Project Management Institute

Talent Acquisition, Change, and Technology

Transcript

JOE CAHILL

Hi. I’d like to welcome everyone back to Center Stage. I’m Joe Cahill, I’m the COO of the Project Management Institute, PMI, and today we are visiting with our guest Sean Kelley.

Sean is an advisor to leaders and specializes in offering them insights on change, talent acquisition, and women in technology. Sean has served most recently as a leader at Amazon, as Director, Talent Acquisition. He had a long and successful career at Microsoft and notably started off his career as a naval officer, having graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy. He is currently working on issues related to finding a cure for Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, veterans’ transition and employment in technology industry, and diversity in the technology field.

So, Sean Kelley, welcome to Center Stage.

SEAN KELLEY

Joe, thank you so much for this opportunity. I always blush a little bit when I hear that kind of an intro. I’m thrilled to be here.

CAHILL

Thank you for being with us. I’d like to start off with your views on strategic leadership. We’re in the Covid-19 crisis, it continues, it has put a lot of pressure on companies like Amazon. As such a key company, and you worked there, what is one of the most important things for a leader to do when they’re challenged in these periods of crisis? What did you see at Amazon?

KELLEY

It’s really interesting. As someone who had just stepped aside, I left Amazon officially in June but I began the transition in March of this year, so I’ve been an interestingly sidelined leader during this massive crisis and tackled this. I think really in any crisis, at any time, one thing for sure is to focus on the humans and the team.

And I think for me in particular as a leader, when I have been challenged in those types of moments of crisis, it’s really being grounded in listening to the people around me to give me good advice. You can’t know everything but you can create approaches and methods to be able to listen better, whether it’s listen to the frontline through surveys and pulsing mechanisms, whether it’s having informal advisors that just tell you what’s going on when you walk around, and then clearly with your directs and folks in key roles that help you sift through and distill information so you can make key decisions. I think we see that all over the place for leaders that are thriving now; being able to rely on a team approach I think is really important.

CAHILL

That’s hyper critical. I agree. So as we mentioned, you worked for many iconic organizations so you have seen quite a bit. How would you articulate some of the common qualities you’ve seen across those experiences and the definition of an outstanding organizational leader?

KELLEY

I think one of the things that stood out for me... You know the rapid pace of change requires an investment and it requires a constant striving to learn because the conditions are always changing, the process to be successful is unfolding at different paces, at different points of time. So being able to really continue to strive as a learner I think is really important and to invest in teams to stay relevant.

I think the other one that stands out, and I can say this really for my entire career, being lucky to start in the U.S. Navy, it was very clear that during times of chaos it was easy to look up and say we’re going in that direction. So whether it was a PC on every desk, Howard Schultz reminding us it was about that experience to be in the store and that coffee was at the center of that, and then Bezos with the customer as the mission. Those things, those north stars helped I’ll say quiet the noise of what could be a real chaotic experience.

And then, how do you as a leader in the middle of an organization... I think something I learned was to be able to point at that north star for my team and then translate how do we fit into serving that higher purpose. I think people, particularly as leaders, if we can get people to realize it’s not about you, it’s about the team, it’s about the mission, all of a sudden you can really just strive so much further and so much faster.

CAHILL

Yes, it’s the special sauce indeed. Let’s move on to the topic of talent acquisition. It seems to be certainly a key focus of your career. As you mentioned, you were a talent acquisition director at Amazon and during a period of really tremendous growth for Amazon. What was the focus of your role? Just give us a brief on what the role was and how did you navigate that role through all of this tremendous growth that Amazon was experiencing?

KELLEY

Yeah, it’s interesting to try to put it in context. I came into the company to lead recruiting for operations across the North America networks. My remit was about 16 countries and year-on-year growth of... for some businesses, it was 100 percent year on year. Others it was a consistent 20 to 30 percent.

So when you talk about tens of thousands of professionals, it’s quite an operation to get your mind around. So from a planning perspective that was one of the first things I noticed is I didn’t feel like we had good enough forecasting and planning to really understand what were we going after? We weren’t hiring boxes, we were hiring humans, and how do we do that well?

CAHILL

So you led a workforce of really young, project-oriented professionals. What did you learn about ensuring their well-being and their engagement along the way?

KELLEY

When I talk to leaders about building teams at scale now, I’ve long felt that if you can insure that people understand that they need to be good teammates, so really for early career... look left and look right because somebody might have their head down and not being doing well and you might be the one that notices that. So just be a good teammate, right? Check in on your neighbor.

And in the global team, it’s like, hey you should probably instant message somebody. We’ve got three people living in Prague, somebody should make it their point to just say hey, how’s stuff in Prague?

And then for me, it’s always been great managers. I’m like, if everybody could be a good “my manager,” the whole thing actually works pretty well. And that includes for senior people. I had a dozen people that reported to me. They still need to be… they need somebody to check in on them, they need someone to make time to listen to them.

For me, creating a rhythm of communication where I knew... expectation that my managers had a regular check-in cadence, particularly with their new folks and even folks that have been there a while, they still need a check-in to be like hey, let’s talk through your book of business, are you hitting any struggles, how can I help remove barriers for you? And then not being afraid as leaders to say hey, I think you’re off track. I know you feel like you’re on track but my experience tells me maybe you’ve veered right and we should nudge you back, and how do you build that cadence of communications, check ins, business reviews that allows you to see that stuff that might be a problem before it becomes an actual delivery or operational problem, I think takes some effort.

CAHILL

Excellent. So another focus of your career has been women and minorities in technology. Based on all that work and all your experience and knowledge, what challenges to women and minorities face seeking jobs in the technology field today?

KELLEY

The thing I always try to do is be an accountable leader in that system. So as a recruiting leader, just asking the question hey, team, why do you think we’re not hiring any “fill in the blank”... veterans, women, people of color... into these specific areas of the business? What do you think is going on? So I think it’s starting with a systems view of, is it us?

I think people really quickly on these topics want to point the finger, oh, hiring managers don’t want to do this, or the business is that, or the culture is this. It’s like, okay, well, let’s start with the simple thing, which is, is anyone applying to the job? This was a simple question. But you have to say are we marketing and creating a welcome mat for everybody? So that was one of my first “a-ha” moments is we’ve got to create the outreach mechanisms, and have an experimenting mindset to say how do we create... it’s really engagement to start with, and then at the other end it’s belongingness.

There was a guy, Will Moss, who is the CEO of HBCU Connect, I reached out to him about a decade ago and I was like, hey, Will, I got your referral information, talk to me, talk to me about your network of Historically Black College and University graduates. He’s got a million people in his database. And he’s like, man, I’ve been waiting for Microsoft to call for a long time, dude. And I said well, awesome, we’re on the phone. Let’s do this.

And I think the key for me there was just starting to try it. I said hey, well, why don’t you take a look at my job postings and what we’re doing, and let’s talk to some HBCU grads that work here and then just help me tell the story, man. And I think sometimes for corporate folks, and this is I think a message for your audience, we get fixated on what are we delivering this week, what are we delivering this month, what are we delivering next month, and we don’t give ourselves the grace to say, hey man, some of these things might take a year, two years, three years to actually develop into the thing. Let’s try something, let’s get off of the stuck place. And Amazon was great for this. Try it, be clear minded about why you tried it. If it works, awesome, pour gas on it, just take off. If it didn’t work, figure out why really fast, try again. So that iterative fast fail, it starts with relationships, having a long view. And there are simple solutions for recruiting leaders to pause and just ask why. Huh, why haven’t I—or any leader—why haven’t I seen any women on the slate of candidates you gave me? Ask your recruiter. Be like hey, are you guys posting on the National Center for Women in IT website? Have you thought of doing an invitation-only event and invite women in this professional area to come into a professional talk? Because maybe they don’t think they can work here because we don’t have any women on the board or we don’t have any women executives.

Let’s figure out where the disconnect is and try something to close the gap with authenticity and caring. I think leaders have more power than they maybe sometimes give themselves the ability to use by really pushing their recruiting teams.

CAHILL

You mentioned earlier unconscious bias. In this context, what are the most persistent and pervasive issues that you’ve seen, the things that are the toughest to deal with?

KELLEY

Oh man, you know, it’s all over. We all come from where we come from. I was on the Inclusion & Diversity Team at Microsoft for four years. So I woke up every day, I was the only straight, white male on that team, and I learned so much every day about... People don’t even know what they don’t know. And I learned, like, people are just raised how they’re raised, you grow up in the neighborhood you grow up in, you’re born into the family you’re born into. And from the very early beginning you are imprinted with thoughts and beliefs, perceptions, yeah.

One of the issues I’m working on right now—here is an example—the media portrayal of veterans. Like, what do you think of when you think of veterans that are in the media?

CAHILL

Oh, macho and they’re out there getting things done and they’re heroes.

KELLEY

Running through walls and… yeah.

CAHILL

And they all are though, I mean…

KELLEY

Yeah but so like then you have people that were on submarines with me that were super geeky nuclear scientists that like ice cream and smoke cigarettes, right? Like this crazy, different thing. But I’m working with Duke University, Dr. Aaron Kay, and Aaron is a psychologist and I asked him to study the psychology of transitioning out of the military and what barriers do people hit. So he started doing A/B testing on resumes with recruiters, and basically the summary of that research is, many people who don’t know veterans, a lot of people don’t, one percent serve, a lot of people grow up and they don’t know a single person who is a veteran, they have... he calls it an agentic view, robotic, unfeeling, like hard-core, like you’re saying, because that’s what you see. You see the Navy Seals doing the thing on TV.

And what you realize is that 95 percent of the people in the military are not carrying a gun. They’re just doing a J-O-B, man. They’re supply chain, they’re computer people, they are whatever. But if you don’t know how to read that resume, your brain automatically goes to all that stuff you’ve seen and heard, and you don’t even know you did. It’s been imprinting on you.

So you could translate that. Veterans is a pretty easy one to talk about because it’s all walks of life, but you could say the same thing for women or minorities or people with disabilities, LGBT community where you’ve seen and heard and read things that you don’t even know are being absorbed into your brain.

You just have to check your bias. Gotta know it and then... yeah. So be a learner, be willing to talk to people have uncomfortable conversations. I don’t like the word, people use it a lot, like, hard conversations. I’m like, no, have meaningful ones. Just meaningful. Try to. And if you do that the world is going to be better and you’re going to close that gap in understanding.

CAHILL

Tell us a little bit about the work you did with Dr. David Sherman at UC Santa Barbara and what drove your interest in the research.

KELLEY

It’s interesting, I started at... At Microsoft, I had this light bulb moment. I never looked around the room and thought there’s not many veterans here, but at some point the light bulb went on. I was like, well there’s not many veterans working at this company, I’m curious why that is. So I went and talked to my boss, Claudette Whiting, who is the Chief Diversity Officer. I said, hey, sister, I think we should make veterans’ service part of our diversity strategy, like it should be part of the experiential diversity that we focus on. She’s like, hey, quit talking about it, do something about it, Kelley.

So I started going to all these events. There’s a lot of them, you read about them, and I actually met Aaron Kay at an event for the National Center for Women in IT where he was presenting on gendered wording in job descriptions. And I was blown away. I was like, I’d never even thought of it. But then I said, hey dude, have you ever done any work in the veterans space? He hadn’t. He went and looked at the psychology, the behavioral psychology literature, and he’s like no one has even written about it, man. There’s no academic research being done. This was six, seven years ago.

And I was like, all right, let’s do something about it, let’s figure out how to get you some money and have Duke... and then he pulled in Dr. Sherman at UCSB as a collaborator. And they’re starting to issue now academic papers so that we can then say hey, what does that mean, like, what’s the policy implication of that? Should we do some off-boarding training in the military that helps this process? What is it? We’re kind of pulling the thread on it. It’s pretty exciting because it’s a new area of research.

And I think things that I intuitively felt, standing across the table, I’m like, man, we’ve got to do better than this. I feel like I’m talking to myself ten years ago and it’s the same. This is bad. It hasn’t changed. We haven’t created a smooth off-boarding. I think hopefully... and we have a lot of interest, hopefully that academic research will lead then to thoughtful discussions about the system and the projects and policy changes that we could start to drive that will make a difference for the long term.

CAHILL

Interestingly, PMI has a military initiative where we assist veterans transitioning into their civilian life. So, similar topic area. In this vein, certainly progress has been made and you do witness some of it based on your experience. What kind of stories are you hearing in terms of success stories for successful transitions? There’s threads out there that are showing us...

KELLEY

Huge. Oh yeah. Yeah. Actually, and like your program, the place we see really the shining lights are transition education where people have done re-skilling or up-skilling as they transition.

So the program I built at Microsoft called the Microsoft Software and Systems Academy, that program takes somebody who shows technical aptitude, so a little bit of an upfront sell to say hey, have you ever dreamed about being a software developer, and go through the “Who, me? Not me.” Like, what’s your math score, are you a hard worker, you look like you’ve had interesting experiences, why don’t you give it a shot. And to go through an 18- or 20-week program and end up in a $100,000 a year job that you never even dreamed about is… You can’t make that stuff up.

I think it’s the... “what’s the dream” question is so big. And for people that get out of the military, they’re taking their uniform off and a lot of them are wedded to that, it’s their identity. And so when you ask them… I talk to a lot of senior folks, they’re like, well, I think I can do anything. And I’m like ehh, we should probably do a little better than that. [laughs] I bet you can, but what do you want to do?

And showing them... the PMP cert is a great one. A lot of people use that to... Because there are a lot of good operations people in the military. But then crystalizing that learning and then being able to say hey, I’m a project manager. Boom, it opens the door.

CAHILL

And it leads to other things, right? Certainly we have found, at least in the project management profession, people come from all different walks of life and disciplines into project management and from there they go to all these different places and opportunities. So it’s a jumping-off spot.

And it goes back to just awareness, basically, and investment in awareness. Because in this case you probably have a great program that you built at Microsoft, it’s probably one of the best in the world, but if the awareness of the program is not out there, it’s not going to do anybody any good. So there is a big, big component of this that you have to get people aware of what’s going on and really market to the right people at the right time of their lives, the moments that matter.

KELLEY

It’s been interesting because I think early on, when I used to go knock on the door at the Department of Defense, they would see like a guy named Kelley from Microsoft and they’re like, what do you want? [laughs] No, you’re not going to hire all of our geeks, you know? [laughs] And I was like, hey, man, I’m honestly here to help. I’ve served and there is some credibility in being able to say look, we know that someone is going to get out at four years, or 40, maybe we can work together.

And to DOD’s credit, VA, they’ve built these skill-bridge programs in recognition of it. So your certification is an official skill bridge, the Microsoft one is an official one. So they say, hey, we’re going to give... we know people, once they raise their hand and say they’re getting out, we’re not going to wait until they’re out the door and tell them good luck, we’re going to let you into their life while they’re transitioning and just ease the bridge.

I think that there’s actually a lot of effort that went into rewriting the GI bill and to giving people access to the base, especially big companies. And the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation really did a lot to open those doors and create a friendly, again, strategic alignment. Like, hey, we’re not trying to poach your talent but we do want to be here and be part of the solution because folks who serve deserve that. They deserve that shot. And we find that people who are within 12 months of getting out, if they can start that ramp they can hit the point where they are employable as soon as they get out, versus six months of stumbling around potentially hitting a downward spiral.

CAHILL

No, it doesn’t take much, right? Just a month here or a month there can lead you into different decisions. So let me ask you… We talked the other day about your involvement in non-profit leadership. So you serve on the Board of the National Board of Trustees for Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation.

KELLEY

Right.

CAHILL

I wanted to get some insight from you on what you see some of the key challenges are of leading in the non-profit world and how do you bring your leadership commitment and the vision and all the insights that we talked about today, how do you bring that into the cause, get it adopted by the team, and take things forward in a positive way?

KELLEY

I think I would encourage... Like, I’ve been involved in a number of efforts over time, whether it’s the local food bank or veteran causes... For me, it’s one, always start with a learner. And we reinforce that learn and listen early. So the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation did a great job of giving me access with my new trustee partners—a few of us started at the same time—to listen to every department head, like, what was their part of the mission, what were they struggling with, to try to just contextualize... for me in my mind the whole time it’s like, how can I help the most and how can my experiences maybe accelerate, in this case, the path to a cure.

And then deciding at what point to actually use my voice. I think that was actually one of the more interesting... because I remember I had my first board meeting, it was in March of this year, and I took pages of notes - just active mind problem - I had all these ideas and stuff. And I was like, hey dude, just close the book, save the notes. These folks have a job to run an amazing organization and they have done a phenomenal job.

I think one challenge in the non-profit world is you’ve always got to be fundraising, which... that is like massively challenging during this particular year. So I think figuring out, how do you learn and listen early, and then I think honestly for mission-oriented stuff, man, be courageous. Like, I’m not gettin’ younger, I don’t really want to be talking about Crohn’s disease not having made a lot of progress toward a cure in 30 years. So I was like, I want to also just be willing to put some positive momentum out and energy to say could we do these things faster. And then honestly trusting the org is led by great leadership. And I think for me as a colleague to the CEO and his staff, like, how can you be helpful. Just be human.

CAHILL

What I’m hearing from you on this topic is, it’s a transformational time for... not just for companies or organizations in general but non-profits have very unique challenges right now.

KELLEY

Are you a “Good to Great” fan?

CAHILL

Yeah sure. I’ve read that book, I don’t know, three times probably.

KELLEY

There’s a thin addendum you can get called “Good to Great for the Social Sectors.”

CAHILL

I have that too.

KELLEY

Yeah, I have a dog eared and highlighted… When I started doing diversity work, I thought this is closer to NGO than for-profit. I think I’m in the middle ground. And I was working on my first diversity and inclusion scorecard and I was like hmm, maybe there’s a different way to think about what success looks like, like how do you determine social value, that kind of stuff. That was an awesome book.

CAHILL

Indeed. Let me just close out by asking you more of a personal question of what your dreams and ambitions and aspirations are going forward into the future, but specific to the future of work, which PMI is very interested and involved with, and society at large. And also, just let us know how you stay engaged and motivated as an individual.

KELLEY

I would say future work for me, and I have always been a... the humans are the key component of everything we do, and the more that we can be human even in the hardest of times and be respectful and compassionate, I think there’s a lot of... as we automate, there’s even more reason to have compassion and empathetic leadership.

For me, I have always led organizations that have been very, very successful from an operational excellence standpoint, like green score cards, deliver the stuff, overachieve, given ten percent back, all the things. But the thing I’m most proud of is at the top of that scorecard I always look at people, like retention of top talent, happy factors high. And people are like, how can you have happy people and crush it that much? I’m like because that’s the secret sauce, man. People who believe in the mission, people who care for each other, people who stick together where turnover is low and when they lean in. That’s actually the secret.

And for some reason, and maybe this is one of those weird things where... Like, so if I can be, through my advisory work that I’m starting to do now, if I can help leaders feel like, you’re not being soft by sharing the love, man, you’re lifting people up... Because sometimes there’s tough love too, right? But you gotta build a lot of soft love in order to give the tough love, it’s this thing. So I work with some leaders now and say, how do you build a culture that is compassionate, empathetic and hard-charging? It’s level-five leadership stuff from Jim Collins. He wrote the book, I’m just a zealot.

So for me, you know, I’m somebody that likes to learn stuff and I’m enjoying rethinking at this phase of having... for me, how do I contribute to society in a way that has a legacy for my family and for the people that I care about. And hopefully it can stretch beyond that if I do great work for veterans or have an impact in bringing more diverse talent in the technology industry.

The hardest challenge for me is actually, Joe, deciding how much time do I want to spend on those things, how much am I willing to give and also still do some fun stuff in life, go crabbing, take my kayak out. And I’m figuring that out now. I’m at an interesting inflection point. But I think deep down inside, I have an equity and justice and wanting to see things better in the world that I think will always be a little bit of a burning light for me.

And I hope leaders in big companies get it—talent is a finite resource. There are literally only so many humans on the planet and help nurture that because then it’s actually... It’s really hard if you’re constantly churning your teams, you’re constantly... just think differently about it. Think about what you can grow and develop and support. And I think that the world for sure would be a better place. I think like the future of organizations that like are B corporations, to think of that triple bottom line or think of the whole picture. I think if we have more organizations think that way, it will be actually better for everybody.

CAHILL

Thank you so much. This has been a very interesting conversation for me. I really enjoyed it. I think you are now clearly one of my most interesting people in the world. So you’re on my...

KELLEY

[laughs] Awesome!

CAHILL

- unofficial list. Yes. You’ve definitely helped me and the broader audience here with topics like listening, the importance of listening, lifetime learning. Thank you so much.