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Announcing the 2nd Annual People Pioneers: Honoring the leaders of the people-first revolution

Rebuilding An Executive Team For The Next Phase Of Growth: Q&A With Larry Indovina, CPO At Top Hat

Jan 18, 2023| Reading time: 8min

BY ChartHop

Larry Indovina is the Chief People Officer at higher education app Top Hat. He also has the distinction of being named a 2nd Annual People Pioneer,  honoring his work as a forward-thinking HR leader who has driven impact with people-first strategies.  

Read on to learn what it takes to build a people-first People program.

 

ChartHop: What are your responsibilities at Top Hat?

Larry Indovina: I’m the Chief People Officer and responsible for all things talent acquisition, human resources, internal communications, and facilities. 

I do want to note that I’m successful in the work that I do, and I’m speaking of every organization I’ve been a part of, because of the entire People team. It’s my goal for them to be the most effective and awesome team to work with, and our teams are what make all of us People Pioneers. 

 

CH: You rebuilt Top Hat’s executive team, including leading a CEO transition and hiring 6 out of 11 team members in the past 12 months. Top Hat is aggressively expanding and it’s critical to have the right foundation for growth. Starting with the CEO transition, can you share what the process was like? 

LI: We were a founder-led organization getting ready for our next phase of growth. The board led the selection of a new CEO and my role was to ensure a smooth transition and shepherd the new CEO into the organization. It was an interesting experience and quite frankly, I was a bit nervous because you never know how these things are going to go. But we got very lucky and our new CEO, Joe Rohlrich, has made it very easy. It’s been smooth sailing! 

From a process perspective, owning the communications is really important. It was all about landing the plane into the organization, so to speak, by making sure that all the right touch points were put into place, focusing internally on the employee side, and focusing externally with regards to how our customers experienced this change. And all of that needed to happen while also making sure our new CEO had the leadership team he wanted to run with for the next phase of growth.

 

CH: When it comes to leadership teams, it’s important not just to have the right backgrounds, but to make sure the individuals gel together. What was the strategy behind ensuring Top Hat would have the right people in place to drive the next phase of growth? 

LI: We did a diagnostic around the business to see where there were opportunities for acceleration and if we had the right people to be able to go and drive that acceleration. This led to us bringing more education talent into leadership roles. 

First and foremost, Top Hat is a technology company in the dynamic courseware space driven by academic content, and we had a lot of folks who were very technology focused but didn’t have a deep educational background. Our platform and learning solutions, which are essentially the modernization of textbooks and interactive learning, are designed for student engagement and outcomes, and we needed to have people who really understood the space, how it operates today, and where the burning fires are. Right now, there’s a crisis in higher ed around student engagement and ROI, and we want to make sure Top Hat is positioned properly to address those needs. We believe we are, and now we have the foundation to make sure that we are. 

With that foundation, we made sure that we focus on a lot of connection time for the team. Regular 1:1s, team meetings, and junction points, so we can all share our thoughts and ideas. We also worked with coaches to make sure that we accelerated those connections as much as possible. And it’s worked out really well. We’re in that gelling phase now, and you can see it. You can feel it. And it’s really, really exciting.

 

CH: What were the top lessons you learned in the executive search process? 

LI: One thing that I’ve learned is that geographical boundaries aren’t as important as they used to be. Now that the whole universe is used to hybrid/remote work, not having executives based in or near your headquarters is becoming less important. 

I’ve also learned that you really have to have focus and rigor in your selection process, primarily when it comes to building your talent pipeline. If you think about having a pipeline that is diverse from a candidate perspective or from an industry perspective and then winnowing that down into who best fits the targeted requirements, it quickly becomes a limited pool. 

And I think being really tough on yourselves in that selection process is essential because you can’t mess these roles up. A long (or wrong) hire at the executive level is super painful for the organization, for our customers, and for students. You have to be sure you know what you’re doing. I think so far we’ve proven that our methods are working.

Something that’s important but sometimes gets overlooked in executive searches is forcing the requirement of a work sample. We do this at Top Hat at every level, and that includes our executive team. It not only gives you a sense of the candidates’ work output, but it also gives you a sense of style, especially in terms of how people take feedback around their work. It’s also a really good opportunity for the candidate to experience the organization and how we operate, because candidates are also interviewing our organization to make sure that they make the right choice. 

Ultimately, the more realistic job preview you can give during the interview process, the more likely you are to get the most accurate picture of what to expect and realize positive outcomes as a result.

 

CH: You also made a commitment to doubling down on transforming the employee experience and launched an Employee Stock Option Program in service of that. What led to the decision to provide all Top Hatters with the opportunity to own equity? What were some of the considerations when developing the plan?

LI:  I saw the Employee Stock Option Program as an opportunity to deliver a financially beneficial outcome if things went well and we put in the hard work. I wanted employees to feel like they’re participating in the company for more than just a paycheck. With this program, on top of their participating in a real, amazing mission, they also have the opportunity to be shareholders. That’s a powerful way of thinking about your career. So you have your pay, and hopefully we’re working toward a successful outcome that will lead to meaningful and material dollars for a lot of people in this organization. And I think you need to do both: you need to provide career growth, but you also have to make sure that the juice is worth the squeeze. That’s how I think about that balance.

 

CH: What does being a people-first People leader mean to you?

LI: The thing that I’ve been living by for many years is that my role is to make sure that the time our people spend in the organization is the most valuable time in their career. 

For Top Hatters, if they spend three years at Top Hat, I want those to be the three years where they learned the most, where they had the most growth, and where they had the most advancement. That time should catapult them into their next role, whether it’s within Top Hat or outside of Top Hat, in a way that would not have happened at some other organization. 

More Lessons from the 2nd Annual People Pioneers

Interested in even more lessons learned from senior HR leaders? Check out the full list of 2nd Annual People Pioneers and read more about the people-first initiatives they implemented to drive impact through creating a connected team, growing intentionally and sustainably, implementing wellness benefits, and much more.

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