An Interview with Michelle Byrd, Chief People Officer at HealthJoy

Author :
Suzanne Chiaramonte

In March 2024, Aequitas Partners Principal, Suzanne Chiaramonte sat down with Michelle Byrd, Chief People Officer of HealthJoy to talk about her experience in diving into healthcare and scaling a mission-driven company. HealthJoy is a care navigation platform that makes it easy for employees to choose the highest-quality care at the best possible cost. The result is healthier employees and a healthier bottom line.

Suzanne: Congratulations are in order. You just celebrated your second anniversary with HealthJoy! Would love to hear a little bit of your experience joining the company and what drew you to HealthJoy specifically. 

Michelle: So many things, really. HealthJoy came to me very fortuitously. I had just completed an acquisition at my prior company and I really wanted to be thoughtful about what my next opportunity would look like. I had always been recruited away from companies, but I wanted to get pretty specific about what I wanted to do in the next phase of my career story.

I have a deep background working in private equity or venture backed tech startups, typically joining teams around Series C or later. It's what I love - helping emerging companies grow and scale. I knew I wanted a company that was very purpose driven. I wanted a company where the CEO or founders very specifically had a very forward [thinking] view of people and people strategy and understood the value creation and the impact we could have on the business. And I wanted to do work that was meaningful. I wanted to put something out into the world that was special, helpful, and unique. 

Personally, I narrowed in on healthcare because my dad, who I was very, very close to (and who has since passed) had recently been diagnosed with cancer. It was very surprising. He had other health issues that he'd struggled with his entire life: diabetes, hypertension, COPD. I really wanted to honor him by doing something that would have an impact for others, who were potentially going through very difficult healthcare situations or had chronic conditions, and so HealthJoy really drew me in.

We are a healthcare navigation platform, but we’re so much more than that in terms of our mission. Through technology and our Healthcare Concierge team, we work to connect people with the right care access at the right time. Fundamentally, it's about putting the power of treatment, options, and cost back into the hands of the consumer. 

Suzanne: It never fails to amaze how much mission is part of what we all do in healthcare. Each of us has a personal story and I'm sorry to hear about your father's illness and passing. Thank you for sharing that.

You joined HealthJoy eight years after it was founded and in between its series C and D funding rounds. In your opinion, what are the signals that an emerging tech company is ready for a Chief People Officer? 

Michelle: In my experience, it depends on any number of things. In my circle of CHROs [Chief Human Resource Officers] and CPOs [Chief People Officers], the need of the CHRO role is very dependent on the specifics of the startup journey. Some founders understand the importance of starting with the people function and how they want to shape business strategy and scale just by thinking through, not just the short term view of how they're going to build their company, but the long term view. When founders are going through their funding journey, unfortunately, I don't always think that the people function is really top of mind until they get to a certain size or stage. I've been fortunate in my own career to be in as early as post Series A and my role was very different - it was more of a CPO/COO/Chief of Staff for the founder. For a later-stage company, I'm usually coming in to help transform or reset the function to really focus the company on scale and growth. Some companies I join may be looking to move towards an exit, whether that's via M&A or IPO, or organic growth even – there are multiple scenarios. 

The biggest trigger to my role getting hired is really the founder(s) recognizing that it's time to pay really close attention to [people and structure] coming off of a round of funding. As you probably know, Suzanne, usually that money is invested in headcount and staffing, right? So it normally starts with the talent acquisition funnel and then you kind of have to figure out all the underlying fundamentals of strategy outside of that. To get to real scale, to get to really being able to create an experience for your team members and your employees you have to, I think, step back a little bit, decide if it's the right time to invest in my role [CPO], and then find the right leader to do that with the right experience and the right kind of culture and and brand fit for your company. 

Suzanne: What advice would you have to employees or candidates who are reporting to or potentially reporting to a founder for the first time, particularly within a high-growth company? 

Michelle: The number one thing, at least for me, is there has to be a values alignment. How does the Executive team perceive people and talent strategy and the view on how that function will help scale and drive value in the business?

During my interview process with HealthJoy, I probably spent ten hours with Justin [Holland; Co-founder and CEO of HealthJoy] in my interview process. Half of that time was HealthJoy-requested; the other half was at my request. You can't possibly diagnose if it's going to be a perfect fit if you don’t invest the time. I was very careful to make sure in working with my own career coach upfront on what's important to me about who I work for, the company I work with, the role itself and how the role is positioned as a part of the executive team. And then I made sure in the interview process that I had the opportunity to talk to the founders and other executives about that as I went through my conversations.

Suzanne: What are some things that a candidate can be on the lookout for, positive or negative, during that interview process to help them assess the fit from their side? 

Michelle: I thought it was pretty incredible during the process, that all my interviewers were highly responsive and engaged in our conversations. I was able to read body language as I had the opportunity to meet in person. But for me it’s always a little bit more intuitive, which makes it a little bit harder, right? Because you can measure skills, you can measure experience. You can share stories about achievements and accomplishments, but at the end of the day, I wanted to be able to wake up every morning and say, this is somebody, someplace I'm excited working with and in. 

For me, it was about the signals I was getting in those personal one-on-one conversations about the purpose and the vision for the company and where the company was headed. We were talking about the tough things, what wasn't working about people and talent strategy? What were their biggest business problems? How did they see a strong People strategy helping to solve those problems? What were Justin’s concerns about the opportunities and the gaps and how did he see that triangulating into where he wanted to take the company in the next two to three years? 

In HR, we often say it is easier to coach performance than it is to coach behavior change. I spend a lot of time trying to establish a baseline of that - that values and behavior alignment - and talking with others in the process, as well about their perspectives. Our CEO, Justin, who I was going to work for, what were others experiences like? What did they enjoy about working with him or not? What were his blind spots? 

At the end of the day, you kind of gather your facts and data, gather different perspectives and you make a decision. That's kind of the gut intuition piece for me, at least. 

Suzanne: I wanted to talk a little bit about the pace of growth in some of these companies. I mean, no doubt, even given the two years since you've joined HealthJoy, there's been another round of funding, there's been an increase in headcount. How can you think about org design in future states when things move so quickly? 

Michelle: It’s tricky, is the simple answer. Our Chief Product Officer, Jason Williams, has a common saying: “form follows function.” Often when you’re working in a fast-paced, dynamic startup environment, you don’t always have time to think about these things. 

The first thing I look at is the recruiting engine; that has to be addressed early on. I then interviewed leaders to understand business design, the delivery system, and how they think about designing their teams. These elements informed the first draft of my people strategy after vetting it with executive leaders. 

I also reset my own team and one of the key teams I reframed was our People Business Partner (PBP) organization. This team needed to be conversing with stakeholders about how we were optimizing org design. The PBP team is hugely connected at a visceral and strategic level with all the managers and teams they support.

At HealthJoy, I didn’t really get to organizational optimization until last year. It took a solid year for me to fully understand our business. I’ve known our space for a while, but there are a lot of intricacies behind the scenes powering how we deliver a seamless experience for a member.

We recently did our first performance management program reset where we implemented talent reviews – “GROWing @ HealthJoy.” This exercise is time-consuming, but it brings tremendous value in helping us understand individual and team performance at scale. It also helps us think about how we identify, reward, and retain key talent and business-critical roles.

We’re also addressing the talent landscape at the leadership level. We have managers who have never managed before, some who are slightly new, some who are emerging as potential leaders as well as experienced managers and executives. It’s an important part of the people strategy in terms of how we address all of these individuals inside our management development programs. 

Suzanne: I'm sure it'll be validating for some of our readers to hear that it's not just a series of ratios. You have to embed yourself in each of those teams, empower your people, business partners to do the same with the teams that they're working with.

Michelle: Yeah, and I think you bring up a good point, Suzanne, which is I don't want to dispute that data isn't important in these discussions. But I think the richness of the conversation around org design really happens when you understand not just the financial mechanics of the structure, but the business delivery mechanics and the people - it all comes together. If you over-index on any one of those three things, it wouldn’t really work.

Suzanne: But, the financials of it obviously do underpin how you finally make decisions about org design, meshed with qualitative information on communication, collaboration, employee experience, sentiment. How are people experiencing burnout and stress in the organization? Where are they thriving and excelling? You get all of that really interesting intake when you put the softer data against the harder data.

Michelle: We try to blend both. We very directly link behaviors for our leaders back to our values. And we measure behaviors as a component. We also gauge it very intentionally in our annual employee engagement survey.

And we do State of the Team meetings for individual functions and managers, so managers get real time feedback across the organization, but also within their own teams. We recently bought a learning platform; we've never had this resource before at HealthJoy. We have a short list of learning programs we want to start building out and developing and getting leaders to be effective at cross-functional collaboration. Building trust, building credibility, not just with their own teams, but across the org is a learned behavior.

Suzanne: We worked with you last year and learned a lot about HealthJoy along the way and came to realize that you have a very solid unparalleled commitment to your team ensuring that there is democracy in that remote first environment. We learned a little about your onngoing support for your team members in and outside of Ukraine once the conflict broke out in Eastern Europe, and just hearing some of these signals warms the heart about the way that HealthJoy regards its teammates. In what other ways does HealthJoy redefine that employee experience and culture? 

Michelle: In many ways a lot of this was very much ingrained in the culture before I even joined the team. This is a real testament to the talent we have in the company and the sense of community we have at HealthJoy across our global employee base. We are also feedback junkies at HealthJoy! I'm sure our team members are tired of us surveying and asking questions of people, but it’s critical to how we think about building our strategy. We love feedback and we don't take it personally - we take it as a measure to improve. It's essential to be able to design and deliver on a people strategy that aligns with our mission, which is to create space allowing every team member to bring their best, authentic, true selves to work every day. 

It's been hard for us during COVID, like a lot of tech companies. We did go Remote First during COVID and [we now have teammates] in 30 states and multiple countries now! 

We don't only sell our HealthJoy platform, we also use it internally. It’s a unique way to not only support our people and their own health care navigation and cost journeys, but also for our employees to better understand the lived experience of our members and clients. We have also done work on our total rewards programs,  specifically work around pay transparency and pay equity, equity incentive programs, and we have done a total revamp of our benefit programs.

We also have been very focused on trying to find ways to connect more in person and bringing teams together - whether it's in Chicago or small pockets in other locations just to build connections in person. 

Our team gets a lot of feedback on what and how we're communicating. That's a big part of the employee experience and feeling like you're connected and looped in to what's happening inside the company. We try to have our company meetings be super fun and engaging and make sure we're sharing critical business updates. 

We've instituted committees around mental health and DEIB [Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging] and a women's group to really create connections for our team members with common interests that end up benefiting the entire organization. 

We don't get it right every time – we make plenty of mistakes and missteps. It is challenging because we don't have unlimited investment for some of this, but we make up for it in effort and ideation. We can get pretty creative!

Our culture is a really big part of how you experience HealthJoy internally. That also extends to how our members, clients and broker partners experience Healthjoy, and that is important. And I have a lot of help! My People team is phenomenal and we have a number of employees who step up everyday to make this work for the organization, so, I'm pretty lucky. 

Suzanne: This all sounds wonderful! Thank you very much for sharing your story with us. It feels like talking to an old friend!

Michelle: I know. I love, I love that and I feel honored that you asked me. I love your [Aequitas] team and you have been great partners. It’s been lovely to be able to do this with you. 

Related posts