VaynerMedia’s Chief Heart Officer Reveals the Secrets to a Strong HR Team

October 3, 2019

Claude Silver had a great career. As senior vice president at VaynerMedia, she loved her team and had a great relationship with her boss, CEO Gary Vaynerchuk. There was just one problem: She wasn’t passionate about her work. 

“That voice came up loud, which was, ‘You really don’t care about marketing. You only care about these people,’” Claude explains. “I knew I needed to put the brakes on and follow my bliss and follow my purpose, which is to really unlock people and be of service. And so I left.”

Gary was shocked by Claude’s departure, but he might have seen it coming. When she’d told him she was unhappy in marketing and only wanted to focus on the people, he’d asked her to stick it out for another 18 months, which she decided she couldn’t do. So, just four months after Claude left, Gary came to her with an unusual offer. Knowing what an empathetic person Claude is, he wanted her to become the company’s first chief heart officer. 

“I just said to him, ‘Awesome, how do we know if I’m successful?’” Claude recalls. “He said, ‘You'll touch every single human being and infuse the agency with empathy.’ And I was like, ‘OK, let’s rock and roll.’”

To learn more about how she achieved this, I caught up with Claude in a recent episode of my 21st Century HR podcast. Here’s how Claude helped redefine the role of HR at VaynerMedia — and helped her team find their own sense of purpose at work. 

To speak to the needs of the people, you first need to speak to the people

Tasked with finding a way to build empathy with all of VaynerMedia’s 800+ employees, Claude decided to start tackling this new directive in the most literal way she could think of. 

“I thought, ‘Well, how am I going to touch every single employee?’” she says. “‘Oh, I’m going to meet with them on a 15-minute basis.’”

Since the company has offices around the world, Claude achieved this through a combination of travel, Slack, and Google Hangouts. Before long, her calendar was filled with 15-minutes meetings. And after getting to know the employees better, she realized that a major change was necessary because the company’s current approach to HR wasn’t serving them well. 

“My perception was that HR was on the defense all the time, and they were protecting the company rather than protecting and working for the employees,” Claude says. “I come from a long line of working in restaurants and bars in my earlier years, so I believe in hospitality quite a bit, and I believe in being of service. We are here to really guide and serve the population here.”

Claude’s commitment to service doesn’t mean she always says “yes” to employee requests. In her eyes, HR should be “Switzerland.” It isn’t there to side with the company or the employees, but to always listen and weigh up the needs of every party involved before making decisions. 

The role and purpose of HR is changing — even in companies with traditional HR structures

When Claude took the HR reins, one of her first moves was to change the name of the department. 

“I changed the department name to People and Experience, because actually, that’s what I think we do,” she says. “We take care of the people and the experience.” 

Despite the name change, Claude says the department has a traditional structure with benefits, payroll, recruiting, etc. But the focus has shifted dramatically to help achieve Gary’s mission of “creating the greatest human organization of all time.” 

“For me and Gary, what that is at this moment is creating a happy culture,” Claude says. “It's creating a place where people don't wake up on Mondays and go, "God. Ugh, I can't wait to come home.’”

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That all starts with putting people above profits, since it’s the people that will build the organization up and ensure it thrives. To achieve this, Claude believes modern HR teams need to act more like coaches, taking employees’ lives outside of work into account. 

“They have a life before they come into work,” Claude says. “They have a life after. I'm interested in knowing how they're managing their energy. I’m interested in making sure that they know we have access to meditation, to a wellness room here, to whatever it is they need. … We look at the whole person.”

This doesn’t mean that HR has to have all the answers. It just means they have to be willing to listen and think holistically about the meaning of wellness, because it’s their job to make employees feel supported and able to do their best work.

“[It’s] knowing that someone will catch them if need be,” Claude explains. “You can’t put money on that. You really can't.”

If your team doesn’t light up at the idea of helping people, they might not be in the right business

Claude lights up at the chance to help people, and she has tried to load her team with people who similarly thrive on helping others. 

“As I’ve cultivated this team and hired more people, they're all on the bandwagon,” Claude says. “They’re like, ‘Yes. Oh my god. This is exactly what I want to do.’ Which is really good juice for me, because it tells me we’re doing something right. … We don't have to do it how it was done for the past 80 years."

Claude finds the people she needs by probing for empathy during the interview process. 

“I always ask open-ended questions,” Claude says. “You know, ‘Tell me about a time,’ or, ‘What's a time that you failed?’ Who wants to talk about that? Well, I do. ... I’m looking for people who obviously have a pulse and who are altruistic to some extent”

While she wants people who feel similarly to the way she does about helping others, Claude also wants to help her team find their purpose, just as Gary helped her. 

“I like the question, ‘You have a blank canvas in front of me, just draw me your perfect role,’” she says. “I want you to color outside the box. ... Elaborate a little bit more. Don’t tell me what you think I want to hear, because that’s not going to work. I want you to be you.”

Modern HR isn’t perfect — and that’s a good thing

Claude finally feels like she’s in the right role, but she hasn’t got it all figured out just yet. Which is OK, because , she isn’t afraid of being vulnerable and letting employees see her stumble. 

“I don't get it right all the time,” she says. “However, it’s a forgiving place.”

For Claude, these mistakes are actually an essential part of shifting employees’ negative perceptions of HR. It’s not an ivory tower — it’s a room on the ground floor with an open door. 

“Letting those HR practitioners who are so great and dedicated,” she says, “out of that cage to open up and share with us, but also become more human, I think is a real gift, and that’s what we're seeing more and more.”

To learn more about how Gary and Claude are leading with heart, listen to the full podcast now, and be sure to check out Gary’s recent keynote at Talent Connect.

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