top of page

EP 12: Monica Pool Knox, Chief People Officer and Board Director - ex: Microsoft, Twitter, PepsiCo

Podcast Transcript

James Mackey  0:00  

Hello, and welcome to episode 12 of Talent Acquisition Trends and Strategy. Today we are joined by Monica Pool Knox. Monica, thanks for joining us today.


Monica Pool Knox  0:19  

Hi, James. Thanks for having me.


James Mackey  0:21  

I'm so excited to speak with you. And before we jump into the topics that we want to talk about, I was hoping you could tell our audience a little bit about yourself.


Monica Pool Knox  0:29  

Yes, sure. Well, I am a California Bay Area native, which gets me in a lot of trouble being in Seattle. I started my career in telecom. So it's kind of a time when we were doing some really cool things. And in telecom that was kind of tech-ish, like, and did a stint in entertainment work for PepsiCo with CPG company, but then found my way back to tech. 


I've worked for a variety of companies, big companies, like Sony,  and Microsoft that you heard of, smaller companies like Twitter, although that's considered a large tech company, and then most recently, LivePerson and Amperity. So a variety of, mostly public, had a private experience, and typically global tech organizations that are growing.


James Mackey  1:28  

Yeah, I think I've pretty much every single company you've worked for. So it's definitely really impressive. And I know that you have so much great insight to share with everybody today. So thanks, again, for being here. 


And just to recap, we can start kind of a big picture of what you're seeing out there in terms of talent acquisition, and then we can maybe kind of honed in on some tactical things that leaders can be doing to achieve great results. But just at a high level, I would love to get your thoughts on what you're seeing in the talent acquisition recruiting, kind of market right now, particularly within tech. 


What are you seeing out there? What trends? Are you seeing anything that any insights that you could share with us would be super helpful?


Monica Pool Knox  2:06  

Yes, sure. Well, let me maybe set the context, a little more broadly, just in this whole space of talent, because I think that with the pandemic, it's a time that we've obviously never seen before, that's put this interesting demand on the talent function. There are so many things happening in the world that we live in, and we don't leave our experiences just outside of the doors of the virtual doors of our companies, right?  We bring them in with us. 


And so whether you're talking about, the Me too movement,  this recent Supreme Court, leaks about abortion rights, whether you're talking about Black Lives Matter, Asian hate crimes, mental health, the war in Ukraine. There are so many things that people are emotionally dealing with and struggling with. And when these kinds of these systems fail, right, you know, the government that maybe we get, maybe we look for some solace in the government, we maybe look for solace in our communities, and we haven't been able to come together for the last two years, until most recently. So that even coming together with family has been challenging, maybe we look for some solace within our church and faith. And again, you know, challenges of coming together that may or may not work for us. 


And so what happens is, we tend to take those needs that we have into our, into our offices, into our employers, and all of a sudden the role of HR has really evolved in it's become not just about, running the business with a strategic mindset around talent, it's really helping people deal with real issues that they're bringing into the workplace that are having an impact on their productivity. And so it's the most challenging time I think that I've ever seen in my career to be in this function. And it's interesting that we're seeing people moving out of HR, like, at an unprecedented, unprecedented rate, because it's just challenging, it's just hard. 


And leaders are looking up and they're saying, Oh, my gosh, you know, if I haven't had a talented leader before, I really need one because they don't know how to manage through some of these issues. So, this is kind of the broader context around what's happening as relates to overall, you know, people and talent and culture.


More specifically James as it relates to your question about talent acquisition, because of this environment we've been living in and we've proven that we can actually do quite a few jobs remotely that perhaps we weren't sure we could do before. Do them quite well. It's really opened up the aperture for companies to look for talent anywhere in the world quite frankly. Very progressive companies are saying hey, you know, we might be sitting in Colorado but if you live in Spain that works for us. So vice versa, I'm seeing that. And so what it's done is just create this ultra-competitive market when it's competitive, because now companies that may not have considered talent due to geography, are rethinking that. And so it's just got more talent to consider.


On the other hand, you've got folks who have more options to think about. So, maybe in your local market, if the pickings are slim for what you want to do, you don't necessarily have to be limited to that. And so it gives the candidate a lot more options too. So it's a really insane time. And I have a feeling that you know, MBA programs and business schools around the country will be looking back and writing history books about it. Having said that, I don't think there's necessarily a book ending to this. I think that what we're experiencing is a shift, a real shift, and an evolution in business and talent. And I actually think it's for the better.

James Mackey  6:00  

I think so too. And one of the points that you made was talking about how challenging it is to be in any type of people function, whether that be traditional more or so, HR or talent acquisition. But it's also time to make a significant impact. It's a time when talent acquisition and people functions really matter and are being pushed front and center. So, it's definitely, as you said, incredibly challenging. But really, I think that that's going to be the difference for companies that, you know, win or lose, and are able to really take advantage of growth opportunities over the next few years. 


I mean, it's not just, you know, small organizations making these shifts to remote. I mean, you see, companies like Airbnb coming out, saying that you can work from anywhere in the world, a lot of smaller companies will say, hey, we did that two years ago.  The reason it's important is it shows that like, bigger tech employers are recognizing the importance of a people-first culture and that we're kind of moving beyond a phase where companies can just provide that as kind of lip service saying, Hey, we actually care, you know, we care about people, but then they have bad PTO policies, or they have a PTO policy, but no minimum policy or their capacity planning is totally out of whack. So people don't actually feel empowered to take time off. 


You start to see a better alignment of people actually thinking about organizational structure and change from a people-first perspective. And I think the companies that are really achieving growth obviously need people to fuel that growth. And hopefully, we're starting to see more and more companies understand this. We are seeing more, but hopefully, that trend is something that continues out there.


Monica Pool Knox  7:40  

Yeah, absolutely. And I think every company says, We value our people. I mean, maybe there's somebody that says we don't value our people, but I haven't, I don't run into a company that says we don't value our people or, every company's people are our greatest asset, right? It's the oldest tagline you've heard of.  But yet,  kind of, to your point, the operationalization of that is not aligned in a lot of cases. 


And so, people in my function and HR, you know, we have to be really careful about the companies that, you know, we align ourselves with, because, yes, this idea of being people first, is really now becoming, like, you don't have an alternative, like, there's, there's a demand being placed, you know, on businesses to evolve to be people first. And, I think that's great, it's also putting a demand on the talent leaders, to be creative, to be at the table, to lead, to take risks, to maybe do what's not the norm, because who knows what the norm is anymore? 


A lot of us are asking each other, what are you doing? What are you doing? You know, we don't, there isn't like this, you know, kind of formula that says, you know, one plus one equals two, and this is what you do, this is how you do it. I still think we're living through this experiment of whatever it is: hybrid work, remote work. And I think, again, to your point for a lot of us, you know, smaller companies, tech companies in my industry. Yeah, this isn't a new concept. 


But for other industries. I sit on the board of a healthcare organization. I mean, there are some jobs you can do remotely, and there are just some jobs that are impossible to do remotely. And so how do you work through all of those things, even having a really clear set of criteria around what's remote and what's not? Because there were a lot of people that asked to work remotely.  We have the technology, if you're a receptionist, at a company and your job is to greet people that come into the door, you actually can do that remotely like there's technology. Right? 


Now, from a cultural perspective, the business might say, well, we prefer not to do it,  but, what's happening is I think also the convergence of things like zoom, and teams and really good technology, technology solutions that enable us to be kind anywhere in the world and still engaged. I mean, when I was at Microsoft, the last assignment that I had was leading HR for a division called mixed reality. And my goodness, you know, I was sitting next to somebody in a room that was a hologram of them. They weren't physical, but they were holograms, you know, the technology exists where you actually can do that, and I've seen companies that are moving into that space. 


And so, with the convergence of technology, what we're able to do is drive some very interesting conversations with business leaders and talent leaders.


James Mackey  10:45  

What did that say? It's gonna be the new version of hybrid work, it's like opposed to going into the office two days a week, it's going to be your hologram coming. Like, alright, I'm not gonna be there but my hologram will.  I mean, that's funny. 


So I really want to get your take on the great resignation. Obviously, it's become a very buzzy term. And I was hoping to get your thoughts just based on your experience, the companies you've worked with, and what the data really shows behind the great resignation at this point in time?


Monica Pool Knox  11:17  

Appreciate the question, because I think it's also the great reshuffle, that's another terminology that we've heard. But, if you look at pre-pandemic levels of job changes, and employment changes and the percent of maybe a trips that people had, and then comparing it to the time, you know, that we've had, for the last couple of years of the pandemic, you do see this shift, where a higher percentage of people are changing jobs. 


There's also some data that suggests that's not actually happening at the rate, that maybe there's a, there's an assumption around. There's some questioning around, you know, the data of what we're seeing.  I think that it's important for companies to really look at their own data, and identify whether, there really has been a shift in the attrition of their own companies, versus kind of playing into this narrative that, we're hearing from this industry that says, this is, you know, like 10x, or 4x, or 5x, whatever times people that are actually leaving companies.


I do think that that may be happening in pockets, I'm not sure it's happening at every company. So, I just think that people need to be really focused on their own data. Your data can be challenging, right? Because in some companies data is clean, you know how leaders are using it daily, and in other cases, the data isn't clean. 


The other good thing, though, I think about this conversation around the great resignations, is it's a challenge. Again, it's another demand in organizations, regardless of whether you're seeing huge spikes or not to really think about, you know, how do we retain our talent?  Particularly with a diversity conversation, especially in tech, like no surprise, tech is not an industry that's known for seemingly diverse teams and leadership deeds.


But, with great resignation, I just think that it's important for people to look at their own data and to be creative and think about, okay, versus hiring, hiring, hiring, how do we retain, retain, retain, like, if we could just retain the diverse talent that we have. The talent that we have, what would be the huge shift that we would see, versus having this focus on hiring. It's harder to retain, and hire, it's easier, it's more transactional, and there's strategic work to it, as well. 


But to retain means we're thinking about how we're thinking about our managers, the quality of the managers, right? Managers are the linchpin of any organization. We have to think about how we communicate with people, we have to think about how we are growing and developing our talent. 


People will leave companies even when they like the products and services and the mission and all of that and like, you know, even their leaders. But if they're not growing, if they don't feel that their skills are getting sharper every day, they're gonna go someplace where they feel they can develop, and so, we have to really, you know, think about the whole retention aspect. And then on the recruiting side of it. 


I think one of the dynamics that I'm seeing in this competitive market is that regardless of all those other things I just mentioned, right?  The mission, the vision, and again, I think development is an important part of that. But what I'm seeing is that candidates have a propensity to go to workplaces where they have relationships. When I was at a previous company, we were able to scale our team, we tripled the number of folks within HR, and most of that was in recruiting at this crazy competitive time. And why it was because people knew me, people knew the focus on my direct team, and they were making decisions about whom they wanted to work with, from a values perspective. 


And this goes back to a manager's capability, but really thinking about, who are folks within the organization that really have those broader networks, and not even just a network of people they work with because we all can look at LinkedIn and we can say, Oh, I have this many people that I'm connected to. But it's really thinking about followership, you know, this other level of leadership, I think that's kind of a ladder if you will, or in my head, I'm, visualizing maybe a pyramid, you know, kind of at the tip of that spear as we think about levels of leadership, we see followership. And that's where people are so they're so bought into the values of the leader that they're willing to go with that leader. That's where I think, you know, it takes some time to get there. 


That's another level of leadership. And it takes a lot of training and work and Falcon and all that. But I think if companies can get to that point and recognize that, you can cut through a lot of this competitive talent, you know, issues, and maybe they have good talent, they want to work with other good talents. And so that's another strategy. We talked about retention, that's another strategy on the recruit recruiting side, to really build teams quickly in this competitive environment.


James Mackey  17:13  

Right. I mean, I think you're right, like just getting into the concept, as you put it earlier in the notes that you shared was a relationship based recruiting, right? I mean, that is key. And a lot of people come from the thought processes that they don't want to even hire, whether it be a VP of sales or VP of people ops, or whatever it might be. They don't want to hire people that don't have strong networks and don't have a list of people that they can call on to scale out a team. And I do agree that it's the best-case scenario. Like if you can hire a company full of leaders that inspire people to come on board. That's definitely super helpful. 


What I would say is if we wanted to think about how to put a process around this for organizations that maybe they want to develop, they want to help their leaders develop, is there a way like, I mean, I suppose one thing that leaders can be doing is obviously, like publishing content on LinkedIn, they can be taking different speaking engagements, there are ways that they can build those networks and potentially strong relationships to add to their team.  Even if they don't have, you know, for companies that they worked for previously, that they can pull relationships from. There are probably other ways that they can develop that. 


Do you think that organizations should help leaders put more of an emphasis on Hey, what are you doing to strengthen relationships, kind of strengthen your own kind of personal brand, if you will so that you can constantly have, to some extent, a funnel of top talent readily available for you? Do you feel like that should be a bigger focus that organizations make to help their leaders?


Monica Pool Knox  18:52  

Well, I think that's really two things. I think one is, building your networks.  And to your point, you can easily do that on LinkedIn, you can go to LinkedIn, webinars, you can post content, you can get connected to groups and have a voice there.                                          


If it's a group, I encourage people to think about groups different from their own community, right? If you are not a part of the LBGT community then get connected to a group that is to expand your network or, gender that's not your gender or ethnic group or other disability like other experiences that people are having, that you can learn from. So I think it's kind of a two-way thing, right? 


Because the more you get connected to broader networks, the more you're going to get a different perspective and learn and grow as a leader and I always advocate for that and I think that's a full-time job. I think you should always be doing that. I think this thing about building your personal brand, I would say starts at home. Start with your own company. You can do that on LinkedIn for sure. But I think you want to start where you are. Because, followership starts with people being bought into your values, being bought into you as a leader. 


And the people you work with every day, regardless of whether you have a management job where you have people pouring into you,  or you're just working with colleagues. They will experience you in some kinds of ways. And I think it's also just being true to yourself, right? You don't want to create some persona, that's not really you. But look,  you were hired at your company, because you have a set of skills, but also you have a value set that people felt was an addition to the culture. And so start where you are, and just be consistent, be intentional. 


I think it's important as a leader to understand who it is that you're working with. At Microsoft, which is where I was when the pandemic hit, we started doing check-ins, like, you might spend 15 minutes, 10 minutes, maybe, or 15 minutes, maybe your five minutes, whatever it is, just to say, Hey, how are you doing? 


That simple question can open up so many other kinds of conversations around really what's going on in people's lives. And when you can really tap into real human and personal experiences, because like, you can say all day, that business is not personal, but it is, it's very personal.


James Mackey  21:31  

I never understood that when people honestly would say, oh, it's business!  What do you mean? This is how we're spending the majority of the week working. And when my colleagues and my clients, it feels pretty, pretty personal.


Monica Pool Knox  21:48  

Right? And to the extent that you develop those connections with people, and then,  you add on top of that, the way that you're working and you're getting some good results, and you're bringing people along, that's how you develop, you know, followership. 


So I would say start where you are, and wherever you are, and it doesn't even have to be, you know, can be the volunteer setting as well. Just be thoughtful about the people that are around you, and really be thinking about their needs, and, providing clarity for them, understand their goals. I think it's fascinating how many managers if you talk to, and were to ask, what is it that each of your direct reports, what are their goals? What are they trying to do in the next year or two, a lot of managers, at least in my experience, say, I don't know, we've never had that conversation.


But it means so much, for a manager to say, I really just want to understand what is important to you. What do you want to do in your career, you know, or even personally, how can I be helpful, then you start to really tap into that human side, and then think about that in the course of the work, right? Because let's say you have someone who wants to publish a book about X, Y, or Z, you know, what I know of a publisher, why don't you talk to this person to just start getting some information, that stickiness at a real human level that I believe starts the whole process of followership?


James Mackey  23:10  

Right. What's really interesting about that, too, is I think, a lot of companies, particularly at the scale that you've worked with, in the past, everything is focused on, process and operations and scale and, and how do we move faster? And how do we go bigger? And how do we leverage our time more effectively? 


And what's interesting is that regardless of what stage of growth, my own companies that are with my clients always, so many things come back to the relationship, human level where there are just some things that you don't necessarily want to scale, it doesn't make sense to scale. You can't have a deep relationship with, you know, 100,000 people on LinkedIn, I mean, maybe Sure, you can develop a following for sure. And that brand can be valuable, and it can help with the acquisition. But as you just said, I mean, the real like relationship first approach, it's like in HR as a, there's not to say that there's anything wrong with surveys, right? I mean, that those can still be valuable. But you're when you really get in there and have conversations with your people. That's where you're going to really learn a lot of the most valuable insights and feedback, I think, whether it's, you know, it's more of an HR focus or talent acquisition or professional development, or, one on one setting between a manager and employee, like, really diving into those conversations is where most of the value can be found for everybody. 


So it's interesting because a lot of the most of the high-level successful people that I speak with, across, you know, to be CPO, CFO, CEOs, or just, you know, function level executives, like maybe like a VP of sales or talent acquisition, they all really do point back to like, of course, yes. Like I need to understand operationally how to scale my function. And at the same time, I can never lose my pulse on relationships.


The people that seem to be the most successful that I've spoken with. That's a very very consistent message. It's like, yes, scale, yes to process yes to all of that optimizing and iterating and testing and all that. But there's that fundamental piece where it's like, I still have to be able to, you know, virtually or in person, talk with my team and really get into it and figure out what's going on.


Monica Pool Knox  25:18  

Yeah, that's right. I mean, one of the things that I did, and that's a live person, for that very reason, I started a small group called culture chats. We just sat down with like, five or six people, every week, and we just had a conversation, we'd haven't a big agenda, and here are the things we're going to talk about. And they were so valuable. And we identified by talent through that, I mean, you know, like our employer brand leader was a part of those, and we featured some of our, you know, employers and employees and, you know, different campaigns and, and we were able to pull them in for different projects and things like that. 


But it didn't start out with that. Started out with really just understanding what was the pulse of the organization, and it always took a different path. None of these small group meetings were the same. But over time, we were able to talk to like half of the company, by just simply being consistent. Sometimes we had, you know, two or three a week. Sometimes they were larger, they may have been eight to 10 people. But the point was to keep them relatively small so that you could have some level of intimacy, and talk about the things that were really important. Sometimes they were women, sometimes they were, you know, as our Australian group, people that sit in a particular geography, people who were newly hired, people who have been at the company for 10 years, right? 


So, there are ways to do that. But I would agree that it's so important to stay connected, and it's hard as a leader, right? Because I'm thinking about my client, Microsoft, a 1000s of people, you're not going to have one on ones. But however, you do it. I mean, that was just what I described as an example of one way. But, thinking about how we use technology as well, I think it's really important for leaders to prioritize.


James Mackey  27:14  

100%, I couldn't agree more with you there. And as we're coming up on time, we have about five minutes left today. I wanted to touch on one of the last topics that we discussed, or potentially brought up today. And it was about how to think about ex-employees and potentially the full kind of employee lifecycle, if you will, which I think and most organizations kind of ends when employment ends. But some of the higher-level people that I've been speaking with view it a little bit differently. 


And I'm kind of curious to figure out how you view, how that relationship can continue, and how we should be thinking about, essentially the alumni that pass through our organization and move on. I mean, how are you thinking about that? That employee lifecycle?


Monica Pool Knox  27:57  

Yeah, I mean, again, what we're experiencing now, and also, I even said, prior to the pandemic, it's very common, in Silicon Valley techs work for a place for two years and move on a year, three years, you know, in fact, it's kind of a joke, if you stay too long, oh, my God, you're here for four years, what's wrong? Can you find another job? So, you know, it kind of sounds a little different for people in other industries. 


But the point is that in every company you keep going, you're gonna have people who've worked there and who've left and, you know, there is a mentality I've seen where it's like, okay, you've left, you're dead to me. I've seen that a lot. But then I think it's, with what we're experiencing, it's smart to just rethink the way we see people that come and go in the organization. 


One of the things we see like at Microsoft, is we have a tonne of boomerangs, people that laughed and came back. So you just never know, you never know when the person may leave and develop new skills and other places and then come back more valuable. Or sometimes you might see, these folks who leave start their own businesses. And is there a partnership there? Potentially, could they be a customer of yours or a place or community that you can go to and get feedback on new products or services because they work there and they cared about the company, probably still do, and probably still have maintained relationships. 


So, this idea when people leave the company, it's just this transactional experience, you know, they're here, and then they're gone. I think we need to think about it more in an ecosystem. Those same people may be referring candidates to work for your company. And so how do you think about the ecosystem in a way that will help you, you know, get information, get connected, that expands and broadens your network? And potentially, who knows, maybe some of those folks will come back you know, stronger, smarter, more experienced that can help you grow. 


So I just think that rethinking that idea of alumni or just that idea of alumni. What that means is a smart strategy for businesses.


James Mackey  30:08  

So one thing that I'm going to take you through a little bit and SecureVision, probably still a little bit too small for this, but I'm, I was just kind of like mulling around in my head, just, how would it work? Like if there was maybe some kind of official alumni group? Right? That where it's like, it's like, sponsored by the organization, right? And there's some kind of level of perks to being part of the group. And it basically just keeps people connected that at one point had worked for a certain organization and as kind of like a networking opportunity, as well as just a shared resource pool. Maybe there's like access to certain benefits, stuff like that. 


I haven't really flushed it out completely. But I think that there might be something there. Right? I don't know if you've ever heard of something like that.


Monica Pool Knox  30:51  

Yeah, well, some companies have that, and some definitely already have that. I mean, and I think,  even on LinkedIn, you'll find you know, alumni, groups of different companies, I know, I'm involved in a number of them, and they're very, that even just that is very helpful. But then you'll see some organizations that actually organize their alumni community, but of course, you know, it may take some resources, like it may take some people dedicated to, to kind of, shepherding that community and building it up. 


But whether it's formal or informal, I definitely think it's worthwhile to figure out how to leverage that alumni community, like everybody that leaves a company is not going to want to stay connected to it. Maybe they left, you know, they left and they weren't happy about something that can change over time, too. Right. They may have left unhappy, got a perspective, and maybe, you know, will come around over time to really want to help and support the company. So yeah, I think organizing in some kind of way. Makes a lot of sense.


James Mackey  31:54  

Sure, definitely. Well, this has been a lot of fun. And I feel like we can keep going for quite a while back and forth on a lot of different experiences. So if you're open to it, maybe we can continue the conversation sometime in the next few months, three to six months, and we could do this again. 


Monica,  I just want to say thank you so much for joining us today. This has been a blast. And I guess real quick actually before we jump off if people want to follow you online, where's the best place to find you?


Monica Pool Knox  32:20  

Thank you, James. It was great to be here.


Professionally, the best way is LinkedIn. So you can find me there and you know, shout out, say hi, if you want to connect, DM me as well.


James Mackey  32:31  

Great. Great. Well, everybody that's tuning in. Thank you so much for joining us and we'll talk to you next time. 

bottom of page