Annette Reavis is a Chief People Officer, innovative people leader, coach, mentor and truth teller. She talks to Erevena’s Chris Warner about what drives her passion for helping business leaders go from good to great, to greater and the importance of the CEO and CPO working in partnership.

What was your early career path?

I started my career as a tax accountant and spent eight years in public accounting. I loved the business of solving problems and serving others – it was my service foundation. During that time, I always touched on things from an HR perspective. So, I did recruiting. I did the holiday parties. I did the engagement surveys. All of which I could do while serving my clients.

This was in the late eighties and early nineties at the beginning of the tech boom and I had clients like EA and Adobe. Although I loved public accounting, I eventually left because they were never going to make a black woman a partner, which is what I really wanted.  Being a partner would have enabled me to build on my service foundation and to partner with leaders. Instead, I went into industry.

How did you make the leap into HR?

If you put it into the context of the market crashes at that time, it was a period when tech engineers were struggling to get jobs. I’d spent some time in start-up land and was laying off people, including myself. So, I decided to do something different and went to work at my doctor’s office for three years. Again, this was part of the foundation for a career in HR because it was about taking care of people, solving problems, doing it from a true place of love, but doing it honestly and directly. When my husband got sick and passed away, I needed to get out of the healthcare space. I’d been on the hospital board, involved in things like coaching, mentoring, and helping leaders go from good to great, to greater. This had continued a theme from my childhood, where I grew up in a house in which people were always encouraged and supported to get to the next level. Focusing wholly on HR was a natural next step.

How did your full-time HR journey progress?

I spent time at Deloitte, Yahoo, HP and then was blessed to get my job at Facebook, which was my next foundational step. So, the first step had been around learning about customer service, being in service, and solving problems. The next step at Facebook began in 2010 when they had 1,400 people. When I left Facebook 10 years later, they had 40,000 employees. I’d seen the most amazing growth and worked on many things of which I am still incredibly proud. For example, I was the only HR business partner who supported both product and business, giving me the full view of what was happening in the organization. I was an HR business partner who understood Facebook’s business as well as their people. This gave the business leaders an extra boost because I had a true sense of where they needed to go and how to take them on that journey from good to great, to greater. During the best time of my career there, I supported the Chief Product Officer, Chief Marketing Officer, VP of Growth, VP of Operations and VP of Partnership and we put in place lots of different programs to meet business needs. 

What key learning did you take away from Facebook?

To be a good HR and talent leader, you have to really know the people you are providing the service to. For example, at Facebook, our engagement survey included the point that employees should spend 70% of their time on work that they loved. If that score was low, I gave people projects and asked them to write down the things that they loved. We needed to know this and really understand what they were doing when they completed the survey. So, for me, people leadership isn’t about putting in frameworks and programs, it’s about knowing the people.

You’re proud of the inclusion record at Facebook – can you expand on this?

Facebook cared deeply about diversity and from their perspective diversity was about bringing in the talent. But I felt strongly that inclusion was way more important than diversity. Why? Because if you bring in diverse talent and then they leave, you’re not winning. So, I partnered with an external expert to introduce inclusion training. This was all about understanding that differences are good and should be at the table. Differences are only what you see: they’re how you grew up; they’re how you think. We got people to understand what inclusion means.

I am also proud of the programs we put in place to help people of color get to director level. Many mentors were not people of color. This really drove change as they lifted those not like them to where they wanted to go.

What prompted you to take on roles in several smaller company next?

I was actually looking to retire but a friend called me and said there was a company in Columbus, Ohio that needed me. It was an opportunity to really direct change, so I moved to Ohio – just as Covid struck!  I think Covid has ruined so many things and turned us into the ‘I am’ community versus the ‘we are’ community. It was a tough time to start a new job in a new place with no friends or family around. Yet I felt I did great work at Root because we had to transition everybody almost overnight from working in an office to working at home. We had to get creative with programs and my team really thought outside the box during that time. The company also decided it was going to go public overnight, which was crazy, but fun. So, between July and the end of October I helped with this process, learning a lot along the way. It was a great experience but, having got there, it was time for me to move back towards my family and friends. I’m a connector and need to be around people, which had been difficult after moving somewhere completely new during a pandemic!

I then briefly spent some time  as CPO of a small company that we eventually decided to close down. I moved on to the Chief People Officer role at Envoy. I was so excited about the product but could see that they needed someone who was much more of operational. I can do the operations side, but for me to really feel valuable, I want a role where I’m coaching and helping people go from good to great, to greater. For me to find joy it is so important to be valuable.

What do you look for to ensure a new role enables you to feel valuable?

I would start with the CEO. Are they open to being coached? I am clear on the fact that I’m not the decision maker, but it is critical to me that I am heard, and my perspective is then internalised and evaluated. So, part of that is asking the right questions during the interview process, something I haven’t always done! I also want to discover if the company places a priority on putting systems in place because, while I agree that systems are important, it’s not where I start. What I want to focus on is whether we are looking at the systems and then matching them to the people and pulling in the data so that we get a good read on everyone.

I also want to know if the business wants to grow – and whether they’ll do so responsibly. If an interviewer tells me they’re going to double and triple their headcount, I want to know why they need so many people at this moment in time. This partnership between the Chief People Officer and the business is so important in helping the CEO get to the next level.

Do you have any advice for someone about to be interviewed by a CEO?

Look for integrity. I know that integrity means different things to different people, but I define it as making a decision based on what’s right for the business and sticking with that decision, no matter what or who comes at you, whether that’s a pandemic or other external pressure. Of course, if you get new data that changes what’s right for the business, then someone with integrity will admit that they need to change their mind – not because of other pressures, but because they have new data. So, in an interview, I would ask them to tell me about a time when they knew they had made a decision that they later wanted to change. What did they do? I want to know how they respond when times are tough.

What should a people leader be to the CEO?

The CEO should want someone they can be with in the trenches – someone to be their right hand. That’s how I see this job but I know a lot of CEOs don’t, which is OK with me as they’ll find someone else for the role. For me, I want to be the person who is completely honest when the chips are down and if they can’t handle that, then they don’t need me! Because I believe my job is to make sure they’re the best they possibly can be. They might hear stuff they don’t want to hear or act on – it’s their company, after all. But the CEOs I want to work with do listen and learn for the next time. That ‘next time’ is important because a CPO who has a good relationship with the CEO can influence the next action when something has gone wrong.

Is there one question that’s important to ask a founder during interview?

If I was considering joining a start-up with ambitions to go through the funding rounds to support growth, I’d ask the founder/CEO where they’d previously got coaching. Were they a team sports player – because that’s often when they’d have been coached. This is an indication they’ve listened to others, often people much older than them. How have they been coached? How have they learned? These questions are important for me, because it is hard when you work with people who believe they know everything and aren’t willing to listen or be influenced.

Did your 10 years at Facebook shape your philosophy or did it come from elsewhere?

My core foundation and what I think is important came from who I am and is in my DNA. However, I think that I am a product of Facebook because I was able to add value to the people I supported, which meant I personally could reap the rewards of that. If what I was doing didn’t add value, I would have had to either change or leave. It wasn’t easy because I’m not your traditional HR leader and didn’t do things the same way everybody else did. That was hard for people at times. But my relationship with my clients and with the people of Facebook, was stronger than most because I could add value once they understood how I did so through understanding and learning.

I didn’t grow up in HR. I didn’t start out in HR. So, I have a different perspective and was allowed to help drive business – and Facebook could see that value.

Are we seeing a new playbook for founders and people leaders?

I think that people need to understand why we are where we are, and I don’t think we’re spending enough time doing that. For example, we need to understand the impact of Covid and people not coming together. HR leaders need to drive that understanding – and then drive the solution for it. And I don’t believe the solution is just about laying off people and cutting costs, which is easy to do but we still have to build a business and make sure we have the right people in the right place at the right time.

If more HR leaders had more influence over outcomes, companies may not have hired too many people because the business would have listened when the questions were being asked about how many and what roles were needed. We now all need to figure out what the go-forward plan is and the HR leader should partner with the CEO to help pull this together. Of course, we need to factor into this what the next big thing is going to be in tech and how (or if) it will help companies survive the downturn. Companies need to innovate and find that next big thing and I don’t believe you can do that on Zoom – so people leaders have a role to play in getting the workforce back together to build great products.

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Chris Warner, Partner

Specialisms: Sales, Marketing, SaaS, FinTech

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