Sara Cooper of OMERS Ventures on seeking difficult feedback, giving to build a network and being a human who happens to recruit

Sara Cooper is the Talent Director of Portfolio Companies at OMERS Ventures, the venture capital investment arm of one of Canada’s largest pension funds. In her role, Sara acts as a strategic HR and Talent advisor to OMERS group of portfolio companies in helping them scale their businesses and build game changing, talent initiatives.  Sara is a veteran of the tech world, having worked at Soft Choice, Microsoft, D&H, Lavalife and Freshbooks.

Looking back ten years, where did you think you’d be by this point in your career? How did you get here?

It’s funny because when I think about it, I never planned where I wanted to be five or ten years ahead. I always took things as they came. That being said, I think that one gets where they want to go faster these days by making a plan and being more deliberate.  I was a recruiter for most of my career, starting off on the agency side and then moving to the corporate world. After leaving the “sell-side” of recruitment, I joined Soft Choice which was my first foray into tech and that led me to other roles at Microsoft, Lavalife, D&H and Freshbooks. These companies were all at very different stages so I was able to experience every event that a company could go through across its lifecycle, whether it was periods of high-growth, layoffs and downsizing, mergers, etc. This enabled me to get a really good sense of what works across very different contextual organizational backdrops and also provided me the opportunity to grow into a broader Talent and HR role.  Those experiences have been really valuable, especially now in my current role where I am working with small to mid-sized companies who are looking to grow quickly.

What were some of the most important business lessons you have had to learn the hard way? How have they enabled your success?

For me, it’s been that the hardest feedback to hear is usually the most useful. The stuff that takes you off guard and makes you think is usually exactly what you should really listen to.  It’s not enough to be open to receiving feedback. To really develop, you need to go and seek it out because that is the crucial information that is going to help you see your blind spots. One of my favourite sayings is, you can’t change what you don’t acknowledge.  This is true whether it’s in the context of one’s personal career or within a broader business context.

I’d also say that when working in a company, you can’t build something in a bubble. You need to engage with the business and make sure you are aligned to the larger strategic goals. Questions and disagreements are a vital part of any planning progress and if you’re not open to it you risk alienating the very people you’re trying to support. HR in particular needs to be wary of this because the last thing you want to do is put a lot of time into something that no one in the business actually wants to use. We all know that HR occasionally gets a bad wrap for not really understanding what the business needs.

From your experience, how do the companies of tomorrow need to think differently about building high impact and scalable talent programs that truly drive business value?

HR, at its core, is about four things: hiring, developing, engaging and retaining people within an organization. There are 100 different programs you can build and just as many ways to do it, but HR leaders need to make sure they really understand the business to drive value. Often, HR leaders think from their gut and don’t have data-driven reasoning behind what they are proposing. You need to make sure that you are building the case up front and showing the value of what you are doing in a quantitative manner.

Ultimately, it comes down to two questions: 1) How does this align to the key goals of the organization and 2) What problem am I trying to solve? Once you have the answers to those questions, you can start engaging with other leaders in the organization and setting some hard metrics. HR often struggles with these kinds of things, particularly around the return on investment of what they develop. By thinking more broadly, HR can use different kinds of metrics to show their financial impact.

What does leadership look like to you and how can the next generation start thinking differently about what it means to be a great leader?

Some people are innate leaders while others need to learn how to do it. I do believe, however, that one can learn to become a great leader and that leadership is a teachable skill.

That being said, the key to leadership for me is the ability for that individual to build trusting relationships with their team. Leaders need to create an environment where everyone feels comfortable asking questions, starting debates and admitting that they don’t know something. The leader needs to not only encourage this kind of environment, but model what it looks like. The team itself must be supportive and members of the team have to believe that others are approaching their work with the best intentions. Building this kind of environment starts at the leadership level.

Leaders also need to be able to have really hard conversations with their people to help them grow, but these kinds of things don’t happen if the right amount of trust hasn’t been built up front. Transparency, honesty and providing the right context around the decisions that are being made are all building blocks that foster a trusting environment. Being a leader is really hard and sometimes, it’s about making those tough and unpopular decisions for the good of the business. The good thing is that if one is transparent around those decisions and brings people into why they came about, it does a lot to build trust.

What is the one thing you wish entrepreneurs knew about finding, developing and retaining the best people that they don’t know today?

When I work with founders, I often hear that they feel they can’t compete with the Googles, Facebooks and Shopifys of the world when it comes to attracting talent and quite honestly, they are right. I don’t believe however that these companies should try to be like bigger tech companies because ultimately, those kinds of individuals are likely not the types of people that you want as the founder of a small to medium sized start up. My advice is always to figure out what makes your company unique and then build a brand around that.

When it comes to retention and development, those go hand in hand. Most people tend to leave their organization to find an opportunity that they can’t get in their current role. The challenge in my industry is that we look for the super ambitious, smart, innovative and driven individuals, but we ask them to stay in the same kind of role for five years. In flatter organizations, it’s quite hard to provide people with a lot of upward mobility; I advise the companies that I work with to provide opportunities for outward development to their people. This can come in the form of exposing individuals to a different kind of skill development opportunity, finding them a strong mentor or anything that will ultimately stretch that individual while allowing them to stay in their core role. Most people think that the only way to develop is to go up but there is so much value in the lateral or sideways career move.

What would be your one piece of advice for those in the workforce today to get ahead in the marketplace? 

Relationships matter and they ultimately go both ways. You want to make sure that you are providing value to everyone that you connect with, and you can’t be focused on what you alone will get out of that relationship. Be genuine, honest and honor your commitments because industries and cities are smaller than you think and usually you are only two degrees of separation from everyone else in your industry. Your reputation gets out very fast, and people quickly learn who they can trust and who is dependable. You want to become that person. The person people trust and who provides value to others.

Secondly, if you are in the HR or Recruitment field, you need to make sure you get back to your candidates. There is nothing worse than the black hole of recruitment so please be a human and get back to people. Anyone who applies to a position, at any company, is putting in a lot of time and effort to engage with your process. As talent professionals, we owe it to those people to acknowledge that effort, even if they aren’t the right person for the role.

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