Faces of HR

Faces of HR: Katya Laviolette on Curiosity and Cultivating Support Networks

Meet Katya Laviolette, Chief People Officer at 1Password, a leader in human-centric security and privacy. Laviolette has more than 25 years of experience as a business-oriented people leader in HR, hyper-growth leadership, mergers and acquisitions (M&As), cultural change, talent management and acquisition, global rewards, organizational effectiveness, real estate operations, and health and safety. Since joining 1Password, Laviolette has been a key asset in growing the Toronto-based organization’s people, doubling its fully remote workforce to more than 1,000 employees.

Katya Laviolette

“Up until 2019 we were around 100 plus employees,” Laviolette shared with HR Daily Advisor. “We have rapidly expanded since late 2019. When I joined in early 2022, we had 500 employees, or bits, as we call them. Not long ago, we surpassed our thousandth employee mark. We’ve really doubled in size and we’re continuing to scale healthy cash flow and a great dossier of customers. I think we have a winning product, and we have a winning team.”

Laviolette notes that she joined the company to “have an impact and help build something” in today’s world of security. “The mission of the company is important,” she shared. “We protect businesses online with all our security solutions, and we basically have a business base of customers as well as consumers, and everything kind of crosses over. So, it’s super important in terms of ensuring that people’s lives are protected these days.”

Before joining 1Password, Laviolette held senior leadership positions at SSENSE, TC Transcontinental, CBC|Radio-Canada, Rio Tinto, Bombardier, and CN.

In our latest Faces, meet Katya Laviolette.

How did you get your start in the field?

I’ve been in the field for over 25 years, and got my start in the industry after completing my master’s program. Through a university recruitment program, I entered the railroad industry with a large North American transportation and logistics organization. I was the youngest woman at the table and didn’t speak a lot of French, which was challenging in a Francophone environment.

I built my career at large publicly traded, multinational global companies in various industries, including media and packaging. I often say I’ve done trains and planes, but the only thing I’ve yet to do is automobiles.

About 7 years ago, I decided I wanted to get out of the publicly traded space and transition to private companies – companies that were a bit smaller in size, but experiencing higher growth. So, I shifted and became a chief people officer at high growth organizations where I was brought in to help with scaling and building out their functions. I’ve done everything you can imagine in HR – I like to call myself an HR generalist. And even beyond HR, I’ve done some work in real estate operations and communications.

Who is/was your biggest influence in the industry?

I don’t have one person per se. A lot of people have supported me throughout my career, including folks who took chances on me because they saw that I had a great deal of curiosity. I’m fortunate to have cultivated a support network of individuals throughout my career, and this is something I often encourage my team and the people I mentor to create for themselves.

There are people in the business world that I definitely look up to, but the people who’ve had the biggest influences on me are more accessible and down-to-earth. Like people from my hometown in Quebec, or, again, people who’ve taken a chance on me.

To this day, I try to give back to the community that helped me get to where I am today, and pay it forward to the teams I lead or the people I mentor. While I may not currently work with the folks who’ve influenced me in a professional capacity throughout my career, I do keep in contact with those individuals because they continue to be a great resource and sounding board to me.

You mentioned you’re passionate about making an impact and a difference. Where does that come from?

I come from a very small family and have very humble beginnings. I was raised by a single parent, so growing up it was just my mom, my brother, and me. 

I think the desire to do something impactful came to me in part because of the support network I’d built for myself. Somehow, that enabled me to find my way into the world of HR.

It’s possible to make an impact in HR, but it’s not easy. I would say HR is probably one of the toughest professions to be in. Regardless of whether pre- or post-COVID, the workplace is ever-evolving, and so as a leader in the field, you must have the capacity to adapt and change.

I’m really passionate about what I do. The most rewarding thing is when people who I haven’t spoken to in a long time get in touch five or 10 years down the road and say, “Hey Katya, do you think you could maybe help me with this initiative, or point me in the right direction? To be trusted and seen as a source of guidance by my peers in the industry, that’s when I know I’ve had a true impact.

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

There are a few, but the one that stands out is when I learned the importance of balancing data and facts with intuition. 

Whenever I’ve made a mistake in my career, more often than not, it’s because I’ve focused only on the data and facts, and disregarded my gut feeling. As a naturally intuitive person, I’ve come to appreciate leaning into my instincts and acknowledging that if a matter I’m evaluating is in conflict with me or my values, it’s worth addressing. Most decisions that I’ve been hesitant about or have had to pull back from stem from this imbalance between the hard facts and my intuition. Ultimately, having a healthy combination of both has yet to fail me in my career.

It sounds like you really care about people and you want to help them not only progress, but also feel safe and comfortable, which is important in this industry. Please elaborate here.

The one thing that people often say to me is, “Oh, you work in HR? You must be a nice person!” While I do consider myself a nice person, being successful in this profession is not about being nice. It’s about having a certain level of empathy and understanding, and really strong listening skills. I also think it’s about being direct, but in a respectful way, and telling people how it is versus beating around the bush.

One of the behaviors or sayings that I’ve adopted in my career is prefacing my comments with, “I’m about to say something that’s going to be very direct.” I do this to give people a heads up, but also so they understand where I’m coming from. This has proven to be especially effective when I talk to people about conflict.

I’m a strong proponent of addressing conflict head-on. Being in HR, you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place every day, and your ultimate job is to find the solution. How you can do that is by listening intently, putting yourself in other people’s shoes, and understanding the business, the facts, and how people tick.

Combining all of these elements together is, in my opinion, critical to being successful in this profession.

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

HR is in an especially unique position – we’re able to provide a holistic outlook on what’s going on in the organization because we’re tasked daily with building teams for every team. A large chunk of any company’s operating expenses are typically talent-related, and it falls on the HR function to make smart, strategic decisions that positively impact the overall growth of the business.

You can’t make profits if you don’t have the right people, so there’s an inherent value that HR brings to the leadership team. With that said, it’s something HR leaders should be proactively vocalizing to ensure the value they bring doesn’t go unseen. 

What are you most proud of?

Personally, I’m very proud that I’m going to be 53 this year. In the last 6 years, I’m the fittest I’ve ever been, and I’m proud of my mental and physical state. Especially in today’s day and age, I think it’s increasingly important for everyone to be thinking about their mental fitness.

There are elements of my career where I’ve helped shape legislation, particularly in the province of Quebec, that has positively affected many companies. I’ve been on crisis management teams during very challenging situations, including situations where reporters are going into war zones and having to have that obligation of health and safety on my shoulders to manage. These are some of the career milestones I’m especially proud of.

Additionally, I go back to that example of having someone call me after years of not working together or talking and saying, “Hey, I met you years ago and you really helped me out with this. I’m wondering if you might help me again?” Instances like those are really rewarding.

Do you have any advice for people entering the profession?

HR is a profession that you should not underestimate the complexity of. You have to understand humans at their essential root, and how they tick within a business lens.

First, get to know and understand your values and what drives you as a person. This is key, especially in HR when you may need to lean on your values for decision-making, because what happens over time is your values only become more entrenched. When choosing what profession to get into, or what job to accept, you’ve got to be certain that your values are aligned because at the end of the day, your values will rarely change – they simply amplify over time and you’ve got to continue managing them. 

As I mentioned before, I’m a generalist, so I’ve touched on many things – from change management to crisis management, executive communication, recruitment, and organizational design, and more. For people that want to be a chief people officer one day, my advice is to gather as much broad business experience as you can, but also build out some specialization within a few areas of HR. This is something that I believe board members are looking for in potential C-level HR hires.

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