Hiring for Hypergrowth: Q&A with Medallia’s Mike Podobnik
Medallia doubled its employees, elevated diversity, and refined the candidate experience. The senior director of global talent acquisition explains how.
Courtesy: Medallia and JobPortraits
Mike Podobnik is the senior director of global talent acquisition at Medallia, an industry-leading customer experience management platform and Sequoia Capital-backed “unicorn.” Since joining the Silicon Valley software startup three years ago, he’s helped the company double its employees while expanding its talent operations, elevating diversity, and delivering a best-in-class candidate experience. We got on the phone to discuss how Mike and his team have done it and what he’s learned along the way.
“The things that sustained us at 500 people were starting to break down as we grew.”
Medallia recently crossed the 1,000-employee mark. How many people were on the team when you joined three years ago?
Somewhere around 500, but in all honesty, I can’t say exactly. [Laughs] We were growing so quickly, and we were in the middle of putting people systems in place, it was difficult to keep track. It was the epitome of putting wings on an airplane while it’s flying.
How has talent acquisition changed, as you’ve doubled in size?
We’ve had to get much smarter as a team. Not to suggest we weren’t before, but going through that hypergrowth phase is incredibly challenging. The brute force required, the go-go-go: it doesn’t leave a lot of time for anything else. So we decided to still grow very aggressively, but in strategic pockets, with a focus on the future. You might call that “hyperscale.”
This new stage forced us to take a step back and consider how we build an ecosystem which allows us to be more proactive and forward-facing. Our team recognized that the things that worked at 500 people were starting to break down as we grew. In order to scale and reach past 1,000 employees, we would need to approach talent acquisition differently. In this case, we really had to rebuild our infrastructure: the systems, the tools, the process – all of the things that would enable our team to do what they do, but in a much easier, quicker, and scalable way.
What was the first thing that needed your attention?
We built entire teams that didn’t exist before. Previously, we had full-cycle recruiting teams focused on Professional Services, R&D, and G&A functions. First, we had the opportunity to break from third-party agencies and take sales recruiting in house. We complemented that by building out a full talent operations function, including a global central sourcing team and an employment branding team. We also incubated our inclusion function within talent acquisition.
Medallia’s recently made some strides with diversity and inclusion.
Yeah, amongst the outcomes, quarter over quarter we’ve experienced a five percent increase of women in director-plus leadership roles. It’s a huge win for us, and a big point of pride.
How did your team make that happen?
This definitely wasn’t an overnight win. First and foremost, we had to acknowledge that inclusion wasn’t going to address itself. We needed to invest. So, a year and a half ago, we took a full-cycle headcount away from recruiting and hired an extraordinary social scientist, Lauren Jackman, to lead our inclusion practice.
Lauren set about putting a foundation in place to build on. What culminated, at the close of last year, was the adoption of a metrics-driven inclusion framework. The framework highlights strategies to recruit, retain, and promote members of underrepresented communities. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach: the strategies are tailored to specific teams, departments, geographies, and leaders. Because the framework spotlights these opportunities, we’re able to talk very openly about a subject that can be uncomfortable. We’re able to gain commitment, instill accountability, and start showing tangible progress – like the five percent increase of women in leadership roles.
Can you share an example of one of those targeted strategies that helped lead to that success?
Our chief technology officer and chief product officer have taken the helm as the executive sponsors for our Women in Tech: Medallian Resource Group. They provided coaching and gave guidance to the women who set up the group. They were then able to solicit feedback about what we can be doing differently, and that feedback has helped us adapt our recruiting process.
Another example, and a great win, happened with Sales. In this case, we had an opportunity to address a lack of women in our field-facing sales roles. A couple weeks ago, as part of a leadership offsite, our sales leaders completed unconscious bias training and reviewed how we’re evolving our hiring practices and the opportunities to identify, engage, and hire underrepresented communities within the function. The next morning, the head of North American sales reached out to our director of go-to-market talent acquisition. He noted that a woman was coming in for an interview the next day, but no women were going to be part of the interview panel. Even though it was last minute, he asked if it would be possible to change the makeup of the panel to include representation from women in the field. It was a small touch, but a really important signal of behavioral change.
It’s the small, incremental wins that ultimately add up.
Medallia provides customer experience management software. Has the customer experience field influenced how you practice talent acquisition?
One-hundred percent. Customer experience works the same in talent acquisition as it does anywhere else. Experience matters. And our candidates are our customers, quite literally. Even if a candidate is not going to make it through the interview process to an offer, they know someone we’re interested in hiring. It behooves us to make sure they remain a promoter of Medallia, regardless of outcome.
We’ve all had terrible customer experiences. It’s really challenging to go back and think about frequenting that business. Candidate experience is the same. I still remember one of my first job interviews; it was just a horrendous candidate experience. The organization was a phenomenal nonprofit, but even today, 20 years later, I have a difficult time divorcing myself from the feelings that culminate from such a poor experience.
What customer experience practices or mindsets have you adopted?
When you ask yourself, how do we provide the best customer experience, or the best candidate experience? The answer has to go way beyond targeting a specific satisfaction score. It requires authenticity and a willingness to receive negative feedback, because you won’t always get it right. Get the feedback, learn from it, and apply those learnings in order to change behavior.
Over the last three years, we’ve been able to turn on Medallia for Medallia. Our candidates receive a direct survey asking about their candidate experience. Those results are returned real-time to our team and, top to bottom, from our talent coordinators to me as the head of talent acquisition, we have an opportunity to review feedback and take action. We’ve used that feedback to hone, shift, and change what our practice looks like.
“Customer experience works the same in talent acquisition as it does anywhere else. Experience matters.”
Can you share some of the specifics on how you collect candidate feedback?
Final round candidates who have interviewed with us receive a survey about their interview experience. It touches on the questions they were asked, the experience of being on-site, and how the decision – whether that was an offer or an explanation of they they weren’t receiving an offer – was handled. It allows us to dig into the moments that matter most to candidates, and make sure we’re building interview training and enablement around those moments, for hiring managers, interviewers, and the recruiting team.
By collecting the survey, we’re also able to go back and close the loop when don’t get the experience right. We’ve had instances where it made sense for the head of talent acquisition, a hiring manager, or even a cofounder to reach out and seek additional feedback. If we do something incorrectly, we’ve got to make it right, or at least try to by acknowledging that we made a misstep.
That‘s why being open to hearing hard feedback is so important. It’s allowed us to get better, to refine our practices, and to correct missteps when they happen.
How do you encourage openness to hearing feedback that might not be positive?
As a recruiter, it’s just like taking a decline: it’s not a failure, as long as you learn from it. As a leader, you need to make sure your team knows you’re open to talking through missteps, learnings, and feedback. If you can invite that transparency and openness, you invite a much more real conversation.
Does candidate experience influence the recruitment metrics you track?
We talk about candidate Net Promoter Score (NPS). That’s something that we have held onto from day one, because NPS allows us to acknowledge improvement opportunities, celebrate when we’re providing a great experience, and differentiate that candidate experience. So, in the same way that the close of Q1 brought a 5 percent increase in women in leadership roles, we also saw an NPS of 77.8. And, when we think about the “best in class” score across the industry as 65, that was a pretty phenomenal point for our team to celebrate. It’s not just the “what” that’s delivered, but the “how.”
What one piece of advice would you give to the Mike of a few years ago, on his first day at Medallia?
I joined Medallia to build the first in-house technical recruiting team, accelerate the pace of hiring in engineering, and unify our global practices, all in the middle of the hypergrowth phase. It was a very deliberate decision to pick up and move from a very mature organization to a smaller and growing company. I desperately wanted to get uncomfortable again, to accelerate learning, and to try on an environment where HR’s role was distinctly different. But to do that in the most hyper-competitive market in the world without an existing network, it was humbling, to say the least.
I think I underestimated how challenging the whole series of changes would be for me, not to mention the learnings that would come along with it. [Laughs] I often joke with friends, colleagues, and candidates that for my first six months here, I persistently had two thoughts: One was, “What the f*ck?” And the other was, “Did I make a mistake?”
What I’ve come to realize, and what I now share with others, is that those are perfectly natural thoughts in such an environment. In fact, it would be a surprise not to have them. Coming to Medallia, my job was to build and create – to drive true impact. Those questions and feelings showed that our work mattered. While that contribution is challenging, the opportunity to be part of the team building not only a company, but an entire category – it’s an incredible privilege. It’s a nice a-ha moment. I haven’t felt this fulfilled in years.