How this HR exec transitioned to COO
HR veteran Judi Hart has racked up a list of top HR positions in the entertainment industry—HR manager at Blizzard Entertainment, vice president of people and culture at Beats by Dr. Dre and HR director at Apple Music and Beats—before moving into the role of chief people officer at PEAK6 Investments. Now, she is in the midst of taking on a new challenge: assuming the chief operating officer role at the financial-services firm.
The shift is a natural one, she says, as her HR career has enabled her to be a top strategic business player in each organization she’s worked at—and she is now geared up to take that business acumen to the next level. HRE recently spoke with Hart about how this new opportunity fits into her career path, and what other HR leaders can take away from her experience.
Hart: I’m not sure I would say there was an intentional shift to focus on HR from music. I was in a music program at USC (I originally wanted to be a radio DJ) and, in order to graduate, I needed to do an internship. I applied for a part-time role at Vivendi Universal with the intention of getting a job in the music division but ended up getting hired at Vivendi Universal Games as a recruiting coordinator. I had no idea when I accepted that job that I was setting myself off on a path that would be my future. I had one goal—to graduate—but, ultimately, I got so much more.
HRE: All of the companies you’ve held HR leadership roles in are, of course, very distinctive, but were there any commonalities in your approach to HR among them?
Hart: I am attracted to companies that are creative, agile, dynamic, fearless and, most importantly, real. I believe I bring a unique lens and style to the table, and it takes the right company to desire and value that. I have spent most of my career in founder-led organizations: Mike Morhaime and Frank Pearce at Blizzard Entertainment; Jimmy Iovine, Luke Wood and Dr. Dre at Beats by Dr. Dre; Eddy Cue, who ran Internet Software & Services and has been at Apple since 1989; and now Jenny Just and Matt Hulsizer at PEAK6. All of them were on the verge of explosive growth when I entered.
So, if I had to weave a thread through the last 17-plus years, it would be organizations with passionate and creative leaders, strong cultures, big personalities who desire to disrupt industries, companies in growth mode that are extremely fast-paced and slightly chaotic in nature. My job has always been to drive results while doing what is best for the business. I do that by forming relationships with leaders that are built on trust so that I can help influence decisions that are right for the business and, ultimately, the people. I keep my eye on both always. There is a human impact to every business decision we make.
HRE: What was the shift like, moving from Apple to PEAK6, particularly in transitioning to the different cultures of the organizations?
Hart: Apple and PEAK6 are more alike than you might think. They both have deeply rooted elements of the cultures that have helped create the successes of the organizations, but have also caused some of the biggest challenges. Both have long-tenured employees who have grown up in the organization. Both are private in nature and do not share very openly. Both provide opportunity and the ability to have 10 different careers without ever having to leave. Both use technology to solve problems.
The difference between them is more around the pace at which you can move, your ability to make a decision and the diversity of things you get to work on outside of your core competency. I did more in my first month at PEAK6 than I did in a year at Apple, due to the fact that at PEAK6 we make a decision and we act on it—immediately—all with an eye on enabling transformation and investing in the future. PEAK6 is much more like Beats in that regard. We move fast and we deliver. The sheer size of Apple alone makes that challenging.
HRE: Are there one or two initiatives or programs that you put into place as CPO at PEAK6 that you think have had the most transformative impact?
Hart: The value I brought to PEAK6 was my experience. PEAK6 speaks one language: data. Without it, my ability to influence is non-existent. I’ve been able to get the right resources and technology in place to help drive the right programs and outcomes because I could tell the founders how other companies they respected were dealing with similar situations.
Being able to say “At Vivendi Universal, at Blizzard Entertainment, at Beats and at Apple” proved to be the most powerful tool I could use. It was four data points that I was able to leverage many times to help highlight the deficiencies (or opportunities) in the organization, provide an example of what a solution might be and get the runway to deliver for the business and the people.
HRE: What are a few of your top priorities as you transition from CPO to COO?
Hart: In my role as COO, I lead the shared-service functions for the company’s portfolio and work closely with the different CEOs to make sure they are getting the support they need to deliver results. At PEAK6, shared services includes Human Resources, Recruiting, Legal, Finance, Compliance, Facilities, IT and Marketing. I see it as the center of the portfolio: a stable force that is able to pivot quickly in order to support a business that may need to change radically overnight. In my eyes, if we do our job right, we help the individual business units focus on their primary purpose, which is to build a great product or service and engage with their clients.
PEAK6 has been successful using technology and operational excellence to grow or turn around companies for years. I’m not asking us to do anything different. I want to use that same thinking for our internal functions, too. We are well on our way, and my goal is to create efficiencies through technology so employees can be elevated into more strategic and engaging work—all with keeping an eye on our ability to be of service and partner with the leaders and the businesses to drive success and results.
For my 18 months as CPO, that was my biggest push for the HR team. Just because we did something for the last X number of years, doesn’t make it right. Question everything. If you find yourself doing a manual task, ask yourself if you either can automate it or eliminate it, and then do the work it takes to do so. The transition is painful but the end result is worth it.
HRE: What are some of the soft skills that you think will help you as you make this transition, and what are a few that you may need to further develop?
Hart: I’m transparent so you always know where you stand with me and I am quick to give feedback: both positive and opportunities for improvement. I am loyal and passionate, I am direct and speak my truth always and I am a good communicator. I have a huge heart and always try to think about the person on the other side of the table.
I try to balance the success of the business with the success of the people; I am an advocate for both always. I am naturally a problem solver and solution-focused, I am analytical and I am a relationship builder who can build trust. All of these tools helped me to have success in HR and I will utilize them daily in my role as COO. My areas of focus as far as my own development are around finance (currently enrolled at UCLA taking classes) and getting more comfortable with stepping out in a more public way with the firm now that I am in this new role.
HRE: What do you think your career path, particularly to this current COO position, says about wider career pathing environment for current HR leaders?
Hart: I understand that it may not happen a lot, but I don’t think the transition from HR into a COO role should be considered unique. As I said before, every single business decision that is made has an impact on people. Therefore, the HR leader should be involved in every business decision you are making.
I have been lucky to be in organizations that valued the HR function, all were going through periods of intense and fast-paced growth, which provided so much opportunity to add value and learn. I developed a skill set navigating crazy, identifying gaps and/or opportunities, providing solutions, utilizing my resources, influencing buy-in, and then executing and driving results. Tell me one area of a business where those skills aren’t valuable. There is no reason someone in the HR field can’t transition to other areas of the business should they desire.
HRE: You’re making this shift in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic; how has the current global health crisis impacted PEAK6 and your transition?
Hart: I was officially moved into this role two weeks before we transitioned a 1000-plus person organization to be WFH and it turned out to be a blessing. Prior to the COO role, all of the individual shared service functions struggled to collaborate and communicate, and truly operated in silos. Once a leader was put in place over the functions, the teams naturally began to operate more as one.
We created a strong leadership team that had regular meetings and communications to ensure we were supporting the businesses and the people in the best way we could. We were able to take a workforce that was 10% WFH on a normal week and transition it to 100% within two weeks. We have made the best decisions for the firm to ensure it can continue to operate and be successful during this time, never once losing focus on our people and our communities. I believe this opportunity brought us together in a way that could have taken months to build and, as a result, we will be better for it.