Faces of HR

Faces of HR: Désirée Pascual on Curiosity, Collaboration and Courage

Today’s Faces profile is presented as part of HR Daily Advisor‘s HR Corporate Culture Week. Désirée Pascual is Chief People Officer at Headspace Health – a comprehensive and accessible mental healthcare platform – and oversees HR for about 1,000 employees. In 2021, Headspace and Ginger joined forces to form Headspace Health. Today, Headspace Health touches nearly 100 million lives around the world through its brands Headspace, Ginger, and Headspace for Work. The vision? A world where everyone is kind to their mind.

Désirée Pascual

“My favorite part about working in this industry, at the risk of sounding like a cliche, is that I get to touch human lives every day,” Pascual shared with HR Daily Advisor. “And the magic in my role, is that the lives that I touch, in turn touch the lives of our members, so that we’re sending these ripples of care and love out into the world, in pursuit of the vision that we have, that is a world where everyone is kind to their mind.”

In our latest Faces of HR, meet Désirée Pascual.

How did you get your start in the field?

I came up through the ranks. I am a proud first-generation immigrant. When you come to a new country where a different language is spoken, a new culture, new ways of interacting with one another, different rules of engagement, it’s something that feels scary and brave at the same time, because you really step into a big unknown. I had no family here, I knew nobody. I landed a job as an executive assistant, and came up through the ranks at a startup. The rest is history. I was fascinated by Silicon Valley, the culture of startup companies, and the level of innovation. I just tried to learn everything that I could. I literally soaked up information like a sponge, and then I sought to add value, regardless of my job description.

When there were projects in HR, I raised my hand and said, “let me help.” I have an innate regard, love, and curiosity for people. I think that was what eventually led me down the path of HR. People sense when you are genuinely interested and curious about them and care about them. Very early on, I was able to step into situations that were challenging to help resolve them. Then that sort of snowballed and I continued to learn about business, US labor laws, and then dove head-first into all aspects of HR. I don’t think there’s any aspect of the function that I haven’t touched. I’ve explored it all. I went on to build the HR function in a couple of scrappy startup companies. It was challenging, it was fun, and it was humbling. I made my share of mistakes and I learned from them. And here we are. Now I’m the Chief People Officer at Headspace Health, and I’m incredibly humbled and grateful that I am in a position to steward this extraordinary community.

You mentioned that you have this curiosity about people, this regard for people and helping others. Where did that stem from?

I think it all traces back to being an immigrant and understanding what it means to struggle. Understanding what it means to come to a whole different country and having to start over. What has always just blown me away is the kindness that I’ve experienced from random people at the most unexpected times. I’ve always felt a deep desire to pay it forward. Along the way I learned that people are fundamentally good, but also observed that people sometimes act in ways that make it seem that they’re not. I became curious about that and what happens in moments where people don’t show up as their best selves. Curious and intrigued, I decided to pursue my master’s degree in psychology to dive into those existential questions. This journey led me to provide therapy to people at the margins, while also working in human resources. All of it, ultimately, led me to Headspace Health, which is where my seemingly disparate pathways to serve people merged.

Who is or was your biggest influence in the industry?

I have enormous respect for my peers and colleagues at all levels of the function. I learn and I’m inspired by the people I work with daily. But I will tell you that my professional influencers aren’t exclusively HR practitioners. I’ve always tried to think outside of the box. When new challenges came my way, I always thought of innovative ways to solve them, and always in collaboration with people of different schools of thought. I’m not the type of leader who goes behind closed doors to figure out what a new policy should be. My approach is grounded in talking to people. Every company is different. Every culture is different. David Kelley of IDEO is someone who deeply influenced my approach. He is a thought leader as it relates to human-centered design thinking. I’ve adopted the design thinking approach in all aspects of my work. Whether we’re crafting a new policy, or design an employee experience, the process starts with talking to stakeholders (our people), getting curious about their experience, gathering ideas, and then collaboratively creating a solution to meet that challenge at hand. Iteration is a core part of the process because we don’t always get it right the first time. Every mistake is a step toward the ideal state, the iterative process steps are the stepping stones along the way.

Another person that I follow is Dr. Vivek Murthy, U.S. Surgeon General and author of the book “Together.” In his book Dr Murthy explores the healing power of connection. He’s an incredible role model and mental health advocate. Dr. Murthy explains that as humans, we are innately wired to connect. We thrive in community. We are built to forge lasting bonds with others and to help one another. And we are simply better together. He also talks about the loneliness epidemic in our country, which has never been more rampant than during the pandemic.

I also follow Chip and Dan Heath, both researchers at Stanford University. One of their books, “Switch” focuses on change management. The book explores people’s response to uncertainty. The authors outline brilliant, actionable pathways to help leaders navigate times of change. Another one of their books “The Power of Moments”, is a great HR handbook. It breaks down the anatomy of creating moments that matter to people, moments that have emotional impact. This has never been more important for organizations than now, when creating an exceptional employee experience has become a key differentiator, vis-à-vis the many uncertainties and volatility we face.

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

I really like that you call it, “best mistake,” because I genuinely appreciate mistakes as opportunities to learn. There is no innovation without the courage and willingness to make mistakes. The curiosity and the resilience to keep trying, even though you may get it wrong at first, and the understanding that the pathway to the optimal state is an ongoing process, is a superpower.

I have embraced the fact that I am a lifelong learner. And to embrace life-long learning is to embrace perpetual and relentless curiosity. No matter how long we’ve been in a profession, nothing is static. Life is change. So, for better or for worse, we must look at our function with fresh eyes every day. I get uncomfortable around people who are rigid in their assumptions and who claim that they have all the answers. There’s no growth, no evolution, in a fixed mindset. So, there’s no one best mistake that I’ve made: I’ve made many mistakes along the way. Big ones, small ones. Each one a wonderful growth opportunity.

As leaders, we make our lives infinitely harder when we position ourselves to have all the answers. It’s okay not to know and it’s okay to explore solutions in collaboration with our team members. It is invigorating and interesting to iterate as a group, and it leads us to innovate together. When coded into the DNA of a culture, a growth mindset becomes the glue that forms super solid, innovative teams.

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

Humans are complex. Everything that makes working with people so delightful and so magical can also make the job really hard. And there’s nothing we can change about that. Great HR starts with engaging from a place of deep regard and love for people, and an innate desire to build safe communities that allow people to show up fully. We can either lead from a place of love or govern from a place of fear.

When we govern from a place of fear, we foster transactional workplaces. When we lead with compassion and love, we foster relational workplaces that foster connection and growth.

I’ve seen a profound shift in the HR domain over the last three years. Where we previously tended to keep our trade secrets close to the chest and bought into paradigms like “the war for talent” to win the race, our discipline has shifted to a more collaborative, generous approach. At the onset of the pandemic HR Leaders realized that we needed one another to tread the utterly unfamiliar terrain that we were suddenly faced with. We discovered that the sharing of thoughts, ideas, and resources hyper-fueled our collective growth and the advancement of our function, which indeed it has. When we didn’t know what to do, or how to navigate the pandemic, we came together, we started talking, we started supporting one another and shared ideas at a level I had never seen before. We are ultimately all better for it.

As an HR discipline overall, we have moved mountains in the last three years. We have fundamentally changed what the workplace looks like. My wish and hope is that this change is sustained and ongoing. To quote Dr. Murthy, we are simply better together.

At Headspace Health, we wanted to support that momentum by designing manager and leadership workshops to share what we’d learned. We sought to support our clients and our members through this time and beyond by offering resources to other leaders, informed by the evidence-based content we had gathered through our work and research.

The impact of the global mental health crisis on employees has been enormous. Employers are in a unique position to help, but managers and leaders need tools to normalize discussions around mental health, and to lead their teams and organization through these unprecedented times. To give you an idea of the scale of the problem, close to 1 billion people around the globe are living with a mental health disorder. More than 75% of those people worldwide receive no treatment for the condition, at all.

Symptoms of depression and anxiety have skyrocketed during the pandemic. In the workplace, employees and employers pay the price. Our research shows that employees with unresolved depression experience a 35% reduction in productivity, resulting in 210 billion annual economic loss in the U.S., due to absenteeism and reduced productivity, medical cost, et cetera. It is a big challenge and as employers, we have an opportunity to be part of meaningful change by supporting employees in our workplaces, where they spend a large portion of their time.

It sounds like, of course, through your experience, you really care about people, and you want to help them feel safe and comfortable, which is important in the industry. Would you care to elaborate on that?

Good HR is about caring deeply for people. It’s that simple and it’s that hard. We’ve been stuck in a never-ending pandemic, ongoing fights for racial justice, political polarization, including a fear for basic human rights everywhere, a war in Ukraine, an economic downturn. As HR leaders, we have an opportunity to be key differentiators.

To echo David Kelley, my wish and my daily work is to pave the way for people to find their calling, to find that being in their organizations feels like working with friends. To create a space where we all feel safe and inspired to express our ideas fully and wholeheartedly, and that we can engage in what feels like important and meaningful work.

To dedicate yourself to that purpose every day, over and over again, is a calling. Some days will be tough, and some nights you go to bed thinking “What am I doing? Am I really cut out for this?” Then you sleep on it, and wake up knowing with unequivocal certainty that this is exactly what you want to be doing. There’s no greater joy than fostering communities where that sort of culture comes to live.

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

If the pandemic has taught us anything it is that not partnering with HR as an integral strategic business partner creates operational weakness and liability. 50 years ago, more than 80% of the value reflected in an organization’s balance sheets was tangible stuff: inventory, equipment, merchandise, dollars, et cetera. Today, more than 85% of the value on balance sheets are intangibles: intellectual property, brand value, and a host of things directly tied to human capital. People are today’s value drivers.

As an integral business discipline, the HR discipline has evolved enormously, and we also still have some work to do as it relates to building fluency in communicating our value. This includes gathering and strategically using metrics and data to make our business case in powerful and compelling ways. This is our moment. I hesitate to talk about silver linings in the context of the pandemic and all that we’ve been through in the last three years, but it has created a unique opportunity for our domain, and we must seize it.

Where do you see the industry heading in five years? Or are you seeing any current trends? And a little curve ball I like to throw in there, if where you see the industry headed is nothing that you like, where would you like to see it go?

I love a good curveball. For those organizations who want to stand out and stand strong, understand that the workplace has fundamentally changed from a transactional to a relational workplace. That means that creating an exceptional employee experience is absolutely vital. The employee mindset is no longer “I’m coming in, I’m doing tasks x y z, then I’m gathering my paycheck and going home.” During the course of the pandemic, the workplace has seeped into our homes, and our home lives have seeped into the workplace, the boundaries have become blurred. We’ve had to completely rethink the employee experience to position our employees to stay healthy, safe, connected, and productive. Providing mental healthcare to support employees in navigating what has seemed like a constant avalanche of unpredictability, has become table stakes for organizations.

When we think about the primary challenges that we are trying to solve in HR, retention, engagement, productivity and attracting high caliber talent, they all tie it back to truly caring for your employees’ wellness, particularly during these uncertain times. Employees crave high quality, easily accessible care for the body and mind. Along with preventative healthcare to take care of our bodies, we need equally robust pathways to take care of our mental health. Secondly, we need to remain flexible and empower our people with the freedom to choose where, when, and how they best work. Finally, people want to be engaged in what feels like meaningful and purposeful work in a psychologically safe environment. Are they making a difference in the world? Are our business practices equitable and inclusive? What is your company stance on social issues? Employees care about that.

What are you most proud of?

Above all I’m grateful and proud to have the privilege to serve and steward our people and our community at Headspace Health through this unprecedented time. I am proud of the culture that we have built together. I’m proud of our employees who, daily, step into their jobs leading with compassion, courage, and vulnerability, each in their respective roles. We each have countless opportunities to lead every day, no matter where we sit in an organization, and I can say with conviction that I work with leaders at all levels.

At Headspace Health, we have a practice of asking one another, “How are you really, really?” It’s not a mistake. “Really, really” twice, means that we’re here for your response. It means we turn off slack, we put away our phones, we shut down email to fully show up for one another and what we bring into that moment. There is a level of care and mindfulness across our organization that is inspiring. I’m proud that diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging are integral to our community, and manifests in ensuring that all voices are heard. It should not just be second nature for us to pay attention to inclusion, rather, it has to be who we are. While there is a lot to be proud of, it doesn’t mean that we will rest on our laurels. We have work to do. We still have a lot to learn, and we are here for it and our people show up for it every single day. The culture that we have built together is the result of a collective effort. Culture cannot be dictated top down, rather, it is brought to life bottom up, with people who are engaged, bought in and who claim ownership of that culture. I am deeply grateful to the people that I work with, every employee at Headspace, for their courage, their passion and their commitment to our community and workplace.

Do you have any advice for people entering the profession?

Stay curious. Seek to add value every day. Lead in your own way, every day. You don’t need a big title to do that. People-work is about curiosity, active listening, compassion, and human kindness. Those are our most powerful currencies. Technical skills can be taught. Heart, curiosity, and a genuine love for people, cannot. If you feel called to do this work, stay open, curious and be prepared to serve. My grandma used to say to me, “You cannot successfully lead without first understanding what it means to serve.”

Stand firmly rooted in your values so that every day you can get up and say, “I may have messed something up yesterday, but I stayed true to my values and to what I’ve committed to as a human being.” Those are the fundamentals that will get you through hard and uncertain times, like a pandemic. That steadfastness and grounding in your love for your work and people, will allow you to celebrate the countless, incomparable, wonderful moments that are so rewarding and unique to our people-profession.