Faces of HR

Faces of HR: How Sandra O’Sullivan is Reshaping HR Culture by Putting People First

Before Sandra O’Sullivan got her start in the industry, she worked in customer-facing roles like customer success and professional services within tech and service companies. During this time, O’Sullivan realized building teams and culture had “always been attractive” to her. So, in 2019, when she had the opportunity to step into a senior HR role, O’Sullivan was excited to take on “the responsibility of helping to cultivate a positive culture across the entire company.”

Sandra O’Sullivan

Today, O’Sullivan is the Chief People Officer at Curriculum Associates, creators of i-Ready, where she not only brings out the best in people, but also her passion for helping people realize their potential continues to flourish.  

“Because of the unique and persistent challenge of Covid, now is a great time to be in HR and to think about how your organization cares about people,” she recently shared with HR Daily Advisor. “We’ve learned so much thus far, and we are undoubtedly still learning. Covid brings a whole host of challenges that are new to us all. What will your culture look like after the pandemic? What does your culture look like as we continue to get hit with variants? What are your policies on wellness and the vaccine? Continually having and revisiting these conversations shows employees that you see their value and are keeping their safety and well-being top of mind.”

In our latest Faces of HR profile, meet Sandra O’Sullivan.

Who is/was your biggest influence in the industry?

Initially, my biggest influence was Amy Robinson, the Chief People Officer at my previous company. She’s the one who tapped me on the shoulder to be her successor, and one of the ways that she sold me on the role was that she talked to me about Kathleen Hogan, the Chief People Officer at Microsoft, who, like me, came up through the business in sales and services and then took on the Chief People Officer role. Some of the advantages to having come up from the business side is that you can bring key learnings and experiences to provide effective HR support to the business. Kathleen is a great thought leader when it comes to wellness and hybrid work and all the changes that companies are facing because of COVID.

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

Without a doubt, my biggest mistakes have been around thinking that I can muscle my way through a project. A particularly acute example of this was when my previous company was acquired — it was an incredibly fast process. I had a great team by my side, but by the end of it all, we were all basically puddles on the floor. We shouldn’t have tried to do so much work in such a quick time frame with such a small team, and it took a considerable amount of time to recover as a result. If you simultaneously understaff and say yes to too many things, you’re going to burn out both yourself and your team.

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

My favorite part about working in this industry is that I get to think about talent and people every single day. It energizes me to solve people-related problems. Another thing I love is to use the best leaders’ ideas to develop repeatable processes to ensure that we attract, retain, and develop the best talent possible.

My least favorite part is the reputation of HR. Many people groan when they hear the word and tell me things like: “I can’t believe you can do a job like that every single day.” I find that in tech companies in particular, HR is positioned thoughtfully and strategically, and we have a seat at the table in key business decisions. However, that’s not necessarily the case in all industries. I think that as HR leaders are increasingly viewed as true partners to the executive team and valued for their role in helping to create a great culture with great talent, the view of HR will change.

It sounds like through your experience you really care about people, and you want to help them feel safe and comfortable, which is important in the industry. Please elaborate here.

The responsibility of making sure that you have a great culture is the responsibility of every leader in the organization, but the Chief People Officer does keep a constant eye on it. For me, making sure the culture is great means starting at the top with great leaders. How are they communicating? How are they showing up? How quickly are they addressing issues that need to be discussed? How are they interacting with other leaders across the organization and setting the tone? In my experience, the times where I’ve seen culture go awry or groups not work well together has been because the leaders at the top are misaligned.

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

Leaders need to work in partnership with their HR teams in a consistent way and HR needs to provide value in that partnership. HR business partners are a key resource in thinking through how to grow, develop, and cultivate a positive culture–especially in the face of challenges. Integrating them as a key member of leadership teams helps them to better understand the business so they can offer more when it comes to talent strategy discussions. 

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

I’m particularly interested in the role that data can play in the employee experience. The ability to analyze and provide recommendations based on data is an extremely important skill for strong HR business partners. Having come from the customer side, we did a lot of work around predictive modeling for customer experience and customer renewal. A lot of that work is now being done in HR as well. We’ve already begun to see larger companies incorporate data science into the world of HR in an attempt to better understand and predict employee retention. I think that this will be a continued focus for HR in the future. And, as companies start to refine some of their predictive modeling processes, they will also begin looking into employee experience across roles — from year one to the highly tenured.

What are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of the fact that I’m still learning. I find myself in areas of discomfort on a regular basis, doing things I haven’t done before, and there’s never a one-size-fits-all solution. I work with excellent people — our Chief Inclusion Officer, Learning and Development team, our CEO (who is and outside consultants — to chart a path towards attracting and retaining talent. I continually experiment, and I find the process challenging and invigorating. When you are working with human beings, the answer is never a straight line and there’s no “formula” to ensure an outcome. I like the challenge of going deeper to better understand the unique experiences of our amazing team.

Do you have any advice for people entering the profession?

Bearing in mind that I didn’t begin my career in HR, my advice is to learn as many different elements of HR as you can. Some of the strongest people I’ve worked with in the field have experience on the talent acquisition side, the total rewards side, and the generalist side. Because of this, they have a broader view, understand how everything ties together, and can draw upon many different tools to be truly successful in their role. If you have an understanding of all the different aspects of the field, you will bring a unique and valuable perspective to an organization.