Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
April 30, 2021

Using Curiosity as a Coaching Tool

The path to HR leadership for Gabriela McManus, SVP of people operations at the alcohol e-commerce site Drizly, started with her one of her college majors, cultural anthropology. Then, in rising the ranks in her first job in sales, she was able to tap into her passion for the topic, and for leading and helping people.

“I loved learning how your experiences shape how you interact with the world,” McManus said. “The company where I worked was growing fast and doing a lot of hiring, and I loved thinking about the ways that we were hiring people, the types of questions to ask to identify the best fit for a role, and how you could help those people do their best once they joined the team.”

At Drizly, McManus’s impact cannot be understated, said the company’s CEO and co-founder Cory Rellas. As the leader of the HR function at the fast-growing startup, which was acquired by Uber in February 2021 for $1.1 billion, McManus was a pivotal presence in establishing Drizly as a people-centric business. She led efforts to help the founders define the company’s DNA, purpose, mission and values.

“Strategically, if we have this as our mission, what decisions do we need to make and who are the people to get us there?” Rellas said. “The biggest thing she did was force us to define who we are, what we care about and what we want to become. And once we had that, I think the investment in people became a natural outgrowth of all of this work.… If I could do it again, I would have Gabriela or what she represents at Drizly from day one.”

We recently interviewed McManus as part of our series of interviews with CHROs about their paths to the position and the skills that guided them. In our interview below with McManus, edited for brevity, we talked about her path to HR leadership, Drizly’s acquisition by Uber, and her advice for aspiring HR leaders.

How did you end up on the “CHRO path”?

As I started managing people, I really enjoyed the coaching aspect, helping people find that thing that could help them unlock a different way of looking at the problem or a different way of doing the job.

I was really proud that my team had the most people on a leadership track. As a result, I had ended up creating an unofficial leadership development track, which in a way became my side job. Even then, I still thought HR was just compliance and regulations. But when I would sit down with our HR team, I noticed how what really excited them were how they could develop the people, how they worked to find the right people for the right jobs, how to best coach someone, and how to manage personalities. I found such a richness in the dialogue. I felt like that really satisfied what I loved about cultural anthropology and psychology.

The work I had done at that job led to my next job in the tech space, at a company where many of the people I had trained ended up. The role was all about leadership development. I was so excited to have this role at a place with a truly culture-forward culture — with clear values and an expectation that you find people aligned to your purpose and your mission. I learned there the power of being intentional about the culture that you're creating at work, about finding the best people and then giving them that autonomy and letting go.

Why do you think you gravitated toward leadership development?

To me, there's such power in leadership development because the ripple effect of great leadership is just massive. My curiosity just got the best of me. I learned that if you can unlock the best from your people, if you can really help people in pivotal moments in their careers, you’ll increase the value to their lives as much as the value they're bringing to that company.

The hard thing with leadership development is that it's easy when things going wrong to point to poor leadership or a lack of leadership development. But when things are going well, there are so many variables involved that oftentimes people don't name leadership as a top thing—even if it is.

What was your biggest learning from the COVID-19 pandemic?

I think one of our first learnings was just, as much as you try to prepare for things, you may not be able to get ahead of it. Allow yourself some grace to say, "We're going through a tough time. We're going to do the best that we can. And we're going to communicate it."

One other thing we learned early on is that that we had to be a little more prescriptive with our managers. I think you can tell people all day to create space for themselves and find balance, but we had to help our managers have that conversation effectively.

In February 2021, Uber announced that it would acquire Drizly. How are you preparing your workforce for the acquisition?

There are a lot of us working on this. Our approach has been transparency. Prior to the announcement, we tried to think through all the potential questions, and prepped FAQs so after the announcement people could sit and read through the questions and answers once the shock had worn off. We have a culture of continuous feedback and we encourage questions. Typically during an acquisition, it is the fear of the unknown that can cause tension. By being intentional in our communications and in gathering feedback, we can ease concerns and prepare people for this event.

The Uber team has been phenomenal and has shared its appreciation for our culture. With that being said, we are not looking to maintain our culture. Our approach has always been to authentically evolve our culture as we advance towards our overarching purpose, “To be there when it matters. Committed to life’s moments and the people who create them.” As we prepare for this next chapter, we have the opportunity to think through the key aspects that have brought us to this moment, while also taking a hard look at some of the aspects that we want to shed as we continue to grow.

We operated as a “startup” for quite some time, and we recognize that being a company that can “stay up” and thrive requires a different muscle. We have an opportunity to think in abundance and approach our work differently.

What advice would you give an HR leader aspiring to become a CHRO?

The first thing I’d say is that you need to care about the business. You always have to remember that we're a business first, and that people are your greatest assets. The better you know the business, the better you understand the goals, then you'll do a better job of being able to match people and organize the work or just help shape the organization in a way to accomplish those goals.

The other thing I would say is to constantly be learning. You want to have that “rookie mindset” of someone who is constantly learning and growing, and then model that for your entire team. Be willing to ask questions, and if you see opportunities to make things better and more efficient, don't be afraid to step up.