As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite” , we had the pleasure of interviewing Christina Cavalli, SPHR, SHRM-SCP.
Christina Cavalli is the Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer at Docupace, a solutions provider focused on digitizing and automating operations in the financial advice and investment industry. Christina continues to reinforce a strong company culture through her leadership in the areas of talent acquisitions, employee experience, and in creating rewards and talent management strategies that help drive Docupace’s growth and achievement of business goals. Christina is an active member of SHRM, PIHRA Los Angeles and has achieved the designations as a Senior Certified Professional (SHRM-SCP) as well as her certification as a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) through the Human Resources Institute.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I grew up in Santa Rosa, CA and moved to Los Angeles after graduating college. I fell into Business and Human Resources by accident. I was inspired growing up hearing stories about my mother’s career choice — which was truly her calling. Since grammar school, my mom had always known she wanted to be a nurse, and even when there wasn’t a lot of support for her to achieve her goal, she was able to put herself through college to become an RN. I was in awe of how much my mother loved nursing and how it fulfilled her life’s passion every day. As far back as I can remember, my experience was the opposite. I didn’t know what I wanted to do and throughout grammar school and high school I entertained ideas of becoming a lawyer, going into law enforcement, and then I finally decided on social work. After graduating from Sonoma State with a bachelor’s degree in Sociology, my plan was to work for a year and then pursue my master’s in social work. I started doing some temporary work for a staffing agency when I moved to Los Angeles — answering phones, processing timecards and scheduling interviews. After watching the recruiters in action for a few weeks, I decided that recruiting was something I could do; kicking off my career in recruiting. I didn’t anticipate transitioning into a Human Resources role until I started managing the temporary staff at 20th Century Fox for Ultimate Staffing. I began working very closely with the Human Resources team at 20th Century Fox and knew that was the direction for me. I made the transition to an HR Generalist role at one of the most unique non-profits, XPRIZE Foundation, which helped me prepare to lead our Human Capital at Docupace. XPRIZE is a non-profit that designs incentive competitions as a way to accelerate innovations to solve some of humankind’s grandest challenges.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
One of the most amazing and unexpected experiences was the announcement from our CEO to our internal team about my promotion to Vice President and CHRO at Docupace. The positive support and encouragement from across the organization was a bit overwhelming and emotional. I did not expect how it would feel to receive our team’s response to the announcement and how that would immediately inspire and motivate me to do even more to elevate our team and impact our employee experience. I also felt a great deal more responsibility to create that same kind of experience for others in the organization.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Sometimes a second chance is all you need. I’m not sure this turned out to be a mistake in the long run, however, shortly after I had started working at Ultimate Staffing’s 20th Century Fox Onsite, my colleague, Kristy Williams and I were in the process of hiring an employee for our team. We identified a candidate that we felt would make a great addition to our team. Everything was set for him on his first day, except that he didn’t show up. No phone call, no email, no return calls back to us, so in my mind, we had a no show situation and needed to move on. Late in the day, we finally received a call back to all our messages and emails and the candidate was apologetic and it seemed we had a misunderstanding of his availability and start date. At this point, I was extremely skeptical and felt that this was a big red flag that we shouldn’t ignore, but my colleague convinced me that we should give him on more chance. I reluctantly agreed and was pleasantly surprised, as it turns out we’ve all now been great friends for YEARS and have shared many laughs about how giving someone a second chance can sometimes lead to great success!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are several people who come to mind but there are four significant people who helped me find my way to this point in my journey. Helen McDevitt was an VP and HR Business Partner at 20th Century Fox who was my first Human Resources Mentor. She took the time to get to know me and helped me explore what I wanted to do long-term and helped me build the confidence I needed to change the course of my career. I pursued a certificate in HR Management from UCLA to gain knowledge in areas that I hadn’t yet experienced, which positioned me to transition from recruiting to an HR Generalist role. I also am forever grateful to Heather Carter, the Director of HR who hired, mentored, and helped me gain as much exposure to all things HR at XPRIZE Foundation. Heather also encouraged me to pursue my professional certification as a Senior HR professional. Another person who has been an incredible business mentor and even introduced me to Docupace was someone not in HR but a Chief Financial Officer, David Donell. David was an incredible teacher who helped me understand budgeting and financial statements. Without his guidance and encouragement, I might not have considered making the leap from non-profit to SaaS. Last but definitely not least, my current CEO, David Knoch, who honored me with my promotion to Vice President and CHRO earlier this year. I was incredibly humbled and profoundly grateful to have my contributions and strengths acknowledged. I think all of us want to know that the work we do is seen, appreciated and matters and when you know that someone values you, you want to contribute to the team in an even bigger way.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I’m an introvert by nature so I’ve found over the years that I do my best when I am prepared and get a good night’s rest both before and after a high-stakes meeting or presentation. I love my coffee in the morning to help me get going but I always hydrate with plenty of water before speaking. I am always working at my mindfulness practice to help me remain focused and fully present in the moment I’m in. I try to remind myself to pause and take a few deep breaths to help re-center and regain focus.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
The last year confirmed just how uncomfortable the topics of race, inclusion, diversity, and equality remain and how much work we must continue to do to keep these efforts alive. It’s critical for a business to have a diverse executive team because that helps to show the organization is truly all in on being a diverse, equitable and inclusive company. It’s about living and demonstrating this diversity as who we are. Despite efforts to build awareness in the workspace, racism and discrimination still exists. Yes, many companies created diversity, equity and inclusion departments or teams, but sadly I’ve seen some that only existed to check a diversity box. I’ve seen DEI teams that ultimately lacked the resources and proactive measures to deal with the core issues. Too often companies hesitate to talk through these issues and publish policies that emphasize diversity of ideas but still tip toe around racial diversity or gender diversity. Creating an environment where it is safe to talk about these topics directly is really one of the first steps to creating more diversity and inclusion. There’s no question, several studies have shown the concrete case for the benefits of diversity — diversity drives innovation, productivity and profitability. For me, inclusion is about fostering an environment where people can be their whole self, regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation, age, identity, or abilities. When people feel safe to be their whole self, they won’t be inhibited by that stress and they can do great work.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
I believe HR has an opportunity to be an influencer in creating change at both a macro level and micro level. One of my proudest professional moments was working with our CEO, David Knoch last year to lead our team in taking action as a response to the murder of George Floyd. This was a highly emotionally charged time that put a spotlight on the systemic racism that is deeply ingrained in our American culture. Our CEO asked our team to join him in taking action at a local level, to make a difference in a way that honors us as Docupace Team Members. I identified a non-profit organization, Urban TXT (Teens Exploring Technology) and we launched a program to raise money to help young men of color from low income communities in Los Angeles learn coding and help level the playing field and open doors to the types of careers that we are fortunate to have achieved. One of the first steps leaders can take is to act on every opportunity to have and further these — even when it’s uncomfortable. Acknowledge that there are different perspectives, meet people where they are, teach awareness to biases and microaggressions. Microaggressions are subtle but incredibly marginalizing examples of indirect or unintentional discrimination. We often don’t realize how historically rooted these terms are in our language. Terms like black-listed or white-listed is still common in our everyday vernacular, especially in the technology space but we don’t have an inclusive space if we aren’t aware that these terms can carry greater negative systemic implications. People have to know that they matter where they are. Be an ally talk to everyone, listen and let them be heard and be okay with being uncomfortable.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
I think the biggest difference is that an executive creates a vision of why and what success looks like. That vision is an idea — it’s not concrete, it may be incredibly aspirational, and it requires influence to help establish belief that we are able to create and achieve that success. It’s one of my favorite quotes from Spiderman, “with great power comes great responsibility.” The best executive leaders don’t take that responsibility lightly — they know it’s about building and maintaining trust — trust with people you may or may not get to know personally but people who have put their trust in you — they are placing their careers in your hands.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
One of the biggest myths is that executives have it all figured out. Executives are people — sure the title sounds intimidating but we are all people not to be placed on a pedestal. There’s knowledge gained from experience but remember, executives are people and you don’t need to be intimidated by their title. I love that we don’t have a hierarchy or authoritative model at Docupace. Everyone is accessible and available to all our team members, no matter what their role or title. It can take some adjustment for new hires to engage with our executives casually.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
It’s hard to narrow those down to just a few. I do believe that one of the biggest challenges or differences is how more women are typically managing multiple roles: career, raising children, or caring for parents and so often. Women are more likely to sacrifice one of those roles for the other. We continue to encourage women to go for it — you can have it all! At the same time, we don’t recognize that juggling career and family is complicated, and women may often feel like they aren’t living up to their potential in one of those areas. It is an incredible stress and we may even place those unrealistic expectations on ourselves in some cases. In my experience, I haven’t seen many male executives struggle with those types of decisions or expectations.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I suppose it was becoming more strategic. Early in my career, I recall hearing if you want to be an executive, you need to show you are strategic but I didn’t fully understand what being strategic meant. Being strategic isn’t just making good decisions; it’s about using perception, being proactive and looking at the bigger picture before making those decisions. It’s not just being in meetings and analyzing reports all day but it’s about listening, observing and taking time to think and being open to ideas that others have before taking action.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I don’t think that everyone is cut out to be an executive. Not everyone wants to put in the work to be a strong executive and leader. Successful executives respect the responsibility that comes with achieving and driving results; they also must have excellent communication skills — listening, writing, presenting and be open to new ideas. They also need to have the confidence to embrace difficult conversations. In the end, their job is to engage, inspire and motivate the organization. Someone who only is looking at the power or money that comes with a promotion to an executive role and doesn’t appreciate or understand the ongoing hard work that must continue after the promotion to an executive role. Being promoted or achieving an executive role isn’t the only path to success. I would encourage people to not get caught up in hierarchy, rank or title but focus on what success means for you — understand where you get your strength from and pursue those experiences. A topic we recently discussed in our executive team was if you would rather be significant or successful. I want to work with people who want to be significant and find inspiration in creating opportunities for others to be great. I think that’s an incredible trait for successful executives.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Be authentic and get to know your team as individuals. People want to be seen and valued as individuals not just as a member of a team or a cog in the wheel. Find out what motivates and matters to each of your direct reports.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I’ve continued to remain active in community service — this year I moved beyond fundraising for Urban TXT to serving as a volunteer to work with the students applying to their summer Hustle N Code Program. I’ve also tried to take the pay it forward approach — especially in mentoring others when they need guidance. Through the years, I’ve mentored and coached friends, family and colleagues through career changes or talked through the benefits of a career in HR.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. You can’t control other people — you can only control your own feelings, emotions and reaction to their actions or the situation.
2. Working in HR can be lonely. It can be especially lonely when you are a department of one. When you are working in HR you are exposed to confidential information, making hard decisions, delivering bad news, facilitating complex conversations. Even though you know you will be okay, some of those days, especially before a reduction or termination aren’t always easy.
3. Working in HR is incredibly rewarding. One of my favorite memories was creating and launching our Bring your Children to work day at XPRIZE. It was a team building and bonding in a way that afforded us to see the ripple effect we can have in our colleagues’ lives. Seeing our employees at work is seeing them in only one facet of their lives. Getting a chance to get to know their kids and seeing them with their families was a bigger picture moment. We impact our communities through our employees, their families, and their friends.
4. I suppose John Lennon did try to give me this advice in his song “Beautiful Boy” with his lyric “life is what happens to you, while your busy making other plan.” Somehow time feels like it goes by faster and faster now — don’t forget to savor the moments and people who are important to you — you don’t often get opportunities for do-overs.
5. It’s not about perfection — it’s about progress. Perfection is an idea — trying to achieve perfection can prevent you from taking action — embrace making mistakes, don’t let fear hold you back.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would love to launch a movement to help people not sweat the small stuff — so much of the stress we feel is often based on the pressures we create for ourselves.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
A few years back my Dad had shared some great advice with me. It was a time that I was playing a caretaker role in my personal life while trying to balance all of my normal work duties. My Dad told me to make sure to take care of the caretaker. It’s something I continually remind others when I see them in super hero mode — if you burn out and don’t prioritize your own mental and physical well-being, you aren’t going to be good to anyone else.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
That’s a really tough question — I don’t know how I would pick just one person! I think today, I’d love to have a meal with Brené Brown. I loved her book “Dare to Lead” and her podcasts on trust, vulnerability and being courageous — I can’t get enough! Her approach is so real and I always feel inspired — like there is something actionable in ever podcast that I can use in personal life and at work.