The first time Jennifer McPherson found herself on the interviewer’s side of the table, she was 19 years old. Since then, she’s hired and managed hundreds of employees at companies across Vancouver.
Today, Jen is the General Manager at Nested Naturals, a nutritional supplements company built on core values like transparency, freedom, and a total approach to wellness. As the company scales from 10 to over 25 employees, her focus is to protect their culture at all costs.
Here, Jen recounts fixing a broken culture, the importance setting values early, and her ‘big, hairy, audacious goal’ of creating the next big West Coast employer brand. Her words below.
On Identifying a Broken Culture
You don’t learn the signs of a broken culture in school. What you learn is process, policies, procedures, HR law. You learn with your gut. In my first HR role, the signs were all over: high turnover, people calling in sick or showing up late, and severe workplace bullying.
Our CEO was aware of it but didn’t know what to do. We were in a period of high business growth and people weren’t showing up or treating each other with decency. I told her: “We’re going to start hiring people not for their technical skills, but for their people skills.” We can teach anyone to run our machinery, but we can’t teach them not to be bullies.
We had to come up with a mission statement, a value system and ground rules for behaviour—all stuff we didn’t have before. I ran monthly behavioural checks with our staff and workshops on conflict resolution, how to give feedback, and how to receive it. It was grueling and emotional work. We still had turnover and we still had to deliver our product on time. Some days, every single person, myself included, would be on the production line.
“I ran monthly behavioural checks with our staff and workshops on conflict resolution, how to give feedback, and how to receive it. It was grueling and emotional work.”
But what happened was that as a team, we built more collaboration and more trust. People weren’t calling in sick as often, we’d hired almost a brand new team, and our CEO saw that revenue was going up.
I’d say that it took two and a half years of concentrated effort to successfully turn the culture around. Not many people realize how long it takes. If I’d known it would take three years of my career to do it, I’m not sure I would have started. But at the end of it, I was able to say: “I’ve left you in better condition than I found you.” And that, as HR, is my ultimate goal.
“It took 2.5 years to successfullly turn the culture around. Not many people realize how long it takes. But at the end of it, I was able to say: ‘I’ve left you in better condition than I found you.’ And that, as HR, that is my ultimate goal.”
On Hiring for Value Fit
When I joined Nested Naturals [as employee #9], our founders Jeremy and Kevin had already done a great job of defining our value system. So my role wasn’t to change the culture but to maintain and enhance it.
Our whole hiring process is built around our values, because when you bring in people who are aligned with your values, you can protect your culture even as you double or triple. When I’m recruiting, I ask candidates if they relate to them right up front. Those values are my first line of defense.
On Living your Values
We use our seven core values internally and talk about them every single Friday as a team. They inform our daily routines, our wellness initiatives, and our 360 reviews. For reviews, everyone is given feedback on how they’ve lived up to all seven values with concrete examples. Two things I hate are anonymity and rating scales, which is how most reviews are given. Instead, we aligned our process with the values of Honesty and Transparency. It’s worked out well because everyone wants the feedback.
“Two things I hate are anonymity and rating scales.”
At one point, the founders discussed revamping the values, and our team went up in arms about it. They’re not just words, they inform who we are as a collective, they’re what we bought into when we got hired. Nobody wanted them to change. That was a powerful message to me that we’re doing something right.
Importantly, everyone on our team is contributing to our culture and not just reaping the rewards. One person cannot change or maintain a culture; it requires a community and an army. I’m hiring community leaders, not staff members.
“One person cannot change or maintain a culture; it requires a community and an army. I’m hiring community leaders, not staff members.”
On Rituals and Routines
7:00 am: Working for Nested, there’s no such thing as a ‘typical day’, but we have some rituals. I’m an early riser, so I’m in by 7:30 to set our office vibes for the day: turn on the essential oil diffuser, make a fresh pot of coffee, choose some chill music and soft lighting for the morning crew.
9:00 am: We can set our own hours, but generally most people are in by 9. To break up the morning, we have a 10-minute meditation followed by 10 minutes of reading. It’s a chance to reset and take a mindful break. When we miss a few days of meditating together, the whole company feels it.
9:25 am: Team huddle. We each verbally set our intentions for the day to keep ourselves accountable.
9:30 am: After the huddle and before lunch is three hours of totally dialed-in, focused work. We have an open-concept office, so this is really important.
Lunch: Once a month, every person brings one ingredient for a team lunch. If it’s a salad, it might cost me $3 for some avocados, somebody else spends $3 on cucumber and lettuce. As far as workplace wellness goes, it gives everyone value at no cost to the company.
From 1-5 pm: my job is all over the place. Collage has made it really easy to manage time off requests once per day, conduct our monthly and quarterly check-ins, and boost our recruitment. Right now, my main focus is on building our 1-to-3 year company and career plans, so I’ve been spending my time in strategic meetings and one-on-ones. We also have our weekly rituals: Goal-setting sprints and Friday standups where we ‘pass the general’ to the employee who’s best demonstrated our values that week.
Finally, the real fun happens outside of routines. Last week, five of us took off on a Wednesday to go skiing in Whistler. It was one of our founders’ ideas. Even though it was a workday, we all put in the extra hours in the days before so we could get out there and enjoy it.
On Maintaining the Culture Beast
That feeling when you’re a 5 or 6 person company is so good. It’s so special, and you want to hold on even as you grow to 15, 25, 30…But there’s a point where company culture becomes its own beast. If you’re not constantly on top of it, you can easily have just one person destroy it.
I’ve been around long enough to see what a good company culture can do and what a bad company culture can do. I know when to hire somebody because they’re good for the culture and when to say goodbye to someone because they’re not. It all comes down to strong values and constant maintenance. My advice to startup companies: Hire HR earlier.
“My advice to startup companies: Hire HR earlier.”
On Building her Legacy in HR
We have some incredible companies that started out here in Vancouver—lululemon, Saje, Lush, etc.—that are known for their rapport with staff and cultures of wellness. In a couple of years, I want us to be right up there with them. That’s our ‘big, hairy, audacious’ goal, and I want to lead that charge. The great thing is that when you are a brand like that, it takes less recruiting effort. People are lining up at the door just to get a piece of that culture.
“We have some incredible companies that started out here in Vancouver that are known for their rapport with staff and cultures of wellness. In a couple of years, I want us to be right up there with them.”
I sometimes go home and shake my head, like: “How did I survive in the past without a company like this?” I feel blessed every day that Jeremy and Kevin have given everybody here the freedom and autonomy to do what they need to do in order to help the whole company grow.
A lot of HR ends up being about policies, headhunting, fixing issues. That’s not the fun part of HR. The fun part is making connections, figuring out risks and KPIs, problem solving and culture driving. I’m so fortunate to be working for a company that allows me to do that.
Thank you so much to Jen and the Nested Naturals team! Learn more about Jen on the Nested Naturals’ blog.