Meet the Human-Focused Leaders of 2021: Kristin Thornby, VP of people at Neo4j

Kristin Thornby, VP of people at graph database technology leader Neo4j, discusses how HR can help businesses improve collaboration in this first in a new series where we celebrate people who epitomise the characteristics of a future-fit, human-focused leader, brought to you in partnership with 10Eighty  

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About Kristin Thornby

Kristin has a proven track record of scaling businesses, while preserving and enriching company culture. She led ObserveIT through 50% year-over-year growth, increasing the global employee base from 50 to more than 200, while receiving consecutive Best Places to Work awards and managing an acquisition by Proofpoint. While at Publicis Groupe, Kristin met the demand for rapid growth by hiring 1,200 employees in a year, built the People function and scaled from zero to over 200 employees for startup agencies within the organization.

Neo4j is the first company to develop graph database technology. The US-headquartered company has 420 people from Canada to Thailand with plans to add another 200 during 2021. Neo4j helps global brands including NASA, UBS and Volvo to reveal and predict how people, processes and systems are interrelated. Applications include fraud detection, real-time recommendations and knowledge graphs.


"When I think of collaboration, I think of it in terms of teams working together towards a common goal in the most efficient and sustainable way possible.

So thinking through ensuring our teams have an eye towards something common, rowing the boat in the same direction, but making sure we're setting it up in a way that's incredibly efficient. And I think of it in terms of improving flexibility within the org, engagement of our people, more productive meetings and innovative thinking.

And really at the core of it I think the value comes from the diversity of the group and increased diversity of perspective, which inevitably will accelerate business velocity.

I think the HR team has to lead by example in terms of showing the benefit and value of collaboration.

I think in some ways the HR team, in the absence of collaboration, would fall down almost more than any other team. I'd say for my team now and thinking through at Neo4j and at my last company ObserveIT and at Proofpoint, we had the benefit of incredibly collaborative teams that were really working together towards creating a best place to work for our people.

I have worked in companies before where that was not the case and ultimately what ends up happening is we're creating a less optimal experience for our employees, which trickles down through retention, engagement, all of that.

The people leaders and the people teams that I've worked with in HR, I think the way we're wired, is naturally a bit more collaborative. So I think for us we can't assume that's true for everyone. And don't assume that it's just going to happen on its own. I think it's important for HR leaders to remember that we have to keep working with our managers and holding them accountable for breaking out of silos. So not assuming they'll do it on their own and it's just happening naturally.

I actually had an example and it's interesting at Neo because we have always worked in a very collaborative way given our geo-distributed nature, COVID was not as much of a challenge for us to shift to a remote working environment. People were pretty comfortable with that anyway. But there were naturally some silos that started to form because people were so heads down and so busy. And in the absence of that physical proximity of being in an office to remind you of the people around you, it's real easy to get into your little hole.

You know, when I've had managers come to me saying, for example at Neo, we're worried with COVID that we're getting a little more siloed and we've never been this way. So it's sitting and really talking to them about what does that look like for you? Where are we seeing the problems and helping them come up with a plan?

They're not always equipped to figure out how to fix it. But I think once it's identified it's really partnering with them and helping them break out of that.

So thinking through examples of how we have enabled this collaboration, I think one thing comes to mind that I'd love to share from my last company ObserveIT, which was a cybersecurity company that was founded in Tel Aviv. But over time grew a very large - it's a small company but large for us - US presence. And what ended up happening over time was a tension was created between Tel Aviv and the US and it ultimately felt like it was two separate companies. And when I joined I was the first people leader there and what I walked into truly was, from a cultural perspective, from a process, programs, people perspective and business, it felt like very different groups.

There was some sense of our Israeli team feeling as though they were being replaced by the US team. So there was just a lot of sort of toxic energy there. So when I joined one of the first things we had to do was figure out for our company to scale and grow, to meet our business strategy, we had to figure out how to get these teams to work together. So it was like the ultimate collaboration challenge coupled with cultural challenges. There were obviously nuances and cultural differences between Israel and the US and it was a matter of really digging in and understanding what was creating those tensions and then figuring out how to respect the cultural differences with each group while we built a plan of how to get these teams closer together and working in a more collaborative way. So I spent the better part of the year working with smaller groups within each office. I spent, I think I was in Israel eight or nine times that year, really wanting to get under the hood to understand where was that tension coming from?

And in this example at the root of it was communication. And I think that is something that's really important as we think of collaboration across the board is ensuring that there's a strong communication flow between the groups and everybody understands what you're working on. And in this instance it was a matter of tweaking or the way we were communicating with each other and also really spending some time making sure the groups understood the why and reminding people that we are all on the same team, all kind of shooting for the same goal, but we had to step back and figure out a way to have more respect for our cultural differences and for the mindset of each group.

we had, we spent a lot of time with various groups. Breakouts, small teams, big teams. We were able to get these teams working together in a much better way with a lot more trust.

And it seems so basic but our Israeli team would say, Americans write these long emails and there's just so many words. And the Israelis would respond with you know, Americans would take time to write these big emails and we'd get "no" as a response. So then the Americans would be feeling like they were being dismissed or it was rude. And the Israelis are saying, why do you have to be so wordy? So we took the time to step back into email may not be our thing.

So we actually really heavily utilized Slack. And I'll plug Slack any day of the week, but it was a matter of getting the team set up on Slack, enabling it and then we really spent time thinking through what kind of Slack channels we should be creating and with various teams and which teams to bring together and specific channels. And we found that with time zones and what not it was just, it was a great way to keep the teams constantly connected and constantly up to speed on all of the same information, everyone's operating off the same playbook. So Slack was huge for us. We also went back to old school phone calls, and that was something that came out of our learnings too that a lot was lost in translation and writing. Obviously we all know tone is impossible to detect in text and email. So we all, as a team decided like, if something doesn't sound right, just pick up the phone or if you need to get the root of something quickly pick up the phone. So we went back to a little bit old school phone calls, and with teams again across the globe we had these Zoom rooms open at all times, and teams were able to shuffle in and out. So technology was definitely our friend and got us through a lot of that, with Slack probably being number one.

If I could add onto that one other piece of technology that we used to enable collaboration was a piece of software called HelloTeam. It was a great tool that the teams could use to... not only did it have, like everybody had their own profile page with your picture where you were located, your role, your contact information, but there was also this amazing ability to do peer recognition. As we went through this exercise to try to bring these teams together and get them to collaborate in a more effective way I really pushed peer recognition as a great way for people to start to show appreciation for the work that everyone was doing.

I think going back to thinking about Slack as an example, creating channels, figuring out what the right channels are and what are the groups that need to be collaborating and making sure at the very least at the highest level that the groups that absolutely need to be collaborating on a regular basis that you're setting up the right kind of communication channels for them. I think transparency, transparency, transparency. So I think that's something that we're always pushing is the more information we can share it only helps with collaboration. So I think from an HR leader perspective, it's on us to make sure that we're enabling the right kind of communication flow. And then I think that dovetailing off of my first one, but I think being really intentional about sitting with managers and making sure that we're helping them come up with ways to break out of silos.

I think in summary it's don't assume people are going to collaborate naturally, make sure you're building a communication plan and utilizing the right tools to help enable collaboration. And then I think making sure that you're continuing to watch for it. And when you're seeing silos, always looking for them, and when you're seeing them partnering with leaders to help come up with a plan to break them down.

I think that companies have to be intentional about the culture they build and about cultivating and encouraging collaboration. I think in the absence of that there's a lot that can be missed. So for me, I think of it as one of the most important things, starting at the leadership team level, I think it's incredibly important to have a ton of trust with the leadership team, which I think then generates that safe space for collaboration. But I think companies that don't focus on that and don't make that a priority miss on a business level, miss on a cultural level. So to me it's hard to imagine a company can be successful without it. So therefore I put it at as one of the most important things to focus on as a leadership team and as an HR organization."

Published 10 March 2021
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