Giving Back as an HR Leader
By Ai-Mei Zhu
Karen Week’s purpose is helping organizations build amazing cultures while guiding individuals to find fulfillment in their careers. Currently, she is the SVP of People at Ordergroove. Karen is also a career coach, award-winning people & culture advisor, speaker, published author, and podcast host.
I noticed you graduated with a degree in theater and pivoted into HR. Why and how did you start in HR? What made you continue pursuing that career path once you broke in?
After a couple of years in theatre and the arts I realized that as much as I loved the field I did not love it as a livelihood. So I talked to a lot of people, reflected on what I did like and found HR. I loved bringing people together for a shared experience and helping people with their careers. So I started in HR and loved it. We all work way too much and too hard not to feel successful and enjoy the work we are doing in our day to day jobs. Over the years that has morphed into different areas of focus but it’s always somehow around people development.
Between the career coaching that you offer and your general day-to-day working with applicants, what is the most common challenge that you see people facing especially with women breaking into tech? Any common roadblocks that they are hitting?
I think it’s finding the opportunity to get your foot in the door. Bootcamps are amazing but how can you apply that work to a day to day role in engineering. How are you going to tell that story and prepare for the interviews if there is a gap in how your skills come across on your resume and what experience you can bring to the table. Leverage your past, don’t run from it, help the interviewer see how it can be applied to the role you are applying to. On paper nothing I did from theatre applied to HR. But when I talked about how I had to handle conflict amongst different departments, be a project manager, manage budgets, etc…those are all skills I needed for an HR role.
On the flip side from a company standpoint, what was the most rewarding breakthrough you’ve had in helping a company change their mind around hiring processes and HR in general?
I’ve been really lucky that every company I have worked for valued what HR brought to the table. But from a hiring standpoint I think some of the biggest wins around really identifying what we are trying to assess in different interviews. You want someone with X degree, or to be able to solve Y exercise, why? What does that tell you about their ability to be successful in this role or at this company. What is the competency you are trying to get to and what are some behavioral interview questions we can ask to get to that? Those are some amazing breakthrough moments when a hiring manager realizes they were asking the wrong thing or thinking about it in a way that actually was not measurable or actionable to get the right person on their team.
I think it is great that you are a career coach! What are common questions people ask about when they reach out? Do there seem to be any common themes around where job seekers have the greatest struggles?
It depends on where they are in their journey. Some people reach out because they are unhappy but they don’t know why. Is it the field, is it that specific job or company, are they just having a bad few weeks? So we dig in to see why they are feeling stuck. Then others know they are ready for a change and they need someone to help them uncover what they want to do instead and how to make the change. So we talk through things that they have loved doing in the past, any self-talk that is holding them back, their non-negotiables, where they find energy, things that help them identify what they want to be doing! And finally some people just need help navigating their job searches, especially how to connect with people, prep for interviews, the nitty gritty of the job search. That’s what I love about being a coach, I can help people at any stage because the goal is the same…get unstuck from how you are feeling today and find a career that brings you joy, fulfillment and success 🙂
What sparked this passion for being involved with the community? Was there a specific moment in which you caught the bug for helping others?
I think I have always had it. As a kid I thought I wanted to be a teacher or a therapist (or an astronaut, but that’s a different story). But more recently, when COVID hit and I was doing some pro bono work through an organization to coach people that had been laid off it was really a moment of clarity for me. As much as I love HR and have over the last twenty years, this individual work really energized me and helped me see a more focused future how I can help others. Similarly, getting involved with Girls in Tech, I wanted to make sure people had the network and support needed to be a part of this amazing tech community I have found over the years. And I really appreciated it was for anyone in the tech industry, not just engineering specific roles.
How did you first experience giving back, and did it build from there?
I was very fortunate to go to a great private high school where volunteerism was part of their mission. So I grew up knowing it was important to give back. That has shown itself in very different forms but always something that was important to me. At Ordergroove, we have OG Cares where we find different ways to support our community. In 2017 when we felt like there were a lot of groups being mistreated in the world, my husband and I did a “weekly change” program where we donated something, even a small amount, to a non-profit every week and shared some info about the groups on social media to spread awareness for their missions. Even just adopting all our furry babies over the years. I know we have opportunities that a lot of other people don’t and I just believe you should help others where and how you can.
We get so caught up in our jobs that many of us feel it would be an unrealistic commitment to dedicate ourselves to any sort of meaningful philanthropic activities. What advice can you provide for someone who wants to start developing habits of giving back? How can they get involved on an introductory level to start easing themselves into the level that you’ve gotten to?
You have to do what is right for you. For some people that’s making donations. Or this year I know a lot of people who did postcards and email campaigns for voting registration. They could do it on their own time and needed that flexibility. But if you want to give back, figure out a cause that means something to you, ask around if anyone knows of an organization that needs help and then reach out to them and offer what you can. Any non-profit will take any help you can give. So don’t sell yourself short. Figure out what matters to you and what support you can offer and I know an organization is out there that would be thrilled to have you!