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Business + learning need to stay human-centered

Mariabrisa, Chief People Officer at Owkin, recently sat down with Jason Lavender, Co-Founder and CEO of Electives for a People Developing People interview.

Mariabrisa is a chief people officer at Owkin. Her headshot is in a circle frame with a white background. The background of the main photo is an ombre color that goes from an orange to a purple.Mariabrisa is a chief people officer at Owkin. Her headshot is in a circle frame with a white background. The background of the main photo is an ombre color that goes from an orange to a purple.

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Mariabrisa Olivares of Owkin shares thoughts on the evolution of HR

Mariabrisa, Chief People Officer at Owkin, recently sat down with Jason Lavender, Co-Founder and CEO of Electives for a People Developing People interview.

During their conversation, they discussed:

  • Why HR needs to ask the big questions
  • The positive impact of linking purpose and objectives
  • Why we should put humans at the center of training (even as we adopt AI)
  • How to create authentic connections
  • The impact of helping people create big wins
  • The importance of being kind to ourselves

Jason Lavender, Co-Founder + CEO of Electives: To kick things off, do you mind sharing your background and what led you to leading People today?

Mariabrisa Olivares, Chief People Officer at Owkin: I did my studies in Ireland, and one of my most inspiring professors was teaching about the theory of HR. She inspired me to pursue a master's while I was there. It was a research master's program, and one of the things I came upon was a study that was from Stanford that looked at Human Resource practices in high-tech startups.

It was interesting to analyze how building out high-tech startups in a small European country would differentiate from high-tech startups in the U.S. And what did that mean as it pertains to the human element?

I became very passionate about it and then moved to Brazil and had the opportunity to work in a few different industries — not initially in tech. My last job in Brazil was with Twitter, where I started pre-IPO.

At Disney, I took a sidestep and went into marketing. It was so useful for me to do that sidestep and see how HR was seen from the business side, and to discover some of the things that needed to change.

I saw that HR allows you to impact the whole business. You really look across the business when you're driven by the role of HR being a business partner and an enabler of achieving performance and success. So that's how I've been building on my career.

I came back to Europe, which is where I wanted to be, and I was lucky enough to work at King, the makers of Candy Crush.

I joined Owkin two and a half years ago. Owkin is utilizing AI to improve drug discovery and the performance of treatments. What brought me to this company was being able to join a company that was so purpose-led. What a fantastic challenge to help build out a company with a well-defined purpose and have the opportunity to create a culture that matches it.

Jason: How has the role of HR and People operations evolved? Do you have any predictions for the coming years?

HR needs to ask the big questions.

Mariabrisa: You can see the shift and the different roles that HR can play.

When you're in a more traditional company, HR can be known as “the naysayer.” They are to keep compliant with laws or policies.

When I was in a marketing role, I could see that. People didn't respect each other. Maybe they feared HR. And it wasn't seen as a department that was delivering value. The pay was being done, and the performance was being done. But it wasn’t driving the business. 

At Twitter, I learned HR is there to ask the big questions. Where are we going? How are we going to get there? Do we have what we need? Are we challenging ourselves enough? And if not, what do we need? What are the mindsets? What are the skill sets that we need?

HR has always been the one that does the dirty work. When managers don't want to do it, they talk to HR. But then during the pandemic, no one knew the answer, and HR was still expected to save the business. HR was critical in figuring out how people would succeed in remote settings. 

The HR role has always been critical. But during the pandemic, it came to the forefront that HR guidance can have a significant impact.

I believe acknowledging the importance of the HR role will continue.

We're starting to see more companies returning to the office and thinking, “Let's come back to where we were before.” But that's impossible, because people are forever changed.

The employee has a lot more power in terms of how the business should be run. There's a big move to give a lot more visibility and for employees to be in the driver’s seat of how the business creates its processes. So I think there are still challenges ahead.

Jason: We often hear some companies struggle to build a learning culture, and others do it well. What variables have you seen that cause this?

Purpose and objectives must be linked to create engagement.

Mariabrisa: It’s linked to purpose and culture. When you're building something aligned with your strategy, your efforts seem genuine and the “why” is a lot easier to understand.

Companies fail when they're trying to build out cookie-cutter solutions or things that have been done in other businesses that don't necessarily have a direct link with the why of what the company is doing.

When companies achieve beautiful synergy around the questions “What is our strategy? What is our culture? What are our processes and policies and rituals?” it's more effective. People get bought in. They get engaged. They feel empowered to participate.

Learning has to have a bit of ownership from the employees. It can't just be company-driven, because it doesn't feel genuine if it's being imposed rather than participated in.

Jason: You've already hinted at your answer, but can you fill in the blank in this sentence: “Building a learning culture at work would be easier if ____.”

Mariabrisa: If there was a clear reason why.

Jason: What would you describe as modern learning and development in 2024?

Modern training puts the human element at the center.

Mariabrisa: That's a great question. 

I think traditional learning is about receiving information. You go to a training. You participate in the training. You get the information.

A more modern training is participative. The human element is at the center. Because, at the end of the day, learning is about changing mindsets. It's about learning new behaviors or new skills. And really for that to be embedded, it requires a change in the human.

When you put the human at the center in a much more effective and participative way, when they're not just receiving but they're actually engaging and contributing to it, that would be a much more modern way of learning.

Jason: Do you have any predictions about what skills people need for the future?

Even as we adopt AI, the human element must remain.

Mariabrisa: Data is at the center of everything. Helping people understand the complexities of data and AI including its ethics and utilization of it will be important.

But then, to counterbalance that, we need to continue on this trend of centering the human element.

We often teach about developing a person for individual performance. How do they get better at performing? How do they get better at communicating? 

At the same time, we often fail to think about how we help others to be better. I think the element of effective collaboration is going to be really important. 

Jason: At Electives, it’s our mission to help people grow and connect. We think of learning as a good way to connect people, and I'm always curious about what other companies do to create connections.

Bringing people together creates authentic connections.

Mariabrisa: Our CEO is very passionate about bringing people together. We hold offsites, because we are widespread. Bringing people together for meaningful experiences together is the main focus.

We still talk about strategy, of course. But the primary objective is building special moments together, where people can talk and connect and see each other. 

We’re enabling people to find common ground on things beyond the elements of work, to ensure that they're connecting at a human level.

Jason: As your role has evolved, what are you most passionate about in terms of leading people?

Helping people find the bigger win is rewarding.

Mariabrisa: I get most excited when I can help people at an individual level. When I can help them find the bigger win. 

People often get stuck on the little things. I like helping people focus on the outcome that they want. I enjoy helping people take the lead and go after their passions.

Jason: Do you have any advice for an up-and-coming People leader?

HR leaders should be kind to themselves.

Mariabrisa: The most challenging thing about being in HR is that you are often expected to have all the answers, and you're often used as the scapegoat.

It’s important to be kind to yourself. I find it so useful to have a network of other HR leaders that I can call. We’re empathetic about the fact that we do not have all the answers and that we're dealing with humans. It's not a one plus one equals two. We’re trying our best, and that is enough.

Learn how to build a high-performance culture

About Mariabrisa Olivares

Mariabrisa Olivares is a seasoned HR professional with a rich background spanning consumer brands and technology sectors. With experience across the globe, from Sao Paulo to Paris and London, Mariabrisa has excelled in creating and managing HR strategies and cultures in diverse and challenging environments. Her career showcases a commitment to excellence, beginning at The Walt Disney Company in Brazil.

Mariabrisa's journey through HR leadership includes significant positions at Twitter as the Head of HR for Latin America, at King as the Senior Director for Global Learning and Organizational Development, and most recently she served as the Chief People Officer at Ogury and now at Owkin. In each role, Mariabrisa focused on supporting dynamic work environments and developing her leadership skills.

With a Master's degree in Literature from the prestigious University College Dublin, Mariabrisa combines her academic prowess with her professional experience to foster innovative and inclusive workplace cultures. Her passion for her work and her ongoing quest to challenge herself mark her as a dynamic leader dedicated to nurturing talent and driving organizational success.

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