“Ask your employees “what their biggest win of the week is” and recognize those accomplishments. In a growing company you are constantly moving, executing, and delivering — celebrate the wins as you grow!”
I had the pleasure to interview Stephanie Mardell, the VP of People at NYC startup Button where she’s built a team from the ground up, growing Button from under 20 employees to now over 80 in only two-and-a-half years. Stephanie has helped shape the company culture and values, which has been awarded a Best Workplace from Inc. and Fortune Magazines — and #1 Best Place to Work from Crain’s NYC!
What is your “backstory”?
“I’ve always been curious about the world, which is why I originally went to school for International Studies and Economics. However, in my senior year of college I had a major curveball thrown my way when I was in an accident, putting my dreams of joining the Foreign Service on hold. While I was recovering, I was able to intern for an executive search firm where I was recruiting Presidents, CEOs, and Executive team members for some of the world’s leading universities. This experience early on exposed me to the opportunities and challenges of organizations early on and what they look for in leadership.
The company gave me the chance to move to SF as they built out an office and team in the area — and this is when I knew my career was at the next level. While in SF, it was only a matter of time before I became curious about the technology industry and decided to move into consulting. I was tasked with recruiting and building teams around specialized talent for high impact projects on behalf of major companies like Apple, Adobe, VMWare, Uber — the ‘big technology kids.’
I ultimately got the itch to be in-house; I wanted to be apart of a mission and growth of a company. Enter: Square. My experience here allowed me to grow and do something that was completely new to me professionally. One of my now mentors took a chance on me, and I had to prove I was up for the task. I learned as deeply and quickly as I could, soaking up everything like a sponge. I found an opportunity with a team internally that led me to grow one of the company’s most important teams to date.
Fast forward to moving to NYC in 2014, where I followed a personal dream of mine. While working with a software company, I reached out to Button’s Chief Product Officer in an attempt for him to join the company I was at — this then evolved into an interesting turn of events. He invited me to the Button office to hang with the team where I was able to see what the company was all about; little did I know they were looking for someone to build recruiting and people operations — an opportunity I could not pass up. I knew it felt right and CEO Mike Jaconi was a huge influencer in giving me the “blank canvas” (as he put it) to build out and shape programs, initiatives, and team trainings to attract the talent that would build Button to what it is today!”
Can you share the funniest or most Interesting story that occurred to you In the course of your career?
“It would probably have to be the time I jumped out of an airplane for a candidate — literally. I had been working to recruit a very high-profile, senior security infrastructure leader at Square. I learned that one of his side hobbies was skydiving and, during the offer negotiation, I tried a different tactic: I offered to jump out of a plane with him if he accepted our offer that day. He ended up accepting a few days later and I had to keep my promise. Skydiving turned out to be a hobby of my own!”
What do you think makes Button stand out? Can you share a story?
“Since being founded almost four years ago, Button has had a value and commitment to the Japanese philosophy of Omotenashi, the idea of anticipatory hospitality and generosity. We hire, build product, work with our partners, and collaborate together with this in mind. For instance, when candidates arrive on-site we do a few things to make their experience a little extra special. This includes a welcome note from the Button team on the whiteboard in their interview room, water waiting upon their arrival, and a gift bag that includes a few interview essentials like a pocket notebook, pen, and a Kind bar — just in case they need a mid-interview snack.”
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
“Throughout my career I have always been curious about what makes a great manager. There are endless opinions, books, research, you name it, that claim to have the secret of being a great boss. Here at Button, we’re experimenting with this idea. We recently created a Growth Ladder that serves as a common language for managers and employees to talk about growth. This quarter, we’re taking it a step further by thinking about what employees and managers need to be successful — frameworks, tools, trainings, etc.”
What advice would you give to others in your field to help their employees thrive?
“Working with a variety of people throughout my experience recruiting and now building a People team for a growing startup has taught me a tremendous amount. A few pieces of advice I’d pass along include:”
- Build a culture rooted in ownership and accountability. These two things create leaders and leadership opportunities. If you do not commit to these two attributes early on, you won’t reach your goals and risk a toxic culture of finger pointing, frustration, and lack of trust.
- Big or small, take time celebrate. Ask your employees “what their biggest win of the week is” and recognize those accomplishments. In a growing company you are constantly moving, executing, and delivering — celebrate the wins as you grow!
- Learn to listen. Many People leaders want to solve problems — it’s what makes them great leaders. However, taking time to listen is your most valuable tool. Let your employees tell you what the company or their managers can do to help them thrive, and build support, tools, and resources around that. Don’t miss that opportunity as it’s an invaluable one!
- Communicate effectively. Every problem is rooted in communication. Train your employees on different communication methods.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
“I’d have to say Bryan Power, the Director of Recruiting at Square during my tenure there and most recently VP of People at Yahoo!. He saw something in me and took a chance on me. I had no background in engineering recruiting, but he knew I had the foundation to succeed, which has led me to where I am today with Button.”
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
“One of the things I love doing most is using my experience to give back to women professionally. Whether its sharing skills and tools to break through the glass ceiling, tips on negotiation, or helping women simply take control of their careers, I’m passionate about sharing experiences in lifting up women in the workplace.
For example, I worked with a powerful group to organize an International Women’s Day Conference called Dial It Up where we had a full day of programming for over 250 women here in NYC. I also give regular presentations and talks on negotiation to women’s groups around NYC and SF, and I provide free coaching to women who are looking to explore new careers and transition back into the workforce after having kids. It’s incredible important to give back when you can and I’m happy my career allows me to do just that.”
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? (a story or example for each would be great!)
- Do the things no one else wants to do. It’s a gold mine of opportunity. At Square, no one wanted to recruit for the Security Engineering teams (they were the hardest roles to fill). Taking this on was by no means easy — it was hard, required me to work harder than everyone else, and push myself to be even more resourceful and creative. In the end, it showed others that I had grit, was willing to take on the big challenges, and could succeed at any task at hand- no matter what!
- Don’t talk negatively about people behind their back. Speak boldly and honestly (this is one of our core values at Button). Whether you’re at a small or a large company, it will always come back to haunt you. Someone you don’t want to find out, somehow always does.
- Spend time learning about how you communicate. Whether it’s directly, indirectly, through data and research, to-do lists, or facilitating discussions — everyone has a form of communication they lean towards. The more you learn about your communication styles, the better you can communicate and influence others.
- Results + Relationships = Success. You need both to advance your career. You want to be the person that can drive results and be a strong team player.
- When facing a professional or personal problem — ask “Why” 5 times. It helps you get to the real root of the issue.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
“Every problem is a people problem and every people problem is a communication problem.” I firmly believe that the more you learn how to communicate in any situation in life, the fewer problems you’ll have along the way.”
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
“Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was a badass professional and a mother — two things I strive to be. She broke through stereotypes, walls, and people who didn’t want to see her succeed. She made it easier for women, and we owe her many thanks for that.”