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Zoë S. Harte: “Drinking enough water”

We are reminded how adaptable we are, as well as those we love. Recently I was very frustrated that I hadn’t been able to make time to do one of our (seemingly endless) loads of laundry. I had promised my son a specific shirt for the first day of school, and I hadn’t gotten to it. […]

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We are reminded how adaptable we are, as well as those we love.

Recently I was very frustrated that I hadn’t been able to make time to do one of our (seemingly endless) loads of laundry. I had promised my son a specific shirt for the first day of school, and I hadn’t gotten to it. It was a small thing, but that day it was the straw that broke the camel’s back and I sat down in a huff and was teary and annoyed with myself. My son came up to me and put his arms around me and said “Mum, it’s ok, it’s a global pandemic.” This is a tiny detail, but it’s a moment when I was reminded that we are all capable of giving each other grace, and that can make a world of difference.


The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place.

As a part of our series about how busy women leaders are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Zoë S. Harte.

Zoë S. Harte is the Senior Vice President of Human Resources and Talent Innovation at Upwork where she has led the team through growth and evolution for over seven years. She implements innovative talent management approaches and focuses on building a mission-driven culture for Upwork’s distributed team of employees and global network of freelancers. Zoë was recently named to SIA’s Global Power 100 Women in Staffing List.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I had originally planned to be a philosophy professor and was a broke grad student about to start earning my PhD when my career took an unexpected turn. I was lucky enough to be hired by Yahoo! in 1999 as a temp staffing assistant at the height of the first tech boom. After a time, I worked my way up into a role in the HR Business Partner team and loved it. I found that the volunteer counseling and social justice work I had done while in college, along with advantages and insight provided by the dinner conversations I had with my father who was the CEO of a tech company, served me well for being able to engage authentically with people in the corporate setting. At the same time, my passion for driving change for the better made sense in a business environment like Yahoo, which was having an outsized impact on internet culture and society at the time. I grew in that role for a number of years and then moved to work with a mentor in customer care at Yahoo, ultimately leading the international portion of its business for over 27 countries. My experience there taught me valuable lessons about the role of HR and I realized my passion was in driving results through people initiatives at a mission-driven company. After taking some time off to have a family, I returned to HR and found an incredible home with Upwork (formerly oDesk), whose mission is to create economic opportunity, so people have better lives. As the Head of Human Resources at Upwork, I’m carrying my personal passion forward, and have devoted my professional life to impacting the businesses where I work through people programs which enable more just, equitable workplaces and, hopefully, the world.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?

Earlier this year, we were working on a confidential program within the company, and there was a core group of us working on the preparation, process, and detailed execution plan. I pulled that team together from different places in the country to work together at a hotel for several nights. There were many real time updates we needed to make, and I wanted us to all be in it together. Working on communication plans in sweatpants over pizza together allowed us to be consistently aligned, cross check one another, and keep each other going when things were hard or we felt tired. I believe it’s important to do those things together. I never want to be a leader who isn’t in the trenches with my team. We are better when we are collaborating and iterating as a unit, and the success of that program was a testament to our teamwork.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Over the past few months our company has been working on an incredibly exciting and fulfilling project aligned with our mission. Upwork’s Work Together Talent Grants Program is an initiative designed to support business projects with missions directly tied to mitigating COVID-19’s devastating impact on individuals, communities and economies everywhere. The program’s goal is to provide small business owners working on COVID-related projects access to the highly skilled and talented independent workers on Upwork’s platform who are critical to developing and accelerating these initiatives. As part of the program, Upwork has provided selected organizations up to 25,000 dollars in talent credits to be used on the Upwork site, for a total of one million dollars in grant funding. In turn, these funds create economic opportunities for the independent talent hired to work on the grantees’ projects. The idea is to quickly connect skilled but concerned freelancers to companies urgently looking for talent — and pay for their work. I’m proud to be a part of an organization that puts their community first and can’t wait to see the results.

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?

The person to whom I am most grateful — who has had a profound impact on my career and my overall professional outlook — is Tish Whitcraft. As my one-time client, subsequent boss, and inspiring mentor to this day, Tish introduced me to the philosophy that the most effective and empathetic HR leaders are those who have spent time working in both HR management as well as business leadership roles outside of HR. She taught me that the best HR executives need to understand on a personal, visceral level what it’s like for most people to “deal with HR” as an employee and encouraged me to take a job outside of HR, so I could learn firsthand what employees experience when it comes to HR every day. She also pushed me to really understand the business underpinnings of an organization, beyond the boundaries of HR, so that I could be a more effective executive and partner in the long term. She believed in my ability to contribute to the company’s broader strategy and cheered my accomplishments. She is an incredible role model and I wouldn’t have risen to the top HR role that I have now without her. I try to share her life-changing lessons and advice with my team whenever possible.

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman business leader during this pandemic?

In addition to the work/life juggle experienced by so many Americans due to the pandemic, for me, one of the most challenging aspects of being a woman business leader during this time is balancing the pressures of a demanding C-suite career while managing a very busy multi-generational home. Like so many people, the pressures of being a full-time working parent and caregiver to elderly parents and young children is enormous. We have 8-year-old twin boys who attend school virtually from our dining room table while my husband is in another room founding a new business. Meanwhile, I’m running HR for Upwork from a corner of my bedroom while balancing the daily needs of my mother-in-law who is immuno-compromised and lives with us. We are also helping my mother who lives a mile away. In many ways, the pressures are compounded by us all being under the same roof. While we are admittedly going a bit stir crazy, we feel incredibly lucky to have a home and the resources to live fulfilling personal and professional lives, no matter how stressful the demands are at this time. We also know that this is a temporary moment, and that we will all come out on the other side of this pandemic closer and stronger as a family.

Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?

For me, one of the best things I’ve done to address the stress of living under quarantine is to push myself to see the silver linings in this moment. I’ve created a folder of ‘Silver Linings’ — favorite photos and mementos of the unexpected moments of joy we’ve experienced as a family during the pandemic. After all, the world won’t always be this way, and I’ve made a conscious effort to enjoy the time with my family that it offers, while creating and maintaining new rituals for all of us. For the kids, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about the new family rituals we have created that we couldn’t do before, and trying to imbue meaning into simple events, like making breakfast together. We also now have family cuddles each day and collaborative storytelling where we pass the tale from one family member to another and we all enjoy the twists and turns.

Can you share the biggest work related challenges you are facing as a woman in business during this pandemic?

The biggest work-related challenge for me is making sure i am looking after myself while still filling the cups of others — not just family, but friends, co-workers, employees, and colleagues alike. As a working parent in the C-suite, quite literally my job is to care for not just my own family, but all of the Upwork employees and their loved ones who themselves are going through a crisis. How does one demonstrate empathetic leadership at work without bringing the stress home, especially when work is at home, and vice versa? How can you support your employees and family equally? Those are the challenges I juggle every day, and it’s certainly been an incredibly important learning experience.

Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?

Authenticity and planning are key to managing the challenges of being a woman executive in this pandemic. I’ve ramped up my planning and scheduling processes so I can approach my work day with as much efficiency as possible, knowing that I have to create a clear separation, if I can, between work life and home life — even though both are in the same location right now. I am deeply thankful to my team and especially my EA, Stefano, who has kept me honoring this as much as possible. Most importantly, I try to show up authentically at work and don’t pretend it’s a cake walk when the struggle is real for all of us. If leaders aren’t vulnerable and authentic with their employees, then a deeply unfair and unrealistic false narrative may get put into place for the rest of the team that they will inevitably internalize. Finally, I try to give myself the grace I afford others by being patient with myself and recognizing that there is no need to be perfect in this moment.

Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?

Wherever possible, have flexibility for both schedules and expectations — for example, I’m writing this on a day I marked for asynchronous work because it’s the first day of school for my sons. It’s all about compromise: with work, our families, and most importantly with ourselves. So many of us have been raised to believe that we need to have it all together all the time. It’s critical to understand that it’s okay for things to be hard, for things not to be picture perfect. It’s important to ask for help. Additionally, as business leaders and executives, we have to fight to make this approach acceptable in our own organizations. You can push the business forward and still block time to help your child with their homework or read together. We don’t need to insist that everyone sits on a video call for 10 hours a day to show that they are contributing to the business objectives.

Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place, or simply staying inside, for long periods with your family?

It’s been critical for me to create new rituals that allow me to take the time and space I need to find moments of calm. For example, I go for a run every morning before the family wakes. It’s a chance for me to clear my head, reflect, and prepare for the day ahead. I have also reclaimed listening to audiobooks, (which I had always loved during my commute in the past but noticed the void a couple of weeks into quarantine when i hadn’t been in the car in a month), while doing laundry and dishes and reading more on the weekends, in order to spend time in another person’s shoes. Cooking has been another calming outlet that allows me to feel productive and creative while I literally and figuratively nourish my family

Also wine, bread, and cheese.

Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

  1. The world stopped and what was truly important became crystal clear.

We closed Upwork’s California offices on March 6th, and on the 13th our boys’ schools paused in-person instruction. It was instantly clear that the number one priority was the health and wellbeing of our family. And that every family I knew was having that same clarion moment. Everyone was apart, but everyone was united.

2. We are reminded how adaptable we are, as well as those we love.

Recently I was very frustrated that I hadn’t been able to make time to do one of our (seemingly endless) loads of laundry. I had promised my son a specific shirt for the first day of school, and I hadn’t gotten to it. It was a small thing, but that day it was the straw that broke the camel’s back and I sat down in a huff and was teary and annoyed with myself. My son came up to me and put his arms around me and said “Mum, it’s ok, it’s a global pandemic.” This is a tiny detail, but it’s a moment when I was reminded that we are all capable of giving each other grace, and that can make a world of difference.

3. We are talking more about the importance of mental health and we will not put this back under the rug.

The CDC recently shared that nearly 11% of American adults seriously considered suicide in June of this year. The stress of the pandemic, the economy, school closures, grocery shortages, and on top of that, the outrage so many of us feel as America faces a reckoning of our history of racial injustice — — it’s so much. It’s too much for people to bear without support, community, and resources. Mental wellness is critical to our survival, and I’m proud that Upwork has worked to foster open conversations about mental health. Too many of us are living with mental health issues — 1 in 3 Americans has a mental health issue — for it to be ignored or glossed over.

4. Social justice is more critical than ever and the pandemic didn’t dampen broad, passionate engagement around BLM.

Amongst everything else going on, millions of us took to the streets to protest the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others. Others flooded the communications of our elected officials and our communities to demand justice and reform. Many of us white women took a long hard look in the mirror and realized that our feminism wasn’t as intersectional as it needs to be, and are now doing the work to unlearn and rebuild our frameworks while listening to and learning from Black leaders. Personally I am in an accountability partnership with a friend about what we are working on, reading, and taking action on to become better allies. We meet a few times a month to discuss our progress, and are regularly texting resources to one another to further our learning.

5. Business leaders learned that remote work works and that flexibility doesn’t compromise productivity. If we can still deliver during a pandemic, we can crush it from home when school is back, groceries are easy, and a vaccine is broadly available.

At Upwork, we saw our employee engagement score increase when we checked in with our employees recently. Despite all the factors contributing to this challenging time, our team feels their purpose at work is more critical than ever. Other CHROs I’ve connected with say the same thing — people want to contribute to something meaningful. And that doesn’t need to happen in person, in an office to have a significant impact.

From your experience, what are a few ideas that one can use to effectively offer support to their family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

Drinking enough water. Getting enough sleep. Therapy if it’s available to you and not prohibitively expensive. Connection to the physical word. When I am in the thick of it — the 54321 method helps me a lot: 5 things you can see; 4 things you can feel; 3 things you can hear; 2 things you can smell; 1 thing you can taste. When my schedule and the weather permit, I go outside and put my bare feet on the ground — a practice that many traditions have and call “grounding” or “earthing.”

I also have a thing I do with my boys where I put my hand over their heart and ask them “where is my hand?” and they answer “on my heart,” and then I ask “when is it there?” and they answer “always.” It reminds us both that we are connected and supporting one another fully, no matter what we are doing or where we are, and that we love each other fiercely even when we’re short-tempered and snippy with one another.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes. — Maggie Kuhn

Work to tell the truth, even — or perhaps especially — when it is hard. It will always come to light anyway, so we are far better off being authentic and honest with one another. Often the thing we thought we were better off hiding truly does become a catalyst for positive growth, connection, and change.

How can our readers follow you online?

https://www.linkedin.com/in/zoeharte/

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!


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