Applying empathy in how you connect with and grow your people. That’s what being a #PeopleFirst leader means to Penny Farinha, VP of HR at ecobee.

Every few weeks, I chat with a #PeopleFirst leader that I admire and respect and put them in the hot seat to learn more about the leadership lessons they’ve learnt that make them the #PeopleFirst leaders they are today.

Who in the world 🌎 is Penny Farinha?

Jane: What was your first job growing up? Did you have any memorable life lessons that you gained from this experience?

Penny: Growing up in rural Ontario on a dairy farm, my first job when I was 14 years old was as a strawberry picker in the summer months. I would wake up at five or six in the morning, my mom would drop me off in the fields, and I’ll be off picking strawberries. I got paid on how fast I could pick and how good my berries were. This job taught me a lot about perseverance, determination and work ethic and to this day, I have the superhuman power of picking strawberries incredibly quickly. 😄

Jane: Do you have a role model you look up to for becoming a better leader?

Penny: I wouldn’t say I have a single leader, but gain my inspiration from many different people I’ve met in my life.In my early years, one person that stood out for me was Ruth. She was my manager when I worked in a high-end fine china store in the Thousand Islands. Every day, she would share with me her philosophies on life and work. Even in her sixties, she had an amazingly progressive view of life. A minimalist, she focused on what’s important in life – getting to the root of what makes a person happy and engaged in what they’re doing. She taught me that starting by putting proper balance in your life you can achieve anything you put your mind to.

Leadership Lessons through Penny’s Glasses 😎

Jane: What’s one thing you wish you had learned earlier as a leader?

Penny:  Let me tell you the story of a memorable email I once sent. While I was working at FreshBooks, I sent an email to my colleague where I detailed all the facts and findings relating to an issue we were trying to solve. At the end of the email, I asked “what do you think?” Shortly after, he came by my desk and said – “You laid out a lot of great facts in your email, but do you know what you missed?” I was stumped. What did I miss? And he said simply, “Your opinion. You didn’t give me your opinion, you defaulted and you just asked me what I think.” From this incident, I learned about the importance of developing an opinion, sticking to what I believe in and not defaulting to others to make important decisions. It doesn’t mean that I can’t ask for help along the way or that I can’t change my opinions as new facts come your way. It does mean that I stand up for what I believe in and make decisions that are aligned with my beliefs.

I learned about the importance of developing an opinion, sticking to what I believe in and not defaulting to others to make important decisions.

– Penny Farinha

Jane: And how do you to bring this lesson into your everyday actions?

Penny: I believe my role is to empower the people I work with so that they feel confident to share their own opinions, thoughts and feelings. I want them to be trailblazers, learning, developing and sharing their own unique ideas with the team and the world at large. This starts with building a high degree of empathy for the people you work with. Show that you genuinely care and create a safe space for them to voice their opinions.

People and Culture at ecobee

Jane: I hear that ecobee is growing rapidly. As the VP of HR, what keeps you up at night?

Penny: When I joined ecobee nearly three years ago, they didn’t have an HR department. I was the one and only…for a short period of time. Soon after, we started building out our HR team to support our team of 100. Fast forward to today, we are 11 years old and have multiple products in the market redefining the connected home space. We now have 500 employees and 12 people in our HR team.

My biggest focus in this high-growth environment is not to lose sight of what made us a great company at 100 people and yet be agile enough to respond to the needs of our growing team. We are continually working towards scaling our company by hiring the right people, engaging them in a meaningful way and developing our talent to become even better than when they started at ecobee.

Tapping into new ideas with hackathons @ecobee. Photo: James Martin/CNET

Jane: At 100 employees it is easier to stay connected with your team compared to 500 people you are today. How do you stay connected to the voices and concerns of your people?

Penny: At ecobee, our philosophy is to have multiple touch points for gathering feedback that is the responsibility of all units of our business. From a detailed onboarding process where we gather feedback every step of the way, to more classic things like engagement surveys. We combine listening with the basic assumption that people want to be “in the know”. So we use strategies like departmental newsletters to create more openness and transparency about what others in different departments are up.

Another important part is the importance of creating personal connection between team members. In a fast-growth environment, we sometimes forget about this. At ecobee we use the Slack integration Donut to set-up coffee dates so that you can get to know one another. After all, not all types of communication at the office should be about work.

We combine listening with the basic assumption that people want to be “in the know”

– Penny Farinha

What does being a #PeopleFirst Leader mean to you?

Jane: Final question. What does being a #PeopleFirst Leader mean to you?

Penny: It means having an immense amount of empathy for others around you and understanding that empathy not only helps you engage with the people you work with, but is critical to business success. For an HR professional to be great at their job, they need to understand the different types of individuals in the company, their personalities, thoughts and feelings and align them with the vision and goals of the company.

Thank you Penny for sharing with us your stories and experiences as a #PeopleFirst leader.