By Ai-Mei Zhu
Natalie Rast, SHRM-CP & Forbes Human Resource Council Member, is a dynamic and compassionate People Leader. Natalie started her HR career at Warby Parker and most recently spent the last four years as Head of People at Y7 Studio, where she built out the People function from the ground up. A true generalist, her passions + expertise lie in change management, employee engagement, employee relations, conflict resolution, manager coaching, culture building, and process implementation.
How did you fall into HR with Warby Parker coming from the Customer experience team?
“I started at Warby Parker in the earlier days of the company where it was common to start in Customer Experience and move internally to other departments. I took the position with this in mind and made it a point to emphasize my passion for HR in my interview process and connect with members of the People team once starting. I would ask if they were up for grabbing coffee to share more on their experience. During those chats I made an effort to get to know them and understand what they did, as well as emphasize my own interest areas. When an internal role opened in the traditional HR space (benefits, payroll, compliance), I applied. I started under the HR Manager who reported directly to the CEO. It was hands down the best first HR role I could have asked for. I believe starting with a strong foundation of the HR structure is key to growing as a generalist/future Head of People, and I got to learn directly under someone who had built out the full structure at Warby! She was also supportive of me taking the SHRM exam, which helped provide me with a solid background, especially on the compliance side. Later I moved into a role that covered employee experience which helped to round out my HR knowledge, and our VP of People also ran her team in a way that I always had insight into what other People funnels were working on.”
Being the first HR hire for Y7, what were some challenges you had to overcome?
“Prioritization was definitely the biggest challenge at first. There was so much to do, and it could be overwhelming to decide where to put my time as a team of one.
I tried to take a step back and truly hone in on what were the most critical items. From my perspective, that was 1) setting up a strong compliance foundation at Y7 and 2) implementing sound feedback, communication, and performance management processes. There was a lot of communication happening, but very little focused on growth and development. To me – these items were pivotal before being able to tackle anything else. I also wasn’t afraid to reach out to other HR leaders for advice.
The second biggest challenge I faced was going from a large, talented team to lean on to flying solo! I leaned on my Warby network a lot during my early days (special shoutouts to Lisa Fazzolari and Kat Myers) and joined SHRM for access to the advice hotline, which was great for compliance related questions. Flash forward to today, and I can truly say that building a solid HR community has become instrumental to my own development. I’m a part of several HR groups – both in the startup space and as well as larger organizations and try to attend as many events or meetups as possible. The HR & People landscape is constantly changing as the world around us evolves and it’s huge to have a community to navigate the shifts with.”
What advice do you have for other HR leaders coming in as the 1st HR hire from a much larger company?
” 1) Prioritize getting to know your people. Big or small, the HR needs of your organization are going to be different, and it’s up to you to figure out what is best for your people. At a smaller company you have the advantage of actually being able to connect with a large employee base and get in on the ground floor of the business.
2) Always think with scale in mind. When implementing processes or systems, constantly reflect on “would this have worked at my larger company?”
3) Trust yourself – for me, imposter syndrome is very real and something I’m constantly overcoming. If you started at a bigger company (+ especially if you saw it through major growth), chances are you have a solid background and have learned under talented leaders.
4) Keep strong relationships from your previous companies – I mentioned this above, but working in HR can be lonely due to the confidential nature of information. Keep strong relationships, especially when leaving a bigger company, and don’t be afraid to reach out to them. It will come back around!”
When managing field and corporate employees, how do you ensure culture is consistent across the board?
“I won’t lie, it’s really tough, and I don’t think it’s something you can ever fully check the box on. Ultimately, I think it boils down to creating meaningful opportunities for connection across departments and working to create brave spaces in which employees feel comfortable speaking up when you’re missing the mark. There’s so much I could say, but I’ll try to boil it down to 3 points —
One of the most important things is for leadership (not just HR) to keep a pulse on the experience of our field teams. At Y7, that meant taking class as much as possible, grabbing coffee with studio teams, leadership having a presence at quarterly field team meetings and sending regular anonymous feedback & engagement surveys.
Having a strong onboarding process for all roles is also key. Effective onboarding will ensure that your employees have a deep understanding of your mission, vision, values, and overall approach to people, as well as a time to connect with leadership. I made it a point to be present in every new hire orientation, even as we scaled to 350 employees.
Finally, start intentional work in the diversity, equity and inclusion as early as possible – this work is even more challenging when you have multiple employee groups vs. just a corporate population. However, it’s also even more important.”
What are some L&D programs you had to roll out separately for each employee population?
“For full-time team members, I love the ideals of Conscious Leadership and worked to unpack these through different workshops for all departments. This helped us create a consistent leadership approach + shared language around building teams and operating at our highest levels as individuals.
In addition, we implemented a learning & development stipend where we reimburse 70% of the cost for individual efforts, up to $250 per quarter. We have employees contribute 30% to encourage them to invest in their own development.
I’m also a big fan of making use of the time you already have together to create meaningful learning opportunities, versus creating separate events. When we appointed an L&D lead she identified themes each month (ie: Feedback, Diversity within Gender & Language), and sent weekly readings that we would then discuss in individual team meetings. We shared the resources in our internal newsletter + LMS so that part-time members had access to them. Our field teams come together less frequently (quarterly), but we worked to focus on these same ideals to create consistency in culture.
On the instructor side, we saw a huge opportunity to provide accessible continuing education opportunities. We utilized quarterly meetings not just a time for company updates, but to bring in outside speakers and trainers. We also launched a program, We Learn Hard, where instructors could hold workshops on specific yoga approaches (ex: Meditation, Yoga Nidra, Prenatal). It was only $25 to attend and teachers received 100% of the profits.”
How do you stay up to date with the latest trends when providing content on Forbes HR council?
“Honestly, whatever I write comes straight from my own experience and heart (as cheesy as it sounds!). I couldn’t picture writing anything that didn’t feel authentic and relevant to me personally, so everything is based on recent challenges I’ve faced, learnings, and oftentimes things I wish I could go back and do differently. Reflecting and sharing these things in hopes that it’s helpful for others is what compelled me to start writing in the first place.”
What advice would you give to the people reading the newsletter who aspire to be an HR leader like you?
“Identify your own People values and hold firmly to them no matter what comes your way. Why do you love the People space? What qualities are most important to you when creating a culture? People are the most complex and it’s easy to lose sight of your values when you’re faced with competing business challenges, workplace conflict, and even differing views from other companies or leaders. Ultimately, I want to know that even when it’s tough or draining, I stand proudly in my own authentic leadership style and lead with integrity.”