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Building a People Operations Department from the Ground Up: Q&A with Karen Kuhn, Senior Director of People Operations at Order

Mar 9, 2022| Reading time: 10min

BY Kerrel Brown

Senior Marketing Manager

Karen Kuhn is the Senior Director of People Operations for purchasing platform Order. She recently earned the recognition of being a 2022 People Pioneer, a peer-nominated award celebrating HR leaders who are pushing boundaries to positively impact their companies and employees.

We sat down with Karen to learn more about her work at Order, starting with implementing best-in-class people operations strategies to ensure the People Department would be a trusted resource for Order employees.

ChartHop: What are your responsibilities at Order?

Karen Kuhn: I head up everything people operations and employee lifecycle related at Order. From recruiting, onboarding and training to professional development, culture, performance management, and employee engagement. Everything end-to-end.

CH: Founding the People Operations department for Order sounds like a huge but exciting undertaking! What were your priorities and how did you come up with them? What were some challenges you faced?

KK: My first priority was what I call ‘a listening tour’ in my first 30 days. Speaking with each Order team member individually, the listening tour was a discovery process to understand where the major gaps were and where I should prioritize my time to make the most impact the earliest on. Being only one person, prioritization was going to be key because I couldn’t do everything I wanted. So I took a lot of time to listen and gather information from the team, through that listening tour as well as an anonymous engagement survey.

Identifying where I really need to focus my energy for the next six months while I build out a team was my main challenge. There was an enormous amount of white space in terms of things that needed to be built and implemented, as well as policies, processes, and systems that needed to be put into place. It was an exercise in alright, with my time, how much of an impact can I make?

CH: What would you recommend to a People Leader who finds themselves in a similar position of building a People/HR department from the ground up?

KK: I would say, start with seeking understanding. I think that a lot of folks with HR backgrounds can feel pressured to build out HR teams in a way that they’ve seen work well for companies in the past. But every organization is so unique. Every team has its own DNA, its own set of needs, its own gaps. So really taking the time to identify what those are, rather than trying to impose a viewpoint that you may come with from the outside is going to allow you to be more impactful really early on.

CH: As the first People Operations person at Order, how did you establish trust with the employees? How did you get the team to open up to you and share their needs and help areas for improvement?

KK: Number one was approaching conversations with the most authenticity as possible and letting folks know that they have my full discretion with all of the information shared and my plan of what I intend to do with that information. And then going out and actually doing it. Showing the team that when they share something with me and ask me for help, that I will actually do something about it and help them. This helped establish trust really quickly.

It was about setting that expectation and meeting that expectation over and over and never breaking that trust.

CH: Speaking of acting on information, coming out of that listening tour and the anonymous engagement survey conducted, a key focus area you identified then validated was around diversity & inclusion. Acting on that insight, the Culture Committee was transformed into the Culture & Inclusion Committee. Can you elaborate a bit on that? What exactly did the shift entail? How was programming modified?

KK: We had a Culture Committee that was mostly in charge of engagement events and keeping the team connected. These events were awesome but as a small company, there wasn’t the capacity to do a lot more.

So we transformed the Culture Committee to the Culture & Inclusion Committee. We still work on employee engagement events and team connections. But we also focus on initiatives around diversity and inclusion and sustainability as well. This committee is peer-nominated and changes every quarter, bringing a fresh perspective to programming.

What has come out of this revamped committee is a number of events that we hadn’t been able to enact before due to lack of people resources. For example, last year, we were able to have an entire week of Juneteenth programming, launched a mentor partnership with the Black Mental Health Alliance, and had Jewel Burks Solomon, Head of Google for Startups, come speak to the team.

Programming like this we just didn’t have people resources to coordinate and make a part of our regular day-to-day which is something that we’re excited to now be able to do. That being said, we’re nowhere where we should be. I’m happy to say we’re getting from zero to one, but the tech space is notorious for being just a bunch of straight white dudes and our company was no different. We’ve moved the needle materially in the last year but we still have a way to go.

CH: A common reason employees have quit during the “Great Resignation” is lack of opportunities for advancement and growth. Also coming out of your listening tour and engagement survey was implementing career laddering, providing clear career paths. How has this impacted retention and/or engagement?

KK: Definitely. I think most meaningful, this impacted some of our more junior roles. We have some colleagues whose role is very tactical and day-to-day pushing a lot of things through in our back-end processes. There wasn’t a lot of understanding how their work could get them to the next level. It was really important to establish transparency for these team members to see exactly what the next steps are on the career path, what the next role entails, and what’s needed to get there, while understanding what’s expected in their role today. This has really helped and had a positive impact.

CH: When creating and rolling out company-wide people ops processes, policies, and expectations, how did you ensure psychological safety in the workplace?

KK: The good news is, our executive team had already established a culture of psychological safety which I got to inherit and continue to foster. How we accomplish this goes back to following through on what you say you’re going to do. Also, making sure people realize that they’re not going to face any judgment or negative response if they decide to share an opinion. We want to hear from everyone and we all want everyone to feel comfortable sharing what they think. Fortunately, that had already been the case and continues to be the case.

CH: What are you most excited to accomplish in 2022?

KK: I’m really excited to continue watching this team grow. We’ve built something really special here and it’s going to be a unique challenge to figure out how to keep it so special in the midst of so much change and uncertainty in the world. What’s been great is as we continue to grow, it has been staying awesome and has only continued to get more awesome. We’ve planted so many seeds this last year and I can’t wait to see what grows from them!

More Lessons from the 2022 People Pioneers

Interested in even more lessons learned from HR leaders? Check out the full list of 2022 People Pioneers for inspiration on how to approach critical initiatives like embedding DEI into company culture, supporting employee well-being, and revamping performance management.

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