Katie Burke (HubSpot): Leading & Hiring People in a Recession
Blake Bartlett: Coming up on today's episode of BUILD.
Katie Burke: I really believe the best leaders take complex concepts and make them super easy to understand.
Blake Bartlett: Virtually every leader and employee today is talking about the same, exact thing. The macro environment, tech stocks are down, VC funding has declined. Many companies are doing layoffs and/ or slowing hiring. And so unless you've been living under a rock this year, this is not news to you, but how should you respond to it? There's no shortage of VC advice on cutting burn and extending runway, but a company is not a spreadsheet. A company is made up of people. So with this uncertain macro landscape, that's captured all the attention in the room, how do you lead your current team? How much should you communicate with them versus keeping close to the chest? How do you shape your culture when few companies can even figure out how many days a week the people should be in the office? And perhaps most importantly, how do you keep your top performers in- seat and delivering impact? Katie Burke has been leading the people and talent function at HubSpot for the last decade. And she's been HubSpot's Chief People Officer since 2017. During her long run at HubSpot, she's seen up- markets, down markets and everything in between. So in today's episode of BUILD, Katie gets straight to the point with everything a people leader, or really any leader today, needs to know with regard to their people and talent operations. All that, and more on today's episode of BUILD. So let's dive in with Katie Burke. How would you characterize what's happening in the talent markets, specifically today, given that macro landscape that we face and what's your take of what's happening out there right now?
Katie Burke: So my take is, it's a very different world than it was six months ago. And what I see from my vantage point is a bit of a tale of two cities. So in the macroeconomic environment, I think you see a lot of uncertainty and honestly, a lot of layoffs, as you mentioned, a lot of changes, a fundamentally different environment than we saw six months ago. But I think the market for top talent remains hotter than ever. So you've got this interesting distinction where there's uncertainty more broadly in the labor markets. I think the unemployment data is still a little bit misleading. So some of the leading indicators still feel a little bit off. And so I think people can't decide whether to keep the party going or stop it all together, kind of thing. The macroeconomic environment, I would describe as defined by uncertainty. And I think probably a little bit of fear. The market for top talent I would say if you are a people leader and you are complacent about your top talent right now, that's a recipe for a disaster. And so if you are someone who is an incredibly high performer at your role, regardless of what you do for a living, I think you are still in a very hot talent market. For kind of the broader market overall, uncertainty is reigning supreme.
Blake Bartlett: And is it sort of the top 10% of any role or is it obviously everybody always talks about, it's hard to hire great engineers? Is it more pronounced in one area versus another?
Katie Burke: Yeah, so it's certainly more pronounced in engineering. So I would say it's more like top 5%, I would say, across the board in other roles and more like top 20% for great engineering talent. And so I do think it differs, but I'm also a big believer that the top, let's call it five generously, the top 3% in any role, you should always be super marketable because there's always room for your skill- set on the staff, but certainly engineering talent is raining supreme, but I would say we're seeing it everywhere. Great sales reps who are incredible at helping people understand and kind of value proposition outside, above and beyond the product, are incredibly in high demand. Incredible technical talent, incredible product managers. There's a lot of competition still out there.
Blake Bartlett: With that sort of backdrop of, there's a lot of uncertainty, but there is still kind of a war for talent as there always is for the best people out there. I guess the next layer that I go to, is for leaders that are listening right now, there's kind of, what do you do and how do you address your current talent? And then also, how do you think about new talent and recruiting and hiring? So maybe we can break those two apart and start with the first, which is, what are the top two to three factors that leaders should be thinking about today with regard to their existing talent inside their organization.
Katie Burke: So with your existing talent, I think first and foremost, it's incredibly imperative that leaders clarify the business trajectory you're on as an organization. You need those people to believe in the future of your business, because ultimately that's why they're going to choose to stay. And so I would say really being clear on the growth of your business that's ahead, but also the growth potential that's in it for them. I think that needs to be a top priority for your kind of key talent. For everyone in your organization, uncertainty in the market means uncertainty in people's roles. And it means oftentimes people start to think the worst and so assurance and empathy and over- communication are absolutely pivotal right now. Everyone is reading the headlines. Everyone is wondering, do I get concerned? Do I job shop? What do I do right now? And so the more you as a leader can over- communicate with empathy the better. And then I would say the third thing is just clarity on prioritization. One of the things that we're seeing over and over again is leaders are basically saying," Just do more, have more impact." And I think one downside of saying the people impacting the business are the most likely to stay and get retained, is oftentimes employees, frontline employees are unclear as to what the core priorities are. So really getting crisp about your priorities right now is number three.
Blake Bartlett: So if we unpack each of those, the first one, always important, but especially important today, is I kind of heard it as storytelling. And then how do you fit in that? What's the story for you? What role do you play in that? What's the potential for you and your role, starts to get into career path stuff, but that's kind of what I'm hearing from that first one. Is that sort of how you'd describe it? Or I guess maybe what does that look like in practice a little bit?
Katie Burke: You're spot on. So great storytelling is so important right now, but I think even just to add to that, it's wonderful to be a great presenter, but if the person you're presenting to can't convey that to their partner or their kids or their roommates, then it's all for not. And so I would say that storytelling is incredibly important from a leadership perspective, but it has to be so simple and so compelling that your employees could describe it at a cocktail party to one of their friends. So that's, to me always a good litmus test. Our board member, Jill Ward calls it cartoon clarity. If you're not communicating with cartoon clarity, you're missing the point. And so I think sometimes leaders overvalue their own storytelling potential. So how great and how dazzling am I on stage, versus how clear was I that you could then go to your partner, your roommate, you name it and convey that same message. That to me is a success a leader should be judged` on.
Blake Bartlett: Yeah. That idea of cartoon clarity or simplicity is key because I think, how well can they articulate it to somebody else is key, but also how long does it take for them to understand it if they're new? If it's kind of one of those types of organizations where it's like, you really only get what's going on once you've been in meetings for six months and then the light bulb goes off, that's too much complexity.
Katie Burke: Brian Hagen, our chair, former CEO always says," Don't make me work for it." And so sometimes if you're gearing up on a slide and I start to go," Well, Brian, the X axis and the Y axis, and you carry the one and da, da, da." And he's like," Katie, don't make me work for it." And especially if you're in front of 7, 000 employees on a global stage, all of whom have differing understandings and vantage points on the business, don't make them work. And so if that slide makes perfect sense to you, but to your point, it took you a year to learn all the elements in it and all the lingo and it's filled with acronyms and you need a PhD to understand it. You're completely missing the point. So I think it starts with the simplicity. I really believe the best leaders take complex concepts and make them super easy to understand. And I think that's a lost art these days.
Blake Bartlett: Yeah. We've all been in those meetings where you go to the meeting expecting answers and you come away with more questions than you started with. That is a fail. So yeah, clarity of communication, simplicity of communication, don't make me work for it is huge. The other one that you had mentioned was prioritization, and I've certainly seen this as well. And especially in companies where there might be sort of a right sizing or a downsizing, and there might be layoffs for one reason or another, any sort of advice as to how to think about prioritization. And are you overloading somebody? Are you under- loading somebody? How do you get to that sort of Goldilocks, just right balance on prioritization there?
Katie Burke: Yeah. So we have a simple mechanism we use for this within my team. That's led by a woman named Sam Simmons. She basically was like," At HubSpot it feels like everything is a priority, so as a result, nothing is." And so she forces us to do an exercise every single quarter, which is you list a short list, which is five or fewer things you're going to work on, but you also have to list out your omissions. So the things you won't do, that you absolutely won't do. And then you have to list out a few things that are bringing you joy, which find a little bit of balance in our lives on this front. And I think that exercise and having to go through it is super important. Even if you don't share it broadly with everyone, I happen to share mine with my org, but I do think it's super helpful just to have to actually force yourself to have the discipline to go. Realistically, we always overestimate as humans, what we can achieve in a given quarter. If you were to ask me without writing it down, I'd be like," Oh yeah, I'd probably give you a list of 10 things." When I actually have to write it down, I'm like," My team doesn't have the bandwidth." And it also allows me to do exactly what you said, which is really line up, who's available on my team. Who's on vacation, sabbatical, parental leave, all these wonderful things. So what bandwidth do I actually have? And what's realistic. And it also allows me to get buy- in from my peers at the executive team level to make sure I'm focused on the right things. So it's a great feedback lever and mechanism, of if you're missing something important. And so I always think that that is so basic. However, you do, OKRs, priorities, OGPs, whatever acronym you use at your organization. I don't actually think it matters. What I always come back to is that rule of five. I think human beings have a really hard time remembering any more than five things. And they also have a really hard time prioritizing any more than five things. And so what I always try and do is get down to that short list. And then the other thing I try and be really prescriptive about is, this is what good looks like to me and what I value in this quarter and give specific examples of frontline employees doing that kind of work. So as an example, we at HubSpot are really trying to prioritize automation in systems. I need to make sure I'm calling out people in the best way possible and recognizing people on our team who think systems and automation first in projects that we do. A lot of leaders fail to connect the dots between their priorities and what they value. And I think going that extra mile to say," Here's what I'm focused on. And here's what great work is looking like from people in frontline roles." That connection makes a big difference.
Blake Bartlett: Does the rank order matter as well? Is it just like here's an unordered list of five things or is it like, one through five and thinking about really what should be in that first slot versus that fifth slot is equally as important?
Katie Burke: So I always think about the calories actually expended on an exercise. And sometimes I think the forest ranking, you actually end up negotiating so much around what's one, two and three, that it kind of becomes a bit of a moot point. And so from my perspective, what I try and do is make it clear. What's the one ball that cannot drop. So I do think actually identifying your first priority, of this is just business- critical is super helpful. Everything below one, I think we could have a healthy debate probably for hours on that front. I do think the first clear priority, the ball that can't drop is mission critical. Everything else, I think I'm okay with it being unordered.
Blake Bartlett: Yeah, there's kind of like if there is a P zero, we must do this, or we won't be in a good spot. Then, yeah, define that. But beyond that, it's sort of more of an intellectual exercise than an actual impact exercise. The other thing you said that I really, really like is again, back to that sort of, it's simple, but it's not easy. A lot of people have a priority list, but they don't think about the photo negative or the inverse of it, which is, if this is the things we're prioritizing, it means that we're actively saying no to everything else.
Katie Burke: I think that omissions are the most critical pillar of corporate strategy. Anyone could sit here, you and I could come up with 18 ideas of what we could talk about on this podcast. What we decide not to is so much more interesting and so much more important. And it also gives people so much more clarity on what it's okay not to prioritize in a given week, month, you name it. And so I'm a huge believer, I think omissions are probably the most important exercise we do as part of our prioritization list. And I also really am borderline obnoxious, I would say at HubSpot, about making them part of our corporate strategy efforts. Because I think, you could come into any organization, I could show up at your door and go," Hey, have you thought about this?" And oftentimes it's a great idea. It's just not the great idea that the business needs for the forthcoming year and spiraling on those ideas or what you could do, I think is often a huge wasted effort within companies. So one of the things that I used to always, I had as my screensaver on my laptop forever, which was," You can do absolutely anything but not everything." And so it's like anything is possible, but in a given year, quarter, three years, what you don't do is so much more important than what you agree to do. And so I am a huge proponent of the omissions list and not leaving that out.
Blake Bartlett: Yeah, everybody likes to talk about the value and the importance of saying no as a meme, but it's way harder to actually put in practice. And so this idea of omissions and really spelling it out is a helpful tool in that regard. Just a quick break in today's conversation to make sure that you are getting all the latest in PLG content from OpenView. First things first, if you haven't subscribed to BUILD in your favorite podcast app, make sure you do that now. We drop four episodes per month and subscribing is the best way to stay in the loop. And while you're at it, drop us a rating and review for the show so that others can find it as well. And secondly, did you know that I'm a YouTuber? I put out weekly videos on the latest and greatest in PLG with my show called the PLG 123. Every video is two minutes or less and features VC perspectives from yours truly on the latest in VC, SaaS, and of course product- led growth. So find me on YouTube by searching Blake Bartlett and make sure to subscribe to my channel so that you don't miss a single video. Now let's dive back into today's conversation. So on the third thing that you had mentioned in terms of what people need to keep top of mind for their current team. And I want to unpack this one a little bit too, is just the recognition, that there is broad based uncertainty. And so communication is incredibly important as people are apt to think the worst and transparency is important. So the question is how much? What's oversharing, what's under- sharing and what's kind of that just right amount of transparency and revealing sort of what's behind the curtain to folks?
Katie Burke: Yes. So I think a level of transparency around where the business is, at a high level, to me, there are levels of access that are appropriate based on level, timing, all that kind of good stuff. The other thing is, I think on the empathy side of things, it's a tough line. So if you overshare or if you make it about you, you're centering yourself as part of the conversation, which is a huge miss, versus actually the point of empathy, which is putting yourself in your employee's shoes. To me, that balance of there needs to be a level of empathy for the uncertainty, but also clarity on the path forward. Those are kind of the things you're balancing. And so from my perspective, a great leader during this time would take a giant step back and go," Okay, what do people need to know about the business to feel confident in its future? How do we create space for people to ask questions that clarify the business' future, their own future, that might be useful? And then the third thing I would just say is to try and avoid wherever possible platitudes or super relatives." So like," We are the only company that's never going to do X, or we are uniquely positioned. We are unstoppable in this recession." We don't know what's right around the corner. So the degree in which I don't believe you should just use a bunch of corporate speak," We'll revisit this at the appropriate times." You can't be evasive, but I do think the more that you can avoid kind of far reaching statements, that you may not be able to deliver. You need to use this interval of time to build trust and transparency with employees, but you can't do that by being overly, I guess, ambitious about what you can deliver on. So as an example, what I try and do with our team is clarify, here's what our next few months look like. Here's what I'm prioritizing, here's what's most important. And by the way, here's how I'm managing my energy. So I'm controlling the controllables. I'm being really mindful about the impact it can have in the business. And by the way, you should just know that if there's any change in this, you can expect to hear from me. And you can expect to hear from me quickly on this side of things. And our leaders are over- communicating things like asynchronous communication. Our head of recruiting is doing a weekly Loom to kind of over- communicate with people on this front. I think the more you can share kind of what you're doing and what you're thinking about it without oversharing or scaring people, the better.
Blake Bartlett: And this idea, just being a little bit transparent and vulnerable myself. I've made this mistake before, and I'm not sort of prone to ever making the mistake again, but in going to a conversation with the goal of having empathy, sometimes you can see somebody's uncertainty, you can see their discomfort and then you feel for them and then you start to feel uncomfortable and you start to feel like," Oh no, I'm sort of making this person feel uncomfortable because I'm not giving them the answers that they want." And then you, in order to make your own discomfort go away, you sort of say something that's basically over- promising.
Katie Burke: I think you just nailed it. The promise is a sugar hit. It feels amazing. It's like," Ugh, that feels so much better. And by the way, Blake leaving the room, I want us to be in a good spot and I want you to feel great. And I want you to leave work for the day, feeling amazing." The truth of the matter is, if I make you a promise I can't deliver on, or if I make you a promise and don't do it to other employees at the same level, I'm actually hurting my long- term ability to build trust and psych safety, which is way more important than feeling great in that one conversation. So I think that balance is so hard, but one of the most important lessons I think of communications during this time, is not to over- rely on that sugar high of that promise and how good it makes you feel as a leader. And instead to think about how do I find the right balance between assuring our team not to worry and focusing them on the right things and not over empathizing to the point that it actually backs you into a corner.
Blake Bartlett: Yeah. All right. Now we spent a good amount of time, and I think it's appropriate given the sort of macro, we spent a good amount of time about these three concepts that are important for your current employees, but the other side of the equation is recruiting and new talent and all of that. And so what's the sort of quick hits there. One or two things that you are practicing and that you're advising other people leaders and leaders in general to sort of bear in mind as it pertains to recruiting, in this sort of interesting macro environment we're in today.
Katie Burke: So I think right now, if you're hiring, because you're a bit unique, because a lot of organizations have paused hiring, there's a tendency to just kind of put your shingle out and say like," Oh, the market's changed fundamentally. We're good to go here." I think that is missing the mark. And so what I encourage people to do and what I'm encouraging our team to do at HubSpot is a few things. One, anytime the market has changed, there's a huge opportunity to get meaningfully incredible talent. And so set the bar really, really, really high. And I mean that both for aptitude, but also for building out the diversity of the given team. So really thinking about geographic diversity, racial diversity, gender diversity, every form of diversity, it should be a really great time for leaders to look around, to go," Okay, what's the current composition of my team and how can this role add to that?" And then the third thing I would just say is you have to over index, not just on the job and role and growth, but also into what the person is buying into. So anytime you have more uncertainty in the market, you have to be selling while you're buying. So it's not good enough for me to wait till the very end to go," Blake, you're actually getting an offer. And by the way, have I told you anything about HubSpot?" You need to make sure that your interviewers are really thoughtful about the fact that it's still a super competitive market. And so being mindful of always, always, always be evaluating candidates fairly, but also every candidate should leave every conversation they have with someone at HubSpot, more excited and interested to learn more, with follow up questions. That's a tough skill and it's easy to abandon during this time. But I think those are just a few reminders. And then to your point, if you're actually bringing those people on board, because so many people are onboarding remotely right now, the additional time for questions. So, one of the things we used to do is basically say," If you have any questions during onboarding, please let me know." And the very human nature in all of us is like,"Well, I don't want to ask for questions because what if Blake doesn't have questions? And he seems really smart and he's in my new hire class and people are going to think he's smarter than me." Instead, what we've done is just normalize, doing office hours where it's like," I will be here. So please show up and ask questions." And we'll have people start by asking questions from the chat to normalize that. And so I think creating vehicles for people to ask for help readily and easily in public forums makes a really big difference. The second thing is just time to get to know people as humans. I think right now, given the focus on productivity and smaller teams, there's kind of an ease, in just going like," Great Blake your first project is this. Here's your first priorities. Here's your P zeros." That kind of stuff. You still need to spend some time going," Blake, what motivates you as a human? Help me understand why you decided to make the jump to our organization, how I can best support you. What kind of hours do you typically work? What's your feedback style?" Those conversations are so important out of the gate, that people can't forget them.
Blake Bartlett: One last thing is, just back on your first point with recruiting, is maintaining a high bar and obviously you pointed to two things that are incredibly important. Obviously having a high bar for aptitude and performance and will they get the job done, but also viewing it as an opportunistic situation in which you can solve for diversity in your organization, where you want to emphasize that. One other piece on the high bar that I'm curious about is given the macro and given that there's uncertainty, does screening for folks that are comfortable with change, folks that are comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. Is that something that should be more proactively woven into interview questions and evaluations?
Katie Burke: So I would argue that should be a top priority for any high growth company regardless. And it depends on your culture obviously, but at HubSpot that's something we really test for. So when we think about our values, we have five values and one of them is adaptable. And so we actually have to test for that from the start. So to answer your question, do I think that right now, companies more than ever need people who can adapt to any circumstance? Absolutely. To test for it, oftentimes, so as an example, if I were interviewing for a senior HR role and it's always the most fun for core HR roles, you go," Okay, Blake, help me understand how you feel about compensation, about you think about benefits and how you think about ER issues?" And then you say," What of that information would you be comfortable sharing with people? And what if we cut the number in half? And what if we doubled it?" And you can tell, just from the physical reaction someone has to go like," No, no I gave you the plan and I was promised the plan and you tasked me with the plan." You can tell a lot by how people react and oftentimes I ask for an example of help me understand the biggest degree change. So 45 degrees, 180 change, just help me understand the biggest degree change that you had to manage in your current role, how you navigated it, how you decided to make that pivot. Because the other thing is, if you're only good at adapting when someone tells you must, that's not real autonomy, that's being versatile, which is a good thing. But ultimately what I really value is leaders on my team who look around and go," Wait a second. Something's off here, the adoption here, isn't as good as we thought it was going to be or something's not kind of hitting just right." I want to make sure we pause and change course a little bit on that stuff. You're looking for people who look at leading indicators. So I would say adaptability is huge, but also you want someone, especially in people management roles, who's thoughtful about making those changes before they're asked to do so.
Blake Bartlett: All right. So last question here for folks, which I'm sure this is top of mind for virtually everybody right now and it's all about culture. And I think we've been getting at culture through a lot of the things we've been talking about. And by doing those actions that you had mentioned, you create a culture, but maybe just hitting it a little bit more explicitly. Obviously I think everybody's gone through a very similar journey, which was, there was a pre- COVID culture, whatever that looked like. There was a during- COVID work- from- home, we're all in this together, figuring it out culture and it's chaos. And now we're moving to whatever today is. Hybrid, return to office, whatever it is and whether it's people experiencing it in their own companies or talking to friends in different companies, or just reading the headlines, kind of seems like everybody's still trying to figure out what this is and what this looks like and what the overused term from the last two years, the new normal in the hybrid world looks like? So what do you think the answer is today for creating that right culture coming out of so much recent chaos and turmoil?
Katie Burke: Yes. Sorry, I shattered a little bit when you said the new normal, I feel like it's just a visceral response.
Blake Bartlett: Sorry. Overused.
Katie Burke: No. All kidding aside. I think what's interesting to me about the office hybrid culture discussion is I think we're focusing all of our energy and attention on the where. Like, where collaboration happens and where connectivity happens. And I think the much more important questions is the why and the how. So, the why it matters. I just think we need to come back to why do people want to come to work every day? Well, they want to feel connected to the purpose and the mission, but also we're social beings. People want to meet their friend at work and maybe they don't want to meet their best friends at work, but they certainly want to know like," Okay, Blake you'll help me understand the culture. We can maybe have a shared interest outside of work." That connectivity really matters to people. So that's kind of the why. The how kind of goes back to what we were talking about with onboarding new employees and your point on transactional versus relational. We've completely lost that relational element of making sure people establish those friendships or the connection to the team, which is why so many people are not staying as long at current employers. There's so much discussion about compensation and benefits and of course those are critically important, but a lot of it is around connectivity. How connected do I feel to the mission? How connected do I feel to my peers? And so I wish that more of the conversations were focused on the how and the why, versus the where. It is possible to create those types of connections in an all remote environment. It's also possible to create those connections in a five- day week in the office environment. It's also possible to do both those things and completely miss the point on connectivity. And so I think the where matters a lot less than the intentionality behind building it. Do I think we at HubSpot or any organization I've seen are like," Oh Blake, we've got the magic bullet. We know exactly how to do this." No and frankly, I don't believe anyone who says," Oh yeah, we've got this all figured out." There have been too many variables that have changed in how we all work over the past two years for any single person to have figured it out. So I have the most admiration for people who are sharing, here are the eight experiments we tried. Here's what worked. Here's what didn't, here's everything in between. And by the way, here's what we're doing next. I am a big fan of companies that are approaching this issue with the humility it deserves, because none of us have ever done this before. So I won't sit here and tell you, like," I've got the secret." What I will say is people are far too focused on days of week in the office, hours of week in the office as a connection point and not enough focused on," Okay, why do humans actually want to come to work every day? And how do we create compelling reasons to connect them?"
Blake Bartlett: So lead and be honest, when you have a hypothesis versus the actual answer.
Katie Burke: That's exactly right. And I think it even starts with leaders. So I think what I've been hearing a lot from leaders is exactly what you said. But then also back in my day, I made my best friend fill in the blank in the office. And what I've tried to do instead is to go," Okay, part of the reason why I work at HubSpot is because of the connections, the personal connections and relationships and friendships that I built." But instead of focusing on, I sat next to this person and build this connection. Instead, what I try and do is say at our first women's event at HubSpot, that's where Alison Elworthy, who is our head of revenue operations, and Meghan Keaney Anderson, who's since moved on from HubSpot and is an amazing CMO, elsewhere. That's where I met them and for me, my goal in building a great culture at HubSpot is to help you find your person like that. And maybe they're in California and maybe they're in Dublin. Doesn't actually matter. Especially given that we have an awesome global culture. They don't need to be sitting next to you, but I know what it felt like to kind of find my people at HubSpot. And I want you to do the same. That makes the exact same point and opens the door for people to build those relationships without over- relying on, how I personally did it. And I also think it forces you as a leader to rethink the mechanisms for how you make that happen, because ideally you're doing it across borders, across locations, across teams. So it opens up the aperture a little bit for the same event to happen, but under different circumstances.
Blake Bartlett: Well, Katie, this has been awesome. I know it's been a whirlwind tour conversation, but it's hitting all of the high points that I know, certainly every people and talent leader is thinking about today, but more broadly, basically every leader is thinking about today, because this is facing every organization. So thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and walking us through this.
Katie Burke: Thank you so much for having me Blake. It was great to chat with you.
Katie has been Chief People Officer at HubSpot since 2017. She has helped the company grow to thousands of employees globally. Katie outlines her top priorities in today’s uncertain macro environment — both for existing employees and for recruiting new talent. Must listen for any leader today!