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

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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.

Katya Laviolette
Katya Laviolette

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.

“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 a good 25-plus years. I got my start in the industry after finishing my master’s program. At the time, I went into the railroad industry in a university recruit program with the Canadian auto workers. I was the youngest woman at the table. I didn’t speak a lot of French and was in a francophone environment.

I basically built my career at publicly traded, large multinational global companies in various industries, including media and packaging. I also say trains, planes, and the only thing I haven’t done is automobiles.

About 7 years ago, I spent a lot of time in large companies and decided that I wanted to get out of the publicly traded space and go into the private company space—a bit smaller and higher growth. So, I shifted and became a chief people officer for companies in high growth and scaling and building out their functions. I’ve done everything you can imagine in HR and broader than that in real estate operations and communications.

Still, I would call myself a deep HR generalist in all the functions of HR.

Who is/was your biggest influence in the industry?

I don’t have one person per se. I grew up in a time when I was usually the youngest individual around the table and usually the only woman. I have a lot of people who supported me in my career, and a lot of them have been white males.

So, the story’s a bit different in today’s diverse landscape.

I just have people who took chances on me and saw that I had a great deal of curiosity. I was passionate about making an impact and helping people. I have a network of individuals who I have always told people I’ve led before; it’s so critical to have a support network outside.

I also have people who have influenced me. I see their careers, and part of their trajectory has an impact on me. I do have a lot of people in terms of the business world who I think have done a great job on certain things, but for me, it’s very down to earth. I just had a lot of good people in my hometown who have taken a chance on me.

And to this day, I can give back to the community and what they’ve done with people who I’m leading or mentoring. I keep in contact with those individuals because they’re a great support network.

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—my mom, my brother, and me. She didn’t really push us to go through school because she herself did not until much later in her life.

I think I got the desire to do something that I think was important to me, and somehow, I found my way. I think I found my way through good support networks that I just built.

Choosing the field of human resources, yes, you can have an impact, but it’s tough. It’s probably one of the toughest professions to be in, I would say, even pre-COVID and post-COVID. The workplace is never going to be the same because things have changed. So, you yourself as a leader must adapt and change.

I like what I do. I’m passionate about what I do, and when people call me up 5, 10 years down the road who I haven’t spoken to in a long time and say, “Hey, Katya, do you think you could maybe help me with this or point me in the right direction?”

That’s where I know I’ve had an impact, and that’s very rewarding.

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

I have a number of them. I had a couple of jobs early on in my career where I learned that you must balance data and facts with intuition. This kind of analogy stems from many decisions that you either do well on or don’t do well on.

When I’ve made a mistake, for the most part, it’s because I’ve only looked at the facts and the data and I’ve not trusted my gut. So, I think there’s a good combination.

I’m a very intuitive person, so it’s almost like you take the data and you’re like, “OK, I really want to make this work.” And the data says, “Yeah, it’s really going to work.”

But then you layer it over, and you’re like, “I’m not sure this is going to be about me or fit my values.” Most things I’ve had angst about or decisions that I have to pull back on or say “No, that wasn’t a great one, and don’t do that again” are pretty related to that. So, I say to people, “Sometimes you shouldn’t go 100% necessarily with your gut or intuition because you need to have facts, too.”

Ultimately, having a healthy combination of both has never done me wrong.

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

Well, this is interesting because the one thing that I do not like is people who will say, “Oh, you work in HR? You must be a nice person.” I don’t think it’s about being nice. I think it’s about having a certain level of empathy and understanding. You must have good listening skills.

But I also think it’s about being direct in a respectful way and telling people how it is and not beating around the bush.

One of the things that I’ve taken with me in my career over the years is I’ve been able to preface a lot of things I do with “I’m going to say something. It’s going to be very direct.” I do this so people can understand where I’m coming from, especially when I’ve been talking to people about conflict.

I think you need to address conflict head-on. HR is a conflict every day. You’re stuck a lot between a rock and a hard place, and you must find the solution. You can do that by listening, by putting yourself in other people’s shoes, and by understanding the business, understanding the facts, and understanding how people tick.

So, you have to put all that together, and I think that’s really important in the profession.

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

Well, I think it’s important. I mean, you have a lane, and so does everyone around the table. For example, this can include your chief technology officer, chief product officer, CFO, chief revenue officer, or legal officer. Everyone has a role to play in their specialty.

I think when it comes to an executive team, yes, you have this sandbox that you play in, but you should come out of the box sometimes and think about the business. I think that HR can provide those additional holistic insights into everything that’s going on because it’s not just about profits.

You can’t make profits if you don’t have people, so there’s this healthy balance. I come back to the example of when I was working in a relatively high-growth private company, and they just wanted to push at any cost around getting bottom line in because sales were good. And I was like, “You can slack a bit. You can slack a bit because the more you push, the more you’re going to lose people, and you’re only accountable to yourself. You are the shareholder.

So, you have to figure out: Does it mean what it means for the target you want? Or do you want to have a healthy workforce longer term?” And they took my advice, so I thought that was good.

What are you most proud of?

Personally, I’m very proud that I’m going to be 53 this year. I’m probably the fittest I’ve ever been in the last 6 years, so I’m proud of my mental and physical state because I think you need more and more of that in today’s day and age. I think that everyone should be thinking about what their mental fitness is.

There are elements of my career where I’ve helped change legislation and the province of Quebec that affected many, many companies. I’ve been on crisis management teams for very challenging situations, with reporters going into war zones and having to have that obligation of health and safety on my shoulders to manage. These are things I’m super proud of.

But I think overall, it’s like your career and your personal life are a puzzle, so it’s like these pieces that kind of all come together.

Additionally, I come back to that example of someone calling you up, and sometimes you don’t even remember the person, and you’ve come across them, and they’re like, “Hey, I met you years ago, and you helped me with this. I’m wondering if you could help me again.” Those are things that make me proud.

Do you have any advice for people entering the profession?

I think it is a profession that you should not underestimate the complexity of. You have to understand the human at the essential root and how they tick within a business lens.

First, get to know the business and how it works. Get to know and understand your values, what drives you as a person, because in HR, what happens over time is your values are very entrenched, and your values just become more entrenched as you get older.

When you’re choosing a profession or choosing a job that you work in, you better be sure that those values are in concordance because they don’t really change. They just amplify over time, and you must manage them. So, it’s important that you choose that profession because it’s important to your values.

I’m a generalist, so I’ve touched on anything and everything—change management, crisis management, pension, executive communication, recruitment, organizational design. If you want to be a generalist and the chief people officer, I think what I would want to see if I were a board member recruiting a chief people officer is business experience but also depth in many areas of HR, not just one or two.

So, it’s something to think about.

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