Carol Mahoney is a big believer in kindness.
Even when she’s having a particularly frustrating moment, she finds a way to approach it with a sense of humor and a strong dose of perspective.
“Everyday I try to keep a high kindness bar for myself. It’s easy to slip and I’m not perfect ” she says. “But just a little kindness goes so far, and costs so little.”
Carol is reluctant to connect her philosophy of kindness directly to career outcomes: “I don't know if it helps you get further in your career, but it doesn't hurt, and it sure makes you feel better as a human being,” she says.
But if Carol’s own story is any indicator, a focus on kindness does make for a better, richer career. She’s built a multi-decades career in HR by innovating creative ways to make things better for as many people as possible.
Now, as the Chief People Officer at customer success category creator Gainsight, Carol is doubling down on the power of a work culture that puts humans first.
We sat down with her to find out more about what Gainsight’s culture looks like — as well as how she got there, and what she’s learned along the way.
Finding a Love for Running a Business
Though Carol has spent her entire career in HR, her personal approach to work isn’t that different from that of someone who has spent decades managing a business.
“I spent the majority of my career managing the talent acquisition function, and I really loved it. I thought of it as my own little P and L. The profit was hires, and the loss was the investment of time and resources. And I loved running that kind of a business,” she says.
Carol went from doing that for smaller companies to helping Yahoo! expand by hiring thousands of people a year. But even as her roles got bigger and bigger, Carol never planned on being in the Chief People Officer role she’s in now.
“That wasn’t my goal,” she explains, but when a boss of hers at a previous company left unexpectedly, she found herself stepping into the position.
“Long story short, it turned out to be something I loved. I realized in my first meeting with the exec team that it was going to change my complete perspective on what an HR leader does,” she says.
Because she’d focused for so long on running the business of Talent Acquisition, she had missed the bigger business strategy which relied heavily on other parts of HR like performance management, benefits, compensation, and training and development.
“Business context helped me piece the HR mosaic together in a way that was very powerful,” she says of HR leadership. “It also made a huge difference to be in charge of the HR strategy as opposed to executing aspects of it.”
Building Gainsight Together
When the CEO she’d loved working with left her last company, Carol realized it was time for a change. She worked with a headhunter to set up a series of interviews — and then promptly canceled them all after she’d met with Gainsight.
“I just immediately knew that was the right opportunity for me,” she says, smiling.
“At my previous company, the challenge was to create meaningful values and an engaging culture, ,” she continues. “There was plenty of HR infrastructure, but the culture was a little flat. At Gainsight, the culture was so alive, it was on fire, but there was no teammate operations infrastructure to bring that culture to life every day.”
Now, Carol is focused on supporting the culture that Gainsight is so proud of, and is not afraid to switch things up and introduce new programs that better align with the company’s mission: “To be living proof you can win in business while being human first.”
Late last year, she embarked upon a virtual listening circuit, holding round tables with hundreds of employees. “In these discussions, I was getting a pulse-check on how our ‘Teammate Value Proposition’ might need to be updated or changed. What’s working? What’s not working? What financial incentives need updating? And the resounding theme was, ‘The culture at this company is great. Don’t screw it up,’” recalls Carol.
She’s setting out to protect and strengthen that culture by reconsidering what HR, (Teammate Success, as it’s called at Gainsight) at a human-first company looks like. For instance, Carol’s team recently redesigned Gainsight’s performance review process.
They started by renaming the performance review process “human-first coaching.” “Naming conventions matter. The term ‘performance management’ seems dated and lacks inspiration. Instead we are cultivating a growth mindset approach that enables teammates to achieve peak performance. Teammates want to continually improve their ‘game’ and providing them with coaching to help them do so can be very powerful. So far, it’s been well received.”
3 Ways to Tell If a Company Is Human-First
It’s not always easy to build a business that considers people first, says Carol. “And it can be weaponized. Every once in a while, employees who don’t like a decision will complain that it’s not ‘human-first.’ I remind myself and others that being human-first is more than my own personal needs being met. In fact, the needs of other stakeholders can trump my own.
“Before we start a major project, we determine what success looks like for the human beings that are a part of the Gainsight community: including our teammates, our customers, and our investors. ”
If you’re wondering if a prospective employer (or even your current employer) shares that approach, Carol suggests that you:
- Look at whether their leadership reflects their DEIB commitments. “Whenever I’m checking out a company, I look to see what the senior team looks like. Forget what they say about diversity, how diverse is their senior workforce? I don’t want to see all caucasian men, for example.,” says Carol. “I want to work with a company that values diversity. I know that DEIB takes time but I want to see some progress.”
- See how they treat candidates. “In interviews, listen to the tone, not the words,” she says. “Do they talk human-first but sound human-second? One ‘tell’ is how you’re treated during interview scheduling. Is your time as important as the company’s? How well does the company seek to understand your needs and expectations?”
- Ask about pay. “How are people rewarded? For instance, at Gainsight, we consider collaboration and team performance when making pay decisions. In fact, you won’t see a ton of compensation differentiation that isn’t easily explained. Though we definitely reward employees for their contributions, we try hard not to reward heroes who win at any cost.”