is an element of needing really strong boundaries. Back when we could go out with coworkers, I’d stay for one drink and then go home. That was important. It was important to be like “I’m here, but I’m not the friend.” I’m not the person who’s going to spill the information or tell you what’s going on. I have to be really honest and truthful and say “Look, I can’t actually talk about that, but here’s what I can.”

I’ve had friends in other companies, and we’ve literally said, “We have very strong boundaries that this is as a friend and this is as an HR leader. If we splice into that land, we’ll shut it down. There has to be no ego. There have to be no hard feelings.” We’ve had really good friendships based on those lines, and they’ve never been crossed, but we set that up very early at the beginning when the friendships were forming. It is possible. You do have to be really strong about boundaries and stick firmly to them. 

You just have to find commonalities with the people you’re talking to. I try and make those connections. Do a lot more listening when you’re actually talking with people because most of the time, people just want to be heard so they feel like they still have that connection with you and that you are present and listening but not necessarily giving things away.

It’s not necessarily an equal exchange always, but that’s OK. I think you need those relationships because you need people to talk to you so you can fix the right problems or at least diagnose what you think is a problem and get to the root causes versus just “This is my solution.” That’s not necessarily going to work if you haven’t really spoken to the people when it comes from within.

What are your thoughts on open communication between employers and employees?

One thing that I love about the people at Sendle is that they’re very transparent. They’re very open with the leadership. Every time we have our assembly, which is biweekly, there is a question time, and the questions can be anonymous.

You can ask them in person, if you would like, but there is that opportunity for information. So rather than leaving it to go to the groups, we just create a space where it can happen. We will answer every question honestly and truthfully. We’re not looking for PR responses. It’s very real. Our CEO has been passionate about that from the beginning. 

I think those sorts of things help mitigate what can become a powder keg situation. Having said that, it’s not to say historically in organizations, that hasn’t happened. I’ve seen some pretty big and hairy things within companies and that pack mentality where people aren’t feeling heard can really exacerbate. I have brought in professional resources before when someone just needed a professional mediator who wasn’t from the company.

The person didn’t want to feel like the company was leading it for various reasons, but it helps having some professional people come in and just say “Hey, let’s take some space. Let’s talk about this.” They can help sort of realigning with “OK, well, you understand your company cannot do that. Right?” They can be that third voice, which I think sometimes is needed depending on the severity of what’s happened in the organization.

Do you have employee resource groups at your organization?

We’re a small org in that at the moment, so we really leverage the resources offered through our benefit programs. It is more than confidential. I mean, when I’ve done that in the past, I’ve always said to the organization, “Look, I’m very passionate about these groups existing. I think they’re important.” I think, much like you look at democracy, you need the equilibrium of opinions and viewpoints. I’m not scared of them at all. I think they’re a fantastic ability for people to communicate. As a leader in that, I would say I want it to happen organically. I’m happy to help think about supporting it and how to resource it and things like that. But I shouldn’t lead it. If I’m leading it, something’s broken, right? 

One thing I’m very passionate about and that aligns with where I am now at Sendle is sustainability. It needs to live beyond me, right? If I am leading it, it will break and fall as soon as I leave. The whole point is that people need to care passionately about it and create it. I’ll support it and potentially create some guardrails so it doesn’t get out of control, but then it’s yours. 

And come talk to me. Come say, “Hey, guys, we’re not pushing hard enough on this, this, and this.” Great. Let’s have that conversation. I think if leaders understand that, then it will be more successful. You see more ownership within the organization because once people have to lead something, too, they realize “Oh, this isn’t as easy. I can’t just throw mud from the sides.” There’s a lot of learning in that for people. 

That’s what I want to see. I want to see people provide their own sort of leadership but also understand the complexities through their own learning journey, not my telling them. I think that’s where I like to partner as a leader versus an owner because to your point, it always comes back to HR having to lead these things. And that’s why they fail.

Also, if you can’t dedicate other staff to it, it doesn’t really say much about your willingness to face the issue head on.

Right? Then you look standoffish and like you’re trying to be cagey and not support it and resist it. It is the relationship, and the two worlds need to sit down and talk, too, right? So it’s like “OK, we had a meeting. Here’s what came out of it. OK. Let’s meet with HR. Let’s have this conversation. Let’s bring the CEO in. Let’s talk.” I think so many organizations get scared of where this could go that they don’t even sit down and start the conversation. They get too protective. That’s the mistake because like anything when you put two people together, you realize there’s a lot more commonality than difference.

Classic example, right? You may have people asking for full pay transparency, right? This is one of those crunchy topics that HR leaders always get presented with. When you really dig into it, it’s not necessarily that they want to know what everyone makes. They’re just saying, “Hey, I didn’t have enough information from my company about how pay works.” Now we’re talking about a completely different issue. You’re asking for process and structure, and we as leaders are thinking, “Oh my God, you want to know what everyone makes? What a disaster.” It’s not actually that. The actual solution is in the middle. 

People are actually very comfortable just having some frameworks. It’s just they weren’t provided. So people will often go to their extreme viewpoint to get somewhere and land hopefully in the middle. Once you realize that, you realize these things aren’t scary. They’re just an opportunity for good conversation and telling people “Hey, we’re not going to do all of this. We’re not going to do all these things, but where can we? Where are the opportunities where we can do this together?” That’s where you’ve got to lead into those conversations.

What I’m learning from our conversation is that communication is pretty critical for you.

Critical. Absolutely. And the lens of fairness, right? You look at what’s happened in this last year, particularly around diversity and inclusion. These are good debates to be having. The pressure on these sorts of conversations is so needed because I think, for a long time, HR leaders hid behind these things. This isn’t a slight on my space at all. I think they were doing the best they could with the information they had. But I think for now, it’s really about going “OK, we need to be doing orders. We need to look at this. Do we have John over here making this but Nina’s making less? Why is that happening? I want to start asking questions of ourselves and our leadership and asking whether this is fair. Is there a reason for this?” Now sometimes, the person has more experience or takes on more projects; then, you start seeing this is not just an outright pay gap.

We need to look at this. And as HR leaders, we need to care about this. We need to be the ones. That’s where I think the advocacy piece gets me excited. We can go in and be the advocates for people and do these sorts of processes. I think most people have that intention. The only barrier to this is time. Obviously, we are small but mighty teams, and it’s not for ill intent. It’s just for overload of other priorities, which sounds awful, but it’s just what naturally happens. We’re imperfect. But I’m finding more leaders are really passionate and becoming more and more passionate about these topics and really spending the time doing their due diligence to right some of these wrongs that were just not accounted for. I think we have better technologies now, too.

When you’re looking at three disparate Excel® spreadsheets, it’s harder to spot, whereas now, there are so many technology solutions that can spot these data and highlight this. I find that most people, when they know this, act quickly, for the most part. They don’t want these things to happen. I think it was probably just a matter of the time it took to audit these things. And now, with better technologies and quicker abilities to spot these things, they are being rectified slowly but surely, but it’s happening.

Would you say that your time in HR has informed your personal life in any way?

Oh, 1,000%. Absolutely. I think it’s given me, I would say, a lot more gray in the best of ways. I grew up in a very structured household—it was religious and military. You couldn’t have more rigor and structure in my upbringing. Things were very black and white, and I think just the maturity of age and life and becoming a parent, as well as this space, have really helped me expand the gray. What I mean by that is there’s no right and wrong, right? Someone is never 100% right. This is 100% good. It’s really messy. Someone made an imperfect choice. There was a company doing the best it could. When you understand that, it really helps you be a better leader. Take something as simple as leadership. Leadership isn’t some ordained “You are the leader.” It’s that someone just said, “I’ll try.” And the person just did it. Right?

It’s not anything magical or mystical. Yes, people train for it. But the reality is they just said, “Let me fix it. Let me try. I’ve never done it. Let’s see what happens.” Right? It’s just that willingness to do that. I think that’s the gray, right? Because we do put leaders on a pedestal. We do pedestal people we think are so good at this and oh my goodness. That happens with time; the muscle memory strengthens, and you do get stronger the more you throw yourself in and the longer you are in these positions. But I think, for the most part, it’s just “I’m going to do it. Let’s see what happens.” It’s very, very non-grand in many ways.