Wayfair Chief People Officer Kate Gulliver

Kate GulliverWayfair Chief People Officer

Today I’m lucky to have on the show the Chief People Officer at Wayfair, Kate Gulliver. Informed by her career across many different parts of the company, Kate shares her vision and strategies on consistency and support for the hugely varying needs within the company. From the evergreen people principles at Wayfair, to the importance of collaborative cohesion and always assuming the best of your co-workers integrity, we learn what it means to be part of the network of employees that are touched and supported by the talent division. She also shares with us her strategies for creating umbrella support across the business while providing equity of opportunity for every team member at Wayfair. We then dissect the interviewing process, the intricacies of internal mobility, and developing a system of internal mobility hires within senior and junior levels.

Episode Transcript





[0:00:06.1] RS: Welcome to Talk Talent to Me. A podcast featuring the most elite talent leaders on the frontline’s modern recruitment.


[0:00:12.8] FEMALE: We actually want to understand the themes of someone’s life, we want to understand how they make decisions. Where are they willing to take risks and what it looks like when they fail.


[0:00:22.7] RS: No holds barred, completely off the cuff interviews with directors of recruitment, VPs of global talent, CHROs and everyone in between.


[0:00:31.1] FEMALE: Once I went through the classes and the trainings got the certifications through diversity and inclusion, I still felt like something was missing.


[0:00:39.7] MALE: Talent acquisition, it’s a fantastic career, you are trusted by the organization, you get to work with the C-Suite and the security at the front desk and everybody in between and everybody knows you.


[0:00:53.0] RS: I’m your host, Rob Stevenson and you’re about to hear the best in the biz, Talk Talent to Me.




[0:01:00.1] RS: Joining me today on one I’m certain is going to become an instant classic installment, no pressure, Kate, of Talk Talent to Me is Wayfair’s chief people officer Kate Gulliver. Kate, welcome to the podcast, how are you today?


[0:01:15.1] KG: I’m great, thanks Rob for that intense intro, I appreciate it, I’m excited.


[0:01:20.9] RS: Yeah, this is going to be so great. I’m so excited to have you on and just to kind of paint a picture for the folks at home, I have just been like this ball of anxiety that is like awful version of myself and Kate has been so patient with me and sort of like talking me down off the ledge a little bit before we started. I had a really chaotic day and Kate’s like, “You know what Rob? Just pause, take a breath.” 


I really couldn’t have done it without you, Kate and not just because of the content but because of your coaching here. Thank you I guess on the top of the show is what I’m saying, I’m so happy to have you here. Wayfair is a company that my listenership will know well, I can reach our right now where I am and touch about four different objects that I’ve gotten from Wayfair.


A big fan of the biz and I’m just excited to have you on and hear all about your journey. I would love, just at the beginning here Kate, to hear about you and kind of your background and how you came to be the chief people officer at Wayfair.


[0:02:15.7] KG: You know first Rob, thank you for having me and join our conversation so far. Looking forward to this and love that you’re a customer, it always makes it easier when someone understands that the product and the experience. I’ve been with Wayfair for about seven years. I originally started at Wayfair actually in investor relations. My bank run prior to joining Wayfair was as a private equity investor so I myself did not have a talent background and never saw myself going that direction.


I loved Wayfair, I found the company, I’m have an enormous opportunity, I was really enjoying the work that I was doing when the CEO and CFO came to me and said, “You know, we think you should consider helping us out in talent. We are growing rapidly, talent is a core strategic advantage for us and right now, we don’t know of anybody thinking about talent from end to end.”


From attraction of talent, all the way through to onboarding, development, growth of that talent within the organization and then through to alumni status. For me, it was not a place I’d ever see myself but the problem was very exciting and I loved, as I said I loved Wayfair and I wanted to continue to see how I can help make Wayfair better and this seemed like a great way to impact the day to day lives out of at that time, 6,000 employees at Wayfair, now we’re close to 20,000. 


[0:03:38.3] RS: Yeah, it sounds like you were kind of including this thing that has come up for me a lot speaking to other leaders in your position which is that, the people department uniquely touches every area of the business in ways that other departments don’t, was that part of the opportunity for you?


[0:03:51.8] KG: Definitely. It’s actually something that I also experienced a little bit in finance. As I mentioned, my first job at Wayfair was in investor relations and joined by 10 months before IPO and I actually ran our IPO process. One of the things I’d love about that experience is I got to learn every part of the company and understand the business really well, understand how the different parts of the company worked with each other. Understand what our competitive advantages were from a business perspective from a high-level perspective not going deep in marketing or going deep in some part of our category management team. 


In many ways, talent is quite similar. I’ve gone a lot deeper than I ever did in my investor relations days but in talent, I’m expected to support the entire organization from our warehouse associate out on the fulfillment center floor all the way to the VP head of storefront engineering and those are two very different people, very different profiles but they need the company to show up for them consistently and in different ways but with the same level of support.


[0:04:53.6] RS: Yes, absolutely. I love the way you painted that as these two individuals who have such different needs, incentives even but rely on the support of Mayfair in different ways. As the leader of the department. How do you put up an umbrella over all of them I guess to use a weird stretching metaphor here to make sure that the goals of the team are pointed at supporting all of the disparate ways that people need help from Wayfair?


[0:05:23.4] KG: Yeah, it’s a great question. I think it starts with how we define what it means to be a team member at Wayfair and that’s through our people principles, which is how we characterized how we want people to show that work and how we hope and expect the people operate with each other.


Those people principles are designed to apply for every individual that is a member of the Wayfair team. If we start with that guiding structure of our people principles, then we can use them and to say, “How does this get interpreted when you’re thinking about benefits for frontline employees or when you’re thinking about talent acquisition of data scientist or when you’re thinking about the development of a marketing analyst?”


If we do it from the framework of the principles we have, a guiding force that at least helps us structure our thinking. The other thing that we’ve done in talent and you know, Rob, you and I spoke a little bit about this is we do have articulated OKRs so objectives and key results that we leverage is the planning process to think about, “What are the guiding principles that we have for talent in this specific year?” so the people principles are Wayfair wide and that our talent OKR’s are specific to talent.


In this case for the year of 2021 so that we know across the 350-ish people in talent were all five, actually 500 now, we’ve been adding to the recruiting team quite dramatically so 500 people in talent, we know we’re all running at the same direction because it’s quite easy to end up bifurcated and focusing on different objectives.


[0:06:51.9] RS: Yeah, of course. I’m sure in the Ven diagram of people and talent, OKRs, there is a middle section, there’s some overlap there. What is the nuanced though, what is like the difference between more widespread people goals versus that of the talent department because truly, they align a lot?


[0:07:12.4] KG: Yeah. Our people principles are evergreen, they are articulated across the organization to every new hire and they include things, there are nine people principles, I won’t rattle off all nine for you but I’ll share a few of my favorites and one of them is collaborate effectively. We believe that collaboration is core to our success, our teams are very matrixed and so to work effectively and have to know how to work across multiple teams, get the alignment that you need and also, be transparent in the information that you’re sharing so that a team over at another group can actually help support you and provide value to you.


Another one of our people principles is respect others. We think it’s very important how you interact with each other on a day-to-day basis and show up with an expectation that the person sitting across from you is doing their best. We describe it as a assume good intent, assume that the person across from you, maybe they’re approaching the problem differently than you and you need to collaborate effectively to deliver results with agility, which is another people principle but they are showing up with that expectation that you’re both trying to do the right thing for Wayfair.


Those principles are evergreen, they’re overarching. Now, our talent OKRs are usually specific to a moment in time and work that we, from as a talent organization believe that we are uniquely positioned to drive. Sometimes that’s in conjunction with our partners outside of talent, sometimes it’s just within talent. For example, our first talent OKR was to create equity of opportunity for every team member at Wayfair. 


That hits along a number of different people principles, right? It hits upon respect others, it hits upon another one of our people principles, which is build the best team and there are certainly levers of creating equitable opportunity that managers have at their disposal that team leaders have at their disposal, that site leaders have at their disposal but there are a number of levers that we as talent believe that we drive and want to create sort of a consistent operating base from.


An example of that is we track equity in our performance review process. Well, the performance review process is structured by talent and so we believe it’s our responsibility and talent to track and report on an equity in the performance review process, problem solve the approaches to ensure an equitable process, pilot those approaches and then work with a business to ensure that those approaches get integrated into the overall application of the performance review process.


[0:09:35.4] RS: Got it. What are some of the talent specific then, OKRs and what are the things the recruiting team is working on that align with the – obviously, bubble up to people ultimately, right? 


[0:09:47.2] KG: Yeah, for example, the first one is equity of opportunity, the recruiting specific piece to that is around representation and how do we think about increasing representation of underrepresented groups at Wayfair. One of the metrics that we’re looking at there is senior manager and above. How are we focused on driving under represented individuals and roots at this senior manager above level? That’s really our leadership level and recruiting, there’s a component of that, that is developed in people internally, there’s a large component of that right now that is recruiting and so externally.


We look at specific, very specific percentages there and grow the numbers that we’re looking at and that’s all the way up from recruiting perspective you might back that up all the way up to the top of the funnel, what your mixes at the top of the funnel has successfully you’re bringing underrepresented groups through the funnel and then the recruiters will work with their hiring managers on that if they’re not seeing the evolution and that funnel metric that they need to see.


Another talent opportunity or talent OKR is around career development and creating a culture of career development and you may say, “What is talent acquisition recruiting have to do with career development?” We refer to career development as the Wayfair jungle gym. 


It doesn’t just have to be upwards with your promotion, it can be side to side, lateral learning new opportunities, maybe it’s a diagonal, maybe you’re moving to another road band taking out some more responsibility but really, we want people to move throughout the company.


Recruiting actually has a huge focus there from an internal mobility perspective. We know this internal mobility numbers were not ramping as fast as we wanted them to and so we created a team within recruiting about a year ago to focus specifically on internal mobility at Wayfair broadly and do two things.


One, make employees more aware of internal mobility opportunity so how do you have team members be aware of where they can transition to how they know if they’re right for the next role and then two, how managers understand how to guide employees and their team members through that process so that they can think about how to be more proactive and helping a team member think about a new opportunity. 


As a result, I think we doubled the number of people that are moving internally and about 24% I think of roles in the last quarter were filled through internal mobility, which is great. I mean, we way rather fill role internally that they go higher externally for, there’s a lot better retention obviously of those individuals and they know us, they know they like working here so we want to keep them on the team.


[0:12:13.4] RS: Yeah, that’s a common thing I’ve heard is how an internal candidate tends to stick around longer, tends to perform better, et cetera and yet, I don’t always hear from folks that there’s this huge concerted effort to make sure individuals are aware of what other roles are there in the business for them, know that they can move around, even if it’s from department to department, right?


I’m in marketing so I can’t be a software engineer, right? It’s probably a common narrative, how does Wayfair work to help individuals understand that this jungle Jim exists and that they can move sideways, they don’t always have to just move up on this one path with their own department and that there are all these various different kinds of opportunities available to them if they would raise their hand.


[0:12:55.3] KG: It’s a great question. I will start by saying, I think there’s a lot more we can do. For example, I’m going to talk through some things that we’ve done that I think have helped out in our more enterprise type roles, sort of sitting out of Boston office or some of Berlin location but an the area that we haven’t been great at is how we move talent from say a frontline job in an FC or a customer service center to an enterprise-wide role. There’s a lot of opportunity there.


Let me caveat, I want to go back and say by, I think Rob, you’re touching on a problem that we’ve sort of just scratched the surface of but there’s probably significantly more work to do. A few things that we do are one, we recognize that the problem for the individual is different depending on their seniority at the company. The more senior you are, the more you’re likely to understand that you can move around, you’ve probably seen some of it but the higher the stakes feel to start having that conversation with your manager.


It might feel a little bit intimidating, in fact, to say, “Hey, I’m going to tell this person that’s developed me, and have gotten to me to where I am that I actually want to leave them and move over to another team.” One thing we did there was for our director level folks, we started a confidential process where they can speak to one of the senior people and exec recruiting who knows Wayfair, knows the roles that are open and exact recruiting quite well and can have a one-on-one confidential conversation around:


“Hey, here’s what I’m thinking about, what roles might be of open right now that you think could work? What roles do we have on the horizon that you think could work?” and this allows the individual to have a low stakes, they don’t have to go to their manager initially, they can just have the conversation with the exec recruiter, they keep it confidential and the exec recruiter tends to know, usually a little bit about the person, we’re still small enough at that level that they tend to know the individual and they often know what roles other leaders in the company might be thinking about but have not yet posted.


Then, the exec recruiter can start to make the match, “Oh, Kate over here says she’s looking for a new head of talent operations and I know that Bill over here in finance ops is actually quite interested in moving to talent. That can be a really interesting move for him if Kate decides to open up that role.”


It is very high touched and so it is quite labor intensive but it tends to sort of connect the pieces in a more, I would say in a more evolved way. The other think that we do is for more junior employees, we try to surface the available jobs so that everyone knows here are the jobs that are available. 


We have different hot jobs that we highlight each week so that people know what is out there and then for my examples of people that have been successful in internal mobility, so various times you run panels on internal mobility and show how that might evolve, I always tell people my story, which is that you know I am an example of internal mobility. I start in finance and now we’re in talent. Our head of talent acquisition actually started in the business and now runs DA for us. 


We have a number of examples throughout the talent work of that, so by providing those real world examples, I think it helps people understand a little bit more clearly what a career path could look like for them if they make that jump. 


[0:16:02.7] RS: Yes and it is all in the interest of getting people to start thinking about this if they aren’t already because a certain amount of folks are going to sus this out in the company and be like, “Hey, is this available for me?” but the people who would move is a higher number than people who raise their hands, right? The whole goal is to encourage folks to do this pre-emptively or even to bring that to someone’s attention before they are even thinking about it themselves. 


To go to someone in the previous example and say, “Hey, so and so over in marketing, you even thought about a career in software engineering? Do you ever thought about moving into a different department? Well, what do you think about that?” is that part of it for you? Is there some predictive element to this? 


[0:16:49.2] KG: We don’t have that yet. I love what you’re describing Rob because I think that that’s probably the natural evolution of this, which is we do start to look at based on how long someone has been in role, how long they’ve had the same manager before, what their performance has been in that role. We tend to get a sense of their likelihood to a trait out of the organization as a whole and so recently, we’ve been using that to influence where we have what we call stay conversations. 


The intent of a stay conversation in its most perfect example would be what you just described, which is, “What is it that keeps you here? What is it that you’re looking for? Hey, I’ve got an idea to go do that over in this other group” that is actually a very real conversation most managers struggle to have that conversation. It is almost scary right? You are thinking about losing some great team player of yours and proactively placing them in another group. 


I mean you have to be really altruistic to want to do that so I think that we could probably do two things better, which we’re not yet evolved on, which is one, how do we predict people not just that we think they’re going to try that we think that they have better engagement and better longevity with the company if we felt like they are ready for a new role and then two, how do we help the manager see that that’s a great thing for them to be exporting talent, right? 


That helping to build other teams throughout Wayfair benefits Wayfair and that means that your manager, you’re great at developing talent so people want the talent that you are developing and that is a really good sign and that is actually a benefit and a credit to you and we’re going to talk about that in your performance review. We’re going to talk about that in terms of how we talk about what your next opportunity is and I think both of those things are levers that we should be pulling more that we likely don’t do enough of. 


[0:18:33.2] RS: Yeah, it does seem like it needs to happen on the manager level as well and there’s just so much trust though that it has to exists. Putting myself in the candidates point of view, under what circumstances would I, just out with that information, would I sit down and say, “Hey, I’m not super happy in my role, I think I’d like to move” or would I even if I was asked, “Hey Rob, have you ever thought about a job in our department?” would I answer that positively knowing that that’s going to play a bunch of cards?” 


Reveal my hand a little bit about how happy I am at the company, am I like now – are they going to start looking to backfill me? Are they going to start investing me last? There is all of these panic things, this standoff that happens between employer versus candidate, how are you going to cultivate that trust to let people know, “Hey, this is okay to raise your hand and say you want this.” 


[0:19:21.4] KG: I think it is just has to be through examples and the more you do it, the more comfortable people get with it so I agree with you and there is another fact that you didn’t even mention, which I think is sometimes when you go to an employee, a team member and say, “Hey, we think you’d be great on this team over here” they’d wonder, “Am I not great on my current job?” you know? Does this mean that I am not performing well? 


Why are you asking me to move? Is this no longer successful? The most important thing that you can do is normalize that that is an operating norm of the company and it is something that you believe in and something that is as an organization we see as a strength. We think that people that overtime move through different roles underperform and better, et cetera. You know, all the things that you were typing as the reasons to do internal mobility earlier. 


For us, part of that is publishing the success of our internal mobility program, so articulating, “Hey, 24% of the roles is quarterly filled internally.” and talking through some examples of people that did it. The more you talk about how frequently it happens, the more I think people understand, “Oh it is actually a good thing.” It is beneficial to my career, my manager is going to understand it. It maybe is always little sticky ones that leaves the team and we try to remove that for as much as possible but inevitably particularly right now when everyone needs more talent than they can get it is always hard when you lose a team member. 


That pain is short lived and the long term benefits to both the individual and the organization are quite large and so we as managers and leaders need to, you know, we need to lead that conversation by speaking positively and proactive about it. 


[0:20:52.8] RS: Encouraging individuals to raise their hand to understand that these sorts of jungle gym moves are available to them. I can see how this is connected to the people principles you were kind of mentioning at the beginning of the episode and I am curious surely that also has become prevalent in the interviewing process too, right? Because if that is how you are asking people to apply for roles internally or move internally, then surely that should be reflected at the selection process, right? Is that how you were thinking about interviews too? 


[0:21:23.7] KG: Yeah, absolutely. Ideally, it should be consistent Rob. Interview how you are evaluated internally, you know part of how your manager gives back in a perfectly designed system. Some of your LND and training opportunities will connect with the people principles. I can’t say that we’re so evolved that that all holds together perfectly but that is the end goal, right? The more consistency you have in how you speak to the people principles and how you leverage them to both evaluate. 


Hire, evaluate and develop talent, I think the more integrated it becomes in terms of how you operate and the easier it is for your employees to understand, “Okay, this is what matters.” You know, all employees, team members really want to know, “How do I perform at my best? What is expected of me?” and if how you interview someone is the same way that you’re going to evaluate them when they’re here is the same way that you as a manager provide ongoing development and coaching for them, all the better because then the team member knows from the start what the process is going to be like. 


I think that consistency really matters. I think it is very, very hard to do. I wouldn’t say all, in a second I will pivot and explain how we’re doing it currently in the interviews but I do want to say, I think we have a long way to go to keep getting more and more consistent there. One of the benefits of a high growth organization is that you’re constantly ingesting new talent. There are times that I have been – the people leader at Wayfair that over 50% of our team is new defined as having less than 12 months of experience. 


In that environment, maintaining a consistency in how do we show up, what are our guiding principles is actually quite hard because when you look around and most people who have never worked there before and most people don’t know how to be successful in that environment and so that means it puts a lot of pressure on at the time of hiring, hiring people that meet some of these people principles already and then an ongoing opportunity to develop and coach them through those principles. 


[0:23:15.5] RS: That has replaced a sort of just technical competency model? 


[0:23:19.7] KG: Yeah, so our interview process today has a few components to it. It may vary a little bit depending on which role you are interviewing for. We did always have a competency model that we evaluated folks on internally and then for metrics, for sort of guiding pillars and technically the interview process was supposed to interview you on this guiding pillars as well as you use a case study in almost all interviews. 


If you are hiring or interviewing here as an engineer, you may have a coder review or a code review. If you’re interviewing here as a data scientist, you might have a technical screen that you are going through. Similarly, a product designer might walk through a product example, et cetera. There are usually practical and applied technical components to interviews for technical folks. Now, we use the people principles entirely so that it is consistent from end to end. 


Our behavioral interviewing questions focus on a specific people principle, so as an interview around a panel, I know that I am getting a specific people principle that I have to interview on. The commons to interview on are innovate and improve, which is one of our people principles and that is about, one about I think defining facets of working in a tech firm is that it is constantly changing, right? And so speed matters, you have to keep staying ahead of things but you also know that you are going to fail. 


Part of being successful is recognizing that failure, pivoting from it, evaluating why you failed and getting better and so we might announce the problem or a question rather to a candidate where we ask them to describe a moment in time where they initially had a failure and they were able to develop and recover from that and how did they grow or another one that I talked about collaborating effectively before, that’s one that I really like to push on how people work with teams. 


I might ask somebody that’s a team manager or a team leader in an interview process how they brought a team together to solve a complex problem. What did they do to enable people to share their concerns and their challenges, how did they get alignment where they maybe didn’t have alignment before and talk me through that example very specifically in terms of the role that that individual, the candidate played in that process. 


Good behavioral interview is actually hopefully mining an experience from your past that we can then see demonstrates one of our own nine people principles. 


[0:25:40.2] RS: Got it and is the hope with the behavioral interview question also that in, as you said mining an experience from their life, they will necessarily demonstrate some sort of technical ability as they explained how they solved whatever problem? 


[0:25:53.9] KG: Absolutely. I mean, in a perfect interview that definitely happens. We do leverage usually a scenario or case to make sure that we’re getting technical experience that applies to that specific role but I will give you an example in talent, how I look for technical experience and how they are answering an example from their prior work. A lot of roles in the talent team do require some baseline analytics knowledge, some are extreme analytics roles. 


Those have a little, you know in that interview process you will ask a specific analytics question but you know even for a head of talent acquisition, we want somebody who is analytics focused in terms of how they work with their stakeholders, how they communicate the success of their hiring process. I will hope that as I am asking some new question to talk me through how they worked with a stakeholder on delivering results that they will naturally weave in some of the metrics that they’re focused on from a results orientation perspective. 


If they naturally move in those metrics, to me that is a good sign that they’re oriented and wired towards using numbers as part of their communication device with their stakeholders. If the numbers aren’t worked in then I will go back, usually and specifically ask what metrics do you look at, tell me why you look at these. 


Another way that I might factor in is if you’re walking through an interview with somebody who is in more of a nature of a business partner type role, often a behavioral interview will address some of the complex issues and nature a business partner might manage in terms of talent relations and coaching and developing. Usually in a good behavioral interview that technical skill is coming up. In the case of as I said, very technical roles like in software developer that is going to come up in the code review. 


[0:27:39.8] RS: Got it, yeah it makes sense. Well Kate, we are creeping up on optimal podcast length here so this has been so wonderful talking to you. Before I let you go, one more thing I want to ask you. For the folks out there who have been listening and thinking to themselves, “Kate is a badass, I want to be just like her” what advice would you give folks if they aspire to wind up in people leadership at a company like Wayfair? 


[0:28:01.6] KG: First I would say, you are crazy but I love to talk to you and so if you want to wind up in people leadership at Wayfair, please reach out to me directly. I love to talk to you. The second thing I would say is try to get as much exposure to the business as you can. I think the folks that end up overtime being quite successful in talent, think about the business first and they have a very deep understanding of what is going to make Wayfair successful. 


What makes the business successful and then they think about how to solve that from that talent perspective, the human capital perspective but it is very much business first and learning what the key operating metrics are for the company is just as important as understanding the technicals of the talent role. 


[0:28:41.8] RS: Got it. That’s great advice. Kate, this whole episode has been great advice. Thank you for being here and for sharing all of this. I really loved getting to know you today. 


[0:28:49.1] KG: Thank you Rob, this has been a pleasure. 




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