The Talent Whisperer: Intuit’s Sherry Whiteley

It was at the grocery store checkout counter, of all places, that Sherry Whiteley — at the time a product development manager at video game publisher Activision — made a pivotal hire. When her bagger noticed Whiteley’s Activision T-shirt, he started raving about his passion for video games, and explained that he was working temporarily at the grocery store to make enough money to play games.

“I hired him first just as a free tester, I gave him pizza and Coke, and he’d come in a couple of days a week and hang out with our product development folks and our testers. He turned out to be, over time, the head of the entire testing organization,” Whiteley said. “That’s an example, but I do it all the time.”

Whiteley has a knack for finding great talent in the most unassuming places — individuals who may not appear to be rock stars on paper, but end up being the right fit for the organization. It’s what her President and CEO Brad Smith calls “betting on the jockey, not the horse.”

Whiteley said many HR and senior leaders look at talent with a candidate’s resume and experiences top of mind. People’s careers become incremental. “I look much more at people’s trajectory, their aspirations, their skill sets that could be applied to other things to match them with our business needs. When people go to the race track, the typical way is you bet on the horse or you bet on the experience — the proven-ness of the horse — and I’m looking at the talent, the jockey.”

With the gaming-obsessed grocery bagger, Whiteley said she scratched beneath the surface and found someone who would do anything to eat, breathe and live his passion.

“The way he was describing to me the hours he spends in search of great entertainment and great games, and the nuances that make a difference between an average game and an awesome game while he was bagging my groceries — that kind of passion is what makes a difference between a good company and a great company, and a great company and a great growth company,” she said.

That anecdote isn’t so far-fetched. Leadership IQ, a research and management consulting firm, conducted an October 2011 study of 5,000 hiring managers who hired more than 20,000 people and found that 46 percent of their new hires failed within the first 18 months. The majority (89 percent) of the time the failures were the result of employees having the wrong attitude for the organization, while 11 percent of the time it was due to a lack of skill.

“If you find somebody who has the right attitudinal characteristics, then all the training mechanisms from college to grad school to internal training [can be] geared toward impacting skills, not toward impacting attitude,” said Mark Murphy, CEO of Leadership IQ.

For instance, fun is one of the major attitudinal characteristics that define high performers at Southwest Airlines, he said, whereas it is not at the top of Mayo Clinic’s list, because they are entirely different organizations. Organizations need to focus on the top four or five attitudinal characteristics that are common among their high performers, and use this as one of the gauges to determine if a candidate will be a good fit, he said.

Business First, HR Second
Whiteley’s passion is finding and developing talent. That is one of the reasons she decided to stay in the HR world after what was originally supposed to be a temporary HR gig.

In the early 1990s, Whiteley worked at Silicon Graphics, a computing company, when her CEO asked her to temporarily lead talent acquisition to account for a period of high growth. The company planned to hire 3,000 new employees in a year.

“It was supposed to be a short-term assignment as a favor to the CEO, and it captured my heart and never left,” she said. “I could probably be a scout for a professional sports team because I love talent — I love finding, developing, nurturing, coaching — everything about talent, and I was able to do it more in HR than I even was when I was building video games, which is all about attracting the right talent also, but I got to do it on a bigger scale.”

Some 13 years ago, Whiteley brought her knack for talent acquisition to Intuit — a software and financial services firm with about 8,500 employees — as a vice president of human resources, the top HR position at the time. In Whiteley’s own words, she was the least qualified candidate for the position because some of the other people who were interviewing looked better on paper: They already had the senior vice president of HR title and the experience, plus they worked at multibillion-dollar companies.

But, similar to Whiteley’s strategy, then-CEO Steve Bennett chose to bet on the jockey instead of the horse in this race.

“[Bennett] said that when he was interviewing these other SVPs, they were saying to him: ‘Here’s the HR thing I can do for you. Here’s this HR program I’ve created and rolled out. Here’s a proven track record of this HR system that can really help,’” she said. “And you said to me, ‘What are your business problems? What are your talent problems? What are your talent opportunities?’”

Whiteley said the CEO was looking for someone who could partner with him on the business.

“We are businesspeople first and HR people second, and it starts from really understanding and helping to contribute and drive to the business, and then we bring our expertise around talent and human capital,” she said.

Partnering with the business and having a good grasp of its strategy is critical to understand how to leverage HR to move the business forward. Once that is the case, Whiteley said it’s easier to determine the optimal organization design needed today and in the future to deliver those strategies. Then talent leaders can evaluate existing talent, the talent that’s needed and what talent may need development.

Innovation: A Key Differentiator
Innovation is a cornerstone value at Intuit, and as such employees are allotted the time, autonomy and incentive to go beyond what they have to do at work to what they want to do.

For instance, the company allows unstructured time where employees are free to develop their own ideas and share them with colleagues via an internal system. The unstructured time varies by individual depending on what he or she is working on at the time.

“It’s not just my ability to say I’m going to go work on an idea — it’s my ability to showcase my idea, it’s the ability for me to get other people to work on it with me, and then go to events where I can present the ideas to senior executives who then listen to all the different ideas and choose from the best,” said Michael McNeal, vice president of talent development, Intuit.

Those who win at the Innovation Awards, an annual event that’s considered quite prestigious within the company, get to work on their idea for three months full time or six months part time with the intent to create new products to solve customer problems.

“Innovation is what our employees and candidates and people are looking for; it keeps them engaged and excited because they get to work on things they’re passionate about,” he said.

The company’s focus on innovation is also a key differentiator when it comes to recruiting top talent, especially at college campuses. Whiteley said recruiters spin things as, “You can go to a competitor or you can come to Intuit and have an idea jam with your peers.” “People got so excited they decided to come to Intuit to see if either their idea could come to fruition or they just like the process of it.”

The company has a collaborative process called a code jam, which in layman’s terms is writing code in a technology format, McNeal said. But the process at Intuit is similar to musicians coming together. For example, there could be a code jam on a Friday afternoon at Intuit, which means employees could get together and work with other developers across the company on an idea aimed at solving a customer problem.

“It’s like you see somebody play something on a guitar and you say, ‘Show me how to play that,’” McNeal said.

Keeping the Best Close at Hand
Intuit regularly tracks attrition at the highest level of the company, including voluntary attrition, involuntary attrition and regrettable losses.

“If you’re a senior leader who reports to Brad quarterly, you need to report out on who you lost that you didn’t want to lose and where they went, why they left [and] what we can do about it,” Whiteley said.

The company aims to have 50 percent of open positions filled internally, and business unit and functional leaders are required to report quarterly against that target.

To that end, career development is greatly emphasized at Intuit. A team was commissioned about three years ago to focus on employees’ personal growth and development and to determine how to accelerate learning.

This is particularly relevant to some workforce demographic groups. For instance, the millennial population at Intuit is about 10 percent, and that number is expected to increase.

“We’ve got technology accelerating, we’ve got new competitors, we’ve got all sorts of things and our millennials are great at solving these problems for customers,” Whiteley said. “A lot of them are digital natives. They’ve grown up with technology — they think differently and as much as we’re helping them with leadership, they’re teaching us so much about our markets and our competitors.”

Intuit has implemented a rotational development program specifically geared toward early-career employees — most of whom are millennials — to help them find the best fit in the company.

These individuals enter a two-year rotation where they try their hand at different areas of the company, such as design or product management or tech support. Once they successfully complete the program and have a good grasp of how their skills might best be used, they can assume permanent roles based on open positions that are of interest.

Intuit also has implemented talent profiles, a tool that allows employees to input their skills, aspirations and experiences as a way to showcase their career aspirations. Managers and recruiters typically use this tool as a first stop when seeking candidates to fill open positions.

“In these talent profiles, you could say: ‘Hey, I’d love an assignment outside of the U.S.,’ and we might not know that about somebody,” Whiteley said. “Recruiters can search against the talent we have internally and make sure that if we have a business need, we can match it with somebody’s aspirations.”

It could be a job, but it also could be a project or assignment that employees are matched to.

“People are realizing: ‘Hey, let me be seen, let me tell you everything about me so I’ll have an opportunity to be matched on something that naturally I might not know about or it’s a different business unit or a different location,” she said.

Driving these initiatives around growth and development enables employees to find and work on something they’re passionate about — much like that gaming grocery bagger — and then employees have the opportunity to reach their full potential, McNeal said. That’s a win for the individual and the organization.

Four Pillars of Talent Management

Michael McNeal, vice president of talent development at Intuit, said one of the keys to effective talent management is to simplify four fundamental buckets and embed each into a company’s business operating metrics:

1. Start with the business strategy.
2. Create an organizational design based on business strategy.
3. Conduct a talent review based on whether the company has the capability or skill sets to meet the organizational design.
4. Link the aforementioned buckets to the company’s performance management and pay process.