Navigating the Evolving Role of the Chief People Officer with colleen McCreary



August 2, 2023

Colleen McCreary, former Chief People Officer of Credit Karma and seasoned HR leader shares her expertise and insights on the challenges faced by Chief People Officers in today's business landscape. Discover how Colleen tackled issues such as transforming the perception of HR, navigating technological advancements, and managing post-pandemic transitions, drawing from her extensive experience at renowned tech companies like Microsoft and Zynga. Don't miss this episode for valuable perspectives on the evolving role of CPOs and their impact on talent management and corporate culture.

Ann le Cam

Colleen McCreary

Team member of Ribbit Capital, Former Chief People Officer at Credit Karma, Twilio, and Zynga.

Felicia Shakiba  0:04
Hello, everyone. I'm Felicia Shakiba. And you're listening to the CPO PLAYBOOK podcast. Join me and my guests as we feature insightful conversations with HR leaders, people, scientists and executives from diverse industries and functions, offering valuable perspectives on the future of work. Discover a unique outlook on navigating the complexities of the modern day working world. Exploring innovative strategies and Talent Management and corporate culture from the chief people officers perspective, tune in to stay ahead of the game when it comes to all things people related.

The Chief People Officer, also known as the CPO is encountering critical challenges in today's fast paced business landscape leading to an unprecedented evolution of the role itself. CEOs must navigate a complex array of obstacles that impede their ability to advocate for employees and secure a seat at the table. These challenges stem from three major obstacles in the workforce today. The first is the long standing perception where many executives still view HR as a supportive function, rather than a strategic one. This can make it difficult for CEOs to get buy in for their initiatives and have a seat at the table where key decisions are made. The second is the rapid pace of technological advancement. As technology continues to transform the workplace CEOs must navigate the impact of automation, AI, and other emerging technologies on the workforce. This includes managing concerns around job displacement, upskilling and reskilling programs, and ensuring that technology is used in ways that are ethical and aligned with company values. And lastly, managing the aftermath of the pandemic, such as layoffs and calling people back to the office CPOs must manage these transitions while maintaining employee engagement and morale. Joining us today is Colleen McCreary. Colleen is a limited partner at the operator collective Venture Fund and the former Chief People Officer of Credit Karma. Prior to joining Credit Karma, Colleen held senior leadership roles at renowned tech companies such as Microsoft, and Zynga, where she was responsible for managing the growth of a company from a 130 person startup to a 4000 employee IPO exit in three years. Colleen is also known for her advisory services for the HBO hit Silicon Valley, and her courageous comments on social media. Colleen, thank you so much for being here. Welcome.

Colleen, how have you seen the role of the Chief People Officer, otherwise known as the CPO evolve over the past decade?

Colleen McCreary 3:04  
it's been interesting the last 15 years in particular, Google really I think deserves a lot of credit for raising the bar for the people experience as a whole. And or really changing the game around how companies were valuing employees not just around compensation, but this idea that the employee experience mattered, and they are technically known as having sort of the first person title Chief People Officer.

Colleen McCreary 3:29  
The cost of that talent has risen and the impact that those people have been making on companies, there has been a real shift in who is going to help us really build a strategy that will allow us to take, in many cases, our number one expense, and create the programs and systems and the tools that are going to make those people more successful, which then make the business successful, and moving it away from the idea of rules and process and command and control - and really seeing this person as not just the internal spokesperson and admin of number of cases, but also an external spokesperson on who the company is, what their brand is, and what they are standing up for in the world in many cases, and ultimately, what this business can become. It's really exploded in the last 10 years both responsibility, but also the credibility of the person sitting in the seat.

Felicia Shakiba  4:28  
So, the role transformed from an administrative role to a more strategic position. Can you share why sitting at the table is crucial for a CPO? Why not have another executive such as the COO or CFO, manage or speak on behalf of HR?

Colleen McCreary  4:46
Well, I think for a long time, that was the expectation and because they are quote unquote, building the processes or functions around this cost item, you know if your people are just a line item on a budget, it reported into a CFO. And that was functionally where it went, and it was the expected that, you know, the CFOs had these conversations with the CEO and could really be responsible about people from a budgetary perspective. And I think the other place for awhile, we started to see HR reporting was under the Chief Legal Officer, or the General Counsel, because it was all about managing risk, and that people were inherently a risk to the business. So you saw that.

Colleen McCreary  5:27  
And then I think the third path was under sort of a president or a CLO, because it was, you know, you're supporting the business, so you should report into that business leader and let them be responsible. And I think when you do those things, you're not elevating one side, which is the voice of the employee and having somebody sort of represent what is the employee perspective? How do we think the employees are going to react? - and what's that messaging around that? On the other hand, is who's holding all of these other leaders accountable for how they treat their employees, and certainly, it is a partnership always between the CEO and the CTO, it can't be one without the other, they really need to be simpatico they gotta be working together.

But, I think when we've talked the HR leader underneath a country manager, or we tuck them under a president or those types of things, it really puts that person in an awkward position to have to try and advocate for the right thing, or hold that leader accountable for the behaviors and how they're acting as leaders.

Colleen McCreary 6:29  
It's a way better scenario to have that person be a peer, and when you have a challenge, or when you are at odds that you can handle that directly as leaders together, just optically for your employee population-

I think if you're a company that has said, employees are our most valuable resource, or the employees are the most important thing, or we care about our employees, more than anything else, if you don't have somebody who is thinking about your employees all of the time reporting into your CEO, I don't think any of those statements can really be true.

Now you're even starting to see the CEO report to the Board of Directors just like the CEO, because there are companies that are saying, I really want to hold not just the whole management team accountable, but I think it's going to be better if the CBO reports to us because we can also hold the CEO even more accountable.

Colleen McCreary 7:18  
I don't necessarily know if that's always going to be the best case scenario, the CEOs I've worked with. And I think there's a selection bias, obviously for the kind of person I am and who I choose to work with. But, almost all five of them that I've worked for over the years would say that they saw me just as their peer, or sometimes referred to me as their manager, which I thought was kind of funny. But I did feel like I had both their ear, but also their trust and support, to partner with me to do the right thing. And, I think that's up to the individual who's accepting the role. If you accept the role, knowing that it's reporting into the CFO or another business leader, I think that you are accepting that your voice might not be heard, and the all of the ways that it needs to be.

Felicia Shakiba  8:01  
That's incredibly interesting. It seems logical for the CPO to report into the board, given the ethical responsibilities that are naturally baked into it. How might that particular reporting structure impact the business?

Colleen McCreary  8:17  
The amount of responsibility and risk frankly, that the Chief People Officer carries, certainly drives how the board is going to show up what decisions they can make and how well informed they are. And it probably has to do some with how strong the leader or the CEO themselves are, how they are as an operator, how they are in terms of their willingness to make hard decisions, and essentially what the business is, you know, I think that it's, it can go in either direction, depending on who the individuals are in the comfort of the board. You know, compensation is a perfect place where I've always worked directly with the head of the compensation committee. And so I always had a voice and a partner on the board.

And oftentimes, whoever that board member was, would ask me, how is the CEO doing what is actually going on and your trust with that person and your comfort in your ability, if your reporting into the CEO to really be honest and feel like there's no repercussions for potentially having those conversations might be the same indicator as to whether or not you should be reporting to the CEO or to somebody on the board. So, I think you could use that as sort of a litmus test. Frankly, I really want to be able to feel good about the decisions that are being made that directly impact your employees, you know, equity pools, bonus programs, sometimes they get down into the nitty gritty of benefits, overall compensation, and how employees are going to be paid, and what I can actually do or cannot do is often dictated by what the board is deciding. So to some extent, maybe my performance should also be connected to how those board members see me operating.

Felicia Shakiba  10:03  
Given how the role is expanding its breadth, alongside emerging technologies like AI. What should CPOs consider when aligning people initiatives with these changes?

Colleen McCreary  10:21  
Certainly right now, there's just no chatter around, obviously AI in particular, and automation in general, and what technology can and cannot do. What we've seen is with the emergence of technology, it creates more jobs every single time we've seen an expansion of our economy, as new technologies have come into place. In many cases, the fears are overrun.

Colleen McCreary  10:42  
With HR and AI in particular, there was a really fun tweet a couple of weeks ago that somebody was saying, like, "Oh, this is going to take away 80% of all of HR jobs are going to go away, because of AI." And I just, I mean, I was laughing out loud, and then I responded to the tweet and said, I would love if AI could come in and automate all of these tactical things, you know, right, regulatory paperwork, connecting systems that don't talk to each other, all of the things that I hate, that are not strategic, and yet are fundamental to obviously being able to function as a business and take care of your employees, that'd be great. It'd be amazing. Please take care of all of that 80%. But the reality at the end of the day is, I feel like HR should feel comfortable with a lot of job security, if you are in that strategic work that involves truly people on how they operate and function because, as we know, each person on this planet is an individual with a different set of values and morals and behaviors. And unfortunately, I don't think there are going to be learning language models that are going to be able to identify every single human's behavior and the decisions it's going to make and what's going to happen when they make those decisions. So I think  there's a long one way around the need for people to help navigate relationships in the workplace over time.

Colleen McCreary 12:01  
That being said, I do think being in a position where, especially if you work in a rapidly growing industry, like a technology industry, or anything that is trying to push the needle or the lens on something, as you're building a product, you want to be able to be a first adopter, if you can. I love that. I mean, anytime there's a new technology out there, that's going to make it easier for employees make it better for managers, make it a more seamless experience, so that you can focus actually on the work and the things that you love to do and that our people are here for, bring it on. But then I think you also have to bring your workforce along with you.

And, there's a lot of chatter right now about retraining or rebuilding skills and those kinds of things, and I think that that's sort of a bad framing. I think the correct framing is to say, what are the things that we can do on the job with our employees, that will constantly put them in a learning mode, that there's going to constantly be expanding what their roles are? And you know, sort of, going back to some of the things that you may have learned and like the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, or the four H program or something, which is this idea of learning by doing that's what you do in these programs growing up in school is learning by doing and that's what we should be thinking about with our employees is how do we expand their roles? How do we explain their jobs? How do we, as leaders create environments where they constantly know that in order to grow themselves and stay relative to the company, they always are going to be learning, it's not just a class that you take, or it's not just a training session that you go to, it's this idea that mentally, you're always going to be in this position to be learning.

Colleen McCreary 12:30  
If you're on a people team, you need to be setting up your programs to support that, and you need to make sure that if you have anti performance reviews, but if you have some sort of feedback process or tool or something like that, that it's aligning with that same philosophy so that your employees know that they are going to constantly be in learning mode that managers are expected to be creating that for employees, and that the business itself is dependent on whether or not people can continue to grow and learn and embrace what's coming to them instead of being scared and afraid. That's all mindset work. But that's the hardest thing to change in the company is getting everybody aligned and then focused on the same mindset.

Felicia Shakiba  14:35  
I couldn't agree more about that alignment. I think people underestimate how difficult that is, such as how many people to hire, for example. And a piece of that work can be reflected in the glaring layoffs at companies such as Google, Meta, Microsoft, and many others due to the inability to forecast workforce needs past the pandemic today Employees are also being called back to the office after some have migrated to other parts of the country. So, how can CEOs effectively manage these transitions of layoffs and returning to the office while maintaining employee engagement and morale?

Colleen McCreary 15:17
Yeah, this has been a really, I would say sad state of affairs for a number of people teams. And the unfortunate reality is that in many cases, they weren't the decision makers in both deciding to build these workforce plans, and they're also not the decision makers, in many cases to then have to implement some of the business changes that are happening. I think the same thing is that many of the people leaders are being expected to react to the winds of the wind and wherever it's blowing in terms of how the CEOs and leaders are changing their minds and what to do.

Colleen McCreary  15:53  
So I think, number one, if you are a people leader, you have a responsibility to have a voice in how your workforce expands, and then if the unfortunate reality sets in that you have to cut back, I think you need to think about how that is done and what that means and what are sort of the lingering impacts. I feel very strongly that workforce planning is a skill that should be practiced year round, I say it's like diet and exercise 90% of the time, you should eat right, eat the right things, fruits and vegetables, don't eat a lot of fried food or fast food, and then also you need to work out on a regular basis., and you need to do the same thing with your workforce is just be really dedicated and consistent about practicing good behaviors and not just letting people hire because they say they want to hire or, do you always need to backfill every single job? And if you're in a time of ambiguity, maybe you'd be patient and run a little lean instead of getting a little heavy. I usually say a layoff is like a diet drug that you use the week before a vacation, you're trying to get into that bikini or swimsuit season really quickly, and a layoff is the same way that people are trying to hit some sort of earnings target or profit margin at the last minute instead of being really thoughtful year round. So number one, you got to take ownership of workforce planning.

Colleen McCreary 17:10  
Number two, is you have to set the tone for how your management team is going to make decisions and how they get communicated. I don't think it's acceptable to just sit back and say, well, this decision has been made, and we're just going to do it and move on. I think you need to be thinking through and explaining to your management team, "What are the repercussions of doing something like a layoff? What's going to happen to your survivors of that layoff? And how is productivity going to be managed?" and then, "How do we take care of people?"

Colleen McCreary  17:41  
I think one of the things that's really been frustrating, as I've watched a lot of these layoffs is, you know, Twitter, in particular treated their employee so horribly, through some of these layoffs in the last year that some of these other companies just said, well, as long as we're not that bad, it's okay for us to lay people off via email, or in a giant teams call. All of that goodwill that they've just built with those employees, whether they'd been there for three months, or 30 years, it's gone. I I'd like to consider myself, that old HR lady in the tech space at this point have been around for a long time. And it's going to come back around that these companies are going to have to hire again, and people are going to remember, they're going to remember how they were treated or their friends were treated. And I just don't think there's any good excuse to not treat people well, and with dignity and a one-on -one conversation and some of these layoffs. So, you know, I do think it's the people leader role to be educating the rest of the management team on what are good practices and how they can be operated on.

Colleen McCreary  18:39  
I think the third thing, which really hits on some of the pulling the rug out from under people who are told you can be remote, you can work remotely forever, and you don't have to come back into the office or whatever the deal was, I do think somebody needs to stand up and say, hey, unless this is a strategy, which I do think there are a few companies that are changing their minds, because they don't want to do a layoff, but it's their way of getting people to potentially have to quit - but if that's your strategy, that's a whole other conversation as well. But, I do think we need to look back at who we are and look ourselves in the mirror and say, is this how we treat our people? And is this the expectation or changing our minds on how we're going to operate and work? I think you need to give people some time and space to look at their lives and figure out what that timeframe is. I don't think that you can just say like in two months, I need to see you back in the office three days a week, and by the way, your offices remember 3,000 miles away from where you moved that, I told you, it was okay two months ago. So, if that's the decision of the leadership team you've made, I think there needs to be, you know, probably a six to 12 month grace period to let people sort of get their lives settled and come back because now all you've done is created chaos for people in their lives and they're not productive. And so that whole productivity gains that you're saying you're going to get by people coming back to the office have been completely lost.

Colleen McCreary  19:59  
I do think employers have a right to decide how they want their people to work. I work for a company that from the day we sent people home, during the pandemic, for safety and protection of everybody in society, we said, you're coming back to the office, and we never wavered. We told people the entire time. I know other companies are saying you can be remote, I know that there are other places - and you should go work there, if that's what you want to do. But we were very consistent on your coming back to the office do not move, do not relocate. This is not okay for us. And, I took a lot of backlash and a lot of heat there all that it was, I was very unpopular as the messenger. It wasn't just me who decided that it was a management team lesson, but I was really the messenger of that. But boy, I feel really good that we were so consistent because we were doing what we always said we would do, which is we're going to prioritize making sure that our employees feel like they are clear on their expectations, that we're transparent about the decisions that we've made, and then we're consistent about the message that we've given them.

Colleen McCreary  21:02  
I really think it's just a complete waste of time, and disruption and productivity, to change the game on people with really no notice, or sort of big life planning that that you can allow them to do. I just think it's so counterintuitive to the reasons why people are saying, well, it's better for the office. What I would love to see just in general, is people get away from these very polarized, remote forever, or all in the office. I think that there is a range of options that we could be living under, just like I think, in general across politics, and a number of other spaces where there are no two sides to everything. There's so many shades of grey, we just need to be clear about, you know, what is the lane that we're operating in and why and let people have choices and how I want to work today might not be how I want to work in five years from now.

Colleen McCreary 21:52  
It will be so great if companies could just, you know, decide this is how we operate and then stick to something for a little bit of a while instead of just, this is what's popular. This is what's easiest, or this is what I'm feeling today, when I woke up and didn't have my coffee. I don't know, I don't know how the CEOs end up in this space where they just flip a switch and say, no, no, no, that remote thing - I don't believe in it anymore. Today, it's all in the office. It just feels like that's what happened. Who knows. But I think people leaders, you have to have the courage, and the backbone, and it is your responsibility and obligation to represent what these behaviors will look like in your organization, and how they will take place. And to make sure that the rest of leadership team knows like this is what you're going to have to face. Here's the backlash or potential negative consequences of some of these decisions.

Felicia Shakiba  22:47  
Colleen, we've talked a little bit about speaking truth to power and having the ability to help leaders in the business make good decisions by having the courage to disagree with them, or at least playing devil's advocate have a specific decision they've fallen in love with. How do you navigate that without risking your own career?

Colleen McCreary  23:08  
Inherently, one of the competencies that people need to embrace if they are going to be successful in the sort of Chief People Officer/Head of HR is courage. I mean, you really have to, I think you have to embrace courage and conviction and a number of ways. And I think it's helpful to if you have some values or philosophies that you've agreed upon as a leadership team in terms of how you're going to operate, and you lean on those values or philosophies to help you make those decisions and communicate them. And then you use data, which I think is another super helpful tenant.

Colleen McCreary  23:41  
If I look back at some of the things that we've spoken about, you know, around workforce planning, in particular, I didn't just start advocating to slow down hiring, as things were getting bad or things didn't look good. I was trying to advocate for those behaviors every single day, and the processes that we were building, raising the question of, are we operating at a highest level efficiency? Can we onboard more than X percent of people? Are we onboarding people appropriately so bringing up this idea that we need to be thoughtful about our employees every step of the journey, not just when things are going bad or things are hard. I think you have to have that voice throughout the process to build the credibility and be right, I think a good percentage of the time when you're advocating for things, so that when things do get really hard and the knee jerk reaction is we have to do a layoff, that you've earned some credibility to say, let's timeout and pause for a minute, and let's talk about these things, and let's talk about the repercussions and what we're trying to solve for.

Colleen McCreary  24:47  
I really push my HR teams when they're working with managers to really always try and step back and answer that question like, what's the problem we're trying to solve? Because a lot of times when you hear something crazy like a manager who says I only want to hire people who went to XYZ school, or you hear the oh my god, my star person is quitting, we should double promote them and give them some sort of crazy amount of money - all behaviors that we know are dysfunctional and create all sorts of problems. But what's happening is that that leader, they have a problem that they're trying to solve. And so if you take people to step out of the reaction to the solution and say, Okay, let's step back two steps back, what problem are we trying to solve here? And what is the best outcome we're trying to get to. And if you can get people into that, I think you're gonna get more shots on goal so to speak, you're gonna get more chances to sort of raise ideas, and you're gonna have a more open audience to hearing counter ideas or pushing back, I think you have to always be willing to walk away. And that's why I think courage is such an important characteristic.

Felicia Shakiba  25:54  
And what do you predict are the future changes to the CPO role?

Colleen McCreary 25:58  
It's going to continue to be a strategic partner, I think that that role is going to get bigger and bigger, I think you're going to see more CPOs become COOs, I think you're going to see a continued rotation of people who didn't come up through HR and the people space moving into CPO roles. And I think you're gonna see more CPOs taking other business roles. Harvard business review a couple of years ago did a really great piece on how CEOs actually would make the best CEOs, which I inherently agree with, of course, selfishly.

Colleen McCreary  26:28  
I think you're gonna see some of that, and then think the other changes are, you're likely, I think you're gonna see some other functions continue to sort of morph into the CPO role. My last CTO role at Credit Karma, I didn't just run people, I also ran all of internal and external comms, I ran social media for the company, I was serving as a Chief of Staff to the CEO in the management team, I took over security functions and things like that. So, as you really pull back on the employee experience, there are a lot of other things that fit into that . I think there are a lot of functions in it and the experience that employees have in that area. And so I think that role just gets bigger and bigger, and it's going to require people to continue to be able to lead with both the vulnerability and the courage, but also with understanding the business as the core of what we do and why we do it.

Colleen McCreary  27:19  
The best people leaders are the ones who are able to take everything that the business is trying to move forward from a customer perspective, or business metrics opportunity and a revenue perspective. And really tie in our people programs to make sure that those things really are working together, and that people buy it. At the end of the day, a lot of being a people leader is about great storytelling and great branding, and making sure that the rest of leadership team is doing that together.

Felicia Shakiba  27:45  
What's important for the executive team to know about this role?

Colleen McCreary 27:49  
Number one is you have to align on what the goals are for the organization and make sure that you're both aligned on those things. And sometimes, really good management teams have that and you know, what the business goals are, what everybody's working towards, and then frankly, what the guide rails are in terms of budget and what you can accomplish, and those those types of things. That's a great management team, it's a good starting place. Not everybody has those.

So if you don't have those, you may have to individually do that with each of your partners as people leader, I think number two is there needs to be a mutual respect for what each other is trying to achieve and what they say you're operating from. And what I mean by that is, I've had many leaders who think I'm just like an order taker. And so you have to restart all over again and say like, okay, that's not my function. That's not my job. I had one executive at a prior company who tried to come in and tell me that I need to be doing a bunch of things that I thought were my CEOs jobs. And I was like, I don't know where you learn that or what you got that, but that's not my job. So if you have a conversation about compensation that you want to have about your compensation, he is determining that compensation. He is your manager, not me, I can give him some guidance on what the metrics look like. And as we operate as leadership team, but I don't just sit here and write down a number and let you have that number. Sorry. But sometimes it's a reframe those conversations and start over with people as to what you're there for.

And then I think it's about trust. And can you keep that trust, and I would always be with my peers in particular, I would say like, this is stuff that we can keep just the two of us and we can work on or what have you. This is stuff I'm gonna have to bring to our CEO and talk about because I never wanted someone surprised if our CEO is going to come back to that person. I think you need to set up some operating guidelines on how you're going to work. And then I think my other piece of advice for people, leaders and managers and leaders, is that I refuse to spend my time on people who don't value it. So if you really don't want my help, and you don't want my advice, and you don't want my team working with you, that's fine. I'll take my toys elsewhere and play with them and it will be at your own despair that that happens. I mean, We'd still obviously do the things that help employees. But I think if you're really good at your role, you're going to have a lot of demand for your services. It just takes a little while. So you have to be patient.

Felicia Shakiba  30:11  
Colleen, this has been wonderful. Thank you so much.

That’s Colleen McCreary, Limited Partner at Operater Collective venture fund and former CPO at Credit Karma.

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