What makes growth sustainable? This former LinkedIn HR leader has ideas

Leading—and leveraging—people strategy for organizations primed for growth has been a cornerstone of Johanna Jackman’s HR career.

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For instance, her work to help create a talent platform at LinkedIn—where she served for five years, including as vice president of HR—is credited with growing the organization’s workforce tenfold. She was chief people officer of Pure Storage when, in 2018, the organization hit the $1 billion valuation mark in record time for its industry. And most recently, she helmed HR at cloud collaboration service provider Airtable, leading people strategies to support its hyper-growth phase.

Now, she is bringing those experiences to another venture gearing up for growth: Freshworks, a provider of cloud-based customer service software. Jackman joined the organization in August as chief people officer, with goals of elevating the company’s “already-strong culture” and including employees “in the journey as we scale.”

Jackman recently spoke with HRE about how she plans to do that.

HRE: What are your top HR priorities as you settle into your role at Freshworks?

Johanna Jackman, Freshworks
Johanna Jackman, Freshworks

Jackman: We’ve got brilliant talent at Freshworks, and the culture is incredible. This is a company that was born and bred in Chennai, India, moved its headquarters to the U.S., and has offices, employees and customers across the globe. Freshworks has grown up rapidly, and the opportunity for focus is on efficient foundations—so we can continue to scale at speed while simultaneously delighting our customers. Our ability to keep the heart and soul of the culture thriving and building critical foundations at the same time is exciting.

Another essential focus is to build on these foundations for a seamless and integrated employee experience. In the same way we want to delight our customers and make them more productive, I want that for our employees.

HRE: What are the primary HR lessons from your work driving LinkedIn’s employee growth that will translate to how you approach recruiting and hiring at Freshworks?

Jackman: Learning to work in a hyper-growth environment is about scale as well as maturity. On one hand, the attention on foundation for scale is critical, and on the other, it is about maturing the organization—its people, its process—so we can create a sustainable and enduring company that stands the test of time. If you have immature processes and teams in place, it creates fragility and risk in the system and, unfortunately, leads to the collapse of companies once considered a unicorn.

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Giving our employees that one essential source of truth and healthy alignment is critical. Your systems and data sources simply must be clean. From there, you can do the predictions and storytelling. When you think about human behavior, unhealthy tensions arise when people don’t have clear end-goals. Once you can identify that source of truth, it drives alignment and accountability in all facets of the company—from marketing to talent management.

Bringing FoCuS [referring to LinkedIn’s three-part framework for organizational focus] to the organization. This is critical for a growing company and again is something that will stand the test of time. If there are too many competing priorities, if things aren’t being communicated to the right people at the right time and if decisions are circular, it leads to thrash and, ultimately, employee disengagement and burnout. What we want for our employees is clarity—in their roles and responsibilities, and in decision-making. This simplifies things for everyone.

HRE: How are you helping the HR function manage the uncertainty in today’s economic and labor markets?

Jackman: We’ve got great talent on our team, and there are some real constraints in place that cause distraction. However, if you look back in history there’s always been something—whether political upheaval, natural disasters, etc. The world has always been fraught with imperfections. Our ability as HR professionals to manage things with grace and focus is about holding attributes of compassion, agility and good judgment—no matter the curveballs sent our way. This is what makes us such great dance partners to the business.

The past few years have really changed what the HR profession is all about. To me, it’s become more about creating stillness. My peers in the industry (myself included) have managed a lot in the last several years—between political and social rights issues, the pandemic, environmental disasters; it’s been a constant state of crisis.

Three years ago, people leaders were tested on how compassionate they should be on social issues. Compassion is no longer a nice-to-have characteristic of leaders; it’s a prerequisite. Every chief executive I know now knows how to handle crisis management. My primary role has been to create stillness amidst the seemingly endless state of crises. It’s crucial to lead not only with head, but with heart.

It’s also important to find space for ourselves and take moments to pause so we can keep innovating and creating. Every single person is born with amazing talents and we, as leaders, need to find ways to tap into that. And it starts with finding space and stillness so people can flourish.

HRE: Given the company’s use of AI in its products, how is Freshworks incorporating AI into its internal people strategy?

Jackman: Our vision is to create a unified 360-degree employee experience. For example, if we are able to calibrate on the learning attributes of our employees through a 360 tool, over time the AI tool will be able to identify our competency gaps and enable us to inform our future of how we should be investing in our talent strategies.

HRE: What do you see as the biggest roadblocks for HR leaders looking to leverage AI tools for managing the function and/or the broader organization?

Jackman: Companies must have a source of truth. Dispersed data processes create a huge barrier to managing employee resources efficiently—even with AI integrations. Unless the AI tools are completely integrated in unified employee engagement platforms, it’s never going to be powerful. Additionally, company standards need to be clear so that employees understand what is encouraged and what is off-limits to complete their work.

HRE: How do you strive to keep challenging yourself as an HR leader?

Jackman: Challenge has never been an issue, not considering the world of imperfection and human nature. The mind can be our best friend or our worst enemy. Personally, for me to be a better version of myself, it’s critical to find space and still my mind to work through any challenges—to quiet the noise, reset, recharge and make room for innovation to happen. Doing this helps me find clarity and compassion. When I have these two “gifts,” I am able to set and achieve goals that make me a stronger leader.

HRE: Outside of work, what gives you motivation?

Jackman: My family and friends are my rock. They keep me honest. Meditation and yoga feed my heart. Running feeds my soul and balances me out. This trifecta makes me a better human.

I love people, and my goal for everyone is to help them be the best version of themselves. I truly want to leave this world a better place. I believe that when everyone is at their best, we can make real change happen together.

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].