Shopify HR exec Brittany Forsyth discusses company's unique culture

Margo Hoyt, leadership solutions principal in Lee Hecht Harrison Knightsbridge’s talent and leadership development practice, recently sat down with Brittany Forsyth, the vice-president of human relations at Shopify and a recipient of OBJ’s Forty Under 40 award this year, to discuss her job and the HR challenges she faces at one of Canada’s fastest-growing tech companies. This is an edited version of their conversation.

MH: For anyone who hasn’t been paying attention to the hottest tech company in Canada, how would you describe what Shopify is and what you do?

BF: We’re a cloud-based platform designed specifically for small to medium-sized businesses. Anyone can use our software to design, set up and manage their stores through any sales channel, including the web, mobile, brick-and-mortar locations or pop-up shops, anywhere really. We are the only commerce solution that a merchant needs. Most of our 160,000 customers would identify as SMBs, but larger enterprises have started to take notice and now we have companies such as Wikipedia, Budweiser and the Los Angeles Lakers that are Shopify customers.

MH: So tell us about you. How did you start your career at Shopify?

BF: I have more of a unique background. I actually haven’t done HR in any other organization outside of Shopify. I completed my undergrad in HR at Carleton University, so I did have a little bit of experience, but I came into Shopify when they were looking for an office manager back in 2010, not HR. I fell in love with the company right away and said, “I want to do more. I want to do HR.” Tobi (Lütke, Shopify’s CEO) gave me the opportunity to get in the door and see what I could do. Over the past five years I’ve gone from office manager to HR manager to director and now VP. I’ve had an amazing time building up the human relations program and team at Shopify.

MH: You’re a successful young professional who didn’t have a lot of HR 'experience when you started; what’s been key to your success here? 

BF: It’s all about learning and developing, and for me specifically, it’s about getting the right support at different points in my career. Coming into Shopify and being very new to HR, I was naïve in so many areas. I believe this brought a lot of value to both Shopify and me. I looked at everything with a very fresh perspective. My previous experience hadn’t skewed my view of how things “should be.” Instead, I thought, “How do I want to build this?” I believe this allowed me to challenge bad processes and out-of-date HR practices and instead think of creative, intuitive solutions. 

At the same time, I realize this could have been very dangerous had I not had the right support around me. There are so many challenges that occur when you’re in an organization that has experienced as much growth as Shopify has, and it’s important to have the right people with the right knowledge to lean on in these moments. For that reason, I’ve always had great coaches and mentors in my career and I’m always working towards learning more, developing more and expanding my network and support. 

Furthermore, I’m very lucky to have an amazing team of leaders and executives here at Shopify who have always embraced my crazy ideas, even encouraged them and brainstormed with me. One of the neat things here is that HR isn’t seen as being my sole responsibility. I may come up with an idea or opinion, but there’s usually a discussion around it. Everyone at Shopify understands the importance of people, and we all have an opinion on the topic.

MH: You’ve developed a personal network of high-tech organizations. Tell us about that.

BF: Here in Canada, I’ve built up an HR network with a few different companies so that I can share knowledge and experiences, and see what cool new initiatives they’re working on as well. I’m also in constant contact with companies based out of San Francisco. Despite the disadvantage of being so far (away) geographically, I’ve made a conscious effort to spend time building these relationships through phone calls, e-mails and (online) hangouts. I also travel to San Francisco approximately once every quarter to meet with my network in person. HR workshops and conferences are also a great way to meet other professionals in the field. I definitely suggest that everyone reach out and expand their networks within the HR community.

MH: You speak about the culture and it seems to be a key ingredient in your secret sauce here at Shopify. What does it feel like to work here?

BF: I think it was always understood that there was something special that made Shopify, Shopify. I don’t think we necessarily labelled it as culture at first, though … I think that the understanding of culture was an evolution for us. 

We put so much value in our people and creating the right environment both physically and mentally has always been top priority. The office space is a real representation of our culture – it’s a fun and unique environment that was created to meet all the needs of our diverse team. When you walk into the building, you feel a buzz. You’ll immediately notice the colours, interesting structures and uniquely thought-out floor plan. Most importantly, you’ll realize right away just how friendly and driven everyone is. I’m lucky to say that I work with some of the most intelligent, amazing, cool and authentic individuals out there, and you can’t help but take that in when you enter one of our offices. 

MH: I know that learning and development is a huge priority for you. How do you approach learning and development in a way that’s consistent with your culture? Or does the culture of Shopify affect how you approach learning and development?

BF: I think the staggering growth at Shopify has forced everyone to develop and learn day-to-day, week-to-week, year-to-year. We often account one year at Shopify to 10 years anywhere else because things change that much. Constant development and learning has ultimately become a way of being at Shopify. 

One of our beliefs is that as the company scales, the key to an employee developing is their (team) lead. So … if we can develop the best leads in the industry, then we’re really going to provide the right environment for people to develop in their own careers. 

A specific group we have that really helps facilitate that is our talent acceleration team. It’s a team of coaches who primarily do one-on-one and team coaching. They also built out what we dubbed “Managify” workshops. It consists of … workshops ranging from basic management principles to high-level leadership traits and one-on-one coaching that specifically target an area for development. Managify is led by Tobi, our CEO. He does the kickoff and sets the tone to show how important it is to be a great leader at Shopify. Even with the importance of Managify and great leaders, we still believe in an “opt-in approach.” The belief is that you’re never going to learn and develop if you don’t care. If you don’t want to do it, it’s not going to stick with you and you’re not going to take it away and move forward. As a result, we offer all these resources, but leave it to the individuals to determine what meets their current needs. 

MH: When I think about what you do, so much of it is technical in nature. Often, technical experts have a hard time making the transition into effective people or business leaders. What is critical for developing those resources in your organization? 

BF: Up until this point, we’ve only hired a few people directly into leadership roles within the R&D departments. Generally, we’ve brought everyone in at the same level to build trust within the organization, and then we move them into lead roles once they have that trust and knowledge within Shopify. We’ve had directors from different companies come in and go back to being a developer, contribute at that level, then move back into a leadership role. 

There have also been, like most startups, many technical contributors that have moved to the management track. While many of them have been extremely successful, some of them have said, “You know what, this isn’t for me. I tried it and I’m going to go back to the other side.” And we’ve encouraged that as only that individual can really know what’s best for them.

For those who stay on the management track, support is critical. It’s the open conversations around the fact that leadership is hard and it’s not about what they have learned up to this point – it’s going to take time. 

MH: What advice would you give your younger self and other young professionals?

BF: When I first got out of university and I got the job at Shopify, I looked at everything as very finite. I thought as soon as I become the HR manager, I’ve made it, I’m done. And I think that’s something you learn in school – there’s always an end. What I’ve realized throughout my career is that it really is infinite. You learn to live and love the uncomfortableness of change and evolution and not knowing what’s next. I think people need to understand it’s never finite – there’s always more. 

MH: What are you most excited about for the future?

BF: The evolution and the growth of Shopify. It’s an exciting time – it makes you want to do more, learn more and keep growing with it!