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Ten(ish) Tips w/ Paul Whitney

October 25, 2021
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An Introduction to Paul

Paul is the former Chief People Officer of Cohesity, where he was responsible for driving People strategy across talent acquisition, talent development, culture, engagement, and people operations. A three-time CPO, Paul served as Chief People Officer of Databricks, and previously held leadership roles at Infinera and Nimble Storage where he helped lead both companies through successful IPOs and multiple years of revenue and headcount growth.

Joseph Quan | CEO & Founder, Knoetic

What advice would you give someone who’s recently become Chief People Officer for the first time?

To be an effective CPO it's pretty obvious you need good relationships with your boss, your executive colleagues, and fellow board members. They need to trust you implicitly. You don’t establish this level of trust immediately, so you have to be intentional about forming strong relationships with your peers, your new boss, and key board members.

It helps to understand their agendas and problems first and to spend time listening to what it is they really need, before trying to have an impact. Too often, new CPOs will tend to want to prove their value immediately and jump straight into solutioning. This can often lead to a lot of resistance from the business in return, as you may not be solving the real problems your execs care about. That’s why understanding their agendas and what’s really on their minds beforehand is so important. And it will put you in a better position to influence the direction for the things they are not yet thinking about.

Too often, new CPOs will tend to want to prove their value immediately and jump straight into solutioning. This can often lead to a lot of resistance from the business in return, as you may not be solving the real problems your execs care about.

If you had to write a playbook for building a great relationship with your CEO, what would be in that playbook?

Always look for the gold in their thinking. In other words, even if what they are asking seems nuts to you, they will for sure have a rationale. Take time to understand that rationale before you respond.

Consider the intention, not the behavior - you may find at times that CEOs (especially founder CEOs) can have very strong perspectives on a wide range of company issues and that this may not immediately align with how you think about things. But always bear in mind no matter how they present themselves, their intentions are almost always for the good of the company.

Stay objective - they hired you for your judgment, so be judicious!  Objectivity and lack of emotionality are key skills to building good relationships with CEOs

Finally, have the self-confidence to be wrong - voice your views, back them with data but be ok being voted off the island. It's not a judgment on you.

What is the best investment you’ve ever made in your life? Why? (time, money, etc.)

Focusing on my relationship with my wife has been by far my best investment, it has given me way more value than anything else. She’s been my biggest supporter, constructive critic, and challenger all in one. She plays multiple roles in my life and has become my greatest source of peace, contentment, and joy.

It took me a while to realize that investing time in your relationships is incredibly important. You have to be intentional about it. All relationships face challenges but I've tried to ensure that work doesn't dominate our life together.

Investing time in your relationships is incredibly important. You have to be intentional about it.

My wife is so supportive when I have work problems that occupy me completely, so I try to balance that by setting times aside to completely unplug to be with her and spend time doing things as a couple.

In terms of an investment that’s more work-related, I took a one week course called “High-Performance Leadership” run by IMD in Switzerland that taught me a great deal about empathy and emotional intelligence overall. I learned a lot about how I show up and how I can manage that behavior to be a better leader. It also taught me the value of taking time to invest in yourself.

What was a failure that actually set you up for success later in life?

I once made a terrible decision to take a new job based entirely on my desire to leave my then employer.

There’s a difference between running away and running towards something. I was just running away - and that turned out to be a big mistake. Even as I went into the second company, I wasn’t sure about it. I hated the company and I hated being there. I ended up not staying for very long, but it caused me to pause and take a deeper look into how I really evaluate my career direction and how new opportunities fit into the longer-term view. I put together a personal framework for making these kinds of decisions and learned not to be swayed by the wrong things. My framework really boils down to four main elements:

  • Is the problem they’re trying to solve big enough to make the future interesting? Is it a problem I care about?

Even though they solve big “problems”, I  haven’t joined social media companies in the past, and that’s particularly because they don’t meet this threshold of solving a problem I care about. I don’t want to be a purveyor, even though I am a consumer. So I've avoided any approaches from those kinds of companies. The same is true of Fintech. I love the infrastructure/data world I operate in part because, even though I'm not a techie, I can relate to the problems my company is solving and know why solving these problems is important to our customers. If that problem also has a large scale application, I'm interested!

  • Do they have the capability to execute but are still on a high growth journey?

This means the company has shown they can build product, get it to market, and support it. And that they have raised decent financing. So pre-revenue/Series A type companies don't work for me. Likewise, I have learned that companies that are already of scale are no longer interesting either. The work becomes more about optimizing than developing in those larger organizations. The sweet spot for me is therefore in the middle - but this is going to be different for others of course.

  • Is there a clear alignment on what the people team function means to them?

I need to know that my understanding of HR aligns with the way the executives think about HR. That alignment is pretty key for me. I test this out by assessing what problems the execs think a HR leader is there to solve. And when talking to the CFO I try to get some sense of willingness to invest appropriately in the function. Those who have very high expectations without a commitment to investing or those that have only basic, transactional expectations of the function are not attractive to me.

  • What’s the culture like?

This one’s kind of a given. Most of the time you can use the people that you meet in the process of joining as a proxy for defining the culture. I'm always on guard for the “jerk” in the interview process.

All of the above is not a construct on whether a company will be successful - I have interviewed with some companies that didn't qualify on one or more of my personal criteria above that have gone on to be very successful commercially. The main point is that a framework to help you guide your career choices can be useful so that hopefully you can be in a successful company and be happy as well.

What books have shaped you the most?

I do read a lot, and my current CEO keeps adding to my reading list!  I've got a lot of value out of some books that address core HR processes such as Who by Geoff Smart and Randy Street, which does a great job of describing a robust hiring process. There are so many great books on culture and executive leadership styles, but I would absolutely recommend the book I’m reading right now, Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella famously pushed this as a book he wanted all members of his senior leadership to read. It’s incredibly insightful and impactful. It’s all about how you communicate with empathy and the importance of being able to relate closely with others.

There’s a philosophy I worry about in the HR field—this idea that our job is to predominantly make others happy. It leads HR pros to the wrong action. It is a bad variant of the concept of servant leadership that leads HR pros to misunderstand our core leadership role.

You often get these signals from across the organization that your purpose is to make people happy. I don’t think that’s my job. My job is making our organization as productive as it can be. If I focus on just making people happy, I’ll create suboptimal outcomes. Making people happy is indeed a noble pursuit, but in my opinion, that is an enabler, not a business outcome.

My job is making our organization as productive as it can be. If I focus on just making people happy, I'll create suboptimal outcomes.

What’s the best advice you ever got from a mentor?

It actually comes from my father and it was early in my career when considering my first job move. He worked on the shop floor of a factory and was a trade unionist. I initially spoke to my mother and she advised against me leaving - safety and security were more important to her. The new move was definitely riskier, but my dad told me, “Do what feels most right to you”, and that’s always stuck with me. I took a new job and didn't regret it!

What book should every aspiring or current Chief People Officer read?

The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. It’s a book that I enjoyed more than most for its insights, and I thought it was really well written and had a lot of great stories. It offers a lot of people-related stories at its core too, which I think can be impactful for any CPO.

How do you wish the people function would evolve in the coming decade?

This kind of goes back to my answer before, but I think it’s important that we in HR set out to understand what our purpose is within the business and set out our work approach accordingly. If we believe our purpose is to maximize the productive value of employees, then why (for example) do we need to own business partners or recruiting? Those are transactional services that could easily sit in the business - and we could then liberate funding to invest in data scientists and process experts to build great recruiting, compensation, or development frameworks for example supported by the right metrics and analytics that maximize employee value.

Based on the way I define my role and the People function, I believe we should be the ones owning the strategic direction, process design, and analytics/metrics to track our contributions to the business, we don't necessarily need to own the day to day delivery resources.

Can you remember an epiphany, experience, or revelation you had at any point in your life, that changed the way you approached life or work?

Learning about high performance leadership and what that looks like was huge for me. Earlier in my career I wasn’t always  kind to people. I was sometimes too aggressive, and blamed other people for performance failures. Coming to terms with the fact that I’d been this way was a revelatory experience—I realized I needed to start being more conscious of how other people thought and felt if I wanted to be an effective leader. Seems obvious now!

What’s one area where you’re still trying to learn and grow?

There are too many to list. But probably most importantly I’m still working very hard at being a better leader. Historically,  my emotions would take over in stressful situations and I would lose patience or get annoyed. I'm still finding times when this starts to happen, but I’ve realized that it’s going to be a constant journey and constant focusing on my own emotional intelligence and empathy is something that’ll help me get better at handling it all.

Being more empathetic is a big part of that. Of course, I’m always trying to set aside more time with my wife, Deborah, as well.

For example, I want my team to design and build a compensation and performance philosophy that’s aligned with our overarching company goals. I want us to build out playbooks and best practices. I want us to design an analytics infrastructure that ties directly to our ability to maximize the value of our people, and then work with the rest of the company to monitor, measure, and continually improve.

With the right frameworks and systems in place, we can let certain parts of the organization focus more confidently on delivery and execution. Our HRBPs can be confident partners to the business units, our recruiters can execute on their recruiting goals.

Joseph Quan, Founder & CEO, Knoetic | CPOHQ

Joseph Quan is the founder and CEO of Knoetic and CPOHQ, an exclusive community of 1,000+ Chief People Officers from the world's leading companies. Each month, he sits down with CPOs to discuss their careers and learnings.

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