CHRO Kristen Robinson and the collaborative cooperation that keeps Pandora Radio hitting all the right notes
When speaking with accomplished business professionals across a variety of disciplines, there is, broadly speaking, clear divergence into two camps insofar as how they talk about their story and their growth. In one, the path is linear. There tends to be a steady graduation, often within the same particular specialization and advice couched within the confines of hierarchy, along a straightforward ride to their current career destination. In the other, the route is considerably more circuitous; this does not, mind you, have to be the product of repeated speed bumps or missteps, but rather borne simply out of an adventurous spirit and a genuine interest in different avenues and focuses along the way.
In a career that has seen her make stops in, among other things, accounting, finance, marketing and now human resources (HR), Kristen Robinson consistently has pursued excellence while firmly remaining a member of this latter group, demonstrating humility, cooperation and an uncontainable curiosity at every place she’s been.
The Value of Values
Having recently arrived at Pandora (in March 2014), it felt only fitting to lead with the obvious of what drew Robinson there in terms of synchronizing her personal and professional ideals. Having been quoted previously as being a person who strives to incorporate “excellence, adventure and beauty” as she travels her career path, Robinson spoke to the ways in which each are pursued and achieved at Pandora.
“I always look for an environment that values excellence. I have high standards, and I want to be working with people who have those same high standards. The people that I work with at Pandora definitely have a commitment to doing things of very high quality—they do really great work,” she said. “One of the ways I think about adventure is from the standpoint of exploring ideas. I want to be in a company where people are curious and willing to explore new ideas—ideas that take them out of their comfort zone. We’ve got a lot of people here at Pandora who are really interested in doing things differently, doing things the way they have never been done before. On the beauty side, music has always been an important part of my life and one way that I experience beauty. The fact that I’m in a company where music is at its core, the reason it exists, is just complete icing on the cake for me. There are so many ways that Pandora represents who I am.”
Connections, Credibility & Cooperation
An interesting part of Robinson’s story, perhaps informing the whole of how she’s been such a cooperative and magnanimous leader, has been her aforementioned stops at all sorts of seemingly disparate departments within different companies. As a graduate of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, concentrating on Strategy, Marketing and Organizational Behavior, Robinson described herself as always being interested, at least tangentially, in the elements that go into HR. After working as a CPA, earning her MBA and spending time in finance, she had a conversation that truly opened the door.
“I’m a firm believer in being really open about what you want to do.”
“It was just through a short conversation that I had with someone over lunch, where we were asking each other, ‘If you could do anything you wanted in a job, what would you do?’ and I said, I’d love to be in HR.’ Then she said ‘Wow! There’s a position in recruiting open, would you like to try that?’ And I thought, ‘Why not?’ This would become a theme throughout my career, that I tell someone that I am interested in pursuing something else next,” Robinson said. “I’m a firm believer in being really open about what you want to do. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to switch jobs, but once people know about your aspirations, they can actually keep an eye out for opportunities for you. I say tell people what you’re interested in, and they can only help.”
Robinson also stresses partnership with all employees, from executives to employees and managers. “Now that I’m in HR, the fact I’ve worked in marketing or finance gives me more credibility, because managers and business leaders see that I get their world. When I talk to employees or managers, I often open the conversation by saying, ‘I’m really curious about what it’s like to live a day in your life, what it’s like to be in your role.’ If I can put myself into their shoes, it helps me understand and diagnose the issues in the organization so that ultimately I can help make the organization and the people in it more effective. Whenever you have common experiences with someone and whenever you can empathize with what their experience is like, even if you’ve never experienced it yourself, there’s just a stronger human connection and you can work better together.”
Consolidating & Casting the Vision
Specifically regarding her recent career move to Pandora, Robinson spoke about the organizational structure she and the company desired to bring about at the time of her hiring. Robinson talked not only about that experience, but also about the commingling of intrinsic characteristics both she and the company hold in high regard.
“Before I came, there were two organizations that would normally fall under one HR leader: Learning and Development was one, and then all the other parts of HR were another. When the new Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Brian McAndrews, came on board last September, he wanted one person to lead all of this,” Robinson said. “When I started, I interviewed and met with every single person on my team. What I heard over and over again was that people didn’t know what was going on in other parts of the department. They didn’t feel connected.”
“Companies attract people who are like them.”
Having begun to rectify these issues formally through the use of forums and meetings amongst the entire department, Robinson also has taken the extra step of building a foundation through new purpose, vision and principles for HR at Pandora.
“I created these forums to bring everything under one roof and get people more connected,” she said.
Referencing the purpose, vision and principles, Robinson noted that those are “important foundations because they talk about why we exist in this company and what purpose we serve, so we can all rally around that mission. It also tells us the direction we want to go, and how we achieve what we want to achieve in terms of aspiration. And then the principles are more about what we believe in and how we behave together.”
Robinson and McAndrews share in a cooperative, non-hierarchical pursuit, and strive to grow those attributes throughout a company whose goal is to expand exponentially. To these points, Robinson talked about the ground-level recruitment of people who match closely with Pandora’s purpose and principles and a culture of communication within the confines of a vision ultimately cast by the CEO.
“The new CEO wanted to take a look at the company purpose, vision and principles, and so I’ve been leading a process with the executive team and our senior leaders to review those and validate and reshape them. For me, that’s one of the things that enables us to scale,” Robinson said. “If we’ve got this really strong foundation and we’re communicating it to every employee, we have a way to fulfill and grow the culture the way we want. One of the most important ways to maintain a culture and scale is to make sure that every person you hire demonstrates the characteristics that are consistent with the culture and what you believe in as a company. Every person that we bring in has been interviewed by numerous people. Because one of our principles, we believe in the power of humility; we actually screen and select people based on how humble they are and whether or not they’re collaborative. Do they speak with ‘we’ as opposed to ‘I’ in interviews?”
Pandora’s culture is one where people thrive within a team concept and deflect praise and focus away from themselves, Robinson stressed. She proffered that she always has been attracted to companies which place an onus on teamwork, cross-functional partnership and a lack of emphasis on hierarchy, while also keeping to the overall vision cast by the CEO.
“Companies attract people who are like them, who have the same characteristics as the culture. We’re all adults that have had various experiences and lots of education, but the problems of the 21st century are so complex that no one person is smart enough to figure it out him or herself,” Robinson said. “I just love getting ideas from other people. I may come up with what I think is a good idea, but as soon as I start bringing in other people, we get a much better idea, collectively. Getting other people involved takes it to the next level. Partnership, regardless of rank [within the company], just gets you to a better outcome. At the same time, the vision has to be cast by the leader. As the HR leader, I have to do things that support the greater vision of the CEO and the company.”
Filling Your Life With Things You Love
Finally, referring to both personal and professional advice she would offer to young professionals in any sphere, Robinson again leaned more heavily upon adventure and a holistic approach versus particularization.
“Stay in touch with people you worked with at previous companies. Tap your alumni from school. Your network is right there at your fingertips,” Robinson said. “To boil it down to a core element, successful networking starts with a curiosity and an interest in what people are doing, and an assumption that there is something for me to learn and apply from that. There’s something that I can apply to HR from Marketing, from Product Development. Inevitably, there’s something to learn [outside of your function] that’s applicable.”
With regard to one’s personal life and the totality of a person, beyond his or her capacity as an employee, Robinson was unequivocal: “I say work hard, live hard. Fill your life with things you love. It’s really about people feeling like they’re working for a purpose that’s bigger than themselves. They’re working on interesting things, and they can grow and develop and be a fulfilled person. Not just a fulfilled worker, but a fulfilled person.”
To this end, Pandora does its part to contribute to its employees’ happiness and to allow for them to lead fuller, richer lives. The company has a giving-back practice that allows employees to take off 40 hours per year, paid, to do volunteer work.
It’s quite clear in speaking with Robinson that the importance she places on every aspect and every employee within a company is not the least bit superfluous. By creating an atmosphere of respect, humility and creativity, she and Pandora have captured lightning in a professional bottle and are sending sweet harmonies across every station of their business. Talk about a hit! ♦
Kristen's Key Partners:Trimergence, LLC (Executive Development) | Leading Change Consulting & Coaching (Leadership Coaching & Development) | Appirio (HR Technology Strategy Consulting) | Compensia (Executive Compensation Consulting) | Radford, An Aon/Hewitt Company ( Compensation Data & Advice) | Heidrick & Struggles (Executive Search & Consulting)
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