Interview With Caroline Van Vloten, Chief People Officer At SKAEL
Learn how Caroline's internation background has shaped the way she works and what keeps her curious.
After serving on SKAEL’s Board of Advisors for a year, Caroline van Vloten joined SKAEL as its first Chief People Officer in April 2021.
Born and raised near Leiden – in the Netherlands – Caroline grew up with a very international mindset, cultivated in part by her entrepreneurial father who insisted his children learn multiple languages and visit different countries. In addition to instilling an appreciation for different cultures, this childhood experience imbued Caroline with a sense of adventure.
After studying French in Grenoble during her gap year, Caroline interned at a publishing house in Amsterdam while earning a Master’s degree in French, followed by a postgraduate degree in international relations and international business.
Her initial exposure to HR occurred when she was the first Dutch person hired at Sterling Commerce in Amsterdam, a spinoff of the American software company, Sterling Software, where Caroline had landed her first job in technology. After that, she moved to the US and earned a master’s degree in HR from Ohio State University and interned at IBM in Vermont. She then joined Proxicom in Virginia in an international HR role (Proxicom was subsequently acquired by Dimension Data).
After taking time off to raise her two young children, Caroline rejoined Dimension Data, moved to South Africa for a global HR role and then became the head of HR in Europe. In 2009, she started her own consulting firm – OQ Consulting focusing on Organizational Intelligence – where she gained exposure to different industries, companies and consulting firms. Through Dimension Data, she met Baba Nadimpalli, now founder and CEO of SKAEL. In 2018, she joined NTT (which by then had acquired Dimension Data) as the head of HR of NTT Communications’ Cloud business. In this role, she had to build the HR organization from scratch while managing people in six countries.
To learn more about Caroline and what she brings to SKAEL, we invited her to answer a few questions.
1. What interested you in the tech industry?
The industry is innovative and dynamic. I love it because it’s always changing. I prefer change because it never gets boring, and it allows me to think creatively.
2. What have been the defining moments of your career to date?
Moving to the US was taking a chance but moving to South Africa was a huge leap of faith. I had never been and had young kids, and didn’t know how it would work out. I ended up staying for seven years. Many people have big career aspirations but are wary of taking risks. You can’t plan out everything and you can’t expect things to be handed to you. Taking risks opens up new opportunities.
The same holds true when people join a start-up. There aren’t well-defined career paths and, in most cases, no established programs, processes, and systems. So it takes a leap of faith, but you get the opportunity to be exposed to so much more than you would at an established company. At SKAEL, our team members are part of the creation and growth of the company, which allows for tremendous learning opportunities.
3. How do you make use of your professional network?
I have built and maintained a strong network of HR and business professionals globally. You get incredible support from a group like that. Everyone has different strengths. The key to success is knowing who to reach out to for the right answers, advice and information.
I’m also blessed that I grew up with a father who treated me and my two brothers equally and a mother who encouraged me to walk my own path. I’ve always worked in a male-dominated industry and I’m not afraid to speak up or make a mistake. As long as no one dies and you don’t bankrupt the company, it’s going to be okay. We can find a solution -- mistakes happen. That’s how you learn.
4. How and why did you first get involved with SKAEL?
Baba and I reconnected through another SKAEL Advisor and former Dimension Data colleague in 2020. I subsequently joined the Board of Advisors. A year later, Baba asked me to come on board full-time.
I appreciate SKAEL's leadership and where the company is going -- I see tremendous potential and opportunity. I also love SKAEL’s philosophy on culture and people. At SKAEL, the team comes first and its vision of helping people work smarter really resonates with me. There is a mentality of people being accountable but having fun, moving fast but doing things right. We respect each other and encourage openness, inclusion and flexibility. This is directly aligned with SKAEL’s values.
Leaders talk about people being their most important asset but often don’t put energy into treating people right and creating an inclusive environment where people feel comfortable speaking up and trying new things.
SKAEL is a tech company but also a people business: Our employees create the technology and the technology creates Digital Employees (DEs) and those DEs interact with people. So people are central to SKAEL’s business in every way.
That’s why inclusivity is so important because the people who interact with our DEs are not the same – they come from different cultures, backgrounds, countries, etc. So the more comprehensive and inclusive our approach to technology and people, the better our solution translates to the needs of all companies and users.
5. Why did you join SKAEL as the Chief People Officer?
The timing was right – I was looking to join a company that aligned with my own values and aspirations. SKAELers really care about people and technology. I love that, at SKAEL, I can be creative and innovative in building the HR infrastructure and focusing on culture and using that to give the company the building blocks to be successful.
6. What are your vision and goals as the Chief People Officer for SKAEL?
My immediate goal is building a solid foundation so we can scale quickly. You can manage a company of 20 or 50 people in an ad hoc way. Beyond that, you need processes and tools and information. Otherwise you become inefficient internally and can’t grow as quickly as you want and can’t focus on innovation and optimally servicing your customers.
I also conduct employee surveys to get feedback from and understand the sentiment of our team members. With this I can help our leadership team know where to focus – what’s working well and where there are opportunities to make improvements – so they can unleash the potential of our human employees.
Moreover, I want to optimize HR at SKAEL by using our Digital Employee for HR. Deploying DEs internally allows us to free up our team members so that they can focus on impacting how people work.
Lastly my focus is on safeguarding the SKAEL culture and facilitating its growth trajectory on an ongoing basis. Ultimately, I would like SKAEL to be recognized internally and externally as an amazing company, with great talent, potential and technology and a superb work environment where people can flourish personally and professionally.
7. How does your experience working with remote teams and people from different backgrounds all over the world shape the way you work?
It gave me more self-awareness and appreciation for differences and communication challenges. For example, there’s a big difference between Holland and the US when it comes to communication and humor. This can lead to misunderstandings. Dutch people are very direct. Some appreciate this, but not everyone. So if something upsets you, I would encourage you to get clarification first, before you let your emotions determine the intent. My experience also allows me to “translate” for others, even English speakers who misperceive someone’s intent.
I’m a big believer in video communication tools for remote teams. Body language can show you whether someone agrees or not, understands or not, which is often missed in verbal communications. People interact with one another using all their senses. If you can’t be in person, at least use as many of your senses as possible to optimize the flow of information. It helps build relationships and limits misconceptions.
I’m tuned into how differences can become challenges in the workplace. For example, someone might be quiet – maybe because of their culture or personality. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have a unique perspective or can’t bring unique value to the table. They might come up with an answer or solution no one had even considered. You have to make an effort to include all viewpoints and meet people where they are.
At the same time, I see that people often focus too much on differences and forget that we all have so much in common and that ‘different’ doesn’t mean ‘bad.’. There are pros and cons to everything and every place. I believe you must appreciate differences, learn about them and find commonalities -- appreciate what the new environment or perspective offers, whether it’s a new country or new company or a new team member. Embrace the change. Embrace the uniqueness.
It goes without saying that I am very curious. You need curiosity to learn about different people and cultural backgrounds. With curiosity, you can learn and grow as a person and improve as a team.
8. How do you define learning agility?
Learning agility is about the ability and willingness to quickly make decisions or try new behaviors based on past experience.
You can only do this by being flexible. You must be open to continually evolving and learning, be willing and able to ask for and take feedback. That’s why employee feedback is so important – so we can learn and grow as a company.
Inherent in that is some failure. My approach to failing is not failing for the sake of failing. Do what you can to mitigate the consequences of potential failure – do your homework and think things through and make an informed decision to try something. If unsure, find a sounding board – whether a mentor, colleague, or the leadership team – to bounce ideas off. But if you make a mistake, then learn from it. If you can’t learn from your mistake, it was a useless mistake.
9. Why is learning agility important in leadership and the workplace?
Learning agility is a learned behavior. It can be nurtured with constructive feedback and with people’s willingness to be open, flexible and vulnerable. It starts with the leadership team. If they don’t embrace and learn this, how can they allow their teams the freedom to ask for feedback and experiment with tactics, programs, behaviors, etc.?
10. How does learning agility distinguish humans from digital employees?
A DE calls upon machine learning – it learns over time and gathers information, which is a dimension of learning agility. But a DE can’t experiment and collaborate. A DE can’t reflect on what did and didn’t work, and won’t take interpersonal risks. That’s why a DE doesn’t replace a human employee but instead helps unleash what a human can uniquely bring to the table – creative, innovative thoughts, experimentation, empathy and risk taking.
SKAEL's mission is to deliver better user-centric outcomes through intelligent cognitive automation, empowering a synergistic human digital workforce. The company's unique Digital Employee technology maps to any organization's existing processes, onboarding and completing tasks in minutes. The company has been headquartered in San Francisco since its founding in 2016 and is backed by leading firms including Bonfire Ventures, Daher Capital, Backend Capital, RIDE Ventures, StratMinds VC and Buffalo Ventures.