E1B2 Collective Founder AJ Vaughan

AJ VaughanE1B2 Collective Founde

The Head of People role is often confused with that of an HR position, and today on Talk Talent to Me, we find out why the roles shouldn’t simply be lumped together out of convenience. In this episode, we are joined by entrepreneur turned Head of People, writer, speaker, and podcaster Anthony (AJ) Vaughan.

Episode Transcript





[0:00:06.1] RS: Welcome to Talk Talent to Me. A podcast featuring the most elite talent leaders on the frontlines of modern recruitment.


[0:00:12.8] FEMALE: We actually want to understand the themes of someone’s life, we want to understand how they make decisions. Where are they willing to take risks and what it looks like when they fail.


[0:00:22.7] RS: No holds barred, completely off-the-cuff interviews with directors of recruitment, VPs of global talent, CHROs, and everyone in between.


[0:00:31.1] FEMALE: Once I went through the classes and the trainings got the certifications through diversity and inclusion, I still felt like something was missing.


[0:00:39.7] MALE: Talent acquisition, it’s a fantastic career, you are trusted by the organization, you get to work with the C-Suite and the security at the front desk and everybody in between and everybody knows you.


[0:00:53.0] RS: I’m your host, Rob Stevenson and you’re about to hear the best in the biz, Talk Talent to Me.




[0:00:59.8] RS: Joining me today on Talk Talent to Me is an individual with a load of very multifaceted different experience, some of it in recruiting, some of it in entrepreneurship, AJ Vaughan, welcome to the show, how are you today?


[0:01:12.2] AV: I’m doing well, how are you?


[0:01:13.7] RS: I’m good, thanks for asking. I’ve been looking forward to recording this episode with you and I don’t know if that came across in my really clunky, ham-fisted intro there but the reason it was clunky is because I’m just not sure the best way to describe you to the folks out there in podcast land. Can I maybe put that on you?


Here’s a question, when people ask you AJ, “What do you do?” What do you say?


[0:01:35.3] AV: I never have good answers, see, that’s the bad part. I’m not really great at answering it myself. I think the best way I can describe it is, everything that I do and everything that I am is I put employees at the center of everything that I’m trying to create. The employees first, business second, lingo, methodology, things that just seem a little over the Internet, that is a real thing. Anytime anyone ever asks me what I do, I say, “Look, I literally put employees first.” They go, “What does that mean? That sounds fun.”


I kind of draw them in, right? Then inevitably I’ll just share with them, I’m an entrepreneur, I’ve been an entrepreneur, I’m a speaker, I’m a writer, I’m a podcaster but really at my core, I’m just trying to change the world of work by putting employees first, by helping organizations unpack and understand who they are, it’s like a logical level, leaders, last time I checked were human beings so they have psychology and they have minds and brains and perspectives. I’m trying to change that and then, I’m trying to change the processes and best practices that inevitably can make those things reality and operational.


That’s really, I think, the best way that I could describe that but how that’s really packaged is it’s packaged in currently two and a half, really, three, let’s call it three brands right now. It was once five, I had 70 people across the board helping me out, that company is called The E1B2 Collective, that’s where Beyond Brand is housed, that’s where Beyond Resume is housed, [Corey Teen 01:59] is housed. I think that’s a nice little ADD rant of who I am and what I‘m kind of working on.


[0:03:06.7] RS: Yeah, I would love to get into the specific brands and as you say, the way that this is packaged. This true north for you, this guiding principle of “people first” I’m curious, what is it about your background that kind of led that to be how you go about offering your skillset to the world? Can you just tell me a little bit about your background and kind of how you came to be in this current state of consulting, of writing, and of developing all these different sorts of companies?


[0:03:33.2] AV: Yeah, 100%. When I was 19, I decided to start a business. I dropped out of university, I was a football player at West Virginia and I started the year around football academy and I had a partnership with Under Armour at the time to really scale that from a PR access to talent, access to executives, and facility perspective.


That brand grew from zero to a few million in revenue over the course of 18 months and we had 70 employees, a whole big thing. I made a couple of mistakes, a series of mistakes but the biggest mistake that I made, which was kind of like the catalyst and the lynchpin if you will, I didn’t understand what career mapping was. I didn’t understand how to have and hold one-on-one conversations with my direct reports.


I didn’t understand why that was important, I didn’t understand this is something you’re supposed to do, and the guy that was connected to Under Armour, right? The guy that we now would call him a little bit of a facilitator, a little bit of a skills and development coach but a lot a bit of an influencer. The world that we know now in the influencer marketing space, that’s what he was.


Under Armour went with him, he was with me, thus, Under Armour wanted me, thus, I was able to build what I built and when he walked out of the door mainly because I was not having these career mapping, one-on-one type conversations, the business literally folded overnight. AKA, like three months.


A humble kid from Baltimore, taking care of his parents to a certain degree, taking care of his new girlfriend at the time, nice little house, car, the whole thing, real amazing story was literally ripped apart overnight and I couldn’t understand why and inevitably, I stumbled upon career mapping, succession planning, emotional intelligence and I think human behavior.


Those are like literally things that I found myself googling to figure out what I was doing wrong. Now, I clearly didn’t Google those words, I didn’t even know they existed but I never – coming across those words and did some reading and some studying and inevitably, found out that I made those mistakes and that’s what led to my demise. I’ll leave it there as a little cliffhanger but.


[0:05:44.3] RS: Right, it was just sort of at the root of your earliest challenge, it sounds like, you probably figured, “Okay, other people are going through this too” or was it more of like, “I want to reflect on this so that I can become a better business person?”


[0:05:57.3] AV: Kind of. It was, I literally made the worst mistake of my life and I’ve done a lot of dumb stuff and I just lost a seven-figure business overnight and I need to figure out what the hell went wrong because my COO at the time was a real old school employees are the enemy type leader so he didn’t have an opinion, he didn’t think I did anything wrong, right? He didn’t even think I did anything wrong and so he was not very helpful.


Really, it was out of a desperation of, I couldn’t stop this depression until I figure out what I did wrong and how to right that wrong. 


[0:06:27.3] RS: What was that journey righting that wrong for you?


[0:06:30.4] AV: It went through googling and searching and finding out those terms and then it went down a path of three hours a day, studying and researching how to never make those mistakes again. I came across white papers and frameworks and best practices and certifications and then it turned into building out a network around me of heads of people and chief people officers and learning and development folks and psychologists and then it went down me getting obsessed with Christine Comaford and David Rock and Keith Ferazzi like even to the neural science space.


Inevitably, I picked my head up, well, I guess let me pause for a second. I did end up eventually building another brand and I had to do something in life, I didn’t just – a lot of people, when they hear this story, think I just went into this cave for like four years and just – I built that brand but behind the scenes though, quite literally, that’s all I did, right?


I learned and I researched and then I found myself with literally hundreds upon hundreds of pages in my Google docs of notes, of best practices, of frameworks and perspectives, and inevitably, I found myself taking on my very first head of people role and decided to try to convince a company to give me a shot to apply these best practices and things that I was researching because I found myself obsessed and really interested in these variables.


[0:07:47.5] RS: Did it work?


[0:07:48.2] AV: Yeah, it worked. What didn’t work and I still don’t know if it’s going to work because still, it’s something I bump up to till this day, there’s not a lot of people in this space that have the background that I have. Not a lot of people started businesses and then jumped into this. A lot of people came from being a career-long employee, whether it was in HR, whether it’s in finance, operations, system, whatever they did, and inevitably, they were like, “Oh, I like people, let me just jump into this space.”


They were always college UIs and employee first. That comes with a certain behavior, mentality, that comes with a certain demeanor, that comes with a certain lack of strategic capabilities and skillsets, right? You know what you do, right? Typically, when you’re an employee, you know what you do. You have an idea what finance does and what marketing does or what it looks like to deal with the mental pressures of making payroll or thinking strategies for the business. You may have like an idea but a couple of the first companies stumbled upon a guy that actually knew those things intimately.


I’m looking at a CEO of a 50-million-dollar brand and I’m like, “Hey, what you’re dealing with right now, 50 million and six million, not too much difference is there.” You’re just more scaled up. I understand what you’re going through and you can tell my communication style is very direct and so I hit a lot of roadblocks because I felt that my previous career had earned me a certain level of credibility where if I said something, just assume that if I’m doing something from an employee’s first mentality, I’ve already thought about how it’s going to impact the business.


Just assume that based off my prior career, so yeah, that got me in some hot water in the beginning, I will be honest there.


[0:09:33.3] RS: Yeah, I imagine so. I’m almost surprised to hear you kind of took that job. Why would someone with your background, with your entrepreneurial spirit want a full-time kind of role with someone else as your boss?


[0:09:46.6] AV: Entrepreneurship is difficult, it’s very stressful and then not only that, but entrepreneurship is not guaranteed and I think with my – the brand that I ended prior to going to be a Head of People, I did find myself burning out a bit and I’m not going to lie. This is something you may know. When you see certain businesses that are doing six figures or seven figures, people need to realize and understand, my parents always thought, I’m not a millionaire.


My first business, for example, I pay myself I think $80,000. I’m not making a lot of money here. Then, my second business, I was hovering between a hundred to 150. I’m not this rich man, right? My margins are not great and that was my fault, based off the business model that I decided to build. I found myself saying, “Is the money I’m making — like am I really an entrepreneur or am I someone just doing something?” because I never had it like this internal hate against the man. 


You know how those entrepreneurs that are like, “I have to be an entrepreneur and nothing else.” I never really felt that, I jumped in at 19 and that’s just was all I knew but even better than that answer, I did find myself getting obsessed with this work and I did feel like I needed to get inside of the game, right? A company and do the stuff because I started, I tried to do some speaking and some podcasting about it and I kind of felt like I was regurgitating it from – I didn’t feel like I was regurgitating information that I never actually experienced, right?


I was trying to play it off like, “Oh I built six and seven-figure brands before, I hired people before, I can get away with it” but it’s like no, you really never sat in a Head of People’s seat and really strategically mapped out these plans and these concepts and these best practices. You read a blog and then got on a podcast and said these things, that’s very different. That’s kind of why I went in-house honestly if I’m being frank.


[0:11:51.4] RS: Was it a case of shifting personal career motivations like you said? Burning out is super common when you’re running your own business. I think a lot of people don’t realize, you tend not to pay yourself that much because you want it to go into the work offers of the company, right? You want to spend the money on making your business bigger, et cetera. Was it a case of shifting motivations or was that you wanted to add this experience to your toolbelt to be just more well-rounded?


[0:12:16.8] AV: I think it was a little bit of both. I think it was that, I think it was burnout, I think it was – if I’m being honest, I think the business was probably doing okay but I was seeing, it was a hard effort to keep the level that it wasn’t naturally rolling into getting bigger, it was just kind of just like doing that, a lot of things, yeah, a lot of things honestly. It was a lot of things.


It was not a bad decision. I went inhouse, I spent a lot of time there, and then at the time of the pandemic, I was furloughed so that was its own thing. I did learn a lot about – I’ll be honest too. I didn’t – still to this day, I’m not an HR guy. Still to this day, there are really tactical administrative operational elements of lifelong HR career folks that I still don’t know.


Don’t call me about any HRS systems, ATS systems, payroll, benefit, I’m not your guy, don’t call me to write your policy for the first time. I’m not that guy, I never learned it, I never cared about learning it, this is what I did, I’m being very honest and I’ll be on the record. I learned enough about it to be able to speak about it, to be able to know what good looks like and doesn’t look like and I had a team of rockstars behind me that I use as my board of directors.


A lot of people will say, “How are you a Head of People if you’re never done this thing before?” I was like, “If you really open up the hood, a Head of People’s job is to bring innovation, confidence, leadership, strategic capability to the HR function.”


Being able to tangibly jump down the rabbit holes and do that is not my job and I had that inkling because of my athletic background, right? The coach that I had at West Virginia, never made it higher than high school but he was the coach at West Virginia, right? Bill Belichick if I can remember correctly, I don’t even know if he played in college. I’m about to Google it right now. I don’t know if he did that.


[0:14:11.9] RS: No, it’s super common. The best coaches in sports tend to have been average professionals if they were professionals at all.


[0:14:18.4] AV: They know enough, right? They know enough to be dangerous. They know enough to speak on it and then they double down into certain rabbit holes of what they need to double down in. For me, I doubled down into, okay, if you have policies, if you have learning and development, if you have DENI, if you have a talent development plan, if you have succession planning, if you have career mapping, if you have first manager layers, you have that at a baseline, call me if you want to innovate. Call me if you want me to bring new ideas to it and make it different, call me if you want me to help you put in processes that can hold leaders accountable.


Call me if you want to extract data from the employees and use that data first to make what we’re doing better. Don’t call me if you want to do it for the very first time or if you do want to do it for the very first time, you can call me but at least allow me to give you a baseline foundation of that employees-first mindset and then bring in the generalists and the HR business partners to actually do it. Let me be the psychology thinker and then let’s layer in some practitioners, you know?


[0:15:24.3] RS: Yeah, I tend to agree with you, and is it really the best use of your head of people’s time to plug in Greenhouse? They need to know which one is the best probably but they’re too valuable to be setting up software and some of these other blocking and tackling stuff, a good leader delegates that. 


It does strike me that your view of the head of people function, probably different than what a lot of people expect. Certainly, in the case where your entrepreneurial background had kind of given you this perspective that sounds like cause friction with leadership in the company.


If I were head of people, wouldn’t you want that friction or wouldn’t you want to at least be bringing those things to the table? When we talk about the senior-most person on the people team, the recruitment team having a seat at the table, how can you have a seat at the table if you aren’t bringing these things to light? Does that make sense?


I guess my question is, what is sort of your conception of the head of people role? What is the actual best use for that person in the company?


[0:16:25.3] AV: I’m so happy you’re saying this. I had a business called Project 2030 that — it didn’t make it, right? I’m not afraid to say that. My entrepreneurial DNA is partnerships, what I do best is partnerships. I built something that is different enough where I can integrate it into a bigger machine. I built this like lamb to school model for the next generation of head of people. 


I brought in learning and development people, I brought in rockstars in the head of people world and I sat them down, I interviewed them for months and months and collected all this information, and then again, I hired someone to do early learning and development, I built out this whole eight-week and 16-week curriculum.


Then I stopped and then I pivoted and I said, “Where are the HR communities?” and I found this HR community out of Portland, they are amazing and long story short, we got to – the board was stuck 50/50 because what we were pitching is, “Hey, you guys are doing events, you guys are doing programs. I say, let’s start at eight-to-16-week program just focus on developing the next generation of Head of People.”


“Your seven-year, 12-year, 15-year, HR practitioner, you want to try to be a Head of People, there’s a few things that I want to talk to you about which I’m going to say now, I think you should do it in the eight to 16 week learning moment, right before you start applying.” Long story short, I pitched them that, they got stuck at a standstill, 50/50, somebody vetoed it and they didn’t do the deal. No harm, no foul but I learned so much doing, trying to build that business. What I learned is, the head of people role in my mind is split into a couple of different areas. 


Number one, find the right company, right? The right size of company, the right decision-making structures, that’s the first thing you have to think about in my opinion, if you’re going to be getting into the Head of People role. Finding the right leader, the right CEO, the right COO that’s going to give you the right bandwidth to be able to put in the team that you need is a must, so that’s number one. 


Number two, the head of people role should really be used strategically. The head of people role should be a partnership juggernaut. What I mean by that is, the head of people role should know that Greenhouse exists. They should know that learning and development is a good thing to have. They should know that DENI is a must, you know what they should be doing?


In my personal opinion, they should have complete rockstars around them and say and I’m just going to throw some names out here to give them some love, like hey, Angela R. Howard, come over here in all your DENI capabilities and let’s sit down and talk for a bit and take everything that you have in your head and I’m going to plug it in here.


The CEO should be giving the Head of People bandwidth and cash for that. Hey Clair, your executive coaching and your manager, first-time management layering systems and processes you have? Yeah, come bring that over here, right? So on and so forth. Every single function that we know in HR. Hey, HR tech folks over there, right? Come bring that over here.


Hey, folks that love compliance and policy, folks that love auditing job descriptions and making them more humanistic and making them – defusing and taking away bias. Come over here, right? It’s all about partnerships and community and bringing that into the organization. 


That’s a strategist, that’s a thinker, that’s a partnership galvanizer, that is someone that is strategically putting in things that are right, and then once you get all the data from all of those different vendors or partners or community, that’s when you have your HR business partners, that’s where you have your HR generalists saying, “All right, this is the vision that you want to have, we’ll get it done for you, no problem.”


The head of people should be the CEO of the people. That’s what I see, what I just said is what a CEO does. A CEO actually does nothing besides being in said meetings all day.


[0:20:08.9] RS: First of all, thank you for rattling off those names of future Talk Talent To Me guests but also, as you were explaining that stuff, I was thinking like this is what a CEO does. They don’t need to intimately understand the needs of the marketing organization and like the output that the marketing organization does but they have to know enough about it to make it effective. 


I’ve been dancing around this thought for a while and I haven’t really articulated it. I think it is kind of half-baked for me but this idea that your senior-most people, professional at your company interfaces with every other department in a way that nobody besides the CEO does and their job is to understand all of the needs of those different parts of the business and contribute them effectively and help them be better, right? 


So too with the CEO and the head of people and so, I am just looking forward to a time when the head of people because of that experience across the entire organization and because if you’re going to say people first as a CEO and they often do, right? They often will be like, “Look, you know…” I’m sure Jeff Bezos has been like, “Look, Amazon wouldn’t be who it is without our employees” right? 


I’m sure they all say that and if they believe it, then they would have had to have been the Head of People to truly understand what it is these individuals are bringing to the company. Unfortunately, the ways we select CEOs are frost, right? Are not based on that so probably, if you’re head of people and you want to be a CEO, you probably got to start your own company. 


[0:21:35.9] AV: This is crazy, so this is a great conversation. Angela, who I just mentioned, we were this close to starting a recruiting firm that was going to do one thing only. We were going to take seasoned grizzled veterans in the Head of People HR space that had been doing it for 25 years and we were going to say to them and say, “Hey David, you’ve been the Head of People, you’ve been the Chief People Officer for 20 years” right? 


“Do you have any aspirations in being a CEO? Yes, these companies over here will actually consider bringing you in to interview to be a CEO” and that was going to be the whole business model. We were going to be taking former heads of people or current that are just done with it because they have been doing it for 15, 20 years and saying, “Do you want to make 600,000 a year? A million a year? 400,000 a year? Two million?” depending on how big the companies are because literally, the head of people, right? 


I’m so happy you said this, they are the best human beings in the world to be CEO. Now, let me caveat it with this, if a CEO’s job is what we just said, they are the best. Here is where I think we can get some pushback, would a Head of People be the best CEO for Apple for instance? Some people may say, what Apple’s trying to do with their technology, what Apple is trying to do with whatever they’re trying to do. 


Is it better to pull somebody from engineering? Is it better to pull somebody from finance? I think that argument is made because they’re trying to really get too locked in on, “Okay, here’s where we’re really trying to take the business and we really need to double down on this particular function” but going back to the other argument, the Head of People, they literally know how to build relationships so quickly and so effectively and step all the way back with very little micro-management and put the best people in the best positions and then shut the hell up and let them do what they have to do. 


That’s what you’re going to be doing anyway as CEO. You will see too many CEOs think they’re Steve Jobs and think that they’re experts in everything and try to butt in too much with the other executives and that’s where you see these crazy cultures. The Head of People would know not to do that, so I don’t know. I don’t know if you have thoughts and that was going to be the recruiting for me. 


[0:23:52.9] RS: Yeah, totally. Here’s the thing, would a Head of People be a great CEO of Apple? I mean, did Tim Cook invent the front-facing camera? No, right? Did — Tim Cook hired someone and made someone effective who could invent that, right? In the same way, it’s like, “Oh, you want to be Steve Jobs? Well, their company was fantastically successful but you probably wouldn’t have wanted to work for him.” 


There’s a difference in employer brand versus consumer brand going on but yeah, I would push back on that. When you think of what are the qualities of a really good CEO and the effective ones, right? They do align with the head of people I think.


[0:24:26.6] AV: Yeah. The final note here is and maybe this is – once this is all done, I’ll track this little clip, you know, my businesses right now is pretty operational. They are doing what they need to do and due to some personal reasons and some other things, I am actually considering going back in-house again and so what I just defined is what I’m looking for and I am telling you right now because I have been on 30 interviews in the last three weeks, no one is talking to me because they are looking for something opposite of what we just said, right? 


What we just said and what we just talked about is what the Head of People is, right? That is what, you know, if you want someone that’s great at partnership design, great at creating relationships, great at, you know, at least understanding at a macro level of all the variables and putting in the best practices and bringing innovation to the table, that’s what they’re supposed to do. They’re not supposed to be jumping down and being an expert in any given thing. 


I don’t know, we could go on about this so I am hoping that folks like me get a chance because I think here’s the last thing I would say and I will plug Angela one more time, Angela did something that was really strategic. She knew that’s who she was and when she got her most recent gig, she made it very clear to them that you need to have the full HR team like a real HR team in place, “Don’t call me to do any of that stuff” like quite literally, “And I still need  $250,000” right? 


She found a company to say yes and because too many companies are still expecting these Heads of People to jump down into these caves and these rabbit holes and they should not be there. They should not be there, so that’s my final point on that.


[0:26:13.9] RS: I would love to know a little bit though about this process. You have spoken to all of these companies, when you say they want someone to jump down into the cave, into the rabbit hole, what has been your experience? What are people looking for in a Head of People that you think is divergent from your platonic ideal of what a Head of People does? 


[0:26:33.0] AV: I think it’s a two-sided coin. On one side, I see where they’re coming from, right? I’ve had some people tell me, “Well, at no point in your career have you ever been in some of these roles” right? “At no point in your career have you been a TA. At no point in your career have you ever been – ever ran a DENI team. At no point in your career have you ever ran an employer branding function. 


At no point in your career have you ever been a generalist”, so they are wondering, “Well, how are you going to judge those folks if you have never been that” right? We can talk about that later because I can – because again, it kind of goes back to that thing where Steve Jobs had never been a marketer before or Steve Jobs have never clearly never really did engineering before or Steve Jobs the last time I checked was never an attorney before for some of the legal battles they were – 


That question really irritates me but I respect it. I think the biggest thing that has been bothering me in the process is we’re talking companies that are 500 employees, a thousand employees, and up. They are still looking for folks that will literally go and build out the HR tech suite, like the stack rather. They are still looking for people that are literally going to do interviews. They are still looking for people that are literally going to be rewriting the policies, right? 


They are still looking for people that are literally going to be – I even push this way, even advising on the compliance pieces. I am just struggling and Angela again, she did this. I have a person right now that I know, if I were the Head of People today, I would call her now and give her the context of my business, all she loves to do is compliance. She loves it, that’s all she does and I would make sure I worked my CEO to have a little bit of a budget to do that. 


Now, the CEOs in interviews they say, “Well, why would we pay you to outsource that out or bring someone in to give you strategy and advice when we can find someone that will do it, that knows it, that can strategize against it and do everything A to Z?” and here’s my biggest argument, this is what I’ll say: The moment you start diving into those rabbit holes redoing the compliance, you know what’s happening? 


You have your highest paid, most impactful executive disgruntled, upset, irritated, feeling like they’re not being heard, ready to walk out that door and all it took was that one one-on-one conversation for 90 minutes and you had your Head of People in the rabbit hole of the compliance, on the rabbit hole of the policy and now, you have someone that’s allocated to 33% of your revenue for the year just left your business. 


Now, you’re scratching your head of how that happened because the Head of People from what I understand are the only human being in the company that is genuinely qualified through training and research and through time and effort to have that conversation and to save that person from leaving the brand. That’s a tangible example, I don’t know if that makes sense. 


[0:29:22.1] RS: Yeah, the pushback is like, “Okay Mister/Mrs. CEO, if you were Head of People, what would you think was the highest impact thing you could do?” and I could challenge them to say writing compliance, right? I am sure because they are who they are. They would find other ways to be as effective as possible, right? Things in alignment with what an effective CEO does but it wouldn’t be like this in-the-weeds toil. 


Some companies need that like if there is two junior, you have to be three roles at once but it is a matter of vision, right? It’s a matter of vision and where you want this person to contribute to the business.


[0:29:54.3] AV: Yeah and that’s another thing too, I’ve learned that and that’s why that was baked into the Project 2030 of mine where like the size of company matters a lot, right? You know, if you are only a 150 employees, 200 employees, 50 employees, the Head of People is really going to be a glorified recruiter. That’s really what they’re going to do, they’re going to be a recruiter and they’re going to be a high-level generalist. 


That’s really what they’re going to be because the company probably only has $160,000 and they’ll pay 160 to get all of that and try to divvy it up, so I get it on one element, and then like I said, I could make an argument on the other elements. Yeah, we’ll just have to see. 


[0:30:32.9] RS: AJ before I let you go, I want you to just kind of reflect a little bit on the folks out there in the Head of People roles. If you were in their shoes, you’re listening to this, what can they do to be as effective as possible, impactful as possible in their company, and to avoid getting bogged down in procedural stuff in the treadmill of labor that is maybe low leverage for their skillset? 


[0:30:57.5] AV: I will give them two out-of-the-box tips. The first is – actually they’re kind of together but it is a good step-by-step thing. Say to yourself right now, “I hate all of this stuff.” I was going to curse but I won’t, all of this stuff, okay? “I hate all of this stuff, I am not a generalist anymore, I am not an HR business partner anymore. I am not an HR director anymore, even if it’s 15% of that, I don’t want to do this. 


I don’t want to micromanage anyone that’s doing this, I just want to blindly trust because I know that it’s part of being a leader and I just want to inevitably just know that it get done, is it being done. As a matter of fact, I want to have the HR business partner make sure that those things are getting done. I don’t want to hear about it unless there’s a fire.” Saying that to yourself and be comfortable with that.


The second piece, if you are looking for a company right now, look a little higher up in company size. That’s something I have learned personally and I did learn through my process of working on Project 2030. Look for a company a little larger in size. Companies above a thousand people mark, they’re going to give you a little bit more when it comes to the build-out of the team so that’s going to be really important. 


The third thing, assuming that you’re inside of a company already, go directly to your CEO and actually before that step, go talk to your husband, your wife, yourself, your kids, your grandma, I don’t care who you have in your family, who’s connected to your salary. I don’t care if it’s 150 or 190, 200, 250, 300, see if you can cut 20 or 30,000 off of it and I know that sounds crazy. I know that’s wild but hear me out guys and see, right? 


This is the entrepreneur in me that I am trying to bring to these companies here, go to your leader and say, “If I can hit these metrics that are connected to the finances of the company due to the things that we can do for the people, can I get a bonus on the backend to make up the 30,000? Can we take my 30,000 off my base for a second?” It’s like, “Why do you ask AJ? Why do you ask that?” 


I want to take that 30,000 and I want to get that, I want you to put that in my pocket not literally in my pocket, I want to put this into this little bucket here for me to build my own personal team around me, not my HR team, a little army around me. I want to be able to send $1,500 to the best DENI person for two hours of their time. I want to bring in a job description consultant. I want to reach out to some of the folks that are in HR tech. 


I want to reach out to some of the best folks who are in compliance. I want to reach out to some of the best folks that are in learning and development, et cetera, et cetera and I want to have this little pool of money here to be able to use to not only get better innovation and better strategic capabilities but to actually get little tiny things done that are on the strategic side that I think will take a little too much of my time because I would probably have to learn those things or to allocate that to a generalist. 


If I can show you through the KPIs and the OKRs that they actually make a bigger impact, let me bet on myself and let me make that up with a bonus on the backend. Most CEOs is going to be like, “Ooh, that’s actually… because if you don’t hit it, you saved me 30,000. If you do hit it, I’m going to make more than the 30. It’s going to be a drop on the bucket.” Long story short, that’s what I would advise them to do. 


That is out of the box and the last thing I guess is don’t be afraid to have those tough conversations with your CEO. You know, read up on your pure business terminology and information and language and lingo and walk in there with your head held high and don’t joke around. Be honest, be serious and be ready for war if you have to be, you know? 


[0:34:32.8] RS: Yeah. I want to give you a chance to talk about Beyond Brand a little bit because you’re doing really interesting work with this or you’re putting together trying to drive transparency in the hiring process. Can you give us a little spiel on kind of what the work is right now? 


[0:34:45.4] AV: Yeah, I’ll be brief with it because it is really impactful. Companies objectively are horrible at the hiring process when it comes to articulating operational realities to applicants early in the process. Operational realities for me are pretty much the day-to-day inner workings of a company, how decisions are made, KPIs, OKRs, the personnel of the leader, communication styles and preferences, workflows, career map. 


There is a lot of things you could talk about, right? The things that actually make up how an employee experiences the company day-to-day and there is a way that you can articulate those things honestly and transparently. I believe the best moments are when you bring in a third party to extract the goods. It is why the therapy industry is crushing it. It is why they say if you’re having trouble in your marriage you should bring in a life coach or a counselor or a therapist. 


Third parties, those are super objective. It is why surveys right? Third-parties are great, so what we do is we bring in a third party. We’ll come in and we’ll sit down with let’s say your head of engineering and we will have a very deep conversation about the operational realities inside of that department, inside that leader’s overall mindset and psychology and everything pertaining to a particular role, right? 


A particular role and we cover about 20 different categories and that conversation takes about 90 minutes but we then chop it up into three to five-minute bite-size chunks. We put on this nice aesthetically pleasing landing page with a little login and we say, “Hey, you got Greenhouse, plug that into your ETF for a second.” Plug that into somewhere in the process, it can be after the screening call, it can be after interview number two. 


It can be for your last round of candidates but I want your people to hear directly from the manager, the executive facilitated by an honest third party to tell the applicants all of the goods. It’s when it gets you closer to the best talent, that talent is going to appreciate you for a very innovative process, and inevitably, you’re going to have the ramp-up time, right? Your ramp-up productivity time in the first 90 days you’re going to explode because we are not talking about employee branding stuff. 


We are talking about detailed operational information and goods that if the applicant is really listening, they’re like, “Yeah, let me take these notes. Let me be cognizant of this as I’m going into my onboarding process to ask really great probing questions.” It makes the interview better, it makes the process better, allows companies to hire better, better operational fit talent, not culture fit, operational fit, so that’s what that does. 


[0:37:20.7] RS: Yeah and it makes people more likely to stay if you know they know what they’re signing up for and actually comes true, right? They are not surprised day one when they start learning this stuff. Super important stuff. How can folks find you if that sounds like something that would be good for their organization? 


[0:37:34.7] AV: Reach out to me on LinkedIn. For right now, we’re redoing some stuff at the website, email, all that good stuff but reach out to me on LinkedIn. Reach out to me at that is my personal one. Yeah, just find me. I’m all over, yeah, I am somewhere. You could find me and we’ll talk and really it’s not – I am actually not going direct to brands. 


I am actually looking to partner with recruiting firms, talent strategists, DENI firms, HR consultancy firms. You all already have access to the greatest brands in the world, I want to bring something new and innovative to your service Rolodex and I want to try to help those organizations make more money and help you bring more value to your clients. Like I said Rob, going back to the partnership thing, I only know how to deal brands that way. I don’t usually go direct. 


[0:38:20.0] RS: Got it. Well AJ, this has been fascinating, learning your approach and your background. At this point, I would just say thank you so much for being on the show and sharing everything with me today. I’ve loved chatting with you. 


[0:38:28.8] AV: I appreciate it, Rob. 




[0:38:32.7] RS: Talk Talent to Me is brought to you by Hired. Hired empowers connections by matching the world’s most innovative companies with ambitious tech and sales candidates. With Hired, candidates and the companies have visibility into salary offers, competing opportunities, and job details. Hired’s unique offering includes customized assessments and salary bias alerts to help remove unconscious bias when hiring. By combining technology and human touch, our goal is to provide transparency in the recruiting process and empower each of our partners to employ their potential and keep their talent pipeline full. 


To learn more about how we can help you find your next great hire, head to