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July 24, 2019

Lead(H)er: Heather Hartford, Chief People Officer at Acquia

A Human Resources department may seem like a foundational element of any company. But for some start-ups in the tech space, the talent and human resources teams may be not built out until the company has reached a certain size. Companies like this often find themselves lacking a people-first mentality, which can make it difficult to create a strong culture that drives employee engagement, retention, and performance.

How do you fix such a problem? You call Heather Hartford.

“You can work anywhere, but more importantly, what are the compelling factors that differentiate where you work compared to any other company in the marketplace?” asked Hartford, the Chief People Officer at Acquia.

Over the course of her career, Hartford has worked to make sure employees are able to answer that question with confidence and excitement.

Hartford began her career in marketing at Gardner Preston Moss and Hill Holiday before moving into a Director of Advertising role for Marshalls at TJX, and her transition into human resources and talent organizations happened when she was tapped for an unexpected opportunity. 

Hartford had been at Digitas LBi for a few years when the CEO decided to take a new approach to people management at the company and brought on a new Chief People Officer to help. The CPO promptly asked Hartford to make the switch from marketing to recruiting. If she could sell Digitas to clients, she reasoned, she could sell it to potential employees.

Hartford was uncertain about the new role but went ahead and accepted it on a trial basis, with the understanding that she could return to marketing in a year if necessary. She never did. Instead, Hartford eventually became the General Manager of Digitas’ Boston office and then its Head of Global Talent Operations. In her last role, Hartford traveled extensively to help expand Digitas’ global footprint through acquisitions of several small agencies around the world.

That role helped remind Hartford of how much she enjoyed working with smaller companies and building teams, and she eventually left Digitas to consider her next move. After a short break, she joined Rue La La.

“It was a team of smart people who were disrupting an industry, so I loved it,” Hartford said.

Rue La La also presented an opportunity to enter the startup space with the benefit of a developed infrastructure. As Rue’s Chief People Officer, Hartford infused her people operations strategy and vision at the company while learning more about what it meant to work at a startup.

“The notion of ‘failing fast’ was a pivot for me,” she said. “At an agency, it’s all about transforming great ideas into programs with flawless execution to deliver results to your clients. There is no ‘fail fast’ on a client’s dime.”

But the freedom to take bigger risks, make mistakes, learn from them, and come back stronger appealed to Hartford, so when it came time to move on from Rue La La, she was drawn to the opportunity to build a new people strategy at Acquia.

“I joined Acquia because they had a lot of the right ingredients when it came to people, but they weren’t sure of how to activate them,” Hartford said. “I believed the company would grow and flourish for a long time after it developed some stronger strategy and vision.”

Hartford helped solidify that vision by rebuilding the talent team’s internal brand and building trust and partnership within the organization. Since then, she’s cultivated a company culture that values employees and gives them more than a paycheck in exchange for their work by encouraging managers to give the people on their team opportunities to grow that help them create careers, not just fill jobs. 

“We believe in the player-coach model, which includes transparency and mutual accountability,” Hartford said. “We’re not armchair managers. We get involved.” She went on to say, ”Our app managers are coaches. This means guiding rather than telling."

Hartford herself is involved in every aspect of Acquia’s people management, from developing a strategy and hiring to traveling around the world to meet with teams and better understand their needs.

When Acquia recently acquired a company (Mautic), Hartford ensured that new employees felt they were part of something bigger, integrated, inspired, and connected. 

“People are our lifeblood,” Hartford said. “They’re not just billable hours – they are our talented team members who are making a difference. In order to create a world-class customer experience, you must first invest in your most important customers -- your people”


Quick Q(uestions) and A(nswers)

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

I love going to the beach and spending time there with family. We have a house in Maine, so we go there often.

How do you manage stress?

I always try to make time for myself. That’s a big one for me. I started doing pilates over the winter, and it really helps with my headspace.

How many cups of coffee do you have in a day?

I have two cups of coffee in the morning. It’s a nice ritual to get started.

What’s one of your favorite places in the Boston area?

I love the Common, and I like walking through it to get to the Public Gardens. My son goes to Northeastern, and at first, I wondered why he wasn’t going away to see someplace else. But it’s been really fun to discover the city through him. I commute in from Andover, so I always saw Boston as a place to work, not play. It’s nice to walk through the Gardens every day now as a way to clear my head.

Heather Hartford

What’s one of your proudest accomplishments?

I’m really proud of how we’ve pivoted the mindset at Acquia to think of people first. I truly value the opportunity to create transformation, and I’m proud of our evolution, commitment to world-class experiences, and the people-centric culture we’ve built together.

How does where you are now compare to where you saw yourself 10 years ago?

I didn’t think I would be in tech. I loved the agency world, and I knew I could always go back if I wanted to. The industry has a long way to go in regard to people, but it’s changing, and it’s exciting to be a part of that change.

What’s your advice for recent college graduates?

Take it in bite-size. I always tell my son to be curious, work hard, and don’t worry about the future. Nothing is guaranteed to come in five-year increments. My own career path has not taken me where I thought I’d be, or within the time frame that I thought I’d get there. Worry less about getting from point A to point B and follow your passion, because the rest will follow.


Samantha Costanzo Carleton is a Contributor to VentureFizz. You can follow her on Twitter @smcstnz.

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