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Tracy Keogh, 3-Time HR Executive Of The Year

Going beyond the administrative duties of HR is what you need to do if you want to be a strategic HR leader. Tracy Keogh has done just that. She's gotten herself into the mindset of reinvention and reinvented everything from culture to management in almost every company she's worked. She has placed people front and center. She has worked with and supported many great CEOs and helped develop hundreds, if not thousands, of world-class leaders. Her HR colleagues now lead HR at 40 different companies. She's worked for Sapient, Analog Devices, Bloomberg, Hewitt, Hewlett Packard, and more. She now works for Great Hill Partners as the Chief People Officer and Growth Partner. Join J.R. Lowry as he talks to Tracy about her journey into HR. Discover how she went from working in a bank to leading the HR function at HP and being named HR Executive of the Year 3 times. Hear her thoughts on leadership qualities a CEO should have in today's business landscape. Find out the importance of strategic HR today!

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Tracy Keogh, 3-Time HR Executive Of The Year

On Supporting 8 CEOs, Bringing A Strategic Approach To HR, And Looking Ahead To The Future Of Work

Today I have the pleasure of welcoming my longtime friend Tracy Keogh to the show. Tracy is Chief People Officer and Growth Partner for Great Hill Partners, a private equity firm based in Boston. She started her career with the Bank of New England. She spent roughly seven years in the hospital administration space and has since spent the bulk of her career since then in human resources. She started recruiting at Arthur D. Little and acted as Head of HR for an IT consulting firm, Sapient, which is now part of Publicis, as well as for chip manufacturer Analog Devices, Bloomberg, HR consultant Hewitt Associates and HP.

Along the way, she has supported some great CEOs and worked alongside a number of talented executive-level leaders in each of these organizations. She has also served on the Board of Directors of Cisive, an HR services firm. She has earned a number of HR industry awards, including being named HR Executive of the Year three times and HR Department of the Year in 2019 while she was at HP.

She has served on the board of several industry trade associations and co-led a task force on the Future of Work for the World Economic Forum. She was named one of the 50 most powerful women in tech in 2016. She earned her Bachelor's Degree in Psychology from Smith College and an MBA from Harvard Business School. She and her husband live in Boston.

Every time I do one of these things, Tracy, I feel somewhat like a slacker compared to some of the people that I've interviewed so far who have done amazing things in their careers. You're certainly no exception to that.

Thank you so much, JR. It's nice to be here.

We'll have some fun. Let's start with the question I ask everybody on the show. What was your first job and how old were you then?

My first official job was working for the Adele Austin Babysitting Service when I was in high school. I started as a teenager and worked consistently. Going through the agency, I was able to make a lot of money and learn some early lessons about reliability, dealing with difficult customers, and managing tough situations because you have to have your wits above you. You never know [in advance] what you're doing. You're sent out by an agency and you don't know if you're going to have 3 kids or 5 kids or what their issues are going to be or their ages. It was a great training ground to be able to begin a working career.

Those first jobs, you always learn something from. I mowed lawns, and I learned how to maintain a lawnmower. I’m not sure that that's had a whole lot of utility in my post-college life, but I still do know how to maintain a lawnmower. How did you end up deciding to go to Smith and why Psychology?

In high school, I thought I would be a psychologist. I went and did the usual tour of colleges. It was funny, when I stepped onto the campus at Smith, I felt incredibly comfortable, like, "This is my place." I was lucky to go to an all-women college. I didn't realize at the time the positive start it would give me. I loved my years at Smith. The nice thing was I spent my junior year at the University of Geneva so I had a co-ed experience then.

There was something for me about being in an environment where the president of the class was a woman or the head of the newspaper was a woman. I became a senator. I never thought, “I can't do that.” [I thought], "I can do anything." It gave me a lot of confidence. I had a great time there. Some of my closest friends that I made came from Smith. It was a great school for me. I still work with Smith now. I help them with recruiting and other things. I'm an active alum.

I've done a little bit of that over the years but not so much lately. How did you end up at the Bank of New England following graduation? What were you looking at?

If you remember back in the day when I graduated, there wasn't the same intensity to get a job that the kids have now. I stood on the front lawn and played frisbee my whole senior year. I remember making fun of the girls going to the Career Development Office. I didn't know what I wanted to do. I think I wanted to go on to get a PhD and be a psychologist at that point, but you had to do research before you did that. Those jobs didn't pay well.

 

CSCL 12 Tracy | Strategic HR

Tracy Keogh: If you have a font of knowledge in HR, go into HR. Not many business people go into HR, especially if you're from HBS, and it creates a lot of opportunities.

 

I got to Boston and moved in with my friends. I went to a placement agency. I interviewed at the Bank of New England and an advertising firm. My dad was in advertising so my childhood was a little bit like Mad Men. My dad was the head of advertising at Revlon, and then he had his own agency. I somehow decided I liked the Bank of New England and took that job. I was quickly promoted and ended up creating training manuals and doing all this stuff. I worked in trusts and estates and it ended up being interesting for me.

You took a turn and you ended up in hospital administration, which I assume was linked to [your husband] Joe's time in medical school.

I had worked at the Bank of New England and I took a class at night in trusts and estates because it was interesting. I got to be the one that took minutes of the trust meetings of the bank. I'd go in there and listen to these crazy stories about the wild families doing damage to each other. At the end of every meeting, it was like, “They got $10 million so they're a nice family.” It was all these interesting stories.

I took a trust course and the guy who taught it was at Boston Safe Deposit and Trust Company. They recruited me over there. I went to work there for a few months and then I realized, “I don't see my future in banking.” They were being nice about saying, “You could be a banker one day.” I decided to move back to New York where I was from to live with my parents so I could take a research job and apply to PhD programs in Psychology.

One of those jobs ended up being at a New York hospital working with one of the pediatricians. I took an assistant job. He said, “We'll do the research on the side. You can use that to write your application for your PhD program and get the experience you need.” I like running things, so I became a hospital administrator and that's where I met my husband who at that point was doing his residency. I worked in the Pediatrics Office where they were training all the residents, and the Residency Office. Joe got accepted to a fellowship out in California so we moved from New York to California. I was a hospital administrator there for five years and did a lot of exciting things.

The PhD idea went away and you decided ultimately to go to Harvard Business School. How did that decision unfold for you?

[While working in San Francisco], I started a whole bunch of different programs. I put in a mentorship program in the Department of Pediatrics and I was on a divisional level at that point. I started a training program because I was at the UC system at UCSF. There were more forms than anything. People didn't know how to manage grant money well so I created all these programs.

I remember at the end of the year reading the dean’s report that my boss would write. He was a departmental person. Everything he listed as his accomplishments were things that I had done, which made me furious. He was not a leader and the only thing he had that I didn't have was an MBA. I had never taken Finance or Econ or anything. I was self-taught. I was managing millions of dollars of grants at that point but I had figured it out on my own. I said, “I've got to get an MBA because I'm sick of this.”

At that point, we knew we were going to be moving to the Boston area because my husband had finished law school at night. He had done that for four years while working full-time as a physician. He's a doctor and a lawyer. He had gotten a job in Boston. If I knew what people did to get into business school, I never would have applied. I wrote my Harvard application in one day because the deadline was the next day. I remember it was thirteen essays. I locked myself in a room and wrote all thirteen. I only applied to BU and Harvard. I sent them in and that was it.

Interestingly, we moved to Boston and I did start taking Accounting and Finance at night at BU because I knew I was going to go in and not know anything. In those days, they didn't interview you at Harvard. I got a letter on the date that I would either be accepted or rejected and it said, “We want to interview you.” I thought they were going to ask me tricky business questions that I was going to fail because I didn't know.

I remember I got a new briefcase and a business coat. I was trying to look serious. The night before the interview, BU called me on the phone and said, “You're in.” I said, “At least I'm somewhere.” I went to the [HBS] interview and they found out that I was taking those classes at night, which I didn't know was a thing to do, but thank God I did it. They wanted to see if I was going to be able to keep up with the course load because of my different background. I always said I was a diversity admit in terms of my background.

 

[bctt tweet="People are the most important lever of a business." username=""]

 

Half the people at HBS said that they were diversity admit. It was a way to lower expectations.

I didn't know what [Investment] Banking was. I didn't know what consulting was. It was all new to me.

How did you end up at Arthur D. Little? I know you were trying to stay in the Boston area.

Some people plan out their careers. I just go, “Here's a good thing.” They called me. They saw my resume because they had a strong healthcare practice. I went over in consulting first. They had put healthcare and media telecom and some weird things together. They said, “Would you like to come interview?” I said, “You might have made a mistake because my background is in healthcare.” I was trying to push them off and they were like, “No, we mean you. You come over.”

I went and interviewed with them. We had a lunch with all the candidates, a busload of people. They had all the MBAs come in. For some reason, I thought I would be funny at lunch. You know me, sometimes. I was on a roll. Everybody else was sitting there like a bump on a log. That was a Saturday. Monday morning, I got an offer first thing. I went and did an internship with them between 1st and 2nd year of business school.

I remember one of our classmates came back and they had given him a telephone book and asked him to call people all summer. He had a terrible experience. He said, “I didn't finish all these numbers,” and they said, “That's alright. We'll have a temp to do it when you leave.” That's the lowest level of an internship. On the other hand, I did four projects during the summer, one independently. I went down and stayed in a hospital and did this work assessment for two weeks, 24 hours a day. I don't know what they were thinking to put me there by myself at that time, but I had an amazing experience and got to work on a lot of different things.

When they asked me to come back to do consulting, I accepted the offer in the second year. I worked in travel and tourism, operations, strategy, healthcare and telecom. It was a great training ground. I always felt like my time at Arthur D. Little was like my residency, the equivalent after business school. I got to implement a lot of the things I had learned so it was a good experience.

You went toward the HR direction there.

What happened was I was traveling all the time because I had these great projects I was on. Both my parents ended up getting sick. My parents were older. I had to stop traveling because I'm the last of five. I went in and resigned. I said, “I can't keep doing this.” They said, “You can't leave. We want you to stay.” What they used to do at Arthur D. Little is when people needed a break from being on the road, they gave them an internal project. The internal project they gave me was recruiting.

It was only initially to be able to stay home but I redesigned the whole recruiting process. We had the most successful year they ever had in recruiting MBAs, and then they made me Director of Global Recruiting. That's how I fell into HR. I got recruited over to Sapient, not in HR but as Director of Operations for their strategy practice. I still hadn't identified as an HR person yet and I hadn't declared myself.

After six months of helping build the strategy practice because they were IT-based, I remember my boss was going to get fired and he didn't know it. I said, “You're going to get fired when you go meet with the CEO.” He was not in tune with what was going on in the company. I'm like, “I'm here for six months and now my boss is gone. What the heck am I going to do?”

 

CSCL 12 Tracy | Strategic HR

Tracy Keogh: Bloomberg would have management meetings about things like who took a terminal out. They didn't focus on what new things you sold because they had a beautiful subscription model before anybody else.

 

The CEO came to me and said, “Do you want to run HR?" because the HR leader had left. I said, “I don't want to do that here. It's too broken. You have to fix this, this and this.” He's like, “You've got the job.” That's how I moved into what we call people strategy. I took that job and I also still ran operations for North America, which meant I oversaw all the offices in addition to running people strategy. We were on a giant growth trajectory as you may remember. We’d gotten into the S&P 500.

Sapient survived through all the dot-com bust and everything else. It was a great company. I learned so much there. It was so good for me to be in a startup. I still have people from Sapient that I work with now that I brought with me to HP and other places. They are talented people with a lot of capability. I feel lucky that I had that opportunity. We had the dot-com bust and they rotated me. I ran sales and marketing after running people strategy for them. I consulted with clients. I was still doing a variety of different business things.

When I started running sales and marketing, which I did for a year and a half, I enjoyed it but I realized I had a font of knowledge in HR. It was a differentiator because not many business people at that point were going into HR, especially from HBS. I got a lot of great interviews because a lot of CEOs go to HBS and they wanted someone like that in HR.

For me, it was a perfect choice. I was on the leadership team within five years out of business school. I like to be in the center of things. I always think people are the most important lever of the business. There were not a lot of businesspeople going into HR at that point. Even though I liked sales and marketing, I decided I was going to go back and get an HR job. That's when Analog Devices fell into my lap.

You worked for Jerry Greenberg in Sapient who was the founder. You were in the early days of Sapient. By the time you went to work for Analog Devices, their founder had been there for 30-plus years at that point, Ray Stata.

Jerry Fishman was the CEO of Analog Devices. I liked him. He was a real tough customer when I met him. He's one of the best CEOs I ever worked for. He was super smart. He grew up in the Bronx and had a lot of rough and tumble. He had a lot of grit. He did a great job in running that company. I got to work with Ray Stata who was Chairman at that point as well.

At one point, I even had [HBS professor] Clay Christensen come in. He had done a lot of research at HBS. One of the best days of my business life was when he, Ray, Jerry and I were in a room talking about the future of the industry. It was one of those days. I was the first woman Vice President that Analog ever had, which was interesting. The senior leadership team was 35 men and me. It was an interesting time.

Women were coming up rubbing my arms, and they were like, “It's so nice to have a woman here.” I went to Jerry and I said, “Am I the first woman Vice President you've ever had? How come I didn't notice that in the interview process?” He said, “Yes, you are. That's why we liked you because you didn't realize that.” It was a great opportunity and I learned a lot.

At that point, I was being heavily recruited by Bloomberg too. Peter Grauer was there. Mike [Bloomberg] was out running the city [of New York]. They spent a year trying to attract me to Bloomberg. I kept pushing them off because I was only at Analog for about three years. I liked the pace [at Bloomberg]. Analog is a cyclical company. That's the nature of that business. I'm like, “I've got a fire in my belly.”

I feel like Bloomberg was like that. When I got there, the management meeting every Tuesday morning was like, “Why did someone take a terminal out?” They didn't focus on what new stuff you sold. They were like, “Who took a terminal out? Why did they do that?” They had a beautiful subscription model before anybody else had a subscription model. They raised the price every two years. That was an amazing business and I love the way it was built. That ultimately led to another opportunity, which was at Hewitt.

How did you end up at Hewitt?

 

[bctt tweet="Always stay connected because people will come back to you if you keep the relationship. " username=""]

 

At that point, a search firm reached out to me. I've always been lucky to have good relationships. I take calls from search firms even if I'm not necessarily looking. One, you build the relationship and two, I love knowing what's going on in the market. I love knowing what's open. If I don't want it, I'm always helping with suggestions. Those people will come back when you help them. My advice is always to stay connected.

The brand-new CEO at Hewitt was Russ Fradin, who had been at ADP and McKinsey before. We were in a turnaround situation. We would have gone public but did not understand [the process]. They were still becoming more like a public company. I got there and their HR organization wasn't good. Everyone kept quoting to me, because they were an HR [consulting] company, that “The cobbler's children go unshod.” It was the theme song of HR. I was like, “Stop saying that. Nobody's allowed to say that anymore. We're going to be the jewel in the crown.”

The first thing our customers would say is, “What do you do inside?” All our salespeople wouldn't say anything because there was not a strong story.” I was able to work on that. It was so much fun because I had the whole consulting organization as my thought partner on everything. I revamped the entire organization. I got involved in sales. I got to go out and meet clients. I used all of our products and helped refine them to a great extent within the organization. Intellectually, it was a lot of fun.

I'm sure Russ would tell you this upfront. The first few months were super challenging because he had never worked with a strategic HR function. I did one of those, “I’ll go home and write an email” things. [Russ] was driving me crazy. I read it to my husband and he was like, “You can't send that.” I said, “Alright.” I went in the next day and I sat down with [Russ]. We were 3 or 4 months in. I moved to Chicago for this job. I said, “Have you ever worked with a strategic HR function?” He said, “No.” I'm like, “What do you think about HR? How do you think about this?”

Russ was a giant baseball fan and I'm a big Yankees fan. I said, “What do you consider a home run? What do you consider a triple or double?” I finally put it in terms that he could understand. From that moment forward, we had a great relationship. It ended up being a wonderful four years. It culminated in selling the company to Aon. It was at a 46% premium at that time.

They brought me upstairs to be what I called lady-in-waiting for the Head of HR of Aon. During that time, another headhunter called Russ and said, "You know all the HR people. Who's the best HR person in the country?" He said, "Tracy Keogh." That's how the HP opportunity evolved. I went out to interview for that.

You got that job and went to work for one of the bigger companies in the United States at the time. You were working for Meg Whitman.

Not at the beginning. What happened is I got there. This is the thing. I think we were about Fortune 12. We were $125 billion. That was a big step up in terms of size and complexity for me. I don't remember how many we had at Hewitt but [HP] was almost 400,000 employees at that point, and then you [could] add in another 100,000 contractors. It was a giant organization.

I got there and Léo Apotheker was the CEO and that was not going well. Within six weeks, I knew we had a problem. I had to go to the Board of Directors. I was about six weeks into my job. That's the most difficult thing a CHRO ever has to do and you weigh it heavily. The place was falling apart. I remember one of the executives walked into my office and said to me, “A million people are counting on you to figure this out.” I'm like, “I know.” Between all of our employees, their families, our alumni and all the retirees, it was a large ecosystem.

I was trying to keep our senior leadership from quitting because things were not going well. Ultimately, I woke up in the middle of the night racking my head like, “What am I going to do?” Meg Whitman was on our board. I woke up and said, “Meg, she's the one.” I worked to get her into the role because we couldn't go through another search. We'd had five CEOs within seven years. Imagine a large organization with that kind of churn in terms of CEOs.

Carly [Fiorina] had been there, then Mark Hurd who had to leave. Léo came and then we ended up having Meg. I went to Meg's house to talk her into taking the role. I spent three hours at her kitchen table talking to her about why it was important. She had [just] lost the Governor's race in California. As I was driving over there, I'm like, “How am I going to get her to take this role?”

 

CSCL 12 Tracy | Strategic HR

Tracy Keogh: Deciding to recommend to a Board of Directors that the CEO needs to be fired is the hardest thing a CHRO ever has to do, especially if it's in a large company like HP.

 

Meg had just joined the board a couple of months earlier. She was on the Compensation Committee of the board. She came into the meeting and did something that good CEOs do. We were talking, and she went, "Bang, bang, bang" on all the problems for the company. I always find that good CEOs can synthesize all the data in an environment and come up with the key levers. I went, “She's smart. She's a good CEO because she can cut through all the noise and figure out what the most important things are.” That's why I thought of her for the role.

I'm driving over to her house and I said to myself, "I know I'm going to get her to talk me into her being the person, not me trying to talk her into it," because I didn't think the hard sell would work. I wanted her to take the role because I didn't have a lot of other options up my sleeve. We spent three hours in the kitchen. I remember at one point, she said, "HP is the size of California. It matters how many countries we interact with. I said, "I've got her." I knew when she said that, she had made a decision in her head that she was going to take the role.

She came in, and then it was in the news. Everything we were doing was frontline news. I thought Meg would just come in and run things effectively because she had been a good CEO at eBay and all that stuff. The level of work and energy she put in to learning that business was remarkable. She learned so much and worked so hard. She didn't skate at the top and just let the business leaders [run the company]. She went in, asked questions and changed things.

The first year was the old, “Don't bother coming on Sunday if you don't work Saturday.” We worked every weekend. I had a thing where I would go to her house and go in the back door, and I wouldn't meet her all the time. She was like, “Who said you can get in?” I'm sure her husband was sick of seeing me. We would talk every night. My husband was like, “Who are you talking to? You saw her all day.” There was so much work to do and she worked so hard.

At the end of the year, that has always been my experience, you think you've hit everything, but you open another closet and a skeleton comes out. We went through a whole turnaround over those four years. She did a remarkable job, which culminated in the split of the two companies. It was another interesting exercise because we were the second largest, fastest, and most complex split in business history at the time. I don't know if GE has outpaced us with what they're doing. We did it within a year, which was incredible. I went and helped launch a new company, HP Inc. That was a lot of fun.

Some crazy times there. I knew HP had a turnaround going on after a bunch of years of ups and downs. What do you think you did there that stood out relative to what most HR organizations do?

First of all, I always have that, “Let's reinvent ourselves” mindset. HP was one of the most storied cultures. You can say whatever you want about HP, it is still going strong. Eighty years in as a technology company, I would love some of the other technology companies to call me in another 60 years and see how they are doing.

We were the number one PC-maker, which has been super relevant in the last couple of years. At that time, we'd go back and forth as number one. We were number one in printers. We were number 1 or 2 in every one of our markets when we split. I brought back the HP Way and that was so important to the employees. When I got there, employee engagement was at an all-time low. I went about reinventing performance management, learning approach, and culture.

This doesn't sound revolutionary, but at the time I put people at the center of everything we did, which is how Bill [Hewlett] and Dave [Packard] built the company. You don't know how many companies in Silicon Valley were spawned out of HP. Everybody took Bill and Dave's HP way. When I was at Analog, they had stolen stuff from the HP Way and had it in as their manifesto.

Bill and Dave started employee resource groups. They did what they called Affirmative Action Training. In the ‘70s, it was [like] unconscious bias [training today]. They hired some of the first underrepresented groups. They put women in sales leadership roles. They hired African-Americans. I found pictures of their softball team that was integrated before baseball was. They were so amazing. They were giant environmentalists and doing sustainability.

I felt like it was an amazing platform to have to be able to then reinvent. That's the thing that HP was great at: reinventing itself to stay relevant again and again. It missed some trends here and there as it got too big. People made some decisions that weren't necessarily the best for the business, but overall, that was a lot of fun.

 

[bctt tweet="Be able to communicate your vision effectively to create trust and followership. " username=""]

 

My favorite thing was once we split, we started a new company, HP Inc. At that point, there were 50,000 people which to me seemed tiny. I was like, “I get to know everybody again.” We called ourselves a $50 billion startup. I threw out performance ratings. I threw out titles. We got rid of titles because I found they were constricting people's development. We changed how we did technical development. We reinvented learning once again. Everything we did, we were constantly reinventing.

I like to match the ethos of the organization. We were all about innovation. I wanted that for HR. I was able to build an amazing HR team. HP was a great training ground. At this point, more than 40 people that have worked for me have gone to be heads of HR in other companies. To me, what I care about is upgrading the profession and developing people. I spend a lot of time on best practices and sharing with people, even just random people.

I was giving a talk somewhere and this great young woman came up afterward. She's from Australia. She said, “I love that. Can I ever come and meet with you?” She ended up coming for a week and following me and my team around. I love development and developing HR leaders. That's probably why we were able to do a lot of exciting things. We were always a scrappy organization.

We were always best in class from a financial perspective. To me, that means poor. I hate when they say that, because you're the cheapest, you’re best in class. That's what all the consulting firms say. We were still able to do a lot of innovative things in the organization. When people come in, they’re always super surprised. Different companies would bring executives to do tech trips in the Valley, [such as to] Google and Facebook. They often come to HP and they’re like, “This is the best thing.” They love coming to HP and seeing the things we're doing. It's always surprising to them. I feel lucky to have the opportunity to do all those things.

You and I have talked at various points over the years. It goes back to your conversation with Russ Fradin about the strategic HR function and strategic HR leadership. There's a big difference between somebody who steps into that function with a broad lens of the business relative to somebody who steps into the HR function and thinks only about hire, promote, develop, retain and pay. That's a narrow definition of the function. It's telling that you've had so many people who have gone on to run HR organizations and take that more strategic mindset into a bunch of other companies.

The challenge is, if you've never seen it, you don't know what it is. First of all, I always say you have to train your customers [i.e., other leaders in the organization]. Russ said to me at the end, “I knew I'd screwed up when you told me never to do this again.” People have greater expectations when they've seen what good HR looks like. I've had eight CEOs in my career and not one has ever come into my office and said, “Here's the HR agenda. Can you solve these things?” I realized this with my first CEO. What you do, is you need to go and say, “What are your business problems?” and translate them into people solutions.

Every time I go into a company, I find an HR person who's not good and [other leaders are] like, “I love that person. They do the best parties.” It takes me a while. I finally wrestle them away and I give them someone strategic and they're like, “This is what it can be like? This is amazing. Thank you so much.” They see that's what they want. When you're describing something, it's hard to understand what it is. I don't go in thinking, “I'm an HR person.” I go in thinking, “I'm a business leader. My specialty is this group of things that I know how to do.” I weigh in on sales or this or that.

I've been involved in lots of different parts of businesses. I love a finance person who moves into HR. You want people that are moving around. One of my CEOs used to say, “How many of your people have moved from HR into business?” To me, that is a sign of success. That's the way you've got to think about it in a different way. Educate people to have greater expectations and that will raise the bar on the function.

I want to spend a little bit of time on that head of HR role or whatever it's called in different companies. You've worked for eight different CEOs. You've worked with dozens of people at the C-level or executive level in a company. What are the things that the best of those leaders, CEO or otherwise, do as leaders? What sets them apart from your perspective, watching them as an HR professional?

First of all, communication is unbelievably important. I remember after the first year of Meg being in the role, she and I sat down one night and said, “What are the real critical elements of this job?” One of them is being able to communicate your vision effectively and bring people along. Good communication creates trust. It creates followership. It attracts people and customers. It's important.

One thing I was always impressed with is that Meg is one of the best communicators in the world. Have you ever seen her? She did what [Ronald] Reagan did. They've got to go stump to run for office. You get good at giving talks. I remember one of our first big conferences, she went and stood up and practiced for hours beforehand. I hate to practice when I have to give a talk. I was like, “She still practices.” She never leaves it to chance and that's why she's good.

 

CSCL 12 Tracy | Strategic HR

Tracy Keogh: When employee engagement is at an all-time low, you have to reinvent everything from culture to performance management. You need to put people at the center of everything.

 

Communication sets people apart: communication in different ways, small groups, large groups, whatever. That's often what people have to go on in terms of who you are. That's all they see in a large organization. Part of that is your authenticity. Don't become an automaton in terms of how you speak. Authenticity is critical in any leadership role and we saw that during the pandemic more than any other time. During the pandemic, hierarchies were washed away. When everyone was on Zoom, suddenly, someone's cat was walking across the computer. You no longer have that hierarchy to protect you. Authenticity is important.

The other thing I mentioned before is being able to synthesize data in your environment and come up with an answer and figure out what's important. I've seen people and even CEOs be overwhelmed with a variety of problems. Knowing what to tackle first and at what level is critical. One of the things that I thought was driven home during the pandemic for me was the ability to make a decision in an unclear environment.

The world is an ambiguous place now, be it climate change, economics or war. There are large macro things that are happening. You have to be able to move and make a decision. I remember being incredibly frustrated [at the beginning of the pandemic]. Warren Buffett has that saying, “When the tide goes out, you’ll see who's swimming naked.” Some people who I thought were good leaders could not get it together to make a decision.

We didn't have two weeks to do a framework and figure it out. You needed to decide that day what we were going to do, which way we were going to go, and how were you going to bring people home. Being able to make a decision in the face of a lot of uncertainty is a critical leadership capability. That has become more important now. Those are a few of the things that I would say are important.

On the flip side, there are people who sabotage their careers for one reason or another. They do something stupid.

Death by email sometimes.

What are the common themes you've seen in terms of people who fall short? They move into that most senior level and they fall short for one reason or another. What drives that?

Sometimes it's rigidity, not being able to move and be flexible and agile in the world. Not moving quickly enough is a real problem. I'm in tech and things move quickly. There's almost no industry that isn't impacted in that way. You have to have that capacity to move quickly. I've [also] seen people blow up their careers many times by trying to prove they're right by going to a board around a CEO.

You're not going to win a fight with a CEO in the middle of a leadership team to prove he or she is wrong. It's not going to happen. There are different ways you can get to your answer and you need to figure out how to do that. That doesn't mean you shouldn't disagree and you have to be a yes-man. If you go head to head with someone, that can be ineffective.

I saw one leader who was a leader of a large division of a company I was at. He went to the board and thought it would be a great idea to ask the board for more money for an R&D project he had without first going to the CEO. It was like watching somebody die in front of you because he didn't realize that's not what you do to a board.

The person had a $250 billion division and he wanted $50 million more to do some research thing. He thought he would present this thing and the board would go, “You need more money from the central organization.” The chairman of the board said, “If you can't find $50 million yourself in a $250 billion division, you don't know how to prioritize.” That was the end of his career at that company. It was just like that.

 

[bctt tweet="Be authentic with how you speak. Do not be an automaton." username=""]

 

It's misjudging how to get things done and not being entrepreneurial enough. There are many different elements. Not making the decisions ultimately can impact your career. Those are pitfalls and you need to think about them. Also, thinking that because you have the role, you have the power. You've got to earn that role every day with what you do and with connecting with people. It's never more important than it is now with the Great Resignation. People are not going to put up with those managers anymore. You have to be able to be flexible and relate to people at all levels in your organization.

You talked about the decisiveness that was needed at the beginning of the pandemic. You mentioned the Great Resignation. What are your thoughts on where the world is going? You spent a little bit of time thinking about the future of work at the World Economic Forum. Our friend, Debbie Lovich, who I've also interviewed, is focused on that topic. What are your thoughts?

First of all, I love the TEDx that she did. The whole way people are working has changed. If you don't understand that as a company, you have a problem. The whole issue around trust and autonomy is critical for employees now. The positive part of the pandemic is that everybody said, “We’ve got to figure this out.”

Employees didn't have anybody micromanaging. Our customer support people figured out how they were going to process credit cards from home. Our engineers figured out how to convert their dining rooms into a lab. They would fix something and then they'd leave it on the steps of the building for the next guy to come and take the prototype and work on it. I saw so much ingenuity from people to do the things they wanted to get done. Giving people the opportunity to create their own work lives is super important.

The biggest challenge, and this is a challenge for HR, is we used to do what I call a program for one kind of employee. Everybody was coming into the office. You created leadership development programs, performance management, and all this stuff in a way for one group. You now have 3 or 4 different kinds of relationships with employees. Nobody has increased your budget or quadrupled your staff.

You have to figure out how you are going to do career development when you don't ever see that person. How are you going to give people opportunities when they may or may not be in the office? Somebody walks by and you're like, “I’ll have that person work on this thing.” You happen to be in the kitchen having coffee together and you start talking about it. That stuff isn't going to happen. How do you program that? How do you make sure the culture is happening? There’s a lot of work that needs to be done.

The next few years are going to be what I call experimentation years. You're going to try things. Smart companies are going to try and fail fast and move on, and figure out what works in the new environment. The idea of going back to work five days a week to me seems unbelievably burdensome. People have cut new pathways in terms of how they live their lives and they don't want to change those. You're going to have to be flexible with that.

The idea of you recruiting people once and then that's it is gone. You have to have a mindset of re-recruiting people on an ongoing basis because you have to keep them engaged in your company. There are too many opportunities outside from other organizations and the number of offers people are getting now.

If you think you can rest on your laurels and talk to your employees periodically, and the whole way you communicate is one way from the top down, it has to be an ongoing dialogue in a much more robust way. Everything about how you deal with employees needs to change in the future. Take the best before the pandemic and the best of what we learned during the pandemic, and then create a new future. This is probably the single biggest shift that has gone on in work for employees since we learned about Taylorism. It hasn't shifted much until this.

I agree completely with you on that point. It's a huge change that we're seeing. One question that comes up all the time is, what's your take on the fully remote workplace and when that can and can't work?

There are many companies who do it and it works great for them. Many people do it and it works well. You can't have one mode of anything anymore. I like being in the office but not all the time. I'm more productive in the office. I know my engineers used to feel like that. They miss being together. We saw patent applications go down. We looked for indicators of productivity when [I was] at HP.

 

CSCL 12 Tracy | Strategic HR

Tracy Keogh: You're not going to win a fight with a CEO in the middle of a leadership team meeting. There are different ways you can get to your answer and you need to figure out how to do it.

 

The serendipity that happens when you're in a room together, talking about things, grabbing the pen and the whiteboard back and forth from each other, I don't think you can have it on Zoom. Zoom is more transactional. That being said, a lot of that quiet work is also productive. I think a mix is optimal. There are different populations who found a lot of satisfaction in not going into the office. Women are dealing with childcare and other stuff. There is a lot of positivity about being flexible. Underrepresented populations felt like they didn't have to deal with 400 micro-aggressions a day from people. They felt stronger and more confident.

There are a lot of benefits that we want to make sure we're identifying and keeping so that we can create the best working environment for all people because everybody is different. That’s the other thing. People want what they want in the way that they want it. As an employer, you’ve got to figure that out and make sure you have those different experiences for them to be most productive. My mother used to say, “One size fits no one because it's not made for anybody correctly.” I always thought that was a great thought. I feel like one size fits no one. We've got to figure out what fits everybody so they can optimize.

We could talk for much longer on this topic. Let me ask you one last question. You've led HR in organizations that ultimately have employed thousands of people. What are the three things that are most top of mind for you that you would say to somebody who's thinking about how to better manage their career?

Be open to opportunities. You've learned about my career. I’ve done a variety of different things and everything feeds into itself. I would say. "Take those opportunities." The second thing I see particularly with newer generations is, don't be too quick to move on. Make sure that you learn what you need to learn in a role. I deal with a lot of different generations at any given time. I have five generations I’m managing. They're like, “I need a new promotion.” Play the long game. That's important.

The other most important thing about your career is always to remain curious about learning. My favorite people are the super experienced people but they act like they're brand new. They may have been three years at the company but they're still excited about new opportunities. That's what you want to be, someone who's continuing to evolve. Stay curious and grow. You'll always be able to find employment because you'll be on the cutting edge and looking at new things.

I think back to what you were saying about Meg Whitman coming in as the CEO. She had been on the board and spent a year working to get to know the ins and outs of the business. She got down into the details.

She's amazing. They're looking at her to be an ambassador. She's a multifaceted person.

Tracy, thank you. This has been great. I appreciate you joining and sharing your impressive career.

Thank you for inviting me. It was so fun to see you and talk about all these things.

Thank you.

 

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About Tracy Keogh

CSCL 12 Tracy | Strategic HRTracy Keogh is the Chief People Officer and Growth Partner for Great Hill Partners, a private equity firm based in Boston.

Tracy started her career with the Bank of New England before spending several years in hospital administration and working as a consultant for Arthur D. Little. She has since spent the remainder of her career in Human Resources, acting as head of HR for IT consulting firm Sapient, now part of Publicis, for chip manufacturer Analog Devices, for Bloomberg, for HR consultant Hewitt Associates, and most recently for HP.

Along the way, she has supported some great CEOs and worked alongside a number of talented executive-level leaders in each of these organizations. She also recently served on the Board of Directors of Cisive, an HR services firm. She has earned a number of HR industry awards, including being named HR Executive of the Year by several leading HR organizations. Tracy earned her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Smith College and an MBA from Harvard Business School. She and her husband Joe live in Boston.

 

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