Faces of HR

Faces of HR: For Amy Zimmerman Building Culture and Transparency Go Hand in Hand

Before Amy Zimmerman entered the human resources field, she was a social worker. Although she was passionate about helping people, Amy also understood that supporting herself long term would be a challenge. Not long after, a friend who worked in the industry offered her the right opportunity at the right time. amy zimmerman

“I knew that I wanted to help people but at some point I’m going to need to be able to support myself,” Amy recalls. “It felt good at the end of the day being a social worker, but unfortunately, I was unable to pay my bills. Her friend encouraged, “Become a recruiter, work on my team, and you’ll still get to help people professionally. It’s a little different, but you will make good money in tech.”

After a year or so after graduating college, Amy was introduced to tech recruiting. Not long after, she convinced a startup founder in 1999 to hire her as his first recruiter.

“He was acting as recruiter for his growing team and he was self-funded,” she tells HR Daily Advisor. “I met him because he hired a friend of mine. I said, “Hey, how are you going to focus on growing your business, if you’re the recruiter?” And he laughed. I was a total stranger to him. And he was like, “What do you propose?” And I said, “Well, I’ve been a recruiter for like six months. Why don’t you let me do that part of the job, and you can focus on building your business?” I was a brand new recruiter at that point, but I loved it so much. And over time, I came to really enjoy being in a broader people role, rather than only recruiting.”

In our latest Faces of HR profile, meet Amy Zimmerman. After more than two decades of experience nurturing company culture within the tech community, she is the Chief People Officer at Relay Payments, a fast-growing startup in Atlanta’s buzzing tech industry, and co-founder of PeopleCo.

Who is/was your biggest influence in the industry?

I referenced having been a social worker growing up. Really my biggest influence was Jim, the CEO and founder of the original company who empowered me and supported me to partner with him and build a culture, that people just wanted to be a part of. I had never met an HR leader that had a similar philosophy in terms of how to create community, and what to prioritize. HR has historically been, in my mind, a very punitive and administrative type of function. And the way I was operating it, or building it at the company was very, very different.

What’s your best mistake, and what did you learn from it?

When you make hiring mistakes, they can be super costly. They’re expensive. Oftentimes, it involves a setback in progress, and you invest a lot, and so you waste a lot of time. I have learned over the years how important hiring is. And when you’re moving fast, and, I think, a lot of startup founders can relate to this, sometimes when you make hiring decisions you compromise some of the non-negotiables because you don’t feel like you’ve got time on your side.

What I’ve learned is that it’s just never worth it. I’ve got lots of examples of hiring mistakes that were costly, both in time and money. I think, the biggest learning that came out of that was creating a process, and or mechanism by which if you hire right, and you interview right, not only can you create the high-performance culture that you aspire for, but you can move the business forward at the pace that you need to move the business forward. Even if you’re weeks or months behind on the hire, you’ve got to invest on the front end to get it right.

What’s your favorite part about working in the industry, and what’s your least favorite part, and how would you change it?

My favorite thing about working in tech, and, specifically, the people function is I love supporting growth. I love being a catalyst for growth, I love seeing teams gel, and seeing company goals get achieved. And I take a lot of pride in that, because, obviously, I don’t ultimately control the outcome. But do have a big part in building the team, and creating, and building the infrastructure and the community that folks align with and feel some commitment to. And so, I would say that’s the best part of the job, for sure, is all the opportunity and enabling the people.

The most frustrating part is when you’ve got a plan, you think it’s the right plan and you execute it, but it doesn’t work. Because of the unknowns you can’t control, the people. You can hope that people will behave a way, but ultimately, you’re not responsible for how they show up or don’t. And so that probably is the most frustrating part. The great part is the people, and the not-so-great part is the unpredictability of people.

It sounds like through your experience, you really care about people, and you want to help people feel safe and comfortable as well, which is important in the HR industry.

It’s amazing that everybody doesn’t share that same commitment. Part of building culture is transparency. And to me, that’s not unique to Relay Payments. It is a giant commitment we’ve made to our team, but it’s not one of our core values, because in my mind, it should be an automatic. It’s always surprising to me when I hear of companies that don’t share that position. How do you expect people to perform the way they need to perform to be successful if you’re not willing to share context, and you’re not willing to share information, and to create a culture where information flow is a shared responsibility? It doesn’t just come from the team member, it doesn’t just come from the company, but it’s a flow of communication that runs between both.

It’s a huge part of what I’m focused on, and what I’m committed to. And it’s a compliment that I get feedback on from folks about how unique the environments are that I have helped cultivate — and people really appreciate. And it’s always shocking to me, I’m like, “How does every company not operate like this? How is this a differentiator? This to me should be table stakes. Everybody should be transparent and clear and direct.” But apparently, it’s not as common as you or I may think it should be.

How can company leaders make HR a value within their organization?

I think it starts with HR. The onus is on HR to add value. If HR is administrative, and it’s operational, and it’s not adding a ton of value, why should the leadership team or founder pull the HR person or team into a situation where they don’t feel like there’s value being added? I believe that HR should have a very important seat at the table, if they behave as a business partner; if they’re an enabler of progress; if they’re adding value; if they’re growing people; if they’re contributing to some of the issues cross-functionally, and solving, whether it’s communication issues, or other things.

I think there’s a huge opportunity. I feel fortunate, in that I’ve always had a seat at the table, literally, from when I was in my early twenties and showed up at the first tech company as their first recruiter, because I convinced the CEO that he needed one. And I quickly became his head of people. I was a team of one, but I had a seat at the table. And we talked about culture, we talked about the kinds of people that we thought we needed to hire, to contribute to the mission and the goals of the company.

If I hadn’t had a seat at the table, it would have been probably a challenge for the team to accomplish the goals that they set out, without the person who was supposed to execute on some of that vision. But I like to believe I’ve always added value in those conversations. And that’s why I’ve had a seat at the table. I don’t think it should be automatic, I think it should be an important part of the company strategy. But you’ve got to have the right person in the seat to ensure that that value is being added.

Where do you see the industry heading in five years, or are you currently seeing any trends?

This whole concept of fully distributed. I think for companies that aren’t embracing that, they’re going to be in big trouble. I think some of the big tech companies have gone public and said, “I want people back in the office.” And I think others have said, “We’re going to meet you where you are. You want to move to another city? No problem. You want to work from home fully, or you want a hybrid approach? You want to be in an office a couple of days a week? We’re going to work it out so that you can do your best work.” Those are the companies that are likely not experiencing the “great resignation”. The latest data that I read was that 65% of workers will change jobs in 2021. That was mind blowing to me. 65% is gigantic.

But if you look at LinkedIn, there are an enormous amount of people who have started jobs this year. And I really, wholeheartedly, believe that it’s a result of people who believe, “I can have flexibility in my work. I’m no longer beholden to an archaic work structure that doesn’t work for me or my family anymore.” And so I think the biggest trend, as you referenced, is you got to get on board with this fully distributed work situation, or people are going to leave, and it’s going to be awfully expensive to replace them with people who are willing to be in an office full-time.

With COVID cases rising, some organizations are requiring mask and vaccines. Many employers may also be wondering what the fall will look like for businesses. What insight do you have on the future of hybrid workplaces, and how are you advising people in the workplace to handle vaccine and mass requirements, and such things like that?

I’ve been a staunch supporter of everybody should be vaccinated since the minute a vaccine was even available. As kids, we are expected to have certain vaccines in order to attend school. Why should this be any different. It’s our responsibility to keep our work community safe, just as school administrators commit to keeping the kids in their care safe. Without masks, I think, we’ve still got a lot of danger in the community. Months ago, I took a very strong position and said at Relay Payments, “Nobody is welcome in the office unvaccinated.” It doesn’t mean they can’t work for the company, they just need to do so outside of the office, because we’re going to create a community that’s safe for everybody.

We had a grand opening last month, and we required that everybody get tested 72 hours prior to showing up. So, we had a test requirement, and we had a vaccine requirement. And thankfully, I can say we’re beyond the two-week incubation period and we had zero incidences. I feel proud about that, because despite how judicious we were being, I was still concerned that there was a risk because it’s so rampant right now. But back to your question on advice, I’m telling people across the board, both the company I work for, as well as all the companies that I advise, if you’re not willing to be flexible, you’re going to lose people, period, full stop. I think the “great resignation” is evidence of that, but I’m seeing it literally every single day.

I know companies who strongly feel that “Well our culture is in the office.” I tell them that they’ve got to figure out how to create a remote culture. The culture must be a shared language between the team members and the leadership. Teams shouldn’t require physical walls. That should be something that you can figure out remote. It might be harder, you might have to be more intentional, but if you don’t commit to it, you’re going to fall behind.

What are you most proud of?

Professionally, I’d have to say not compromising on my values. I’ve partnered with founders that I aligned with from a values perspective. We’ve built strong cultures. The companies have been widely known for their culture for being a best place to work type of company. And that’s important to me. If I don’t feel passionate about the company that I work for, I can’t be a part of it. I just would never do it. I align so personally with the company, and with the values, and with the mission, and with the purpose.