Culture Leader Spotlight: Cindy Johnson

Welcome to our Culture Leader Spotlight series, where we talk to innovative leaders in HR and People about their work in culture, inclusion and employee experience at large.

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Cindy Johnson is the former Chief People Officer at Rubicon Project. During her tenure at Rubicon, Cindy led a culture transformation through a difficult period, and executed a turnaround with a positive shift in culture.

We spoke with Cindy about her work in transforming culture at Rubicon, aligning culture on a global scale, and some of the biggest trends in human resources and people management.

Can you talk a little bit about your role at Rubicon and what it entailed?

I led the people team, and I like to look at that as the team responsible for employee  experience globally. Or team consisted of HR, IT, and facilities. We worked together to create an experience for the various teams. As a global organization, my focus was on really ensuring that you have alignment across culture, talent, practices, policies, so that it feels like one company, one culture - as much as you can, since there are different cultures within different countries. We had employees in about 10 different countries - goal is to ensure that you are creating some consistency and alignment with goals across the organization.

You talked a little bit about how cultures differ in different locations. How do they differ on a local level vs what brings the culture together across the organization?

I think it’s important for a company to align on goals, values and mission. With values in particular, you have to be careful with how those transfer to different countries. We had a value of “relentless commitment to win” at a past organization, and it always threw off some of the employees in Asia Pacific - as it sounded very competitive. But it was more of an external competition vs. internal, so we had some interesting conversations around that.

The unifying pieces are the goals, values, mission, and when going on a local level the ways of doing work differ. This doesn’t necessarily have to be across different countries, the New York office is different than the LA office. I think it’s important to respect it and encourage it, and just focus on the types of things we can do together. Whereas the New York office might want to go to a rooftop bar to celebrate something, in LA one might want to go to the beach. There’s just differences in how people work and celebrate.
What has been one of your biggest challenges in implementing culture across the organization?

When I was at Rubicon, the biggest challenge we had was we were downsizing and in turnaround mode. The morale was really low, turnover was pretty high, and when that happens, it’s like vicious cycle - you see your coworkers leaving and end up stuck with extra work. You’re in a tough place.

What really helped us to come together in turning this around is over-communicating and bringing people together to connect. I created a culture team across the world, somebody from each office representing, and we spent time in person getting feedback from each local team. Then, we talked about what do we do. It was a pretty dire situation - we had just laid off 125 people, a new CEO was getting appointed - there was a lot of change. I felt like that team was pretty core to the foundation of what do we need to do here. We decided, based on the feedback, that we needed to connect people, so we found different ways to connect team members to - executives, managers, each other, etc. Later on that year, we turned our priority to how we could be  more productive in building a respectful teamwork across the organization.

That seems like a very tough transition. How would you say you measured success in that transition period?

One aspect would be reduced turnover - it took a good six months to slow it down and start seeing this trend. We also continued to reach out to get feedback - whether through surveys or one on ones. Another way to see those changes is the involvement of the team members - their participation increased by being involved in the events and the opportunities. More and more people were interested in getting people together, so you see the level of engagement increase.

Definitely. I think there’s a big appetite in companies to hold events and connect people. What did you find were some of the most successful types of events for Rubicon were?

We were in a turnaround situation, so we didn’t have much money. We had a new CEO and executive team who agreed to hold a Leadership Round Table. When the CEO was in town, we would hold this event where you would sit at the table with leadership and get 3 minutes with them (like speed dating). You could ask anything you wanted to. It was great because you were really able to connect with anybody and get to know them on a different level. This was very successful for us.

Another successful thing we did was what we called Collision Events, which were ways for people who don’t work together to be able to “collide” and meet. There’s different games and activities that offices had and people would come to those, and you would spend time with teams of people that didn’t know each other. This was super successful, each office, office manager, and culture team member worked to put this together. We would later share our experience in Slack and talk about it in company meetings.

That sounds like a great practice - getting feedback and sharing results really brings it full circle. Shifting gears a bit, I was hoping to pick your brain about what sorts of trends are shaping HR moving forward?

It’s interesting to me because a lot of the same topics come up again year after year, but I think the big topics are AI - which can really help HR teams be more productive and extend the capacity of the HR teams. And that’s all interesting but you still have to have the foundational items in place. I find that when I’m talking to a company, a lot of things aren’t working well. And leaders don’t necessarily care about these new things if you’re not fulfilling their jobs.  People analytics continues to also be a trend: what are those tools, reports, dashboards that can really help businesses make decisions about the future of the business.

Another topic that’s huge right now is building an inclusive culture, and finding different ways to do that, and I am not sure anyone has really solved this. It’s more and more important and different generations are asking for this, for people to  feel included as they join an organization. That leads to successful recruiting and onboarding practices in which people do feel like they’re part of this new team and that they can make a difference.

It’s important to align with executives and the organization on values and goals. A lot of HR organizations spend time on things that do not add value and executives don’t call it out - they dismiss it as “it’s just HR” and let it go. You don’t want HR to continue to be this burden from a budgeting perspective and not adding value. These are some of the things in my mind as I think about what helps companies be successful.

That’s super interesting. What we’ve seen in our research is that there’s this gap between HR and executives - it’s hard to get the right value-add data. How do you think we can better empower HR to be more aligned with the organization’s objectives?

I think HR needs to be more business-minded, and understand the business first. It’s really easy to get caught up in the HR world and be policy/process-focused. I know some companies now look for their HR leaders to come from another non-HR discipline. I remember in my last couple of roles, if I didn’t have the information about the business, I would’ve been putting forth the wrong ideas or decisions. To empower HR, you’re not going to be asked to the table if you don’t really have this understanding.

Definitely. I know you mentioned the challenge of creating inclusion, which no one has really solved. Based on your experience at Rubicon, I’m curious to see what your thoughts are on creating a successful inclusion strategy.

I think the key is educating managers. A lot of the times this training is about the basics, as well as who they’re hiring. Some people get intimidated by hiring someone that might be better than them at something, or just different than them.. There’s a lot of education to managers and leaders around this: Where are you spending your time? Are you going to a company event and just talking to people you’re comfortable with? Executives do this too! It’s important to talk to people you don’t know or who might make you uncomfortable - the value in this is incredible. But it takes a bit to see that sometimes.

At a past organization, we had started an internship program, and no one wanted to budget for this, nor did they want to hire people without already having experience.  But after the second year of bringing the interns (100 by the time I left), people were just amazed with the level of energy and their ideas, and what they were bringing to the table. It took time for them to see those opportunities and experience it. It’s a journey, and I love seeing leaders learn some of this from experience - perhaps this will lead them to being more open to a diverse candidate pool.

If budget was not an option, what’s one thing you would try to implement at Rubicon?

If budget were not an option, the best way to get people to connect is to bring them together in person.  By someone meeting another person they have worked with virtually for awhile, the level of productivity between the two increases once having met. They understand each others style better, and how to work together better.  In addition, training for new managers would be another focus. People join and leave companies because of their manager, so by providing training and tools you can find out who shouldn’t be a manager and help those who are interested in growing their skillset.