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When Those Who Play Can Also Coach

Jaclyn Crawford Human Resources, Issue 16 - March/April 2015 1 Comment

After a successful career as an HR executive at various large companies, IQTalent Partners President David Windley discusses helping to build organizations from the vantage point of a coach

When David Windley left Yahoo after a shift in the executive offices in 2012, he wasn’t planning to perfect his golf game or bolster his backstroke. “I’m not going to be on the beach and not do anything,” said Windley, who served as a Vice President of Human Resources (HR) at Yahoo before moving up to the Chief HR Officer (CHRO) role.

Rather, the big-business veteran, who also spent time at Microsoft, Intuit and Silicon Graphics, wanted to pursue a second career of sorts through board work, active investing and strategic advising for smaller companies, where he could make a mark by sharing knowledge gained over 25-plus years in the HR field. This time last year, Windley was doing just that as a Governance Fellow at the National Association of Corporate Directors, a Director-at-Large at the Society for Human Resource Management, and a Strategic Advisor for the executive search firm IQTalent Partners. But, when executives at the Salt Lake City-based technology company Fusion-io approached him about joining as Executive Vice President and CHRO, he found it was an offer he couldn’t refuse.

“The reason I joined Fusion-io is the opportunity to help build a company—help build the next great company,” he said. “I’ve been lucky enough to be part of some great companies: Yahoo, Microsoft, Intuit, Silicon Graphics. But I was not there at the early stages in a leadership position to help shape them.”

When industry giant SanDisk Corp. bought Fusion-io in 2014, Windley continued his quest to shape smaller firms by joining IQTalent Partners full time as its President.

“I am attracted to this opportunity because I believe in the business model, and from a career perspective it allows me to cross over to being the business leader,” he said. “Instead of advising a CEO [Chief Executive Officer] on how to build a great company, I now have the opportunity to heed my own advice.”

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Strategically Starting Fresh

Windley believes everything from major strategic decisions to everyday policy choices should be approached with an equally strategic mindset that keeps big goals in mind. What’s more, introducing innovation is a lot easier in a company’s earlier stages, before procedures are set in stone.

In just one example, executives at Fusion-io elected not to implement annual written performance reviews. Windley was constantly communicating with his staff there to pass on praise, offer advice and cultivate a positive corporate culture, and he finds this approach to be a better fit for growing firms like Fusion-io and IQTalent Partners than an annual meeting centered around a cookie-cutter checklist.

“We’re moving toward what I would call a more modern approach, which is performance coaching. Managers should always be coaching their employees to improve their performance, giving feedback and not waiting for an annual process to sit down and write it,” Windley said of the HR field.

Such a shift might take months or years at a multinational company with thousands of employees whose annual reviews are due at different times in a fiscal year. But at smaller institutions, permanent policies are more easily tested to determine the best fit.

“It is less about changing than it is about creating or developing,” Windley said. “IQTalent Partners is a growing firm, so I will have the opportunity to build a corporate culture and implement many HR practices. So that’s different, and it’s also fun. Instead of establishing the old-fashioned way of doing things, we’re just starting with the new way of doing things. You don’t have to break down the policies like you would at a big company.”

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Thinking Like the CEO

No matter the size of the organization, Windley always tries to consider the entity’s long-term goals and strategic plan when making a decision. Sometimes different departments within a company aren’t all on the same page when it comes to hiring decisions, and HR business partners are often the ones caught in the crossfire. An HR business partner may need to advise a reduction in staff or another major change in the structure of the department he or she is supporting, for example.

“Ultimately our function in HR is to make the organization the best it can be,” he said. “It also makes our job tough. But I think that’s what makes a great HR person, someone who, while supporting a piece of the company, can also do the right thing for the overall company.”

Even before becoming a company president himself, Windley made an effort to see things from the perspective of the corner office because it allowed him to consider what was best for the company as a whole and make decisions in line with long-term growth goals. It’s an approach he adopted as an undergraduate at San Diego State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Management, and at San Francisco State University’s College of Business, where he earned his MBA. It’s also advice he passes on, even to entry-level staff.

“I think my focus has always been business first,” he said. “Even if you have a routine job, you can think strategically about your job. My advice is to always have the perspective of the CEO when you are making an individual decision in your role. I think it’s important because it makes you think, ‘What’s in the best interest of the company overall?’”

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Stretching to Become Stronger

Windley advises young professionals to gain broad experience early on before settling into a specialty in order to be better, more well-rounded leaders later. While he has focused his career on HR, Windley’s tenure at Silicon Graphics encompassed a wide variety of assignments that allowed him to apply his expertise while also encouraging him to explore the unknown.

“Try and find those assignments that stretch you and challenge you,” he said, “because that’s where you are going to grow the most.”

Windley_David_image4Windley did a lot of his own growing in his first expatriate assignment for Silicon Graphics, where he served as the HR leader for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Previously, he had worked mostly with specific departments within the company to meet their HR needs. Moving to Europe forced him to step out of his comfort zone and step up to his potential both personally and professionally.

“While I had experience being an HR business partner, Europe was totally new to me early in my career,” he said. “Learning all the laws, all the customs, all the practices in the 30 countries I supported was a major stretch. Operating in different cultures was a major stretch.”

Working overseas helped hone his existing skill set as an HR professional. The most important aspects of the job, he said, sometimes had little to do with strategies he studied in business school or implemented on corporate campuses in the U.S. Windley picked things up by observing experts in international relations, sharpening his listening skills and cultivating queries to get the information he needed to do his job in a sometimes alien environment.

“Because, really, the challenge there is to get smart at what questions you should ask so you get the right context to make a decision,” he noted.

Still Questioning

Windley uses questions to encourage critical thinking from his staff, too. He likens his coaching strategy to the Socratic method, where the facilitator poses queries that lead followers to come to their own conclusions.

“So, instead of telling people the answer, the way I’ve tried to approach it is to let them grapple with the problems,” Windley said. “You, as the coach, are someone who kind of knows the answers. But, instead of telling them, you sort of guide them there by asking leading questions.”

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