How HR can help leaders prepare for the ‘unimaginable’

Shelly Holt

When Shelly Holt became PayScale’s chief people officer in mid-April, she not only had ample HR experience, but she also had personal experience that helped her jump right into a new organization during the new normal brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I worked from home for three-and-a-half years when I was at SAP, a 90,000-person global organization,” says Holt. “I learned that you had to try twice as hard to make sure you were building relationships with people and networking with them. I don’t think I was prepared for COVID—nobody could be prepared for COVID—but I knew the pandemic was going on when I took this job, and that was a piece of the challenge.”

At the start of her more than 25-year career, Holt spent time in agency recruiting but felt something was missing. “I would place people in organizations, but I never really knew if they were high performers or if they were impactful,” she recalls. “I couldn’t see that visibility of their performance. So I started to get into diversity and really closing the gender gap and thinking about that from a pay perspective.”

In line with her career-long interest in D&I, PayScale in August published a report called How to Pay Remote Workers, which suggests that remote work could foster more diversity and help close racial and gender pay gaps even after the COVID-19 threat has passed.

Related: Remote work after COVID-19

“When [the researchers] were looking at the remote workers, 8.3% of them made more than people who had the same experience and the same job function. I think that all of this opens up [opportunities for] more diverse talent pools … for racial minorities, working mothers and people with disabilities,” she says. “Coming out of COVID, most organizations are going to want to have their [remote work/compensation approach] vetted and ready to go.”

Prior to joining PayScale, Holt was vice president of learning and development at leading travel company Expedia Group. While at SAP, she was vice president of talent, learning and leadership development for its cloud business and executive teams. Before that, she was senior director of learning, leadership development and talent acquisition at Concur for more than a decade, prior to the company’s acquisition by SAP. She recently spoke with HRE about how those experiences shaped her new position and her outlook on HR.

HRE: What have you been brought in to do as chief people officer at PayScale?

Holt: My mission is to make sure that, from a talent perspective, PayScale is set up not just for what’s currently going on today, but really making sure that we’re set up for the future and thinking about what’s required of a culture in order to make that happen. How do you build learning agility? How do you build a place where exceptional people are empowered to do exceptional things and have impact? How do you think about connecting that to a bigger purpose so that people are driven beyond just what’s required for the job, [to] really feeling like they’re connected and they have a sense of belonging to the organization? I would say my mission is to help people in business imagine all of the things that may be unimaginable right now.

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HRE: What do you mean by “unimaginable”?

Holt: Think about how quickly the world has been changing. If you look at the fact that we’re in a new revolution … we’ve got connectivity everywhere—the internet and digital transformations are really starting to change the makeup of our workforce. So you’re seeing all those trends out in the marketplace—automation and the gig economy—and really making sure that we’re equipping people to rebuild the skills they need to remain employable as well as making sure that we’re staying ahead of the curve as an organization to make sure we have the skills that we need. That requires us all to think about things from a new perspective and that we’re part of the innovation and the change that’s required to transform an industry. When I think about what’s unimaginable, that’s things like, where do we need to go with our vision of the product and services we offer [and] about our talent, philosophies and strategy? We’re really stepping into a world where you had COVID on top of all that, where things are changing so quickly that what we did yesterday probably needs to change. And, how do you anticipate three, four steps ahead? That’s the unimaginable.


HRE: What tools are you going to use to help the organization think about the unimaginable?

Holt: One of the things that we’re looking at right now is trying to get an idea of the skill makeup of our current workforce … and balancing that with what’s available out in the marketplace. [Also,] are there strategies we need to be putting in place from a talent perspective? Do we need to buy new skills? Do we need to look at existing roles, and do those roles need to be upskilled or reskilled, and can talent be used in different ways? It’s looking at everything from the automation of processes and things that might have been done manually before and, then, what happens with the individuals that were doing those things? It’s looking at pay philosophies and are we making sure that we’re really recognizing top performers and really thinking about what it is going to take to retain those individuals in a very competitive landscape. We’re using many different tools and many technologies to try to access the pulse of the organization and drive employee engagement to see how we are regularly staying on top. Employee engagement surveys are great, but if those are done only done once a year, they’re not super helpful. So how do you stay up close with all of that as well, in competitive market landscapes like we have today?

HRE: What other lessons have you learned since you started at PayScale during this extraordinary time?

Holt: We’ve added a lot of complexity around the Black Lives Matter movement and other things that are basically accelerating some of the existing changes in the workforce that we knew were coming.

[With the challenges of the pandemic], our employees have shown a tremendous amount of resilience and agility throughout this process. We spent a lot of time really listening to them, and we have tried to transparently communicate, making sure that we’re addressing some of the challenges. We have heard from them that our level of flexibility and understanding has been appreciated.

HRE: What advice would you have given to your former self about how HR can best serve its organization during a pandemic?

Holt: Part of me wishes I don’t have the opportunity again. But I would say, first and foremost, that transparency, empathy, flexibility and communication are some of the most underutilized skills and, in the pandemic, we have really had to double down on all of those things. And I would tell myself to remember, post-pandemic, that we should be utilizing these skills just as much as we are now. It shouldn’t have taken a pandemic for us to be doubling down on these things.

Secondly, I would say that it has become even more important for us to understand the critical skills and processes our business needs if there was a scenario like this in the future. [With] a mitigation strategy, you don’t know what’s going to break until you uncover what’s going to break, and we need to anticipate that. And we need to think more about it, even [things] as simple as our organization’s onboarding process. [For example,] how did they get their equipment in a pandemic? We should have these processes ahead of something like this happening, and I don’t think many organizations did.

My advice to my former self would be, don’t be caught off guard, and don’t forget all of those human skills we have that we need to double down on post-pandemic.

HRE: How have you been managing this tremendous change, personally?

Holt: I would say some days I’m managing it really well and, some days, I’m probably not. I am a mom [of a 12-year-old son and a 15-year-old daughter]. My husband and I both have demanding jobs so we’re trying, like many, to prepare for the next stage [of her kids going back to school].

I lean very heavily on a wonderful group of friends who keep me sane, who make me laugh and who will pick up in areas where you know I need help. I’m also trying to practice a lot more of my inner Zen. We spend a lot of time up in the mountains trying to get fresh air and walking and just really enjoying the outdoors, and so I think summer has been a wonderful time to really just take a step back and breathe a bit.

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