Q&A: Elizabeth Runham, HR Director Asia Pacific for Facebook
Steve Brown, Managing Director at ChapmanCG, spoke to Elizabeth (Lizzie) Runham, HR Director Asia Pacific for Facebook, about HR’s role in creating the culture at Facebook, the influence of her school headmaster, and her career advice for the next generation of HR practitioners.
Can you tell us a bit about your role with Facebook? What do you enjoy most about your role?
I am the HR Director for the region and part of the People team. Along with my colleagues in Recruiting, Learning & Development, Operations & Rewards, we are responsible for the People agenda across the whole of Asia.
I feel very lucky to work in a job responsible for People, at a company which deeply understands and appreciates that every single aspect of the employee experience needs to be exceptional, including the overall culture, to match our ambitions around user experience. The two here are very closely correlated.
How would you describe the culture at Facebook? How does HR help to create this culture?
Facebook is a mission-focused company. Everyone’s role at Facebook is focused on helping to build communities and to bring the world closer together. And with each employee that we hire at Facebook, we play to their strengths so that they can create the best and most impact in their roles.
We want to create an environment where employees feel empowered to take initiatives and know that they are supported constantly in what they do, within or outside of work. To make that happen, it’s important that we have managers at work who are authentic and genuinely care about the well being of their team.
We often talk about leading from behind or leading from the middle; leaders aren’t expected to ‘hold on’ to the right answer and steer their teams to it, but they should help their team unlock the best answers by creating the right environment for innovation and being open to multiple possibilities.
At Facebook, we want every employee to feel like they can be bold, that they are focused on impact, are able to move fast, know that they can be open in their feedback.
The feedback part is really interesting. Our Learning & Development team invest in helping each of us with our dialogue skills and actually one of the best courses I have been on in my career was recently where instead of focusing on giving feedback – which is pretty much every other feedback programme I have attended! – we learned how to ASK for it. Very simple and super clever – when you ask for feedback rather than waiting to receive it, it changes your relationship with both the giver and what they are saying. I loved it! So simple and powerful!
We have used these guiding principles to help shape all our people programs, from the way we hire people into the company to the way we pay and reward people as well as think about their development. As the lead in HR for APAC, I am expected to keep our culture front and centre of all we do; but it is worth noting it is everyone’s job at Facebook to do this, not just the HR team’s!
How do you do HR differently at Facebook? What underpins this approach?
The most exciting and ambitious businesses I have had the pleasure of working with and meeting over the years are those that ensure their internal brand experience matches their external brand experience. We have now evolved to calling this employee experience and user/customer experience but when I started out we used to call it brand!
The HR team here fully embraces that in every thing we do and how we approach each situation. We don’t of course always get it right, but it is a wonderfully high bar to work towards and makes our roles very fulfilling.
What is your biggest challenge at the moment?
The value we place on the employee experience, and on understanding and pivoting around an individual’s strengths, means that we approach HR in a very different way to lots of other big companies. We pay attention to every aspect of the way each employee experiences Facebook and our pace is super fast.
For example, we run our performance cycle twice a year, as well as our all-employee feedback survey. We have a deep analytical process and can get great insight in terms of areas we know are strengths and where we need to lean into. This is a real advantage and helps us focus our energies.
As we grow, a big challenge we are working through is how we scale this individualised care and intense processes for people, without losing the individual focus that has created a very compelling culture.
What are the HR challenges and opportunities that come with a business that is growing so rapidly?
People and talent are the top priority for us at Facebook. As we grow quickly, we need to continue to make sure that we have the right level of support for employees even as the organisation expands.
As HR leaders, we need to constantly think about how to evolve our processes and organisational systems to accommodate the fast-growing business environment and expansion plans, and be mindful that we do not compromise on nurturing or retaining talent.
You have a particular interest in designing healthy organisational ecosystems – what do you think are the key elements of this?
I am a believer in Broken Window theory, which is the idea that if you start with fixing the very small things then there is a natural momentum and energy to fix some of the bigger things, and of course some of them end up fixing themselves. It may sound counter-intuitive, but I have seen it work.
I went to a government-funded senior school in London that was wonderful, with really caring teachers and the school over achieved for its district by some way. We were lucky enough to have an ambitious, disciplined head teacher who had been at a leading private school most of his career. He was very strict about picking up litter and would use his walking stick to go out walking with a dustbin, picking it up and ensuring we all did the same. Thinking back it was a real example to us all about looking after our environment and to this day I still can’t pass litter on the floor without picking it up!
From an HR person’s point of view, I think it is essential to be terribly nosey and genuinely curious, and to really enjoy spending time understanding another person’s experiences. This will help you learn what you need to know about why things work and why they don’t. A good indicator for this is how much time you are spending away from your desk, often the more the better.
You’ve worked within more traditional sectors in the past, such as finance. What do you think more traditional organisations could learn from Facebook’s approach to HR?
If you don’t mind I would like to challenge this question! Many so-called traditional sectors are actually at the forefront of innovation. Digital payments in banking is a great example, another is the type of innovation in health tech coming out of the pharmaceutical companies. We have much to learn from organisations that have been around for dozens and in some cases hundreds of years, and who are also subject to intense scrutiny.
What’s the best career advice you’ve been given? Do you have any particular mentors who have provided you with guidance?
I have a number of different mentors, people who I trust and go to on very difficult things. I also believe in the power of different perspectives, so if there is anything difficult or ethical then I like to chew over it in confidence with a few people. In terms of career advice, I have had lots over the years!
A great mentor once asked me in my early twenties if I was ambitious. I thought this was a trick question, of course I answered! What are you ambitious for, he asked me. And you know what, I couldn’t answer. He guided me to think about the footprint I wanted to leave, the agenda I wanted to drive and what I wanted to build to help others. It is a much more powerful question to ask about the difference you want to make than the role you want to be appointed to.
What career advice would you offer to HR leaders looking to make the next step with their career or into a new sector?
As with all things, do your research, get to know what sort of challenges are facing the sector and how you can help. Many people think about why they would qualify for the role and set to prove their readiness that way. However, I would advise you to think about the challenges because that way you are thinking about where the sector/company is headed and how you can help shape that future.
On a personal level – and this may sound off for an HR practitioner – but I don’t believe in career plans. They often mean people focus on title or promotion at the expense of strengthening a capability or building flexibility by moving sideways. Plus many of the roles and even companies you could work for in 5 years time don’t exist now!
Working in Africa and the Middle East was one of the most life-changing things to happen to me and it was because I said yes to an international assignment without checking where it was, or having a plan for what came after…and I certainly wouldn’t be here today without that pivotal experience.
I got some great career advice early on too, when I went to talk to the HRD about a role she wanted me to do which scared me silly. She looked into my eyes, smiled and said ‘that’s great to hear, it must be worth taking then!’
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