Becky Cantieri, VP of Human Resources, discusses how being in the trenches early in her career helped her develop the skills needed to build the HR department at Surveymonkey.
The legendary motto of the Boy Scouts of America is a simple one: “Be prepared.” It’s a good rule for business, too. Why jump into something when you’re not sure you’re ready for it?
Nevertheless, many of Rebecca “Becky” Cantieri’s successes have sprung from ignoring that dictum. Currently Vice President of Human Resources (HR) at SurveyMonkey, she earned a degree in Public Administration with an HR emphasis from San Diego State University, while also working at upscale fashion retailer Nordstrom.
The retailer has an interesting policy. Anyone seeking a position in HR (as she did) must first work on the sales floor. An unusual requirement, perhaps, but a beneficial one. It helped Cantieri understand the sales team’s pressured environment, and the importance of empathy and compassion, while sharpening her overall business acumen.
“I developed a strong orientation toward customer service,” she said, “and that was a huge fundamental, something I’ve carried throughout my career.”
Those in-the-trenches experiences—plus her later management of Nordstrom’s key sales training team—proved to be valuable. “So much of HR’s work supports the business,” Cantieri said. “And you strengthen your credibility by understanding how the company works, and the needs of team members.”
During her graduate studies (MBA/HR) at San Francisco State University, Cantieri worked on a project with the then Vice President of HR at Yahoo!, which led to a recruiting role at the company.
“It was a big jump from retail to the high-tech sector,” Cantieri recalled. “But Yahoo! appreciated the general background I’d developed at Nordstrom.”
Curiosity, Learning & Seizing the Moment
Her strong streak of curiosity is a key reason that her Yahoo! career incorporated work in many areas: recruiting; systems; program and infrastructure development; HR partner for the Advertising Product group, the search/marketplace organizations, and Yahoo!’s Chief Marketing Officer and its Sales/Marketing groups.
“I’ve long been intrigued by new opportunities to learn, so I often took on different responsibilities,” Cantieri said, “even when I felt a bit out of my element.”
That’s what happened in 2003, when Cantieri was invited to join Yahoo!’s Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A) team.
“I was interested in M&A,” she said, “but didn’t think I knew enough about it to switch.” Colleagues urged her to accept.
“It was probably the single best learning experience in my entire career,” she beamed. “Global travel, organizing development teams, analyzing target companies.”
During this time, she also made her first contacts with SurveyMonkey executives. David Windley, now president of IQ Talent Partners, was a key supporter. “He was Yahoo!’s HR Chief at the time.” Cantieri said. “I spent six months as his chief of staff, working side by side with him on everything HR related.”
But Windley’s tutelage included even more. “He encouraged me to move into new roles and to rely on what I already knew,” she said. “He taught me to study other people, even those in peripheral functions [to HR], and I learned from them as well.”
When Cantieri joined SurveyMonkey in 2011, she found several former Yahoo! colleagues already there, but no HR Department.
“There was one recruiter. The Finance Department was in charge of payroll; managers handled employee relations on their own,” she said. “And that’s typical of start-ups—a few people wear many hats.”
Senior management, however, was eager to implement a formal HR structure. And the key was prioritization.
“We had to understand where the business was headed, what we wanted to achieve, and the ways we could get there,” Cantieri said. “Then we set out to develop HR infrastructure, resources and capabilities that would meet those needs.”
Flexibility was important, too. Many SurveyMonkey executives came from other companies, bringing their own perspectives on philosophy and strategies.
“Our programs had to satisfy the company as well as the various executives,” Cantieri acknowledged. “We couldn’t just use a ‘solution in a box.’”
Recruiters & Staff: Two Sides of the Coin
Although recruiters and HR staff at SurveyMonkey have related functions, their skill sets are quite different. Recruiters must build relationships with the client team, find and bring in suitable candidates, and then work with them through the hiring process. HR team members tend to be problem-solvers, immersed in everything from compensation issues to employee relations to performance reviews.
Nevertheless, “My team creates a great experience,” Cantieri said, “because each group appreciates how the other complements it.”
Experiential Learning & Paying It Forward
As the leader of SurveyMonkey’s HR and Recruiting team, Cantieri encourages her staff to take leaps of faith in their careers. Whether they’re senior leaders or recent college graduates, she provides them with hands-on learning opportunities, as Windley did for her.
Cantieri works closely with her team to set HR achievement goals, design programs and get the leaders’ endorsement. “It’s been great to watch the team grow and develop,” she said. “They’ve created some important new programs like new employee orientation and college recruitment initiatives, which directly impact the quality and growth of our company.”
Lemons to Lemonade
Cantieri finds learning opportunities even in failure, and uses Yahoo!’s multi-billion-dollar strategic partnership with Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group to illustrate.
“We were in the middle of an extremely complicated deal involving the transfer of our Chinese assets to Alibaba,” she said. “We had made transactions like this before, and we had prepped our executive team from the standard playbook so they could present details about the proposal to the employees.”
It didn’t go well. In the middle of negotiations, the Chinese employees took a strong stand against a particular issue—a position that Yahoo! executives had not anticipated.
“Fortunately, we were able to work up a revised plan,” Cantieri said. “One that sat better with the affected employees. I learned, in that moment, the importance of always arming the executive team with an alternative plan. It was one of the scariest things I’ve worked through.” ♦
Take the Leap
Becky Cantieri’s career is peppered with professional leaps of faith—moving headlong into new situations despite self-doubt. It’s an approach she favors for other executives as well.
“If you’re not willing to take some risks, you may miss some meaningful opportunities. I didn’t think I was quite ready for mergers and acquisition work, for example,” she said, “but it turned out to be a great experience for me.”
If you’re contemplating a move, she suggests discussing it with other professionals first: your mentors, or as Cantieri likes to say, “your personal board of directors.” Their observations of your capabilities often will be more objective than your own assessment, making their input that much more valuable.
That’s why she had long discussions before joining SurveyMonkey with David Windley and Kristen Robinson (another Yahoo! mentor, and now Chief HR Officer at Internet radio service Pandora). The consensus? “We wish you would stay… but you can’t dismiss this incredible opportunity.”
An overly cautious approach can keep you safe, Cantieri acknowledged, but it also can prevent you from being professionally creative and trying new things. “Sometimes, the risky ventures will lead to big breakthroughs,” she added. “And if things blow up, turn to Plan B and go from there.”
Becky's Key Partners:i2i Benefits (Benefits Broker) | Denise Rabius Consulting (Leadership Development Consulting) | Middle Path Consulting (Executive Coaching)
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