Heidi Spirgi: “Don’t Tolerate A Toxic Culture”

Everyone struggles with work-life balance, but as an executive, it’s particularly acute. I struggle daily with making the tough choices of where and with whom to spend my time. So, it’s really more a matter of choice than balance. Although I feel responsible for building the team around me, I simply don’t have the time […]

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Everyone struggles with work-life balance, but as an executive, it’s particularly acute. I struggle daily with making the tough choices of where and with whom to spend my time. So, it’s really more a matter of choice than balance. Although I feel responsible for building the team around me, I simply don’t have the time to connect with every single person who I’d like to connect with in my organization

As a part of our series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Heidi Spirgi the Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer for Cornerstone. In this role, she leverages her 20 years of deep industry expertise to lead the company’s global marketing functions and drive strategy and innovation for the business and its comprehensive product portfolio.

Heidi has spent her career helping organizations unleash the power of their workforce by helping them identify and implement innovative talent practices and technology. Prior to Cornerstone, Heidi served as Senior Vice President (SVP) of Product and Services for The Marcus Buckingham Company, a talent management company acquired by ADP, where she was responsible for the direction, strategy and deployment of the company’s technology products. Before that, Heidi co-founded her own strategic HCM consulting firm, Knowledge Infusion, which was acquired by Appirio in 2012. She then joined Appirio as the SVP of HCM. Earlier in her career, Heidi spent eight years at PeopleSoft, and held positions at Seagate Technology and Swiss Bank Corporation.

Heidi is an active participant in the HCM community and is a frequent presenter and panelist at industry events. She speaks frequently on the topics of workplace practices, diversity and inclusion, HR, talent management and technology. She holds a master’s degree from the University of California Los Angeles and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

As you can imagine, I did not grow up as a little girl dreaming of working in HR technology. Growing up watching my father first as a sales manager and then a sales leader, I told myself I would never go into the “dry, boring” business world. I was drawn to things like politics and art which represented impact and creativity. Of course, I discovered later that business, technology and the art of being a leader require more creativity than I could have imagined.

Nonetheless, I initially pursued a career as an art curator, receiving my undergraduate degree in Political Science and a Master’s in Art History. It wasn’t until I began working with the art collector and software pioneer Peter Norton, inventor of Norton Utilities (Antivirus, Security, etc.), that I first discovered technology. As his associate art curator, Peter asked me to set up a FoxPro database to track his art collection. Databases were an unknown territory for me as an art major. This first experience, building something of useful with software, opened up my mind to the power of technology and new opportunities when I ultimately landed a job as a business analyst in the HRIT department at Swiss Bank Corporation in Zurich in 1993. And, I’ve never looked back! That first job in tech sparked a passion and belief that technology can have a profound impact on work and the environment that people work in. I understood that innovative technology could improve how people are managed, how careers are grown and particularly how we can use technology to change the world.

To this day, it’s my continued fascination with the intersection between people and technology that drives my ambition and dedication to the talent experience space. After a couple of roles in HRIT departments, I shifted to the software vendor segment of the industry where I served in both product strategy and product marketing roles at PeopleSoft, with a focus on learning and talent management. After eight years with PeopleSoft, I saw a unique opportunity to deliver even more value to customers who weren’t leveraging the software to its full potential, which was impacting their ability to create significant change. Together with Jason Averbook, a thought leader in the future of work, we founded a consulting business called Knowledge Infusion to address this exact issue. We developed talent strategies for many Fortune 500 companies, including Target, Nordstrom, Nike and Yahoo, and even worked closely with Adam Miller, founder and CEO of Cornerstone (and my current boss), as one of our first clients! This role gave me the opportunity to truly hone my leaderships skills, and that’s where I started practicing more of a disruptive leadership mindset to help my teams grow and work towards their potential.

Fast forward 15 years, I’ve joined Cornerstone as the Chief Strategy & Marketing Officer, where I’m thrilled to remain in this intersection between people and technology and to build teams that celebrate things like new ways of thinking, empathy towards others and bringing our whole selves to work.

What is it about the position of Chief Strategy & Marketing Officer at Cornerstone that most attracted you to it?

After taking a two-year sabbatical to spend time with my family, I decided I needed to get back into the game. In addition to my tremendous respect for Cornerstone’s founder, Adam Miller, both as a human being and visionary in the talent experience space, Cornerstone’s mission resonates very deeply with me. To this day, Cornerstone has always been the one and only technology vendor I’ve been interested in joining, in part because of the company’s vision to impact lives at work by leveraging world-class software. This is the absolute right timing and opportunity to continue Cornerstone’s impressive growth and evolve the industry into the next generation of talent software.

Cornerstone also has a fantastic culture where I’ve already witnessed people leading with their hearts. This concept is really important to me — to exercise empathy with your coworkers and to bring your whole self to work, not just a part of you. For a company that has grown significantly, now at over 2,000 employees, the culture hasn’t shifted away from its fun and authentic roots. It’s wonderful to come into an office with smiling employees, and a caring leadership team.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what an executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

That’s a big question. There are so many responsibilities that as an executive may not be unique compared to other levels of leadership, but how they are exercised and experienced is radically different. We are responsible for establishing and rallying behind the company vision and communicating it in a way that creates belief, trust and confidence that we can collectively move towards realizing that vision.

Just as important, in order to have people emotionally connect to the vision, executives are also responsible for creating a sense of safety among our employees, especially during times of change and uncertainty. If employees don’t feel safe, they will be resistant to change. And change is an executive’s #1 responsibility. Change is an important concept to me. It’s the one constant in life, and change should be embraced in order to grow. Consciously marching towards change requires a certain amount of radical thinking in an organization, and we need our people to believe that they can take risks, strategically experiment and possibly fail without fearing penalty. Good failures are a result of experimentation and attempting to affect change in an organization. Creating a culture that celebrates change is a big part of my role as a leader.

To help our people feel more comfortable with creating change, I encourage them to actively create what I call “Oh, Shit! Moments”, and as executives, we need to foster that safe space that encourages people to take those risks. There is a Buddhist concept called the Beginner’s Mind, which refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject. With this way of thinking comes higher levels of creativity and innovation, allowing people to approach problems differently.

What do you enjoy most about being an executive, and what are the downsides?

In the context of business, the biggest upside of being an executive is the creativity and innovation that comes with the role. Intellectually and emotionally, it thrills me to develop an articulated vision and then bring that vision to life by harnessing the potential of people. It’s deeply satisfying to me, and is a privilege that executives have. However, no matter what level someone is at in an organization, every contributor has the ability to create and invent new ways of operating.

Executives also have the gift of power to impact the world at large through the principles we choose to lead with and the cultures we create. When people are believing in that purpose and the business is built around a shared mission, we can create good in the world. And, when we believe in our people, it’s beyond satisfying to watch them harness their strengths.

In terms of downsides, bringing your vision to life requires a lot of patience and the ability to step outside of yourself and stand with others. Unfortunately, you can’t snap your fingers and change the world. Change requires thoughtfulness and time.

Everyone struggles with work-life balance, but as an executive, it’s particularly acute. I struggle daily with making the tough choices of where and with whom to spend my time. So, it’s really more a matter of choice than balance. Although I feel responsible for building the team around me, I simply don’t have the time to connect with every single person who I’d like to connect with in my organization. Instead, I set my priorities and march towards those. The same holds true outside of work. As a friend, daughter, wife and mother, the demands on my time are greater than ever and I try to be present and deeply conscious of my choices. Once I make a choice, I am good with it. No guilt. No regrets. That’s a waste of energy.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by female executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

A lot of women leaders in tech are like me and have never had female leaders they can model and learn from. I’ve never reported to a woman nor had a skip level female leader. That is interesting. It means most of my management and leadership lessons have come from men. However, studies show that when people don’t recognize themselves in leadership, it’s difficult to visualize and believe that they can someday hold a similar position.

Since men continue to dominate leadership ranks, it’s often more difficult for women to discover and embrace their unique leadership voice. Discovering my unique strengths and how I excel as a leader was transformative for me in my leadership journey. I did those over a number of years through interactions with colleagues as well as a couple of strengths assessments. I always encourage women to do the hard work of discovering their strengths and truly understanding them. Don’t adopt someone else’s leadership style, as they may have different strengths. If you’re not sure what your strengths are, take a strengths assessment, or simply be reflective and mindful of the activities that make you feel strong and energized.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Jason Averbook! Very grateful for my former colleague and co-founder of Knowledge Infusion. Prior to founding our HCM consultancy, we worked together at PeopleSoft. In a team building activity, we were paired up to draw each other a tattoo that was meant to represent the other person’s personal brand. In his eyes, he saw me as competitive, which is a word that I saw as negative. At first, I was hurt and resisted the “competitive” brand. As a woman, I had been brought up to think being competitive wasn’t feminine at best and at worst it meant “catty” female. Fortunately, I think young women today have a VERY different and more powerful association with competitive! Through conversation with Jason and with some painful soul searching, I came to realize that I was competitive and that being competitive can mean having a strong inner drive. I am deeply competitive, first with myself and second with external abstract forces. Jason helped me see and value my drive for excellence — both for me and for everyone around me. In building a business with Jason, his candor and support gave me the confidence to move into uncomfortable situations and thrive as an entrepreneur. And there are plenty of firsts and moments of discomfort as an entrepreneur!

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

  1. Build a Network. The word “networking” never quite resonated with me as a way to relate to people. It always felt so self-serving. About five years ago, I learned that building a network equates to building real relationships, and not being afraid to ask for help. I wish someone had told me that people genuinely want to help, and it feels good to help others in your network.
  2. Lead with Love & Empathy. We don’t often hear the word “love” in the workplace. Over the years, I’ve become a firm believer that the best work comes from those who open up their hearts to their work, their peers and their customers. You have to love your work, the people you work with and your customers. If you get that right, everything else just flows.
  3. Actively Inspire Disruptive Thinking. Excellence is born from risk-taking. I have learned that people grow more from their failures than they do from successes (although successes sure do feel better in the moment). As an executive, I am deliberate in creating risk-taking moments for my team and aim to frame failure as an opportunity to shift perspectives.
  4. Don’t Tolerate A Toxic Culture. Positive work culture and being a decent human being trump everything. In my experience, it can be easy to let people get away with bad behavior when they deliver results. That’s a massive mistake.
  5. Center Yourself. Outside of work, identify the activities that create balance in your life. I seek out nature, yoga, meditation and sailing to bring peace to my life, but it could be reading, dancing or spending time with family. I wish I had understood the importance of centering earlier in my career, particularly in moments of high stress. Now, I understand that committing to these activities on a regular basis gives me the energy and creativity to do my best work.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would like to inspire a worldwide curiosity movement where we all view the world with a beginner’s mind. The movement would open minds to new experiences, philosophies, career paths and so much more. It comes back to approaching life and work with that beginner’s mind, where there are no preconceptions, no judgment. Our minds wouldn’t draw premature conclusions and we would be amazing listeners and learners. A truly curious world would end bigotry, inspire innovation to solve the world’s biggest challenges and encourage people to be true to themselves without fear of judgment.

I strive to inspire such a movement within my own team and encourage others to work with this beginner’s mind. I don’t pretend to be an expert in almost anything, and I don’t expect anyone else to be an expert. Encouraging a culture of curiosity and vulnerability allows people to expose their minds to new ideas, learn from each other and truly innovate.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I would love to meet Serena Williams. As a woman, I love how she has embraced motherhood and integrated it into her work, how she stands up for women’s rights and how she embraces her body.

She personifies what I aspire to be as a leader, recognizing her own strengths and running with them — in everything she does. Serena is bold and takes risks — she’s actively seeking opportunities for improvement and way that seems fearless. I suspect that she’s human like the rest of us and knows fear but shows up and takes massive risks all the same. I would love to know her better.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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