VP of TA and Development at Hillsdale, Elizabeth Goncalves explains how to execute and build trust and the importance of defining priorities, leadership development, and structuring and delivering individualized leadership programs within your business. She also shares her advice for how to structure your career, skillset, and drive in order to find and secure your dream job.
[00:00:05] RS: Welcome to Talk Talent to Me, a podcast featuring the most elite talent leaders on the front lines of modern recruitment.
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[00:00:52] RS: I’m your host, Rob Stevenson, and you’re about to hear the best in the biz. Talk Talent To Me.
[00:01:05] RS: Here with me today on Talk Talent To Me is the Vice President of Talent Acquisition and Development at Hillsdale, Elizabeth Goncalves. Elizabeth, welcome to the podcast. How are you today?
[00:01:09] EG: Oh, thank you. I’m very well. How are you?
[00:01:11] RS: I’m great. Thanks for asking. People so rarely ask, but I’m feeling good. Just podcasting my heart out in the basement of beat lab and excited to be chatting with you. You are buzzing in from Toronto, is that right?
[00:01:22] EG: Yes, indeed.
[00:01:23] RS: How is our friends to the Great White North?
[00:01:26] EG: Well, we’re having some daffodils coming up from the ground, which is amazing.
[00:01:29] RS: Lovely.
[00:01:30] EG: We’re getting really warm temperatures over the weekend. I’m happy to be able to go outside a little bit, because it’s been very cold.
[00:01:38] RS: Great. Bright, sunny and flowery in Canada. I love to hear it.
[00:01:41] EG: Yeah. It’s a great place to come in the summertime, in particular.
[00:01:44] RS: Yeah, definitely. I actually, I don’t know. Do people care about where I vacation?
[00:01:48] EG: Yes.
[00:01:49] RS: My fiancée, her family has been vacationing in Canada, this remote area, for generations. I’ve really come to love that part of the world is this channel. It’s north of the Great Lakes that are just truly, truly beautiful in the summertime.
[00:02:04] EG: Amazing. Yeah. People know as [inaudible 00:02:05] region, which was just up north from Toronto. Actually, a lot of celebrities come through there.
[00:02:12] RS: Yeah, and celebrity podcasters, too. No, I’m not a celebrity. Not even remotely. I would love to talk about Canadian vacation spots with you. Maybe we can do that off microphone. Now I would love to just hear a little bit about your background, Elizabeth, and how you wound up in your current role. Would you mind walking us through that?
[00:02:28] EG: Oh, yes. Okay. Amazing. So life is a journey, isn’t it? What can I say? I’ll start off by saying that I had a love-hate relationship with working with people. I say that from early on in my career or early on in my twenties, where it was difficult to work with people, and yet I’d to work with them. I recall having a performance discussion with my manager at the time. We’re speaking about strengths, and we were talking about opportunities for improvement. I said, “I think one of my opportunities for improvement is to work with people, because I’m really challenged by it.” She turned around and said, “What? Are you kidding me? I would never have thought that.” I said, “Yes, they really challenged me.”
I think I have to work harder at relationships and perhaps that’s what you’re seeing on the other side of it, is the hard work that I’m putting into it. Look, going back to school, I was a history major, and anthropology major. So there’s a running theme of being fascinated by people wanting to understand them, wanting to learn more about them, which I think led me to working with people in just different capacities.
I had this life changing experience in my early twenties, which led me to doing charity work. Of course, when you’re working for a charity, you’re primarily focused on fundraising, working with volunteers, getting like-minded people on board with your mission. So for many years, that’s what I did. I recruited people to get involved, and I think it helped refine my skillset in recruiting, people management, effective marketing, brand awareness, culture, building, all of that. Because how else can you motivate hundreds of people to give their time?
Anyhow, while I was doing that at a charity an opportunity came up in the HR field where my skills were recognized, because by then, I mean, I could confidently say that I had interviewed thousands of people and I knew I had a knack for it. I knew that I was in tune with understanding who I thought could do the role and who would not. It was proven. I was good at it and I knew it. So luckily I was given this opportunity in HR and then from there I was just able to pick up other HR disciplines. I dabbled in job evaluation. I had an opportunity to oversee total rewards and then HR operations and et cetera. so that strong recruitment broke ground and then the breadth of HR experience that had developed actually led me into this current position that I’m in.
[00:04:59] RS: How did you decide on Hillsdale? Because there’s somewhat of a unique setup at the company. Is that fair to say?
[00:05:06] EG: Yes, exactly. It’s mind boggling to me as I look back, because I did look at complete one 80. I went from a charity to an investment management firm. I was attracted to Hillsdale, because as I learned it, this was the first HR position that they were hiring for. So I knew that this was an opportunity to build from the ground up. Now I see that with some respect, because Hillsdale had been effective and successful for at least 25 years. They’re doing great things, but what’s happening is they’re also growing and they’re growing really fast and recognized that they needed this discipline.
To answer your question, I looked at the opportunity as a wonderful opportunity to build. I think, that’s what I do best, because I had that breadth, it was an attractive opportunity for Hillsdale to bring me into the firm as well.
[00:05:57] RS: You are actually the first HR hired, though, in Hillsdale history, is that correct?
[00:06:01] EG: Yes, exactly. The firm had individuals who would play different kinds of HR functions, but it certainly wasn’t spelled out as such. For example, while we had individuals who might have assisted with recruitment, they weren’t official recruiters, just as an example. So yeah, this is a first for them.
[00:06:22] RS: I have to say. I think you’re brave for taking the gig. I don’t know if Hillsdale has been around for a minute, it’s not a startup. If I was looking at a company that had been around for 20 plus years and like, “Rob, we’re finally going to hire a marketer.” I’d be like, “Ooh, I don’t know.” I feel that it might be an uphill battle. What convinced you that it was going to be okay for you to come in and implement a lot of processes that the company had never seen before?
[00:06:45] EG: Yeah, of course. Well, here’s one thing that I’ve learned in my career thus far. If something scares you, you walk through it. You don’t back away from it. That has actually proven to be quite effective for moving forward, so you’ve got to stretch yourself. I knew that this was going to be a stretching moment, but I also was confident in what I can bring into the position. I’ve had success. I’ve led amazing programs, done really good work, and I knew I could transfer this over to Hillsdale, and they were hungry for it, too.
One of the things that really convinced me to come over was the caliber of the people at Hillsdale. The other leaders who I met and I met plenty of them along the recruitment process. These were kind and good hearted people that they needed some support. They knew what they were doing in their function. They were doing it well, but they needed an HR guide, an HR advisor. It was the relationships that I was building through this recruitment process, that made me feel comfortable enough, that I felt like I can be successful there.
[00:07:44] RS: It reminds me somewhat of a time I was working at a startup and probably the 25th hire, somewhere in there was the company’s first, accountant, like fully finance person. I remember the day she started the VP of Sales breezed by my desk and he said half-jokingly, half-seriously, “Hey Rob, fun’s over. We got one of those bean counters now.” I’m imagining a similar conversation about you starting, right? Not to call anyone out, or call at Hillsdale, but HR could be viewed as the fun stopper. Did you meet with any resistance, cheeky or serious, when you started?
[00:08:19] EG: Oh, for sure. For sure. Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I recall an individual didn’t even want to meet with me, right? But what I did with that person is I met with them anyways, right? I just made sure that we were still going to meet. It was important for me to actually meet everyone in the firm. We’re small enough that I can do that and because it is the first HR position, people really need to get to know me. They need to understand that I’m a human being, a real authentic person, that I’m here to help them. That was one of the points that I’ve made in through my recruitment process was to say, “Look, I’m not about to come in and change everything. Obviously you’ve been doing some really good work, but there are things that you need help with, that you’ve identified, and I think I can help.”
So, yes, I still run into a little bit of that resistance, but kill them with kindness. I got to keep moving it’s either you’re going to come on board or you’re not, but I think you’re going to lose out if you don’t. I just try to show value with those people. How can I help you? Then make sure that I’m following through with the things that they’re asking me for help with.
[00:09:22] RS: There’s a need to execute and build trust. Any time you start a new job, whether you’re the first person in your position or not, it just feels it was maybe more extreme or pronounced in your case. Did you identify some quick wins off the bat that you’re like, okay, if I deliver on this and show value early on, that will do me wonders in terms of building trust?
[00:09:40] EG: Yes, absolutely. The beauty of building from ground up is that you could start to deliver things pretty quickly. One of the mandates for me right off the bat was some of the recruitments that had been outstanding. Apparently, they were trying to hire a particular position for a couple of years and I thought, “Oh, my gosh. How could that be?” I sat in the recruitment. I recall this in an interview in stating, “Well, give me two to three months and I’ll hire that person for you.” Well, in fact, I did. I had a few recruitments right at the front, and I filled all of the positions and had a conversation with one of the people that I report in to recently. She said, “It’s amazing that you were able to hire these positions.” I said, “Yeah, I told you I would.” She said, “Well, I’m not sure if we entirely believed you at that point, because we were having such a hard time.”
Look, at the end of the day, I don’t know the details to it. I don’t know why it was so difficult or what made me any different, but I was able to hire those positions. So, again, when you’re hiring, I think everyone benefits when new employees come in. There were a few of them and for such small firms that makes an impact. That’s just an example of one of the quick wins. I’ll give you another one if that’s okay. This one I’m really proud of. It just happen this week we’ve been certified as a great place to work, and I knew that we could get certified based on the feedback that I was receiving from the staff.
The culture’s already established that Hillsdale. People are really happy to work there. They’re treated well. So all I did was just bring that to light. We received our certification this week and I mean, that’s such an amazing thing for a brand, because now for me, actually, that’s going to make my job easier as I recruit people. I can say like, we’re a great place to work. We’ve been certified, but I think it makes our employees that much prouder of the work place, and hopefully it will help them in their jobs, too, whether it be in their sales jobs or as you’re meeting with clients it’s just another great accolade just to put under the belt.
[00:11:43] RS: Definitely. With regard to filling those roles, early on, first of all, I can tell you what made you different, and that’s that you’re a professional, right? You have experience specifically doing this one role. Pat yourself on the back there a little bit. I think that’s okay. Also, though, that was probably always going to be something that you did early on, right? You have the TAs in your title. There’s open roles, like obvious area for you to focus on. Did the need to build up trust for the function? Did that shift what you prioritize working on at all?
[00:12:12] EG: It did, and I’ll taken a step back to say that I actually didn’t want to finalize my priorities, until I spoke to all of the staff at my current firm. Because, yeah, I was tasked in that week and probably even before I came the first day, we were already talking about the priorities and I had a list of about 30 projects and I was asked to prioritize those that first week. I thought. I need to step back here, how am I going to make this decision independently? I’m hearing from leaders what they think the priorities are, but is that actually what’s out on the street? Is this actually what’s required? I did make it a point to meet with every staff person. It took me about a couple of weeks, but I needed to do that. They needed to get to know me. I needed to get to know them. I needed to understand what their perspectives were.
After I did that, I combined all of the data together and then it confirmed what it was that we should be focusing on, but then it brought up other things like, I’ll give you an example, leadership training, I was hearing from some leaders themselves that they needed more support. They either needed more training or guidance. They weren’t 100% confident in their abilities. I think it took having those discussions initially for that to come to light, because it’s not something that you would generally be okay sharing with other leaders, your lack of confidence, let’s say, or your need for training.
It’s not something that you would say to your other VP, “Hey, I’m a lousy leader.” Or, “I feel like I’m not very good at my job.” But it took someone like me who understands what it takes to have a successful firm and to have successful relationships to come in and asked questions, and then to determine where that would fit in under our priorities. In fact, it did shift things around. So for example, now I am looking at those leadership programs and hopefully will deliver that very soon.
[00:14:12] RS: I like the listening tour and it would have been easy in the interview process when asked what your priorities were to rattle a bunch off, but instead you were like, “Listen, I could tell you some things that I might want to work on, but it’s going to change.” I mean, that’s just, it’s being honest, but it’s also saying in the expectation that, what I bring up in an interview based on a couple of conversations I’ve had is and not to be the same. Did you meet with like, was it hiring managers? Was it everyone in the company you could? How did you approach taking the temperature of what the organization needed?
[00:14:42] EG: It was literally everyone and I mean, employees and consultants and the most junior person, everyone. I felt that was important, because everyone has a different perspective, everyone has a different experience, everyone has a different history. Again, I keep referring to just the beauty of being a small firm. This is a new experience for me. I’ve come from a very large, established organization where you couldn’t take out the time to speak with every person. But that’s the beauty of being in this firm and in an HR role, is that you can do that. I did, and I felt that that was important to do, particularly at the beginning.
You need to establish those relationships in the beginning. Just imagine if I had walked in and not gotten to know people. I mean, we’re living in a remote world right now. That would just be some far off name somebody else in the firm that they would never bump into, unless they needed me for something, right? Or something was happening in their life. Then how do you establish relationships at that point when you might potentially be in a crisis situation? That would be very difficult to do. I knew that that had to be my first step. I knew that it had to be with everyone.
Yes, I spent time with leaders for sure. I spent a lot of my time with the leaders, and I still do, but that doesn’t make up the bulk of your employee workforce. You need to really have your ear to the ground, particularly sometimes things don’t bubble up. Maybe there’s fear involved, or perhaps there’s been feedback that keeps being put out there, but nothing happens with it. So those are the things that I wanted to know, like the sticky stuff. Luckily I was able to find out some things, now I have to say overwhelmingly, it was all really good feedback, but there are little nuggets in there and you can’t shy away from that stuff, otherwise you couldn’t certify as a great place to work, right? Or you can’t be successful moving forward. That’s my goal here is to really have the employees perspective in mind, to balance out that HR role between, yes, working for leaders in the firm, but I’m really here to improve the employee experience.
[00:16:57] RS: Yeah, yeah, it makes sense. You mentioned you’re beginning to think about some leadership development stuff. Is it too early to talk about that or maybe it’s still a little bit pie in the sky, but what are your early thoughts on that? How are you going to approach that project and delivering that for the team?
[00:17:12] EG: Yeah, exactly. Okay, great. I started to put together some ideas for leadership programs, started reaching out to people, different vendors and consultants. I do have a bit of a spreadsheet ongoing that identifies what these programs are like and of course material, etc. I was going to then present my recommendations, but then the thought occurred to me, it’s too broad. What are we talking about? Leadership in what way? Is it coaching? Is it inspirational leadership? What do we actually need here? Again, I didn’t feel equipped to answer that, and no one was giving me those answers either. It was a just a vague, we need leadership development. So I thought, okay, I can run on that. I can look for some leadership courses with some parameters.
Again, took a step back and thought to myself what do we actually need here? I’m actually doing another listening tour with the leaders, going through a few questions, understanding what’s been their leadership journey, understanding what their current leadership experience look like and what are they trying to move towards. So I’m listening right now to that. The interesting thing that’s coming from that is that there are various experiences or varied experiences where I have very new leaders and then some seasoned leaders. So obviously looking at the leadership programs, it’s not going to be a one size fits all. That is actually really good information for me now to look at these programs in a different way.
The program has to be very much tailored to the individual. It’s not something that we can just have a classroom setting and go through leadership principles, because that’s not going to meet everyone’s needs, but maybe something more detailed for the individual, again, maybe a coach, something like that. The other interesting piece is that there’s even different, I’d say, temperaments or I forget the word, but basically what I’m trying to say is that there are individuals who are looking for leadership and are happy in those leadership roles. Then you have others who are coming to, they’re very new and they’re coming to grasps with what this means.
What I found very interesting in these leadership tours as well. This might be interesting for the listeners is that, many people have just been slotted into a leadership position, not because they raise their hand, not because they applied, not because it was part of their formal career development, but just because they were the more senior person on the team and they just said, “Here, mentor, this junior person.” Or, “Here, now you’re the supervisor of X, Y and Z.” So that’s what I’m hearing as I’m going through these listening tours. I’m not saying for the firm, but as part of their journeys. It’s a very interesting and I think what you get is individuals who are not quite sure about whether leadership is for them, because imagine that happening to you.
I can’t say that that happened to me, because I was always interested in leading people. I was just natural leader and I naturally gravitated towards those positions, but what if you weren’t? What if you were just a technical person and you were happy doing that? Then all of a sudden your supervisor comes off and says, “We have a new team member and you’re going to lead them.” So that’s what I’m dealing with.
[00:20:34] RS: Yeah, you’re right. It’s so frequently, I don’t want to say accident, but I mean, a lot of times, like you say, it’s just someone who is effective enough as an individual contributor, they’re senior enough and people who are offered that role, I think often don’t look too closely. They’re like, “Yeah, I should just take this, because it’s a little more money, a little more responsibility. Those are the things I meant to want in my career.” Truly, it’s not for everyone, though. Also, I’m glad you pointed out that in a lot of ways it’s not even always codified, right? It’s sometimes it’s just, “Hey, can you now be responsible for this person?” or “Hey, now this person’s going to be your report.” Congratulations, you’re a manager in every way, but title and pay.
I think from an organizational perspective, we frequently leave those leaders behind a little bit. as a result, leave their reports behind, too, because they’re not asked if they want it. They’re not presented with the reality that they can say no and then they’re not given the resources to develop and change. I’m glad that you mentioned it has to be bespoke to the individual. So does that look like hiring specific kinds of coaches or designing a curriculum? Or how would you go about figuring out what a leader really needs to grow and then delivering it?
[00:21:41] EG: Yeah. I think that would be more of the coach focus. That’s where my mind is going at this time, because if we bring in a coach that will have a personalized plan for each individual, then they can work with the more senior that executive level that has ten plus years and they’ve done leadership retreats and trainings. They’ve had it, they’ve done it, they know it, but they can still benefit from a coach. Of course we’re always running. It doesn’t matter how many years of leadership you have under your belt, there are always things that we can be doing better and different philosophies that we know work right. Everything is about the authentic leader right now or the empathetic leader, whereas I don’t know, ten, seven, five years ago, those weren’t the words that we were hearing.
Anyhow, we would be able to assist those more seasoned leaders, but of course, at the same time, the leaders who are newer, who have never had any type of training whatsoever, who just maybe listening to some podcasts or they’re reading Harvard Business Review. So what happens with these coaches is that they come on board, they help you understand where you’re at on your journey. They help you even identify what your goals would be, and then they get feedback. The feedback would be the like the 360, doesn’t always have to be, but it would definitely come from peers, so those that you’re working with.
We could go to the direct reports as well. Together, then make up a plan and that would be followed through for months on end. The individual would have time to practice. It would give the peers or their direct reports opportunity to see behaviors changing and then come back with the coach and say, “Yes, this is working.” “No, this is not.” Then continue on that plan. Those are my thoughts right now. I don’t think that we could deliver a leadership program or training that would help everyone, because everyone is just at a different spot. So it really has to be individualized and more like that personal coach.
[00:23:43] RS: Yeah, that makes sense. That sounds a great approach. Well, Elizabeth, we are creeping up on optimal podcast length here. Before I let you go, I just love you to share some final wisdom with the folks out there in podcast land. If I’m listening to this, I want to wind up in a role similar to yours. What advice would you give someone on how to structure their career and upskill and then go out and find this job?
[00:24:02] EG: Yes. Always raise your hand. Don’t be shy. When you’re working on something and opportunities come across you, always say, yes. Let your managers know that you’re hungry and you’re looking for the next opportunity. I would say, even if it feels like you’re being stretched, go for it. Yes, your workload is going to be heavy for some time. Go for it, because, I mean, that’s what it takes to be a leader. It’s not all rosy all the time. It’s not laissez-faire. You can’t sit back. You’d have to be engaged and always take opportunities. Never say no.
[00:24:35] RS: I love it. Elizabeth, this has been a great conversation. Thank you so much for being with me here today and sharing your experience. I’ve loved learning from you.
[00:24:41] EG: Oh, thank you so much.
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