SoftBank Vision Funds' chief people officer explains how to retain and recruit tech talent right now
Its first female managing partner shares tips for people leaders trying to recruit and retain top talent in these challenging times.
This story is part of our special report, "The Great Resignation." Read more here.
You’ve heard the stories. Everyone’s getting burned out. Everyone’s quitting their jobs. And every employer is having trouble finding and retaining workers.
So what do you do when you’re the head of the people at a tech company? You take note, and you change things up.
Catherine Lenson is a managing partner and chief people officer at SoftBank Investment Advisers, the world’s largest technology investment firm with over $100 billion under management between its two Vision Funds. As one of the biggest backers of startups globally, its influence on the culture of Silicon Valley is evident in everything from chips to AI-based fintech.
As chief people officer, Lenson runs the HR function for over 400 employees across nine countries. She started her career in the investment banking industry and, in her own words, has “seen most phases of the people journey,” as well as “most stages of an investment banking boom-and-bust cycle.” Today, she also runs the company’s ESG arm, leading its incubator program for diverse founders.
SoftBank sits in the unique space of being both a tech and financial services firm, two industries that have very different cultures and approaches to recruiting and retaining talent. Lenson spoke to Protocol about the lessons she’s learned from navigating this challenging environment and shared her tips for other executives attempting to recruit top talent in these strange times.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What are your goals for SoftBank this year, from a people perspective?
It sounds fairly banal, but one of my biggest goals is to figure out what's going on. What I mean by that is, I think that there is work to do to figure out the difference between temporary and transformational trends. Most of what we're seeing at the moment is because of the pandemic, but as the pandemic shifts, what we're seeing in the workplace will shift. Will some of that return to what we were more familiar with pre-pandemic? And what is a fundamental, systemwide change that isn't going to go away? There's an awful lot of talk at the moment which assumes that what we're seeing now is what we're going to have for the future. And I think we don't quite have the evidence yet to determine that. This next year is going to be absolutely paramount in terms of figuring that out. What do the big companies do, how do trends get embedded, what turns out to have been hype and what's a real shift? That is going to be crucial for us to figure out.
When it comes to how people work, what do you think are the temporary shifts versus the ones that are actually going to be permanent?
Sometimes we fall into the trap of having a discussion about California and branding it as a global discussion. I'm in London right now, and even in London, things are different. Even on the East Coast, things are very different, not to mention the conversations taking place with our investors in Asia about what the future of work looks like. So that's my first caveat.
Coupled with, obviously, we're talking here about first-world knowledge workers for the most part. You have the luxury of being able to talk about burnout, the Great Resignation and work-life balance. Huge amounts of the workforce globally, never mind in the U.S. and U.K., don't have that luxury. That's my caveat before we start talking about the tech world.
What's here to stay is that there's been a fundamental re-negotiation of the employer-employee contract. I don't think that's going away. Before the pandemic, there was an expectation that between the hours of X and Y, you pretty much worked for your employer. Absent any other reason, you were sitting at your desk during those hours. I think that has fundamentally changed, and won’t go back to how it was. I think it’s fundamentally shifted to a dynamic where, if the work gets done, nobody's terribly interested whether the light on Slack is green between 8 in the morning and 6 at night. I think we can never put that back in the box, and that's a wonderful change.
Since the pandemic began, have you implemented any specific policy changes around flexibility that you see becoming permanent fixtures?
We haven't changed much on policy, mostly because we were never a terribly traditional firm in that way. Softbank Investment Advisers itself was born in 2016, so we didn't have this legacy of corporate ways of doing things. It was a startup we grew from the ground up from a handful of investors.
Where we have had to give more direction is around the use of the office. The jury's out on where we end up on that in five years. Particularly in tech, there's a big push for remote-first in the more technical roles, but the push is being felt, interestingly, a little bit less in the tech investment community.
Would you say you’ve felt the impact at all of this Great Resignation that everyone's talking about?
Our attrition numbers are higher than I would expect in a normal year. But when you consider the fact that so few people moved throughout that whole period of time, not shockingly, people are having different sorts of conversations. They're having conversations about purpose, fit and culture. We're hearing that in portfolio companies, and we're hearing that in our own teams with this sort of reevaluation. It’s hard to tell how much of that is pandemic-related and how much of that is now the prevalence of Gen Z and younger millennials in the workforce, who are going to have those conversations more regularly than us older millennials, which I am.
What trends have you noticed in employee sentiment surveys? Any actions you've taken based on what you're hearing from your employees?
What's been really useful to us is to understand what communications are working with employees. So when did people want to hear more from our leadership team? What are the sorts of questions they want to hear? We use anonymous, blind questions in all-hands meetings, which is in no way controversial at all for a tech firm and on the edge of controversial for a financial services company. That's been incredibly helpful.
So that's where we started to get our first sniffs of the blurring of boundaries between work and home, people who were struggling to manage home commitments. We gave reminders to managers that just because we were all sitting at the same desks all day, that didn't mean that people didn't want to take breaks or create more definition for themselves between what's work time and what's home time.
I think it’s fundamentally shifted to a dynamic where, if the work gets done, nobody's terribly interested whether the light on Slack is green between 8 in the morning and 6 at night.
Are there any trends you've noticed in employee exit interviews?
The short answer is no. Typically what people say in an exit interview is, “I'm leaving for a fabulous new opportunity that I'm excited about,” which is exactly what they would have said pre-pandemic. What we're not seeing is people saying, “It's too much for me, and I'm going to sit on the beach or plant my garden.” We're seeing that people are moving to equally demanding roles for change, for an opportunity.
Are you worried about burnout at all, and are you seeing that as a factor in employees who've left? Are there really no cases of people who are leaving the company without another opportunity lined up just because they need that time for themselves?
I would say that's been by far the minority of cases. Because we’re small, we can have personal conversations in a way that you can't in a huge firm. I can think of one example where that was the case, and that individual quite quickly took another role and is excited and fulfilled in the next role. So we're seeing less of people leaving for nothing and more of people saying, “I've evaluated, and I want either something different from a role or something that feels slightly different in terms of an organization.” Equally, we're attracting employees who are having those experiences in their own organizations, employees coming to us from high-quality organizations who are saying, “It's time for change.” We're seeing that kind of merry-go-round across the industry.
Is there anything you are trying out in terms of getting ahead of potential burnout?
We've tried a number of things. We did two free days a month. At a certain point, people weren't taking vacation because there was nowhere to go. People were working super hard. We asked people to carve out a day, and even if all they do is sit at home and play Legos with their kids, we asked people just to try to find those things that worked. We've pushed hard to try to have people take vacation time, even if you can't go to the destination of your dreams. At a certain point, we had to stop stockpiling and start revitalizing.
To the extent that we can, we close the company down between slightly before Christmas and through the New Year holiday. Of course, if there are urgent things, we deal with urgent things, but we have a kind of pact across the company that no one tries to generate new stuff during that time. So if you can possibly avoid being the person who starts the email thread, you really should. That gives a level of shutdown that you don't get in a normal vacation week because everybody is off together. It just creates a serenity that can't be replicated. And we know how much people value that.
Beyond that, I think it comes down to managers spotting when stuff isn't right, asking the right questions, figuring out how to manage workload across the team, encouraging people where they need to take breaks. We live and die by the quality of our line managers, because that's a subtle skill. And it's very different from the sort of work-allocation, line-management model of previous years. It involves having difficult conversations about how people are reacting to social events that are going on around them.
Often, the challenge with tech and finance firms is not so much representation for the regular employee base, but at the top, in key P&L-driving roles. How are you tackling that challenge, and would you say that's an accurate characterization for SoftBank?
For sure, that's where the industry is. There's no doubt about that. I had a colleague who used to say that there are only three ways that you can change the gender gap in leadership: You can either recruit more women into senior roles, you can promote the women that you've got into more senior roles or you can hold on to the ones that you already have. So basically, you can recruit, you can promote and you can retain.
I remember having this conversation with a group of leaders at SoftBank, and a guy put up his hand and said, “That's actually not true. There are actually four ways. Statistically, you could fire some men, and then proportionately, you would have a higher proportion of women.” Now, there are four ways.
We spend a lot of time thinking about recruitment and attraction. We spend less time thinking about retention and promotion. And so a lot of what we've been doing has been to think about how we get super high-potential women through the ranks and up to the most senior levels of the firm. When I joined the firm in 2017, Lydia Jett was a director on our investment team, and she is now a managing partner and one of the most senior investors in the firm, writing some of the largest checks in the firm.
There's no art to that. We have to do this hand-to-hand combat every single day. It involves how we manage talent, both diverse and non-diverse. It involves how we think about opportunities, how we allocate opportunities, the sort of conditions we create in the firm, in meetings, how voices are heard, how we call out bias when we see it, how managers do their job. I wouldn't suggest for one moment that we're doing it perfectly, but we're trying, and that's for sure.
What will it take to get more women into investment leadership? Right now, Jett, who you mentioned, is the only female managing partner in investing.
It takes time. I can tell you a number of people on the investing team that I think will come through the ranks. It takes us being really intentional about managing the moments in careers where sometimes things go wrong. I'd say that having been in and out of the workforce with two kids, there are moments of that transition where it's not obvious that it's easy to come back and push on and push forward. For women who choose to have kids, that's a moment that we need to curate carefully. And it involves looking at a commercial opportunity. What we've seen change is understanding how women are able to access investments and opportunities and look at female founders sometimes in a way that typically their male predecessors have not.
With all of these things, once the commercial opportunity starts becoming clear, then the motivation is there. Now, there are many people around us in the industry and at SoftBank who are motivated to do these things for social purpose, and that's good, but equally there are some who are motivated by commercial returns. So the more we can demonstrate that the diversity has the higher returns, that diverse investors see opportunities that others pass on, the easier the conversation becomes.
What's the No. 1 thing other tech companies can do to recruit and retain the best talent right now?
Being able to talk with clarity about the purpose and vision of the firm is the single most important thing. And then being able to keep following through on that. So it's all very well and good giving a great speech at the recruitment stage, but what we're seeing now is that it's never been more important for senior management to be transparent and accountable. And there was a brilliant New York Times article a couple of months ago about how 37-year-old managers are scared of their 23-year-old colleagues. It was so brilliant. What we're seeing is that the highest-performing tech companies’ managers are visible, and they're willing to engage directly with employees. And the second that the market starts to feel that the leadership of a firm is intransigent or unaccountable, forget it.
What are some very concrete things that senior leaders can do to be more approachable?
That's a tricky question for me to answer, because I grew up in a generation where my answer to that is, “Walk the floors.” And that is the single most important thing I have seen leaders do. And so I think the question for this generation of leaders is, “What does it look like to walk the floors, virtually and digitally?” What does it look like to create those opportunities where you just happen to be walking past somebody, but in a way that doesn't feel forced? Lots of people have tried loads of things: “Ask me anything” is great, the anonymous questions are great, there are virtual water coolers, we can do it all.
One of the reasons that, in my head, I'm not prepared to say that a shift to remote is fully here is, to me, I don't know how you replace that moment when a leader walks past you on the floor and you stop and have a conversation that you weren't expecting to have. There are virtual ways to do it, but I would hate to see us in a world where we lose that personal, intimate contact as well.
That makes sense. I don't know how you can walk the virtual floor on Slack.
Right? That's it. By the way, the one topic that we haven't talked about — which I think is the next big thing that we as an industry are not talking about at all — is a question about how we grow skills rather than acquire skills. We're talking about recruitment, and that's deadly important at the moment, but particularly for roles in tech where the technical skills are less critical. There are really big segments growing, whether it's customer success, product manager or that sort of thing, and we are not talking as much as we should be about re-skilling people into those roles.
What does it look like to create those opportunities where you just happen to be walking past somebody, but in a way that doesn't feel forced?
Bain, in their report, called it talent makers, not talent takers, and I liked that a lot: How do we grow the skills that we need, particularly when we talk about inclusion and diversity and wanting to open up a wider pool of candidates? The candidate pool we have is limited in terms of diversity, so if we really want to boost our ability to hire and hold on to diverse candidates, we're going to have to accept that part of that is going to be being a talent maker and reskilling people who come to us with capabilities and skills and personal traits and characteristics which we think are appropriate for the role. As long as we rely on past experience and credentials only, we're gonna limit the diversity of our talent pool. That's a big, difficult topic that none of us have our arms around yet.
What do you say when you hear people in finance or tech say, “Well, you know, we'd love to hire more XYZ, more women or people of color in investment roles, but we just can't find any.” Do you feel like that's the case, that there is actually a more limited pool of talent? Or are you just not looking hard enough?
As an industry, sometimes we are happy to assume that a man's prior experience prepares him for a role that he hasn't done before. And sometimes the data is very clear. The studies have been done. We expect women to have demonstrated all of the skills and capabilities that we're looking for, and to have held the position before. And that's a different standard.