Leavey Alumnus Nathan Rapp Shaping Corporate Culture at Global Biopharma Firm
In today’s world of hybrid and distributed workplaces, building a strong culture that attracts and retains top talent is more important than ever. Employees who don’t feel heard or connected are often quick to resign, leaving many companies struggling to fill vacancies. Innovative companies recognize that culture and employee relations are critical and make significant investments in ensuring they have strong leaders in Human Resources and Employee Relations.
Nathan Rapp, MBA ’09 is one of those leaders. After learning about employment law working at law firms and at a management consulting company with a former VP of HR of Bank of America, Rapp realized that HR was exactly what he wanted to do. Through a combination of work in the public and private sectors, he narrowed his expertise to employee relations, investigations, and assisting managers and employees with performance challenges.
Since December 2020, Rapp has been at Ultragenyx, a global biopharma company, serving as Director of Employee Relations since January 2022. As the winner of multiple Best Places to Work awards, Ultragenyx is passionate about its mission and culture. They inspire and empower their teams to develop innovative medicines for people with rare diseases. Rapp and his colleagues in HR and Employee Relations are committed to putting people first and cultivating that winning culture.
“It starts with making sure we are hearing employees and their concerns from whatever part of the company at whatever level,” said Rapp.
Employee Relations plays an important role in setting the tone for the company’s culture. With approximately 1,300 diverse employees across the world, it’s imperative to understand culture as well as the rules and regulations in every country. he said. Employee Relations is responsible for determining how to address the concerns in a way that will maintain or improve a company’s culture. In addition to investigating issues that arise, this could also involve working with managers to address employee performance issues, making accommodations, and molding company policy.
“My goal is to leave every day better than I found it at Ultragenyx,” said Rapp. This includes making sure employees trust Employee Relations and feel comfortable approaching the Employee Relations team with challenges. Rapp and his team builds this trust through an open-door policy as well as proactive workshops (live and virtual) for different segments of the workforce.
Inspiring Trust through Active Listening
Rapp encourages his team to listen to every concern and ask questions. They are dedicated to digging into every situation which often includes consulting with multiple people. Then, they determine if the concern translates to a performance issue or something that requires a larger investigation. Findings are then discussed with managers, legal, and the appropriate stakeholders. The Employee Relations team coaches managers on how to handle performance concerns and partner with the organization’s business leaders to drive individual and team productivity.
While Ultragenyx’s approach to Employee Relations may be resource-intensive in terms of collaboration and stakeholder involvement, Rapp sees first-hand the positive ROI of their department/Center of Excellence. They are actively encouraging employees to raise concerns, which he compares to a restaurant proactively addressing issues. If there was a shortcoming in your dining experience, and a manager goes above and beyond to acknowledge it and correct it, you are more likely to share what a great experience you had at that restaurant and go back. “We do the right thing by employees, and when there’s a gap, we address it. Employees and managers believe in the process and the system. They know they are going to be heard and we do not have a mass departure of employees due to not feeling heard. The way we treat our employees brings better talent.”
A Solid Business Foundation
Rapp credits much of his success in Employee Relations to what he learned at the Leavey School of Business. “Whatever challenges I’m dealing with in HR, my ability to comprehend and understand the challenges is in large part due to my training at the Leavey school,” he said. “Business school made me a better problem solver. At Leavey, we don’t just talk in theory. We talk in practicality. How does a solution fit a practical challenge.”
Learning about different business functions at Leavey – IT, finance, marketing – also enables Rapp to have deeper conversations with managers about their specific challenges. “I can really understand how their function impacts the business, and it gives me greater credibility with the leaders in the organization.”
The Future of HR and Corporate Culture
As a thought leader in a relatively new function within HR, Rapp believes Employee Relations is already evolving. The pandemic created an expectation of nimbleness. Employees expect things to be addressed sooner because you no longer have to fly halfway across the world to solve an issue/address a concern. Companies that value nimbleness and create a culture around it will be more successful, especially for global organizations where flexibility is key. Employees in all parts of the world need to feel heard so they know the organization cares about them and is willing to go the extra mile to help them.
Rapp’s advice to those starting in Employee Relations – or really any field – is to embrace the challenge. “In the past, I overcame challenges but didn’t always embrace them. Even in those challenges, there are opportunities to learn more about yourself in terms of strengths and areas of development. When realizing that, you are more at peace with things that can happen and you can truly focus your attention on cherishing the experience. When you don’t embrace it, you miss out on the small ray of sunshine in the midst of the storm because you are so busy trying to simply get through the challenge. Challenges are designed to help us grow and evolve – if we did not have challenges, where would our true growth come from?”
Rapp team embrace challenges and are unafraid to question the status quo. He believes that you need people who will ask the tough questions. “Why can’t we do that? Is there any way we can? If we could, what would that mean?” When those questions aren’t asked, you can end up with a solution that may be good enough for the current situation, but strategically not the best long-term decision.
“That’s what we try to do at Ultragenyx,” said Rapp. “Over time, we become just as powerful being comfortable and uncomfortable – and once that happens, there’s nothing we can’t do in either space.”