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Putting people development into the DNA of a company: Perspectives from a People leader

Dr. Vijay Pendakur shares insights in our People Developing People interview.

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Insights from Ellen Raim, Founder of People MatterWe focus more on solving than preventing People problems.

In a recent interview with Jason Lavender, Co-Founder & CEO of Electives, Dr. Vijay Pendakur, former Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion officer and now the Founder & Principal of Vijay Pendakur Consulting, shared insights on what companies are doing right and wrong when it comes to creating a connected workforce that values continuous learning and growth.

Within this conversation, Jason and Vijay discuss:

  • The benefits of creating intentional inclusion.
  • The design of People teams.
  • How AI will help People leaders become more strategic.
  • How to create careers vs. jobs.
  • Quantifying ROI to get an increased budget for People initiatives.
  • Ways to create connections amongst diverse teams.
  • The importance of staying close to the People experience, even as People teams grow.

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Jason Lavender, Co-Founder & CEO of Electives: Welcome Vijay. To get things started, can you share your background, what got where you are, and what you're working on today?

Dr. Vijay Pendakur, Founder & Principal of Vijay Pendakur Consulting: Sure thing, Jason. My career, like for so many, is not necessarily a coherent arc. I serendipitously happened to do this… and then I tried this… and I failed…and then I tried something different…and that's how my career story unfolds. Just like so many other people's stories.

But, when I think about the through-line in my career, it goes back to the light bulb turning on for me when I was a sophomore in college. I was getting healthy nudges from my parents that I needed to start contributing more to financing my college education, so I was looking for an hourly job on campus.

I was myopically fixated on what I needed, an hourly wage, and I heard they were hiring people in the computer lab. So I walked into the office of Susan Colorado (I still remember her to this day), and I was like, “Hi! My name is Vijay, and I hear that you're hiring for the computer lab, and I've got computer skills.” (P.S. I didn't actually have any computer skills, but I was ready to sell myself.) Susan looked up from her desk and said, “Why don't you have a seat.” And then she asked, “Where are you from? Tell me about you.”

Susan was a skilled student affairs practitioner in the collegiate space, so she worked with students outside of the classroom. When I walked into her office, she must have sensed a lost soul. I needed somebody to ask me, “Where are you from? How are you doing?”

I ended up getting the job in the computer lab, and Susan taught me to look at the people who came into the lab, which was in the campus multicultural student center, as having complex stories. She shared that many of the people there didn’t have their own computers, and they didn’t have strong computer literacy. (It was the 1990s.) So when they were in the computer lab trying to write their papers, they were often stressed out.

Susan explained to me that while I was working in the computer lab, I had the chance to help people feel supported and to feel like they belonged.

Foster belonging in your organization

Creating intentional inclusion can be very gratifying.

The computer lab job could have just been about unjamming the printer every day. But, instead, Susan positioned me as the face of welcoming, the face of inclusion. And that gave me the opportunity to experience what it’s like to help people feel included. When I did that successfully, it was gratifying.

I didn't have data or research behind it. At that time. I was 20, and making my hourly wage, but I had the visceral sense that it mattered, and that you can create inclusion if you're intentional.

That's been a through-line in my career. I went on to have a nearly 20-year career in higher education leadership. On six campuses across the country, I shaped many different parts of the student experience, including for veterans, at student support offices and career centers, and through to enterprise inclusion and diversity strategy, crisis response, academic advising, predictive analytic software. I touched just about everything you can in the co-curricular space. And then, I actually had a former student reach out to me to say, “My company is hiring for a culture and talent leader, and I think that you'd be a great fit.” 

I'd been getting the corporate itch. I was coming up on the end of my second decade in the collegiate space, and I really wanted a new set of challenges. And that’s how I landed at Zynga, which is a large mobile gaming company.

I ran a team that supported inclusion. We focused on emerging talent and collegiate recruiting social impact. All of our spend was in the space of lifting up communities and organizations that lived our social purpose. It was a really interesting cross-functional portfolio, and that launched the second chapter in my career. After Zynga, I went on to hold leadership roles at two other public companies.

I recently shifted gears again and started betting on myself. I've launched a consultancy and I am now working with many organizations as opposed to being in-house at one. I'm excited because there are so many organizations that need fractional help. Many companies really don't have the budget for a full-time partnership. My consultancy allows me to operate more like a sewing machine — moving in and out and injecting the magic of data, science and the people and culture background that I have, both as a social scientist by training and also as an operator. To be able to bring that to a lot of organizations feels really exciting to me.

Jason: That's awesome — huge congrats! The role of People leaders has shifted pretty dramatically in the past 20 years. What's your take in terms of what are the most impactful changes? And what are you even more excited about in the near future?

People teams need to be designed more intentionally to support organizational growth.

Vijay: This is such a potent conversation, because we're living through a disruption that cannot be understated. In 2020, every organization, at least for some period of time, shifted to fully remote if they could and then moved toward some sort of hybrid or remote-first strategy. And we're living in that disruption. That is pretty much the biggest change to the way humans experience work in 100 years, right? I think this puts a tremendous amount of pressure on People leaders.

I want to start with empathy for how difficult it is to run the People function — even in normal times. And then to lead through this disruption. Yes, it's exciting, and it's an opportunity to rethink some of the table stakes of what it means to have a People function. But, it was really hard for a really long time.

As the dust is settling, one of the things that I'm most excited about is the challenge of working with smaller and earlier-stage organizations. There's this plateau in the growth curve of the People function that happens because you're headcount constrained. Most of the time, you are drip-fed headcount from the workforce planning side of the business in response to reactivity or crisis. The People team is rarely proactively given healthy amounts of headcount to think carefully and build the People function so that we're future-proofed. That is the dream, but it is not the reality. 

To get from a People team of one to 30 is often a chaotic pell-mell scrum of reacting to moments of growth and then moments of tightening up. And you’re left with an organization where the array of People assets is not really organized against an idea of human-centered design.

We think of the People team as architects of the People experience. They build the ecosystem so that it is designed for the humans that inhabit it. If we approach this with some amount of future-readiness and intentionality, we would probably organize differently than People teams get organized through a reactive organic-growth pattern.

This is the inflection point that we're at, because we're oftentimes hitting these plateaus in the maturation of the People function. When you're organized idiosyncratically against how you grew, and everybody is working at capacity or over-capacity, you're redlining. You're overclocking. Your team's constantly burned out, and innovation can't come unless something changes.

AI will help People teams become more strategic.

There needs to be either a windfall of new headcount or the unlock that I think we're about to experience (or are already experiencing, depending on what kind of an organization you're in) with generative AI and large language models changing the way People teams work.

A fair amount of the calories in a People organization right now go to manual and routine processes that will soon be automated through generative AI, bots, intuitive learning and adaptive tools. If you could repossess 30% of the calories of a team that's at an inflection point, there could be a really interesting shift. And what do you do with those calories?

I don't know a single People leader of a complex organization that's not looking for generative AI to unlock their capacity constraints. What you do with those calories is the next question. When I advise organizations on the talent and culture side, I always look for areas where they've been stuck.

Often, they haven't had a chance to actually operate using design thinking, using an agile model of building systems that collect dynamic leading indicator data, that allow iteration toward business outcomes. People leaders know this methodology, but they haven't lived this methodology. The theory-to-practice gap is huge in this space, because the People team is generally constrained.

There's been a lot of chatter that generative AI may actually unlock a considerable amount of People time to do higher-level work. If we free up 20 to 30% of the calories for us to become architects of the People experience, for us to rewrite the code of the People operating system, how do we do this in a way that actually moves HR toward a decision science? How do we set up the systems that give us real-time, drip-fed data that functions as leading indicators to iterate processes and regularly package value for the business?

That's a very different value proposition than the current state of many People functions in early- and middle-stage organizations.

Jason: It's super exciting. I know it's early days for your new practice, but do you expect fractional People leadership to fill reactive needs or proactive strategic design roles?

People teams will become more proactive as they become more strategic.

Vijay: I'm hoping we end up with the latter. In the beginning, I think there's going to be a bunch of reactive plays as we adjust to a new normal.

When one paradigm ends, a new paradigm begins. But there's this liminal period where people operate out of the old paradigm, even though the political economy has completely changed. So we're going to behave the way we used to behave for a while, and that's just one of the unfortunate realities of humans. We don't change our own operating systems in response to major technological or structural shifts overnight. Our ways of being and knowing and doing persist from the old way for quite a while, even when we have supposedly adopted a new paradigm.

So yes, in the near term, there's going to be some scurrying and some scrambling. But as we move toward incrementally freeing up more and more People time to move up Maslow's pyramid toward self-actualization as a function, we’ll start to get more proactive engagements. People will start asking, “How do we partner with fractional strategy leaders who have the reps and the cycles and human-centered design experience to look at performance management?”

Performance management is like the albatross and the promised land for almost every early- and middle-stage organization. It's something that needs to be better. They've tried many times to make it better, and yet a lot of times, it's where the gray hairs are coming from.

Just within decision science around performance management, there's a huge theory-to-practice gap. In the way that we build performance management data collection, in the way we prepare people to participate in performance management processes, and then in the feedback loop, which oftentimes doesn't even exist. 

The metadata that you could collect out of performance management could be packaged into insights that actually allow you to re-engage and retrain your people leaders, so that the next performance management cycle is different than the last. Very few companies are spinning that flywheel.

Companies that show up again and again as leading in the talent space are giving people careers, not jobs. For the early- and middle-stage organizations that I'm coaching and consulting, we’re trying to move these People motions toward actually giving careers. We really have to look at these core People rhythms and think about how we fundamentally redesign them to be agile. That takes a lot of capacity that needs to be unlocked through the adoption of new tools.

Jason: That is a perfect segue into something we're super passionate about at Electives: learning and development. There are companies who are really good at developing their people and companies who struggle at developing their people. What do the companies that are doing well have in common?

Companies that create careers (vs. jobs) build the process into their DNA.

Vijay: There are organizations where how you manage a team, and your proof points that you actually manage your people toward growth and career acceleration, never comes up in the interview process. The people management side of it is just sort of left off the table as part of the interview loop. What they really focus on is what you are bringing in terms of your niche knowledge or your subject matter expertise.

And then there are organizations where, from the first interview forward, the narrative is people leadership. In these organizations, they do not allow people to lead people unless they are committed to developing people.

From day one, when you engage with people who are applying to be people leaders, the energy that they put toward developing talent, retaining talent and growing talent on their team is considered a business imperative.

Great organizations that do people development well have this built into their DNA.

The best way to be an organization that gives people careers and not jobs is to hire people leaders that do that from the start.

A lot of organizations add talent development or talent management too late. They've grown organically and are finally at a point where they're able to think less reactively, and now they’re building out their People operations function. Suddenly, they’re going, “Okay, what we noticed in our people data is that people come here, they do really great work, and at about the two-and-a-half year mark, they leave. How do we fix this?”

That's where a lot of organizations are. And what they do then is charge the People team with fixing the problem. This is a setup to fail. The People team cannot evangelize a shift to the business that is not in the business DNA. There's no L&D program to fix this.

You can’t roll out a talent management strategy or turn on the IDP plan in your HRIS and suddenly say “everybody use this” and expect that the problem's going to be fixed.

If people development is not in your company's business DNA, or you don’t have the people who run P&Ls and manage teams actually treat every single person on their teams — especially your high performers — as needing to have a growth plan in place, to have a mentor and a sponsor and a coach, to be on a trajectory toward a promotion if they want it, or moving to a different function within the business, then you’re not building careers.

The difference maker is the way that people leadership and people management is positioned as a business imperative versus an afterthought. Hiring for that is the best way to make sure that this is a membrane that sits across the business.

If you're an organization where the business is largely churn and burn, and you are managing the task, the goal, the revenue or any number that you're trying to hit, and you don't develop people, you can't fix this through HR. You can't fix this through People operations.

The executive team needs to have a coming to truth around how the COO, the President and the CEO are going to re-engage the executive leadership on the business side to fundamentally change the culture. And then, once the momentum is there and the willpower is there, the People team can add the expertise, the shaping influence.

The People team cannot generate the commitment. That's oftentimes the mistake in an organization that's trying to move from bucket one to bucket two. “Okay, we don't do talent development. Well, we want to be one of those organizations that does it. Well, hey, People team, fix the problem.” That's not going to happen.

Jason: It's so true. What you just said is gold, and it feels so obvious, but I've never heard it articulated that way. 

When have you found that it's an easier process to invest in the human capital, and when do you find that People teams won’t get the budget?

Increasing the budget for People initiatives is easier when the ROI is quantifiable.

Vijay: Human capital spend shows up in the accounting sheet as an operating expense. Particularly for publicly held companies, OpEx is the difference between top-line and bottom-line revenue. This is a design problem of the way companies are set up from the accounting documents forward.

So, first and foremost, you're facing headwinds in the form of people being OpEx. Knowing that, how do we then think clearly about being able to draw a dotted line or a solid line from the OpEx spend to the bottom line?

Where you often see this done more easily is in product development teams or sales teams that are able to point very clearly from the work that they do and the head count that they have and the way that they are contributing to the bottom line.

Where this gets really murky, and you're even lucky to have dotted lines, is the G&A units, the central teams, the corporate teams. So HR, marketing, legal and a lot of the functions really get compressed during tough times, they're often times called “cost centers.” These are the units that have a bigger challenge connecting their work to the profit margin. Sometimes the line is very circuitous.

For the People team, what ends up happening is they say, “Hey, we bring so much magic to this company.” And during tough times the CFO's team says, “Okay, let's talk about that magic… How do you know?” And the People team says, “Well, we generate magical beams of light that shine into all these other places, and they're successful. And then, therefore, we claim royalties off of their success.” 

Some of the challenges around People team ROI is that it's not linear for the People team to speak to its impact on the profit margin. The reason that John Boudreau's framework of HR as a decision science is so helpful is not only to improve the effectiveness of HR or People operations so that we are spending our resources well, but this approach also creates a a shift toward working in a data-driven and iterative way where you're adjusting your practices over time based on dynamic data feeds and focusing on leading indicators as opposed to lagging indicators.

Any process, from compensation and benefits planning all the way through to talent management and DEI, can be done in this way. Your ability to package up snapshots that actually measure the HR outcome value for the business is essential. 

Your ability to make strong correlations (or even causal justifications) for your talent management practices, and therefore the average tenure of high-potential employees, can earn you durable budget. If you extend your high-potential group's tenure within the organization by one-and-a-half years as a result of a set of practices, you can quantify that. There's a dollar amount that you can put on that in software companies. You're oftentimes thinking, “How do we hold onto our top engineers?” Particularly for smaller firms and middle-sized firms, there is this gravitational well that pulls engineers toward the FAANGs — the Facebooks, Apples, Amazons, Netflixes, Googles. And your ability to hold your top engineers is really important to the company's success. You can actually quantify this.

It’s about moving from the programmatic evolution of HR, where it's like, “Hey, we do these things, and we think they're nice” to “we run a set of businesses, and our customer is the employee, and here's the way that we built in the real-time data modeling to understand our impact on the customer experience” and then packaging that for the CFO the same way that the go-to market teams package up data for the CEO,

A helpful evolution of the HR function will amplify the truth that talent is the best asset class, particularly during tough times.

Jason: Amazing. I want to switch gears from development to connection. Connection can happen in a variety of places in the workplace. What do you think about fostering connection? And how do you build strategies to make sure people are feeling connected to each other and the business mission?

Diverse teams require intentional connection building.

Vijay: I'm so happy you're asking me about connection, Jason, because this is an area of really deep curiosity for me. I've been digging into social science research on human connection. Not surprisingly, there is a pretty big theory-to-practice gap in how we are operationalizing connection at work and what the research tells us about human connectedness as a variable that can be understood in a much more scientific way. 

I was doing this work when I was in-house, and now I do this work with a number of organizations. It is actually helping reskill the leadership layer around harnessing the science of connection and the power of connection.

At a high level, many organizations don't actually have an operating system for connection. 

You can see this when you ask questions.

I was working with a sales team that pulled folks together for a two-day off site. I went in, IRL, to work with them. It was the end of the second day, and the conference room looked really lived in, so I asked the question, “How have you used this time as a team?” They replied, “Oh, we've been heads down. We've been in this room eight hours yesterday and another eight hours today. We went out for a really nice dinner last night. You're helping us close out.”  That told me there was a missed opportunity.

Fancy dinners do not actually deliver on connection. It's an over-relied-upon feature in the connection engine. 

There are two pathways to connection that are important to understand. One pathway is around plexes, which is a social science term for commonality. If you and I both love Lord of the Rings, single malt scotch and acoustic guitars, we could probably get really close to each other really quickly. We would have multiplexes and a multiplexic relationship, which means multiple points of commonality. And that's an accelerator for connection.

If you think about your life and your friendships, there's oftentimes multiplexic relationships defining your friendships. You have multiple things in common and that speeds up the time horizon to trust and vulnerability and having a good lifelong friendship. 

The thing is, when you actually build complex and diverse teams at work, you cannot over rely on multiplexic relationships to generate connection. The conundrum here is what happens when you're looking to harness the power of diversity to feed innovation and creativity.

The empirical science is really clear that diverse teams do innovation and creative tasks better consistently, especially when they're psychologically safe. But diverse teams may not have as many simple plexes in common, because they have radically different lived experiences. They're globally distributed. They're gender-diverse, class-diverse, language- diverse, religious-diverse. So you can't fall back on the simplicity of multiplexic relationships unfolding just because of a fancy dinner.

There is an awareness and a skill gap around the way managers lead, because you largely are managing teams toward connection the way you were managed toward connection.

The work I do with teams is around harnessing the science of mutuality. Mutuality is a playbook around how you build measurable connection without over-relying on simple commonality as the driver toward trust and vulnerability.

So what are the behaviors that unlock vulnerability loops between people, so that trust and reciprocity can be achieved without having as much in common? When I think about some of the best work relationships that I've had, where we've done the best work of our lives, I didn't actually have a ton in common with some of those core collaborators. But, we did have mutuality. We understood each other's reason for being. We understood each other's pressure points. We understood each other's fears and anxieties around that project or the business transformation. In that vulnerability loop, we actually moved toward a level of reciprocity and trust that created a deep sense of connection without there being a shared love of Tolkien, guitars or single-malt whiskey.

This is the kind of coaching I do for organizations that are looking to deepen their toolbox around driving connection, which is how we reskill managers around harnessing the science of mutuality.

If you actually invest in building complex and diverse teams, you end up in the tougher space where the team doesn't naturally all say, “Oh, we all love the Green Bay Packers, therefore we can get along.” That's not going to happen on a team that represents the complexity of the stakeholders you're trying to serve. This is where the science of connection pays off.

There are other tools in this toolbox around the power of novelty as a driver for connection. There are so many fun things to do in this space that are really rewarding and fun for teams to invest in.

Jason: Vijay, I have one final question. What advice do you have for someone leading People teams today? What words of wisdom do you have for someone in shoes similar to yours at any type of organization?

People leaders must stay close to the People experience to succeed as their teams grow.

Vijay: My closing advice to anyone leading a People team in this inflection point, where so much is changing around us, is that setting up a strategy for dynamism or agility is one of the best investments you can make in your success as a People leader.

One of the things that reduces agility for a People leader is not having really good loops where you're able to receive quick experiential data from your customers or your stakeholders. As the complexity of your operation grows underneath you, it distances the People leader from the organizations that they're supposed to serve.

Creating mechanisms to bring you really close to the customer experience, or employee experience, and then back to leading the People team and then really close to the customer experience and back to the People team will keep you, as the People leader, attuned to the first principle of human-centered design, which is a deep awareness of the customer journey.

That’s the best advice I can give People leaders in this time of tremendous volatility and uncertainty.

About Dr. Vijay Pendakur

Dr. Vijay Pendakur helps people and organizations thrive. A true multi-sector organizational leader, Vijay has held Vice President and C-level roles at three companies: Zynga, VMware and Dropbox. He has also served as the Robert W. and Elizabeth C. Staley Dean of Students at Cornell University. In his time at Cornell, he was named Presidential Advisor for Diversity and Equity, as part of a new approach to campus-wide transformation at the largest Ivy League institution.

Vijay also brings strong domain expertise in student success strategy to his work, having served as Associate Vice President for Student Success at California State University – Fullerton, where he led enterprise retention and graduation efforts at one of the nation’s premier regional universities. His 2016 book, “Closing the Opportunity Gap” represents one of the few book-length works on identity-conscious student success tactics, and is still used by campus leaders today to inform strategy. Dr. Pendakur serves on the institute teaching faculty of the Race and Equity Center, at the University of Southern California, and was recognized as a top DEI leader by Channel Futures in 2021 and Untapped in 2022. 

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