Q&A with LinkedIn's Pat Wadors

Q&A with LinkedIn's Pat Wadors

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In this exclusive interview, LinkedIn's CHRO and vice president of global talent talks to Akankasha Dewan about the company's efforts to increase transparency around diversity, and leveraging on the creative nature of Millennials to drive change.  

VITAL STATS: Pat Wadors is the chief human resources officer and vice-president of global talent at LinkedIn. She joined the company in February 2013. She has also led HR divisions in companies such as Plantronics and Yahoo in various capabilities.

In your stints at LinkedIn, Yahoo and Plantronics, you’ve championed creating a workplace employees want to work in. How do you do that when you’re dealing with vastly different cultures and attitudes of working? 

I think people are essentially the same. Cultures show up in different ways and manifest themselves differently, but there are some common themes and people love choices. So my goal has always been to say, here’s a global theme that works for company XYZ, Yahoo, Plantronics, etc, and then within your region you make it your own.

If you can localise it (the global theme), you feel really proud of the country you are in, and the city you are in, and it feels very familiar to you. So if it’s a blend of those cultures, you don’t feel like one is dominating the other.

LinkedIn’s culture is the collective personality of every individual who works here. The five cultural tenets we embody as an organisation are transformation, integrity, collaboration, humour and results. But since our culture isn’t just who we are – it’s who we aspire to be – it should come as no surprise the most important aspect of our culture is transformation. We strive to transform ourselves and our career trajectories; to transform the company in realising the full potential of our mission; and to transform the world by manifesting our vision to create economic opportunity for every professional.

How do you ensure the blend of cultures doesn’t interfere with the goals of the organisation and its aims?

I usually get a targeted group of people to sit together who will be impacted by the change. I solicit their input, and ask them what’s working and what’s not. I also look at our ability to hire, our retention rate, our engagement levels and our measure of productivity. And based upon the feedback I gain, I decide if we need better co-operation or better communication. Then I create something like a menu and give them a choice of how they want to work.

What ends up happening is that even engineers who love four walls and live within them in a solitary existence begin to lower their walls and begin to have better creative and collaborative conversations within their peers. They start having longer conversations. And you find the best problem-solving happens in a cafeteria or a break room, time and again.

And 68% of LinkedIn are Millennials. They are used to student centres, used to classrooms and study centres. So if you create an environment that allows them to operate like that and collaborate with each other, they end up feeling very comfortable and get very productive.

How do you measure the success of that?

How I measure my success is by looking at the engagement levels. So at LinkedIn, we survey every six months. And some of the things I ask in the survey are, “Do you like where you work?”, “Are you effective?”, “Do you have the tools you need to be able to be effective?” and “What would you like being done differently?”. We gather all that data to make sure we’re on the right trajectory.

We challenge our employees to imagine their dream job, and then work towards achieving it by pursuing their passions through various programmes, both formal and informal. InDay is one such programme, where one day a month we give time back to our employees to pursue the ideas that most inspire them. Each inDay has a theme and organised activities, but ultimately each employee has the freedom to use the time in any way that will help achieve a personal or professional goal.

In addition, through our LinkedIn speaker series, each month we introduce our employees to innovative thinkers and inspiring ideas, which will in turn help them be more productive and successful.

LinkedIn has also introduced some employee engagement programmes such as Bring In Your Parents Day. How successful has this been?

Oh my gosh, that has been such a huge hit. It started in Dublin and it has been taken over globally. Our second global Bring In Your Parents Day is coming up in November. It has created such a great vibe.

If you’re part of the Millennial generation, then your parents do want to know where you work. They are very involved in your career and in your life. And they are very interested in what you do for a living. And this is a way to bridge that and close in the generations. So the employees love it and the parents are so proud. For LinkedIn, it gives them a sense of building their own networks, getting connected and the value of being connected. The parents actually gain a lot of experience, too.

I think [Millennials] are eager to learn. When they get exposed to something they don’t know they get very humble and say, “Wow, I didn’t know HR could be so cool!”

What would you say is the biggest learning you have gained from launching the programme?

It’s making them aware of what you do for a living and showing a sense of pride and connection. This is because it’s generally hard to explain what you do. The technology has changed so much and how you do what you do has changed so much over the generation. So this has been a way to communicate with your parents in a way where you feel proud.

And so, if you rank what the employees love about LinkedIn, Bring In Your Parents Day has been one of the top five. They love it, and so we will continue to do it.

What advice would you give to HR leaders who wish to implement similar programmes, but don’t necessarily have the resources to do so?

Be pragmatic, of course, and reflect your culture. Always know what differentiates yourself and celebrate that. And know your demographic. For us, it’s the Millennials and so we focus on their parents. If it was the older generation I might have chosen something else, who knows?

Seek input from your employees. If they love the idea organically, they will sponsor it and they will volunteer. So it’s possible for you to do this very cheaply. You can bring them in and do a pop-lock. You can show them off in your labs and to your office space and where you work and meet your boss.

It doesn’t have to be a high-priced item. Most of our offices have events involving volunteers around the globe, and they do this above and beyond their jobs, and they love it. We get different volunteers each year and it keeps their engagement high and keeps them more connected to LinkedIn, since they get to meet people all over the world, personally as well as virtually.

What’s the best part of working with Millennials, and what are some of the challenges you’ve encountered?

The best part is their creativity and energy. They are just amazing in their thoughts. I love them. I love bringing them into my meetings, I love asking them their points of view. They collaborate naturally and they don’t think in silos. I want to foster that throughout the company. I simply love that mentality.

The challenging part is teaching them some of the corporate programmes and policies that are inherent to the organisation, like compensation and understanding in our world, what is the stock option, and giving them the structure and giving them more context in terms of certain policies. Because they may not have ever worked for a corporation in their life. They’re coming from a university centre to us, or they’ve had very little experience.

So it’s a lot more education. You have to slow down in the front-end to stimulate the policy and the process. The common things you’ve learnt over time, you have got to teach them very fast.

Are they receptive to such learning?

I think they are eager to learn. I think some might be presumptive and think they know. But when they get exposed to something they don’t know they get very humble and say, “Wow, I didn’t know HR could be so cool!”

For example, I had an engineer student come in as an intern this summer for HR, and he was helping in analytics and recruiting because I think analytics is a big thing in HR. And he never saw analytics as a powerful tool in our function, and it was his professor who had encouraged him to try HR, and he walked away and said, “I actually might change my profession, my degree. I think what you do is so cool”. So I think they think they know a lot, but are willing to learn.

Jeff [Weiner, LinkedIn’s CEO] and I were being interviewed a few months back and we were chatting about what he was looking for when he was hiring me as head of HR. He categorised it into 4 As – agility, adaptability, analytical and authenticity.

You’ve also led the HR function at Plantronics and Yahoo. How is HR different in those companies compared with LinkedIn?

I think LinkedIn is more creative, and has a higher focus on culture. Recognising that culture is what sets LinkedIn apart. More than anything else it is our differentiator to achieve our vision. And it’s the corpus from which my CEO, my peers and myself make business decisions from.

For example, we say we are open, honest or constructive, or we act like an owner. So if we think about how we spend the company money, or shareholder money, or we think about our business status updates to our employees, we model behaviours. We think in line with that culture to reinforce it all the time. I’ve never seen such consistency in any other company. Or in any other field, for that matter.

We stay laser-focused on our vision of creating economic opportunity for every professional in the world. Our employees share that goal and lever LinkedIn’s platform and other programmes to make an impact.

How did your background in business and administration help you in leading HR?

I was mentored by my uncle in HR since I was in college, and he taught me the value of knowing the business. He also said, when I was starting out in my career, that for most companies, 80% of their cost is in labour. So understanding how to pay labour, hire labour and reward and recognise them, retain them and measure their success, is the key to your success.

So I focused on business and then I focused on compensation for a few years. I also did a few years of recruiting to understand those underpinnings, to make sure that if we were going to do what we were going to do, we would do it right.

I also left HR a couple of times if you look at my profile, to work in the business. I’ve done sales roles and operations because I think HR may lose its language and not be heard by the business. I framed things in a way the business would hear me, and I used a business case and data to back up my theory. I might have a hypothesis, but then I gather my data which allows me to prove my theory out or not. But I used language in a framework the business understands and that served me well.

Having broad knowledge about the business is integral if HR wishes to become a more strategic business partner.

Yes. Jeff [Weiner, LinkedIn’s CEO] and I were being interviewed a few months back and we were chatting about what he was looking out for when he was hiring me as head of HR. And he categorised it into 4 As – agility, adaptability, analytical and authenticity.

And so understanding the analytical side of the business, understanding the P&L and understanding the metrics which drive the business is a huge component of how I drive change at LinkedIn.

Since then I’ve also debated about the fifth A, which would be “approachable”. I think as an HR leader, if you don’t look like you are approachable to your employees and to your leaders, then you won’t hear enough about the business to address the business needs. So I’ve got five As to Jeff’s four.

How would you define what HR stands for and what is it heading towards?

I think we provide different tiers of support. We will always have responsibility for handling the administration for the employee base. You know from hire to retire, and those transactions. We will be responsible for the company’s policies and for making sure they reflect the local law and support the culture. I think as you move up the food chain, the responsibility is to align ourselves with that culture which sets you apart as a company in order to create your employee-employer value proposition.

Another thing HR leaders are doing more of is being responsible not only for their own companies, but also for the communities in which they work in. So when you talk about diversity, unemployment, or non-profits, there are a lot of my peers that are running (charity) foundations for their companies. They are having a large say in ensuring the company gives back to the country and the city in which it operates in.

And what does the future hold for HR?

I think it’s going to continue on its evolutionary track to becoming a strategic business partner. I think it’s going to help my peers and CEOs shrink the world as they look at the workforce holistically and figure out ways to leverage that workforce. We connect the world’s professionals with opportunities, and there is a supply and demand out there, and I think HR needs to help figure out the different types of employment conditions there can be, be it for a temporary or contract worker versus a regular and full-time employee.

We need to think more creatively about how we can get more resources out into the global world to make them gainfully employed and leverage on their skills in a marketable way. Technology allows it, but we need to figure out a way to serve it.

Obviously, LinkedIn believes technology has a big role to play with HR. Do you think this reliance will only increase over time?

Yes, it’s clearly one of my biggest tools. I use it to help me with change, and I use it to help me to support change. While looking at analytics and data you get to the centre of truth. You have to pull in your human capital tool at a typical work day and you have to look at performance management and third-party tools out there that rate companies. You also have to look at recruiting tools, and combine all that into a tool which houses all this data. So systems which act as data warehouses and which report insights are really, really important. We have to stop fishing for problems or solutions, and instead have to come up with the data to help us solve identified problems.

I think HR is being more deliberate now with data.

We have a highly engaged workforce, but we’re growing so fast from 3,000 to 6,000 employees that if I don’t change how we hire and how we think about our workforce, we won’t change what we look like as we grow older.

Do you think HR leaders today are able to leverage on this data well?

I love teamwork, so I don’t think I have to be a technical guru or in analytics to use this data. I need to know where to find them. In HR, you know the best data scientist in your company, you know the best analyst of the finance division of your organisation. You partner with them on the data that you have, to see if you’ve collected the right data on your dashboard, and if you’re looking at the data in the right way.

So once I’ve articulated the problem, I’ve never had the issue of finding people who aren’t willing to help me. If I don’t have the skills, there are people in the company who are willing to help me.

LinkedIn has also recently revealed its diversity figures, which you admitted have some room for improvement. What do you think is the reason behind the poor diversity figures of the company?

I think some companies have always shown their numbers, and no one makes a big deal out of it. I think Google shared their numbers – they had some pressure. I personally believe transparency is a gift. You should show what you have in front of you as data. If it’s wrong, someone smart will tell you that you are wrong and you will have an opportunity to fix it. If you are right, then you can start changing perspective; you can change direction, you can change momentum.

For me, it was a win. I just told Jeff, “we’re going to share ours, and it doesn’t look good”. We have room for improvement, but if we share it now, then the ways of our people, our hiring managers and our employees who know how we go about creating a diverse work environment will change, by the very fact that I’m sharing these figures.

And it has started to happen. We have a highly engaged workforce, but we’re growing so fast from 3,000 to 6,000 employees that if I don’t change how we hire and how we think about our workforce, we won’t change what we look like as we grow older. What I’m trying to do is make us more aware about becoming more diverse and reflect on what our customers look like and what the world looks like. I think it is more natural.

From those figures there has been a lot of great dialogue, and a lot of great partnering. Employees are excited, and it is changing the game in several ways in a good way. I’m glad we’ve done it.

My peers in the Valley (Silicon) did it as well because once you get a momentum going then you get employees that are out there in the work space going, “I want to work for a company which is open and honest” and “I want to work for a culture that matters”. And if companies aren’t sharing, they will assume the worst. That’s what transparency does. If you are transparent, then people view you as someone with good intent. If you’re not transparent then they will assume the worst.

Why do you think such a pattern of poor diversity emerged in all these tech giants in the first place?

For LinkedIn, and I think it was the same for Yahoo, you’re a high-growth company. Imagine you’re a 3,000 employee-based company, and 40% to 50% of your hires are through referrals, because you do all your own recruiting from your own network. You recruit the people that you know, and if you tend to hang out with people that are like you, and belong to your own community, then you tend to hire that model.

It doesn’t look funny when you have only 3,000 employees, and you don’t see a gap. But at 6,000 employees you start seeing a concern. If you don’t change your patterns at 20,000 employees or 30,000 employees, then you’re in a bad state and not diverse.

I wanted to raise it while we were growing, because when you are growing you have an opportunity for change. When you hire, you have a choice. When you’re a stagnant company, when you’re not hiring a lot and just managing turnover, the need to hire is made more difficult to make the change more meaningful. We have an opportunity for change in front of us as we are growing, and we want that growth, that future, to be as bright as possible for our diverse workforce.

What challenges do you face as a senior female leader given you lead vastly dynamic organisations such as LinkedIn?

I don’t think the problems ever change. Boards tend to want to look at women that are from the financial or operational divisions. So if you’re a female CEO, or COO, they’ll grab you for a board seat. Now very few female leaders actually make it to a board seat. If boards are limited to eight or nine seats typically, then you have very few opportunities.

When you look at women who want to become board members from other disciplines such as HR and marketing, they have to be more deliberate in their voice to say they want that role. Women tend to be more conservative – they don’t want to oversell – and so that could be seen as less confident. If women want to lead companies from a board seat, we have to show our confidence and what we bring to the table.

There’s a study out there which Jeff was sharing with our executive team which showed a correlation between the number of women you have on your executive team and how profitable your company will be. The greater the number of women, the more profitable the company can get. He said it’s because women add such great diversity and depth into the conversation. For most products and services, and in a lot of those industries, women are the predominant buyers and users of those services. So having their voice in that ecosystem just makes more business sense.

What can HR leaders do to make women leaders feel more confident?

First, you get the board to agree they want more diversity on their board. Lots of boards may not have the policies such as terms of service so they stay together for a very long time and may not have the opportunity for rotation.

So encouraging CEOs and HR to put in those rules at the board, and tenures and length of terms, will help with some transition opportunities that will help with diversity.

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