Culture, Talent and Career: A Conversation with Lena Laakso

Pete CodellaArticles

Here is the latest in the series of conversations with inspirational Utah women in business. GOED’s Jessica Jerome is our latest correspondent speaking to the women behind the business, research and ideas that are changing the world. These women share their work, thoughts and advice. Note the opinions expressed by interviewees do not necessarily represent those of GOED, but they do promise to be interesting.

Jessica sat down with Lena Laakso, human resources director at Petzl America, to talk about work culture, managing the talent pool, and career advice.


Tell me what brought you to Utah and why you stayed.
I was working in London for a global company that had a subsidiary headquarters in Salt Lake City. When it was time for a transfer back to the U.S. I thought, “Okay, Salt Lake City has been a great place to visit for business, I’ll start there and then decide where I really want to live.” That was 17 years ago. I fell in love with Utah, and this is my home.

Everything is easy here — access to the incredible outdoors, low cost of living, just the right size, access to an international airport, and even traffic is minor. When I moved, the Olympics had just been here so there were all kinds of infrastructure improvements, and I met a community of friends very quickly who were into the outdoors, which made it easy to establish the really great relationships that I have to this day.


What has your career path looked like–what led you to where you are now?
I started out with a psychology degree and took an industrial psychology class. I realized I was not interested in the healing side of psychology, but rather what makes employees happy and efficient. That led me into vocational rehab, where I helped people with disabilities get into employment and gave me a strong employment law background. Most importantly, I also realized a critical aspect of my career satisfaction was being able to positively impact people directly through my work, and hopefully beyond that on a greater scale. In this case, it was growing job skills and income opportunities for people with disabilities as well as educating the community and employers of the benefits that occur when providing these opportunities. It was a powerful experience that made lasting impacts.

About five years later, I got the opportunity to go to Juneau Alaska and work in HR at an underground mine site. I was there for five years and absolutely found my niche there. Human resources is a way that I can have a really direct impact on the work environment, and it has everything to do with selecting the right people, helping guide policy, culture, and how employees are treated. My career evolution then involved specializing in a number of HR-related areas such as recruiting, employee relations, benefits, change management, and HR information systems projects. However, through this period, I reached a point where my work-life balance and job satisfaction wasn’t where I wanted it to be, and asked myself what have I enjoyed the most? Basically, almost twenty years into my career I decided to figure out what I wanted to do long term.Lena Laakso

Going back to my core principles of career satisfaction, I knew I needed to combine my career passion for HR with the outdoor industry. Recreating outdoors was a big part of my upbringing, and has continued to be the center of how I want to spend my free time. It’s a much bigger picture than just hobbies. It’s a vibrant industry that promotes connecting with nature to the benefit of better mental and physical health. I applied at Petzl and was very fortunate to be selected. That was six years ago, and this is the best job and the best company I have ever worked for.


What is the best part about what you do?
Having a meaningful impact on the day-to-day environment and being able to positively shape where people spend so much of their time. The most rewarding part for me here is knowing that I’m encouraged to propose and implement new policies that really are meaningful and beneficial. It’s rewarding to get creative when you find a pain point and figure out a way to rework something to the mutual benefit of the employee and the company.

Another great aspect is guiding the hiring process. I get to meet amazingly talented people, and help hiring managers find the very best fit for their needs. There’s definitely some art and science to the process, and knowing that you’ve gotten it right is hugely rewarding. I like to say some applicants transcend their resume, and some resumes transcend the applicant. The process starts with a couple pages of words from an applicant, and then sorting out which one will take us to the next level no matter what the position is my goal. Each hire is critical to the health of the organization and culture, and you can’t build that overnight.

During my tenure, we have made the Outside Magazine’s 100 Best Places to Work twice, both times we entered. The award is based on the results from an anonymous third-party survey of our employees, and how they rate us on a variety of factors. It’s validating to find that 100 percent of employees who responded said it’s a great place to work and they would recommend it to friends. I’m very proud of that, and am grateful to work with the talented team that makes it happen.


What are some challenges you face in your line of work? Have you ever faced challenges specific to being a woman?
I do believe there are obstacles in some fields and companies, but I’ve been really fortunate to be in environments where inclusion has been genuine. Even in the mining industry, you were judged on what you did, what you said you were going to do, and whether you were a smart contributor. That’s what mattered and earned respect from the crew and up the ranks.

One of the universal challenges with women in careers is when thinking about starting a family. Figuring out timing and balance is a very personal decision. I respect all paths, and there are pros and cons at every intersection. It wasn’t a simple journey, but I’m happy to have reached my end goal of being a mom who also happens to love her job.

Working on gender equality in the workplace has always been important to me. Business statistics support the results when there is balance throughout an organization. Many companies face an internal challenge that starts with education—the fact that women haven’t always been cultivated towards engineering and some of the sciences and technology. I’m so happy to see more focus on the inclusiveness of STEM programs.

This issue very much applies to the outdoor industry. When I post a job, the majority of applicants are male. It’s a challenge for me that I take quite seriously. If I don’t have diversity in the top candidates, I’m not done recruiting yet. I actively source and find qualified candidates so I can present a balanced pool of talent for the hiring managers to evaluate.


What do you love about living in Utah?
We have some of the most stunning landscapes I have ever seen! Utah has mountains with the best snow on earth for skiing, deserts to explore, rivers to run, and national parks that draw people from around the world. There’s so much to do on any given weekend or even before and after work. In Salt Lake City, hiking and open spaces are very accessible, and the variety is incredible. This is truly a place where work-life balance is possible due to a thriving business environment and near proximity to outdoor recreation.


What advice would you give to a young person, out looking for a job in today’s world?
For job seekers, especially if they’re trying to break into the outdoor industry, a cover letter addressing both the company and industry with a really compelling story is key. You can tell when people are applying on mobile apps. If they don’t take the time to explain their passions and personal connection with the opportunity, I know that our job is just a click rather than someone following a well thought out process.

Really proofread and get opinions on your cover letters and resumes. You have one shot at presenting yourself as a candidate, and you want to stand out for the right reasons. Your goal is to leave the reader interested in learning more, and to do that you need to learn how to showcase your personality and uniqueness. Stock phrases and jargon do the opposite of that. Your application should tell your story, not just state titles and dates. Top brands draw the best talent, it’s competitive. It really isn’t easy narrowing the field based on a couple pages of words, so make them count!

Also, for people starting out their career, think carefully about how and when you change jobs. At some point, if you haven’t spent five or six years with a company, you’re not receiving the depth of experience you would if you stayed with an organization and weathered some transitions. You become much more valuable than if you have a year or two here and there even if your salary and titles are progressing.