"When people have 20 years' experience in that function, they're going to wonder why they should follow you"

Career pivots for leaders: Slack's Robby Kwok had no HR experience when he became SVP for people.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 23 Oct 2019

In August 2017 Robby Kwok was faced with a dilemma.  

A year into his stint at US-based tech company Slack, he was offered the chance to become VP for people. The problem was, despite extensive experience running business operations for the likes of LinkedIn, Twitter and Yahoo (preceded by a spell in investment banking), he had no experience in HR and was nervous about making the pivot.

It wasn’t so much the idea of being responsible for the engagement and recruitment of Slack’s 2,000-person workforce that was causing Kwok (now SVP) unease, but instead the prospect of leading a team of people who had far more experience in the field than he did. 

"The most challenging part for me was convincing the team that I was the right person for the job. When you’re now in charge of people who have 15-20 years of experience in that sector or function, they’re going to wonder what they can learn from you, or why they should follow you. 

"You see and hear certain signals. Anytime you become a new boss you get evaluated quickly by the people who work for you, so my approach was to tackle it proactively. 

"I think the only way that a leader can build trust in those moments is to be vulnerable. I didn’t want to come in and pretend that I knew everything - that would be the opposite of being vulnerable - so I sat down with my whole team and told them, ‘look I know I’m not the HR expert’, that I was expecting to learn a lot from them and that I trusted them to know what they’re doing. 

"I told them that my job is to pull everything together and make sure that the leadership team understands what we’re trying to do. I outlined what my strengths were and that I would lean on them to teach me the rest and vice versa. 

"That’s easier said than done. When you’re in that position and everybody is looking to you for decisions, admitting that you don’t have any experience is a very vulnerable thing to do.

"In a way I think that this vulnerability leads to trust. I do believe that this approach has made a big difference to my last two years in the role - in a team of 150, only one person has left."

Image credit: Slack


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