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Russ Laraway Of Qualtrics Shares His Top HR Strategies with Kage Spatz

HR Strategy Series, Real Human Resources

Courtesy of Qualtrics
Courtesy of Qualtrics

If you change how you think about your career, though, by articulating and working toward a dream job — or a lighthouse in the distance — you quickly realize that this impending promotion that means the world to you is functionally irrelevant.

Talking to your boss about a possible promotion isn’t the career conversation you think you’re having. One of the most important takeaways from this article might just be a need to change perspective on what career planning is to you. Today’s guest also provides value to companies looking to improve employee engagement, among other topics.

As a part of my HR Strategy Series, I’m talking to top experts in the field to teach motivated individuals what hiring managers are actually looking for, while also supporting business leaders in their hiring and retention strategies. Today I had the pleasure of talking with Russ Laraway.

Russ Laraway is the Vice President of People Operations at Qualtrics. Russ has had a diverse 25-year operational management career. He was a Company Commander in the Marine Corps before starting his first company, Pathfinders. From there Russ went to the Wharton School, and then onto Google and Twitter. Post Twitter, Russ co-founded Candor, Inc., along with best selling author Kim Scott. Over that span, Russ has managed 700 person teams and $700M businesses facing a vast array of leadership challenges along the way.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’ve been an operating manager for 25 years and a marketing, sales, customer success executive in tech for about 15. In my role as a VP for our SMB advertising business at Twitter, I started to notice my junior managers making a bunch of common mistakes. I would regularly “sneak off” with them to run some whiteboard sessions with them on their people issues. As their grand-boss, of sorts, I guess I was a safe option, and they were laying out their people issues clearly and plainly. To say these issues were predictable…. Would be an understatement. Almost everything came back to coaching, direction and expectations, and career management.

I left Twitter to found Candor, Inc with Kim Scott — author of Radical Candor. As the COO of the company, I led marketing and sales, and while we failed at our mission to build software to help people have better conversations at work, we accidentally succeeded at creating a very nice consulting business. Through all of that, I spoke to about 1000 companies and learned they all have the same problem — they just used different words to say roughly this: “we have an engagement problem related to low manager skill.”

I became curious about what skill gaps they believed were contributing to the engagement problems, became curious about the relationship between employee engagement and enterprise results (hint: it’s a strong relationship), and realized that 1) the most leverage place a People Ops team can intervene is on the manager and 2) I was uniquely positioned to affect managers because of my own experience and because of this multi-year pseudo research project hearing companies articulate the exact same problem over and over.

The manager skill gap? Coaching, direction and expectations, and career management.

I pitched the folks at Qualtrics on the idea of helping make their managers great, and here I am.

Are you working on any exciting new projects at your company? How is this helping people?

Qualtrics has been winning for quite a while. Winning companies are growing, moving quickly, and are generally interesting places to be. As a result, our employee engagement is quite high, and the overall employee experience (EX) is quite strong.

But I would say that our historical approach to the EX has been mostly unintentional. Great companies use the good times to plan for the future, and that’s exactly what we’re doing around EX. We’ve got a goal this year entitled “Live EX” — as in be the shining example to all of our customers around what a world-class EX program looks like.

We’re using our own product and our customer-facing EX experts (EXperts?) to design and measure our desired experiences at all stages of the employee lifecycle, from candidate through alum. It’s a massive, global project with 100s of moving parts and 100s of participants.

I don’t think it will ever be finished — companies are complex organisms that grow and shift — but as we move towards a world in which all leaders are engaged in “real-time listening” and are focused on the moments that matter, it’s hard to imagine that not helping employees.

Also, we’re building out an increasingly robust Leadership at Qualtrics program. We’re laser-focused on helping managers with the 3 key skill gaps I named earlier, and we’re seeing measurable improvements — hot off the presses with our Q2 pulse — in both employee engagement and manager effectiveness.

Because the manager or direct supervisor is the greatest determining factor in how the employee experiences the company, every ounce of investment in managers, helps employees in a seriously leveraged way.

That’s fantastic. Let’s jump into the main focus of our series. Hiring can be very time consuming and difficult. Can you share 5 techniques that you use to identify the talent that would be best suited for the job you want to fill? Please share an example for each idea.

We are a very competitive company. We want to win because we believe that our mission to Close Experience Gaps allows us to extract human misery from the world.

Like any team, in order to win, you have to hire winners. That’s our mission in our talent acquisition group: Hire winners.

Our approach is actually pretty simple — we look for historical signals that you’re a winner.

Examples that suggest a candidate is a winner:

● In sales, you have a number of years of experience carrying millions of dollars of quota and exceeding your targets.

● In engineering, product, design, UX, you’ve worked for selective companies and shown strong trajectory within those companies.

● Our customers are extremely intelligent, and often technical — when we hire customer-facing employees, we screen not only for customer obsession, but also intelligence to make sure we meet our customers where they are. Our most junior customer-facing employees are almost exclusively STEM majors to make sure we can keep up with the technical demands of our products and customers.

We’ve carefully defined what we think constitutes a winner, and have oriented our hiring around this idea as well as values alignment.

We can’t skip values alignment, and here’s why. It’s incorrect to think of culture as something that is between us. Culture is not, of course, the food, not dogs in the office, not Tommy who always wears his cool tech company swag… culture is something that lives in every one of us. Great companies carefully define their culture through their core values. Once you do that, you hire people who express those values long before they join your company. This helps ensure that as the company grows, the culture is enhanced, not diluted.

With so much noise and competition out there, what are the top 3 ways to attract and engage the best talent in an industry when they haven’t already reached out to you?

I think people should — and often do — choose companies based first and foremost upon the company’s core values and core purpose or mission.

We have a very strong story to tell here, and I will argue you don’t need a bunch of fancy tricks to attract folks if you have a compelling mission and you live your core values every day.

Our core purpose is to help customers close experience gaps, design breakthrough experiences, and deliver breakthrough results, and our core values are TACOS: Transparency, All-In, Customer Obsessed, One Team, and Scrappy.

When you walk into any one of our 20 or so buildings, you can tell immediately that these aren’t fancy words printed on a page, but these words truly represent our core ideology that we attempt to live every single day.

Beyond that, I’m proud of our employment brand efforts. We have a small and committed team that helps us tell our story, primarily through our employees’ voices. Any company can pump out a bunch of fluffy content around how great it is to work there, but our employees here volunteer to share their “why” publicly. This simple practice of telling the story of what it’s like to work here — via the people who actually do all the work here — has measurably and dramatically increased interest in our company.

Think about that — employees raise their hand to say “I want to tell my ‘Why Qualtrics’ story to the world. That is belief. That is endorsement. That is All-In. Candidates see that, and they realize that this really is a special place to work.

What are the 3 most effective strategies used to retain employees?

I don’t think “retain at all costs” is the right strategy. I think a better strategy is to train your managers to help folks articulate their long-term dream job, and then with that in mind, work with employees to help them take the right steps right now toward that long-term vision. Those steps might include making changes to the current role, activating your network, helping people get to the right seminars or get the right degrees, and it almost certainly includes a candid discussion on what their next job should be given the long-term vision.

It’s tempting to only think of that employee sitting across from you in terms of the 2 or 3 years you will be working together in the current company, but that temptation is wrong. That employee is a human being sitting across from you, and your responsibility as a manager is to be the gravity assist that we see in every space movie ever made — you know, when a spaceship uses a planet’s gravity to accelerate off into deep space. As a manager, think of yourself as that slingshot, accelerating that human being toward their dreams, no matter what that next step looks like, including something different.

I find that when leaders invest in their people in this highly differentiated way, folks often have a hard time seeing any grass is greener. They say, “My manager has my back as a human being, and thank you very much, but I’m gonna hang here for awhile.”

With that as backdrop, the key to employee retention is not some huge secret. Overall, if you are keeping folks engaged — well lead, growing, thriving, succeeding, fulfilled — they will stay with you. Since managers explain as much as 70% of employee engagement, it’s pretty clear who is holding the keys. At Qualtrics, our regretted attrition is crazy low — like low single digits. Our managers are getting it done, and our managers, by the way, are improving at scale.

The strategy to get there is about as simple as it can be — we select managers for their ability to be amazing humans toward their folks — and do not select managers based on how good of an individual contributor they were/are, and we train our managers to do two things: 1) Get an aligned result and 2) enable the success of the people on their teams. Show everyone around you that you care about them as human beings by following one simple idea:

TIME-HELP-SUCCESS. Take the TIME to HELP people find more SUCCESS, both short and long term success.

There’s nothing fancy here — Just win baby… and help others win every day.

Courtesy of Qualtrics

In your experience, is it important for HR to keep up with the latest trends? Can you give some examples of what this looks like?

I think the world is telling us that it’s tired of HR lagging the rest of business. In 2005, when the Fast Company article “Why We Hate HR” posited, “at worst, [HR is a] dark bureaucratic force that blindly enforces nonsensical rules, resists creativity, and impedes constructive change,” I think modern HR went on notice: “we are tired of HR sucking.”

In the last decade or so, there have been two major trends — first, there appears to have been more venture capital deployed toward HR Tech companies, ie Gusto, Greenhouse, Qualtrics (specifically our Employee Experience business), et al. Second, CHROs are more frequently people coming not from HR, but from a more traditionally operational background — ie sales, customers success, etc. I think these are both positive trends, which is not to say that all CHRO jobs should be populated by former operators, but I think continuing to shake up the function is probably still a requirement.

Overall, I don’t subscribe to the need to “keep up with the latest trends,” — depends on the trend. If we’re talking about improving leadership to drive better engagement and enable better enterprise results, then that’s a good trend. If we’re talking about focusing on employee experience, moments that matter, and optimizing each stage of the employee life cycle — this is a good trend. If we’re talking about diluting focus on employee experience, trends that complicate the role of a manager, or trends that excessively emphasize the administration and compliance angles of HR, then I don’t think those are particularly leveraged or impactful.

Can you give an example of a creative way to increase the value provided to employees without breaking the bank?

How about a budget-neutral example?

Like many companies, we used to give a holiday bonus: here comes December, give everyone a little cash. Not crazy, and no one in history has ever said, “you know what I hate? Extra cash.”

But we are the Experience Management company, and we thought, “we can do better.” So, we took the budget normally used for the holiday bonus and used it differently by introducing our Experience Bonus. It’s $1500 and should be used to fund a ‘dream’ — go do something you would not otherwise try on your own.

This benefit is aligned to our ethos as a company, and is very popular among our employees. We have a very low administrative bar to receive it, which further encourages people to go out and have a new experience.

An experience bonus is an outstanding idea! You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

This would be my movement: Over the better part of a decade, I developed this model with close to 1000 different people. It’s a model that defines what high-quality career conversations should look like.

It starts with a simple idea, offered to me by Sheryl Sandberg over a decade ago. When thinking about your career, “you have to have a long term vision and a short term plan.”

It’s incredible how poorly we think and talk about the notion of “career” in the workplace. For example, when an employee says to a manager “I want to talk about my career next week in our 1:1,” 9 times out of 10, the employee wants to talk about their promotion. Promotion is absolutely, positively not equal to “career.”

If you change how you think about your career, though, by articulating and working toward a dream job — or a lighthouse in the distance — you quickly realize that this impending promotion that means the world to you is functionally irrelevant. Sure… more money, some formal recognition, those are fine (and desirable to many!), but in great companies, you only receive a promotion once you’ve already been doing the job at the next level, so by the time the promotion comes, its does not inherently bring new scope or growth. The promotion is most often ephemerally valuable, and it is just one example of nefarious short-term thinking around the idea of career.

I have taught this Career Conversations model to thousands of managers and for manager and employee alike, the consistent feedback is that it’s a game-changer — it’s not an easy execution because of the time investment required, but it is powerful, leveraged, and represents a unique investment most employees will never see from their managers.

I have a book mostly written, which I hope would inspire a movement (but alas no agent or publisher). It takes the experiences I’ve observed — managers and employees indicating the model adds game-changing value to their relationship, to the employee’s outlook on career, and the manager’s ability to offer more relevant leadership.

For a deeper understanding on Career Conversations, check out the interview I did on the Coaching for Leaders podcast.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Can I offer two?

“Success comes when opportunity meets preparation.” I lifted this from somewhere, but it’s a pretty core idea to me. This life lesson allows us to simultaneously hold two disparate ideas in our heads at once — success is a function of luck and skill.

I think that often the excessively self-assured tend to underestimate the degree to which their success was a function of luck or circumstance, and I think the humble often underestimate the degree to which their hard work, energy, and effort has led them to success.

If you focus and prepare yourself everyday, opportunity becomes more likely to emerge.

My personal example. In 2002, I applied to Google, and here we are in 2019, and I still have not heard back from them. Hold that thought.

On the heels of that deafening silence, I worked very hard to get into Wharton, mostly studying hard for the GMAT. I applied in 2002, got wait-listed, and ultimately rejected. The admissions department told me, though, that they liked my candidacy, and that they just needed me to get a higher math GMAT score.

Grit time. Every night at my kitchen table, I drilled GMAT problems. I had a stack of books, and I drilled and drilled and drilled for months. With all of that effort, I was able to get a modest improvement in my score, but enough to be admitted to Wharton. Preparation.

While there, I was obviously outclassed intellectually by my classmates. One fun example — a guy named Radha. He didn’t prepare a minute for the GMAT — not a minute, in fact he signed up like a day before he took it, and he turned in a 780. During my two years, I struggled through the finance and math-heavy classes (though I was pretty good in the strategy classes) and ended up graduating just below dead middle of my class. By the way, I majored in finance to force myself to get better at quantitative problem-solving. Painful, but I made it. Preparation.

Turns out that in the winter of 2004, during my second year at Wharton, Google started hiring MBAs for the first time, and they came to MBA campuses for the first time, including Wharton. Opportunity.

Further, a year earlier, Google hired a couple folks who were a little more appreciative of military service than maybe the first 1000 or so employees at Google were. One of these guys, Hal, pulled my resume out of a pile of maybe 800 outstanding MBA candidates because of my military service. Flat out luck. Opportunity.

The woman from Google who interviewed me first — Kim Scott — came into the interview room sick and pissed she had to interview a former Marine. Afterall, what could the rigid hierarchical Marine possibly have to offer the entrepreneurial and agile Google? I was ready for this question because I’d been confronted with a gross misunderstanding of Marine Corps leadership in the past. I started my response with “It sounds like what you know about military leadership is mostly informed by what you’ve seen on TV. Mind if I take a few minutes to explain the reality of it, and hopefully reframe you?” Skill meets luck, because I was lucky she was open to being challenged and actually quite likes it. Opportunity meets Preparation.

I got the job and worked at Google for 7 years, where I worked side-by-side with Jared Smith, co-founder of Qualtrics.

Every good thing that’s happened to me in my career can be explained by a combination of skill and luck.

Second — “Do something that matters for something that matters.” This is something I came up with, and I am constantly holding myself to this standard. Are you doing something today, this quarter, this year, this hour that really matters in advancing this company’s interests?

It’s reasonably well documented that people are happiest in their jobs when they feel a sense of purpose. I think your sense of purpose comes from really two places — what you do and who you do it for. To achieve any semblance of sustainable happiness in a job, force yourself to articulate why the company you are working for matters to the world and force yourself to articulate how your job — your daily and weekly contributions — enable the company to achieve its purpose.

One of my favorite examples is sales. Sales is *never* the point of a company, just like air and water are not the point of life. Sales is the oxygen. There’s no purpose in the world that is going to be achieved without revenue — not in the private sector, not in government, not in non-profit, nowhere.

Sales matters. Imagine doing sales — providing the oxygen — for a company that closes experience gaps and in turn extracts human misery from the system. Imagine building the products, supporting the products, or enabling the teams that build, sell, and support those products that help extract human misery.

Pretty straightforward idea, but when the rubber hits the road — every single company is capable of producing a crappy day for you. Every. Single. One. When that crappy day comes, you might ask yourself, “WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING HERE?”

If you’ve taken the time to get clear with yourself on why your role and daily contributions matter and why your company matters, you can generally answer that question and get back on the horse much more quickly that if you aren’t clear on how you’re making a difference.

So powerful. Thank you so much for these fantastic insights, Russ!

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