Chief People Officer Ana White on F5’s Culture Renovation (i4cp login required)

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During your tenure at F5, the company has undergone significant change—at a people, business, and technological perspective. During this time of change, how was the leadership team able to keep everything in sync and moving in the right direction?

François has always led the company with strategic clarity and urgency, right from the start. He, along with our executive team, took an outside-in approach and we painted a super clear and aspirational picture of what it takes to win. We shared this with our employees at a company meeting and updated them on our status frequently and consistently. The key was centering the need for change on the external context (clarity on how the landscape has changed) and what we needed to do to transform. This sense of urgency was necessary up front to keep people engaged in long-term change initiatives.

We also needed to articulate a clear and compelling destination. We created new language at F5 to describe our strategy called “FEWA.” It stands for Future Identity, Execution, Ways of Working, and Adjustment process. We described our future identity as “secure app delivery on any app” and shared clear goals, including our intent to be recognized as an app security leader.

To continue to stay the course to our destination, we doubled down on the focus we were giving our strategy across the company. Not just with common vocabulary (FEWA) but also through quarterly updates with the entire company on our progress. Our executive team spends at least day a month deep diving on our strategy, and we have one day a year (“FEWA day”) where all employees spend the day learning more about our progress, stories, and updates. These levers help keep the focus on our FEWA at all levels of the organization.

Our “Ways of Working” are just as important as creating strategic clarity and urgency, and I’m proud of what my team accomplished. It follows a similar and parallel path to our strategic clarity and urgency: Define the to-be culture, ignite the leaders to drive action, and frequently measure success.

To define the culture, we hosted focus groups to understand not just the changes that were needed, but also what must be preserved. François and I iterated a lot on what the culture should be, then met several times with our executive leadership team. Once we decided on our BeF5 behaviors, we launched an internal marketing campaign with wall decals, screen savers, cups, stories from employees, and more. We then embedded the BeF5 behaviors into almost every HR process/program we were running – from our recognition platforms to performance reviews to our interview question banks and more – anywhere we felt it would provide value and reinforce the importance of our culture. But the most important part of the culture renovation was that our leaders not only bought into these BeF5 behaviors but lived them every day. I’ll share more on that in my keynote in March.

With everyone aware and aligned on our behaviors, we focused on what was expected of our leaders. Through a series of 37 interviews, data-driven analysis, and iteration, we landed on three key principles for our leaders that we call LeadF5. We created a playbook with critical moments that map to the three LeadF5 principles, which we shared at our leadership offsite and used to conduct a competitive business simulation. We also embedded LeadF5 into standard coaching and development practices, hiring, promotions and succession planning, and more.

To monitor the change, we created KPIs for both BeF5 and LeadF5 and watched them frequently, increasing transparency with our employees to hold ourselves accountable and ignite everyone in the necessary change (or in celebrating the wins). This included our employee survey results, HR Scorecard, and more. 

What has been key to working with your CEO, François Locoh-Donou? How do you complement each other, and what would your recommendation be to other HR leaders who perhaps don’t have the same quality of working relationship as you two have?

As with any work relationship, it’s important that you are matched with an individual who shares your values. I loved Microsoft and had no desire to leave but one reason I joined F5 was because of François and my shared values for diversity and inclusion, our desire to create a workplace where people really thrive, and our desire to give back to the community in an intentional and impactful way. Having these shared values has made our working relationship a very strong and positive one.

We complement each other very well and I play a role that is broader than HR. I also lead our ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) programs for F5 and frequently engage with customers. Therefore, François and I have a trusted partnership that goes beyond the important focus on our employees. We speak very openly and directly to each other with a sense of deep trust and admiration. That saves time and adds some humor (as he can read my face when I disagree with something, and I don’t hold back on my opinion). It is gratifying to have this open, authentic working relationship. He has taken the time to coach me on my lack of work/life balance (and the importance of moments that matter), and I don’t know many CEOs that would do that and do it so well.

If other HR leaders don’t have that quality of working relationship, I would suggest that you get to know each other in a deeper way (Myers Briggs, CliftonStrengths, etc.) and see what similarities and differences you have. This will show you how you can complement your CEO and add elements that they may not have or bring. The other piece of advice I would have, is to add value to the business directly through providing insights on strategic business direction and getting involved with customers and communities in a pro-active way to further long-term relationships. CEOs appreciate their CPOs adding this type of value in addition to of course driving an innovative and impactful people plan that accelerates business performance and raises the bar on the culture.

If you were starting your culture renovation all over, what would you do the same? Differently?

We certainly learned things along the way. Nothing is perfect on the first try or you’re not really hearing the truth from your end users. For example, we changed one of our BeF5 behaviors from “we choose speed” to “we make F5 more agile” once we saw how it was misinterpreted and agreed agility was more important than speed. So, in hindsight I would have implemented that change from the offset. Also, we did not hire a vendor/partner to help us with the BeF5 creation and work, so it ended up being a lot of work for my team. The positive of that experience was that we had full ownership with our leaders and each step led us to where we are today. But in terms of the way we went about creating our culture and changing the organization, no, I wouldn’t change it.

Things that worked well were embedding the BeF5 behaviors into almost every HR process/program we were running and measuring the progress on our culture renovation via surveys, focus groups and more. The most important part of the culture renovation was that our leaders lived it and if they didn’t there were implications.

What are some of the most difficult but essential decisions that needed to be made during F5’s culture renovation?

In those moments that matter, we found ourselves weighing the impacts of taking action or not, and to what degree. It was almost like we were creating our identity and being held to account for how much our culture mattered. Lucky for me, our CEO was willing to make decisions to show how important it was and is to live our culture. Here were a few examples: We had a very high performing and visible leader that did not live our culture and when we let him go, employees started saying wow, F5 is very serious about the culture. Another example was a different senior leader who had never been held to this high cultural bar before decided to step up and learn with us after we rolled it out. He did a full transformation of his leadership style and now has the top engagement results! This leader also shared his personal renovation with our top 100 leaders in a vulnerable and authentic way, which led to other leaders leaning in more directly. Another example that was not a difficult decision but was very impactful, was for us to take a bold stand externally on racial injustice. We had already taken this stand internally and did a lot to bring this to life over the years. By the time we took that stand externally, we had already had the increased awareness and activation going internally. A few examples of what we did externally were: the pledge on racial equality, diversity and inclusion, D&I open house,  Real Talk Black Leaders in Tech. Finally, we took an extremely human-first approach to COVID-19 which led to a 95% favorability score on the survey item F5 has demonstrated that employee well-being and health is a priority during COVID-19.

An important takeaway from all this: Ask yourself just how much you are willing to risk for the culture because you just might be asked to and it’s important to rise to the occasion.

What are the top three critical issues (external or internal trends, events, etc.) that you sense pose the greatest potential to disrupt your organization/company in 2023? How will those critical issues impact HR?

Macroeconomic environment – We are all affected by a series of unprecedented events including the lingering effects of a global pandemic that massively disrupted supply chains, Russia-Ukraine war, rising inflation, and the looming threat of recession. It’s times like these when your culture gets tested. Many companies have had the whiplash of hiring more and faster than ever to implementing cost savings measures. HR is going to have to continue to hold the high bar on their culture, be thoughtful with decision making, and very transparent with the reasons behind decisions. 

Cybersecurity threats – Nearly every organization in the world is grappling with how to defend against increasingly varied and complex cyber threats. As a security company, F5 plays a key role in helping protect companies and bringing about a better digital world. F5 stepped up to help our customers and non-profits in amazing ways when bad actors were out there trying to take advantage of others during COVID-19. The role my team played and continues to play on this was how to help our non-profits be as secure as possible.

Talent attraction and retention – This was a huge challenge in the past year, so much so that we set up “agile sprint” meetings to brainstorm how to best attract and retain the amazing talent needed for our transformation. These went well and now with the macroeconomic uncertainty we need to focus our hiring in the most critical areas and work to remove friction to internal talent movement. I think a friction-free talent marketplace is critical.

What actions is your function prioritizing in the coming year to best position your organization to compete and win in 2023?

Our people organization is very focused on ensuring our total rewards are both compelling and clear. We have been on a total rewards transparency journey and this year we will raise the bar further. We are also very focused on ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance). Over the past few years, we have been very strong on Social and Governance and this year will raise the bar on Environmental. I’m really excited about this. We are focused in other areas, of course, but these are two examples of critical areas for us right now.

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