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Interview

It may be lazy journalism to trot out how the internet is revolutionising the human race, but it is truly gob-smacking that in its tenth year, Linkedin has 200 million registered users. Jason Spiller interviews Connie Gibney, Linkedin’s HR Director, and finds out what is driving this phenomenon.

Connie, give us an idea of your early career, and what were the key influences that have helped determine your career in HR?  

I didn’t choose HR, it kind of chose me! I studied psychology at school, but my first job was as a business analyst at Texas Instruments, which you won’t see on my profile, because very soon after joining I was asked if I would like to join the HR team as a Recruiting & HR Coordinator. This was a great opportunity to learn the foundations of HR in a well organised and established business. I worked there for about three years, progressing to a senior HR generalist and from there I joined a start-up company in San Francisco. It was a consulting company called Viant, and I was the second HR person to be hired by the firm in the late 90’s, during the dotcom boom. It was a start-up in every sense and the person who eventually became our chief people officer, Diane Hall, had no HR background as such, but had a passion for people and learning. When I look back at the key learnings of my life, unquestionably, what Diane taught me was so valuable.

She was an amazing mentor, and led by example with how to really engage with the business, how thinking commercially enables HR to add real value to the business. Diane was very influential in my early career and I still reflect on the programs I worked with her in developing. Foundationally, I still use many of those concepts today. Another very influential person for me, early in my career and at the same company was Robbie Vann-Adibe, who was one of the founders of Viant. Robbie pushed me to think ahead of business demand and also encouraged me to move away from the US to work on opening up offices in Europe as part of the company’s international expansion. I took his advice and moved to London where I was based for two years, working throughout Europe and this really put my career in a new trajectory and since that time I have always had an international remit in my HR career.

You were still relatively inexperienced, going from a long-established business to start ups, how did you prepare for that?  

I had to really call on everything I had learnt early in my career and think about how best to apply my existing knowledge to what was essentially a blank canvas. I had to re-invent myself, from being simply an HR practitioner carrying out parts of the whole, to thinking and managing on a broader, global scale. I found it both very challenging and exciting. I discovered that I had a solid foundation as an HR practitioner and could translate that experience to support a business that was in rapid expansion.

How should employers adapt to take advantage of social networking, say for example in recruiting?  

Recruitment is changing, sure enough, and social media is bringing opportunities to people who are not actively looking to change jobs. This affects every company in every sector, no matter how big or how small. As recruiting leaders we need to be able to shift gears and ensure our organisations are changing with the industry. A key part of recruitment is to understand people’s motivations, both long and shortterm. Why they may want to join a company now or down the line? I feel we in HR need to also adapt to change, to think about how we engage with employees from a very early stage of the process throughout.

So you think there will be more migration in the future, and do you think this will cause brain drain in some territories?  

Only around 20 percent of people who hold the right skills you need are actively looking for jobs. Traditional recruitment methods overlook the other 80 percent. As HR professionals, I think we need to think about developing a people strategy to accommodate business needs, but also think strategically about connecting opportunity to the right candidates, no matter where they are located. It’s about developing a people strategy to meet business needs, by reaching out to candidates who may be in other regions and possess the exact skills you are looking for. In today’s environment, HR and recruiting professionals need to search for the best talent, even when it may not be somebody in the same town or indeed country. While we see a global diversification of opportunity, I also think Europe has a high level of opportunity too. Business is transforming and employers should consider recruitment costs differently, such as budgeting for relocations, as both internal mobility and talent movement increases on a global scale.

What would you say are the obvious business challenges going forward, and what are HR’s priorities?  

For us, the challenges continues to be scale and growth, ensuring we make intelligent decisions quickly and effectively, so that’s where we look to invest. As I mentioned, talent is our number one priority and we invest heavily in developing our people, at the same time as hiring in new employees. I think HR remains a critical component to any organisation as we bring expertise to help our managers and employees reach their full potential. We have to be conscious of what might hinder HR, including stereotyping and bureaucracy, so we don’t fall into that trap. I think as HR professionals we need to keep the objectives clear with clear communication. Do I get frustrated with bureaucracy or administrative requirement? Of course. But you need to have a balance of why that is crucial and, more importantly, think about your employees and their experience with your company.

What was your first experience of working HR strategically at a high level?  

I remember my first experiences of interacting with the board was at eCast – we were going through a merger and I was leading the HR assessment. The CEO and I had identified some critical differences between the companies’ HR practices that could impact on the merger. One major difference was pay structures and rewards, where the two companies were incompatible and would require significant change management. So my first big strategic work was in this tricky and potentially disruptive area. We had to build a strategy and get agreement quickly at an executive and board level so that we could roll it out as part of the merger. It was far from easy and something I hadn’t done before, but it taught me to ask a lot of questions, to think through good procedures and ensure sound decision-making is communicated well. You’ve also got to have faith in your own abilities and not be afraid to question executives in a constructive way to help them find the right answers.

Today I think I can classify myself as a start-up specialist, being able to work in an agile way across all HR functions and with executive and management levels. I really love small companies with big ambitions but also with a focus on developing people. It’s a very different environment to working for large and long-established companies, of course, but I could not have stepped up to the plate without well-grounded experience in a bigger firm, because it exposed me to big scale and best practice in a multitude of HR areas. The start-up experience, however, allowed me to apply it quickly and with a keen eye. For example, I can look at compensation frameworks in Germany and know what questions to ask to ensure we are meeting the market competition, I can have a conversation about equity in France with some authority and I understand about setting up HR operations in a new country even if I’ve never worked in that country before. I enjoy everything in HR from appropriate procedures and compliance, to business partnerships, succession planning and thinking creatively about career paths for people. Being in start-ups means you have to roll your sleeves up and personally get stuck in, but you also experience the rewards of seeing your tangible work take effect.

But that creates significant pressure, there is no room for mistakes and there is no hiding place. Sure, it increases pressure, but when I talk with HR practitioners in other firms, they invariably say that they wish they could do the stuff I get to do. When I ask them “why not?” they often say the culture of the company wouldn’t support that change. I think there is benefits to established processes and procedures just as much as there is to trying new things out. Keep in mind, there is usually a lot of chaos in start-ups and you have to manage up as well as down, constantly keeping leaders in the loop and being open to changing your idea. You might not need so many signoffs, but the hardest part is creating the idea in the first place; that’s where you need a team to collaborate with and that team isn’t always just in HR. Something you can influence and, if you can leave your mark on a business, that’s massively rewarding no matter the size or scope of the company.

Give us an idea of what how Linkedin painted its picture of the future and what it expected you to deliver with HR?  

Linkedin has always been an evolving company. At the time I joined there were only about 65 employees outside the US, but there were large growth plans in place, so they kind of turned the tables by asking me what I thought they should be doing Internationally. That was daunting, but I understood the vision and it was clear that my role would be to help lay foundations of good HR practice across multiple countries, to ensure our values and culture was maintained with the planned growth and find ways to make employees more productive and successful as we grew so quickly. I found it’s crucial to set very clear short and long term goals, communicate frequently with stakeholders and also to really utilise your key experiences when applying them to a company in build mode. The main one was to bring an international perspective to the people strategy that was mostly derived from US practices. I was able to engage quickly both with US colleagues and those in Europe and Asia-Pacific. While it was a pretty blank sheet of paper, within two and a half years we’ve gone from six offices outside the US to 25 worldwide – that’s pretty high growth and not short of challenges. What I’m most proud of is that we’ve maintained our values, which are not just stated but, crucially, lived by everyone who joins the company, as well as our executive leaders.

Does the nature of the business, it being a web-based facility, make it easier to expand internationally with one clear employer brand and culture?  

I definitely think so, but it needs to also be thoughtful of the employees in countries we expand into. We’re a big brand, but we’re also relatively small as a company. Although our brand does have incredible reach, the site being available in 19 languages worldwide, we recognise the combined strengths of a global brand and also the importance of localisation. When you bring that back to how you operate from an HR perspective, it helps to have brand awareness as you go into new markets, but you also need to ensure your employee experience matches that brand expectation.

I should imagine that the ambition is to really capitalise on emerging markets, how does the Linkedin culture fit say, in China or the middle-east?  

We are currently exploring what makes sense for Linkedin in China, but I think a real strength, and this was a conscious decision, is wherever you are, you can walk into any Linkedin office around the world and it feels like Linkedin. The employees share the same values and culture that are the same across the company. You have to be thoughtful about cultures and values and how you foster them. You might have the look and feel of an office, but you can’t force something on people’s attitudes towards a company. We like to foster our employee culture in a few different ways. Take Dubai, where we have recently set up. One of the things we’ve found useful is to move existing employees from other locations, where they’ve been working with Linkedin, to help set up new offices, such as in the UAE. In this situation, these employees don’t have much experience in the local market but they do know Linkedin, and these advocates are really key to helping to develop new offices and embedding our culture and business procedures.

What do you think are the next significant challenges for the business?  

We’re really still growing and maturing and, of all the elements necessary for growth, talent is our number one priority. We’ve seen time and again hiring and developing strong talent is paramount to delivery and success in times of high growth. The brand, as you might expect, does a lot of the work for us in attracting talent, but you can’t be complacent, this is a massively competitive arena to hire. So it’s about maximising the marketing potential of the brand, and not only being a recruiter, but also a marketer to candidates. This way of thinking allows companies and recruiters to look at the awareness of brand, which is compelling when measuring success of hiring. It’s about marketing and extending the employer brand beyond your own website and attracting talent globally, and that’s an increasingly valuable resource.

Would you say Linkedin is on the radar of young talent as a potential career?  

Yes and increasingly so, but we cannot rest on our laurels, and assume this will always be the case. We have been actively making connections with students and higher education institutions to ensure we remain top-of-mind for new university grads. For example, we have a really great new university grad program in the US, where we’ve developed strong relationships with key schools, and this really helps in sourcing young talent. That awareness comes through at many stages of a student’s life and, when they come close to graduating, it comes top-of-mind who they want to work for.

Here in Europe we hire a lot of sales professionals, from early stage career to highly experienced, but we also hire many young professionals in HR, Finance, Marketing, Customer Service and Sales Support. In Ireland where I’m based, as well as in the UK, it’s good to see how many people in those industries are on Linkedin and actively using it as a professional tool. We really leverage the site for recruitment, as you might guess. We haven’t found problems hiring because our brand is exciting and we also have great tools to find the talent we need.

Is there really, to coin a much-used phrase, a talent drought?  

I’m always impressed by the talent we come into contact with, and I’m constantly astounded by the skill and knowhow of our colleagues here. That being said, complacency is a killer as there are constantly new opportunities for people with high-demand skills and roles that need to be filled with those specialised skills. The reality is there’s competition for talent so we have to be agile and keep ahead of the curve by actively recruiting top talent and thinking about developing our existing talent while ensuring that the employee experience keeps people motivated and rewarded.

Do you see a difference in attitudes towards careers in this sector?  

I think the world is changing especially around how people think about their careers. It’s not just about what you get paid, but also the professional opportunities companies can give to their employees. I think when it comes to opportunity, people want to feel like they make a difference in the company they work for, they want a career, and a career is about evolving your skills, and learning and developing as you do meaningful work. But, as with everything, it’s about balance. I think HR plays an important role advising and encouraging people to think about their development, what the opportunities are and to think carefully about their next career step. At the same time, as HR professionals, we need to ensure our companies really look at the reward strategy on a more holistic level, asking ourselves “what is it we want our employees to feel about the company and what rewards will encourage certain behaviours that are in line with what the company wants to achieve”?

There is a lot of talk about the so-called change in the employee/employer relationship, how impactful do you think that has been?  

I would say the relationship has changed quite significantly and HR has had a hand in that, particularly in the areas of employee engagement, perceptions and expectations. That relationship is also about understanding that a company’s culture is driven by the employees. I think fostering and nurturing the employee/employer relationship is a work-in-progress, and something we should always be mindful of. Ultimately, as an employer, we need to ensure we value people and recognise achievement, and that’s not just about money.

In years to come, what would you like to be remembered most for in terms of your input at Linkedin?  

Knowing I was the first HR person hired outside the US and helping further the expansion of the business, while providing value as a partner, has been incredibly rewarding. And I’d like to feel that I stayed true to my roots of being very entrepreneurial. Linkedin has been a place where I have grown, continued to learn and develop my skills as an HR leader, whilst fostering my desire to innovate. My passion for HR comes down to people: what motivates them, what inspires them, what makes them want to try new things. I’m compelled by human behaviour, and how with thought and innovation, you can help people fulfil and even succeed expectations and outcomes.

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