Christine Song of BioConnect on speaking up, putting your people first and not being tied down to “best practice”
Christine Song is the VP of People and Culture at BioConnect, a biometric technology company that enables enterprise software solutions to consume biometrics for identification and authentication. Christine is a passionate leader within the Toronto Tech community with deep expertise around the intersection points of people, business and strategy. She is an open networker and masterful relationship builder.
Looking back ten years, where did you think you’d be by this point in your career? How did you get here?
For most of my career, I worked in HR within large corporate environments across a number of different industries. That progression was interesting because going into those different industries allowed me to learn a lot about how different kinds of businesses operate. I found that I never wanted to specialize in a specific industry because I love to constantly learn about new ways of working. While going that route was a great learning opportunity, I found that those kinds of environments were too bureaucratic a lot of the time. I wanted to make a bigger impact which caused me to seek a role at a smaller company called Nexonia. I reported directly to the CEO which helped me shape strategy and employee development. After gaining that experience, I never wanted to go back to the big corporate world.
What were some of the most important business lessons you have had to learn the hard way? How have they enabled your success?
When I was starting out, I often refrained from speaking up. Often, we get tied down in the notions of “best practice” which impede our willingness to try new things. What I quickly found is that since no two companies are the same, they can’t possibly function in just one way. Therefore, it’s critically important for organizations to recognize their unique identity and do things that are unique to them. We shouldn’t be trying to mimic Google or Facebook because we just aren’t Google or Facebook. One must think uniquely within their own organization’s context to truly engage people in a way that is effective. You have to be willing to experiment. When I was at Nexonia, we were in the midst of a major recruitment effort and I convinced our founder to be featured in a video which showcased the culture of the organization. It was a great way to portray how he was involved in the business from the executive level down to the front lines. Those kinds of strategies, which at the time were thought to be unconventional, did a lot to help build our brand identity. The best part of doing those kinds of things are that they are often free. We made that video on an iPad and it cost us nothing.
From your experience, how can HR become a more effective and strategic player inside of today’s organization?
From my perspective, the only way that HR can become more effective is to really understand the business that they are in and get a strong sense of what keeps the senior business leaders up at night. They need to have a bird’s eye view of the entire organization because if they don’t, HR becomes silo’d in policies and procedures. We aren’t in the 1980s anymore. It’s often about getting to know the people who are running the business on a day to day basis and being curious about their worlds. This includes everything from gaining a clear sense of a company’s financials to knowing what makes a developer’s life difficult. You need to be curious about business. My rule of thumb is that HR people need to think about the business like a CEO before they think about the business like HR.
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?
In the old days, leadership was a lot about achieving results, getting your bonus and talking about accomplishments. The reality is that today, leadership is about people. As a leader, you need to put your people in front of yourself, think about their development and invest in training them so that they can be successful. Leaders also need to have an understanding of the motivations of those whom they lead and devote the time to get to know the personalities of each person they lead. These things aren’t easy by any means because they take up the most valuable asset anyone has which is time. That being said, if one invests the time to do these things, people will give you back a lot more than you might expect.
This ethos is being echoed more and more by CEOs and founders who are leading the charge around new ideas of leadership. They truly understand that since we aren’t in the 80s anymore, people need to be at the center of a leader’s agenda. The amazing thing is that the startup community seems to really understand this and that’s one of the reason’s why so many young people want to work for startups these days. While they are certainly behind, the larger companies like the banks are starting to make big changes in these areas to attract and retain the younger generation.
What is your philosophy around networking and building relationships inside of your company and outside of your company?
I believe its equally as important to get to know those who are on the front lines as it is to get to know those who are in leadership positions. While leaders will be able to give you the enterprise level view of the business, those in the trenches will be able to provide a very different perspective of the organization which is incredibly valuable. If you are in a leadership position, you need to make sure that you are approachable and truly mean it. You want to make people feel safe and that they are able to talk to you.
When it comes to networking externally, I try to reach out to individuals in all kinds of roles at different companies to learn about what they do. You would be surprised by how many people are willing to accept a cold coffee invitation from someone to go and have a conversation. For those who are looking to network, LinkedIn is such a great place to start and you can learn so much from just reaching out and asking for people’s time.
What would be your one piece of advice for those in the workforce today to get ahead in the marketplace and find fulfilling work?
Put simply, you need to do what makes you happy. If you do that, you will find that no matter what, the fact that you enjoy what you do will make you want to do it successfully. People who are truly passionate about what they do are those who aren’t just there to make a buck. They are fully engaged and put in the time/ effort to go to speaking engagements, networking events and seminars to build their knowledge and capabilities. If you do what you love, you can take that to incredible limits.