My Preparation Notes for the Udemy People Innovators’ Panel

Last night, I spoke on a panel of very impressive peers from GE, Compass, and Hometeam.  Many thanks to Safia and Darren from Udemy for conceiving, organizing, and facilitating the session.

Unbeknownst to many attendees, there is a lot of prep that goes into these “casual” conversations.  At least, I tend to prepare a lot because I’m deathly afraid of public speaking and public embarrassment!  (Why I then subject myself to these types of situations is a topic for another day….)

Below are the answers/notes I crafted ahead of the panel discussion.  We didn’t hit all of the questions, and I riffed a little and went off-topic, but thought it might be worth sharing on this blog.

Questions from the moderator are in red bold

I’d love to hear each of your perspectives on how HR has evolved in recent years. How has this shift impacted your role, team or your business?

It seems that, now more than ever, it’s a great time to be in HR, because our function is at the intersection of 2 related forces, and benefiting from a third.

The 2 forces are:  

  1. The rise of start-ups led by idealistic CEOs who prioritize people practices alongside business results
  2. The War for Talent, specifically knowledge workers who view work as more than just a way to pay the bills, but as a community

These 2 forces are putting HR initiatives like the cultivation of great managers, the development of strong cultural norms, compelling learning & development programs, etc., on the table as “must haves”.  

What’s also driving all of this is the emphasis on data-driven HR.  Thanks to progressive HR organizations like Google’s, we have both quantitative and qualitative data around squishy topics like employee engagement and the value of managers, and this helps to justify the practices we have been promoting for years.  Being able to speak the language of results and outcomes has given us a seat at the table on Executive teams, and enables us to communicate with our business- and financially-driven colleagues.

How this has impacted my role/team:

  • We measure everything.  Typical things like employee engagement, exit/30-day interview findings, performance review results, recruiting metrics.  AND also attendance at events; NPS scores for learning programs; a month-later post-mortem on learning programs.
  • We behave like a business unit.  We develop well-researched proposals before we take an action.  These proposals clarify the purpose, the expected impact, alternatives, and estimated costs/benefits.
  • We stay on top of what’s going on in the industry through networking, reading articles, etc., to stay ahead of the curve and decide what makes sense for us to offer versus not.

 

What ‘role’ does HR serve within your organization? What do you call your HR function (People Operations, Employee Success, HR, etc.)?

I changed our function’s title from Human Resources to People deliberately, to make the point that we aren’t just focused on traditional HR, but on People in general.  It’s about more than what makes an employee useful to the company.  It’s about how to make the workplace stimulating, welcoming, and a place where people can be themselves and do their best work.

I also think that, unconsciously, our employees are less likely to view the People team as a “policing” function, as they did with HR.  Our primary purpose is to help individuals achieve their goals at the company, not to bust people for policy infractions.

A challenge with our function is that there aren’t really any boundaries.  Everything has to do with people.  Generally, my team of 5 (plus me) covers the full gamut of what I call “core HR” — recruiting; compensation and benefits; compliance with federal, state, and local regulations; the development of employee guidelines, employee relations.  This was mainly in place when I started in my role back in January.  Since then, we’ve added or are in the process of adding:

  • Learning & Development programs that are company-wide and function-specific.  For example, we introduced monthly all-staff workshops led by our partners at LifeLabs NY, customized interview workshops by function, our first Directors-and-above offsite, and also helped shape a 2-day sales training through Skaled.  Lunch & Learns led by fellow employees who want to share their passions with others.  An in-house manager training is in the works.
  • Career laddering and career pathing that enables individual contributor and people managers to grow their scope of responsibility and impact.
  • Employee-driven interest groups, including seasonal sports leagues; Outdibs, a community that support LGBTQ initiatives; Dibversity, a group that seeks to promote understanding of underrepresented minority groups; a monthly movie club; an office CSA that promotes healthy eating.
  • Internal communications, which has become more challenging as we’ve grown.  A bi-weekly company newsletter; quarterly all-hands at an off-site location, to supplement our weekly, informal all-hands.
  • Employee recognition programs
  • Organizational design issues
  • Coaching and developing our leadership
  • Employee branding and the development of our value proposition

 

How do you define success and know that HR has been successful? On a similar note, how are your HR efforts tied to your company’s business goals?

In general, it’s hard to know when HR is successful because there isn’t an objective measure.  It’s more about incremental changes, how the needle changes over time.  

I really like a framework developed by the VP of People from Greenhouse, Maia Josebachvili, that introduces the concept of Employee Lifetime Value, and how HR can increase this through effective onboarding, recruiting, management and development, and culture.  If you haven’t seen it, it’s a great read and can be found on LinkedIn.

It frames a very high-level view of what HR success can look like, and can provide a helpful way to measure effectiveness in the 4 core ways it highlights:

  • Onboarding:  speed of becoming fully productive, based on feedback from 30-day check-ins with manager and employees.
  • Recruiting:  speed and quality of hires based on their performance reviews as full-time employees, their ability to attract other high performers to the company, their ability to act as multipliers
  • Management and development:  performance levels of employees, based on data re: effectiveness of manager and non-manager training; upward feedback for managers; performance review and promotion data; % of company that is high-performing versus low-performing
  • Culture:  employee engagement and retention, based on employee survey results, regrettable attrition rates, exit interview data, recruiting brand

Since I’m still only 8 months into my current role, just some of this data has been collected, and the data will become richer with time.  

Maia’s framework doesn’t cover other measures of success, but I’d add that there are also the “core HR metrics” like the composition of our employee base in terms of gender and ethnicities; consistent adherence to regulations; handling employee relations issues well; etc.  These don’t necessarily get the “air time” of things like onboarding or recruiting speed, but doing these things well are hallmarks of a strong HR function, and suggest a proactive approach to dealing with issues before they get escalated.

Finally, true “success”, in my opinion, is achieved if you can improve on all of the above, while lowering cost/employee and increasing revenue/employee.  That’s how we know whether we are scaling appropriately.  As a responsible start-up, we aren’t able to throw exorbitant sums on employee engagement initiatives, so we try to balance cost with effectiveness.

Net-net, it’s hard to measure the success of HR, because it is about not messing up the basics while also being prudent about investing in initiatives that employees and managers will care about, learn from, and apply to work.

How our efforts are tied to business goals can be summed up in terms of headcount and scaling.  Are we recruiting at the pace and quality we need?  Are we spending the right amount of money to incentivize our people?  Are we taking advantage of scaling efficiencies, and developing our managers into multipliers?

Given your company’s business goals, what are the top 1-2 priorities for your HR team over the next year?

My HR team is still in building mode, so there is a lot to do.  If I had to pick a few priorities, I would say they are:

  1. Maximizing the potential of our current staff.  While we are still growing, we don’t expect to continue to recruit 100 people per year; instead, we want to dedicate more time and resources to growing and developing the people we have into more productive, accomplished professionals.  We’ll do this through management training, analyzing our performance appraisal data to see where we should focus our training dollars, tap into the leadership potential of our Directors and above (whom, to date, haven’t been asked to get involved in employee development), etc.
  2. Become more calibrated and more aspirational with performance management.  We brought back regular performance appraisals to 1stdibs this year, and created something very lightweight.  Perhaps too lightweight.  We first wanted people to get used to delivering feedback and using a high-level framework to assess employees.  Now we would like to clarify expectations and career paths, and to assist managers in differentiating okay performance from great performance.  And to recognize that they don’t have to settle for ‘okay’ if they can get great.  As at a lot of companies, there is generally a resistance to change from the status quo, and a bias for “the devil you know”.  While it’s important to develop and grow people to their potential, we also need to know when to ‘call it’ when things aren’t changing as we would hope.

 

Specifically, how are you seeing career development and individual growth being fostered within organizations?     

I’m still working on developing this at 1stdibs and will likely need at least another 12 months before the initial shape takes form, but I’m thinking about a mix of information transparency, individual empowerment, and objective support.  The challenge is that people don’t always know what they want, until they see what’s possible.

There are 5 elements to this:

  1. (Transparency) Structured set of expectations by role and level, including being clear about what it takes to move up or across.  This can take the form of a leveling chart with clear competency descriptions, and can be tailored by group.  This should ideally be something that is openly available to everyone, so that people understand what it takes to grow.  In order for this to be effective, there needs to be a strong foundation of calibrated performance reviews across the company.  So if a person is considered a high performer in one group, you can believe that they have transferable skills that could meet many of the expectations in another group.
  2. (Transparency) Give examples of role models and paths people have taken at the company.  Embed these stories in recruiting documents, promotion celebrations, and consider having these folks act as mentors to others.
  3. (Empowerment)  Urge employees to take control of their own career growth.  Too often, it seems they are waiting for their managers – who often aren’t that skilled at navigating their own careers, let alone someone else’s – to tell them how they can grow.  Give them the language and tools to figure out their own development paths using the information available to them (see above).
  4. (Support) Give access to an objective 3rd party counselor who can work with individuals and managers to think creatively about opportunity creation, but also be straightforward if no opportunities exist due to performance issues.  I’m envisioning a strong, development-focused Business Partner type of person who can provide individual attention to employees at all levels.  Most likely, this person wouldn’t have more than, say 150 people to oversee.
  5. (Support) Finally, I’d love to see our Directors and above get more involved in the sponsorship of high-performing employees.  To get them involved, perhaps have them play a mentor role, or be part of a calibration committee, so that they have exposure to the backgrounds and performance of people who aren’t in their immediate orbit.

This is a lot like how McKinsey develops its employees.  It gives clear guidance – everyone knows the 5-part leadership model and what their strengths/development areas are – provides an objective 3rd party in the form of a professional development manager; promotes employee stories of paths taken; and involves senior leaders at the company through their roles as Development Group Leaders.

On a final note, what piece of advice would you like to leave the audience with as they apply new HR practices within their organization?

I’ll give 2 pieces of advice – one that is very important but intangible; and another that is very actionable and tangible.

The first – important but intangible – may be hard to actually achieve, but simply applying new HR practices isn’t going to work unless there is fundamentally a culture of caring and managerial courage.  People need to authentically care about developing others, and doing what’s best for them.

This requires a mindset shift for existing employees, and a new recruiting standard in hiring.  But if you can do it – that is, create an environment where people authentically care about others and have the courage to deliver difficult messages – then you will be able to generate better ideas, have people develop faster, and get people into the right roles (either internally or externally).

The second – more tangible – piece of advice is something I learned from my HR peers at other companies.  Develop a quarterly or semiannual report to the Executives about the State of the Union on People.  They won’t ask for it, because they don’t know what to ask for.  But if you put data in front of them that highlights your function’s impact on the organization and highlights upcoming issues, they’ll be able to engage with you on the topics you care about.  And that can lead to further engagement on People issues, which can sometimes feel like scrutiny but, if you have the data, you can prove your points.  And using benchmarking data from other companies is super-useful if you have Execs who are competitive and want to be ahead of the curve!

 

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