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How This Chief People Officer Creates Safe Spaces For Employees To Learn, Develop

Although the fight for equal pay and the need for more women in C-Suite positions is ongoing, females dominate one executive role. Even during the pandemic, women continue to dominate chief people officer or chief human resources officer roles (CHROs) at organizations. According to the Talent Strategy Group, females securing that role are continuously increasing. Seventy-eight percent of new CHROs in 2019 were female, representing the largest class of female CHROs since the report’s inception in 2015. 

Danielle Brown, chief people officer at Gusto, advocates for small businesses by creating intuitive programs and safe spaces for employees to learn, grow and develop. Gusto serves over 200,000 small-and-medium-sized businesses nationwide by helping them onboard, pay, insure, engage and provide benefits for their teams in one integrated, easy-to-use platform. To date, it has enabled $4.4 billion in approved PPP funds by streamlining the payroll information and paperwork needed to apply for the funds and have them forgiven. 

During the pandemic, Brown has helped manage the team through a $175 million Series E round and the completion of the company’s first-ever acquisitions with Symmetry and Ardius.

“Startup work is all about building, and not everything is figured out yet,” Brown shares. “You come in, and there’s lots of things to put in place and lots of things to do. … The other aspect of building that is cool is the scope and reach here [at Gusto] are broader. What we build and what we create here at Gusto for our own workforce has the opportunity to make it into our products. And so we can help small business owners everywhere build their own great companies, assemble their own great teams and create an engaging and inclusive culture. It’s not that the scope is the important part; it’s that you have a platform and an impact opportunity here to affect hundreds of thousands of small businesses.”

Growing up, Brown was taught to value a stable career and pursue a field where she would be employable; she should be risk-averse. She went to college as a pre-med student but quickly realized she lacked enthusiasm for the profession. She switched her major to business, graduating as an accountant. 

Again, Brown realized she didn’t like accounting and pivoted to consulting, working in mergers and acquisitions, pre-deal and post-deal diligence. Here she learned the value of relationships. When she transitioned over to sales to gain more experience, she leaned on the relationships she developed. 

Eventually, Brown attended graduate school for her master’s in business administration. After graduation, she secured a spot in Intel’s accelerated leadership program, an in-house rotation program for future general managers at a tech company. For one of the rotations, she chose to work in the HR department. 

“I decided to use this as an opportunity to try something really new,” she smiles. “To finally follow that thing that I had passion and excitement and energy around, which was people. And I think that was the first time in my career that I pursued something because I wanted to do it, not because I thought I should.”

Brown quickly rose through the ranks within the corporation holding five positions in total. Her last stint was as vice president and group chief human resources officer before joining the team at Google. She served as the vice president of employee engagement and chief diversity and inclusion officer. 

“People work is definitely that perfect intersection of what I’m good at, my skill set and expertise, but also what I love to do, which is my passion,” Brown explains. “I wouldn’t say I arrived here early on in my career, or right away, to get to this place, I did take a path that had a lot of pivots along the way. I would say my career is almost rounded in pivots, which I think were instrumental in getting me to this place.”

When Brown accepted the position at Gusto, people questioned her decision. Some couldn’t understand why she would leave a household brand name to work for a startup. She was excited because this is the first time she had the opportunity to do people work at a people company. She is able to apply her 20 years of experience working at large-scale companies and apply them to small business environments. 

“A key part of our culture is building with what we call a RISE lens,” Brown explains. “It stands for representation, inclusion, social impact and equity. It’s how we refer to our DE&I work. … The first part about building an inclusive culture is representation. We want to be representative of the customers we serve. We want to be representative of the communities we work in. We want to be representative of the talent pool. … The second aspect of that is inclusion, building a culture where everybody can be themselves. The third pillar is around social impact. … The final pillar is equity. And what I think of when I think of equity is making sure your processes and systems create level playing fields for folks.” 

As Brown continues to transition within her career, she focuses on the following essential steps:

  • Focus on one or two items at a time. It will help you be more productive. If you try to learn too many new skills at once, you’ll fall short. 
  • Be open to different opportunities. Achieving your goal is not linear. There are a million ways to do so. 
  • Ask yourself how you can make something work versus instantly rejecting the possibility. Practicing this will open up more doors.

“Focusing on what you want to do, I call that the perfect intersection of your skills, your expertise and your passion,” Brown concludes. “When you let go of what you and others think you should be doing, that’s when you’re just energized and motivated to do your best work. That’s when people really shine.”

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