Colleen is a four-time Chief People Officer who’s led through international hypergrowth, M&A, and multiple IPOs. She’s currently the Chief People Officer at Credit Karma, and has previously led the people teams at Vevo, The Climate Corporation, and Zynga. She was also a technical advisor to the HBO show “Silicon Valley.”
We have a far-ranging conversation on following your curiosity, picking the right CEO to work with, and - my personal favorite - the idea of differentiating pattern matching from scar tissue.
Joseph Quan | CEO & Founder, Knoetic
The best piece of advice I have is “Remember the business of the company.” It’s so easy to get caught up in solving the immediate HR and recruiting problems in front of you. But remember - at the end of the day, the business of the company is what matters most.
You can’t expect to lead effectively if you don’t connect the metrics of the business back to your functional realm of responsibility. Throughout my career, every people or HR initiative I’ve worked on, I’ve directly connected back to the success of our core business.
I’ve always been naturally curious about the business; I’ve always wanted to pull up the bigger picture. It’s a habit that made me stand out early in my career.
Take recruiting for example - as soon as I’d start recruiting for a role, I’d ask a ton of questions:
Not only did getting this information help me sell the candidate, but it also helped me understand my job in the broader context of our business.
My whole life, this natural curiosity has helped guide me. I realized that knowing IT, marketing, sales actually made me better at my job. And sometimes it was just to win arguments - but it paid off.
That intellectual curiosity has always guided me and led me to always say yes. I took on lines of business no one else was interested in. I went to Hyderabad when I had a 3-year old son. I took an HRBP role after a long time in recruiting, even though I was dead set against HR.
By following that curiosity, you set yourself apart. And for better or worse, the bar for having a lot of cross-functional experience as a “people/HR person” is pretty low here. It’s essentially skills arbitrage.
It all starts with the interview process - I use that to set the foundation for my partnership with the CEO. It’s often a 4-6 month process, mainly driven by me as a candidate.
It’s fed by my curiosity, my desire and need to understand who the CEO is, what they’re motivated by. It tells me what working together will be like. It really is similar to dating. You’re building a long-term partnership, you need that compatibility to make it work. You must be authentic throughout that process.
Take my time at Zynga - where I eventually took the CPO role - for example. When I was originally approached by the founder/CEO, it was clear that he was just trying to check the HR box - the company just needed someone to fill the seat.
On that intuition, I turned the job down a couple times, because I didn’t get the sense that the CEO valued our partnership yet, or even understood what a strategic people function meant. It wasn’t until the company really proved they were committed to investing in people that I took on the job.
After you screen the role & the CEO (and vice versa), you’ve built the foundation. From there it becomes a dance of understanding and then delivering business results.
As a Chief People Officer, you must be able to empathize with the CEO. You have to get them to be honest with themselves and with you about pain points in our organization, what’s working and what’s not. The empathy part is really key; you realize how hard it is to be a CEO, and how lonely it can be at times. You’re committing to becoming that person the CEO can talk to openly and honestly.
Finally, while empathy and understanding are critical, I also emphasize the importance of having a backbone and always standing up for what you believe in — CEOs respect CPOs who have a clearly defined thought process behind their actions (and especially their spending).
"You have to get [your CEO] to be honest with themselves and with you about pain points in our organization, what’s working and what’s not. The empathy part is really key; you realize how hard it is to be a CEO, and how lonely it can be at times. You’re committing to becoming that person the CEO can talk to openly and honestly."
I like to learn about how they got to where they are, and what roadblocks they’ve faced along the way. I love hearing about their backgrounds and watching the way they carry themselves. For example, how do they think and talk about their family? It tells me a lot about how they’ll treat their people.
As for questions, there are no magic bullets, but here are a few I like:
Asking these seemingly simple questions about their background, their history, and their work, you start to get a sense of their value set really quickly.
I always go to the same people to start with — my husband, my closest friends, past colleagues. Over the years, at the prompting of a coach, I’ve also developed a personal board of directors. They’re all people I’ve worked with before - people I can rely on to be honest with me.
What’s unique about that group is almost none of them are HR people. I have a personal “director” who’s a marketing executive, and a COO and CTO I worked under early in my career. Now every time I’m struggling with a question, I’ll triage it to this core group.
[Joseph note: for more on building a personal board of directors, read this classic HBR piece]
I paid my own way through all of college and grad school. I chose to go to a private school and I knew going would put me into a lot of debt. I was very happy when I paid off the last of that debt - many years later. I knew it would take me where I wanted to go, and I was always confident that it would all work out in the end.
My very first layoff where I was at Zynga.
At the time, I had already known for a while we were over hiring. I worked for a while - probably 3 or 4 months - to try and articulate that to the team. But somehow, I couldn’t seem to connect the dots, to get through to people and convince the organization to listen to me. I failed. Catastrophically.
Over time, I’ve learned to pull people along that mental journey, to make them wary of overhiring, even when that threat is not quite real yet. You learn to ring the alarm bells for overhiring proactively. Here’s how I do it:
First, I first make people sensitive to the topic (overhiring) and let them know that this is something I’m personally sensitive to as well. I let them know I’ll be sounding the alarms if I see any, and I give everyone a reason to care, by educating them on the costs (financial, psychological, organizational) of overhiring and its consequences: layoffs/RIFs.
Second, I help change the way organizations might think about company growth and expansion. I explain that hiring is not always a math equation — that it’s not always about X revenue per head, and scaling endlessly.
Third, if required, I tackle the psychology behind the behavior. Some companies are trained to think of these issues, things like overhiring and layoffs, as normal. They see it as performance management, a natural and inevitable process - I let any company I work with know that I don’t see it that way.
One of the books that really affected me and changed the way I think about diversity and race was Color of Water by James McBride.
A Hope in the Unseen by Ron Suskind is also great; it’s about a young man’s journey in inner-city DC and I think the way the story is told, it’s particularly impactful for engineers.
A few other books I tend to give out often:
I wish I could say that it’s already evolved enough in the last decade - but I know there’s a lot of progress to be made.
I think there’s more room for greater connection between business metrics and the people function. One of the reasons I love Knoetic is that it equips me with data I’m always looking for.
[Joseph note: I solemnly swear I did not ask for this :)]
The combination of pattern-matching and experience with the use of analytical, hypothesis-driven thinking is something I think could be really powerful for advancing the people function - and every Chief People Officer's role - in the coming decade.
I’m on a constant journey to be more patient and more empathic. I’m naturally impatient - I always want everything to be quicker, everyone to be faster. That can be an asset - especially at a startup - but it comes with real costs too. I expect everyone to process things really quickly, but you have to learn that people operate at different paces.
I’m focusing a lot more on empathy too — I think it’s natural to become less empathetic over time as you get older. But it should be the opposite! I want to understand MORE about where others are coming from. That’s something my current CEO has really taught me. Now empathy has become a critical term within my vocabulary and something that I take very seriously.
First, one of the biggest lessons I’ve recently learned is the importance of keeping teams together. It’s not always about optimizing around high-performing individuals; rather, it’s important to build teams that last. It’s so important to build a sense of psychological safety in your teams, which takes time. I didn’t have an appreciation for that until recently and that’s been impactful. As a result, we’ve directed our focus more towards teams than individuals now in the company. We ask ourselves what kinds of projects will allow teams to stay together, or whether or not our environments are conducive to forging those long-lasting relationships.
"It’s not always about optimizing around high-performing individuals; rather, it’s important to build teams that last [...] We ask ourselves what kinds of projects will allow teams to stay together, or whether or not our environments are conducive to forging those long-lasting relationships."
Second - you really must learn to differentiate scar tissue from pattern matching. I’ll explain:
Sometimes, I’ll hear a proposal or suggestion that I have a visceral negative reaction to. I’ve realized these gut reactions can be overreactions that are triggered by past negative experiences - in other words, “scar tissue” - from previous companies. Because of that, I’ll dismiss an idea off hand, because I had such a negative experience with it before.
At the same time, pattern matching is incredibly important - you learn how to look for and replicate successful patterns, and avoid negative patterns. The key is to navigate this spectrum, to bring the best of that pattern matching from your past experiences to your current job. But still have an open mind and not develop excessive scar tissue or “that would never work” syndrome just because of one negative past experience. It’s a delicate tightrope to walk. You need to develop wisdom with your past experiences, without becoming jaded.
[Joseph note - I think this last point gets more insightful every time you read it.]