Interview: Ciara Lakhani, Chief People Officer at Dashlane

Ciara currently serves as the Chief People Officer at Dashlane, an app out to fix the UX of the internet by filling out your passwords and payment information online. Dashlane’s team of ~300 employees across Paris, New York, and Lisbon is united by our passion for improving the digital experience and the belief that with the right tools, we can help everyone realize the promise of the internet. Dashlane has empowered over 15 million users in 180 countries to dash across the internet without compromising on security.

Ciara is originally from New York but is currently based in Paris, where Dashlane was founded before expanding to the US and Portugal. Ciara previously led the People function at Compass while it scaled from 84 to over 400 employees. She had her first People start-up role in 2003, but spent 6 years with large global teams at GE in between. Ciara studied Psychology at SUNY Geneseo and has a MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Ciara spoke to Shelby Wolpa, Founder of Shelby Wolpa Consulting, about how….

Tell us about your role at Dashlane and the work you do on a day-to-day basis.

As Chief People Officer, I lead all people and office experiences. This includes the Talent Acquisition, Office Managers, People Experience, and People Operations & Development teams. A lot of my time is also spent in my role on the executive team, including board meetings, setting business strategy & priorities, then filtering those priorities down to my team so they understand what’s going on in the business. 

When I started 3 years ago, the people team was myself, one recruiter and one intern. We’ve now grown to include many more local & global recruiters, Office Managers in each of our locations, plus three People Operations & Development team members.

Our Office team owns all people experiences but has largely moved to working remotely. We still have leases on offices in all three countries, but not married to keeping them, since we announced remote work. 

How has the workforce grown over your three years at Dashlane? 

Over the past 3 years it grew from ~80 to ~300 employees. As of November 2019, we had doubled our headcount over the previous year. We anticipate continued headcount growth over the next year to ~325 employees. We have team members based in France, the US and Portugal. Employees can choose to work remotely anywhere in these three countries.

How does working as a People leader differ at a globally distributed company like Dashlane, compared to a company that’s all based in one place?

  • At my last startup, started in once place but quickly exploded all over the country
  • Have to focus on time zones, and understand how you’ll flex to each other
  • Must be a lot more creative about how you spend your time. People may feel those close to you have an advantage, but have to be intentional to mitigate that
  • Her direct reports are global, everyone speaking not in their native language. Cultural differences – have to invest a lot of time to make sure there’s a clear understanding 
  • They’ve declared to have no HQ, even thought they do have one legally
  • At GE, everything was understood through a US lens
  • At Dashlane, most of the company is based in France & Portugal, but everyone is expected to speak in English so have to be mindful of that and adjust
  • Overview
    • There’s no right or wrong best practice to report by geography or function
    • Set it up one way, then change it up ~7 years. Rethink, change people’s minds
    • At Dashlane, when faced with this question, let’s discuss trade-offs of each and think about what other parts of business are needed to do it the same way. We decided, given we’re a SaaS business, not headcount intensive, 6-hour timezone difference, let’s go with functional hierarchy and not differ by country. 
      • Jobs physically present (ex. Office manager) are geo-specific, but most roles are not. Ex. Dev Ops is spread across all 3 countries, managed by someone in US. 
  • How did Dashlane operate pre-pandemic?
    • Largely in-office. Have gone through 3 guidelines of remote working. No first-time executives.
      • Leaders enjoy working in the office and view it as more productive since collaboration is more straightforward
      • Pre-pandemic, getting leaders to trust remote working took time
      • Same for parental leave. Extended leave iterated over time. Secondary caretakers is now 1 month. 16 weeks in the US for primary. 
      • Looked at benchmarking and at companies they admired to understand how policies have evolved to attract top talent. 
  • What are your post-pandemic plans for working (ex. Going back into the office, remote friendly, remote-first)?
    • In July, announced “employee choice-first”. We’re a small company. We’re not going to incorporate in a bunch of other countries just because you want to move there, but can employ you in 3 countries. 
    • Recognize some people will want to continue coming into the office, but some will want to move away from office, although some roles will be required to come into the office 
    • Anticipates a hybrid working world, yet for most of covid, offices have been closed until there’s a business need to be there
    • Employees have chosen to come in b/c working in incredibly small apartment, small children at home, extroverted people who want to work around other people
    • A lot of protocols for in-office safety and follow local government regulations. Supported employees if they wanted to work in a conference rooms, signups. Support employees reasonably as long as it’s not harming the business
  • How does the People team factor into––and shape––the culture at a global company like Dashlane?
    • We believe we’re there to support a culture that’s growing organically, and recognize local differences. Even if a people person is supporting employees in one country, so we can tie into culture more broadly and even connect socially 
  • Global versus local policies
    • We try not to have too many defined policies
    • We don’t give you rules unless it’s really needed, for example, for compliance purposes
    • We want to explain our philosophy and principles
    • Ex. Applicants who apply in Europe are applied to GDPR, whereas US applicants are not so keep applications on file longer in Europe
    • Ex. Vacation is different in all 3 countries
  • How is your management structure set up to support your global team (ex. global versus local management reporting lines)?
    • How did you land on this structure? 
      • Pros: In terms of people’s career development, when someone’s manager has been in a similar profession, it suits their development better than a local structure in which your manager doesn’t necessarily have your similar function. It also allows for greater learning from peers within the same team to learn from. Every time you gather, everyone is in the same career path (ex. All customer support folks together). Most managers notice deficiencies and process improvement per department. One team deciding strategy (ex. How best to support customers)
    • Was it always set up this way or did you learn from a prior setup and adjust? It’s been this way from the start. When joined at 90 EEs, wasn’t much org structure. Eng was in France. Marketing in US. so didn’t have to think about it
    • What are the pros/cons of this structure? 
      • Cons: Generally will have people from different locations will complain as they feel more affinity to people in location. Manager doesn’t understand their local needs. Lots of noise doing it this way. 
    • Anything you’d do differently if you were setting things up from scratch?
  • How do you structure your people team to support your global team?
    • How did you decide between a centralized people team versus a localized people team?
      • If decentralized, would need more headcount so was a financial decision
    • What are the pros/cons of each?
      • Pros: Everyone is aware of totality of company, not just one country. People are working closely with peers and employees who are located in other countries
      • Cons: People think they are disadvantaged if not based in same time zone, location. We want a training budget for our country.
      • Sometimes compromises if you decide on a global strategy, there may be local adaptations for local practices. If different, must explain why they are different and be ready to answer b/c people talk and will generally be aware of the differences. 
  • What advice do you have for People leaders looking to build a global HR team?
    • Be ready to spend time, even if virtually, building relationships with people across your entire team. Talk to your direct reports most days. Easy to overlook with everything going on with an HR team
    • Don’t be scared. You don’t need to personally become a legal expert in all countries in order to lead it effectively. You can use outsourced services, employment counsel, local employees. 
    • We have local employment counsel in each country. Haven’t found payroll providers we’re happy with. Varying experience with global benefits brokers, which varies by country. 
    • We also reach out to peer companies in each country to learn from each other. People team is connected to local networking groups or applicants to learn from and share practices
  • Dashlane has experienced dramatic growth during the past X years. How has this impacted your role and how you interact with your colleagues and other Dashlane employees?
    • In Nov 2019, we had doubled headcount over the last 12 months. All employees felt this growth. Had impacts to employee engagement score. New hires had questions, needed to learn the code base. This slowed us down for a while – many involved in interviews, onboarding new hires. Employees were happy when this slowed down so they could spend time doing their core work. Felt drag of hiring, even though was needed to ultimately scale. 
  • What do you think will be the most significant changes we’ll see in People Ops over the coming 18-24 months?
    • Pace of changing people practices will be further accelerating after we come out of a pandemic. More constant adjustments, which will vary by country. What will EEs ask as a result of that – do I need to work in the office? Can I move? Need to support employees and managers on ways of working that will come from these shifts. 
  • What are the important projects and/or milestones you’ll work on over the coming 18-24 months?
    • Paused on OKRs outside of Recruiting right now
    • Integrating new CEO into culture and help them have the right approach globally, given they will start during the pandemic
    • How do we take what’s happening in the market and add the companies view of what this means for Dashlane. Give our EEs as much choice as possible while still serving our business goals
    • Continuing to find global and local approaches to DEIB. 2020 was a year of strides for that. Spent a lot of time explaining this to global team. Employees asked “Isn’t this a US issue?”
      • Paris & Portugal: Don’t have a full-time DEI leader yet, but 1 HR person works with local teams to build in feedback. Decided to do inclusive language training and roll it out globally. Clarification added in Portugal, and only there. All 3 recordings available
      • When BLM movement happened, decided to talk to entire company about it. Did it in US time zone, but invited everyone. Why don’t we talk about carbon offsites more? Aren’t they important too? How do you compare a human right tissue to carbon offsites? France understood these issues, but Portugal didn’t quite understand. 
  • What people technology tools are you using to support this work?
    • Enboarder – great tool to onboard people across multiple locations
    • BambooHR – global HRIS, good for our size and price point
    • CultureAmp – engagement 
    • Small Improvements – performance; very customizable

Shelby consults with CEOs, People Leaders, and Venture Capital firms who believe people-first cultures empower successful companies. 

She provides her clients with guidance in the areas of:

  • Remote & distributed work expertise
  • People leadership advisement
  • People technology strategy

Learn more at shelbywolpaconsulting.com

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