“I Love Working at the Intersection of People & Business”: Meet Dawn Sharifan, Former SVP of People at Slack and Nava Advisor
As a Nava Advisor, Dawn Sharifan is committed to pioneering innovation and connection for the future of HR. In this Q&A, the Former Slack SVP discusses why community is so important in HR, gives advice for HR pros looking to build out their network, and unpacks the latest “HR puzzle” (or 3D Chess game) she’s trying to solve.
They say “If you want to go far, go together” — and we’d be hard pressed to find a better idiom to describe Dawn Sharifan’s outlook on HR.
Throughout her 20+ year career, she’s demonstrated a commitment to working with others to drive innovation and outcomes, both for employees and the greater HR community. From leading the charge to launch inclusive benefits at innovative companies like Slack, to educating the next generation of HR leaders as an adjunct university professor, her impact on the HR space is rooted in connection and community.
As she joins the Nava Benefits Advisory Board, Dawn is recommitting herself to shared learnings, innovative benefits, and a strong community. And we’re so ready to go far together.
Read on to learn more about Dawn.
You’re big on finding your people and building a community. What has support from your community enabled, both in your day-to-day and your overall career?
For HR leaders, community is key to solving problems without constantly reinventing the wheel. Even years into my career, I still come across issues I’ve never dealt with — but there’s a good chance that someone else has solved that problem before. The secret is to take their experience and know how to apply it to your specific business situation.
For example, when COVID hit and pushed us all to support employees and our business in a fundamentally different way, my community really showed up. We had weekly calls where we were able to ask each other, “What are you doing?” “What are you hearing?” “Also, isn’t this just really freaking hard?”
You could try to do it all yourself. Or you could tap into collective brain power and solve problems together as a community. This doesn’t mean just take someone else’s playbook and apply it to your world, but it does mean you don’t always have to start from a white sheet of paper.
Another reason why I believe so strongly in connection: HR can be an extremely lonely position. You can’t really have friends at work in this role, but you still need human connection. That can come from your community.
There’s no doubt about it — working in HR is much harder than most HR leaders let on. What keeps you going on the bad days?
Most people I have met in the HR space got into it either by accident or because they liked people. I think that is a fine reason to start, but it isn’t the reason to stay in the profession. It’s just too hard and burnout is real.
I try to keep my eye on the long-term impacts of my work. The days are short, but the years are long. And I think when you look back at what you’ve accomplished over the years, it can be pretty amazing. What used to be all white space is now filled with things that the team built together. The hope is that those “things” make meaningful impact to employees’ lives and the business overall.
And on the real rough days, I’ll eat a slice of pizza (or two), do a meditation, take some walks — those small acts of self care fill up my gas tank so I can keep going. When you’re in HR, you spend most of your time focusing on others. I try to remind the team, and myself to put on our own oxygen masks first.
What guidance would you give HR leaders who are looking to build out their network?
When you’re reaching out to someone new, make sure you approach them with a specific point of view. If someone I don’t know hits me up on LinkedIn and is just like, “Hey, I’d like to add you to my network,” I’m not necessarily going to engage.
But I have made some really lovely connections when someone has reached out to me and said things like, “I saw your talk on this.” “I’m really curious about that.” “I’m trying to solve this problem, can you help me?” Then I’m more inclined to engage and get curious to have a meaningful conversation.
After you’ve been connected to someone for a little while, I’d encourage you to ask this classic question: “Is there anyone in your network who you think I should talk to now? Would you mind making the introduction?”
Finally, the key to a strong community is keeping yourself available to help others. You build your network when you don’t need it. That’s when you really start to build something great, by helping people and being helped in return. Virtuous cycle.
We work with a lot of HR teams-of-1 who are torn between priorities and finding time to do it all. What advice do you have for them on how to prioritize?
Well, if you’re having this challenge, then let me just say: welcome to the profession!
I think this is one of the hardest parts about working in an HR role. No matter how good you are, there will always be something that pops up and derails your to-do list. And if you’re not prioritizing correctly, it can have real-world impacts — maybe someone can’t get in for a critical doctor’s appointment, someone’s paycheck didn’t get processed and they can’t pay their rent… You must have the ability to easily context shift and differentiate the urgent from the important.
It’s a “classic” frame but I often use the “urgent and important model” from the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It’s very easy to get caught up in the urgent. But then how do you slow down and do the important? So I’ll ask myself: Is this urgent? Or is this important?
I also think people in the HR profession sometimes feel uncomfortable pushing back or communicating boundaries, but setting deadlines can be very helpful. Simply saying “I don’t have the bandwidth to get to this today, but I’ll have this ready by Friday” — that goes a long way. While I do see part of the role as a service role, you don’t always have to say yes.
What are you most proud of in your time as SVP of People at Slack?
After almost seven years at Slack, I feel like a fundamentally different leader. When I first joined the company, I admit I struggled with imposter syndrome. I figured it out as I went along, hired a wonderful team, and work with genuine leaders who truly care about people. I was pushed to get more comfortable with the idea that I’m not always going to be the subject matter expert and that we were trying to do things that might just last for the next six months because the company was growing so quickly.
I’m proud of the intentionality we tried to build into every part of the People programs. We tried to ask why are we doing this — not just recreate what we had built at prior companies. We created benefit programs with equity and inclusion in mind. We fought for prescription benefits or surgery support that other programs didn’t provide. From the time we offered parental leave, we offered equal bonding leave regardless of gender.
And what’s the biggest HR puzzle you are still trying to solve?
Are we still doing puzzles? It feels more like HR leaders are playing 3D chess now.
Over the past few years, our jobs have become significantly more complex — more than I’ve ever seen in my entire career.
Take your pick: COVID, pay transparency, social justice, “quiet quitting” and the power dynamics behind it, the recession, political divides, career growth, new manager expectations… Ten years ago, any one of these would have been the biggest thing I was working on.
And it’s all new frontiers. That means you can’t look to the left and right to see what other companies have done before. Because we’re all dealing with it for the first time. Who has been through a pandemic before? Well…. We have now!
If you’re looking for one answer in particular, I think there’s one issue in particular that HR leaders should focus on right now: the future of work. We’re in a transformational time, and I think the employers who handle change authentically are going to come out on top.
What role can brokers play in transforming and reforming healthcare?
The relationship with your broker is key to an effective benefits strategy. I rely on them to tell me about trends in the market, like healthcare costs or compensation data. These insights help me continue offering my employees the support they need.
But when I’m working with a broker, it’s also essential that we’re on the same page about one key issue: healthcare accessibility. Our employees need to be able to get the care they need, without fear of surprise bills, high premium costs, lack of access to parental leave, or anything else that may disrupt their health or wellness. I expect for my broker to use their influence to advocate for these issues, both on behalf of their clients and within the general healthcare space.
And how can Nava lead the charge to make this vision a reality?
The healthcare industry is ripe for disruption and I do think it will be fundamentally different over the next few years. Nava has the opportunity to be an influencer in this space and help define that future. That’s on a macro level.
On the personal level, one of the things that initially attracted me to working with Nava is the opportunity to help build a community. With everything that’s happened over the last couple of years, it’s more important than ever for HR leaders to be able to turn to their peers for support and guidance.
Especially for those among us who are HR teams of one, or are leading people ops at small businesses with less than 100 employees, it can be nearly impossible to drive the ball forward alone. No matter where we happen to sit, HR professionals are all in this together, and most of us are more than happy to help each other out.
We're so thrilled to welcome you to the Nava Benefits Advisory Board. What do you hope to accomplish through this partnership?
I’d like to support the next generation of thinking around healthcare, both from the employer’s perspective and from a national point of view. Not only is it an interesting conversation, but it’s also an essential one to have. We have the opportunity to shape a future where accessible healthcare is the norm — but we have to take that opportunity.
I’d also love to offer my experience to help guide others in the community. I’ve been doing this for 20 years — and after those years, I happen to know a few things. But I also want to anchor that guidance in empathy and connection. There are tons of HR professionals with their own unique experiences, and I’d love to learn from them as well.
Connect with Dawn and other Nava Benefits Advisors in our new digital community! Learn more and apply to join here.
The brightest minds in healthcare and employee benefits have joined Nava Benefits on our mission. Learn more about the Nava Benefits Advisory Board.