I was aware online of how Katelin openly throws her whole heart into her work, so meeting her in person in Amsterdam at HR Tech World (now Unleash) was a real treat. Sitting near the front of the audience at her talk on reinventing L&D, I sensed her live passion for helping people grow. Katelin is an all-in, fine example of how thoughtful people and culture work in a company can make a tremendous difference, both to the lives of the people doing their work there, and to the growth and success of the business. I met up with Katelin to get to know her, deeply enough to share the story of her fascinating journey so far.
1. Tell us a bit about your professional journey, and what you do at Reddit.
I tell people that I’m not classically trained in HR – the People & Culture function found me later in my career, when I was least expecting it. Before I decided to go into tech, I worked in public education, law enforcement, finance, advertising, film animation at Pixar, and even toyed with writing children’s books. I was one of the first people in Silicon Valley to have ‘culture’ in their title and feel very fortunate to have found this space at the time that I did. During my tenure at Pixar, I was exposed to the incredible and thoughtful culture they had built. When I eventually traded in my Mickey ears for startup life, I wanted to bring with me some of what I’d experienced as an employee and apply that to smaller companies. Building teams and applying intentional cultural frameworks became an instant passion and I’ve had the pleasure of helping many young tech companies develop their voices and advocate for countless employees.
I joined Reddit nearly 2 years ago when they had just seventy-five employees. I was Reddit’s first executive HR hire and was able to build the entire People & Culture team from the ground up. Together with my colleagues, we built the new culture of Reddit. My dream was not to write an employee handbook; it was to give people the best possible workplace experience they’d ever had.
2. How is your team structured and what’s their main focus?
The People & Culture team includes everything that goes into the employee experience: Recruiting, Workplace, Events Administrative, People Operations, and Talent Development teams. We find and match the right people in the right jobs, help them develop along their Reddit journey, and spend our days making good on the promises we made when we invited them to join our team.
3. What do you think is the best way to recruit people?
We’ve tripled in size in the last year and a half. What I’ve learned over the last 8 years of hiring is that it’s all about authenticity. Too many companies spend time creating the illusion of the perfect workplace. We focus on honesty and transparency, aligning with people’s goals. The reality is that no company or candidate is perfect; it’s simply a matter of discovering those perfect points of intersection and engaging with those. Managing expectations from the beginning becomes critical. It’s important to be honest about who you are with the candidate – the good, the bad, the uniqueness – so that people aren’t disappointed with their decision once they’ve joined the team. How much clarity does this person need to feel comfortable in executing? How well-defined is the role as outlined? Will it shift in the future? How often do you reward the team? How do you measure success? All of these things are important to clarify up front so that you and your new recruit can focus on the work at hand and build a business together.
4. For you, what does an ideal workplace look like?
When you’re with a team that’s highly productive, hitting their goals, aligned in passion – a workplace has a certain buzz. It’s palpable. The catch is, you should also be able to feel the buzz when the business isn’t winning. The true test of a great culture comes when things aren’t going well. If in those hard times the energy and buzz in the people is still there, you’ve got a great culture.
5. Tell us about the culture you’ve helped build at Reddit. How has it set you up for the future?
Reddit’s culture is multifaceted, but if I had to summarize it I’d describe it as a culture of evolution. We established our values in my first three months at Reddit, with the first value being evolve. A culture of evolution gives permission to change the way you operate as your company and product develops. It also demonstrates that we’re not perfect, but we know where we want to be. Building your culture atop a value set that is rooted in aspiration allows each person, each team to grow and change alongside the business.
6. Do you have any advice for budding VPs of People & Culture out there? What can they do to get into a position like yours?
You need to be in a company that supports organizational learning and will encourage your exploration. This is exactly what attracted me to a junior role at Pixar, as I didn’t know what I wanted as a career back then. Pixar’s support for learning and development allowed me to explore different roles in many parts of the studio. But don’t rely on a company to do this for you. As an individual you also need to invest in your own development. Be realistic about the timescale needed to position yourself for the role you want. I took a significant pay cut from advertising to go to Pixar, as I could learn more and grow there. At the time, I valued learning and personal growth over income. Invest in yourself, outside the swim lane of your role, as culture isn’t set by one person. Connect with cultural influencers you meet at events and conferences. Lots of small things make up a People & Culture role. It’s about finding the unspoken things that are already happening, amplifying the great and unique bits, and putting a framework under them.
To move into a role like mine, then, you’ll need to position your story. Highlight what you’ve achieved beyond your previous job titles. How were you of service to others in your past roles? How have you advocated or celebrated your colleagues? Angle your story into the role you want and give your story a trajectory.
7. What would you say to those people who doubt the ROI of investing in improving their culture? How far is it quantifiable?
One of my greatest partners in the People & Culture space is Culture Amp. They’ve developed a platform that allows us to actually measure employee engagement and capture the sentiment in other critical areas of the business. Being able to benchmark against what the culture was before and where it is after initiating programs is very powerful. After just three months of starting my work at Reddit, our engagement needle moved dramatically. After a year we were way above the industry standard engagement level. In addition to engagement, we use this data to build our programs and understand what initiatives we should prioritize. For example, if we’re designing management training, we focus on areas our employees have highlighted as having room for improvement. All of this is done strategically to achieve the business outcomes we want as a whole company. Our front of house is focused on feeling, with the People & Culture team being the advocates of employees. We lead with heart, but have a lot of data and strategy behind it. We pride ourselves on being strategic and fair business partners.
8. Which skills are you most focused on helping your people build or develop?
That’s constantly evolving, but overall I’d say empathy. Another value we hold is “Remember the Human.” It’s as applicable to our users and our online communities as it is to how we interact with one another in the offices every day. We’ve grown so quickly over the last two years and it’s important for us to uphold that value now more than ever. From feedback training to celebrating wins, we’re constantly re-evaluating who we are as a culture, and how to thrive as we continue to develop and grow as a community.
9. How important is the physical space in building a great people culture?
It’s absolutely critical. This is something I learned from Steve Jobs; it was in the unofficial Pixar handbook. Every space there was designed with clear intent. Is this space for focused work, exploration, or community? How will people use the space? How does that align with business objectives? At Reddit HQ we have a large atrium, and the office is open plan, so people can see and engage with each other. Our spaces also have character. In San Francisco, for example, our headquarters are currently located in the Tenderloin in the old NBC West building – ripe with opportunities to partner with our community and give back. We also have offices in New York and Santa Monica. Each one of these spaces was designed with our people and goals in mind. The seating, the lighting, the private areas are all designed to have a form and function so that people naturally embrace the intention of the space.
10. In life, what does success look like to you?
Human connections, relationships, what you can build together — that’s what’s most important to me. The best jobs I’ve had have been the ones where I’ve made the closest friends. I feel successful when I’ve helped make connections between people that can last a lifetime.
11. What do you do in moments when you doubt yourself?
I’m very fortunate to have strong teams at work, in my network, and in my personal life. For better or worse, I’m always myself; I look to these teams for help – rather than trying to figure things out all alone. With this approach we can ask each other whether we’re on the right path, discuss the doubts, and create a plan for moving forward. Be honest with others about the doubts you’re having. Build yourself a strong network of people and use it. Don’t let your ego get in the way of doing that. This approach helps to keep your space creative. Remember that no one person ever has everything all sorted out, including you.
12. From memory, what’s the greatest thing that someone ever said to you?
My Mum and Grandma both used to say: “If it works for you, it works.” I still live by that.
13. Can you recall a moment when you experienced the biggest sense of freedom?
I know this may sound odd, but it was when I was in the middle of giving birth to my firstborn, as it put everything in perspective. All the things that were holding me back before suddenly didn’t matter. In the calm minutes that arrived between the excruciating pain of contractions, I found peace. The most intense feeling of freedom came then. Everything else fell away. Perspective is an incredibly powerful thing.
Big love and a thank you also goes out to Farah Kassam, Talent Development Director, for contributing so thoughtfully to our discussion, and for her passion sharing the story of the People & Culture team at Reddit.
About the HRWaterfall Turbo Interview Series
This series shines a light on people from across the planet who are speaking their truth, and making the world of work a more inspiring, vibrant, and fulfilling place to be.
On a journey to inspire 200,000 people professionals and leaders to positively evolve our workplaces