Handsome Head of People Stephanie Maillet

Stephanie MailletHandsome Head of People

Joining me today is Stephanie Maillet, who is not your typically trained human resources pro. In today’s episode we find out about Stephanie’s diverse career background, what career coaching is, the difference career coaching can make to a company, challenges surrounding distributed workforces, and so much more. 


Episode Transcript





[0:00:06.1] RS: Welcome to Talk Talent to Me. A podcast featuring the most elite talent leaders on the frontline’s 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.




[0:01:00.1] RS: Joining me today on Talk Talent to Me is the head of people over at Handsome, Stephanie Maillet. Stephanie, welcome to the show, how are you today?


[0:01:06.8] SM: Thanks Rob, I’m really happy to be here.


[0:01:09.0] RS: You are broadcasting in from the Eastern seaboard, is that correct? Somewhere in New England?


[0:01:13.7] SM: Yes, I am in Harvard Massachusetts, which is sort of central Massachusetts, Apple Orchard County is where I live.


[0:01:21.9] RS: Lovely, I wouldn’t have guessed, you don’t have the archetypal accent.


[0:01:26.2] SM: I went to communications school and it was mandatory that we take a voice and articulation class to lose all local accents.


[0:01:32.8] RS: Interesting, they really try to saw off the rough edges there.


[0:01:35.9] SM: They really did, it was something we all had to do.


[0:01:38.0] RS: That’s like odd to me, I don’t know, do you miss the Massachusetts accent, does it come out maybe when you drink or something?


[0:01:43.8] SM: No, but my son and I like to make fun of New England accents in particular, Boston accents.


[0:01:50.7] RS: Oh yeah, it’s a rich area.


[0:01:53.2] SM: I know, we do it in a loving way.


[0:01:55.3] RS: Right, you’re allowed to you know? They’re your people in some regard, right?


[0:02:00.2] SM: Exactly, yeah.


[0:02:01.0] RS: Can you tell me a little bit about the company you work for, Handsome?


[0:02:03.7] SM: Yeah, Handsome is a holistic creative company. We create human-centered solutions for our clients and in order to do that, we bring together storytellers and strategist, developers, visual artists from any place, culture and professional background. We consider ourselves to be an everywhere agency and we don’t have boundaries like a physical headquarters or offices.


[0:02:32.8] RS: Fully distributed, got it. That notion of taking people from all manner of background, the proof is in the pudding a little bit with you because you don’t have a traditional, sort of like, recruiter background, I guess, whatever traditional recruiter background means, right? You kind of came to this role through a different avenue.


[0:02:49.9] SM: Yeah, my career journey is not a linear one. I didn’t school for human resources. I don’t have any specific training or credentials in HR. I started my career managing bands and musicians in the Boston area. I did things like book tours and I produced albums, concerts, stuff like that. When I decided that I needed a “real job” I needed health insurance and paid vacations, it was important to me that I remain in the creative industry.


I really do love supporting creative people and I was hired at an ad agency called Arnold and I specifically managed the creative group for the Volkswagen account which at the time, this was in the early 2000s. This was like advertising that was part of the cultural zeitgeist and it was an incredibly fun time to be in the industry.


By managing them, I mean that I assigned art directors and writers and designers, projects, which were everything from commercials to short films, events, print, web, I managed things like their project opportunities and their workload. I eventually moved over to Barbarian, which is a digital agency and that was small but it was also really innovative and it had offices in Boston, New York and San Francisco. That allowed me to expand into putting teams together that were more dispersed and not necessarily working shoulder to shoulder in the same office together. 


From there, I went to a global innovation company called Continuum and that had a really broad spectrum of consultants. Anywhere from mechanical engineers to architects, strategist, designers and these were people that were located within the US as well as Europe and Asia. When I got there, my manager was the Head of People. She left the company maybe about a year after I started and I saw an opportunity there to create a training program.


That was something that she was responsible for and after she left, there was really nobody there to do it and even though I’d never done it before, I was really interested in how people could take training in leadership or public speaking, feedback and apply it to their consulting practice and so I started working with training consultants and facilitating workshops myself.


That was really fun, I loved doing that and after a while though, I got a little burned out. I knew I wanted to make a career change so I hired a coach and pretty quickly into that relationship, I knew that I wanted to become a coach. I really loved being coached and I thought, “I think I could do this.” Coaching really allowed me to connect with people in this whole new way that opened them up to transformation and I really love witnessing that.


Recently, I became a wellness coach and I love weaving mindfulness practices into the workplace. This is something that I want to incorporate more and more into the community of people that I work with and support. To answer your question, Handsome recruited me last year to become the head of people and I knew the COO actually from our Continuum days and I think she was really interested in my more organic approach and applying that to a growing holistic, creative, human centered company like Handsome. That’s my story, you’re all caught up.


[0:06:52.5] RS: I feel like I was there. The conversation you had or I suppose, series of conversations you had with the coach that made you want to do that kind of work. Was it about the impact, this individual head on? What were some of the questions that they asked you that kind of led you to believe, this was something you wanted to pursue.


[0:07:10.0] SM: Well, it’s interesting that you ask that because most people think of coaching as traditional, what they seen in sports, which is somebody who is an expert, telling somebody else what to do but actually, the coaching that was done for me and that I do is more about active listening and really trying to understand what is at the heart of what somebody wants.


That requires – and, when I say, active listening, that really is listening to what the person is saying, asking powerful questions and really having them or in my case, me, come up with solutions for myself which is much more impactful than somebody telling me what to do.


[0:07:56.6] RS: Yes, it’s completely different than the football coach with a hat and a whistle and you know, a clipboard. It’s more like career therapy, you know? It’s more like the conversations I’ve had with a career coach is like, they usually get to a point where I’m like, “You know what? That’s a question for my therapist.” I also go back on that, let’s keep this in the realm of podcasting trajectory.


Yeah, it’s like, people aren’t typically listened to when it comes to their own career aspirations and also, to think critically about what they really want, I think people are ill disposed to do that without guidance. I think, most people never really bother to stop and think what that is. Has that been your experience?


[0:08:33.4] SM: In many cases, yes or as they’re moving through their career, they think, “Oh, that’s something interesting, I wonder if I could do that” but they may have some beliefs that they can’t or they’re not qualified or somehow, somebody else is better at it than they are and so they sometimes don’t even give it a chance. 


Going back to your therapy comment. I mean, that is something that coaches are trained in, is when to compartmentalize, “This is probably not something that I should be handling, maybe you should go seek a therapist” but I also find that therapy and coaching go really nicely together. 


Also, coaching takes many forms. I mean, the industry itself is just massive at this point. It’s growing really rapidly and at one point, I was talking to another coach and she has her own coaching business and she suggested that if I didn’t become certified in sort of these other programs and tools.


That I would just be life coaching at work and I thought, what’s wrong with that? Life coaching at work, especially now, I feel like is what people actually need. Many of the people that I work with, there is like this – we used to be seeking a work life balance and now I feel like it really is like a work life blur, right? Are we working from home or are we living at work.


There’s especially the past couple of years, there’s just been so much that people are integrating their life into their work more and more. People are looking for ways in which to manage burnout, isolation, increasing anxiety, lack of childcare, lack of self-care, even if they’re really happy with their jobs and love what they do but managing this sometimes does require some sort of career therapy. I may steal that.


[0:10:40.1] RS: That one’s free, the next one is built in an hourly rate. Yeah, you kind of rattled off there a lot of the causes I think for burnout. I’ve come back to this question a couple of times on this show, this notion of like, “Okay, if we have these cushy jobs that we can do in sweat pants from home, why are people so burned out?” right? This is an easier job than doing a – tarring a roof in the middle of August for example.


If it’s so easy, then why are people so stressed and I think you kind of explained why that is. The life coach at work piece is interesting because that role, I think we’re seeing it as strictly necessary to make sure people’s day engage long-term and don’t burnout and just up and quit in a huff, you know? But whose role is that traditionally? I guess, the managers? But is the manager really incentivized beyond their quarterly results to take that real interest in the people who report to them?


The good ones do but I don’t think it’s like, I don’t think that they’re being selected, managers that is, for their ability to do something like that.


[0:11:45.6] SM: No, I think unfortunately, there is still this traditional hierarchy within organizations in which the only way for people to become promoted is to become a manager. They’re either managing, at least in the industry that I work in, they’re managing projects which is a team of people and clients and then they also have people that they’re managing – they’ve got direct reports because they may or may not have day to day contact with.


But I find that rarely, people are actually trained in doing this and some of them have no interest in it. Some of them, like you said, are naturally inclined to do it and they have a – even if they just have a curiosity into what’s going on in somebody’s life, I mean, that can help a lot. Someone told me a long time ago that if you’re managing somebody, everybody in that person’s life probably knows your name.


[0:12:43.5] RS: That’s absolutely true.


[0:12:45.4] SM: That person’s partner, that person’s friends, family, they’ve probably heard your name and you’re making an impact one way or the other. You should just be aware of that and – yeah, that’s something that I also want to expand upon in my training and coaching is how to be a good manager.


[0:13:12.9] RS: I want to speak a little more about this life coach at work thing. Particularly, the conversations you’re having with people who report to you, sure but I imagine you’re doing it with other people at Handsome as well. What are those conversations typically sound like, what kind of questions do you ask people and what is, in your mind, the ideal outcome of those conversations?


[0:13:32.1] SM: Well, I don’t know if I have typical questions. First of all, if I’m coaching somebody, they have to want to be coached. I really try not to let coaching be infused in all of my conversations because that could drive people crazy. Meaning, they would always feel like, “Are you coaching me or are we just having a conversation?” I want to make sure that people know if I’m coaching them, then we are in a coaching alliance and that is something that I try to design intentionally with people so that they come to me with – 


[0:14:08.9] RS: They come to you with the energy to want to do the work, right?


[0:14:12.4] SM: Exactly. Sometimes that’s just a curiosity, meaning, “Sure, I’ll be coached by you, I mean, I don’t know where this is going to take me but I would love to just have that form of personal development or professional development, whatever that looks like.” Then others say very – will say very specifically, “I want to be promoted but I lack confidence” or “I don’t know how to get there, I feel blocked in some way.”


Typically, if somebody is feeling blocked, then that’s where my questions will go and I do coach in a pretty organic way so I don’t have this set way of coaching people and some people do, they have a formula and the formula works for them but I think mine is much more really based in curiosity. I do give people homework, I try to push people outside of their comfort zone.


[0:15:18.5] RS: Like what? What’s a homework assignment you might give?


[0:15:20.6] SM: One homework assignment that I have given people who have difficulty asking for help, I have given the homework assignment of going into a store and having a basket, whatever, shopping cart, and they have to ask somebody to get something off the shelf for them with no explanation why, it doesn’t have to be at the tiptop of something and they can’t reach it, they just have to ask somebody for help and it makes people deeply uncomfortable. 


Sometimes they say yes and sometimes they say, “I’m not going to do that, there’s no way” and so we come up with something else. The way I give homework is, people have to agree to it and that I will hold them accountable. I mean, I will ask them ab out it, I’ll ask them to text me or we’ll follow-up in the next conversation.


[0:16:25.1] RS: If they don’t want to do it, isn’t that like a sign that they really ought to?


[0:16:29.0] SM: I know. Well, I have them come up with something else. We’ll maybe brainstorm a little bit on what that could look like because I also – I don’t want to push people beyond their breaking point and I also don’t – I want people to get something out of it and I know what you’re saying, but I also, you know, there’s only so much forcing you can do. People have to want to do it. 


[0:16:54.2] RS: Yeah, it goes back to what you’re saying before, yeah.


[0:16:56.8] SM: Yeah, exactly.


[0:16:57.3] RS: You need the consent of the governed here but it’s similar to individuals who want help just being social and like even, how do you make friends, how do you talk to strangers, how do you conduct yourself at a party like these kinds of coaching things exist and an early assignment is like, you’re going to ask a stranger what time it is, right? Something as simple as that, right? 


A totally normal thing you could do to anyone you see unless they’re a real jerk, they’re like, “Oh, it’s 4:55” but it terrifies people. This notion that you would just have a very basic interaction with the stranger and it’s not about like, “We’re going to teach you how to find out what time it is” the point is like, “We’re going to put you in positions that are uncomfortable and you’re going to realize that you came out of the other side of it okay.”


[0:17:38.6] SM: Well, that’s the thing. I mean, you know, I haven’t yet come up with a situation in which somebody – pardon me, I haven’t come up with a situation in which somebody told me that that was terrible and traumatizing and I mean I really – I mean, the homework assignments really vary. Again, I don’t even have specific homework assignments that I give people. They just sort of pop into my head as people are talking but that is one that I did. Like I said, it was very, very uncomfortable. I think they did it though and then they actually thought it was kind of fun. 


[0:18:11.9] RS: It is an interesting way to conduct this role of Head of People because I speak to Heads of People on the show and we tend to talk about interview design and building inclusivity into your company and employee value propositions and those sort of thing. This is a different sort of role. I assume you are doing those things as well but why is this important, this role that you’re playing with people to help them really understand what they want? Why do you think this is a valuable offering and for you to prioritize at Handsome? 


[0:18:43.4] SM: Well, I think it really goes back to connecting people to their purpose. So connecting people to their purpose and understanding what really drives them, I think that’s – for me, that is what people get the most out of in these types of conversations or these types of sessions that I can have with people and again, it’s not all I do and it is something that I want to do more of. 


I mean, there is plenty to do as the Head of People that are more organizationally focused that are recruiting and retention and culture, operational things. I mean, there’s plenty to do but this is just sort of my passion and I feel like it adds a lot of value to any organization and it adds a lot of value to how I feel like I am making an impact in an organization as well, so I get a lot out of it, which only makes me happier with my career. 


[0:19:59.1] RS: Yeah and it strikes me as a more well-rounded approach to caring about your employee’s mental health because that’s been a growing area of focus for companies but we have to do more than just show them how to find a psychiatrist or be like, “Hey, this is now covered under your insurance or something drastic happened and now we have a grief counselor coming into the office.” 


There’s more to this than the one-off things or the, “Hey, go find this externally. We’ll pay for it.” This is aimed at preventing burnout, people do better work when they are actually like – when you can be sure they’re working on things they care about, right? Again, you kind of eluded to it there, it is all in service of connecting people to the work they want to do, isn’t that the job of the recruiter ultimately beyond filling a role? 


Isn’t the idea to put someone in a position where they are going to be happy and they can hit their life goals? 


[0:20:53.4] SM: Yeah, I think that while everybody who is in the People Operations Group at Handsome, first and foremost really cares about the employee experience and that begins with recruiting and then that goes through the lifecycle of an employee, including people leaving the company sometimes. You know, we always want to make sure that people feel like, “I had a great experience here and now it’s time for me to move on” and I always feel good about that. 


Although of course, retention is really important but I never want to feel like people are leaving because they didn’t get the most out of the organization and that people feel supported and cared for in everything that we do, so the people that are in the group that support the company care very deeply about the experience that people are having even if it’s just asking for a software upgrade or I mean, it could really be anything but we always try to approach it in this very kind and supportive way and we talk about it all the time amongst us. 


That was really important, that’s sort of a really important part of the DNA of the people group at Handsome. 


[0:22:27.8] RS: Yeah, that makes sense and this prioritization of people’s happiness and fulfillment even, the company and the employee’s alignment with their long term goals feels to be at the heart of this. Thinking about the role a job can play, ought to play in an individual’s life does that plan to this? 


[0:22:49.2] SM: I think it can. Again, I think it gets back to people connecting with their purpose and sometimes people require their company culture and values to align with their own in order to connect with that purpose and then I think others are naturally drawn to a particular industry or career and then they may not need the culture of an organization to play that role and their growth but earlier we were talking about this work-life balance, work-life blur. 


So I think that a company culture does become an important part of the role that employment plays in people’s lives because it is something that people are spending as – well, I know this for me and others, the more you – as you work from home, you actually probably spend more time working because there isn’t that ritual of walking – you know, leaving the office and commuting home. 


Even if you were turning on your laptop when you got home, there was still some space in time in which you were in a car or on the subway or walking or something that was that could take you at least out of the office for a little while but at least in a remote culture like the one that we have at Handsome, there isn’t that so you have to create your own rituals and we’re working on ways in which to connect people to each other beyond the projects that they’re on. 


I feel like that’s one of the biggest challenges of working at an all-remote company is connecting people to something greater than the team, the small little bubble of team that they’re working with, with their clients and each other. 


[0:24:53.3] RS: Yeah, these kind of cracks with fully remote work from home distributed workplaces are starting to show now that it’s been like two years and we at first it was like, “Oh no more commute, you could do laundry in the middle of the day. You can wear sweat pants” but now we’re starting to realize, “Okay but that does ignore some of the things that we’re good about being in person” and it is not to say that there is no other way but you do have to be mindful of it. 


You have to think of, “Okay, what are we – what is not happening by default anymore?” What do we have to be prescriptive about providing? 


[0:25:24.5] SM: Well, yeah and the fact that there are very few moments that are not planned. Those spontaneous moments of running into somebody in the hallway or going to grab coffee with somebody, just having small conversations that all add up to something really meaningful and getting to know each other, you know it’s kind of lost. Everything has to be so scheduled and if you are not careful, it can only be transactional. 


That is not as rewarding of an experience as people tend to want whether they know they want it or not. I think that’s what we’re learning about the past couple of years and how it’s impacted the workplace in many positive ways but then there also are some challenges. 


[0:26:17.3] RS: Yeah, making sure it is not all transactional is important but I don’t know if anyone’s really figured out how to do that in a way that is not forced or clunky because just a quick example, a friend of mine sent me a photo from her desk the other day and because I am a nosey nelly, I noticed that I could see her calendar on her computer and I zoomed in on it and all I could see was like this big block on a Friday afternoon and it said, “Virtual employee appreciation event” and it was like two and a half hours from 3 to 5 PM or 3 PM onward on a Friday. 


I was like, “Man, if they really appreciated you, they would just not have that meeting” right? Can you imagine having to be there for forced appreciation in a virtual capacity on a Friday? It sounds awful and then even the other things where it’s like, “Oh, it’s game night. We’re going to all block like 3 to 4 PM on a Wednesday so that we can all play games together” it’s still like mandatory fun, you know? It is inorganic, I don’t have an answer, I’m just reporting how clunky this feels. 


[0:27:19.8] SM: It is. It is clunky and you know, what we do at Handsome is yeah, we try to – we have things like virtual museum tours. We have something a few months ago that I was not sure how this is going to go but people ended up really liking it, it was a tiny camp fire and we hired this company to facilitate things like ghost stories and a scavenger hunt and we shipped s’mores kits to people’s homes and whoever wanted to participate participated. 


Not everybody participated in it but it was really fun and I also find that events that are born from employees are really, really fun and impactful because then they’re suggesting, “You know what? This would be fun for us” this is fun for me, this is what I like to do. I think this would be fun for you rather than it coming from the top down.” For instance, we are just starting something called Design Therapy and this is being led by a UX strategist. 


It is really for anyone who wants to do something creative within Figma and so while we’re doing that people are also curating a Handsome playlist, which is also just another fun way for people to express themselves, add to the culture. I find that maybe having a mix could be impactful and that not so forced, but if it is coming from somebody rather than me saying like, “Hey everybody, let’s all have a good time together” I don’t know that I think people would really resist that. 


Not everybody but I am even resisting it as I am saying it, I don’t talk like that but that is how I feel if I am put into that situation or I feel like I am putting others in that situation. I feel like if it can come, if the culture can also come within the organization itself and not be from the top down, then that is really great and we’re also as it’s becoming as things are starting to open up, we are also trying to find ways to get people together in person because I still don’t know a better way to really get to know each other than actually meeting each other in person. 


When it is safe to do so, we’re looking into finding ways for people to connect in that way and that could mean anything from local gatherings, where employees are clustered like New York City or Austin Texas or Portland Oregon or maybe some in-person workshops or retreats in inspiring places, I think this is what makes an everywhere agency so exciting because the possibilities are – they’re both limited and endless at the same time. 


[0:30:41.5] RS: Yeah, agreed. Stephanie before I let you go, I want to ask you to impart some advice on folks. You give a couple of good examples there but if someone is struggling to connect their distributed employees to the mission, to each other, what are some steps they can take to try and alleviate that? 


[0:31:01.0] SM: I think that there is also something very powerful in being anonymous, sending out a survey as maybe basic as that may sound, has been a really kind of quick way for us to feel like, “Okay, how are people feeling right now?” these pulse surveys. If they are done anonymously, then people will tend to be more honest than if I approached everybody and asked them how they were doing because it also depends on the day and how things are going. Sometimes we also use surveys as a way to just find out things like, “What kind of headphones do you use?” you’d be surprised how much people love to talk about things like this and then we used it – we actually used that particular example as a way to send gifts out to everybody at the end of the year. 


For instance, we noticed that people are – not everybody has the same quality of headphone, so what’s going on? What’s your favorite kind of headphone to use? We found out that most people like to use AirPods and so we were able to send everybody an AirPod Pro for the end of the year gift and we put a lot of other stuff in there too. We also try to find ways to connect with people in person by sending things to their homes to let them know, “Hey, we’re thinking about you. Here is a plant.” 


We had a t-shirt contest and so we were able to send t-shirts to people’s homes and people love things like that, so I don’t know if I answered your question Rob. Did I? 


[0:32:54.0] RS: Yeah, they’re like the little touches that matter. The little details all matter, what is the mint on the pillow equivalent for work, right? I think is what you get to ask and the headphone example is great. It’s funny when you’re like, “You’d be surprised how much people want to talk about that” I was like, “Man, I wish someone would ask me about my headphone situation.” 


Look at this, they’re all over my – like I have three sets in arms reach but anyway that’s because I work in audio but anyway, those are great examples. Stephanie, this episode has been full of good advice for folks, how to think a little deeper than just filling roles and make sure people are action to do work that is meaningful and that they’re going to do well and stay engaged and not burnout. 


At this point, I would just say thank you so much for being here and sharing with me today. I’d love chatting with you and learning from you. 


[0:33:39.7] SM: Oh, this has been really fun, a great way to wrap up my week. 


[0:33:43.7] RS: Absolutely, me as well. Thank you so much Stephanie. 


[0:33:45.5] SM: Thank you. 




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