Forbes – Perspectives Of Gwen McDonald, Seasoned Human Resources Executive: A Look Back And Look Forward

December 21, 2018

By Robin Ferracone

This post was originally published on

As far back as I can remember, I’ve had the pleasure of working with Gwen McDonald. McDonald recently retired from the executive vice president of human resources role at Network Appliances, Inc. (“NetApp”), and prior to that was the senior vice president of human resources at 3Com. McDonald is a seasoned executive in human resources (14 years with NetApp and 14 years with 3Com) who has had an uncanny ability to adapt under multiple CEOs while brilliantly navigating through rapidly changing waters in the high-tech world. McDonald is regarded as an impressive business leader with exceptionally high emotional intelligence (EQ). With Mcdonald’s track record of success, I knew that her perspectives would be valuable to all of us. Here’s what McDonald had to say.

 Robin Ferracone: Gwen, you’ve experienced great success over the years. What are the three most important things that contributed to your success? In your mind, what is the “secret sauce”?

Gwen McDonald: Well, my first task in business was to learn from the business leaders early on, so I did whatever was necessary to understand the business, and the organization and its culture. How does the business work? How does it compete? What customers do we serve? What is the value proposition of our products? What does our Profit and Loss Statement (P&L) tell me? How are we viewed in the market?  What are the company’s values?  How do folks describe the culture? I needed this knowledge for credibility with others in the organization and to have impact. Once I understood the business, I had to think about how I was going to translate this understanding into the appropriate HR actions.

Second, I relied on mentors, which came in all shapes and sizes, including other executives, board members, those who reported to me, and my consultants. These mentors shared their insights, experience, and expertise that impacted me as a business leader.

Third, personal credibility, being authentic, living in integrity, and being honest are non-negotiable for me. Having emotional intelligence is also critical.

Ferracone: How did you find the right balance when you had to take tough actions, like downsizing as part of a restructuring effort?

McDonald: As you know, we are in a competitive market, and unfortunately, we have had to take actions like downsizing. These actions impacted all stakeholders, with our employees as the primary constituent. My personal opinion is that these actions were caused by either a failure of leadership or a disruptive event. Either way, it wasn’t the fault of the employees. So, it was my job to drive a fair process, meet the business objectives, ensure that we treated employees with integrity and respect through their transition, and reinforce our values, even in the wake of tough decisions. And for the remaining employees, I wanted them to feel as though their colleagues and friends left with dignity and respect. The key was to not just look at the “what,” but to look at the “how.” For example, in one of our reductions in force (RIF), our president ran into an employee who had been laid off. Our president started to apologize for the layoffs, but before he could get through the apology, the employee said that he had been treated professionally and with respect, which he appreciated. This was why our company was named one of the “Great Places to Work.” The statistics don’t convey these moments.

Ferracone: You have worked very effectively with a number of different types of CEOs, each with different styles and objectives. How did you do this so skillfully?

McDonald: The CEO/CHRO relationship is critical. In my career with NetApp, I supported three CEOs with varying leadership styles in concert with the company’s evolution.

First and foremost, I had to be adaptable and clear on how I could support the business and each of the CEOs in generating value. I always looked at myself as a business leader first, who happened to be a functional expert in the HR domain. I knew that I had to adapt to the CEOs because they weren’t going to adapt to me. I developed a “contract” with each CEO, both obtaining their views on the role of HR, and most importantly, their expectations of me and my expectations of them. This understanding built trust between us from the outset and allowed me to give honest feedback to each CEO, even if they were not going to like what they were going to hear. Each CEO trusted me, and in return, I never violated their trust.

As an HR leader, I’ve had to have a perspective and I’ve had to have the courage to express my point of view. Given where the business was and the CEO’s style and focus, I had to be comfortable wearing many hats: strategic partner, credible advisor, change catalyst, board advisor, cultural exemplar, and purposeful leader to name a few.

Ferracone: OK, so you learned early on about the importance of adapting to new CEOS stylistically, but without compromising your values. In turn, how should CEOs work with CHROs?

Mcdonald: CEOs need to get clarity on where to spend their time. They need to be clear on the organizational value proposition. They need to dig in and understand the health of their business and organization. They need to spend just as much time looking at their people strategy as their product portfolio. They need to ask, “Do we have the partners, processes, skills, people, and leaders to drive the business?” Good CEOs need to be agile and look at their talent. If things are changing, they need to anticipate the talent changes before they need the talent, not after the fact. Good CEOs do not treat “the people business” in an ad hoc manner. They treat “the people business” systematically, making organizational changes in partnership with the CHRO and with the entire executive team.

Ferracone: What trends do you see ahead for workforces in general?

McDonald: First, the entire “employment contract” with the workforce is being revisited. There will be a growing number of workers who are working on a contract basis. Not everyone will be “under the tent.” The talent market is so competitive and people will be working virtually from anywhere. Companies will need to learn how to be productive with a distributed workforce.

Second, diversity and inclusion will be huge. It will go to the very core of how we do business globally and continue to provide insight into the needs of our customers broadly.

Third, technology will drive many of our solutions. For example, we will see Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robots having an impact. We’ll need to decide whether we need a “bot” or an employee. We will need to question, “What is a person?” It’s not that we won’t need people. We’ll just need different kinds of people – for example, those who know how to “hire” and program a bot.

Finally, given the digital platform, the lines between professional and personal life will be blurred. This throws the old adage of “work-life balance” upside down, which has both positive and negative implications around manager/employee work expectations, productivity expectations, stress, etc.  Today, many companies are grappling with these issues and are looking for some balance.

Ferracone: Gwen, what do you see lying ahead for you personally?

McDonald: I’d like to do three things. First, I’d like to do some non-profit work . . . give back. I’m working with my daughter right now, who is getting a Ph.D. in health, looking at ways to treat adolescent depression, particularly in girls. How can we make healthy humans?

Second, I’d like to advise/coach new CHROs, and executives in general. One request that I have been getting recently is from mid-level professionals, particularly women, who want me to work with them on how to deal with those in power.

Third, I’d like to sit on a corporate board or two. My ability to work with C-level executives and boards will be helpful in many settings.

Ferracone: All of this is very exciting and we appreciate you sharing your valuable insights with us. I look forward to keeping in touch for years to come. Thank you!

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