Most leaders don’t see how to employ HR as a strategic pillar of the business and this leaves a lot of professionals feeling somewhat frustrated. In this interview series, we talk to HR professionals and business leaders to learn why and how HR should help drive company decisions.
Jeanne Cordisco serves as Chief People Officer at O’Reilly Media. In her current role, she’s responsible for leading O’Reilly’s overall people strategy, global talent acquisition, leadership development, diversity and inclusion initiatives, cultural and employee development, compensation and benefits, HR operations and technology, and employee relations.
As CPO, she has changed the function, culture, and impact of HR across the company to support its business goals and strategies, as well as the needs and aspirations of its 500 employees around the world.
Hi Jeanne, welcome to the series! Before we dive in, we'd love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you got started?
Born in Honolulu, HI and raised in Southern Africa, I had a bit of an unconventional upbringing. But, as unconventional as it seemed to so many, it was all that I knew and, now, what I am unequivocally grateful for.
From a young age, I always knew that my professional path would lead me to a people-oriented career. I studied pre-health sciences with the idea of pursuing a career in medicine until I graduated from college and took a “temporary” role in B2B sales that catapulted me into a 12-year career of helping C-suite executives solve business problems and put my dreams of being a pediatrician in the rearview mirror.
I remember the moment when someone said to me “you’d be great in HR” and I laughed and naively thought “you couldn’t pay me enough to do that.” The irony of now holding a chief people officer position is not lost on me when I think back on all of the steps (and missteps) it took for me to land in the role I’m in today.
What I knew at my core is that no matter what I decided to pursue, I wanted to be in a job that helps people and I feel so fortunate that I am now in one that is accountable for helping, motivating, and ensuring the best career experience for a very special global team of brilliant people.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting?
The words of my 5-year-old daughter (“Mommy, my brain grew today because I made a mistake”) put the idea of making mistakes into perspective for me. What she learned in kindergarten was a life lesson that took me all of my childhood and becoming a mother to finally realize and, more importantly, accept.
Mistakes are vastly important in our personal and professional development to not only use as a reference point when making decisions, but also as a way to build grit and resilience. I have made so many mistakes (and still do!) that I could likely write a novel in response to this question, but one in particular sticks out as funny, only slightly catastrophic, and helped my brain grow tremendously.
I was a brand-new sales development representative and was responsible for cold-calling chief financial officers at healthcare institutions to schedule time between them and the sales representative who I was partnered with to introduce them to our company’s product and potential solutions to their business challenges.
During our onboarding, my peers and I had been trained to diligently research every prospect we planned to call. We determined a hook for every conversation and customized our script based on what we thought we knew about the business of our prospects.
I was feeling particularly confident going into one call for a large potential client and was completely caught off guard when someone answered “Hello?”. I panicked, called my prospect by the wrong name, began to stumble over my words and could not make coherent sense of anything I ultimately wanted to say.
The mistake I made in this situation was not how I botched my sales pitch, couldn’t string together a full sentence, or addressed the female who picked up the phone as David. It was that I hadn’t done enough research to know that the prospect I intended to call (and prepared my pitch for) had recently been let go and their successor was who answered the phone.
Had I been more prepared, I could have pivoted, carried the conversation in a respectable manner and landed the meeting by citing relevant content that could help her acclimate to her new role.
Instead, the woman (who was slightly insulted by my calling her David), refused to schedule time with me and we lost the deal. I think back on this situation frequently, and think about how I could have handled the situation differently.
Lack of preparation was at the heart of my failure that day and, since then, I am maniacal about ensuring that I know as much as I can before I tackle a challenge - especially one that comes with a large revenue amount!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My sister, Mackenzie, is the person in my life who has always pushed me to be my best self. In some respects, my early-life motivation and determination were driven by natural sibling rivalry and competition.
As we have grown into accomplished adults, she has been a constant driving force behind my success. She has provided me with support, encouragement, and, at times, very deserved harsh feedback that set me straight but allowed me to feel safe when I’ve been at my most vulnerable.
A particular instance comes to mind when I first started in my current role and had a bad case of imposter syndrome.
I called Mackenzie in a panic and told her that I didn’t think I could do “it” to which her response was “what exactly is “it,” Jeanne?”
When I dramatically responded saying it was everything, she helped me break my feeling of being overwhelmed into bite-sized pieces. She forced me to categorize everything that was making me question my ability into things I could control, and those that I couldn’t.
She reminded me of my favorite quote (and one that I taught her): “Control the controllables and don’t worry about anything else”. It was at that moment that I knew, no matter how big or small the issues I was facing were, she would always be my anchor, my cheerleader, and my most justified critic. Thanks, Mackenzie!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Control the controllables. As a wife, a doting mother of two young children, and someone who has fallen into her dream job that comes with a lot of responsibility and (mostly self-induced) pressure, I get overwhelmed if I allow myself to focus on the things I can not control vs. those that I can.
Controlling the controllables gives me a sense of power to get things accomplished, helps me plan and stay organized, and takes the pressure off of feeling like I have failed if I couldn’t control the outcome of what happened. I operate with a crisp, relaxed, and happy mind when I live by this mantra.
Thinking back on your own career, what would you tell your younger self?
Worry less! Take bigger risks! Make mistakes and learn from them!
Let’s now move to the central part of our interview about HR. Why do you think HR deserves a place in the boardroom and in high-level decision-making? Can you help articulate how a company will gain from that?
All too often, HR is considered a support function that is brought in to execute on a strategic plan without actually contributing to the plan formation and strategy in the first place.
In order for companies to charge forward with a solid, unwavering strategy, they must take their existing talent’s ability and skills into consideration. If there is misalignment between the plan and what their talent can actually accomplish, the strategy will ultimately fail.
HR’s involvement in high-level decision-making is to force the difficult conversations to happen around whether the strategy is realistically achievable through people, a company’s most valuable asset.
If HR is involved from the get-go, the strategy will be set with thoughtful consideration around ways in which to use talent to the company’s advantage and where the company will need to invest to make up for any skill gaps or talent voids.
From your experience, how can HR people and culture professionals ensure they’re involved in strategic planning processes?
HR professionals can play a key role in shaping strategy and contributing to their company’s future success because they have the advantage of knowing the workforce better than most others in the organization.
HR professionals are uniquely skilled to help organizations with strategic planning because successful strategic plans depend on effective human resource allocation while also considering many factors as the strategy is built.
Cultural alignment, employee engagement and buy-in, effective communication and change management, and purposeful execution are all areas that HR professionals can drive and support as the strategy is formulated. If any of those factors are ignored, the likelihood of strategic success is much lower than a plan that considers each of those key components.
A lot of folks believe that CHROs would make great CEOs, but often they’re overlooked. Why do you think that is?
HR has often been historically considered the “behind the scenes” administrative function that focuses on people only.
Often, CHROs are professionals who solely “grew up” in the HR function and were not given an opportunity to acquire sufficient technical and financial skills, broad managerial experience, and profit and loss (P&L) responsibility throughout their career.
So, although they are the experts when it comes to people-focused strategies and decisions, they are insufficiently equipped with the skills to make an exemplary general manager.
Interestingly, CEOs and CHROs tend to share common traits such as emotional competence, leadership style, and critical thinking skills. I think we’ll continue to see the newly emerging trend of CHROs becoming CEOs as companies invest more in the general development of their heads of HR.
What skills can HR folks work on to become more effective business partners?
Most importantly, HR professionals must take the initiative to understand the business in its entirety. Other important skills a human resources business partner should build include effective organizational development and workforce planning, cultural and diversity awareness, and talent/succession planning.
All of these skills will contribute to the success of teams that they partner with as they think about their people and the employee experience in a more strategic manner.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important ways that HR can help drive company decisions? Please share a story or an example for each.
From my experience, HR can help drive company decisions for their ability to:
1 . Tie individual objectives to business strategy. Directly tying individual employee performance goals to the strategic objectives of the organization is a great way to engage employees and put strategy at the heart of operations. When Joe Smith sits down at his desk every morning and understands why his work matters, Joe works harder, more efficiently, and has higher job satisfaction when he can tangibly see the results of his work in the overall business results.
2 . Embrace risk.
Embracing risk forces us to step out of our comfort zones. Our competition continually plays to win and, seemingly, is not satisfied with the status quo.
Hr provides a safe environment to step outside of our comfort zone and into the arena of risk, reverses our mindset, and allows us to meet the challenge of our competition while providing us with the motivation to be better than yesterday.
3 . Welcome the challenge. HR deals with many issues, including recruitment, retention and motivation, professional development, and corporate culture. Addressing these issues is a continual and time-consuming process, but are challenges that are essential to overcome in order to establish a happy workforce and a successful, high-functioning company.
As such, people issues are board-level issues. As the people-centric function of the company, HR is highly in touch with the extent of which these issues exist and would welcome the opportunity to collaborate on decisions that will mutually improve individual and organizational effectiveness.
4 . Always keep the big picture in mind. Big-picture thinking is critical to understanding what is possible in the present and in the future. As mentioned above, HR holds the advantage of knowing the workforce better than most others in the organization and, because of this, is able to think about the overall picture when a decision of any size is being made.
The benefit of big picture thinking is that it allows you to see opportunities for improvement without considering them failures or weaknesses. It also allows you to bring that big picture view to your communication and it serves to reinforce the real reason for why you do what you do.
5 . Operate without blinders. There’s a phenomenon called “bounded awareness” in the decision-making process which causes people to ignore critical information when making decisions.
This can happen when someone fails to see or seek out important information needed to make a decision or fails to use the information because they aren’t sure of its relevance. HR can help decision-makers become more aware of what’s happening within their workforce and how certain decisions might affect them or be perceived.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen businesses make when faced with hard decisions? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
1. Rushing to conclusions. Assuming that a current situation mirrors a previous experience, and applying the same logic to the new situation without determining all of the relevant facts or context, is a result of being unaware of one’s own bias.
When a company’s leadership immediately thinks about how to solve a problem based on the way they formerly solved a different problem, it creates an issue of jumping to conclusions without pragmatically thinking through the appropriate course(s) of action. Assessing a situation from multiple perspectives is the best way to avoid jumping to conclusions. Challenge initial assumptions, treat each situation as unique, and don’t accept information at face value are ways to ensure companies’ success.
2. Overanalyzing information. There is very little clarity around what the “right decisions” should be for any company’s leadership. If it were more clear, life would be a heck of a lot simpler. But, without the clarity, decision-making is difficult and information given to us to help make those decisions is often suboptimal.
Companies should not get stuck on waiting for more or new information. They must decide and act to prevent a situation from worsening with the information that they have. Of course, allowing for flexibility and quick pivoting ensures companies’ successful ability to shift course when receiving better information but “analysis paralysis” reduces business productivity and lessens the trust and faith employees have in their leadership.
3. Fear of delegation and shared accountability. Although most executives would agree that delegating is crucial to a business’s success, many still micromanage in such a way that they continue to control most aspects of the work. Conversely, executives to whom delegation comes more easily say it has been crucial to their business’s success.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this.
This is a really tough question for me to answer! There are so many people who I am inspired by. Ultimately, I’d love to have lunch with Serena Williams. Serena is not only an athlete, but she is a great mother, a wife, a friend, and a role model to everyone - something that I would love to be!
She has endured hardship, broke through barriers, and paved the way for so many who, before Serena, couldn’t imagine a world different than only that which they knew. She has shown so many people what the results of working hard, chasing dreams, and being the definition of the greatest of all time looks like. I have so many questions for her!
Thank you for your insights, Jeanne! How can our readers further follow your work?
Reach out to me on LinkedIn! I would love to connect.
More insights from the series: