Q&A with Vinciane de Pape, Director of Learning & Culture at Versett
Vinciane and I attended the recently renamed Alberta University of the Arts, where we went through the Visual Communications program together. Early in our second year we did a group typography project together, so got to know each other and have been friends ever since. Anyone who’s attended AUArts has an instant comradery, specifically in the Bachelor of Design Stream. Maybe it’s the discipline it takes to get through that strenuous program that bonds us together, but it creates individuals that push boundaries, challenge perceptions and forge their own paths. Vinciane is an excellent example of just one of my successful peers that has forged their own path and carved out a niche area of expertise that maximizes her passions and abilities. We are also in a group that joins young women together to discuss a wide range of topics - from body issues to politics, social media, mental health, world news and events etc. I wanted to feature her in this month’s Q&A so I could dive deeper into some of these topics!
Are you born and raised in Calgary?
I am! When we graduated from college I was dying to get out of here, but the longer I stay, the less I want to leave. Calgary is a very different city now than it was even just five years ago and I don’t see myself leaving anytime soon. Calgary is home.
I remember you mentioning you wanted to go into medicine, why did you end up at AUArts in the design stream?
I was a weird kid in high school. I was a nerd academically but also creative and artistic (and athletic – go figure). I got accepted into a handful of universities for a pre-med undergrad, but then decided at the last minute to follow my true passion, which was art and design. My parents were not thrilled.
How did you find out about AUArts?
My older sister did Foundation year at ACAD (as it was called back then) years before – ironically, she ended up in the sciences.
What was your experience like going through the design stream there?
I loved my time at AUArts! Some of my fondest memories are from those four years. It was stressful in that it’s such a high pressure environment and the expectations and standards are equally as high. There’s a pretty pervasive misconception that art school is kind of a joke but we worked harder and put in more hours than many of my friends who went through traditional post-secondary programs. I think ultimately, drilling work ethic and meticulous attention to detail into you is how the design stream sets students up for success later in life.
What are your favourite hobbies/things to do/places to travel?
I read A LOT – I’m at 50 books to date in 2019, so that’s a pace of about a book and a half a week. I’ll always be a lifelong learner, and reading to me just seems like a no-brainer. If you’ve got a library card, non-fiction is literally free education. I try to balance things out with fiction, too. I’m a sucker for bad thrillers – murder mysteries are my beach reads. Outside of that, I do Crossfit, and my partner and I spend a lot of time with our two dogs.
Where did you work your first few years out of school?
I started at Critical Mass straight out of school and was there for two and a half years. My first year there really felt like a fifth year of school, learning new tools and absorbing as much as I could about the digital space. It was a really valuable formative experience as far as technical skills go.
When did you start at Versett? What drew you to work with that firm?
I’ve been here just over three years now. One of my former colleagues from Critical Mass had taken a job at Versett and she had nothing but wonderful things to say about the company. They seemed to be doing really cool work that no one else in the city was doing, and the small team dynamic really appealed to me.
How did you go from working predominantly in digital design to where you are now?
Well it was definitely a career 180 that I would have never imagined 5 or 10 years ago! The culture at Versett is really special and is something I felt right away when I started. I wanted to contribute so I got involved in planning team events, took care of birthday celebrations and milestone anniversaries, organized potlucks, started planning our annual company retreat, and helped spearhead our Diversity & Inclusion initiatives. We were a really close-knit team when I started, and we were all really excited about the company’s growing success. Except that every company that goes through periods of rapid growth ends up feeling growing pains and we were no exception. We were at kind of a critical point in that growth a year ago and it really felt like if our organizational culture wasn’t nurtured with some intention, things could start slipping through the cracks. At our 2018 retreat, a big topic of discussion was “How do we maintain our culture at scale?”. No one really had a clear answer at that point, so I put forth a proposal to move into a completely different role, transitioning from digital product design to managing our organizational culture. I put together a comprehensive plan to tackle the issues that were raised and the leadership team at Versett was super receptive to it. I’m really lucky that I work for a company that cares deeply about its people – enough so that they understood the need for an entire role dedicated to supporting their employees.
What does a Director of Learning & Culture do? What are you responsible for in your role? How did you end up in this type of role?
I’m a one-woman department, so I wear a lot of different hats. I’m in charge of performance management, employee engagement, employee recognition, learning and development, and I lead up our Diversity & Inclusion initiatives. The way I like to describe my role is that it’s my job to make sure my team has the tools and resources to do the best work of their careers, and that they have the psychological safety and support to bring their whole selves to work everyday.
What does Versett specialize in? What size of client fits you best? What type of projects do you work on?
Versett is a consulting firm specialized in digital transformation. In the past year, we’ve worked extensively with clients like American Express, TD Bank, and Getty Images across a variety of global projects. Each month, millions of people use the platforms, apps and tools we’ve created, which is pretty cool. We’ve also worked with much smaller local clients to help them move into the digital space, or elevate their current digital presence, in a strategic manner. We help companies create lasting competitive advantages by leading the strategic process for digital transformation and product growth, designing effective user interfaces and user experiences for digital products, developing scalable and elegant technology and software, and applying machine learning, data science and analytics to business objectives.
You often speak at conferences. How do you select which ones you want to speak at and what is the value this brings you? What do you hope to help others with?
My inbox isn’t flooded with invitations to speak or anything, but I do make sure that the conferences have a code of conduct where diversity and inclusion is a stated priority. I also only take paid speaking engagements, not because I’m trying to make a career out of speaking (yet), but because women rarely ask for what they’re worth. Get that bread, ladies!
You’ve written about agency burn-out and mental health. How do you feel our culture/industry perpetuates burn-out and what do people need to watch for?
As someone who lives with depression, anxiety, and PTSD, mental health in the workplace is something I’m really passionate about. The tech industry, in particular, has a really unhealthy obsession with productivity and prides itself on blurring the lines between work and home life. Working long hours is worn as a badge of honour and this kind of lionizing of toxic behaviour needs to stop. Not only has it created a mental health crisis, but it’s bad for business. Organizations that invest in better mental health support for their employees are actually more profitable in the long run, but there’s so little advocacy for it. I hope that the more we talk about mental health and burnout, we’ll start to see a shift in how companies operate and manage their people.
I would say if you’re putting in more work yet feeling less passion, that’s a pretty good indicator that you might be burned out. People can typically identify the common signs of fatigue and overwork, but it’s the more subtle signs that are usually a tip off. Irritability, low tolerance for stress (ie. the tiniest things set you off), poor sleep even though you’re exhausted, loss of interest in things that normally excite you, etc. It’s a slippery slope before you find yourself covertly trying to stifle anxiety attacks in the bathroom stalls or sobbing uncontrollably at your desk like I did. Don’t let it get to that point.
What are the trends you are seeing in diversity and inclusion and how they relate to companies’ employees? Are there financial returns to having good policies here?
I think the biggest shift I’ve seen in the last couple years is a deeper understanding of what inclusion, belonging, and equity mean. Diversity is just a number – it’s ultimately the other parts of the equation that matter most. Without those elements, you just have a mixed bag of people working in the same room.
There is absolutely a financial benefit to having more diversity. Diverse teams consistently outperform more homogeneous teams because different folks are able to bring their unique perspectives (shaped by unique lived experiences) to the table. If financial gain and competitive edge is what gets companies to open up to more diverse talent, that’s great. But the next step is understanding the importance of, and being committed to, fostering an inclusive environment so that diverse team members have the space to share their perspectives.
You run workshops with your team to help them understand how to be good allies to their less privileged team members that help address sometimes sticky client situations. What is the impact of this? And what types of workshops do you run? Do you only do them for Versett?
Our Ally Skills workshop earlier this year was one of our most well-received sessions to date! Ally Skills is essentially a more empowering way to say “bystander intervention training”. As a result of the workshop, the team here at Versett feels better equipped to deal with uncomfortable situations that sometimes arise out of ignorance, and empowered to stand up and say something when an interaction is disrespectful or discriminatory.
Our most recent workshop was on GSD 101: understanding the basics of gender and sexual diversity. We covered a lot of terminology, discussing gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, and more. We also reviewed the importance of personal pronouns and what allies can do to support their trans and non-binary peers.
Next up on the calendar will be a facilitated session on Indigenous issues. I’m bringing in an outside speaker because this is out of my realm of expertise and the stories of marginalized folks should be told by those people, not me.
That being said, I am happy to share what I do know outside of Versett! Many companies don’t know where to start with these conversations – if that’s you, I can help.
There is a lot of talk that millennials need to have purposeful job positions – how does your role ensure that people achieve this?
Millennials get a lot of flack for wanting to derive purpose from their vocations, and especially for wanting work-life balance. I think this is a natural consequence of this generation feeling the negative effects of always being online. For many, the constant connectivity enabled by Slack, text, and email means that people are never truly out of office. Burnout rates are higher than they’ve ever been, and the long term effects of overwork are pretty harrowing. A 2012 study that I cited in one of my last talks found that working 11 or more hours a day led to significant cognitive decline and that working 55 hours or more per week was an indicator for early dementia and death. People like to think its an entitled Millennial thing, but ultimately it’s about longevity and sustaining not just a long-term career, but long-term health.
We have a number of policies in place at Versett to support our team’s wellbeing. We work hard to resource and allocate appropriately so that working overtime is an exception, not an expectation. We have a flexible, take-as-needed approach to vacation which allows our team members to unplug and recharge whenever they need to, encouraging a minimum of 15 vacation days per year (it’s actually part of my monthly reporting to keep tabs on people’s vacation time – if I notice someone hasn’t taken time off in a while, I’ll give them a gentle nudge). We’re super respectful of the boundaries that folks set between work and home life and most people on our team snooze their notifications after 5 or 6pm. Nothing we do is life or death – work can wait.
Part of my role is helping people identify their strengths as well as areas for opportunity, and aligning those with both personal goals and the goals of the organization. I work with each individual on our team to develop an Annual Learning Plan which outlines their intentions for the year. We work together to set goals and have regular check-ins to go over progress and brainstorm how to overcome any hurdles. I think this is just one aspect of what we do that helps our people find purpose in their work.
Who do you admire most and why?
This is probably a cheesy answer, but my mom and my sister. Truly. I am so fortunate to have such wonderful role models. My mom, now retired, was an educator for 35 years before becoming a literacy specialist. I’ve never met anyone more passionate about their job. She’s run into students 15 years after they’ve left her classroom who still remember her and want to give her a hug. The impact she’s had on their young lives is incredible. My sister, who is a psychologist, is the director of a residential care program for children with severe cognitive and behavioural disorders. The work she does both coordinating treatment plans for her clients as well as the front-line work of providing care and quality of life for high-needs children is so special. Having these two incredible women as role models, whose work literally touches the lives of people every day, has always made me feel like I needed to do something more purposeful with my life. Moving into this new role at Versett has given me some of what I’ve always felt like I was missing from my career: having a meaningful impact.
What is the most memorable project you’ve worked on?
Maybe there’s a bit of recency bias happening, but probably our last Diversity and Inclusion report at Versett. It was super rewarding because we started the see the needle move in the right direction in terms of representation. It also allowed us to identify opportunities for improvement and set more goals moving forward. It has also become one of our greatest recruitment tools, which is pretty cool. Almost every one of our applicants within the last year has cited the D&I report as a reason for their interest in Versett.
What qualities do you value most in your clients/partners/peers?
Definitely a growth mindset, as in people who see challenges and setbacks as opportunities for learning. I value people who take initiative and who are highly accountable. One of the most underrated competencies is empathy. We could all learn to do better where that’s concerned, myself included.
What are some of the greatest lessons you’ve learned thus far?
To ask for what you want. I wouldn’t be in the position I am in now if I hadn’t asked, and a lot of women are afraid to do that.
What are your big lofty goals for the future?
I’m still fresh into this role, so don’t feel like I have uncovered all of the opportunities possible. I see myself continuing to advocate for better mental health support in the workplace and for meaningful movement where diversity and inclusion is concerned, whether that be in-house, as a consultant, or as a keynote speaker. Even an author. Who knows! The future is exciting to think about.