Diversity Insight, Q&A

Q&A: The Voice of Two Female Leaders in HR

A push for gender equality in the workforce often has difficulty reaching the C-suite and boardroom. We wanted to get a female perspective from each on these topics: getting a seat at the table, the value of female leadership, and the HR industry as a whole.

Source: fizkes / shutterstock

We are joined by Gabrielle Toledano, who joined the board of directors of Namely as an independent director last month. We are also joined by Namely’s CEO Elisa Steele.

HR Daily Advisor: HR has spent years trying to get a seat at the executive table. So many decisions that influence how HR can effectively do its job relies on having executive buy-in. What have your experiences been in this regard, and what would you tell someone struggling to get there?

Elisa: Every people decision is a business decision. People strategy is as critical as business, go-to-marketing, and product strategy. The HR function is in a very pivotal place for the business—literally connected to every single function across the company. From our vantage point as HR leaders, we’re uniquely positioned to deliver strategic value to the business. Our data show that more than half of HR leaders report directly to the CEO so that strategic contribution is increasingly being recognized.

My advice to HR leaders at companies who are struggling to get that elusive seat at the leadership table is this: Anchor yourself on data-driven insight, and surface the data around people metrics. This enables you to talk about the business and actions that should be taken for better outcomes. Talk about your attrition stats, and help leaders understand the costs associated with them. Expose your employee net promoter score, and elevate the understanding of the value of an engaged workforce.

Gaby: We all need to achieve fluency in this new data-driven model. You can’t contribute at the leadership level without this skill. This is the language that the C-suite speaks. Increasingly, the tools that we’re bringing in to manage our function are being instrumented to give us unique insights. Make sure you’re choosing platforms and partnering with companies that have data and insights woven into the fabric of their DNA.

The tools and technologies you use must be able to serve the core needs of your business: payroll, benefits, HCM, etc. That’s a necessary but insufficient condition. Your technology choices must also give you the data and insights that bring the health of the piece of the business you manage into sharper focus. When it comes to elevating the nature of the contribution the HR function makes at your business, you must lean on data and insights. When you’re going to present to the leadership team, lead with data. Be the expert on your people data, and help the C-suite at your company achieve the same level of fluency in the HR metrics that they have in the revenue, marketing, product, and other business metrics that are part of the daily dialogue of every business.

HR Daily Advisor: What are some traditional boundaries that HR should be pushing against?

Gaby: Even with all the progress Elisa mentioned earlier, I think HR teams still work against a lot of stereotypes and misconceptions. HR teams are not obligated to align with top management and do whatever top management says they must do. They’re strategic partners to leadership to and are advocating for—not against—employees. HR exists to drive business success, by attracting, engaging and retaining outstanding talent in a work environment where they can do their best work.

Elisa: Across so many of the companies I’ve worked in, I’ve always found HR to be one of the most innovative, forward-thinking teams. Let our industry and customers serve as an example of that. The HR technology space wouldn’t be as dynamic as it is if those stereotypes were true.

HR Daily Advisor: A lot of CEOs have a vision, and that can be what makes them so successful. But it can also make them very difficult to sway in one direction or another—how can HR align a CEO’s vision with HR’s needs?

Elisa: CEOs take pride in the companies they lead. We also take a lot of personal ownership over how employees are feeling. Because the work of an HR team directly relates to employee well-being, I think that gives HR a powerful card to play when making the case for a project or an initiative.

Gaby: We talk a lot about how HR needs to earn CEO buy-in. But in a way, the reverse is true, too. Executive leadership can’t accomplish anything without buy-in from the rest of the organization and working in earnest with HR. To that end, position yourself as a consultant and partner. You must have a pulse on what will and won’t resonate with all levels of your company’s employees. By necessity, HR professionals must have trust-based relationships with all employees, not just the CEO or top leadership.  I will say that I’ve found that many CEOs understand the value of HR and Talent is central to their business strategy.

HR Daily Advisor: What role does HR leadership play in fostering culture and diversity?

Elisa: Make no mistake, fostering culture and diversity is a priority that should be shared across your entire organization. That said, remember who your gatekeepers are. There should be no stronger champions for diversity than the CEO and your HR team. If they aren’t making it a priority, the rest of the organization won’t.

Gaby: I agree with Elisa.  HR is not the owner of a company’s culture or diversity strategy, but we are custodians and champions of both.  After all, HR is the department most involved with sourcing people to join and providing programs that affect every employee’s journey and experience at the company. While hiring managers ultimately make the call of who to bring in, we need to provide managers diverse candidate slates and ensure that diversity is central to the culture and reinforced through all of the programs we build and deliver. That means we must embed that focus on diversity and a positive employee culture into the recruiting process, the performance or recognition processes, training programs, the incentive structure and every other aspect of the work culture.

HR Daily Advisor: I’ve repeatedly read how diversity among employees can improve an organization due to the diversity of thoughts and ideas that bring a wealth of innovation. What about in the boardroom?

Elisa: It’s true for employees and it’s true in the boardroom. We all know boards have been slower to catch on, but there is reason for optimism. I serve on the boards of two other publicly traded companies, and I chair one of them. I’ve often found myself the only woman in the room over the years, but I am optimistic that things are changing for the better.

Gaby: We look to boards for insight and leadership. Companies that foster diversity at the highest levels of leadership have a strategic business advantage in the market. They’ve created an environment that welcomes all perspectives. By doing so, the company is setting itself up to be able to see—and capture—a broader spectrum of understanding and thus opportunity. It just makes good business sense to bring more diversity to the boardroom. I’m also optimistic that things are changing for the better.

HR Daily Advisor: Why is it important to have more women in the boardroom and in leadership positions?

Elisa: Diverse teams by definition are richer. They broaden the scope of perspectives brought into a room. That statement is especially true in the context of a boardroom. Having diversity at the highest levels of leadership isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s the right decision for the business.

Gaby: When you have diversity in gender, cultural background, geography, and thinking styles, more viewpoints are present and a wider spectrum of options are surfaced for consideration. Diversity in the boardroom creates the climate for more thorough decision making, and minimizes the risk of “group think.” Women make up a higher percentage of the workforce than ever before. The makeup of the boardroom has to be reflective of the employee populations they are leading, of the communities where the company is operating, and ultimately the market that they are targeting. I agree with Elisa. This is not just the right thing to do, it makes for a more interesting and fun workplace and it’s also just plain good for business.

Gabrielle Toledano is a distinguished technology industry veteran with more than 25 years of HR leadership experience, including leading global human resources at Tesla and Electronic Arts. Currently, she is an Executive in Residence at Comcast Ventures, serving as a talent operating partner. She is also an advisor and serves on the board of directors for both private and public companies.

Elisa Steele is President and CEO of Namely. Before Namely, she was Jive’s President & CEO (JIVE: NASDAQ). She has held senior business leadership roles at companies that include Microsoft, Skype, Yahoo!, NetApp, Sun Microsystems, and AT&T Business Services. Elisa is Chair of the Board of Directors at Cornerstone OnDemand (NASDAQ:CSOD), serves on the Board of Directors for Splunk (NASDAQ:SPLK) and Namely, and is an Advisor to People.ai and Tile.