“What are you looking for in your next role?” That’s a question I’ve had to answer quite a lot lately, as I’m talking to CEOs and Exec teams about potentially joining their companies. More than ever, camaraderie and shared values top my list of what I’m seeking. Yet I find that most interview processes aren’t built to assess these thoroughly — on both the company and candidate sides. Most processes tend to be a mechanical ‘checking of boxes’, and while situational and behavioral interview questions do test candidates’ values to some extent, candidates don’t really get a chance to turn the tables on the company to understand how they might behave or how they exhibit their values. (Note: holding values is entirely different from exhibiting values.)
Exec-level searches would ideally apply a lot more rigor to determine shared values and camaraderie, and allow for pressure-testing on both sides. For Heads of People positions, in particular, this is even more important. Your Head of People has to work cross-functionally with all of the Executives to arrive at the cultural values, social norms, and guiding principles to govern the community that you are collectively building. That’s right — not only are companies building a business, they are building mini ‘nation-states’ with their own customs, inclusion/exclusion criteria, and practices. The CEO is the chief exec, the Execs are like senators, and the Head of People (often an Exec so also a senator) straddles the role of Speaker, pollster, lobbyist, the judiciary, and probably a bunch of other government roles that I don’t know about. (My familiarity with governmental structure is pretty limited….)
Net-net, your Head of People should be your trusted spokesperson to and about people and community.
If you agree with me that companies are both businesses and ‘nation-states’ (and I don’t think most Execs think this way), then you have to agree that it’s super important for companies to get the hiring of a Head of People right. So, for me, I decided that regardless of whatever assessment process a company throws at me, I’ll make sure to get time with individual Execs to get to know them as people, to understand their motivations, what they are hoping to achieve, and why. I want to know that these are people whom I can imagine a close camaraderie, based on respect, trust, and belief that we can learn from one another.
When I say ‘camaraderie’, I don’t simply mean ‘collaboration’ or ‘working effectively cross-functionally’. Those are good and necessary qualities, but feel too clinical. I’m talking about the visceral feeling of knowing someone has your back, that you can disagree vigorously but have the long-term respect and trust to get over it, knowing I belong and am not being continuously judged, caring about each other as people outside of work.
Yes, that’s right: I want friends at work. That might be somewhat controversial — especially in a Head of People — but that’s ultimately something that’s very important to me. This HBR article suggests I’m not the only one. I pour my heart and soul into my work and need to know that I’m working alongside people who feel just as invested in me, in each other, and the outcomes our collective efforts bring about.
Candidly, it’s hard to make friends at work when you are an Exec and the Head of People. I get it — it can be uncomfortable being your free-wheeling self in the company of someone who has influence over your career and comp. So I look to my fellow Execs to provide that sense of belonging. It’s a tough ask and most companies probably wouldn’t want that in a Head of People. Which is 100% fine since I’m not looking to work for most companies.