Faces of HR

Faces of HR: Courtney Bass Sherizen on Accountability and the Power of HR

Like many of the HR professionals we feature in this column, Courtney Bass Sherizen didn’t always work in HR. She started her career as an 11th-grade English teacher with Teach For America. From there, Sherizen segued, not only founding a Beijing-based travel consultancy but also landing acting roles in Chinese soap operas.

Courtney Bass Sherizen Wikimedia Foundation
Courtney Bass Sherizen

“I actually consider my start to be in high school when I worked as a part of our school’s recruiting office,” Sherizen shared with HR Daily Advisor. “I would take prospective students and their families on tours and in my senior year, I co-led the student side of the Admissions Office work. It was an opportunity for me to learn how recruiting works and what it takes to make a good “match” between an institution and an incoming individual.”

She would go on to support leaders in both for-profit and not-for-profit sectors as a management consultant for Monitor Deloitte. In her role, she developed strategies for a major U.S. health insurer, a global consumer goods organization, a defense arm of the U.S. government, and a national nonprofit.

Currently, Sherizen serves as the Chief Talent and Culture Officer at the Wikimedia Foundation, a nonprofit that operates Wikipedia and other Wikimedia free knowledge projects. Before joining Wikimedia, she was the Director of People Operations at Google, where she created the Global HR Crisis Management Office and was a Lead People Partner, coaching and advising more than 100 senior leaders across the organization.

In our latest “Faces of HR,” meet Courtney Bass Sherizen.

Who is/was your biggest influence in the industry?

I am deeply influenced by thinkers and academics that devote their energies to understanding and improving workplaces and scholars like Frances X. Frei and Lily Zheng. I spend a lot of my time contemplating how to take the best of modern HR thinking and apply it to the organizations I lead.

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

Like many people, I made this mistake of wanting to be a “friend” to my direct reports when I was an early manager. I learned one day that my directs were having a get-together and didn’t invite me, and it hurt my feelings! When talking to a peer, she reminded me that perhaps they wanted to gather without having their manager looking over their shoulder. It was a wake-up call that my desire to be liked by my staff had encouraged me to cross the line from the professional into the personal without getting explicit permission to do so. Since then, I have developed a variety of different types of relationships with my direct reports, including friendships. But I have always allowed the individual to take the lead in deciding the nature of how personal our relationship gets. 

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

I love the commitment to learning that is allowed and encouraged in our industry. I think we all understand in a fundamental way that for us to be successful keepers of organizational process and culture, we have to be continuously evolving our understanding of organizational psychology, labor movements, and the needs and wants of those we support. There is no time to be bored in this field, and I enjoy that I can chart over time how my own thinking about any HR topic has evolved and grown.

My least favorite part of this industry is how reticent we are to acknowledge or (positively) leverage the power and privilege we have in organizations. I often hear fellow practitioners talk about how HR doesn’t have a seat at the table, but I would argue that we are often building the table at which other leaders sit. It is imperative for us to understand that we have power and make clear decisions on how we will use that power to advance the best parts of the organization. When we gather as HR professionals, in everything from informal, small spaces to massive, international conferences, we should be having more conversations about what it means to hold and exercise our power and privilege for good. 

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.

This is absolutely correct. Workplace safety, in the several ways this phrase is defined, is critical for workers to access their best thinking and action at work. But beyond this, I aspire for all people to feel seen and valued in their workplace. I am united with HR professionals who are spending their professional lifetimes trying to create these types of organizations, even though it is possible we won’t fully succeed. This is because getting an organization to the place where all its people feel safe, seen, and valued is incredibly nuanced, shifting, and complex work. My goal is that my leadership, in its totality, adds to the safety and inclusion of workspaces.

How can HR most effectively demonstrate its value to the leadership team?

Going back to what I said earlier, HR has deep power and value in organizations, so I think the starting place is by being very clear with other leaders that this is true. Beyond this, HR leaders need to consistently be pushing the organization, and the HR teams they lead, to drive congruence between what is being said in the organization and what is being done. HR teams lose value and credibility as the gap between words and actions widens. As organizational leaders, HR leads can add value by holding both their teams and other teams and leaders accountable for word/action integrity.

 Where do you see the industry heading in 5 years? Or are you seeing any current trends?

I would first like to talk about what I envision absent the advancement of artificial intelligence (AI), with the caveat that I believe AI’s growth will be profoundly game-changing for the industry. Despite the continued global rise of corporate power and suppression of organized labor movements, I think we will continue to see workers get more efficient and expansive in organizing their power. This will mean that we as HR professionals and leaders will have to continue to think about ways to negotiate the balance of power between employers and employees in ways that keep both parties engaged. I also think that in spite of recent headlines that indicate the tremendous amount of resources that went into org-wide diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programming after the murder of George Floyd are beginning to be divested, DEI programming is here to stay. This work has decades-long roots in many industries and has reinvented and manifested itself many times over, and I’ve not seen anything to indicate that won’t be the case going forward.

I am by no means an expert in AI or its anticipated impacts on the field, but as an HR leader who has spent almost a decade working in tech, I take notice when experts say that AI has the potential to fundamentally change the ways in which we execute our work. The question I am grappling with now is how we, as HR leaders, can influence those building AI HR tools to focus on processes and actions that are truly better through AI. There are important parts of HR where a connection to “humanness” is the work itself, and I would like to see us find ways to leave that work to humans.

What are you most proud of?

I am very proud of my identities, some of which I was born with and some of which I have intentionally cultivated over decades. I love the ways in which several of my identities tie me to larger communities and make me accountable to others beyond my small family and friend circle.

Do you have any advice for people entering the profession?

My biggest advice to anyone entering this profession is to take time to learn about as many facets of HR as you can. Early HR professionals are sometimes encouraged to move quickly from being a generalist to a specialist, but I think it’s in your time as a generalist that you get to understand how HR, as a system, can best be designed, implemented, and improved.

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