The Chief Heart Officer: Q&A with VaynerMedia’s Claude Silver
Claude Silver is VaynerMedia’s first Chief Heart Officer. She explains what “heart” means and how the role is different from traditional talent leadership.
Claude Silver is the Chief Heart Officer at VaynerMedia, a digital agency that works with a wide range of clients including Fortune 500 brands including GE, PepsiCo, Mondelēz, Dove, and Spotify. We spoke on the phone about her unusual title, why the role is different from traditional talent leadership, and how VaynerMedia has maintained its “people first” ethos while growing to more than 700 people in seven years.
“Being Chief Heart Officer means being in touch with the heartbeat of every single person at this agency.”
What is a Chief Heart Officer? What does the “Heart” mean?
For me, being Chief Heart Officer means being in touch with the heartbeat of every single person at this agency. We have 710 people right now across five offices, and it’s my job to have a finger on the pulse of who needs mentorship, who needs a chat, who needs a team change, who needs anything really. When we have a glitch, even just a tiny blip – someone having a bad day, a parent in the hospital, or a team squabbling – I want to know, so I am constantly reaching out and touching people, one-on-one, by text message, in emails, on quick phone calls. Today, my day will be made up of 15 to 20 one-on-ones. And by the time I get to the office at 9 A.M. I will have probably already sent out just as many different text messages, so people know I am thinking about them.
How is the role different than that of a Chief Human Resources Officer, or Chief Talent Officer, etc.?
I’m not just looking at people. I‘m not just looking at benefits. I’m not just looking at recruiting. I’m not just looking at, quote-unquote “HR”. I’m looking at all of that: as Chief Heart Officer, I’m Chief People Officer, Chief Talent Officer, Chief Culture Officer, Chief Inspiration Officer all together. It’s holistic.
How does VaynerMedia’s “people first” ethos inform how team members are led? How do you make sure “people first” doesn’t get lost when you’re experiencing fast growth?
That’s the big question. I believe my role was created because we have had hyper growth. I don’t believe this role would have been necessary at 350 people. [VaynerMedia co-founder and CEO] Gary Vaynerchuk is a person who is incredibly people first and culture-oriented. At 350 people, he was still able to meet with every single human being in the company – despite his very busy schedule. As we hit 400 people and continued growing, it became virtually impossible to maintain that. So this role was needed to blanket the company alongside Gary.
How do we put people first as we grow? One of the biggest priorities for me is creating a space where people feel physically and emotionally safe. So I’m always ensuring that individuals bring their whole self to work. We want people to come in as quirky as they are, and we want them to feel secure, confident, and amazing. How do you make someone feel secure? How do you make a stranger feel secure? By connecting with them and treating them like they’re your friend. And without a doubt, that’s one of the emphasis points that Gary and I propagate.
So, how do you treat a stranger like a friend? You say hello to them. You organize cultural activities; from Wine Wednesday, to company kickball to Gay Pride mixers. You encourage Slack channels to be created for all communities that are interested; we have 160 Slack channels, around fitness, music, Pride, women, African Americans, The Bachelor, beer, bicycles, and VM wellness. There’s even a Slack channel called #Vaynerds. And you know what the members do? On Thursday nights, they play Dungeons & Dragons here. I just found that out – that was music to me!
How does acknowledging that the people who work for you are “beating hearts” shape recruitment and hiring? How do you assess and select those beating hearts?
Had you asked me this question two and half years ago, when we were at 350 people, I would have answered it in a slightly different way. We would have been looking for that person you want to have dinner with, an all-around friendly person who plays by the Golden Rule – a culture fit with experience. Today, we’re still looking for a culture fit, but now, because we have experienced rapid growth around our core competencies and new offerings, we’re also looking for those with specific skills.
“One of the biggest priorities for me is creating a space where people feel physically and emotionally safe.”
As a social-first digital agency, what role does social media play internally, as part of the employee experience, at VaynerMedia?
Slack has changed our lives. It really brings together our five different offices. You don’t need to be at the mothership to join in on conversations and connect with fellow colleagues.
Hashtags have also organically become part of our nomenclature. #vmwashere, #overheardatvm, #vaynerversary, and #vaynerthanks – you could go and search on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook right now and find massive amounts of posts using these tags, going back four or five years. It’s a way for us to share our culture and good vibes with others.
Our social channels are also used as recruitment tools. Our Snapchat is really fun – individual employees volunteer to take ownership of the channel for a day. So what you end up viewing is a day in the life of that employee. It’s pretty special and gives you a behind the scenes look at culture in the making! We’ve also used Snapchat Geofilters for recruiting at colleges and local events.
If you could offer one piece of advice to new – or even seasoned – people leaders, what would it be?
It comes down to listening. Always listen. Observe. Spend time with people. Get to know them. Don’t be locked in your office. Walk the floors, know their names, look at what people are posting on social to get a sense of what makes them happy, what makes them sad. Did they have a shitty day at work? Were they surprised and delighted with a bouquet of tulips? Are they having dinner with friends? Listen, observe and spend time with people. It’s your one job that is non-negotiable.
If there’s one thing I do, I mean the one thing I do no matter what is on my plate, is make space for people to just be. You know? Making space for people to just be whoever they are, or whoever they need to be that day. And I do that by listening. Simply put, I work for them. All 710 of them!
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