HR At Jawbone: Earning a Seat at the Executive Table

By Michael Overell - Jan. 27, 2014
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Last week saw the 5th HR 2.0 event held in San Francisco. It’s a forum for HR leaders in some of the best-known tech companies to share lessons and insights.

Previous speakers include the HR Leads from Pinterest and Andreessen Horowitz. I’ve attended a few, and we co-hosted the last one at Runway. I’ve always found it incredibly insightful, and walked away with a deeper appreciation for the importance and complexity of good culture, people and operations.

Randy KnaflicThe speaker this week was Randy Knaflic, who leads ‘People and Operations’ at Jawbone. Which, if you’re not familiar, is a phenomenal product-driven company of 500 people. I love my Jambox.

Randy shared some awesome advice and stories on how he’s helped HR earn a seat at the executive table at Jawbone.

A side note: HR is not called HR in tech companies any more. You’ll see it called variations of Talent, People, Culture, People and Operations. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll call it HR. Though for the record, I think it’s a dumb name (could ‘human resources’ be any more dehumanising?).

First, a bit about Randy. He’s an impressive guy. A survivor of the dot com boom, he went on to spend 6 years with Google leading HR and recruiting in Europe and the Middle East. From there, a stint as VP Talent and HR with SpaceX. Now, VP of People and Operations at Jawbone.

Takeaway: He knows his stuff.

His advice for HR folk is practical, actionable, and smart. But it also makes a ton of sense for anyone in a role that requires communication and influencing. Which, I guess is kinda everyone in business.

How to earn your seat at the executive table

Randy has 3 simple guidelines:

  1. Philosophy first
  2. Keep it simple
  3. Be data-driven

Sounds obvious. But it’s very non-HR in the ‘traditional’ sense; of policies, acronyms, hand-gestures and gold stars. His goal is to move HR from a stereotype of reactionary fun-police, to a proactive, strategic partner with a valued seat a the table.

1. Philosophy first

Don’t talk about policies. They’re boring, and treat grown humans like children. Rather, start with philosophy.

A semantic difference? Perhaps. After all, Jawbone still talks about a ‘vacation philosophy’ and ‘parental leave philosophy’.

But there’s a subtle difference in communication, by linking a philosophy to company values.

An example: Jawbone recently updated its parental leave policy. Err, philosophy. They had to communicate this to the company. A blanket announcement could work, but why would people care? Especially if not in the window for making babies.

When sharing the news, Randy spoke of Jawbone’s philosophy of incredible care and detail at the early stage of product development. Hours of work into R&D, and perfecting minor details. If, as a company, they cared so much about the first steps of a product, how could they not apply the same thinking to the investment made in the early life of a new child? The needed a better parental leave policy.

Now, a boring announcement about some new leave policy became an opportunity to draw strong links between the values across different parts of the company.

2. Keep it simple

HR people love acronyms. PTO (paid time off), EEO (equal employment opportunity), FTE (full-time equivalent). Hell, here’s an entire list for you.

And sometimes, playing at the coalface of people issues, it’s easy to get stuck in the weeds. Communicating every detail while missing the big picture.

Randy gave a simple example of how to keep it simple.

Headcount. Every board report has the chart. It’s likely provided by HR. And it likely breaks down headcount by month, across regions or business units. Yawn. It can be hard to tell a good story using a bar chart with 458 data points.

An alternative: compare headcount at the start of the year, to the current count. Draw a line in between. Then tell a story about overall growth, and the innovative recruiting initiatives used to drive that growth.

Same data, a different story. Earning the right to lead that discussion.

HR 2.0 Randy Knaflic Jawbone

3. Be data-driven

On the topic of data, HR needs to use it. So much is gathered across all the HR functions. But the stereotype of touch-feely HR folk persists. To earn a seat at the executive table, data is your best friend.

Returning to the example of parental leave at Jawbone. They had to choose a number: how many weeks leave would they provide?

This could easily be a finger-in-the-air-type gut call. Instead, Randy ‘sourced’ some intelligence on the leave policies of a dozen major tech companies. Put it in a chart. Then showed the CEO.

Instantly, the discussion focused on market comparisons. Who they should match, and beat. And by how much. In the end, the CEO actually ADDED weeks to the proposal from HR, to outstrip a few certain competitors.

The HR team at Jawbone has a full-time person focused on analytics, data and stats. Who runs the numbers for your HR team?

Now, some tech companies clearly get the importance of HR. Or People Ops, Culture, whatever. Jawbone does for sure.

But if you’re in HR – at a tech company or anywhere else – what can you do differently to earn that seat at the executive table?

ps – thanks to the event hosts: Mitchell Lake and Sequoia Benefits.


Michael Overell

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