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LinkedIn's Pat Wadors: Innovative Yet Pragmatic HR

Many companies are pushing the boundaries of traditional HR, innovating new approaches and processes that position them to be more competitive in the war for talent. But where do you draw the line between innovative for the sake of the business and innovative for innovation's sake?

Pat Wadors, senior vice present and CHRO of LinkedIn and speaker at the i4cp 2016 Conference (March 29 – April 1), sat down with us to discuss her pragmatic, business-focused approach to HR, the results of LinkedIn's first HR Hackathon, and more.

LinkedIn's HR Hackathon made national news this past summer. A few months later, how are the outcomes of that event being leveraged?

There were several positive outcomes:

  • The hackathon stimulated conversations in my organization as well as at Accenture, Workday, USC--all of the judges took insights away from the event.
  • We actually hired one of the winners within weeks of their hack.
  • Accenture also wants to roll out a co-sponsored hackathon in China to address the unique talent challenges faced there. So I think we're going to deal with localization issues, which would be pretty interesting to do.

Additionally, a couple of ideas I am going to prototype within LinkedIn:

  • Making friends, showing your interest and affiliation with people so even before you join, you feel like you're connected to the company and the culture. We're going to do something like that here--it's low-hanging fruit.
  • How to improve and simplify our feedback loop, tying to FOMO (fear of missing out). With a couple simple tricks and tools we can improve feedback and get quicker feedback by project or opportunity in a way that makes people want to contribute. So we're going to explore some things.

Pat Wadors LinkedInBased on its success, how often do you plan to do these HR hackathons moving forward?

I think I’m going to do it once a year for sure. It ended up being the highlight of our interns' careers and it stretched them in the ways I was hoping for. I got a better return than I expected. The rationale for me is that interns touch a piece of the elephant, but never see the full function of any group they work with. Giving them this project to create a non-tech hackathon, to create a way that interns of all disciplines come together to solve talent issues, forces this group of interns to talk with others within LinkedIn--to marketing, to engineering, etc. to figure out how to host an event, to do communications, get marketing out there, and do research on what's trending on LinkedIn.

We had four or five MBAs manage the undergrads, each managing five or six people on a team. It was the first time these MBAs have managed anybody so they got some management experience, the teams learned how to do social dynamics, so if one person over-talks, how do you self regulate to make sure every voice is heard? How do you come up with great ideas? How do you reach out to experienced people and ask for help? They learned a ton--it was supposed to be 40% of their workload for the summer. So we dedicated a lot of their time to this. It became a highlight and we ended up making a lot of offers, and a lot of people accepted because of the impact of their project.

What do you see as the one or two most effective elements or actions needed to ensure success in HR innovation?

I don't think it's innovation for innovation's sake. My job is to make LinkedIn great and win, in the war for talent and effectiveness. Some things you don't have to be innovative in, you just have to be really good at them. Some of the operational stuff, you have to excel at it.

You innovate where you have to differentiate. The cost of innovation and differentiation is high, and there is low return on investment if it's not having a big impact. Being strategic where each company should and can innovate--and what they do with it--is the competitive advantage.

For LinkedIn, it's about the culture in which we work, how we stay creative in the culture, how to breathe life into the company, and the company experience--treating people beautifully sets us apart, even when there are tough messages to be had.

You can do innovation in operational efficiencies and effectiveness, but they're not sexy. But they give you more leeway to do other things. I think recruiting innovation--figuring out how to attract talent, how to make a great experience, how to onboard talent and get them to productivity better and faster--can be a differentiator.

But you don't want to do comp innovatively. You're going to be solid in comp, solid in certain disciplines. I try to teach my team that there is a technology stack in HR and we have to decide how much of that stack are platform plays that give you the right to innovate in a global market. You can innovate the last entry, you can be innovative down the stack further--but you have to look at the cost and desired outcome, and then measure it because it's supposed to solve business problems.

In general, what aren’t chief HR officers thinking about (that they should be) when it comes to driving HR innovation? What considerations tend to be overlooked?

It's easy for us to get sidetracked by a shiny object. Everyone talks about eliminating performance reviews and we read the data about how much time it takes to write a review and the anxiety it causes. We may decide to rip it out, but we don't validate if there's a problem within our own company. That's wrong.

So don't chase the shiny object.

Be cautious about the big decisions you make--if you rip out a process, what's the unintended consequence? If you still believe in pay for performance, you're going to be stack ranking or bucketing your employees somehow. You're going to push the anxiety somewhere else that's less clear.

I'm really pragmatic. Is there a problem? What am I trying to build? I still have performance reviews--we're growing 40 percent, 50 percent year-over-year in headcount, and that includes managers, and until you have the discipline for giving great feedback in your DNA, I use the performance review cycles as a catalyst to force the conversation until at which time it becomes natural. I have 20% of managers who are Millennials and first-time managers, so you've got to teach first before you let them go. You wouldn't just throw them in the deep end and go "Swim!"

Letting go of a lot of things assumes a level of maturity and understanding of what's the downstream impact. I will let go once I feel there is stability in the knowledge we're trying to get across, the behaviors we're trying to emulate. So I start with the business and look at opportunities to the business or a business problem, and I go after one or the other.

Do you look to other specific companies as models for HR innovation? Anything specific about them?

There are a couple that I pick and choose from. Accenture does some pretty amazing things around the world, especially with gender and women. They're experimenting with how to give feedback differently, too. I look at Unilever and how they grow and build their HR team. I look at different companies depending on what they're working on and ask: Why are you working on this? What problem are you solving? How are you measuring your success? And if they are able to answers these things I'm way more interested in following through on it. If they just did it to try some things out, to be cutting edge, I tend to shy away from them.

Where do you see things going next for HR? How do you see the function evolving over the longer term?

We have to acknowledge that HR does have a platform play to make. We have to get better language that the business leaders understand. We have to be able to say, "Look, to scale, to grow in a healthy way, in a profitable way, you have to maintain the hire to retire part of your core business, in a compliant, healthy and culturally oriented way." You've got to serve that first, and there are people that do that really well.

Once you have that platform, you need to understand how to hire that strategic HR leader who knows how to leverage it and innovate on top of it without disrupting the core. You can then create a talent strategy on top that differentiates you and allows you to compete because you're in a tough industry--you're competing for talent and you need to motivate your team differently.

You've got some people that just play the administrative game, that are not as agile as you need them to be. And if you have someone that's really adaptive and agile, they're maybe not as stable as you need them to be. There's a lifecycle progression as you build a company, and there's a progression of HR needs. Getting the right person to take the helm is important and making sure the right structure is important.

Coming back to LinkedIn, what's the coolest thing you have implemented, or will implement soon, in HR?

The hackathon was really cool and innovative, and it exceeded my expectations. Spending the night there, with all that energy, we got back in there at 6 a.m. the next day. It was an amazing memory for me and my peers. So that's one I'll probably create legs around.

The second one is PerkUp. We just launched a new perks program that's innovative, it's giving people an allowance around the globe to apply to childcare, to get a massage, to a gym, to a personal trainer, to a yoga instructor. We're going to expand that to your dog sitter or other services, etc. That allows anyone with a family or non-family to improve their life and choices in their life and feel more empowered. I think if you give control and choice to people you get more joy out of the perk.

Erik Samdahl
Erik is the head of marketing at i4cp, and has nearly 20 years in the market research and human capital research industry.