Faces of HR

Faces of HR: How One HR Pro Navigates the Muddy Waters of HR to Create Positive Possibilities

Although Cassandra Margolin has worked in the HR industry for nearly a decade, she didn’t find her true passion for the field until five years ago. At the time, she was working for high growth, quickly scaling, start-up tech companies. According to Margolin, her growth was slow and steady until she segued into the tech sector as an HR Generalist – then she suddenly found herself like a sponge, absorbing everything when she understood HR’s impact on a company and its people.

Cassandra Margolin

I was able to identify areas that fueled me, and areas that I wasn’t necessarily as fond of,” Margolin recently shared with HR Daily Advisor. “I soon moved into a Business Partner position to follow my interest in making an impact as an advisor and strategic thought partner. I continued to work as a Business Partner for a few years at various tech companies, but the scope of the role was never “typical.” In start-up culture you tend to wear numerous hats, which allowed more experience than I could have ever imagined.”

The unique skill set that Margolin developed in scaling hybrid/remote tech companies from an HR perspective led her to her current position as the Head of People Operations at Jasper AI, an artificial intelligence content creation tool. With headquarters in Austin, TX, Jasper has a “remote-first” culture and a distributed workforce with 145 employees in 24 states.

In her role, Margolin leads total rewards, business partnering, employee experience, DEIB, and learning & development. She has spent the past year “building all things people,” from the ground up, while the company continues to scale its operations and employees.

In our latest Faces of HR, meet Cassandra Margolin.

How did you get your start in the field?

I found my way into HR by sheer accident and have never looked back since. While using my degrees in Behavioral Science and Psychology working at a local nonprofit, where I was running behavioral treatment groups, I was approached by the program director about an opening for an HR position. My first response was a hard “no,” but something deep down began telling me it was time for a change. I took a blind leap and after a few months, I quickly understood how my background could very well be applied to the world of HR.

In all honesty, from there, it was a lot of people taking a chance on someone with a non-traditional HR background. While I did invest greatly in myself by reading articles and books, attending conferences, connecting with other HR professionals, etc., it really came down to those individuals who saw my potential and thirst for HR. I was very lucky to be hired by companies who valued the experience I kept gaining versus degrees and certifications.

Who is/was your biggest influence in the industry?

My biggest influences early on in my career were Marcus Buckingham & Kim Scott, simply because of their books. For example, Radical Candor changed the game for me in terms of interacting with others. I wasn’t necessarily a manager or supervisor when I read this book. But when you work in HR, you are always a leader, so I found a ton of value in reading this book. Marcus Buckingham’s books became very interesting to me immediately because much of his writing was backed by research and evidence, which really resonated with my “Behavioral Science major” heart. Although I haven’t read all his books (yet), the ones I did read gave me a great perspective on many areas of HR. More recently though, a handful of thought leaders have provided influence for me, such as Simon Sinek, Brené Brown, and Adam Grant.

The most impactful influences though, have been the various people I worked with and/or under in my career. There are certain people that I know immensely supported and aided in my growth and confidence in abilities. Barbara Hadley, Terri McBride, and Gianna Driver come to mind first and foremost for their amazing leadership. I am eternally grateful for each of them. They helped me push boundaries while also being sounding boards as I figured things out and worked through various situations. I am someone who likes to understand the “why” when it comes to decision making, process flows, and ways of doing things. They each let me ask my millions of questions to understand the rationale behind all that we were doing.

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

My biggest mistake was staying too long with a company whose values did not align with my own when it came to HR. Put simply, if you treat your people right, they will show up for you right too. A business relationship is very much like any human relationship. Friendship for example, if you are a bad friend, you’re going to have bad friends (or no friends at all). Not being aligned on this belief was extremely difficult for me and felt soul sucking daily.

With every mistake does come a lesson learned. For me, this lesson was to ask better questions during job interviews. I spent a lot of time researching and crafting interview questions that would get me to what I needed to know about the HR function and culture at any organization. The answers to certain questions can tell you so much about a company.

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

I have so many favorite parts about working in the industry. It’s a little comical how much passion I have for HR, especially because I was so against working in this field in the beginning. At the top of my list, I would have to say, the people aspect. I am a firm believer that because people give so much of their time and life to work, they should enjoy (if even just a bit) their job and where they are employed. I love that HR teams can have such a major positive impact on someone’s work experience. Additionally, many of the items we initiate, create, and execute in HR do go beyond the day to day of work. For example, benefits and compensation, parental leave, and even learning & development, these items all extend into people’s personal and/or family lives.  At the end of the day, a job is just that – a job. People go on and live very real lives outside of work and we, as a People/HR team, have this unique ability to impact those lives.

Another thing I love about the HR industry is how unique it can be. What works at one company, isn’t necessarily the solution for another. You get to be super creative while meeting various business and people needs. I don’t think people realize how much critical thinking and innovation goes into HR. The industry is constantly evolving, and methodologies and practices are always needing to evolve as well. This evolution keeps everything very interesting and allows me to continuously learn and grow.

My least favorite part of working in HR, is that there are often tough business decisions that need to be made that can lead to less-than-ideal outcomes for employees. You often must navigate through very muddy waters and difficult conditions. During any of these negative situations, I lean into creating the most positive possible experience. I practice and preach empathy during these times, but these types of things will still take a toll on me. I am human after all.  

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.

When I tell people I work in HR, I always get very odd responses. The most common response is people comparing me to Toby from “The Office.” As much as I personally love the show (it’s truly one of my favorites), this response always leaves me feeling like I must defend myself, and defend ALL of HR. Other responses consist of poorly masked disgusted faces and asks about, “If I like it,” and then my personal favorite, just the “Oh” because they aren’t sure what else to say. These consistent initial interactions about my career have ingrained in me that many people don’t really know about or understand HR in even the slightest.

While yes, HR exists to protect businesses, HR also exists to support and advocate for, well, humans – “human” is part of the job title after all. I think the negative reputation of HR is still very much at battle with all the good we are constantly doing for people. I don’t know about you, but I am ready for this change.

The way I approach HR, and the way I bring myself as an HR leader into a company, is with a very human element. Every single one of our employees is their own individual person, with their own individual experience at work. I always spend my first two weeks somewhere new just listening to as many people as I can. I usually hold, “Keep, stop, start” conversations so I can learn the good, the bad, and the wants of people at an organization. I have these conversations with executive team members all the way down, literally hours and hours of discussions, about everyone’s experience at work. So why do I do this? Besides to gain a great deal of insight into what’s going on in the company, this exercise is also how I allow people to view me as someone who listens, someone who cares, and someone who wants to make things better (which are all very true things about myself). By creating a safe space for people to be heard and for people to share their ideas and feedback, your people are more likely to come to you when they need you. I put a great deal of effort into employees knowing that they can always approach me.

At the end of the day, you want to drive business goals and accomplishments. There is a way to do this while also staying aligned to your employee’s needs, you just need to listen. Being in tune with your people is a win-win situation for any company.  

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

For one, invest in your People team! HR teams have historically always been run on the slimmer side when compared to the rest of the company. Your HR team numbers need to grow with the rest of your organization. When you invest in your HR team, there is going to be a natural investment in your people and your business.

Once you have invested in your people team, use them. Be sure you are partnering with them on big decisions, strategy, alignment, etc. Everything that happens to a business has an impact on the people within and your HR/People teams first instinct is to consider your employees. We think about things in ways you may have not yet considered because, well, people are at the root of all that we do. “People” is our special skill set; this is what we bring to the table. You really can save yourself so many headaches by bringing your HR team to the center of your discussions and decision making.

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

I think 2020 was a massive shift for HR, one that I am totally on board with, and one that I feel was much needed and long overdue. I think businesses were forced to step into very unknown territories and they relied on their People team more than ever for navigation. I think everyone is now seeing and better understanding just how much value a People/HR team can add to a company, and I don’t anticipate this new trend going anywhere any time soon. Additionally, I think individual’s perspectives of work has drastically changed as well. The things that matter to people when looking for a job or considering staying at a company are so much different than they were pre-pandemic. The days of pizza parties for morale are long gone (thank goodness). We are now in a space where well-being & mental health, professional development, DEIB, forming meaningful connections, and fair compensation are front and center at the workplace. Leaning into these items that really matter to your employees is so crucial and is here to stay.

What are you most proud of?

I don’t think there is any one thing that I am most proud of. It’s more about those little moments when I feel proud. When I have helped a manager navigate a tricky situation and the outcome was positive, that makes me proud. When an employee is dealing with a personal life circumstance and I leave them feeling supported, I am proud. When I resolve a conflict between two people who have been struggling to work together and now their collaboration is at an all-time high, I feel proud. Hearing things like, “I’m so glad I came to you with this,” or “I couldn’t have done this without your support.” Those are the moments that make my heart feel full.

Most recently though, I am incredibly proud of our latest eNPS score of 92, and our new hire onboarding experience satisfaction score of 96%. These things deserve a little proud moment highlight.

Do you have any advice for people entering the profession?

The industry is massive – from total rewards, learning & development, business partnering, and more. There is so much to explore. Find something that compliments your strengths but also that fuels your passion. Work for a company that aligns with something you believe in. I cannot stress this enough. It’s very challenging to be in a People/HR role at a company where you disagree with the approaches they take, or the decisions being made. Find something you can get fully on board with and where you stand behind the vision. Lastly, remember to take care of yourself. You spend all day focusing on the well-being of other people, don’t forget that you as a person need nurturing and love too! HR can be a very thankless field; you work so hard on various items that go on behind the scenes. Celebrate your own wins and successes even when nobody else is going to.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *