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Why HR Plays a Critical Role in Competitive Business (Ep. 28)

with Darcy Mackay, SVP of HR and Client Services at Rippling

It’s common for HR professionals to become siloed in a business.

But if they don’t understand the company and, by extension, the kind of employee experience to cultivate, it can hold a business’s momentum back.

“HR is a discipline that has become quite specialist, and the specialization is fantastic. But if it's not strung together with the employee experience in the middle of it, it leads to behavior that may fit the immediate task at hand but may miss the bigger picture,” says Darcy Mackay, SVP of HR and Client Services at Rippling.

Darcy Mackay_1_1 Audiogram

In this episode, Darcy Mackay shares what she learned from her experience as a CPO for a Fortune 120 company and overseeing roughly 9,000 people globally to recruit and retain the best of the best in her industry.

They also talk about the meaning of customer experience and how technology can empower the HR role.

Key takeaways:

  • Understanding the business is crucial for HR professionals to be able to find and hire the right kind of talent
  • Cultivating a strong employee experience can become a powerful competitive advantage
  • Learning more about the HR role can enhance your skills, even if you’re overseeing people in an entirely different department

Listen on your favorite podcast app to discover how you can elevate your employee experience.


[03:26] Understanding the people function

[07:02] Cultivating the employee experience

[13:01] Why HR professionals need to learn the business

[15:30] Developing empathy in people roles

[19:34] Breaking and fixing the product

[22:15] LEARN Rapid-fire round


Darcy Mackay: As organizations grow and HR professionals have an opportunity to take on another FTE or a few FTE, you're typically drawing from people who have very siloed backgrounds in many ways.

It's a discipline that has become quite specialist, and the specialization is, fantastic. But if it's not strung together with the employee experience in the middle of it, It leads to behavior that may fit the immediate task at hand but may miss the bigger picture.

Ted Blosser: Welcome to the LEARN podcast, where we interview top leaders in tech and learn about how they're building the world's most innovative companies. I'm Ted Blosser, CEO and Co-Founder of WorkRamp, the world's first Learning Cloud platform.

Our mission is to help professionals reach their full potential through learning, and the LEARN Podcast is where we can learn from the best leaders at the top of their game. Please subscribe, leave us a rating, and we hope you enjoy the episode.

Hey everyone, welcome back to the LEARN podcast. So excited to have you here today. We have a special guest, Darcy McKay, SVP of HR and Client Services at Rippling. We're also a Rippling customer. So thanks for building a great product, Darcy, but welcome to the show.

Darcy Mackay: Thanks. Great to be here. Ted.

Ted Blosser: Well, Darcy, let's get it kicked off first with an elevator pitch about yourself.

Tell us a little about your background.

Darcy Mackay: a lot of people think of me as an HR professional, but actually, I've spent most of my career being just a business leader overseeing large teams of thousands of people in different roles around the world. And, I guess I kind of have become a little bit of a homegrown expert on HR as a result of that.

But I did do a formal stint as a chief people officer for a Fortune One 20 company for a few years. And, that was quite the learning journey for me. So that's a bit of my background. And I joined Rippling recently, where, as you said, I oversee, all things related to HR and workplace. In addition to client services, which is basically, looking after the employees of rippling customers who we employ through either our PEO entity in the United States or EOR globally.

Ted Blosser: What's really unique about you for the audience about? Darcy is, she's one of the rare people who has had experience running huge business units, being the president at CBRE and then moving into a CPO role, chief people officer role, and then moving back to the business and then now coming to a HR vendor.

So super unique background. So what we wanted to do today is actually talk about perspectives before. Heading into the people function and then afterward her learnings. And then also now being on the other side of the fence as a, let's call it a software provider, what she's learning about the market.

And so what we'll do is actually start off with, before taking the CPO job at CBRE. And maybe you give us a little background on CBRE. know, but I'm not sure if the whole audience knows CBRE, a little background, the company itself, what you were running, and then how you felt about it. Just the people function before you head into the actual people function.

Darcy Mackay: C. B. R. A. Is the world's largest globally integrated, commercial real estate firm, commercial property firm. And it has many different aspects of the business, including the investor side of the business and then the occupier side of the business. For most of my career, I was on the occupier side of the business, which I was in the business of serving end users of space.

They could be tech companies, they could be pharmaceutical companies, banks, etcetera, on their large portfolio strategies and how they actually run and implement a workplace experience. So we were not a product company. We were a services-based company and services are provided by people. They have underlying technology for sure.

But we used to say that our assets went home in the elevator every night. And I would say being in a product company now, that's really. No different. Because you need, only so much code can write itself. Generally, you need really smart people to think about what we want to do from a product standpoint and then actually develop the code, test the product, etc.

So that's what I was doing at CBRE before I became a chief people officer.

Ted Blosser: when you were running the business unit itself, what was your viewpoint on the people function itself? Like, did you have a unique viewpoint from your seat as President and running, a specific unit of the people function itself?

Darcy Mackay: Yeah. So I oversaw in each of my roles, I was managing typically somewhere between 5, and maybe 9, 000 people, globally. it's a bit like when you buy a home, and you become a real estate expert, or you think you're a real estate expert. Well, when you manage people, you kind of, by some nature are in the HR business, even though you may not be formally trained in HR or have HR in your title, but you're managing other managers. And so, A large part of my job was trying to figure out how to recruit and then retain and develop the best talent in the industry, because that was a competitive advantage for me as a business leader and how I was going to do better than the competition.

And so when I saw things that weren't working, right, like. We had trouble onboarding employees, The onboarding experience itself was incredibly disjointed or, we didn't necessarily have a place to codify where someone's career potential could go, and how a learning and development program would help support that or a stretch assignment would help support that That didn't necessarily then tie into someone's compensation history and trajectory. Lord knows, none of that actually tied into, anything related to finance their approvals to spend as employees migrated through the company into different jobs or different entities; there would be these.

Points in time where things would break data would get missed. Taxes would get recalculated or missed. Benefits would get dropped. The whole experience was less than great for the employees themselves, but also the managers who really just wanted to focus on doing well for their clients and keeping their people focused on the task at hand rather than.

Working to kind of rekey data or troubleshoot a problem. So while HR was a really important part of my leadership team, and I always had my HR business partner kind of side by side with me as I did finance. Most of the time they were. Chasing problems, or they were chasing solutions to problems or diagnosing the problems and trying to fix them, whether they were payroll related or, some other data in the system or calculating or we were running compensation cycles on spreadsheets, which I'm sure is probably familiar to a lot of your listeners.

As opposed to doing some of the higher-value work that I think H. R. really should be doing. And frankly, most HR professionals want to be doing this. So helping me understand the trends in what's going on in my workforce, how engaged people are, and how is my turnover going, particularly with regard to both voluntary and involuntary turnover.

What about workforce planning? Where am I going to find the next 500 hires? Particularly in markets where the best technical talent is still really hard to get, my HR business partners time and time again had trouble finding the bandwidth in their day to focus with me on those bigger business problems that were going to help me create a competitive advantage three years or five years down the road.

So that was my experience, and I didn't really understand why that was the case until I got in inside of HR and discovered what was really happening.

Ted Blosser: That's what I was going to ask you next. So you get plucked out, you see all these problems, you're probably itching to solve them, but it's not your day job. You get plucked out of that role. You get placed into the global CPO role.

What were, let's say, the one to two kind of major things that you're super proud of accomplishing during that tenure that you went and embarked on.

Darcy Mackay: I would say that the first realization I had was why I was experiencing the symptoms, right? If then became kind of the doctor to understand what was really going on with the patient and part of it had to do with the fact that the HR teams and this is just extremely common in the industry are actually quite siloed.

So on the one hand, you have in many organizations, you have your H. R. Business partners or H. R. B. P. S. On the other hand, you've got these centers of excellence or specialists. Whether they're in learning development, or whether they're in compensation or analytics. and as organizations grow and HR professionals have an opportunity to take on, another FTE or a few FTE, you're typically drawing from people who have very siloed backgrounds in many ways.

It's a discipline that has become quite specialist and the specialization is fantastic. But if it's not strung together with the employee experience in the middle of it, It leads to behavior that may fit the immediate task at hand, but may miss the bigger picture. and when I talk about the employee experience, I'm not talking about like fluffy food services.

What I'm talking about is human-centered design. If you put the employee and we're all employees in the company, right? Whether you're an individual contributor or whether you're a manager or the CEO, we're all employees of a company. What is that experience? And so one of the first things that I did besides just to reset the leadership team and bring in some new talent was to look at how we reconstruct a journey for the employee that was really consistent with the brand we wanted to put forth in the market and the type of talent we wanted to attract.

Darcy Mackay: So how are we reaching out into the market around our talent brand? What was the Experience of a potential employee with our brand through the sourcing process and through the recruiting process? What was their onboarding experience like? And then once they got into, the organization, what was their experience of us as a company?

Was it joined up? Did we catalog where their hopes and dreams were going to go where their aspirations were to move from one role in the company to another? That's the promise of any high-growth company, right? Is being able to say to an employee, Play. Not only are you gonna be able to do awesome work at, you're developing the next product or whatever it is, but we also have other career opportunities for you, as you wanna evolve.

We put together that journey that linked to learning and development and compensation and really the full picture of the employee lifecycle. and then we integrated the HR team around that so that our processes and then ultimately the technology were connected around that for the employee.

Ted Blosser: You're talking about how much you invest in the employee experience. I had in our, in my pre-call notes, I underlined it, the chiller story. The chiller experience, and where you, you really did the research into the employee experience. Tell us the story about I called it the chiller story.

I don't know if you called it that, but give us that story

Darcy Mackay: I'm a pretty hands-on learner. I think one of the most interesting questions I ask people is like, what do you do? I different people have titles, but when you get into companies, it's not often clear like what people do. And I remember sitting down to get to know my recruiting team.

And they were based in the U. S. recruiting team. In this case, they were based in Dallas. And,you always get pressure to add more head count. And so I wanted to understand, like, what are these people actually doing? Like, show me how you source, show me how you recruit, like, take me through the pain points of your day.

And one of the things that I figured out was, that this particular recruiter that I was talking to, she was responsible for sourcing and recruiting technical. Building talent. So, meaning folks that have experience, for example, repairing HVAC systems, you know, heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems to keep buildings going and she didn't know what a chiller was.

Or she kind of knew what a chiller was in terms of, a cooling system, but she had never really experienced it, and she was having trouble really filtering like who were the best athletes. we happen to have a lot of clients in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, including some hospital systems.

So I arranged a bit of a field trip where we took our sourcing and recruiting experts out into a hospital system where not only the client, but our technical teams hosted these folks to show them what a chiller actually looks like and why it's important to, for example, operating a NICU, right?

Keeping infants alive when they're born prematurely or taking care of, different ventilation systems in a hospital when someone's in surgery. And it just gave so much meaning to her and her role and, she then understood actually what she was doing. And I think the message here is not that everybody needs to understand an HVAC system but rather that when you are in HR, you actually need to learn.

The business that you are there to serve, you have your own discipline, your own expertise in HR, and that's terrific. But if you don't know your business and you don't know your end customers, you're not going to be, working at your full potential.

Ted Blosser:

We're in the middle of a conversation with Darcy McKay, SVP at Rippling in this conversation. One of the topics we talk about is the concept of inputs and outputs into L and D organizations.

She really mentions focusing on the outputs of L and D orgs. And if you want to focus on the outputs of your org, you should definitely check out WorkRamp. WorkRamp is the all-in-one Learning Cloud that focuses on driving the right outputs for your business and for your L& D orgs and your customer ed orgs, plus your sales enablement teams.

So, if you want to learn more, visit us at workramp. com. Now back to the show.

I've been reading the Elon Musk book by Walter Isaacs.

And there's this problem with their Tesla solar roofs. And what they realized was that the people designing the tiles were not installing the tiles. So they had this big disconnect. So he forced the engineers to go. Actually, put in a few roofs to understand how bad their designs were.

But once they were communicating and understanding each other, they dramatically improved the whole flow of work. It just reminds me of your example of, Hey, if they know the business, they could recruit much better and inspire people. That's a spot-on insight.

Darcy Mackay: I think sometimes people are afraid to ask the questions. and I think that's just silly; I mean, if you don't know something, I think one of the most powerful and mature things you can do is just go out and ask the questions. The fact is that HR, along with a lot of the GNA functions, are incredibly hard-pressed to justify additional hires. I don't know a single HR organization or finance or legal for that matter. That's not asking for additional talent. And so I think we need to have the discipline of really unpacking what it is that we're doing and where we need to keep start or stop doing things, and HR is awfully good at focusing on activities as opposed to how are we measuring results and any good business person will be much more focused on the outputs rather than the inputs.

And I think if all HR professionals had the discipline of really force ranking their activities with the business and prioritizing, they actually would be able to let go of their bottom quartile of work more regularly, and then redeploying that into the things That really matter for the business.

Ted Blosser: That's spot on even in the, learning world where from, we see almost too many programs. I think it's not hard to get the inputs in there. Like you can always scramble and do more programs, but the output you're spot on where it's like, we're not focusing enough on the end of the funnel. mostly on the inputs, right? Cause they feel good. They're like empty calories. you're doing a lot of work.

Darcy Mackay: Exactly. And learning and development is kind of the classic Petri dish for that. Or, name your analogy where people love to run programs, They love to load LMS systems with all of these things, but to what end and how are we actually measuring the efficacy of those programs to the business?

Ted Blosser: I want to move to the new phase of your career here in a second around rippling you're only two months in, but before I get there, I want to ask one last question to kind of cap off the CBRE discussion left the CPO role back into the business. Was there something that you appreciated a way more now, coming back into the business from that role of the HR function that you didn't really appreciate before?

Darcy Mackay: On the one hand, I had a whole lot more empathy, particularly because the technology systems that we were working with were so broken and the road map to fix them was a multi-year road map. So, on the one hand, I had a lot more empathy, but on the other hand, I had a lot more impatience. I knew who to go to down into the bowels of the organization in order to get some things done and to put my finger on the pressure points.

Ted Blosser: We'll talk about the technology in a second, but I want to ask you about empathy. Did it give you actually more from a leadership perspective? I'm assuming you had to be even more empathetic to a global workforce. You had at least saw a lot more problems than probably you saw in your previous role. Did you become a more empathetic leader as well too? Did it change your leadership style? How did you take empathy into more of the leadership side of the house, too? And we'll talk about technology with Rippling.

Darcy Mackay: I think that folks tend to be a bit more empathic than other cohorts in the business, and I'm generalizing a little bit. I needed to certainly demonstrate more empathy while still holding people to very high standards and results when I was managing an HR team versus when I was managing people in the business who are very used to being held accountable to a scorecard and a P&L.

And client sat scores or, however, teams measured. It takes a little more of a gentle approach, but still, at the end of the day, I'm a business leader, and I want results.

Ted Blosser: Actually with our clients. That's what we're seeing right now is like really strike, the right balance of, yes, we need empathetic leadership, but the right performance and results. And you got the perfect mix of that, from your experiences at CBRE. But let's switch over rippling now. So you've been at rippling for two months. Tell us more about why you came to Rippling.

Darcy Mackay: There are many kinds of personal reasons, you know, being based in San Francisco. I had been with a very large publicly traded company for a long time. And so the idea of coming to a late stage but pre-public company was very interesting to me. I spent a lot of time with the leadership here, including, Parker and McInnis and folks.

And, the company was just super exciting to me, but I think at my most fundamental level, I had lived the pain that rippling was trying to solve. And in their case, focusing on the, SMB, market, moving up into mid-market and then enterprise. I had obviously been at a different scale, but had really suffered from broken systems and not just disengaged employees and frustrated managers that had to run multiple compensation cycles on literally 10 or 20 spreadsheets, disjointed onboarding experiences, off-boarding where the tech didn't disconnect with the employee.

And so I was really interested in this idea. About how technology could help solve a lot of these problems and prevent problems before they even occur. And also because kind of going back to this premise that HR teams are so pressed to do more with less. The idea that... if you get the underpinning of your employee record, right?

And you get the technology, right? You can actually grow your, capacity to serve as an H. R. team or as a finance team more efficiently with that technology than you otherwise would. Going back to kind of my beginning journey here, I could have taken at least a third of my team and freed their bandwidth completely to work on the kind of strategic planning and workforce development and planning work that I needed to grow my business instead of chasing down all these problems with running global payroll, for example.

Darcy Mackay: That's why I joined Rippling. Essentially.

Ted Blosser: So you're in this role now where when the leading HR companies in the world, or at least one of the hottest, doing really well, and you're leading HR at that company, what type of questions are you getting from your client base and what type of advice are you dishing out?

Would you say more frequently? Not just your install base, but just from a thought leader perspective.

Darcy Mackay: I think that the Rippling's customers wrestle with the same thing that Rippling does internally. Mean, Rippling is at, 2500 people, rippling's biggest customer. So we're constantly, by the way, stretching and breaking the product. That's part of our jobs.

Do you get a bonus? If you break, do you get like a spiff No, but we have the obligation to go fix it, right? And to escalate it as soon as possible to the eng teams who are incredibly responsive. And we also have the fun job of being able to recommend. Here's the next way we ought to think about performance management cycles or the next wave of how we think about dashboards because there's very seldom you come across a system of record that is building in not only all of the employee information from the demographics to the career stuff to the learning stuff to the compensation stuff.

With the finance piece and their underlying workflow authorizations of what they're allowed to prove in the workflows, with the technology, what types of apps, privileges, and system access do they have? And so it's a very powerful playground.

To think about how you then recast things like workforce planning or employee analytics. That's a really fun thing that we get to focus on internally. as well as for our customers.

Ted Blosser: I've heard Parker speak. We both came from Y commoner. He was just at a YC event recently. And, talked about, I think you guys have more than two dozen products now. I'm actually super curious. Is there a. favorite product or almost favorite child right now in terms of the products that you really enjoy or you're giving a lot of feedback on.

Darcy Mackay: I think there's a continued march on global payroll for sure. The number of countries that we're launching next year it's pretty impressive. I think for me, the reporting and the dashboard features are going to be fantastic. When we get the next iteration of that rolled out in 24.

Because again, that's where I think, that kind of the future playground lies. There's a contractor module that is being released. So, folks that are on hourly pay schedules, there's a new scheduling feature there that I've seen beta of, and it's super cool.

So I know that's a highly anticipated release.

Ted Blosser: I think Parker's quote was like every enterprise system has reporting analytics and workflows, so make sure you nail them. And it sounds like you're giving great feedback to the team on that. Let's actually wrap the content portion but then go into it. The LEARN rapid-fire round. This is the round where I'll just ask a few questions. We'll love one or two-line answers just to get to know you a little bit better. The first question I'll ask is, what is one of your favorite kinds of blogs, books, new sources you're learning from on a day-to-day basis.

Darcy Mackay: I go back to, I have a couple of standards that are really fundamental for me. One is just Jim Collins, good to great, just get the right people in the right seats on the bus. And that is so fundamental to making things work. The other one that I love to lean on is Greg McCown's essentialism, which is the disciplined pursuit of less.

And it really talks me through the rigor of what must get done versus like, what are all the millions of things on my plate that could be done.

Ted Blosser: Essentialism. I'll have to put it on my list, but good to great. I love Jim Collins. I haven't, reread that in a while now, but great book.

Let me ask you about, HR predictions over the next five years. Do you have one major prediction on the let's call HR tech side of the house over the next five years?

Darcy Mackay: I think that we're going to continue to see a very strong interest in this compound-type functionality and systems, as opposed to the focus that has been on these really deep point solutions that have created deep silos and do not connect with one another.

Ted Blosser: Well, that's exactly what you're making a difference on, and you made our lives easier. So thank you. Cause you're right. It's so hard to have the teams to support these over time. So the more you can consolidate, the better. Last question. I'll ask you, this is a career question.

You've had an amazing career, and you have so much more left as well. What's one piece of advice that you would give to the audience in terms of their careers, especially if they're looking at people functions,

Darcy Mackay: I would say that. I fall back on one of my classics, which is like, what got you here personally in your career is not what's going to get you where you want to be. Don't be afraid to think deeply about what you need to give up and get some great people around you that will give you candid feedback so that you can progress where you want to go.

Ted Blosser: That's a great answer. Well, Darcy, thanks so much for spending time with the podcast. This is a great conversation. You have such a unique background running a huge function at one of the best companies in the world. So thank you for spending the time with us today.

Darcy Mackay: Thanks, Ted. It was a pleasure to be here.

Ted Blosser: Thanks for listening to the LEARN Podcast. If you're a fan of the podcast, Do us two favors. One is to subscribe to it so you can get the latest updates on our most recent episodes.

And two, write a short review of the podcast. This helps us get discovered in the broader podcast community. Thanks again.