Interview by:


I had the honor of sitting down with Winnie Park, CEO at Paper Source, and before we started talking about her Talent Acquisition strategy, I asked if she would be open to talking about the elephant in the room – COVID, and how it was changing her business. Like everything else in our interview, she graciously said yes and so our interview began. 

We discussed how she thought the pandemic had brought her teams closer together. The culture at Paper Source is built around Conscious Leadership—being present, candid, and vulnerable – and this was put to the test when everything was changing so quickly. It allowed her team to be more apt to take risks, ensuring “progress, not perfection.” Soon, they were spending less time in meetings and less time spinning. 

COVID also gave her corporate team time to bond with the field organization through voluntary weekly Zoom calls called “Lean in & Learn”. Programming included everything from professional speakers sharing external breathing exercises to their CFO teaching cooking classes. Engagement and putting people first is Winnie’s answer to getting teams through the toughest times.  

But the reason we set this interview up, was to talk about Winnie’s Talent Acquisition strategy. As a TA leader myself, going into the conversation, I had some preconceived notions, so hang tight, you may be as surprised as I was about what I learned! 

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Question: Can you tell me about your Talent Acquisition Team and your relationship with them? 

Winnie: Our Talent Acquisition team is tiny, but identifying talent is everyone’s job at Paper Source. Officially, we have 2 people focused on acquiring talent; and, unofficially, we have 2,000 people in the role. Our two recruiters support field operations and our head of HR leads efforts for our other business lines. I believe that talent is the number 1, 2 & 3 asset we have in combination with our customers.  Across our organization, we look for talent that is right brain and left brain focused, they need to know how to commercialize creativity. For us, that is why referrals and having my leadership team directly involved with recruiting is critical. Our networks have been so valuable in finding people who fit into our strong, positive culture. 

Question: What are you looking for when you are interviewing?  

Winnie: I believe the start of your career it is about what you can do. In the middle of your career it is about what you know and at the end of your career it is about who you are. Understanding who you are helps us find people who can truly rise in the organization and take those next steps. I like to think about it as looking for heat seeking missiles, self-starters who seek out opportunities, as opposed to managers who coordinate the latitude and longitude of where teams need to go.  We like to find people who can find the fire and fix the problem. Our people must seek out improvement and have an opinion about solving business challenges. There is no one size fits all, it is about curiosity.  

Question: What is your role in recruiting? 

Winnie: I have done it my entire career, whether it is in a restaurant or at store, I am the nosy person that wants to know what drives a person – what makes their heart beat fast, what inspires them to grow. You have to be continually talking to people and curious about what they need or want. I find gems everywhere through these personal interactions.  

Question: What are your frustrations when it comes to recruiting? 

Winnie: That is a good question. I have frustrations in pockets. One pocket is our distribution center because we have some amazing professionals, but it is hard to compete with bigger brands. Especially now, post COVID, we are going to see a real bifurcation in the retail landscape. There will be the mass retailers that have been operating throughout this and there will be some lucky ones, who had plenty of cash, who can continue. But there will be a lot that are lost, not because they are not wonderful, but because they could not survive. There will be a bigger gap between the big guys and everyone else. Another frustration point is in the Bay Area where we are competing with the tech sector. 

As leaders, we have to take a step back and think about our employer value proposition. Paper Source will never be the place where you get paid the most. It is about believing in the power of creativity and unleashing this within our customer and our workforce. Secondly, every employee has a responsibility to dissent and have an option that is heard, and everyone should be heard. This ownership in the brand is really special and unique in the market. This culture is why I, literally, cannot wait to get going on Sundays. I genuinely love the people and the work, and that is what I want for our teams.  

Question: Do you have any advice for Talent Acquisition professionals?

Winnie: I have worked with some amazing recruiters and those that take the extra time to understand the person end up having the biggest impact on culture. Having a sixth sense, or intuition, always makes a difference in hiring someone who feels as if they were born here and can hit the ground running. It is that little extra insight, delving into the who you are conversation. I know this sometimes feels like a fluffy conversation, but the extra layer of humanity makes a difference in finding amazing professionals. 

Question: Do you have advice for executives building a talent strategy?

Winnie: Number one, start with your own company’s vision and values. Then, use it rigorously to create a culture that is exceptional. Your talent strategy must mirror your vision and your values. If you were to take your values and say people should embody this, then it makes recruiting and attraction easier. It goes beyond experience – it touches on to who they are and how they show up.  

Secondly, I would say practice what we do at Paper Source – everybody is a recruiter for talent. You need employees and a community that loves what they are doing and believes in it.  It means they can get out and authentically proselytize how great the company is to others. 

There can be a revolving door in retail and to maintain and retain the best talent, it starts with acquiring a group of people who embody the culture and fundamentally want to amplify the culture. They must believe. We acknowledge that we have to keep the pipeline of great talent open, and you have to keep bringing in new perspectives and great ways of doing things. You must keep the tribal knowledge balanced with the new ideas. That is why I love our internship. I have never ever not implemented what an intern has advised us to do. At the very least, we try it. That fresh perspective married with our institutional knowledge keeps us relevant.  

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The last question I asked Winnie was about her role.  Her title is CEO, but what does she really do? She told me that everyday she leads with love, asks questions and remains curious. She sits alongside incredibly talented creatives and helps their visions come to life.  

There was so much more to this conversation that I wish I had time to share with you. Winnie creates a magical place that is about people, and not stuff, to build a utopian recruiting model. I hope you can take one or two snippets from her examples and dream of building some of her advice into your world. 

Until our next interview, stay safe and hire great people!