Kathy Albarado - Corporate Culture for Community Change
If one were to work an average of 8 hours a day, 5 days per week, from the age of 18 to the age of 65, one would spend over 90,000 hours of their lifetime in the workplace. For Kathy Albarado, President and CEO of Helios HR, that’s 90,000 hours of potential. While many employees across America find themselves begrudgingly sitting down at their desks each morning and eager to leave when the clock strikes five o’clock, Kathy has dedicated her life and energy to the transformative power of corporate culture. “My personal passion has always been to make an impact through the creation of a corporate culture in which an employee’s life is not checked at the door, but is rather enriched and enjoyed within the walls of their workplace,” she explains. “When you can create a place that people love to be a part of, that enthusiasm spills over into the community.”
Helios celebrated its tenth anniversary in September of 2011, and throughout its first decade, it racked in outstanding success. It grew forty percent in 2010 and is on track to grow another fifty percent this year, supporting between 80 and 100 customers at any given time. Despite Kathy’s obvious proficiency as a leader and affinity for what she does, however, she reports that she never had a burning desire to be an entrepreneur. She served as VP of Corporate Services at PriceInteractive, a rapidly growing speech application service provider, for four years before launching Helios. “As an employee there, I felt productive, engaged, and like we were really building something,” she remembers fondly. When the owners sold Price to a publicly traded company based in Boston, however, everything changed. “I couldn’t stand to see the culture we’d built unravel so rapidly,” she explains. The deal was completed in February, and she resigned in May.
Kathy then found herself confronted with the age-old question: What next? Thoroughly engrossed in her work with Price, her professional network had lain dormant for several years. Undeterred, however, she began reaching out as she examined whether she would return to the corporate world or whether starting her own business was a better route to take. She invited people to coffee, bought them lunch, and asked how they’d started their companies, how they’d grown them, and what needed to be considered throughout the process. “They were all very gracious and eager to help, and I realized that I couldn’t get excited about accepting another corporate opportunity because the culture we’d had at Price was so special,” she reports. “That’s when I realized that, if I could engage in an intentional focus on corporate culture and then share that vision with other executives and CEOs, I could help them as they grow and scale. I realized that I wanted to start a company that would help these leaders implement and maintain the right infrastructure to attract, retain, and engage the best workforce in the best place to work.”
In preparing to launch Helios, Kathy polled her network extensively but took each pearl of wisdom with a grain of salt, careful to review its applicability to her own unique situation. One trusted friend and business owner recommended that she keep her day job at Price until she had lined up her first customer, but Kathy decided that this wasn’t the right path for her. At the time, she was the single mother of her young daughter, Amanda, which had taught her the importance of perseverance. “As a single mom, you just do what you have to do to move forward,” she affirms. “You don’t complain or whine, you just do it.” Her own childhood, as well, had taught her the value of independence and following one’s own path. “After my parents got divorced, my mother remarried into an abusive relationship that lasted for seven years,” she says. “I’m a firm believer that, if you’re in a bad situation, you leave and hold out for a good one. Do what you have to do, and don’t settle.”
After taking several weeks to realize that her dream was to build incredible company cultures for organizations throughout the Washington Metropolitan area, Kathy’s mission became very focused. She launched the company in a home office basement, and she remembers nights when Amanda, at a spunky eight years old, would offer to make grilled cheese for the two of them while Kathy worked. Kathy also recalls with gratitude the support of her husband, Kevin, who was patient and supportive throughout the long days, nights, and weekends it took her to launch and grow the company. Helios’s original model has evolved over the years since that time and now provides human capital management, consulting, outsourcing, and recruiting solutions for a phenomenal client base focused on evolution and forward motion. For smaller companies of a hundred people or less, Helios often serves as a fully outsourced HR function that provides a team approach. “Whether our clients need someone focused on compliance, someone who can conduct a compensation analysis for them with some benchmarking, or a technology expert to advise on what system to use as they scale, we provide them with access to all these resources, whereas if they hired one dedicated person to fulfill their HR function, that person probably wouldn’t have as broad of a background,” Kathy points out. Alternatively, for midsize and larger organizations, Helios does consulting work specializing in organizational development. In this capacity, it advises on growth management, reporting structure changes, role clarity, and adequate training and support functions, among others. Finally, Helios provides recruiting services across all professional services positions through an hourly model which saves an average of 30 percent on contingent search fees and on the placement of HR professionals on a competitive retainer. Helios’s consultants are unique in that they rarely serve more than four clients at once, whereas many of its competitors use models in which a hundred clients can be assigned to one account manager. Helios consultants are thus extremely involved and visible within client organizations, providing CEOs and leadership teams with comprehensive and in-depth strategic advice and counseling. Kathy has also recently begun to leverage her extensive commercial network to begin organically building into the Federal sector in response to the market’s expressed needs. “I love that my access to these executives allows me to help them find innovative solutions to their challenges, which are often very similar from one company to the next,” she remarks.
One such opportunity came in 2007, when Kathy was struck with the idea to launch the Apollo Awards through Helios. Though some advisors told her that Washington already had enough awards, she received positive feedback as well and decided that they’d put out a call for nominations in March of 2007 for an awards program that met in May of that same year. 188 people attended the first ceremony where 4 winners were chosen amongst 12 finalists, and all the CEOs of those finalist companies attended. “It was amazing to see all that energy and goodwill created in the community,” Kathy marvels. “People want to see how they stand against other companies in their size category, and we create a white paper to then distribute the findings. People love to be around like-minded executives, and the event is about collaboration and camaraderie— everything that Helios stands for and seeks to promote.”
Born in Alexandria, Virginia, Kathy has spent her whole life in the area. As a child she didn’t have a specific end career goal in mind, but was instead quite flexible and opportunistic. In college at George Mason University, she changed her major four times but ultimately settled on Psychology, which permitted her to intern at the Northern Virginia Mental Health Institute for 18 months. Working intimately with a wide range of patients in this capacity taught Kathy that all people are people, and that one had to be purposeful and unrelenting in their composure and intentions in order to be taken seriously. It also taught her the critical importance of pulling one’s own weight on a team, as failure to do so could result in serious injury. “As we progress down our careers, it’s interesting to see how experiences teach you what you do and don’t want,” she reflects now. “I learned from that one that I didn’t want to go into clinical work. It’s important to remember that there’s always an opportunity to reinvent who we are and where our story is going.”
Kathy waited tables through college and managed a women’s sports retail store afterward but soon realized she wanted to head in a different direction, so she started personnel management classes and discovered an acute passion for the burgeoning field. She then began interviewing around town and was given a position at a company called Dewberry, where she developed a solid foundation in HR with the help of top-notch mentors. Within her first six months, she coordinated a program to consolidate the company’s 20 different vendors to optimize their savings and mass volume discounting. She was also coached extensively in the importance of strong writing skills. “You have to be able to write in order to think through complex issues and articulate them effectively, and a mentor at Dewberry would redline my memos to help me learn those skills,” she recalls.
After Dewberry, she worked at ITC Learning, where she was challenged to truly stretch her limits and venture beyond her comfort zone. Her boss could tell that she was capable of more than her skill set and background implied, and he pushed her beyond HR by having her report to him directly on the business’s operations and sales force. “He was a visionary, and I helped him to execute those visions,” she explains. “Now, as I implement my own visions, I’m confident that I don’t have to have all the details figured out before launching a project. Even if I only have 80 percent of things ironed out, I continue to move forward, accept feedback, and adjust as I go. I don’t overanalyze things, and my decision may change from one day to the next because of that, but each decision is a better decision than the one that came before.”
In advising young entrepreneurs entering the business world today, Kathy echoes the popular sentiment that there’s no replacement for experience. “When you assume a position, be humble, appreciative of the opportunity, and aim to show them what you’re capable of,” she urges. “Having a strong work ethic and being able to understand and manage expectations is a skill set you only gain with experience, so understand that you need to develop that track record.”
Beyond this, Kathy echoes the entire philosophy upon which Helios is built: that success is never achieved in isolation. It takes a network of compassionate, supportive, collaborative people to help build a company. It takes a team of enthusiastic, driven, fulfilled employees to keep that company afloat. It takes collaboration between leaders and consultants to develop the kind of corporate culture that enables such a team to persist. And it takes the work of all social institutions to build better societies, whether they’re public or private. “There’s so many things leaders can do to impact the community, whether it’s providing employee time and support for volunteerism or educating people about community needs and solutions,” Kathy points out.
Despite Helios’s certain accomplishment, Kathy feels that one of her greatest successes is ultimately personified in Amanda, who is now 18 and a co-founder of Collective Change, a charity that provides easy ways for communities to come together, promote awareness, and raise money for important causes worldwide. Kathy fondly remembers the night of the organization’s first fundraiser, when her daughter directed the event to raise money for Haiti with exceptional poise, grace, and conviction. “I believe every person and every company has the privilege and obligation to give back,” says Kathy. “What I love most about Helios is having the opportunity to impact our client companies and to then connect these clients with the greater community to leverage that momentum. Amanda is an exceptional example of how that momentum can embody real change, and that, to me, defines success.”
− By Gordon J. Bernhardt, CPA, PFS, CFP®, AIF®
About Gordon J. Bernhardt President and founder of Bernhardt Wealth Management and author of Profiles in Success: Inspiration from Executive Leaders in the Washington D.C. Area, Gordon provides financial planning and wealth management services to affluent individuals, families and business-owners throughout the Washington, DC area. Since establishing his firm in 1994, he and his team have been focused on providing high-quality service and independent financial advice to help clients make informed decisions about their money. For more information, visit www.BernhardtWealth.com and Gordon’s Blog.