One Year Down, Unbound Business Ahead: An Interview with Heidi Spirgi
September 11, 2020
When I met Heidi Spirgi, she had just arrived at Cornerstone OnDemand as the new Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer.
Fast forward one year: A lot has changed. Under the best of circumstances, leading strategy and marketing combines two full-time jobs into one—but life is anything but usual these days. In her first year at Cornerstone, Heidi was called upon to be a leader through a global pandemic and the resulting economic crisis. Through massive protests and calls for civil and social justice reform. Through Cornerstone’s industry-disruptive acquisition of Saba. Through her friend and mentor, Adam Miller, stepping down from his CEO role.
"My last year has looked nothing like I expected it to look," Heidi shared. "Adam and I had a grand plan that we were going to implement. My focus was on helping transition the company from an era of talent management to talent experience. For many, many reasons, our focus got diverted. It was not time to talk about experience and performance when companies and people were focused on survival."
But despite these major changes, Heidi remains optimistic. In our recent interview, Heidi shared that she, along with the rest of the Cornerstone team, is adapting under a brand of leadership they’ve called "unbound": Focused on removing the constraints that limited companies in the past, and instead using learning to drive business agility. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, now an HR-industry imperative, is a critical piece of that vision.
Lesson 1: Take a People-First Approach to Leadership
Driving change is a leader’s most important job, says Heidi. But you can’t get anywhere without bringing your people along with you. Therefore, leaders must define a vision aimed at helping people see where the company is going, and then operationally make the decisions and lead their execution towards that future vision.
"The people aspect of it is so critical," Heidi said. And that applies even when leaders might not know exactly what the future holds. But that doesn’t stop people from looking to leaders for the answers—especially in times of uncertainty.
"Share the answers when you have them, but to be credible, leaders must also admit when they don’t," Heidi advised. "What we try to do every day is move forward thoughtfully, in a ’planful’ way, and ensure your employees and customers you care for them."
Lesson 2: Give Back to the Community
One of the things Cornerstone did at the outset of the pandemic was leverage its unique asset—learning—and share it with a larger community.
"I do believe leaders have a responsibility to not only take care of our bottom line for shareholders but take care of employees," Heidi said, "and to take care of the communities that we operate in."
The Cornerstone team knew their learning content could help not only customers, but also people around the world—so they delivered a free public learning portal called Cornerstone Cares. The initial intention was to help people deal with COVID-19, but that mission quickly evolved:
"We offered courses on how to slow the virus and protect yourself, dealing with the stress and mental health issues that come from isolation, sheltering in place and lack of human contact," Heidi explained. "We then built courses for K-12 teachers, helping them understand how to stand up a virtual classroom, which is a new skill for many of them. We didn’t stop there. We decided to help the millions of newly unemployed. We offered courses on how to interview effectively. They’re all free and publicly available. Most recently, we added an unconscious bias playlist as well."
Lesson 3: To Adapt, "Unlearning" Is Just as Important as Learning
In the business world, we talk a lot about IQ and EQ. But, thanks to the sweeping changes of 2020, Heidi noted that we learned AQ is just as important during disruption and transformation. AQ is an adaptive quotient: Our ability to realize optimal outcomes based on recent or future change. In fact, Harvard Business Review describes AQ as "the new competitive advantage" in business.
Heidi believes the ability to "unlearn" is important to AQ—unlearning the processes, programs, organizational structures and mindsets of the past. This is consistent with a research project launched by adaptability assessment company AQai that shows "unlearn" is part of adaptability. Adaptability also includes grit (ability to pursue a long-term goal despite obstacles), mental flexibility (ability to hold contradictory ideas), mindset (self-beliefs) and resilience (ability to recover from setbacks).
Adaptable people meet other peoples’ needs as well as their own. People with strong AQ learn from others, take in new ideas, observe other industries, pivot quickly and move fast.
Lesson 4: We’re All Human—It’s Time to Embrace Humanity
Heidi recalls the beginning of the pandemic, when then-Cornerstone CEO Adam Miller hosted an hour-long call with the entire company every day at 5 PM. Miller didn’t talk about the company at all during those 60 minute check-ins. Instead, he focused on the struggles and challenges each employee was experiencing. He gave everyone permission to take care of themselves and their family, to be authentic, transparent and vulnerable.
And he did the same: At one point, Miller had to address something with his son so he excused himself from leading the meeting for a few minutes. Just days before, behavior like this might have been deemed unprofessional and unbecoming of a CEO. In this "new normal," however, people needed to witness that humanness—even at the C-Suite level.
"I have so much to learn," Heidi reflected. "I had always considered myself to be aware and informed and educated and sensitized to diversity issues. And then we had the George Floyd murder. And it was like a lightning bolt hit me. I cognitively understood diversity, but I learned instantly that I don’t know what it’s like to feel and stand in the shoes of a black man in America. To admit it didn’t make me weak, but strong."
Heidi’s first year at Cornerstone encapsulated as much change, disruption and transformation as many leaders experience in a lifetime. With year two just underway, Heidi sees an "unbound" opportunity: business is not constrained by the structures of the past. At the leadership, cultural and process level, Heidi is determined to adapt, rescale, retool and redirect quickly—equipping employees and customers with unbound thinking and shift from talent management to talent experience.