Faces of HR

Faces of HR: Gia Ganesh Talks the Importance of Transcending Stereotypes and Small Ripples Making Big Waves

As a self-described people nerd, Gia Ganesh is passionate about unleashing people’s potentials. However, that wasn’t her focus at the start of her career. Like other HR professionals in the industry, Ganesh’s career did not start in human resources. She first made a career in tech as an engineer and eventually segued to the people function after noticing her passion and excitement for developing, coaching, and growing people.

“I very quickly knew that engineering problems were not the kind of problems I like to solve,” Ganesh recently shared with HR Daily Advisor. “The way I think about trying to understand what you’re passionate about, trying to see what problems you want to solve daily, what problems can you continue solving day after day and not feel like, “Oh my God, I can’t take this anymore.” As a result, I quickly realized that the kind of problems I want to be solving daily are people problems. And when I say problems, I want to talk to people. I want to deal with everything related to people and keep them happy in their professions – that’s all I want to live in.”

For more than two years now, Ganesh has served as the Vice President of People & Culture at Florence Healthcare, a healthcare tech company focused on advancing clinical trials through its software products aimed at providing research teams access to digital workflow and remote site monitoring.

In our latest Faces of HR profile, meet Gia Ganesh.

How did you get your start in the HR industry?

I kind of made my way through a jungle maze to get here. I think this goes back a little bit to my upbringing and culture as well. I grew up in India, and like most stereotypes, I was expected to either be in engineering, or be a doctor, or an attorney. I knew that none of those things held my attention or passion at that point. But like a beautiful daughter, I did go down the path of engineering and got my degree in engineering and started my career in engineering. Ultimately, I took a long, circuitous route to getting here. But the way I describe it is moving away from what I don’t want to do one step at a time. Like, “No, I don’t want to do this.” And I transitioned to many different roles within the engineering space to see if there was more opportunities to deal with people. And finally, I reached a point where I didn’t want to do anything more in engineering.

So, I quit my job, went to school, and received my master’s in business administration from Georgia Tech here in Atlanta. That opened my doors to the business world where, again, I got to deal with different sides of people. I was lucky enough to pave my way into People Project, a leadership development project at the consulting firm that I used to work for and that, I think, really blew open the doors for me. I knew I had arrived where I needed to be. Since then, I’ve been in different facets of the people business. And this role, my current role, has kind of been a culmination of all that in terms of giving me the ropes to handle everything people related, and I love what I do today.

I love how you knew that engineering wasn’t for you from the very beginning. And like we all do; we move forward doing what we feel is best. The great thing is that you made a conscious effort to get where you wanted to be. That’s a beautiful example of being intentional and having the self-discipline to make what you want happen.

Absolutely. Even when I did my MBA, I gravitated towards the people business kind of courses, tried to find every opportunity I can to be in the people side of things. So when that opportunity arose at the consulting firm, I was not hired to do people business. But an opportunity arose, I raised my hand and said, “Hey, I want to do this.” Although it was a completely new world for me, I took it on, figured things out, and got my foot in the door. So, I think there’s an aspect of being intentional about what you want to do and trying to pave your way in there with divine intervention, of course.

You also mentioned that where you are now, VP of People and Culture at Florence Healthcare, it kind of encapsulates everything that you’ve wanted to do as far as helping people. Could you further enumerate on that for me, please?

 I think when I started with Florence, I was the 20 or 21st employee. Today we are at 135 employees, and I feel proud to say that I’ve been able to take care of all those employees right from identifying employees and bringing them in, to helping them grow and develop, and then retaining them. It’s been the whole gamut of experiences that you can get, I’ve been blessed to have it here. Because it’s one thing to attract talent, but growing talent is not easy, and retaining talent is not easy. So definitely, I’m constantly learning. And all of us know how things have changed for the whole world in the past year and a half which has caused all of us to rethink the way we look at the way we conduct business or what we need to offer. And especially for this role that I play today, thinking about the right way to keep people engaged, keep people’s wellbeing at the forefront, keep people motivated, making sure we acknowledge and hear aspects of burnout, etc., there’s so many things which may not have happened if the situation in the world didn’t occur.

I feel like I’m blessed in that I’ve been given opportunities to grow myself and my skills in extraordinary ways here. I also strongly believe that my prior experiences in the past helped me get here. I can have a comfortable discussion with the technical person on the engineering side because of my experience in engineering in the past, and because I’ve played different roles in other organizations, I understand how organizational design is very critical to a company’s growth and development as well. Ultimately, I feel like all those things that I took for granted in my prior roles, I’m like, “What am I even going to do with all that?” It’s all coming together in many ways. For example, I did a brief project on sales enablement in some part of my previous life, and lo and behold, it comes really handy here when I’m listening to my sales leader talk about building out the sales enablement team. I know automatically, “Oh, this is the kind of skillset he wants.” So I feel like I’m really blessed to be able to rely upon the experience in my past that shapes my role here today and being able to perform in a decent way in this role.

What is your best mistake and what did you learn from it?

I don’t know if I have a particular instance, but I think the thing that bubbles to the top of my head is not giving into stereotypes of people. The world stereotypes people in many ways. There are different attributes that stereotypes can apply to whether it’s by nationality, gender, race, or any different kind. Early on, I learned that it’s important in the people business to not immediately revert to a stereotype. I’ll use myself as an example. Just because I’m a woman from the Asian continent, XYZ stereotype, typical attributes apply to me. But that doesn’t mean I have not transcended those stereotypes. It’s very easy, especially when you’re growing talent and when you are attracting talent, to look at a name and say, “Oh, okay. She’s Indian, so I guess she has A, B, C, or D.” However, giving people a chance and understanding the human behind that stereotype label that you’ve attached is very important. So I don’t know if it’s a mistake, but I definitely learned that earlier on in my career and I take that into consideration every single day on my role.

Who is your biggest influence in the industry?

I feel like I learn from everybody that I meet. For example, even you with and the five minutes that we chatted before, it was amazing to learn that you have this passion that you’ve been pursuing for the past 15 years. It’s amazing. It’s very inspiring. So, I feel like the learning moment is with everybody that I chat with or come across. The biggest influence, to give you a name, I’ll say has been Josh Bersin. He’s a big voice in the HR industry. And I think, of late, some of the thought materials that he’s been putting out has been shaping my thoughts. I will point out that he has been one of my latest influences.

What is your favorite part about working in the industry? What’s your least favorite part and how would you change that?

I think my favorite part is truly being able to connect with humans as humans. I strongly believe that all of us as humans have the need to be seen as who we are, as our authentic selves. And I love that the HR industry offers me the opportunity to be able to be a proponent of that idea with my team and with people at my organization. So basically, small ripples, hopefully it’ll become bigger ripples. So I start small, maybe with just a 100 people in my company is fine. Hopefully, it’ll ripple across, and we can all take the message to see people for who they are, recognize them without labels, just as humans.

My least favorite part is the fact that, and I may sound controversial saying this, even with diversity, equity, inclusion initiatives, we are leading with stereotypes. This means we are leading with labels. Today, we are all fighting for Black American representation, or Hispanic, or Asian, and so on and so forth. We are leading with the label – and I don’t think it’s anybody’s fault. It’s just the world has evolved to that state, and we are now having to kind of revert back our ways. Because at the end of the day, what everybody is asking for is for all of us to be recognized and included for who we are. Look at most of the messaging that comes from all these groups. I want to include them for who they are, them as humans rather than a label. Ultimately, I want to peel the label. If there’s one thing that I could do, if you gave me a magic wand, I want to remove labels as much as I can.

How can company leaders make HR value within their organizations?

Oh, that’s interesting one. It’s also a tough one because I think, honestly, it depends on the industry as well a little bit. Tech seems to be very progressive on that front. I feel like some of the other industries are playing catch up a little bit. But like you said, COVID has opened everybody’s eyes to that situation. So back to how HR can add value to their organization, irrespective of industry, it’s being able to show the value they add in meaningful ways. Meaning, organizations know that they cannot exist without people, and we are in the business of people, we are in the business of taking care of these peoples that make or break the organization. An organization, succeeds, reaches whatever IPO, or you name it, doesn’t happen without the people that are employed there.

So obviously, HR is the person, department, team that takes care of these people, so showing leaders the value that they add by taking care of these people, is important. The world today talks about data and metrics, and we have thousands of tools for gathering that data and metrics. So if it makes sense, if HR leaders can be proactive about using data and metrics to make a case, that’s definitely something we should be considering. If possible, getting the right leadership in terms of showing how HR is a strategic partner and not just an operational administrative partner. I feel like, for the most part, we’ve gotten past that stage and most businesses recognize HR as a strategic partner and give them a place at the table. But I think there’s few organizations and industries that are still lagging. So the key is helping business leaders understand the impact that people have on their business and how the business can be made or broken without these people, I believe, is the key.

Where do you see the industry heading in five years? Or are you seeing any current trends?

All of us know that the shift that was going to happen a decade later, has been accelerated due to COVID-19 for sure. I mean, we have all been talking about remote work for the past decade easily, but the acceleration that has occurred in changing the future of workplace happened only because of COVID-19. So, I want to say that maybe we’ll all be in a better place in the next five years in terms of understanding what the future of the workplace looks like, and it being really a fabric of society. Right now, we are all still trying to understand what does this mean? What does hybrid work mean? What does flex work mean? What does completely remote work mean? What are the implications? If I have a remote employee, do they get the same benefits as an employee that works in the office? How do we communicate with them? How do we make sure the remote employee has as many opportunities to succeed as the person who’s working right next to the leadership team in the office? There’s so many things that we are all trying to figure out. I feel like in five years we would understand how this whole system works and be in a better place.

I think the second part is, maybe this is because I work in the tech industry, a trend that will again be accelerated is data. The influence of data in every decision we make, it’ll be more profound. Most organizations and most HR leaders that I’m speaking to, I already see that trend, “How can we leverage data to influence something?” For example, most organizations asked employees to give them data in terms of whether they want to come back into the workplace because of COVID-19. Moreover, throughout the world, we are dealing with burnout as a big issue. I feel like we’ll get more clarity around burnout once we have more data points and how we can address it. Most organizations and teams are addressing it individually, but I feel like there’ll be a rapid shift, even maybe from the government level, where burnout is addressed in certain ways. Maybe we’ll get more guidance and mandates from that perspective as well. Ultimately, I feel like we’re headed in a direction where data is going to play a big part in our decision making as well.

What are you most proud of?

I am most proud of transcending the stereotype label that I was given, and that maybe the world or the society expected me to be and moving into a place that I am passionate about. I feel very proud of that. It’s not uncommon, but it was not too common when I was considering options for my professional career. So I’m definitely proud of that. But I also, in my career at Florence, I really believe in the mission of our company, which is to advance clinical trials. I’m super proud of the moment when we signed with Pfizer and we helped bring the Pfizer vaccine to life. We played a big part in that. And being able to go to a workplace where we are working on something as impactful as that, I feel very proud of being part of that team.

You just mentioned that you’re proud to have transcended the stereotype labels that you were given. From one woman of color to another, how does that feel to have that experience? Because a lot of us, unfortunately, don’t have the opportunity or the experience.

Yes. There’s a lot of catching up to do in society. I guess bottom line, is if through my work I can make a difference with the 100, 200, or 500 people that I may work with, and if they can take the message into the world and influence another 200, 500, that’s the way we make that ripple effect work. I don’t want to ignore or dismiss the fact that every person we impact can make a difference. I think that’s the way I’m approaching this. I don’t know how to go make a change in society at large, but I can do what I can with the small circle that I have. So if I can exert influence with the small circle and they can exert influence in the small circle, the ripple effect will hopefully take over someday.

Do you have any advice for people entering the profession?

Don’t enter HR because you think it’s easy or you have a vision of it that may or may not be true. Truly understand what you’re getting into. Every small thing you do impacts a person’s life in HR, so you don’t minimize that fact. Be aware that in HR, you have the power and the ability to impact a person’s life. It’s through the recognition programs you put on, the benefits you offer, the career growth opportunities you provide, the leaders that you assign to people, and so much more. Every single decision you make impacts a person’s life in many ways. So be very cognizant of that, respect humans for who they are. And get into this profession if you truly subscribe to helping human notion. And once you do, then you’ll also have a fun and wonderful ride.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add or talk about?

I kind of referenced this earlier, but I do want to point out that mental health, especially burnout, is truly a part of all our lives. The lines between personal and professional lives have blurred for most of us given the new situation with COVID-19. What maybe some of us don’t realize, or maybe we do, is that burnout happens because of these blurring of lines. Although we may express it at work and say, “Hey, I’m burnt out at work.” But what we don’t realize is, it’s everything. It’s the family, it’s the dog, it’s everything that’s bleeding into this one life that we have. There’s no clear boundary like we had before. So just how can we, as HR professionals, be proactive about addressing burnout is something that I would love to urge all my fellow HR professionals to take into consideration. I know we are doing many things in our own ways, but if we can have a more global force that can impact this, I would love to see something come of it.