Visionary Woman Leader: Skynamo CPO Sarah Rice describes how drama helps her win at HR

The newly minted CPO has found the old ways of doing things don’t necessarily work anymore.

In this week's Visionary Women Leaders Series interview, CHRO South Africa spoke to Sarah Rice, Skynamo CPO. With a background in the performing arts, Sarah has only been in HR for two years. She holds an honours degree in educational drama, which in the early years of her career led her to explore a lot of different avenues.

“Drama is fun, but it’s not stable. So over the years, I took on work ranging from theatre work, to au pairing, to data capturing.”

It was when she secured a job at a public relations company as a junior account executive that she found herself on a steadier path. Being in public relations allowed her to merge her understanding of how to connect with audiences in an expressive, exciting way, with her enthusiasm for sharing businesses’ stories.

The opportunity kicked off an almost 20-year career in communication strategy, and she ultimately opened her own agency, which she headed for nine years. “What was stimulating about this work was the opportunity to help start-ups express who they are; to tell their stories and talk about their purpose and what they do.”

In 2017, she started working as a consultant with Skynamo, a mobile field sales app for manufacturers, wholesalers and distributors. On the back of a successful working relationship, the CEO invited her to become their head of people in 2019. It was an odd proposition, but Sarah says, “He specifically wanted someone who didn’t have a traditional HR background, but was good with people and could understand culture and leadership development.”

For Sarah, the considerations included whether she had an appetite for a complete career overhaul. “I wondered what would happen if I didn’t like HR, or wasn’t good at it. I finally realised that if the whole thing goes bad, I could go back to my old field, but I wanted to try. After about two months of mulling over it, I decided to go for it.”

Stepping into the world of HR
Now that she’s heading into her third year on the job she says, “I love it. It turns out I am actually good at it and have been able to bring a specific flavour and point of view to the role. Naturally, I am not the kind of person who likes too many rules and I tend to resist policies. Instead, I prefer to spend more time focusing on communicating with people and work through guidelines.”

Sarah says when she took up the role, she was enthusiastic, but knew her limits. The first thing she did was to surround herself with great people.

“I lean heavily on a colleague with an HR education, who understands the field. I also called in an HR coach. He is a man who was on City of Cape Town’s industrial relations team. He has deep knowledge of issues like misconduct, poor performance and all the tricky processes that require you to follow the letter of the law. He is also an executive coach, so he provides personal support, but I can also call on him as a subject matter expert when I need it,” she says.

Additionally, she has set up a ‘PeopleOps Circle’, with six other individuals who are also leading HR in technology companies. “I have found that a lot of the old ways of doing things don’t always work anymore. There is a new type of thinking needed; start-up teams and developers are different kinds of people and need a different type of engagement. Traditional hierarchies, information flows and structures are outdated.”

She says recruiting strategies need to change, and the employee value proposition needs to be managed differently, because employees expect choices around their way of working.

Since she has taken up the role, the staff complement has grown from 64 to 120 and through that growth, Sarah says the start-up environment has been enabling for her.

“There is no way I could have done this for an established corporate or long-standing tech company. I have been able to grow with the company and being the first head of people has given me the leeway to define the role for myself instead of trying to fit into a structure someone else had created.”

Fun and lightheartedness
“What I love about this company is the real sense of fun. We work very hard, but the quirkiness is what delights me. Even in stressful situations, we are super committed to maintaining connections with each other, and always looking for the fun.

When the Covid-19 crisis hit, this fun-seeking outlook and Sarah’s theatre and communication background were extremely helpful when everyone was working remotely and keeping connected became more important than ever.

At first, Sarah’s team introduced an online social hour, but it became clear that the dynamic doesn’t work well on Zoom. “We realised the team needed a shared experience to bring us all together. We introduced ‘best and worst’, a video series where someone would share their home life, and talk about what they were loving and what they missed about being in the office and their lives pre-Covid-19. We would get about five videos a week and edit them into five minutes that we would share at the online social hour. People were very funny and relatable, and these heartfelt videos made people feel more connected to each other.”

During this period, 45 people were hired, and it was a great tool for them to get to know the team and vice versa, in a light, easy way, similar to how it would be over a drink. “We also called in a few stand-up comedians to do shows, and being in on the joke together was a powerful shared experience.”

Now that some people are in the office and others working at home in a hybrid model, there was an opportunity to do mixed activities, “We ran a murder-mystery event, where someone from the office got attacked and we had to guess who the perpetrator was. It was hilarious and a huge success. We also had a match-the-baby-to-the-person challenge, we are now playing online battleship, and a hint-hunt style game is in the works.”

Fresh eyes
Looking back on the last few months, she says about HR, “I love it. I don’t think I have ever learned as hard or as fast in my life as I have in the last 18 months. It’s so extraordinarily challenging and I have found that there is no definitive answer when it comes to people – there is only working better or less well.”

She adds that it’s important that she comes fresh to every new story that is presented to her. She says that even if you feel like it’s a scenario you have encountered before, you have to remind yourself that the story might be familiar, but it’s not exactly the same because people are different. “I hope I get to do this for a long time, and keep getting better at it,” she says.

A mother of two, Sarah has a 17-year-old son and a 14-year-old daughter. She enjoys swimming in the sea and says, “I feel like it’s a huge part of my mental health and support. I also love conscious dance, it’s mid-way between exercise and meditation.” She also enjoys hanging out with friends and taking walks.

She says that getting into her new role required her to read a lot of business books, which she also enjoys, but her guilty pleasure is a great sci-fi novel.