Having conducted nearly 60 “Faces of HR” interviews, I have spoken with people who came from every imaginable discipline before moving into HR. That’s part of what makes HR so resilient and capable—its people’s diverse backgrounds. Today’s guest comes from internal auditing, and in many ways, that puts her in a unique position to transform her company.
Meet Susan Insley, VP of Human Resources at VMware.
How did you find yourself in HR?
I’ve been in HR for just over four years because I was looking to do something different. After talking to our CFO, CHRO, and other operational leaders, the opportunity to move into HR was really attractive because I could leverage some of the strengths I had built throughout my career in finance and audit. At the same time, I would be able to influence company culture and business outcomes in a completely new and different way.
That’s one of the things I love about VMware. People development is very important. We especially want senior leaders to have knowledge depth and breadth of the business. We also value versatility, which enables people to move around to different kinds of roles in the company.
I’ve spoken to a lot of people who have come into HR from other disciplines, but I think you might be the first who started out doing audits. How long did you do internal audits?
Almost 20 years…
That’s a great starting point to really paint a picture for HR and a great place to expand. Can you talk about that a little bit?
In an internal audit, you have to have a very broad view of the enterprise to be effective. Your job is to identify where the critical areas of risk are for the company and then also evaluate the effectiveness of mitigation strategies in place to protect shareholder value.
In HR, the goal is to use well-architected talent strategies to propel the business. So coming into HR, I was able to take a very broad view of our enterprise, including identifying key risks and assessing the current talent strategies. From there, I could help continue to build our knowledge and use of the different kinds of talent strategies available to drive the business forward.
One of the things we often see in HR that’s challenging is really having depth-and-breadth understanding of the business. Leaders tend to come in and partner with particular organizations, focusing on the piece they know. To some degree, having that broader view helped me because I had a better understanding of the end-to-end business supply chain, for example, how upstream and downstream stakeholders could be impacted by some of the things that various organizations were doing. Knowing all of the pieces helps drive better connections and operational execution.
Averting risk can become an obsession and kind of a roadblock in some cases for innovation. Do you feel like you get too focused on that, or do you feel like you have a healthy balance knowing when sometimes you have to let off a little bit and just let things develop?
When I arrived at VMware to build an internal audit capability, we were a small company. There wasn’t a high level of risk awareness. That was a top objective for our audit function at the time—how do we drive a level of risk awareness into the culture so that company leaders are making educated and informed decisions? If you want to take risks, great, but let’s make sure you understand the intended and unintended consequences. As I transitioned into HR, I had to train some new muscles while keeping the ones I built in audit strong.
It’s like being an athlete. For a period of time, you lean into certain strengths and muscles until you can leverage new muscles. I think supporting the business is understanding the goals and vision, then building skills and capabilities while understanding those things that potentially can prevent you from being successful. Most people can do some things quite easily, but others require muscle building. That gave me confidence and a little bit of air cover while I continued to grow new capabilities.
It’s one of those things where, I guess from an employee perspective, it would be easy to see all these new changes coming in and all these new considerations and be like, “Well, that’s not something we’ve worried about, so why are we worrying about it now?” But I could see a managerial executive level saying, “Well, we’ve set these guidelines in place now; we’ve identified where our footing is, and now we can grow safely.”
One of the things about working in the technology sector is that change is a constant. Because of it, we’ve had to really embed a culture of evaluation and continuous improvement. That’s how we stay away from becoming stagnant and move forward. We don’t say, “Here’s a way of doing this, and this is the only way we’re going to do it.” That’s an impediment. We know that if we want to be a SaaS and subscription company, we’re going to have to continue to change, and we need to discover things we’re going to need to do differently to better support our customers. There are always new ideas, new practices, and new policies in the tech sector, so iteration is important. So is doing it in an intentional fashion, but not having so many constraints that you can’t be agile enough to keep up with the market.
As you’ve worked out your new muscles and expanded your realm into HR, has that impacted your private life in any way or who you are? Do you find yourself looking at your friends differently or your family?
I think my overall disposition has softened a little bit. I don’t mean to say that auditors are hard, but the approach I was taking to solve problems shifted at the same time as my middle schoolers turned into high schoolers. I believe I’ve been leveraging the tools and approaches I’ve been learning on the HR front on the home front, as well. Consider this global pandemic as an example, I think we’ve all learned a lot through this experience. What I’m learning at work in terms of how we’re supporting the company and our employees—how we’re navigating as a community through all of this—is something I’m able to transfer to home as both my college and high school student navigate distance learning. And what proves successful at home can be valuable at work too.
Talk about an audience who doesn’t want their lives audited, right? I want to change gears and talk about the current state of affairs. On the one hand, the murder of George Floyd has really brought the Black Lives Matter movement to the forefront. At the same time, business leaders are being forced to finally care about their employees because they realized they’re all home, and they need to be supported. I think that lends itself to a little bit more empathy and understanding surrounding the Black Lives Matter situation and the race situation in our country. Is that something you have grappled with?
Absolutely. All of these issues have been regular conversations at VMware, and we discuss them with our employee resource groups, at an organizational level, and during companywide meetings. I think we all recognize that people are tired. COVID-19 abruptly created a whole new way of working for everyone, and the lines between home and work are blurred more than ever. People are working at home alongside their children or elderly parents or whatever their circumstances are, and there’s a lot of overlap there. People are leaning in very hard to navigate the challenge of keeping work and home separate when you’re doing everything in the same place. But it’s also harder because the of demands of the work—trying to make sure that nothing drops and that the company continues to meet deliverables and deadlines and succeed. All of it has created anxiety in the system, and sustaining it is leading to exhaustion.
People have all of this work pressure plus being exhausted by the social injustices and political stresses going on in the world, so we’ve tried to take a step back and look more holistically at employee wellness—not just in the context of mental health, but more broadly. We’re making sure to have open and transparent communication and support resources available. And we are listening really hard—listening like we’ve never listened before—and making sure we’re responding to the true needs of our employees.
Someone I was talking to the other day made an interesting point, which was that diversity and inclusion people are starting to mandate supply chains for the first time ever. It’s really interesting to see that aspect of it and how important that could be for the cultural health of an organization.
I believe there is a silver lining in this distributed working model we’re in right now. It’s opening up talent pools that our proximity bias was limiting. As we have continued to hire and build out the company, we’ve been able to tap into these new pools. Diversity of thought, experiences, and points of view drives innovation. Diversity isn’t enough though. There has to be a culture that enables those perspectives to be heard and considered to result in true innovation. All of us working in a distributed way has in many aspects, accelerated our teams’ capability to have open lines of communication. You may have talked to enough people that you’ve heard that before, but it truly does. This is a massive opportunity for us.
We’ve spent a lot of time in recent months trying to shape what our future of work will look like, how this distributed model helps accelerate us as a company and how does it help us continue to improve upon our employee experiences and how does it help us better serve our customers. I hope others are asking similar critical questions: How do we think about our workforce differently, whether it’s hiring a more diverse population around the world or enabling current employees the flexibility and choice to be located where they can do their best work? What does our workplace actually look like, and what is a virtual workplace versus a physical workplace? And then, what are the new work practices we need to be employing? We are no longer talking about “best practices” anymore—we’re talking about “next practices.” What do we need to reinvent or reimagine as we go down this path?
Is there anything you’re particularly proud of having accomplished in your time in HR?
When I joined HR, it was at a great inflection point. VMware as a business was just beginning a critical business transformation, pivoting from being an on-premise license software company to also delivering SaaS and subscription software services, and we knew that managers and leaders were going to be the number one critical resource to shepherd the company through the change. As we continued to iterate on our operating model and look at how to run HR as a business, one of the strategic changes we made was building a new HR capability.
We created a new role in the HR business partner community. We divided the typical business partner role into two pieces: One was a strategic business partner role focused on organizational transformation and the other role was focused on manager coaching and capability building. We created a global team, working one-on-one with our people managers around the world to continue to build the capabilities needed to guide our company through the transformation. I’ve benchmarked and this isn’t a common role at other companies. Yet it’s been super critical to VMware and has been a great investment for us over the last four years. What we have seen is this uplift in our managers’ autonomy and ability to lead their organizations and teams in a way they weren’t able to do before. It has been really awesome to watch.
We obviously have more work to do; you never end or finish that kind of work. But it’s been remarkable to see what kind of change we’ve been able to drive just by equipping our leaders and managers with the right tools, resources, and capabilities to effectively manage their teams and change.