Former HR leader at Amazon, Epic Games and Rubbermaid shares strategy for scaling and recruiting
Growing up in a military family, Lara Morgenthaler acquired the skills necessary for a lengthy, fruitful career in HR.
Her grandfather served in the armed forces, and her father was in the United States Navy. Born in an old Civil War naval hospital outside of Virginia Beach, Morgenthaler adopted her family’s nomadic lifestyle, moving around the country both as a child and later as a business professional.
“When growing up in the military, you learn how to get along,” Morgenthaler, chief people officer at ShipBob, a Chicago-based fulfillment network, told HRD.
Despite her natural training, Morgenthaler never considered a career in HR. Instead, she wanted to be a judge. But just as she was about to graduate from the University of Washington with a bachelor’s in U.S. history, her cousin – fresh out of law school – dissuaded her. Thus, Morgenthaler wound up minoring in business and landed a recruiting role at Trilogy Software during the dot-com boom.
After three years, she joined Newell Rubbermaid (now known as Newell Brands), where she spent more than a decade climbing the ranks to vice president of HR of the home solutions segment. “That’s where I got my free MBA,” Morgenthaler says. “The HR business partner role was definitely part of the business and not simply a support function. I was deeply tied with the leadership team in a very real way. HR had a seat at the table, and it was awesome.”
Morgenthaler continued building her impressive resume, joining Amazon as director of HR in 2013. After starting her career in the tech space and then jumping to consumer products at Rubbermaid, Jeff Bezos’ e-commerce juggernaut was the best of both worlds. “It was a tough place to work,” Morgenthaler says. “It was also a chance to work at such a massive scale. I learned a lot about discipline, rigor, structure and process and data-driven decision making.”
In 2020, Morgenthaler kicked off the new decade as head of HR at Epic Games, best known for creating Fortnite. During her two-and-a-half-year tenure, the company expanded from 1,900 employees to more than 4,000. Her ability to oversee such accelerated growth while maintaining employee engagement and workforce development is why ShipBob wanted her.
“As ShipBob continues our rapid growth, Lara will help us enhance the company culture with her background scaling global companies,” said Divey Gulati, president and co-founder of ShipBob. “Strategic hiring, training, professional development and our core values are the backbone of our business, and our greatest asset is our people. Our mission is to foster an environment where employees find ShipBob to be an energetic and rewarding place to work.”
When it comes to scaling, Morgenthaler says companies must realize “what used to work doesn’t work anymore.” Heading into 2023, her goal at ShipBob is to operate at both scale and rigor, pushing decision making deeper into the organization.
“We have to be super nimble and agile, not worrying as much about perfection but about iteration and authenticity,” Morgenthaler says. “You don’t have the time to get everything perfect. Sometimes, you have to react. Think about how much HR has come to the forefront during the pandemic with social justice and employee activism and making sure employees feel connected in a remote world. We throw the playbook out sometimes, but if you know your company and its values, you can react in a way that’s super authentic.”
Scaling your employee base may be more challenging than ever before considering how competitive the labor market has been and continues to be. Although ShipBob has an advantage over some companies by being remote-first, Morgenthaler admits it’s “still a struggle to recruit.”
“You have to think differently about how you attract talent,” she says. “It’s not enough to offer a job, paycheck and benefits at market. You have to make connections to employees and their values. We’re very upfront – look at our website and you’ll see our core values. I put a lot of emphasis on knowing who you are and being honest and upfront about it. Candidates who resonate with that will feel at home and do their best work.”
At the end of August, nearly two months into her role, the company laid off 7% of its staff due to “macro headwinds,” Business Insider reported. That was par for the course over the summer as employers throughout the U.S., particularly in Silicon Valley, announced layoffs, job cuts, hiring freezes and slowdowns ahead of an anticipated recession.
“It was a tough day, as it’s never easy to part with teammates who we cherish and have driven so much positive impact to ShipBob and our customers,” Morgenthaler says. “We made sure to lead with compassion and transparency, while taking care of our former colleagues with cash severance, extended health/benefits coverage, outplacement services, keeping ShipBob-issued hardware like computers, extended windows for both vesting options and exercising and the ShipBob Alumni Directory.”
Going above and beyond the call of duty, Morgenthaler posted the list of those laid off (along with their contact information and work preferences) to her LinkedIn, advocating that they’d be great assets to any organization.
“Sometimes HR gets a bad rap, but there are so many meaty, analytical, substantial challenges,” Morgenthaler says. “I hope people think of HR in a much different light than they used to. My grandfather used to be like, ‘I don’t understand. Are you personnel?’ I hope people continue to see the strategic, proactive and thoughtful impact HR professionals can have.”