HR Technology Q & A with Debbie Shotwell


The 2017 Human Resource Executive 20th Annual HR Technology Conference takes place October 10-13 in Las Vegas.  As a 2017 HR Technology Conference Insiders Blogger, I interviewed several human resources and technology experts to get their perspective on how technology and trends are impacting the HR profession. 

As the Chief People Officer of Saba Software, Debbie Shotwell is responsible for human resources, learning and development, employee communications and community relations.
Debbie brings over 25 years of passion and experience building high performance teams and cultures that deliver results. Before joining Saba, Debbie was the Senior Vice President of People and Culture at BigCommerce, where she owned employee communications, facilities, payroll and stock administration. At BigCommerce she built an innovative learning and development function that supported employee, leadership and strategic partner training. Her success in this capacity led to BigCommerce being recognized as one of San Francisco Bay Area’s Best and Brightest Companies to Work For, one of Austin’s Top Workplaces, and one of the Best Places to Work in Australia.
Prior to her work at BigCommerce, Debbie was Chief People Officer at Good Technology where she implemented talent programs that increased employee engagement and reduced turnover. She was also instrumental in the successful integration of five companies during her tenure. Additionally, Debbie has held executive HR leadership positions at Pacific Pulmonary Services, Taleo, PeopleSoft, and AvalonBay. Debbie holds a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from California State University, Sacramento. She has served on the board of directors of Pleasanton Partners in Education and 101 Best and Brightest.

MK: Since Saba acquired Halogen Software in May, what has HR from both organizations done to retain the strongest cultural elements of both legacy companies?

DS: We want to bring out the best in each culture so we can bring the best to our employees, our customers, and our partners. The People team (this is what we call our HR department) have done two things to help bring out the strongest cultural elements from Saba and Halogen. One of the first things we did was bring together our global leadership team during our customer conference this past summer. We split up into groups of four and were asked to write down what values resonated with us. Then, we gathered input from people across the organization worldwide on our values and defining our new culture. Every single person in the company has the opportunity to contribute as we move ahead on our journey.


MK: How have Saba’s and Halogen’s leaders determined the ways in which the culture of the new organization will support the overall business strategy?

DS: We started by addressing this question, “How do we bring out the best in each culture so we can all work, learn, and grow together?” The goal was to have our leaders talk and commit to the values and type of culture we want to have moving forward as a company. There was literally a line on the floor and we were all asked to cross the line, bringing with us the beliefs and behaviors we needed to move ahead on this journey together. We talked about what it was going to look like for us, what we were giving up, and what we were aspiring to be as a unified company. It was really powerful because as people were crossing the line, we were cheering each other on to come over into the other side to help us build our new culture. This exercise helped build trust, confidence, and motivation that we could take the right next step together, as a leadership group, so that we can best support our teams. It was very powerful because we want to be part of a culture that we can all be proud of, that our employees can be proud of, and that our customers see as great partners at every step of their journey.


MK: What role do talent selection and leadership development play in helping company leaders build a thriving culture?

DS: Culture is intentional, so it’s critical that every leader lives up to our values because leaders set the tone for our culture. At the same time, we’re not looking for perfection. We’re human and we need to allow each other to be ourselves. So, we’ve set the bar high, but we don’t expect perfection. This can discourage innovation for fear of failure. Instead, we want people to be their best and to understand that every situation leads to a learning opportunity and we’re all in this together.


MK: How did you prepare leaders from Saba and Halogen to lead their teams through this significant change effort?

DS: We’ve been working with leaders across the organization so they feel comfortable having regular conversations with their staff about what’s changing and why it’s important. One of our goals on the People team is to help people manage change by making it clear what’s in it for each person, and providing employees with the support and resources to help them manage whatever’s happening. For example, we recently launched a program takes the best of what we know about modern performance and learning management, and ensures we’re all on the same page when it comes to regular check-ins, how to give, receive, and ask for feedback, personal microlearning and long-term development planning, and how to have really meaningful one-on-one meetings. We believe this is going to help us live up to our values and our culture. We don’t just talk the talk, we walk it, too.


MK: Have all employees from Saba and Halogen been involved in the merger and integration efforts? If so, in what ways?

DS: Absolutely! We want our employees to have a culture that they can be proud of, so every single employee has the opportunity to help shape our culture. We proactively sought out employee feedback and input on our new culture and values. We’ve hosted several in-person sessions and used other collaborative platforms to gather input from our remote employees. We asked employees to think about:

  • What kind of culture would you find motivating?
  • What did you like about past company cultures that you’d like brought forward?
  • What did you not like about past company cultures that you’d be happy to leave behind?

The goal of these sessions is to collect feedback, which will help us identify common themes to define our culture and values. We also have created Culture Clubs in our offices around the world – realizing that each location depending on their geography would like to have a specific community and team events.


MK: What was the most challenging aspect of the talent merging process, and what did you learn from it?

DS: The power of organizational culture drives successful transformation of people, process, and technology. Without a focused approach, it’s easy to become distracted. We’ve all learned just how important it is to stay focused on our priorities and to lean on each other for support. We’re lucky to have a seasoned team of leaders, which ensures that there is a strong due diligence process and a detailed communication plan with set deliverables and due dates. Transparency is key during any integration process for employees and we’ve taken every step to ensure we keep the communication lines open.


MK: Has feedback from your customer base shaped your thinking about the optimum culture for the new organization?

DS: Our mission as a combined organization is to help HR leaders meet the new expectations of their employees and achieve breakthrough performance for their business. During our integration, one message was heard loud and clear from our customers – it was important to maintain the same customer-focus and support. We both share an unwavering commitment to customer satisfaction and success, and this is something we not only intend to continue, but to accelerate as a combined organization.


MK: What advice do you have for HR professionals who are managing or who one day might manage a merger or acquisition?

DS: Change can take time, so it’s important for everyone – especially your leaders – to regularly communicate with employees, carefully handle any challenges right away, and celebrate success along the way.





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