I first practiced systems- thinking when I led HR for a fast-growing startup during the early ’90s Dot-com bubble in Silicon Valley. The issues I troubleshot daily with employees pointed to thematic gaps in leadership or process. Gaps like “teamwork” being a value but the CEO had to be constantly reminded to bring the rest of his leadership team along for some of the major people and business decisions. Gaps showed where the connections were precarious or fully developed chasms. Gaps turned the linear list of the organization’s symptoms into signals alerting where the system needed repair.
I joined Adobe to launch the first coaching program, and work across every business function both as an executive coach and HR business partner. As the company shifted business models and integrated two major companies it had acquired, I applied what I was learning in my master’s program. I started Adobe’s first Organizational Development function and re-launched the Learning and Development one. I worked with a team of people to help evolve the culture at Adobe—one that reinforced the connections between the values, behaviors, processes, and practices of the company.
When Twitter came knocking, there I was, given the opportunity to build the Organizational Development and Learning function from scratch. This gave me the opportunity to create a strategy not just about learning and development to help develop employees, but also about organizational development, to help evolve and embed the culture. My team worked with HR business partners on organizational design and structure, team effectiveness, talent development, and building the processes and practices to align with the values as the company grew rapidly. We also ensured individual development was aligned to organizational development and that work was a great context for learning. After four-and-a-half years at Twitter, I had learned more about the importance of a systems perspective in the workplace. I had differentiated experience at Twitter, as it was a company that grew from less than 1,000 employees when I started to 4,500, with a revenue growth of $300 million to $2.5 billion, with several acquisitions, new leaders, and global expansion. I wanted to further expand my expertise out of the Silicon Valley tech bubble into a different industry and location. An opportunity to be Senior Vice President of not just Organizational Development, but also Talent Acquisition, presented itself in New York City, for a company that was “reimagining the workplace of the future,” which was, unbeknownst to me, the most overvalued company in the world–the now infamous unicorn WeWork.
When WeWork called, its departure from the technology world and the bubble of Silicon Valley lured me in. I wanted to expand into a different sector, helping the real estate startup to scale and succeed to “change the way we work forever,” the quote being the company’s moniker. Sold on the mission statement for both the company and its broader community, “make a life, not just a living,” and the values on WeWork’s walls, I moved across the country to live in New York City again—a city I had never quite let go of since living there in my twenties. While in hindsight there were red flags I viewed such toxic signs as proof positive of how much WeWork needed me and my approach to build a healthy and sustainable connected culture. What I realized after I left, reflected and wrote is:
“The way we don’t work is the missing piece to understanding what it takes to build a more connected culture”
That formed the basis for my HBR article and now, my forthcoming book, Reculturing (McGraw Hill) launching Spring 2022
I ran a successful boutique advisory and coaching business for four years focused on helping small and mid-size companies design systems aligned with their values. I helped leaders identify and leverage their personal culture, starting with understanding their own values, behaviors and habits that will reinforce them. I worked with teams to become more clear about what they each contribute individually and collectively, and helped leaders design and scale their cultures.
Now, I’m very excited to be joining Udemy as Chief Learning Officer helping them further their incredible mission of creating new possibilities for people and organizations everywhere by connecting them to knowledge and skills. I will be working with Udemy’s customers as a trusted learning advisor, helping them develop learning strategies that will guide them through this next phase of distributed work. Continuous learning is a business imperative in today’s changing world. I believe it is a key component to building a healthy culture and successful business.
I grew up sailing a twenty-three-foot sloop named Timpani, on Lake Mendota in Madison, Wisconsin. Every Saturday morning, docked at Mazanet Marina, my dad taught me about the many parts of a sailboat. Once we were out on the water, Dad reminded me of the basics: wind direction, steering, and sail trim. “On the boat,” Dad said, “everything’s connected.” If you moved the tiller slightly to the left or right, the entire sailboat could turn, the wind hits the sail differently, the boat could be off an even keel, throwing passengers to one side, and making the weight balance uneven—all this from one push or pull to the tiller.
This lesson and my eye-witnessing the power of the sum of parts became my mainsail in life, driving me windward toward what I would do for the rest of my life. Sailing, when done right, appears to take no effort at all. Just add wind. Except I knew, thanks to those weekends with dad, that Timpani was an intricate system working with other systems (the wind conditions, other sailboats on the water, and changing tides). Sailing her meant learning to embrace systems thinking. Whenever she heeled too much and things got uncomfortable, linear thinking would’ve led me to look up and just shift the sail somehow or blame it on the shoddy job of the crew (my sister), but systems thinking would force me to look at how these parts were working together.
Were my sister and I clear about each of our roles on the boat?
Was our weight balanced appropriately?
Was I turning the tiller too far into the wind?
Systems thinking is looking at all of the parts, separately, and how they work together, holistically.
Other than the rare life -or-death predicament you will find yourself in when a sailor does not manage their sailing system effectively, there is no greater evidence of the power of systems thinking than in the workplace. Sailing is ultimately a team sport. You must be clear on your plan, you have to communicate that plan to your crew initially and under sail as the wind, tides, and weather shifts. The same is true of an organization. Each person matters, but also clarifying how each individual role contributes to the whole creates a more meaningful connection for the employee with the organization.