Saba Chief People Officer Debbie Shotwell on creating a culture that values the human side of work

Dec 17, 2019 - Joe Matar

Before we get started...

  • Brazen spoke with Debbie Shotwell, Chief People Officer at Saba Software to get an inside look at how the HR tech company views talent, retention, as well as learning and development. 
  • “One of the tricks of acquisitions is to really look at the skill sets, really find out what people have to offer and can you put them into other roles,” Debbie says of handling redundancies after a merger. 
  • While new technologies like AI have a role to play in HR and TA, organizations should have a clear understanding of their desired outcome when implementing new solutions.   

In the digital era with the constant focus on new and expanding technology, the companies that set themselves apart are the ones that are continuing to focus on their greatest asset — their people.   

With an innate appreciation and respect for people, Debbie Shotwell aspired to a career in HR from a young age. She says she’s always held the belief that organizations would start to recognize that “people are the most important assets.”

Fast-forward to today. Debbie, who now has 25 years of experience, is seeing her vision play out as the Chief People Officer at Saba, a talent management software company with more than 700 employees. Not only does she oversee human resources, but she also has a voice at the table with the product development team.

“Finally, organizations are realizing that human resources and the people organizations are bringing a lot to the table,” Debbie says during her interview for Talent on the Rise, Brazen’s new podcast about transformative leaders and how they got a seat at the table. 

Check out the full episode on your favorite podcast app:




Throughout her career, Debbie has worked in a range of industries, including healthcare and real estate, and for companies of different sizes — from startups to Fortune 500s and everything in between. 

“I’ve worked in a lot of different organizations,” she says. “But the bottom line has to do with the people and it has to do with what the people can do for the organization and delivering great results based on the mission, the vision and the culture … The human side of work is so important.”

Based on our conversation, here are a few tips and highlights from Debbie’s people-first mentality.

Think creatively about employee integration

Since joining the team at Saba two years ago, Debbie has worked through two business acquisitions. 

“The people part of the acquisition is the most important,” she says. 

Of course, when you’re combining teams, redundancies can arise. But that doesn’t always mean that everyone needs to be let go. 

“One of the tricks of acquisitions is to really look at the skill sets, really find out what people have to offer and can you put them into other roles,” she says. 

Her advice is to look at an employee’s background and skills to determine if there’s another role where they might fit. Sometimes all an employee needs is a little training in order to excel in another position.

Recognize the new career reality (and adapt)

Speaking of training, Saba launched a new learning experience platform called, “me:time” to help employees personalize their career journeys. 

“It’s all about how you work and how you bring yourself to the table,” Debbie explains. It’s a tool that helps facilitate employees’ long-term career goals. For example, if you’re an engineer and you’d like to change to account management, the platform will guide you through it. 

Catering to employees’ individual career pursuits is an important value at Saba — one that it wants to help other companies embrace as a way of meeting the demands of the future of work. 

“The organization is realizing that individuals don't always have to stay in the same career forever,” Debbie observes. 

Put technology in its place

While technology plays an important role in assisting TA and HR leaders, Debbie warns that it’s important to not lose focus on the people.

“Technology at times overruns really what you're trying to accomplish,” she says. In a world that is constantly transitioning to technology and AI, it’s vital to find the correct balance. 

“When I'm looking at what I'm trying to do for an organization and what their overall business strategy is, I don't want to look at the technology. I want to look at what the outcome is,” Debbie explains. 

“And the outcome might mean that we use a technology. But you really have to look at the process and the way you go about the implementation of a technology in your organization.” 

Lean on data to secure your seat at the table 

Debbie acknowledges that getting a seat at the C-suite table and with the board isn’t without struggle.“If you're not at the table, people can't hear your voice,” she says. 

She advises HR leaders to make the case for investing in people by linking it to profitability. “You have to bring data … you have to show the ROI. You have to show how you can really benefit the company and that you're not overspending,” she adds. 

Traditional metrics like cost per hire and the number of people who accept and decline positions are helpful, but Debbie suggests taking it a step further. 

“Some of the things the board really look at is: How are you doing out there in the world? What's your perception of the company?

At Saba, she’s focused on making changes to increase the company’s Glassdoor rating. In fact, the board asks for this data. Over time, the company has seen a 150 percent increase in the number of followers on the platform and the CEO has a 94 percent approval rating on Glassdoor. 

She credits this with Saba’s culture of listening to employees and setting realistic goals, as well as consistent social media engagement. 

By reminding company leaders of the bigger picture — that inspiring employees and making them excited about where they work helps the company overall — you’ll be able to build up the data you need to build the case for your ideas among other executives and board members.  

This article is based on an episode of Talent on the Rise, Brazen’s new podcast about transformative leaders and how they got a seat at the table. Subscribe in your preferred podcast app.