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A Peek Into People Ops – HR Honesty Hour | Chris Williams

Episode 2 of GoCo’s newest series!

by Nikhil Bendre - November 15, 2022

Welcome to A Peek Into People Ops, where we’ll be sitting down with HR leaders to gain perspective on what people ops means to them and how that translates into their day-to-day!

For our second episode of A Peek Into People Ops, we spoke with Chris Williams, leadership advisor and former VP of HR at Microsoft. Listen to what he had to say about his own people ops journey here!

Want to keep up with Chris? Here’s where to find him!

💚 Chris’s TikTok
💚 Chris’s LinkedIn
💚 Chris’s Youtube

Episode Transcript

Nikhil: Hey there, everyone. My name is Nikhil Bendre, and welcome to episode two of “a Peek Into People Ops.” In our series we’ll be sitting down with some awesome HR leaders and discussing their personal thoughts on HR and their perceptions about People Ops. So this time we’re joined by leadership advisor and content creator, Chris Williams. Chris has an incredible professional background, including his time as the VP of HR at Microsoft. We really appreciate you taking the time to chat with us, Chris, so thank you so much for joining us.

Chris: Thank you. It’s wonderful to be here.

Nikhil: All right. Let’s just go ahead and jump right in. First off, I wanna start by, as we just mentioned, you held a prominent position in People Ops at Microsoft. Would you mind telling me a little bit about your career journey and how you got to that point?

Chris: Well, I am not an HR People Ops kind of person from the get-go. I’m a geek. I’m a coder. I’m a programmer. I began my career 40-plus years ago as someone writing code. I worked in a bunch of different industries, everything from factory floor control systems to everything, large information systems, that sort of thing. And I managed to work on a program called Fox Pro, which was a relational database package for the PC that got bought by Microsoft. So in the early ’90s, I came to Microsoft and was a kid in a candy store. Like, I advise most young people to be these days, “When you get to a large corporation, your eyes should light up at the opportunities around you.” So I looked at all the various places around the company where I could be useful and do some interesting things. And in a very short period, I managed different teams around the world. I managed software development projects, and one of the things that had always been my focus was building teams, building organizations, how teams work, how teams, what separated teams that, different teams that didn’t, and that sort of thing.

And I had recently had an incredible success. I was the father of a product called Microsoft Visual Studio. It started with myself and my assistant, and within a year we had a team of 500 and had shipped a product that was selling $100 million a year. And I was sort of ready to retire at that point when my HR person, who I had become very close friends with, came into my office and said, “You should be in HR.” And I said, “You should be committed.” And she said, “No, your passion for the people side of the business is legendary and you really should go into HR.” So that began my journey in HR. And I quickly moved to be the top HR person for a third of my [inaudible 00:02:58]. What HR was all about and tell the HR side, what the business people were really saying when they were… It was kind of like a translator between these two worlds. And I truly enjoyed that. And I did that for a couple of years. When one day, my boss, the VP of HR walked into my office and said, “Remember when you were applying for this job? You said you wanted my job someday.” And I said, “Well, you know, everybody says…that’s what you say in an interview.” And he said, “How about Thursday?” And it turns out Steve Ballmer was being promoted to CEO of the company and wanted me to be his VP of HR.

So I became VP of HR for Microsoft at a time when it was almost doubling employees every year. We had 32,000 employees in 160 locations around the world. My signature was on $2.2 billion worth of paychecks every year. It was an enormous job. But it gave me a really valuable insight. That translator perspective gave me a really valuable insight into HR because I was able to see it from a business perspective. I had been a business guy building large-scale businesses and also been in charge of HR. So, I was able to see what the interface between the two organizations were, the places where the business side respected and valued HR, and the places where, let’s just say they didn’t. That was an incredibly valuable experience for me. And it’s one that was very much in many ways seminal to my understanding about what it means to lead and build organizations because I saw it from a side of the organization that most people normally wouldn’t get.

Nikhil: Absolutely. No, that is quite the unique perspective on HR, you know, judging from your background also that’s pretty new, pretty new to me at least. You hear about people going from marketing to HR, to sales from HR, but to go from software and coding to HR, that’s not as common, as one would think. So that’s very impressive that you’re able to [inaudible 00:04:59].

Chris: Right. Well, to Microsoft’s credit, the company was always really interested in getting interesting perspectives on things. So for example, we hired for program management, we frequently hired people with degrees in philosophy or degrees in the, you know, the humanities or that sort of thing, even in very technical positions. Because what they were really looking for was perspective and insight, and thought and learning. And it really wasn’t so much about do you have the, you know, do you know the skill at the moment? It was about, are you a smart, passionate person who can learn something? And, to Microsoft’s credit, I think they really looked at… The man who proceeded me as VP of HR had been one of the people who was responsible for Microsoft’s networking business. So he, too, had followed that same path I followed, which was this very technical-to-HR perspective.

And I think it’s one of the issues I see in many HR organizations is that it’s all HR born and bred, and they have this one HR perspective on what the business is like. And I think that, I mean, it’s later in your conversation that you wanted to talk about, but I think that’s one of the things that gives HR a disadvantage when they’re sitting around the table at the C-suite, for example. It gives them a disadvantage to not have a business perspective, to not know what exactly it means to run and operate a business unit and how HR can provide value, and where HR really isn’t gonna give them much added value. And I think that’s a place where many HR teams fall short, is that they don’t have that bigger perspective into what it means to really be a business.

I’m sorry to keep rambling, but it also gives them a disadvantage when it comes time to resource allocation. One of the biggest problems that most HR organizations suffer is they suffer a shortage of resources. They don’t get the money they need to develop the software they need. They don’t get the people, the headcount they need. They’re always short-changed resources. And I think some of that comes from when you’re sitting at the C-suite table and there’s the chief marketing officer and the chief sales revenue officer, and the chief product officer and the chief people officer, and they’re all sitting around the table and the company’s trying to divide up the limited resources they have. The chief people officer comes up short because it’s very difficult for them to explain how they provide value.

And every organization says, “Oh, people are our most important asset.” But they don’t invest in them as much as they do to the product or to the marketing, or to the… Because those people can very clearly say, “You give me marketing dollars, I will give you sales.” Right? They can very clearly say, “You give me product development, I will give you dollars. I will give you a product.” You know, say that to the HR people, you know, “We’ll give you training dollars.” And they’ll say, “We’ll, make your people better.” Well, you know, what does that mean, right? So around that table, they’re at a disadvantage.

Nikhil: So that’s actually a perfect segue into our next question. As you just mentioned, HR professionals do have difficulty convincing leadership to invest into People Ops and HR tech, and anything really to propel that department forward. So do you have, with your experience, any specific steps HR professionals can take to make business cases for HR more convincing?

Chris: Well, the key thing is, and it’s a little bit of a rub for me. The key thing is to create partners in the business organization. To when you go to make those requests for resources, you need to have people on your team helping you to make that. In other words, you need the chief people or the chief product person, or at least somebody in the product organization to say, “Yes, you know, the training and leadership development they want to do is crucial to my organization.” You need the salespeople, the marketing people to do that. And one of the things that has happened in the last, I don’t know, dozen or so years is this tendency in HR for people to call themselves, you know HR business partners, which is really interesting because that’s a title that HR has given themself. It’s not a title that they have in many ways earned by being a true partner with the business.

So again, they will sit down with their client, who is the product person or the marketing person, or the salesperson, and they really need to figure out what they can do specifically to be a partner in that organization. How they can work with that person to lay out a plan for, if we do this kind of development of your people, these are the specific results you will see. So that when it comes time to go leverage and lobby for those resources, it’s not just the HR person saying, “This is gonna be cool, this is gonna be great. This is what we’re gonna do for your people.” But it’s the business person who’s also standing next to them going, “Yes, I need that. I need that badly. This is what I need for my people.” Right? So they’ve gotta get an ally because it’s very difficult to make fuzzy business cases out of the kinds of things that HR does. It’s, you cannot say, “Look, I’m gonna take your director and send them to some class or course or put them through, and they will come out a different human being on the other side.” That’s just not how people work. But the product person can do that. They can say, “If you give me, X million dollars, I will have a product at the end of the day.” Right? But the HR people can’t do that. So they need to lobby and get support from their peers in the business line organizations to go allocate or lobby for resources.

Nikhil: Absolutely. That is fantastic advice. But shifting gears a little bit to your TikTok page, a lot of your content is around leadership advice, obviously you’re a leadership advisor. So now I wanna ask you, out of all of your insights on your TikTok page, or even you may not have published yet, what would you say is the most important thing for corporate leaders to keep in mind while managing their teams?

Chris: Absolutely. The most important thing is for leaders to remember that people are very frequently not driven by some of the things they think they are. Some people are driven by money. That is true. But most people are driven by wanting to participate in something that is worth doing. They want to wake up tomorrow morning and feel like they’re making a difference, whether it’s in the People Ops world or whether it’s in the product world, or whether it’s in…they wanna wake up and feel like they’re doing something. And one of the places I find many leaders fall down on is they have a vision for what the project or product or whatever they’re going to be doing, whatever the objective is for your organization. They have a vision in their head, but they don’t communicate it well enough. They don’t talk about it enough. They don’t make it the primary focus for their organization. A clear, crisp vision for what you’re trying to do in your organization. And I don’t care whether it’s the entire corporation or whether it’s the product side of the business, the HR side, I don’t care whether it’s your little tiny team that’s doing nothing but managing accounts payable. You need a vision for that organization that says, “This is what we’re trying to accomplish. These are the exact steps we’re gonna take to get there. This is what it’s gonna look like.” So that everybody cannot only be aligned but point to that, call each other out on it. When you’re not making progress towards it, you can better hire people because you’ve got a vision. It’s easier to hire someone when you can say, “This is what this organization is trying to do. Don’t you want to be a part of it?” It’s easier to performance manage people. You’re not headed towards the same vision that I am, so it’s a problem. Having this clear, crisp vision for what you’re trying to accomplish in your vision and using it all the time, communicating it, holding people accountable for it, and taking every single decision made with that vision in mind. If you do that, it completely changes the way the organization works. And that, to me, is the most important thing for all leaders to keep in mind.

Nikhil: Absolutely. And before you’re able to align your team on that vision, you have to build that team out, which is something that is pretty simple in theory but more complex in execution. So do you have any advice specifically for managers, leaders who are having to build out a team to work together? Whenever they’re hiring, what should they look out for? What goals should they set for themselves within the hiring process? Any insights you may have on that?

Chris: Well, I think one of the problems that people get stuck up on is, when they’re sitting down to interview someone, people tend to get their things wrapped around the axle around skills, right? They wanna find somebody who has the specific skill I’m looking for. I need someone who can write JavaScript. I need someone who’s handled, you know, can do pivot tables in Excel. I need somebody who can… They look at these incredibly narrow specific skills, and they’ll do things like tests for them to do, or they’ll do…and they’ll get completely hung up on the skills that someone has. The problem is those skills don’t matter tomorrow or next year, because the skill requirements change in every single operation all the time in every single business. So, I really think people should push away from the kinds of skills-based training or interviewing to looking more towards learning capabilities, towards has this person demonstrated in their life that they can be thrown into a new situation and figure out what it is they’re supposed to be doing and work on the next thing?

You can train someone how to do a pivot table. It’s very difficult to train someone how to be passionate and a learner, and wanting to better themselves and better their knowledge in the organization. It’s very hard to teach that latter thing to someone, but it’s so easy to test on skills, and look for skills. But it’s easy to teach people a skill. So, my admonition to everybody who’s hiring is look beyond the specific skills you’re looking for and look specifically for things like, are they a learner? Are they passionate about anything? It doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be passionate about what you’re doing, but can they demonstrate any kind of, you know, I’m absolutely fascinated by this or that, or, and something where you can even watch them talk endlessly about it. You know, I don’t care if it’s “BattleBots” or whatever it is, but do they have some kind of a gleam in their eye? Because that gives you an opportunity to say, “I’ve got a vision for you. Let me put a different gleam in your eye. Here’s a gleam in your eye for People Ops. Here’s a gleam in your eye for whatever the vision for your organization is.” But people who have, you know, who have a blank stare and no interest and no passion, and no…those people are gonna be really hard to motivate and really hard to get up off the couch to do something.

So again, and if you’ve got somebody who’s deeply passionate, teaching them how to do a pivot table isn’t that hard, right? “Okay, I got it. I’ll learn pivot tables.” Right? You can just hear them saying that in their mind. But if you have someone who’s not, you know, one of the things Microsoft has always been really good at is taking people who don’t necessarily have… You know, as I said, we had philosophy majors who were outstanding program managers and people with, you know, Greek studies degrees who were doing deeply technical projects because they were learners. They were thoughtful, they were smart, they were… And that’s what I think people should look for when you’re building out your team. What you want is a great group of people that you really can get excited together about something on.

Nikhil: Right. Don’t underestimate how far that, you know, fire and that passion to learn.

Chris: You bet. You bet.

Nikhil: Absolutely. So speaking of hiring though, and looking for that, through the hiring process, one of your recent TikTok videos addresses this. During the hiring processes, how companies treat candidates can be very telling. So what are some of your major red flags for candidates to look out for while they’re interviewing, while they’re going through this process?

Chris: Well, one of the things I think people underestimate is I think people give companies too much latitude or freedom to make the process complicated, difficult, and complex, because just sort of, that’s how it’s done. I think one of the things that is frustrating for hire or candidates, is an interview process that involves 17 different rounds of interviews. You know, I’ve gotta come in for 2 days now and then another day some other time, and we have, you know, 4 or 5 different, I mean, 17 interviews over 5 different rounds or whatever, or they’ve got incredible hoops to jump through. You’re gonna do a battery of these seven personality tests, and then you’re gonna do… What that tells me is that first of all, it’s highly likely that the company isn’t following the advice I previously gave, which is look for the kinds of things that are about learning and understanding, and passion and smarts, and those kinds of things, and is much more skills-based, because half of those tests are gonna be, you know, can you write a doubly-reversed link list, right? Or something like that.

But I think you should, in your mind, when you’re applying to an organization, think about the kind of organization that creates an incredibly complex, overly-detailed, you know, machine-driven hiring process is the kind of organization that has that kind of world throughout its organization. That’s how submitting your expense report is gonna be a ridiculous nightmare. Just the process of signing up for benefits is gonna be horrible and complex and terrible, and getting approval for anything is gonna take… So, in many ways, the hiring process can be a tell for what the culture of the organization is like in the first place. If the hiring process is complex or if it’s random and casual and, “Oh yeah, why don’t you come in on a week from Thursday and we’ll just have a chat?” You know, “Whoa, wait a minute, wait a minute.” You know, “Unless we’re a startup in the garage, that feels a little kinda wacky to me. Do you guys have any kind of processes for how this…”

So you can get a tell just from the hiring process. And I think you should remember that when the hair in the back of your neck stands up and makes you think about, “Geez, is this really the way this is gonna be?” You should think about, does that extend to the entire organization. Is that the culture of this place? And is that someplace you wanna be? If you’re a very loosey-goosey kind of person that in a loosey-goosey interview, then it could be great. If you are someone who appreciates process and projects and how those things work, then maybe you want someplace that is, you know, rigid and detailed. And I think you should… As I said, the hiring can tell you some of these cultural tells and you should listen to them.

Nikhil: Absolutely. Candidates need to remember that they’re also interviewing the company. They’re seeing if, you know, it’s a fit for them.

Chris: Exactly. And one of the TikToks I made was about what I called it, “Flipping the interview.” But I think you do yourself a complete disservice if you don’t ask some good quality-pointed questions of your hiring manager. Now, don’t ask the recruiter some of these questions, because the recruiter’s job is largely to take people off the list, right? The recruiter’s main job is to get rid of the fluff and present to the hiring manager the candidate, you know, 3 or 5 or 10 candidates that they want them to see. So don’t push back on the recruiter and don’t beat the recruiter up about the hiring process. The recruiter didn’t have anything to do with establishing the hiring process, but the hiring manager did, right, the people on their team. Or, you know, the hiring manager and the people who are gonna be your peers, you should ask them some good questions. “What do you like most about working here? What are the things that make you frustrated?” When you walk in on a Monday morning, what is the feeling you have when you walk in here? Ask a team member, “When you walk in on Monday morning, what do you feel like, What is that Monday morning feeling like? Are you excited and psyched for what you wanna do? Or are you dreading the 9:00 meeting you’re about to have?” Or, you know, I think you can ask those kinds of questions. The candidate certainly can ask those kinds of questions.

Nikhil: Absolutely. Great reminder for anyone watching this truly. Now, I kind of wanna move over to a topic that has gathered a bit of buzz, but let’s be real, has been a thing for a while. Quiet quitting. When organizations see a trend of people quiet quitting from their company, what are some notes and steps that HR and just the employer, in general, should take into account to hopefully stop that trend from progressing further?

Chris: Well, first of all, quiet quitting and its recent offshoot, quiet firing. I don’t know who comes up with these memes or where they come from and what the buzzwords around them are. To be honest, it feels a little bit like it actually came from the corporate world telling people, you know, accusing people of not being all in and not, you know. So, I resent the phrasing of all of that. I guess I would like to focus on either quiet quitting or quiet firing on the quiet part, right? If there is some quiet thing going on in your organization, that’s not the employee’s fault, that’s the manager’s fault. The manager is not communicating well enough so that there are things that are being held quiet. So, in the case of quiet quitting, the manager should know that the employee is frustrated and upset and chafing at the bit or burned out or whatever it is, for it to get all the way to the point where you’re gonna put a meme on it and call it “quiet quitting,” that’s the manager’s fault. That’s not the employee’s fault. They have not been doing good one-on-ones with their employees. They have not been trying to understand the environment and the culture of the organization that they’re leading. It’s their fault that it’s quiet. If people are quitting, whether or not actually, or just by not doing enough of the work, the quiet part is the part you should be focused on.

In addition, if you’re gonna quiet-fire somebody, that’s just, that goes against my number one rule in business. My number one rule in business is there should be no surprises, right? You should never surprise-fire someone, quiet-fire someone. You should never quiet quit. If you’ve got a problem with your business or with your job and the way it’s being done, you should be making that known. You should be sitting down with your manager and having a conversation that says, “Hey, I’m really burned out. What do I do about that?” You should feel comfortable in going to your manager. Your manager should make it so you feel comfortable. So, to me, in all of that, the more important problem is the quiet part, not the quitting part or the firing part, right?

Nikhil: So would you say that the whole concept of quiet quitting, quiet firing at its core is just negligence and a lack of accountability?

Chris: I don’t know if it’s a lack of accountability as much as it’s a lack of communication, right? Again, look, some jobs are frustrating. Some jobs are prone to burnout. Yeah, some jobs are boring or terrible, I mean, right? But, at least you need to have a conversation about what that job is. You need to figure out, “Okay, you know what? This job is mundane. And you know what we’re gonna do? We’re gonna have you work really hard on that for the next three weeks or three months or what, and then we’re gonna give you a break and change it up to do this. Or we’re gonna get Sally over here to do John’s job, and John’s gonna go over and do Sal-…” I mean, somebody needs to be having a conversation about what is causing people this pain. You can’t necessarily alleviate the pain, but at least if you acknowledge the pain, talk about the pain, figure out if there is anything you can do about the pain in all of these cases and in the case of quiet firing, which I just think is what a ridiculous phrase, that violates every rule I ever had about being a manager, right?

You should be having a conversation with someone about why their performance isn’t what you expect or what you want, or it’s all about… As I said, to me, the problem is the cohort. Communication is the big problem. You can’t fix some jobs, right? Some jobs… Cleaning out septic tanks is hard work, right? There’s just no way to make, you know… But you can fix the conversation around cleaning out septic tanks, and you can provide different incentives for cleaning out septic tanks, and you can make the job, you could have a contest who cleans out septic… I mean, there’s a bunch of ways to make the job not suck. And again, to me, the problem is the quiet part.

Nikhil: Absolutely. No, I love that you just defluffed [SP] the whole concept, the whole, you know, memefication, if you will, of quiet quitting, quiet firing. I love that. Absolutely. We are down to 10 minutes left though. So I do want to wrap up with more of a general question about HR as a whole. Perception of HR does vary drastically depending on who you’re talking to. You know, some may say, “HR is out to get you, HR is the work police,” so to say. While others may say, “Oh, HR is in your corner, they’re your safety net, and you should be able to rely on them.” So given your experience, how would you honestly frame HR’s role in a company?

Chris: This thing involves, you know, what perspective you’re looking at it from. If I’m sitting in the CEO chair and I’m looking down at my organization, what I wanna think about HR, I’d like to be able to think about them in sort of two frames. One is the frame that they’re commonly felt in, which is the, I mean, police is a lousy word, but to keep me outta court side of HR, which is to make sure that we don’t have anything that is terrible going on in the organization that will come back to bite us as a corporation later on. To make sure that we’re treating people in line with all the necessary rules and laws and regulations. And HR and legal together will work to make sure that we’re at the very minimum, staying legal in all these frameworks and treating people optimally with respect to the law, the rules and regulations, and DEI rules and everything else.

But the other thing I would like to be able to see if I was the CEO of a corporation when I look to my HR people, is in many ways the People Ops, as it were a side of the business, the training, the development, the growth. And the problem I see in so many HR organizations is that when it comes time to advocate for those things, when it comes time to advocate for more leadership development, training, more cross-organizational hiring, and cross-pollination of people, improving the hiring process so that we can get more people, like I was talking about earlier. When it comes to those kinds of things, what happens very frequently is the HR team is unable to present to the CEO any kind of clear case where that seems business-oriented and will help improve the business. Everyone intellectually understands that having a great team, people are our most important asset. CEOs realize and understand that, but it’s unclear in many cases how the HR team can advocate for that, how they can make that actually happen, how they can improve the people-asset side of the business.

So I think, a realistic perspective is whether you are in the business or not, I think everyone should be looking at HR to say, not only how can you be the cops in this organization, but how can you help me improve my organization? And very often that happens down at the leader-by-leader level. The HR organization person, the HR, you know, business partner, is it, we’re working with the line manager and helping them to understand exactly what they can do, showing them that they did this training course, and now everybody’s getting along better, those kinds of things. And once you can prove those at a small scale, you can prove them at a larger scale, you can improve them at a larger and larger scale.

So, I think one of the problems… I think that actually the core problem outside of the police function, which I think everyone admits, HR does have a role in that, right? Making sure that we don’t get sued. That’s a perfectly legitimate business consideration. But I think the biggest problem is that HR is a very fuzzy, non-metrics-driven organization. Whereas, every other side of most businesses is deeply metrics driven. And one of the solutions people do in HR is they come up with these metrics, and the metrics are fuzzy and random because people are fuzzy and random. It’s difficult to do. So again, this is always a challenge. I’m not sure it’s ever gonna get easy. I don’t know how… I mean, HR doesn’t do themselves any favors, because sometimes they talk about everything in all these very fuzzy terms. You know, when they’re sitting around the C-suite table and the product manager is demoing the next version of the product, and the salesperson is showing the next Ads and whatever, and then the HR person gets up and talks about, you know, fuzzy concepts and uses deeply psychological terms or even worse, sort of guru-like yoga terms or whatever, I mean, it makes the other people around the table roll their eyes at that.

So HR has to figure out what it really means to be of significant value to the organization and be able to outline that in specific and explicit terms. And that’s really hard. I’m not sure I have any secret sauce to make that work, right? I think tying it to the business in any way you can, will help you get metrics that make a difference. I think one of the things in a fairly large organization you can do is say, “This team works well because they do X, Y, and Z kinds of people things,” right? “This team doesn’t work well because they do X, Y, and Z people things wrong.” And be able to show those kinds of clear differences. But outside of that, HR is in a hard spot, right? The kinds of things they’re dealing with are hard to quantify, hard to define, hard to make clear why they matter to the business.

Nikhil: And I have a feeling that answer is going to inspire a lot of HR professionals to kind of reframe how they think about their entire day-to-day, which is great. That’s the whole point of this, right? To get people thinking about the whole role of HR as you know, in general, what HR does for a company. And I think that’s awesome. We are down to two minutes, so that will wrap up our second episode of “a Peek into People Ops.” I just wanted to give a huge thank you again to Chris Williams for being a part of it. All of Chris’s info on social media will be linked down below, so please do go check him out. Chris, do you have anything else you’d like to add before we sign off?

Chris: I am absolutely excited that you’re doing this. I think this is a wonderful opportunity for people to get a bunch of different perspectives into People Ops and I think it’s great that you’re doing it. Thank you for inviting me on.

Nikhil: Thank you for being a part of it. I really cannot thank you enough. And so, everyone watching at home, thank you so much for watching. Have a great rest of your day, and night, whenever you’re watching this. And we will see you next time.

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