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The CHRO’s Growing Role at the Leadership Table

A conversation with Dan Spaulding, Chief People Officer at Zillow
September 2021

As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in 2020, Dan Spaulding, chief people officer at the online real estate marketplace Zillow, learned quickly that the best crisis management he could do as HR head was to stay focused on the long term. Rather than worrying about when life would go back to normal, he and the executive team kept an eye on how employees could thrive going forward, even if life did not return to normal.

“Sitting in this seat, it is possible to pull up and say, ‘OK, where is this issue really going, and what is the right thing to do to help our employees the most?’” Spaulding said. “Then you design backwards to the tactics of what you need to go and do next. I don't know that I would have articulated crisis management in the same way pre-pandemic.”

We sat down for a virtual conversation with Spaulding, the latest in our series of interviews with some of the leading CHROs on their career paths and how they led during the crisis. Our interview below has been edited for brevity.

I went to graduate school right from undergraduate and got my Master's in HR and labor relations. After undergraduate I knew I wanted to get into business, and I wanted a profession where you didn't do the same thing day in and day out. I love the challenge of people and all of the wonderful complications that we bring to the workplace. I don't know that I even fully comprehended what a CHRO was, but I always took the approach that I wanted to be working for future-focused enterprises. I was in grad school in the late 90s, during the transition from traditional industries to tech and biotech, and I really wanted to be at the center of that change. It started with my internship at Dell, working with senior leadership there.

In a lot of ways, I feel like I bridged two generations of HR talent. At the start of my career, I was learning from people who had grown in very structured development environments. Since then, I've spent the last 20 years in the modern HR environment — high-tech, fast-moving, less structured. I was fortunate early on to have senior leaders who recognized that if you want to be a CHRO, you need broad-based experiences: compensation, HR business partner, recruiting, diversity, etc. From the start I had an eye on how many differentiated experiences I could get in my career.

I had some mentors who told me that I would have to make bold career moves to become CHRO at a substantively sized company. So, I’ve made some bold moves, and I learned a lot in those. They’ve not always been easy, but they were definitely worth it.

Every company has its own nuanced calculus of what it needs in top roles, but I think the people who are best positioned for senior roles have career experience that stands out compared to their peers. I think three pieces of my background really prepared me.

First was an expat assignment early in my career, building out Dell's engineering operations across Asia. Living and working in Shanghai was a monumental experience, in all the big ways you’d expect that assignment to be a life-changer for a person and their family. It was also important in many nuanced ways I didn't fully appreciate until I became CHRO. It was the first time in my life that I was the different person in the room every day. I had to learn to navigate a situation where your style and approach are different than the cultural norms. It was a little overwhelming at the time, but 15 years later I reflect on some of that now at Zillow in our work on equity and belonging. Of course, I can't compare my experience to those that a lot of our employees bring to work. But I found an appreciation for it early in my career and it shaped how I moved forward.

Second, was my role at Life Technologies as chief of staff and head of HR, M&A. Working in an M&A environment married what I love the most in HR: that intersection of talent and employee connection, compensation, and business strategy. I learned how to bring these pieces together in interesting ways, how to do deals, what deals not to do, how to integrate businesses, and what can go wrong when you integrate businesses. Many HR people don't get that experience early in their career. Maybe they're not close to the corporate development team, or they don't have the foundational experiences in compensation to play a big role in designing an earnout plan or understand the people strategy implications of an integration.

Third was my very intentional decision to move, when we sold Life Technologies, to Seattle to work for Starbucks. I wanted to work for a company that had a deeply rooted mission-driven culture — I think this is the future of business — and what better place to learn that than Starbucks. My whole career to that point had been in high-tech and biotech. I wanted to see a different slice of working America, and Starbucks certainly did that. Being a leader in a business with 8,000-plus stores, 125,000-plus partners and that operated at huge scale with a high level of care for employees — that was profound.

Zillow had been a startup, had had an IPO, and was acquiring other businesses, but had never had a senior executive leading HR. They had a great HR culture with a lot of talent, but they needed someone to take them to the next level. I had experience in a mission-driven culture, and experience with the HR nuances of M&A.

Number one is, when in doubt, focus on the long term, on what you think is the right outcome to drive to. When we realized that the world wasn't snapping back overnight, we really dedicated ourselves to figuring out how can we create the most clarity and provide the most stability for our workforce possible. And that's where we became one of the earlier companies to say we're not going back to the office the way that we had been in the office before. We're going to reinvent the way that we work, and we were going to create clarity for our employees in 2020, exactly what that meant for them and their jobs.

That was a huge lesson to me personally. Sitting in this seat, it’s possible to pull up and think long term about what the impact will be on employees, and what’s best for them. Then you design backwards to the tactics you need for the next step. I don't know that I would have articulated crisis management in the same way pre-pandemic.

The real decisions are coming up soon for business leaders. How fast are you bringing people back? If you said you're going to be more flexible, what does that really mean? If you hired people who have never been to your office, what does that mean for eventually bringing them in? How are you going to become an organization that recognizes human needs from a belonging perspective, from a societal justice and equity perspective, or even just from the recognition that for more than a year we’ve seen everybody's children and pets, and their good days and their bad days?

I worry that a lot of organizations are just waiting to say, "We’re all vaccinated, let’s get back to it. The world was great the way it was." But the world needs to be a lot better coming out of the pandemic. As stewards of our enterprises, we need to be more proactive. You got to have a plan for that, and it goes back to what I saw in the pandemic: You have to think long term about how the trends we're seeing are going to play out, and then how you are going to rise to that challenge. You can’t just assume everything will go back to normal. Because I’ll say this, I'm never commuting the way that I commuted again.

I don't pretend to have all the answers. Nor does Zillow. But I know that we're not going to wait on rethinking everything.

Empathy is the characteristic that got people through the pandemic. The leaders that displayed authentic empathy in situationally appropriate ways have really had a broader impact than they may ever realize. These leaders understand that yes, obviously we need to keep our business thriving, but they also see that we must take care of people in different ways. Leaders who showed care and still drove their results, those were the leaders that really made the difference. And I think those will be the leaders that are going to be in demand in the future, because as work continues to evolve and change, it's going to be connection, it's going to be engagement, it's going to be care. I think that's what's exciting for HR as a profession.

I spent 20 years listening to different panels and conferences talk about how to get HR to the table. HR is never not going to be at every single table in corporate America ever again.