Bronwyn Smith of Influitive on breaking out of your career assumptions and why strategy means little without knowing how to manage change

Bronwyn Smith is the Sr. Director, Chief of Staff & Head of People & Culture at Influitive, an advocate marketing platform that is driving the shift from company centric marketing to advocate marketing. Bronwyn is a former strategy consultant at the globally recognized Bain & Company with extensive experience in finance. She is a graduate of the Rotman School of Management (MBA) and McGill University (Bcom).  

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

I originally thought that I was going to be in finance because that’s what I studied in my undergrad. I’ve always been a numbers person but quickly realized the finance route wasn’t for me. After a few years, I went back and did my MBA at Rotman which led me into strategy consulting at Bain & Company. I found that fascinating because I wanted to learn how to crack big strategic problems and get exposure to a lot of different kinds of businesses. Eventually, I wanted to get into tech and landed a position at Air BnB which was a masterclass in how great technology companies are run. The opportunity to join Influitive came up through my network and it was a no-brainer because the role of Chief of Staff is such a cool job. You get a broad perspective across the business and can make a tangible difference right away. About six months into being at Influitive, I was asked to lead the People and Culture team. Previously that function reported into finance, and while that is common in many startups, we felt that People and Culture should report directly into the CEO. I’ve been in the role for a year now.

How did you make the transition from being at a top strategy consulting firm to being a People and Culture leader in the tech industry?

One of the biggest challenges was overcoming the perception that consultants aren’t able to get away from their PowerPoints and into the operations of the business. Some of that is deserved but a lot of it isn’t. Coming out of consulting, I spent a lot of time focusing on why I had the ability to execute and why I wasn’t just the stereotypical consultant. If you are in consulting and can get on more execution oriented projects, it will be much easier to make the transition in going to a company. There is a big difference in coming up with the conceptual right solution to a problem than having to go and actually implement it. I was lucky to get that experience at Bain.

Are there any misconceptions out there when it comes to how leaders can better align their organization’s business strategy with its people strategy? Where do mistakes happen?

A misconception is that the role of People & Culture is to make a workplace fun and ensure a company is HR compliant. That is just a tiny fraction of what that team can be about. At Influitive, we see People and Culture as the enablers for driving high performance. Our responsibilities go far beyond what some might call “HR fluff”. Our job is to ensure that the processes, training, and tools are in place to make people shine at their jobs and hit their goals. Mistakes can happen when the P&C team doesn’t truly understand how the business works and the needs of the team.  Any member of my team should be able to tell you what the key metrics of our business are, how we are performing, and how our team helps the company hit their targets!

What are some of the strategic initiatives owned by People and Culture which have been able to raise its profile at Influitive?  

Right now, we’ve been deeply involved with ensuring that the OKRs (objectives and key results) across our organization that are set at the CEO level are cascaded down to everyone in the company. This is very important because if that works well, all our employees know what they need to do to be successful and how their work fits into the overall strategy of the company. We believe focus and alignment is key for a high performing culture.

To compliment this, we also did a lot of work instituting a new feedback and learning and development system. We’re trying to make sure that the employees receive quality feedback and have personalized learning and development plans. Ensuring our employees are able to grow professionally is important – it helps us achieve our goals and it helps us retain our employees.

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

A consistent one for me has been that real lasting change is hard to do. It doesn’t matter how perfect your strategy is because if you don’t manage the change it won’t stick. It often has much more to do with human psychology than it does with the math and data. Your solution may make complete sense, but if you don’t bring people along, the change won’t be lasting.  You need to take the time to think through the change management strategy and reinforce messages across all kinds of different channels.  It takes more work than you would expect.

I’ve also learned that you need to develop an appreciation for how different employee teams may be. Every team has their own unique culture and they will react to change in different ways. This makes managing change even more complex because you need to tailor your approach based on the different groups.

What does leadership look like to you and how does the next generation need to start thinking differently about leadership?

Leadership boils down to a couple things. It’s about creating and inspiring vision for people, making sure that others are bought into that vision with clarity around how it applies to them and most importantly, it’s about helping others achieve the vision through helping them grow, learn and develop. I don’t think that has changed over time but there is definitely more of an emphasis on the need to be inspirational these days. People won’t just follow anyone.

It’s important that leaders understand the role they play in inspiring teams. Mark, our CEO, can paint a picture for our business of where it is going but it’s equally as important for that next level of leaders to understand what Mark’s picture means for them and how they will translate that to their respective teams. It’s easy for those things to fall through the cracks and that’s where people can get disengaged.

From what I’ve seen, the next generation really cares about learning and development and building a career in a personal way. The stock career paths don’t work as well for them. The magic however happens when you can match someone with a role that caters to exactly what they want career wise and exactly what the company needs to do.

What would be your one piece of advice for those in the workforce today to get ahead and find work that is fulfilling?

I’ve come across lots of people who are stressed about not knowing exactly what their future entails. Know that it is common, even normal, to feel that way. That being said, you should take the time to do some real soul searching and figure out some key truths about yourself. That is harder and more painful to do than you may think. Ask yourself – On your best days, what are you doing? On your worst days, what are you doing? Being very clear on that will do a lot to determine what your next steps are. Understand what motivates you in terms of the environment, people and types of recognition you like to receive. Don’t focus as much on the type of company that you want to join but rather, what kinds of things do you want to be doing on a day to day basis that excites you and makes you happy. People often get wrapped up in ideas and assumptions of what their career should be which doesn’t always match who they are as a person.

Aubrey Chapnick