HR in the Hot Seat: Rob Catalano, WorkTango

A company can’t succeed without listening to its employees and turning them into “winners”, engagement expert says

HR in the Hot Seat: Rob Catalano, WorkTango
WorkTango co-founded Rob Catalano is passionate about helping companies use technology to ensure their employees’ success. WorkTango’s employee engagement software enables businesses to understand their workers better, and take action on those insights.
Building on his background in marketing, Catalano has built a reputation as an HR thought leader, and speaks around the world on how companies can best engage employees to drive growth. WorkTango was named as a finalist for the Ultimate Software Award for Best Workplace Culture at the 2016 HR Awards.
Catalano shares his thoughts on why engaging staff is crucial to success, and why HR needs a rebrand.
If you could give your younger self, or someone entering HR for the first time, one piece of advice – what would it be?
I don’t want to create the illusion that I’m a traditional HR professional that has been doing this for 20-years. I’ve grown up as a marketer, but have worked with many small and large companies consulting through an HR lens, and have had elements of HR report into me in the past. 

That being said, being a business leader, growing a few companies, and now running WorkTango, HR is always on my mind. CEO on my business card stands for chief engagement officer – it’s all about engaging employees and creating an environment where they can win. When employees win, the business wins.

My advice would be to strive to become a business leader and an HR leader. Understanding the core inner workings of a business and the strategic narrative of the organization separates the great HR leaders from the good ones.

Many of the most successful HR leaders I’ve had the pleasure of connecting with have come from other walks of life, as opposed to solely HR. It’s that appreciation of what it takes to grow a business, inspire repeat customers, and market and sell the organization that translates into recruiting, retaining and inspiring great talent to reach those goals.

Is there anything exciting in the pipeline for your HR department?
We’re a smaller organization, so the excitement comes from building the HR function out here at WorkTango. For many elements, it’s a clean slate to create new processes, maintain a culture that we’ve come to love, and do so with the excitement of doubling our headcount before the end of the year (and deal with the new challenges that creates).

What’s the biggest professional obstacle you – or your team – have faced and how did you overcome it?
The biggest obstacle for me is always having to conduct layoffs in organizations. It’s never fun. There’s never a good time. It always sucks. It doesn’t only impact those individuals, it impacts the whole organization.

Think about it – our roles are to create fantastic experiences that allow employees to flourish and grow. But when the company isn’t growing, this terrible reality of having to let people go is something I take personally. It’s a feeling that I didn’t do my job appropriately to ensure employees were successful, that positively impacted our customer satisfaction and our bottom-line.

What’s your biggest industry worry or concern right now? 
There’s a lot of noise in the industry from a technology standpoint right now. There are so many new, exciting tools that can help us be successful, but perhaps too many that it’s hard to keep up. So many, in fact, that there’s been more external funding for HR technology companies in the last few years than there’s been collectively in the last 15 or so years. 

Because of that, companies are implementing technology and not thinking about how to maintain it, integrate it to core components of the business, and then being stuck managing dozens of systems.  

If you could change anything about the HR industry, what would it be?
HR needs a rebrand. I can’t believe we seriously still call it “human resources” – companies are a collection of human beings, not human resources.

What is the proudest moment or achievement of your HR career so far?
For me, personally, I was part of the leadership team at my last company Achievers, and was a part of growing it from a handful of employees to over 300, up until an acquisition a few years back. It wasn’t the financial growth where the pride sets in, it’s rather being a part of building a culture that many companies wanted to emulate, acquiring fantastic talent that are doing great things at the company now and beyond, having a super-engaged workforce, and winning together. A very small percentage of companies make it to that level of success, and that it definitely a proud moment.

What’s the most rewarding thing about being in HR?
I probably would piggy-back on my last answer, it’s acquiring and inspiring great talent to do great things, and succeed personally and professionally, then seeing the impact of that on the organization. 

How do you predict the industry will change, if at all, over the next five years?
I think every element across the employee life cycle will change dramatically in five years. At the rate that technology is changing the workplace, we’re going to see dramatic shifts in our candidate experience, the way we communicate, our tools to retain and engage employees, and the data we have to make better people decisions.

I don’t think the world of AI and machine learning is a fad, and it is going to introduce a lot of new insight and value to the workplace. 

Also, I think HR won’t be trying to find a “seat at the table” anymore. With the amount of data about how employees impact customer satisfaction and the bottom-line, it’s the most exciting time for HR because they now can dramatically impact the business.

What would you like your HR legacy to be?
I don't want my legacy to be building a great successful software company, but rather build an admirable culture that grows our talent to all become ridiculously successful in their future careers. I want WorkTango to be the next Zappos, next Netflix, next Southwest Airlines – companies that are admired more for the innovation towards people than the innovation of their technology.

Related links:
How HR can create a vibrant, sustainable culture
HR eschewing traditional employees

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