How technology industry CHROs can align talent strategy and business objectives
Human Resources Officers

How technology industry CHROs can align talent strategy and business objectives

Suni Lobo, the chief human resources officer at Marqeta, and Missy Forlani, the chief people officer at PowerSchool, talk about being first-time public-company human resources leaders.
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In this podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Christina Cary speaks to Suni Lobo, the chief human resources officer at Marqeta, a digital payment, innovation, and modern card issuing platform company; and Missy Forlani, the chief people officer at PowerSchool, a global provider of cloud-based software for the K–12 education sector. Lobo and Forlani, who both recently stepped into their first public-company head of HR role, share what their experiences have been like over the first few months on the job, and talk about what they wish they had known before stepping into their current positions. The two also discuss the importance of building relationships with various company stakeholders including the CEO and board, and how those relationships can help the CHRO or CPO become a strategic partner within the organization that aligns talent strategy to business objectives. Finally, the two discuss how the current digital and technology transformation is affecting how they are implementing their organization’s HR strategy. 

Some key questions answered in this podcast include:

  • (4:42) If you could go back to the start of your time as the head of HR at your respective organizations, is there advice you would give yourself to help yourself prepare? 
  • (10:34) We continue to hear about the importance of HR being that strategic partner within the organization that aligns talent strategy to business objectives. Suni, could you build on how that's manifesting itself within Marqeta? Are there new challenges of doing this in a public-company environment? 
  • (14:46) How is the digital and technology transformation affecting how you implement your HR strategy within your organization?
  • (17:41) What's been the most rewarding thing about being an HR leader within a public company? 
  • (19:34) We've talked a lot about what you've done in the past and what you've learned in this first chapter at your organization. What leadership skill sets and capabilities do you think are going to be most important as you move forward in your roles and as your organizations continue to evolve?

Below is a full transcript of the episode, which has been edited for clarity.

Welcome to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. Heidrick is the premier global provider of senior-level executive search and leadership consulting services. Diversity and inclusion, leading through tumultuous times, and building thriving teams and organizations are among the core issues we talk with leaders about every day, including in our podcasts. Thank you for joining the conversation.

Christina Cary: Hi everyone. I'm Christina Carey, a partner in Hedrick & Struggles’ Washington, DC, office and a member of the Human Resources Officers and Technology & Services practices. In today's podcast, I'm talking to Suni Lobo and Missy Forlani. Suni is the chief human resources officer at Marqeta, a digital payment, innovation, and modern card issuing platform company; Missy is the chief people officer at PowerSchool, a global provider of cloud-based software for the K–12 education sector. 

Suni and Missy, welcome, and thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today. 

Suni Lobo: So great to be here, Christina. 

Missy Forlani: Great to be here. Christina, thank you for having us. 

Christina Cary: You have both recently stepped into your first head of HR role for a public company, which is incredibly exciting. What has your experience been like in these first few months? Suni, I'd love to hear your perspective to start. 

Suni Lobo: Sure, Christina. I was thinking about this when we spoke earlier. My time has been fairly atypical. I joined Marqeta in January this year, continued my journey with them for about three and a half months, and then went off on maternity leave for four months. I've been back for two months now, since September, so the journey has been fairly atypical and I want to make sure that folks understand that and hear that. But, I think, if I was thinking about a new person stepping into a publicly listed CHRO role, what happened in the first three and a half months probably is more relevant for folks and would be the same if I didn't go off on maternity leave.

The things that come to mind in the first 90 days are around listening—really, deeply listening, and building relationships, making sure you know who your stakeholders are, and building relationships with the board of directors, the executive team, the employee base, and of course, most importantly, your team. So, that was something that I was acutely focused on in the first three months. 

And, specific to the journey we've been on at Marqeta, we went public last year, so they were very much at the pre-IPO stage and didn't really have processes built out, from an HR perspective, which was something I wanted to focus on when I came in with my team. But also, it was important to build a team, because a lot of the team had exited after we went public. I hired nine roles in the first three months, which was incredibly ... interesting, both for my team and I. But I wanted to make sure we showed up and set my team up for success when I was away. 

Christina Cary: Well, first, congratulations on the arrival of the new little lady!

Missy, I would love to hear your thoughts on how your time has been at PowerSchool so far.

Missy Forlani: It’s still a little bit eerily déjà vu of exactly what Suni said. I mean, I feel like she was checking every box. These first five months for me were very similar in nature. I spent a lot of time listening, and building relationships—those stakeholder relationships with the board, with the CEO, with the executive team, and then, obviously, with my team. And I had a very similar journey going public recently, in July of 2021. [I spent time] really looking at what are those practices, processes, procedures as a public company that we really needed to focus on. It’s very different from being private, all these things stocks- and compliance-related. I wanted to make sure I was paying attention to the things that are going to keep us safe and help us really drive into the future. But, overall, it's been about transformation, really looking at the talent team and what we're doing to aid the business to accelerate those business results.

And so, I think, as I reflect on my first five months, I am so grateful and thankful to work for such a mission-driven company, and it’s really been about being really strategically aligned with the executive leadership team to bring to life and to accelerate the diverse, inclusive, collaborative culture we've got at PowerSchool. So, I feel really truly blessed to be here. 

Christina Cary: If you could go back to the start of your time as the head of HR at your respective organizations, is there advice you would give yourself to help yourself prepare? Suni? 

Suni Lobo: The first thing that comes to my mind is to take a lot of lateral moves early in one's career—lateral and global moves. And, for me, the global movement aspect is really important. You know, very early on I wanted to be a global HR leader, and so I took a lot of opportunities that were presented to me. So that's the other thing: grab opportunities, whether they're presented to you or you'll have to raise your hand for them. I lived in eight different countries and did a lot of different roles early on in my career. And that was game-changing for me, to have had those experiences and live in different cultures. Something that's really important to me is diversity and inclusion. And those early experiences helped me really understand where people were coming from, and that's something that I leverage every day in my career.

The other thing that comes to mind is around taking a business role. So, if folks are rooted in HR or grew up in the HR profession, like me, one of the things I was advised to do was move into a business role, which I did, and that was really important in order for me to understand the mechanics of business and how to be a business leader with a people and culture focus. And that's the way I see myself: I am more than an HR leader, I accelerate the business, which is also really important to me. I see myself as a business leader with an HR focus. The last role I had was a CPO for a private company, but I also double-hatted as a COO, and it gave me really good insight into the business. So, those are the things that, in hindsight, stood me in good stead. 

Christina Cary: That's fantastic, Suni. Missy, building on that, what do you wish you had known or wish someone had maybe told you before stepping into your current position? 

Missy Forlani: I echo, Suni, your comments around the business—[building the] acumen and really having an appreciation for that and really learning the business and spending a lot of time with the CFO and with the business leaders to really get an appreciation for it. I've always spent a lot of time building strong relationships. That's really critical to me, and I know that having influence and strong relationships is at the top of what I think is so important as you come into a new role. But I am also one of those people that like to help add value in a really immediate way, to help people see that, you know, you've come in and you're here to help me drive my business forward.

If I could give myself any advice, it would be to slow down a bit. Yes, be intentional about strong relationships, but it's human nature to want to make an immediate impact and achieve quick wins. So, if I could go back, I would be reminding myself and giving myself permission to slow down a bit, to be more intentional and upfront around assessing my current state and building out that road map and then executing to ultimately accelerate the impact I could have. But connecting the dots on all the pieces and bringing people on the journey is such an important thing.

Christina Cary: Missy, that's actually a great segue into the next question, because you're talking about relationships. Given your heavy interaction with the CEO, other members of the executive team, and the board, what are some of the leadership capabilities you've started to exercise more and that you feel are more critical now than maybe they were in the past?

Missy Forlani: A couple of things come to mind for me. I kind of doubled down on it already, but building business acumen, especially for me in the education technology space—a new industry for me. I consider myself to have high learning agility, but sometimes it's like diving right into the deep end to really get an appreciation and understand the business model, the financials, the external markets, the customers, and the board dynamic. So, I think you can't underestimate the value of understanding the business so that you can jump in and add value. But I think the biggest shift in capability I'm focused on developing now is how I can help shape and influence the business strategy and partner with my executive peers to move the organization forward. In previous roles, I've built out and aligned the talent strategy to the business strategy. But it's now about, sort of, taking that next step to actually help shape and influence the overall business strategy. It's a capability and a muscle I’m continuing to stretch and exercise. 

Christina Cary: Suni, building on that, were there capabilities that you had already started to build on in earlier roles that you feel like you're using more now? And what do you feel is most critical in the CPO role?

Suni Lobo: I think Missy said it so well. If anything, I would add to that, because what Missy said in terms of accelerating business strategy is so important in an HR role, whether at a public or a private company. The additional things that I've noticed, personally, are around courage and resilience: the courage to be able to have a point of view and bring people along, and to not a waiver on that point, all while being flexible and listening, right? So, the courage aspect has been an acute focus of mine ever since I moved into a chief people officer role, both for my team and for the business. And the other important thing is resilience. We have leaders at all stages in the continuum when it comes to HR expertise and HR leadership, right? Some are more in the operational space, while some think of HR in the most strategic way. So we need to have the resilience to stick with it and influence leaders and to think more strategically about the people in the culture function.

Christina Cary: Love that. And again, perfect transition. We continue to hear about the importance of HR being that strategic partner within the organization that aligns talent strategy to business objectives. Suni, could you build on how that's manifesting itself within Marqeta? Are there new challenges of doing this in a public-company environment? What are you seeing? 

Suni Lobo: For the public company, I think the key difference is that whatever we embark upon from a people and culture perspective is in the media and it's in focus broadly, not just within the organization. So it’s important to make sure you're cognizant of that. That's also an opportunity to give back to your community. And also, being aware of the voice you have in your community is super important. 

A couple of things come to mind regarding what we've done around the future of work and thinking about how we partner with the business and think more long term, three to five years out, about how the future of work will look and how our employees will want to engage with us, so to speak. What does the employee journey look like? Earlier on this year, we did a lot of work on our “flex first” policy, as we call it. We want our people at Marqeta to work remotely and anywhere and still do the best work of their lives. And that has increased our diversity percentages, almost doubling them, because we have a more diverse pool of candidates that we can choose from now, and they feel more empowered to come to work in Marqeta. 

So, we've looked at the flex first policy from a number of lenses. How do we increase productivity? That's still a journey. That's something that we want to think about and measure more intentionally over time. How do we make our workforce more diverse and gain access to talent pools that we didn't have access to before? We came out definitively and said that we'd like to be known as a flex-first employer. So that's one example. You know, thinking about where the business is, what kind of talent do we have access to? How do we accelerate, tapping into that talent? And that has gotten a lot of attention, both from future and potential employees, but also our current employees will feel more empowered. We’re also thinking about aligning global talent with our customer needs. For example, do we hire folks in other countries? And how do we access the talent pools there? How do we build an operating and people cadence that is sustainable, that doesn't serve us only in the short term, but also serves us in the long term as we grow in a hybrid environment? And then, how do we drive employee stickiness, as I call it? How do we have a culture that enables folks to do the best work of their lives and strive in the conditions they're operating in?

Christina Cary: Missy, what are you seeing at PowerSchool with respect to this talent strategy and business objective alignment? What challenges are you facing?

Missy Forlani: For me, it’s the same focus areas. We're calling it “core,” or, “creating organic relationships and engagement.” Our core strategy is really our hybrid work strategy as well, but what I've noticed is that I’m having to almost look internally, at my own team first, to really make sure that we've got a solid foundation, that I've got the right capabilities and capacity to really level set and then help the business accelerate. So, it's really manifested itself in four specific ways for me. The talent strategy has been about capacity, freeing up time and space for my team to focus on those moments that matter most to the business. And prioritization is key. There are always a hundred things on your plate when you're working within HR, and we can't do everything.

And so, being very intentional, having that ruthless prioritization, being able to ask what the most important things are that will matter to the business, and then enabling HR to deliver those moments that matter with the right solutions and the right context at the right time. And then it’s the community building across our organization, breaking down silos and thinking about the location strategies and specifically focusing on a global scale with local relevance. For example, how do we scale internationally and how do we set up our talent organization in a way that promotes credibility and engages the business on those most important people issues and initiatives? [That is how we can be] seen as that true strategic partner. So, for me, it's sort of been about getting my own house in order first to then align with the business. And sometimes that goes back to that slow down to speed up the idea, making sure we've got the right capability to help drive business results. It's super critical for us. 

Christina Cary: Talking about transformation, you both work within technology companies that are growing, and changing. Missy, I'd be curious to know how the digital and technology transformation that is taking place is affecting how you implement your HR strategy within your organization.

Missy Forlani: We're in the process of building out our technology roadmap that will bring to life a digital workplace that empowers and connects the workforce through this customized and personalized flow of work–digital experience. Employee experience is top of mind for us in this war for talent, to differentiate ourselves, we want to be an employer of choice. We know it's about aligning that employee experience to what we're providing for our customers or the customer experience. And so that's a game changer for us. And we’re being super intentional about what we automate, what we can do that's more self-service, what we can be doing to bring to life things that are personalized for employees and aligning all of that in the digital world. It's not easy, but I do think that there are some really fun, innovative things that we can do that will be game changer for our employees.

Christina Cary: Suni, what are you seeing on the technology transformation change front within Marqeta, and how is that affecting the HR work you're doing? 

Suni Lobo: You know, I think it's so fascinating where we are at as an HR function, just as a function holistically. Within organizations, we play a part in following what the business does from a technology transformation perspective in the HR space with our tools and our processes and HRI systems. A personal pet peeve of mine that I'd love to talk about with my peers around the globe is about how we can change this and be more on the front foot, so to speak, so that we can have what Missy talks about, a more personalized experience. Because when you think about what employees want today, it is personalization. So, how do we enable HR systems of technology within the HR space to get us there faster than we've been getting there, in all honesty, right? To almost leapfrog some of the technology that's out there. So that’s something we've been quite focused on: how do we overlay our HRI system with innovative technology that can leapfrog to creating that personalization for our employees? That's something that my team and I are having really great discussions about. And we've hired some good folks within our HR technology space to help us do that. So that's something that comes to mind for me, in addition to what Missy talked about. But we have so many challenges in terms of how the business views technology and how, you know, right now we feel like we are keeping up from an HR perspective and are able to say, you know, we can lead in this space.

Christina Cary: That's fantastic. You know, I think you two have clearly learned quite a bit during the course of your first months on the job. I'd love to know, Missy and Suni, what's been the most rewarding thing about being an HR leader within a public company? Missy, if you can kick us off?

Missy Forlani: The most rewarding thing for me is the people I get to work with and for at PowerSchool. And also the opportunity it’s afforded me to contribute to a purpose and a legacy that impacts millions of students, parents, and educators across the globe. I was at the point in my career that working for a mission-driven public company that puts people first was absolutely a non-negotiable. And so I'm super thankful and grateful to you, Christina, and the entire Hedrick & Struggles team for aligning the stars for me.

Christina Cary: Thank you for that, Missy. It was, it was our pleasure. Suni, how about you? 

Suni Lobo: I'd echo what Missy said. Christina, you and the team at Heidrick & Struggles are game changers in this space, with the way Christina approached my search and how she really connected me with this opportunity. It's quite fascinating. It's something that we often talk about, because, like you, Missy, I was looking for a mission-driven organization that truly valued people. And that's what I found with Jason, our CEO. He really cares about people and what we are doing in our space to empower organizations and people.

And, for me, one of the most rewarding things is to develop my team—not only great HR professionals but business leaders as well. And this role affords me the opportunity to do that. The other thing is making an impact in our communities. We do a lot of work with our communities and in our communities to give back at Marqeta, and that's really hugely rewarding to me.

Christina Cary: Well, it has been such a pleasure to talk to both of you. As we come to a close on the conversation, Suni and Missy, I have one final question. We've talked a lot about what you've done in the past and what you've learned in this first chapter of your organization. What leadership skill sets and capabilities do you think are going to be most important as you move forward in your roles and as your organizations continue to evolve?

Suni Lobo: I think, in addition to what we’ve already said, the thing that comes to mind is to be a multiplier, that is, thinking about the work we do and how we can multiply that to create sustainable purpose and growth for companies, and also in an industry with a global voice. Having the opportunity to do that in our roles is something that's not lost on me. These are things that are personally very important to me, for example, diversity and inclusion, creating a sense of belonging for our employees. That's something that I'm acutely aware of and want to leverage. And the last thing I'd say is [it will be important to be] a talent magnet. And also, developing great HR professionals is something that I am passionate about.

Christina Cary: Missy, how about you? 

Missy Forlani: I would echo everything Suni just said and add just a couple of other, you know, key capabilities. Change in agility, I think, is at the top of the list—being able to sort of see around corners, anticipating what's coming next. And then also being able to build and sell a vision, right? Focusing on bringing to life a brand and an employee value proposition that really attracts and retains diverse talent so that we can really distinguish ourselves at PowerSchool from other companies out there in this war for talent. But again, as Suni said, I think becoming a multiplier, really doubling down on helping our leaders be the best version of themselves, that's the magic. That's the magic when you're attracting and retaining talent. It’s the leader, the leader you work with and for. And so those would be the pieces I'd also reinforce. 

Christina Cary: Amazing. Well, it has been truly an honor to work with both of you, to see you grow during your career journey, and we've heard such insightful comments from both of you today. So, I can't thank you enough for taking the time to speak with us. And I am really looking forward to seeing what both of you do in the future at Marqeta and PowerSchool. We look forward to continuing the conversation in the future. 

Missy Forlani: Thanks, Christina. 

Suni Lobo: Thanks for having us, Christina. 

Christina Cary: Thank you.

Thanks for listening to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. To make sure you don’t miss more future-shaping ideas and conversations, please subscribe to our channel on the podcast app. And if you’re listening via LinkedIn, Twitter, or YouTube, why not share this with your connections? Until next time.

About the interviewer

Christina Cary ( is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ Washington DC office and a member of the Human Resources Officers and Technology & Services practices.

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