Aug 20, 2019 | Mary Ellen Slayter
Culture First: What the Business of People Means to Golbie Kamarei
From real estate development to backpacking around the world, Golbie Kamarei took an unconventional path to HR. In her current role as chief people officer at Culture Amp, Kamarei brings her unique experiences to play in her work with people.
I was lucky enough to catch her at Culture First recently to get her thoughts on her past, her future and what the business of people means to her.
How did you find the courage to leave your career in investment management and start over in HR?
I’ve always felt that my purpose aligns with the goals of HR, so it wasn’t actually a huge leap of faith. I actually think HR has the potential to be the most impactful and strategic function of a business. It entails understanding how people think, behave and perform, and creating the conditions that allow people to thrive. If businesses continue to employ human beings, understanding how they tick is a competitive advantage. HR is really complex and has been chronically undervalued in some companies and industries.
The idea of being part of the movement that helps human resource professionals is so exciting to me. The idea of changing peoples’ minds about what's possible at work is so necessary. Many workplaces are culturally harmful to employees. I’m happy to leverage my personal and professional experience to continue to drive change at work.
You took a little break during your transition. What prompted your global backpacking trip?
During my time at BlackRock, I built and scaled a global meditation program that reached 1,500 people across 17 countries. The experience of putting our egos and titles aside and connecting as people changed me. Helping create an environment that allowed people to pause and just be human at work changed me. Hearing about the depth of impact the program had on their lives changed me. On my last day, I received over 400 emails from colleagues, which I printed out and have kept to this day. I left BlackRock knowing I wanted to spend the rest of my career improving work conditions, so more people could thrive at and through their work.
I also realized that life is short and that I wanted to travel, so I did! I spent 13 months backpacking solo around the world from Cambodia to Jordan to Ireland When I came back from my sabbatical, I made the decision to follow my dream career. But first, I went to grad school, which I had always wanted to do. I attended Stanford Business School as a Sloan Fellow, where I studied business management, with a focus on organizational behavior.
What drew you to Culture Amp?
I did a lot of research and looked at a lot of companies before settling on Culture Amp. The organization’s CEO, Didier Elzinga, is who really drew me in. Of all the CEOs and execs I spoke with from large companies to small, he was the one person who didn't flinch when I brought up any of the wildly ambitious goals I had for what work could be. I knew that we could learn and grow together as leaders taking on system-level change. The fact that Culture Amp has and will continue to drive cultural change through community was one of the most exciting prospects for me.
Elzinga is a very human-centered CEO. We are able to play on each other’s strengths and really challenge each other. In the end, successful HR leadership, and really all leadership, comes down to deeply listening to the people you’re serving and working to create shared purpose, empathy and opportunities for growth. Elzinga and I share that; we're sitting on the same side of the table trying to scale Culture Amp as a culture-first company. It’s not easy and we don’t always agree, but our commitment to partnership allows us to flow a little bit better.
What does that term, Culture First, mean to you?
Putting culture first means putting our people and culture at the forefront when making and executing business decisions. It means thinking through the downstream implications at an organizational and individual level, and ultimately doing what we believe is right for our employees, our customers, our community and our business. Above all, it means putting the human being at the center of our work.