“Earning Stripes at Yahoo”

For an organization as diverse and extensive as Yahoo, it’s surprising to know that, in many ways, it behaves like a start-up. Here, HRM speaks to Yahoo’s HR chief in Asia-Pacific to get an insight into the company’s philosophy.

Vineet Gambhir, Vice President and Head of Talent–Asia-Pacific, Yahoo, is sharing the concept of his “HR 5.0” theory, when he makes a bold assertion.

“I believe (the concept of) ‘Big Data’ is already outdated,” he declares.

“Today is the era of predictive analysis and Big Data is no longer the big thing. It is rather, you being ahead of the curve and predicting the data before the data is needed. Big Data then becomes the weapon; it doesn’t become the end result.”

So what exactly constitutes “HR 5.0”?

According to Gambhir, HR has transformed from that of a transactional, administrative, back-office role, to a support function, then to outsourcing and offshoring and the creation of globally diverse workforces, and then to a business partner role.

And what about the fifth generation of global HR?

“The fifth trend, which we are at now, is what I would call HR 5.0. (It) is where you are actually the pro-active partner and where you are the leader of the discussion and the business actually takes its inspiration from you,” he explains.

For those already fascinated by his deep and insightful analysis of the future of HR, Gambhir isn’t done just yet.

“The trend I am seeing now is what I would call the ‘stem cell’ approach,” he espouses.

“Stems cells are undifferentiated cells that can perform any function in the body. This is the future of HR. If I could take a group of high-potential HR individuals and seamlessly move them between specialist and generalist roles, my investment in the function could actually be significantly lowered, yet the impact on the business would be higher.”

Tackling trends through HR answers

For a multinational technology conglomerate such as Yahoo, Gambhir says the organization is very proud to have put in place what it describes as a best-in-class shared services model.

“From the word go, we are able to actually go make things happen in a pretty streamlined manner,” he says.

“We have this very intelligent, focused and common pool of individuals who can just about interface with any employee using a concept called ‘HR Answers’. We can pretty much address any employee sitting anywhere across the globe, having the common pool of expertise and using the latest tools and technologies”.

“If I have a need in Taipei, I can pretty much service that from Bangalore, and vice versa.”

Gambhir explains that this team is assembled with some of the best people from the all of the HR functions.

“Conversely, some of the best Centre of Excellence leaders or generalists have come out of this group,” he says.

“So you can think of it as a very focused research and development group within HR, which is the breeding ground for some of the top talents. This group is highly analytical, very data driven and hence, we are able to get ahead.”

Preventing Yahoos from becoming ex-Yahoos

With Yahoo having received 43,000 job applications globally in the first quarter of 2015 alone, it is obvious the organization has no trouble attracting candidates for a myriad of positions.

“We had about 150 applicants for every (available) position,” reveals Gambhir.

“We feel really fortunate when we see that interest. I see so many people telling me, ‘I love the new Yahoo and its agility, and I would love a chance’,” he says.

Still, actually retaining employees already working for Yahoo is one of the things that keeps Gambhir up at night.

“I say this with guarded humility and I think Yahoo has been one of the first digital companies to be in existence,” Gambhir explains.

“Sometimes, we are very general exporters of our talent because if you go look at any major digital company, there will be ex-Yahoos in their workforces for sure. One the on hand, that’s a matter of pride, but on the other hand, that has been something we want to balance”.

“I do want to make sure as an HR head that we are able to retain our key talent, and for that, there is going to be a multitude of strategies.”

According to Gambhir, employees do not leave because of compensation.

“Someone leaves because they didn’t have the right manager experience, or they didn’t have the right cultural experience, or they don’t think they are innovating,” he explains.

“We do not solve everything through compensation. We solve it through behaviors. We don’t believe in bureaucracies and hierarchies – we have employee pulse surveys and an overwhelming majority of individuals have said they find it really inspiring and great to do work for us every single day.”

Despite the overwhelming number of job applications, Gambhir says Yahoo’s recruitment framework is not invincible.

Gambhir says while a candidate may possess the best résumé, the organization looks at cultural fit and whether candidates can help the company, which is currently undergoing a rapid transformation.

“Do you have it in you to tolerate cycles of ambiguity, cycles of fast-paced change, cycles of passion, and the urge to move the company from Point A to Point B?” he asks.

“You can have the best candidate, but not everybody will be suited for that journey.”

“Being able to gauge that beyond the technical résumé, I believe, is the biggest challenge and not just for Yahoo, but I would even say for a lot of companies who hire in large numbers.”

Gambhir cites an example of how all Yahoo employees abide by a certain cultural idiosyncrasy.

“We call this the ‘Dog-Fooding’ where you have the latest applications and one of our goals is that we actually try out our own products,” he says.

“For example, since our acquisition of Tumblr, many of us have opened a Tumblr blog and we are trying out its features. It is a fun and interesting way to explore our own products.”

“You have to be able to live the cultural fit. You cannot be aloof from a company’s product if you are going to make a difference.”

Going against traditional “culture”

When one enters the Yahoo office in Singapore, it is impossible to ignore the splashes of purple and orange colors adorning the office walls.

In addition, the office is splattered with random words on walls, refusing to conform to the standard and orthodox nuances of corporate workplaces.

“I would say ‘vibrant’, ‘passionate’, and ‘innovative’ would be the words which would describe us,” says Gambhir.

“Here is what is unique about Yahoo: we are a large company, large enough to be like any other big company, yet we behave like a start-up. We are an absolutely entrepreneurial company.”

Yahoo’s current strategy, which epitomises the culture of innovation, is focused on Mavens (Mobile, Video, Native and Social). “We have made a lot of investments in these areas, and this has definitely given Yahoo an advantage. It has enabled the company to generate over 1.1 billion dollars revenue only from the Mavens business,” Gambhir says.

“Our CEO Marissa Mayer has made Yahoo a mobile-first company, and by literally putting emphasis in this area which was untapped, basically, we have attained 95% year-on-year growth of our revenue in this area,” he explains.

“How that can happen is when the people work together in a vibrant culture.”

The open and transparent culture personifying Yahoo can also be encapsulated through an initiative known as Processes, Bureaucracy, and Jams (PB&J).

PB&J is an internal forum where employees can give feedback on how to make their jobs easier and boost their productivity.

It is one of an armada of schemes that showcases Yahoo’s transparency and allows employees to have a voice.

“You can pretty much submit any idea for process improvements; the ideas are voted upon and the highest-voted ideas just happen,” says Gambhir.

For example, as a benefit to employees, Yahoo provides the latest smartphones to every worker, regardless of rank.

“What we noticed was that the 16GB phone was not enough for people to be able to share applications. So, one of the ideas which came up on a Friday was why employees can’t have 64GB devices? The idea was submitted on Friday and on Monday, it got implemented,” elaborates Gambhir.

Even Yahoo’s CEO is not insulated from the transparent culture.

“For Your Information (FYI)” is a weekly session where Mayer shares company updates with employees worldwide”.

“FYI is an employee forum she personally leads and, once again, the questions can be tough and extremely difficult,” Gambhir discloses.

“People post their questions on a moderator and the questions are voted upon. Mayer personally addresses those questions publicly in front of all the employees worldwide”.

“We have also started something called the ‘collaborative FYI’ which is a local version. Not only do we do the global one, but the local one is more customized and more specific.”

“In my 21 years, I have never seen a CEO stand up every week in front of the employees like that.”

Talking about careers

When it comes to career roadmaps at Yahoo, Gambhir says the organization avoids having just a once-a-year discussion on employees’ careers. Rather, it has a year-round discussion that happens multiple times.

Every quarter, every employee will have a set of goals.

“You track the progress of those goals and training, learning, and development gets centered around those goals,” he explains.

Secondly, Gambhir says Yahoo does not believe in having generic classes where thousands of employees sit in before “ticking” off the boxes stipulating that L&D has been accomplished.

“We believe there is a customizable solution to every person’s needs,” he adds.

In terms of training programmes, Yahoo collaborates with a number of external and internal resources, and it also has a dedicated learning and development group.

“We have it in two parts. One is the technical training and the other is what we call the soft skills training,” says Gambhir.

People who have consistently performed or outperformed in the company are brought in as a cohort and afforded in-residence training.

The Accelerated Development Program (ADP) is a three-year development program for Yahoo’s high potential talents, where participants are given industry case-studies to work on.

Leadership opportunities are also prevalent throughout Yahoo. Once, if not twice a quarter, Gambhir says the organization has a Key Talent Discussion, where each one of the executives will review.

“It’s literally as if we are tracking the progress we have made as leaders towards our employees,” he states.

“So in a quest to create people who are surpassing you in their ability, you will push them and share with them your experiences.”

One platform Yahoo utilizes to reward and recognize its employees is a program known as Yahoo Bravo.

Gambhir explains that in the company’s internal intranet, employees can give a “bravo” to their colleagues, consisting of badges and icons demonstrating the values they represent.

“Then you have monetary-based awards as well, where you can give spot awards to individuals,” he adds.

Attracting and retaining talent

Yahoo holds a long-term strategic view of its hiring needs. The company maintains warm ties with its former employees, as many do return to their old stomping ground after stints elsewhere.

“We call these the boomerangs and almost 10% of our recent hires have been boomerangs – where people actually came back when they saw the new Yahoo,” he explains.

“Within seven days I’ve had people come and say “Could you hire us back?”

While Gambhir acknowledges that Yahoo’s employees may be tempted by other job prospects, the organization should not “restrain people from experiencing the outside world.”

“What we want to do is to guide and educate them on how to differentiate a really good career trajectory to the softer ones,” he explains.

“I think when employees feel we actually care about them making the right career decisions, they value that. We are not saying to anyone, ‘Please never leave us for the rest of your life.’ We have to be practical.”

Managers at Yahoo have honest and proactive discussions with their staff to help define the next steps in their careers. “We tell them we if can’t get you in an X amount of time to your next career step, we can help you achieve that later in your career somewhere else.”

Engagement on all fronts

Yahoo is well-placed to discuss ways to enhance employee engagement. After all, the organization bagged the IBM Award for Best Engagement Strategies at the 2015 HRM Awards.

So just what are some of its plethora of engagement initiatives?

First, the office is stacked with a pantry laden with free packets of crisps, chocolates, drinks and snacks for employees to grab, without any charge whatsoever.

Breakfast and lunch are also served daily from Monday to Friday, with a catering company personally delivering food to the office.

“The food program is a huge hit that people really appreciate. We even collect feedback on the food and improvize it every time so even the employees are engaged in making those decisions,” says Gambhir.

Nevertheless, Yahoo takes health and the wellbeing of its employees very seriously.

“In all the wellness programs we have done, we have different people offering things like massages, freshly squeezed juices, and yoga classes, all the way through to teaching people how they are able to take care of themselves on any given day,” explains Gambhir.

“We have even distributed the bands which track a person’s cardio particulars and the number of steps he or she takes. So our commitment to fitness is very key and one of the first parts of engagement.”

The second engagement area is centered around “community”, and Gambhir shares an example that arose from the recent earthquake in Nepal.

The company has been facilitating fundraising efforts globally through
its Community Impact Portal, “Yahoo For Good”.

“When employees see that, they feel they are the ambassadors, not just for themselves.”

Operating as a start-up

According to Gambhir, Yahoo has made 52 acquisitions over the last couple of years.

“We still aim to operate as ‘one Yahoo’,” he elaborates.

“It’s amazing and I think our willingness to embrace others and our willingness to showcase them makes it such an open and inclusive culture. We are a large company, an Internet pioneer, and yet at the heart of our culture is the spirit of a startup. We operate in lean teams with perfect agility.”

“That is probably the single most unique thing for us.”

Gambhir wraps up by recalling a key message espoused by CEO Mayer.

“Something our CEO said in one of the employee forums that really resonates with our hearts is that we have to earn our stripes every single day,” he says. “That’s absolutely true, then and now”.

(Source: Adapted from Sham Majid, ‘Earning Stripes at Yahoo, HRM Asia, 3 July 2015)

Discussion Questions:

  • What are the various sources of power used by Yahoo’s leaders in this case?
  • Identify and discuss the leadership approaches adopted by Yahoo’s leaders. Support your answer with relevant theoretical concepts and examples.
  • Apart from compensation, what other methods are used by Yahoo to engage its employees? Relate each of the methods identified with relevant motivation theories in the text.
  • Based on what you have learned in the text, write a short essay of 2000 words on how you would plan, organize, lead and control the human resources of Yahoo in relation to developing the “one Yahoo” goal.
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