Operator spotlight: HR leader Cindy Robbins

Looking for practical help and advice on an operational area that may be outside your realm? Each month we spotlight one of our talented operators, who’ll share their expertise and offer insights and ideas that may help improve your own operations. This month we spoke to Cindy Robbins, a leader in the HR and Talent space.

You’ve been an HR leader for quite some time. What drew you to that career? What do you enjoy most about the People function? 

CINDY: It’s been a journey; I certainly didn’t start out saying I want to run HR one day. It was more of an evolution where I defined my path as I went along. I moved to San Francisco after college and started at a small consulting firm, where I learned several functions from recruiting to sales. I slowly realized I really enjoyed the talent function, which led me to a few different employers, including Excite@Home during the boom, Plumtree Software, and BEA. While at BEA, a friend introduced me to Erin Flynn, Salesforce’s head of global recruitment at the time. And once at Salesforce I was hooked. I loved being in a role where I could influence how to help employees feel valued. When I became President & Chief People Officer, I woke up every day glad for a role where I worked first and foremost for our employees.  

Why are people and culture so vital and defining for an organization? 

CINDY: Employees are redefining the rules of the workplace. If you’re an executive and don’t understand that, you’re in big trouble. Without a great culture, you don’t have an engaged workforce. And if your employees are not engaged and doing their best work, you will not make your customers successful. I remember the days when companies focused solely on the bottom line, but now employees want more. They want to be heard and want to be able to influence how the company’s values are defined and the actions behind them. 

It’s important to note that defining a culture happens over time. Think about something like workplace equality; no one was talking about that 10 years ago. So while it may not have been part of a company’s original DNA, it has to be there now. Values change, and every CEO, board member, and leader needs to listen, ask questions, and seek advice on how to adopt the right behaviors and values that drive the company culture forward over time. 

A lot of companies have been in the news recently for their negative cultures. How does an organization repair a negative culture? Is it even possible?

CINDY: I do think companies who run into negative culture experiences can turn it around. It takes leadership, trust, accountability, and transparency, and it has to start at the top with the CEO, leadership team, and board. Companies have to prioritize people and culture, and not just with nice words in a presentation. A culture is defined via actions and behavior. 

If you look at some of the companies with negative press, it’s important to note that it was often the employees who brought the issues to light – so it’s vital for every leader to LISTEN to all stakeholders and give them a safe environment to speak the truth. How do CEOs know what’s truly going on inside their companies? Not from just what they hear from the top of the ranks, but from the individual employees living it every day. How does the leadership team stay close to the truth, where messages aren’t cleansed as they rise up to the top? 

You’re known as one of the originators of the Equal Pay movement at Salesforce and beyond. How has that experience changed you + what are some lessons learned? 

CINDY: Leyla Seka and I both championed the Equal Pay movement at Salesforce. We did it because we were listening inside the company – listening to other women and to each other. Given that we were both in positions of power, we felt it was our responsibility to speak up. We knew we were taking a risk, especially when some were trying to tell us not to do it. 

I walked away with an awareness of what my role was – not just as the head of HR, but as a senior executive, a leader, a woman, and a Hispanic. I had influence, and I learned I could use it in positive ways. That’s important for every leader to know – You have to take risks to drive transformation. You can’t operate in silence. It’s doing good in the world that shapes who you really are.

And the other thing I learned was how much more powerful Leyla and I were together, two women just trying to make a difference for other women. We were proud of the outcome and the progress that was made, yet there is more work to do. I hope more companies, CEOs, and boards continue to highlight equal pay in their companies and provide the transparency needed around this critical topic.

What’s one amazing insight no one knows about HR?    

CINDY: HR is one of the hardest and least understood roles out there. HR organizations are often given the smallest budgets to work with, which is ironic given how important talent and people are to any company. It can be an organization that lives in constant frustration. But if you have a strong HR organization, you know it’s one built on trust – They are strategic thinkers and good listeners, show empathy when appropriate, and spread influence in a positive way. Many view HR as the police. I can’t speak for all HR orgs, but the ones I’ve worked with are full of genuine people who work tirelessly to make employees feel safe, engaged, and successful.

What’s the most epic way you’ve seen someone quit?

CINDY: Exits are not fun to watch. Ever. There are so many different types of exits within a company. Here’s one thing that always infuriates me: When an exit was caused because the employee had a bad manager. For example, when I would see exits because a manager never gave constructive feedback or had honest conversations, or when they prioritized company politics over doing the right thing. That makes made my blood boil.

What are some of the formative jobs you’ve had? Like AOC always talks about the skills she picked up as a bartender, and others talk about what they learned working retail. What were some of those formative jobs for you?

CINDY: In high school I worked in retail, which taught me about the customer experience, working your way up from the bottom, and how to work with peers. It also taught me about the value of not just doing my job effectively, but the various behaviors it took to get the job done right. I think a job where you start at the entry level point is good for everyone. It teaches you about value, humility, ambition, and working with others. 

What are some business or non-business books you’ve enjoyed recently?

CINDY: I’m a big fan of anything by Brené Brown. Also Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence. And I love biographies; the last great one I read was Becoming by Michelle Obama.

What makes you roll your eyes every time you hear it?

CINDY: Any form of hypocrisy – when someone says one thing, but act differently. Also watching company politics win over doing the right thing.

What’s the one condiment you could never live without? 

CINDY: Salt. Can that count as a condiment? I love salty foods.

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