Emma Dawson - Company Culture is Built on Shared Passion

Welcome to the HR Leadership Podcast.

Our guest on this episode is none other than Emma Dawson, an Organizational Psychologist and a prominent, passionate leader in organizational culture.

As well as investing in companies, Emma is now an in-demand advisor and consultant, after holding Director-level positions at global companies like LinkedIn, Dropbox, and Coinbase.

She spoke to eqtble’s Co-Founders, Joseph and Gabe, in an enlightening conversation about her career path – before tackling the challenges of company culture and the employee experience.

About Emma

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Emma describes herself as having ‘a passion for unleashing human potential’ – and she discovered that passion early in her career.

During Emma’s undergrad studies in her home country of New Zealand, she was exposed to the power of organizational culture, and how it can foster collaboration and inspiration.

This experience of helping people thrive would go with her to the UK, where she spent ten years working in HR and people development, in the legal and financial sectors.

Emma earned her qualification as an Organizational Psychologist, and honed her craft in mature organizations  – gaining an understanding of how big companies (and their people) develop.

The following ten years of her career would be spent in the San Francisco Bay Area – the central nervous system of the world’s leading tech companies.

In her years at LinkedIn, she was Director of Leadership Development and Talent Management. At Dropbox, Emma was a Director, and the company's Global Head of Talent Development. At Coinbase, she was a Senior Director, and the Global Head of Learning and Talent Management.

These fast-moving, agile companies were a world away from the giant organizations she’d worked in before – and Emma had found her ideal environment: mission-driven organizations, with transformational leaders, where integrity, passion, and values matter most.

Now, Emma holds fast to her values as an investor, advisor, and consultant to growth-ready companies. She mindfully applies her knowledge, to achieve the outcomes that companies need, without anyone sacrificing who they are.

Her combination of experience, knowledge, understanding, and integrity have made her extremely highly regarded and sought in the field – and we’ve got to admit, we’ve been dying to talk to Emma about this stuff for months! So with that, let’s dive into the episode.

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Here are some of the big points we discussed during this episode:

  • Hiring and retaining top talent: why is it so hard right now?

  • Growing employees into leaders

  • What can companies do to build a culture for success?

  • How do you balance building a culture with building a business?

  • Hiring for potential versus experience

The details…

Why is retaining top talent such a challenge?

Joseph wants to know what organizations can do to face the challenges of hiring and retaining top talent.

Emma’s response calls out some of the most common “quick fixes”: adjusting compensation, implementing training programs, or giving out promotions.

But none of these can address the cultural roots of the issue, and companies need to be more proactive. And it can't happen fast.

It takes time to invest in and create an environment that's truly inclusive. It takes time to develop managers who can really support their teams.

“It's really interesting actually, because when I think about retention, I think about all the data that we have gathered on engagement over the last several years – and we now have a really good understanding about what drives engagement. And so much of that is really about creating an environment where people can have an impact, having great managers who really see them, give them a sense of belonging, and support their development.”

Her take? If you’re not investing in engagement, belonging, growth, and development – start today. Because when the chips are down, having teams aligned with your company’s core beliefs and management that can facilitate that will be your greatest asset.

When employees become leaders; navigating inexperience

The comment about management being integral to retention prompts Gabe to ask a follow-up question.

He raises an important point – in a fast-moving startup or unicorn, employees are often promoted to management and director positions without any prior leadership experience.

So, what can startups do to help those employees that are turning into leaders? How can they learn to mentor their employees, take care of them, and improve the employee experience?

Emma outlines three core skills that effective leaders need:

  • Setting clear expectations

  • The ability to give feedback

  • The ability to coach

“If managers or [individual contributors] in the organization could do those three things, that's like 80 percent of the challenge, right?” 

But as she explains, these shouldn’t be reserved for those destined for leadership.

These are ‘everyone’ skills, and organizations should be investing in these from the beginning.

This results in a pool of people who are ready to step into leadership roles, because they already have the fundamentals of leadership.

It can avoid many of the issues of promoting ‘inexperienced’ employees up to management or beyond.

Successful company culture is…

Joseph asks Emma what companies can do to position themselves culturally, to create a successful workplace. It’s a big topic, but Emma breaks it down to hiring for passion and cultivating curiosity. 

“…a passion for the purpose…”

When companies are hiring, this is what they should be looking for – not necessarily the best and brightest so to speak, but the most personally invested. People who care about your cause, and want to contribute.

Another key element to a successful culture is curiosity; not just about the job, but learning how others work and operate at their best.

“People are energized by different things – some people like structure, some people are unstructured… people show up in very different ways in the world.”

A solid culture will bring that out, and allow space for every different type of working. An organization can really capitalize on the strengths of each individual when they all move together, in their own unique ways.

Building culture while building a business

Gabe notes a challenge he’s realized in startups – building culture and employee experiences, while building a profitable and sustainable business. How do you justify the investment?

Emma and Gabe discuss the ‘unprovable’ ROI of investing in people, using data and HR metrics to get a more business-centric view of culture – but she also offers this on employee experience:

“What I don't see a lot of companies do…  is just being really intentional about ‘what is that experience?’”

As established companies are shifting from product-focused to people-focused, what do they aspire to be?

What do they want to mean to their people – how should they feel about their work and their company? And importantly, how do you measure that?

Companies need the vision of who they want to be, set against their people’s current perceptions.

It’s a very different approach to just going with the flow and seeing where you end up.

This is proactive culture-shaping, and it’s potentially going to become the Next Big Thing at larger and emerging organizations.

A final thought – hiring potential over experience

Joseph wants to know – what are the upsides (or downsides) of hiring passionate people, full of potential, over highly experienced candidates.

“I don't think there's a right or wrong answer… you have to have a very different talent strategy to support either approach.”

The biggest factor is time. Can you invest time in developing a passionate individual into an all-round incredible member of the team, or do you need to move fast as an organization?

It’s a matter of workforce planning – which Emma tips as one of the hottest skills in People Management right now.

If a company needs a Director-level, key decision-maker ASAP, they can’t put in the time needed to develop a passionate yet inexperienced candidate. 

So, it really needs to be considered at the point of need, based on the speed of the company. Ideally, there should be a balance of both high potential hires and experienced hires.

But Emma also echoes the importance of investing in people from the off;

“[I] often say to managers, you need to make sure at least half of your direct reports are high potential, and can take on higher levels of work in the organization, because that is so important to scaling.”

We really hope you enjoy listening to this episode as much as we enjoyed recording it.

A huge thank you to Emma for making this happen – make sure you check her out on LinkedIn – and follow the link below to get our next episode as soon as it’s released.

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