Tuesday, April 23, 2024

NC trend: Bandwidth’s HR chief shares honky-tonk lessons

The story was written by Billy Warden.

Honky-tonk is known to fuel barroom brawls, boot-stompin’ floor dances and risky hookups — but a career in human resources?

 “Yes, absolutely,” says Rebecca Bottorff with zeal as infectious as a Kitty Wells melody. “Honky-tonk, bluegrass, that kind of music led me to HR.”

Not just HR, but an eventful run as chief people officer at Bandwidth, which has grown from 125 “Bandmates” to 1,200 during her 12-year tenure. The communications software company went public in 2017 and is developing a 40-acre corporate campus in Raleigh, which is slated to open next year. It will include a Montessori school, fitness facility and amphitheater. 

Earlier this year, Bottorff was named to Bandwidth’s board. Only 3% of Fortune 1000 corporate directors have HR backgrounds, CEO David Morken noted at the time.

For all that success, Bottorff remains rooted in the down-to-earth lessons of the Americana classics she grew up with in Ohio’s Rust Belt. In the past 10 years, she’s gone from being an ardent listener of Americana classics to playing them as a self-taught guitar, banjo, autoharp and ukulele picker.

“Honky-tonk and bluegrass are both grounded in stories of the human condition,” she says. “They’re about the working man, men in prison, love and families struggling to get by. When I was young, I would imagine those stories — the tough times of those men and women. Often, they had done bad things, but they were also human. And the consequences of a hard life are very real for most people.”

 Bottorff’s family could afford one vacation per year, usually to Dale Hollow Lake on the Kentucky-Tennessee state line, near where most of her extended kin lived. She, her parents, her siblings and a herd of cousins would pile into their blue station wagon with the faux woodgrain plastered on the sides. Bottorff made sure to squeeze into the front seat to focus on her father’s eight-track player and the hardscrabble songs of Earl Scruggs and Bill Monroe. 

Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home” remains a favorite. The ballad opens this way: 

The warden led a prisoner down the hallway to his doom. I stood up to say goodbye like all the rest. And I heard him tell the warden just before he reached my cell. “Let my guitar-playing friend do my request”… Take me away and turn back the years To a song my momma sang. Sing me back home before I die.

“It’s about how life can be beautiful, yes, but it is also a struggle,” says Bottorff, 54. “The person in the song has broken the law, but he also has a soul and a story that matters. Even inmates on death row have a mama. Despite the decisions they’ve made, it doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy of music transporting them to another place.”

Her compassion and curiosity led her to earn a sociology degree at the University of Cincinnati and then work in human resources, first at Konover Property Trust in Louisville and then at Durham’s Motricity. In 2007, she launched her own firm. All along, she was honing an empathy-heavy approach to HR.  

rebecca bottorff
▲ Bandwidth named Rebecca Bottorff to its board this year.

“The trick is to understand that what you see that’s obvious about a person may not be what they are all about,” she says. “Sometimes they have deeper needs than what they might be asking about. It’s about seeing the whole person and where they’re coming from.” 

In 2010, Bottorff interviewed with Morken, a Marine veteran and triathlete who was roughly 10 years into leading Bandwidth, which he co-founded. The two were singing from the same hymn book.

“David was a self-made entrepreneur,” she says. “He had learned to be a leader through human interaction. And he wanted a way to treat people as human beings, not as tools of business.” 

Morken saw a kindred spirit in Bottorff. “She has never been afraid to speak her mind and challenge the status quo,” he noted in a January news release. “(She) has been an essential partner during many different phases of building Bandwidth into the global company we are today.”

Bottorff says she’s worked on creating an approach to human resources that involves more traditional procedures for sickness or performance problems, along with emphasizing celebrations and connecting time. 

“The goal,” she says, “is to provide ‘Bandmates’ with the opportunity to have both meaningful work and a full life.” The “whole person” approach has helped Bandwidth maintain better-than-average retention rates. “Bandwidth’s culture has always been our differentiator,” Morken says.

Perks include a 90-minute lunch to encourage employees to escape their desks for food, exercise or whatever recharges their battery. Paid time off is deemed serious business. “We ‘embargo’ you,” Bottorff says. “Which means those at the office are not permitted to email you or disrupt your time off.” 

Bandwidth also observes Mahalo Moments, a nod to the Hawaiian term for gratitude. “It’s about recognizing the beautiful things that happen to our people,” Bottorff says. “When, for example, you get married or have a child or a grandchild or move into a home, you get an extra day off. And while the day off is nice, it’s really about celebrating these wonderful moments of self-actualization with others on your team.”

Bottorff’s own Mahalo Moment has been her evolution as a musician. “I got a guitar when I was 7 or 8, but we had no money for lessons. I just couldn’t get it and gave up,” she says. “But in your 40s, you realize that most of the things that prevent you from doing what you want are baloney. So, at 45, I taught myself to play.”

Now, she regularly hosts jams at her home and is thinking about putting together a roots group. She especially enjoys the Lake Eden Arts Festival, scheduled for October in Black Mountain, which she says creates a “thriving global community generated by the power of cultural curiosity, connection, and preservation.’”

Even with her company’s fast tempo, she remains as entranced by honky-tonk as when she scurried into the front seat of her parents’ station wagon. She was surprised recently by the gift of a dulcimer from her friends, “I sat there and played it and sobbed. It just resonated with my Appalachian-rooted soul.”

Bill Warden is a writer, multimedia producer and musician who co-founded the GBW Strategies public relations firm in Raleigh.

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