What HR Professionals Can Learn From Football and Spotify’s CHRO

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What HR Professionals Can Learn From Football and Spotify’s CHRO

Welcome to another exciting episode of All About HR! This is the podcast & video series for HR Professionals and business leaders who want to future-proof their organization and learn about the latest trends & insights from industry experts, CHROs, and thought leaders. 

Running a company is a lot like game theory: you need to have a philosophy and be one step ahead. In this interview, we talk to Katarina Berg, CHRO at Spotify, about Spotify’s HR of Things (HRoT) — intuitive, fast-paced, business-relevant, and tech-driven HR. 

Katarina welcomes us in Spotify’s controlled chaos and provides insights on how a company can learn faster than the world around it changes. 

But what exactly is the role of HR in change? And what part do technology and data play in that? With most challenges being people-related and all eyes focused on HR teams, 2020 turned out to be the year of HR’s resurrection. Tune in and discover more about HR professionals’ role as change agents during this pressure test and in the future to come.

In this episode, we talk about:

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  •  The biggest changes for HR: Dealing with the paradigm shift
  • Data-informed leadership
  • Rethink. Reshuffle. Redesign.

Find out everything you need to know about the added value of HR in crises and in the future, when dealing with changing company culture, talent management/attraction, and distributed workforce.



Neelie Verlinden: Hi, everyone, and welcome to a new episode of all about HR. My name is Neelie and today I have the pleasure of speaking with Katarina Berg. And Katarina is a CFO at Spotify. I think you all know about Spotify. So Katarina, how are you? 

Katarina Berg: Hi, I’m fine. Thank you. How are you? 

Neelie Verlinden: I’m very fine. I’m very well. Thank you. Can we start? I think with an obvious one. Catarina, you can maybe tell us a little bit more about yourself and about Spotify.

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Katarina Berg: Yes, thank you. So I’m from Sweden. I’m half Swedish, half Japanese. I grew up in Sweden and also on the seven seas. I am a behaviorist. So HR has been in my field. And I have been fortunate enough. So every time I change jobs, I change industries. And in the beginning, I have to admit that was just you know, something that started as I said, happening, I didn’t really plan for that. But later and further I came into my career, I thought that was pretty smart to do that, because you can’t really rely on what was successful in one industry. And that also keeps me on my toes and keeps me learning, which I think is quite fascinating. And also very interesting. And it still makes it very, very, very fun. And it develops me and what about Spotify as well, it’s the streaming service started off with music only. And now we are an audio first company with all the podcasts. 

Neelie Verlinden: And speaking of audio first Katarina, I saw that last week, I believe it was that you launched the green room that formerly was known as the locker room. And I think that your premiere talk was on HR and soccer. Now obviously, I’m super curious to hear what that’s about.

Katarina Berg: So I needed to talk about something and you can’t have a new service and not try it out. Right even though I think it was the second day when we launched the room. And this might come as a surprise, but or maybe not depending on if you follow my boss on Twitter and so on. But then I am very interested in football or soccer. And we actually talk about people’s strategy in soccer terms a lot. And we’d done that from the get go. But you know, running a company is much like a game theory, you need to have a philosophy, right? How do we play? And what type of people do we want to groom? And do you believe in homegrown yourself? Or do you go out and swap talent and kind of acquire them? And when do you do that? And how do you do that? And when do you shift the game theory to another because you’ve been in hyper growth? And, you know, what does your bench look like? And how do you grow your bench? So it’s very much like that. And philosophy, as you know, there’s a lot of very famous professional teams and they’re all successful, but they have different philosophies, some are 100% homegrown, and some of them go out and buy the biggest stores and try to make a team out of that. So my green talk was a bit about that. But also because locker rooms used to be 100% about sports, right? So I thought that was fun, like, tip my, or put my toe into the waters into the Green Room. 

Neelie Verlinden: Yeah, absolutely. Oh, I love that. And I love the analogy and I can see how it can work very well. And I think this sounds like something that we should definitely go and have a listen to over there in the green room, your primary talk on there now slightly. Moving on into our conversation here. I’ve been following, of course, so many things that you have been publishing, and I’ve been writing for a little while in preparation as well for our talk today. And there was one of your articles of which I like the title, I have to say it was called All eyes on HR. And in that article, you say HR takes an increasingly central role in organizational development and management. It’s time for us HR professionals to challenge our own ability to quickly adapt and develop and pressure test our learning agility. In your opinion, what are the biggest changes for HR in that regard?

Katarina Berg: Oh, my God, it’s a lot of things. And I think there were so many different professionals and people that had to face the pandemic in so many ways. And I think there were a couple of learnings that we did that are 100% connected to the pandemic, right. But there are so many other things that we could actually bring out of the pandemic, too, that is not, you know, connected with you being forced to do things or switch, which is, I think, is totally different from when you have the freedom and the choice and how change averse most people actually are. But it is, I think, if I’m going to mention one thing, it is to use all the knowledge that we have as behaviorists, knowing what people how they thrive, and how it makes sense for them to live and work and come together. How do we in a distributed world whenever hopefully, everything is safe and open again? How do we make sense of belonging and as a true sense of community, when everybody can be anywhere, and you still have a company and run that organization where you need to be creative, innovative, collaborative, but also to be very transparent. You also have to be efficient and productive. How do you do that? When everybody could be scattered all around the world, in every pocket of the world, and still need to come together and do things together in a way that it’s sustainable. Not just for the environment, but for you as a human being, but also for the person that is trying to lead all these people that are everywhere. So I think everything will be important. And I think what we see now with this kind of upswing of theater roles and hrbp roles around the world, where there are, like 20% more posts, and where it’s a very hot talent acquisition area now for most sports around the world, because what I think painfully a lot of companies saw, including the startups, that if they didn’t have a person with this background, that they were suffering, and they are suffering. 

Neelie Verlinden: I think that was a beautiful answer. And there are a lot of things that I would love to talk about, I think a few of them we will touch on a little bit later. I’d like to come back to your analogy, thought of sports, because there are so many different elements here that you mentioned, that all need to come together. So you really need to have a solid game plan, so to speak. And I think we agree that all eyes were on HR, they still are very much on HR. What do you think that HR needs to become the change agents?

Katarina Berg: I think one of the most important things is to actually not be averse to change yourself. I think there is a lot of HR departments or people that has also had the power to hide behind labor law or other things where you can easily say, if you tell me what to do that change or command that change, or be the change priorities, or agents just say that, that’s not doable, because the law says we can’t do that. If you know, your label, or really well, if you are a global company, if you know, it’s all around the world. So you play within the boundaries. And you really, this way you can be creative, I’m not talking about bending the laws sometimes when it actually is better for your team, for your team members and your company. 50 years ago, nobody knew about the internet or the way that we are using it, nobody knew the waves were working that we are now stepping into. So obviously the laws are there for a different society and a different type of you know, industries and the way that you know, an enterprise that operates what I’m talking about when I’m saying creative, we should still honor everything for the purpose of protecting the people. But we need sometimes to be creative with it. Because that protection sometimes now hinders the people that it was put there to to help and support, you can never be a change agent. If you try to be traditional or cling on to what was maybe your success. Historically, you need to go back and pressure test yourself. Okay, so why do we do that? So it all goes back to you know, being courageous, being brave, and to do things. And again, usually back to the crisis again, but also to where we are now. When I say that to go first and, and do it fast. Obviously, I’m also aware that when you go for us, there will be a lot of things that you don’t have nailed down or that you are eating or you’re not doing with perfection. But if you believe and also you, you have trust that you, your team and the organization can iterate, right, nothing needs to be you know, laid down in concrete. If you’re very humble about it, we don’t have all the answers. We don’t know everything about this, or we know all of this, right? We have a foundation, we have the basics. We know what you know, everything looked like the last 200 to 300 years, we can read up on what happened even before that, you have to take your choice by not doing anything, you’re not doing right by your people. As long as you’re in a closed dialogue with your people and you listen to them and you iterate from that. I think you will be fine, but not doing anything, I think is more dangerous. And thinking about the good old days. I think that is really really a bad idea.

Neelie Verlinden: Yeah, I think there were, again, so many things in there that are very true. And one of the things that I believe is very important in that regard. Katarina, is also whether or not you are in a company where you feel that you can take the risk?

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Katarina Berg: That is very true. And I think for good reasons. We are all talking about that. And there’s a really nice book that I think everybody should write. Because I also think that sometimes people, too, can twist what she is talking about when she’s talking about vulnerability in the workplace and creating that very safe space. But I’m also talking about when nobody really believes in the ideas you’re trying to drive, and everybody is trying to fight you, and it doesn’t feel safe, and you feel very low, if you’re doing things that you think the whole organization will prosper from, and it will be good for everybody, this is where you have to rely on. I’ve done this now for 30 years, I don’t have my own agenda, this is what we need to do for the company and for the well being of all our people. 

Neelie Verlinden: And I think that is another level of daring to take risks as well, right? Because that’s not trying to do the daring to take a risk, it’s also having confidence in yourself. And knowing that, as you say, it will be for the benefit of the entire organization, but then you also have to be able to take a whole bunch of people with you in that belief that it will be for that for the best. So coming back to that did at soccer theory that we hadn’t at the start, this is like bringing in a really like a coach that also dares to take risks at the team to try and get them to that Champions League level. 

Katarina Berg: Right. And, and, you know, you win some you lose some, but you must be sure that you’re winning more than you could see. 

Neelie Verlinden: Otherwise, luckily, I think in most companies, you know, you’re not fired as quickly as a lot of these soccer coaches. But you know, you will end up at some point without a job, I’m afraid. 

Katarina Berg: Yeah, but no guts, no glory, there is a reason why you have a couple of those quotes. Because they actually make sense. If you look at it, it’s easy to play defense, but sometimes you have to. 

Neelie Verlinden: I think this actually opens the door very nicely to another part of our conversation, Katarina. I think when people hear about Spotify, and it is also what you mentioned, at the very start of our conversation, they assume a lot of the time still, that it is a company that’s in the music business. And while I can understand that, I think that it is at least as much a technology company as it is a music company that must also have an influence on the way you do HR at Spotify. And so now I’m assuming here, but maybe that’s also where the term Spotify as HR thinks, partially came from. So that’s what I really wanted to talk about a little bit about what you buy and you start maybe by giving a little bit more background as to the HR of things. 

Katarina Berg: I think you are assuming, right? If you have 60-65% of engineers in an organization, your HR will be affected by that, or your HR would be isolated on a planet where it doesn’t make sense. And it’s not helpful and you’re not leaning in. But I think it’s affected more so that we also have a founder and CEO that is super clever and very brilliant in his own right. But I think you know, everything where we come from our DNA, and what’s important to us all our values and daring to be value driven. The way that we look at leadership is very much data informed. And it’s important for us to acknowledge that we are not data driven. And again, I think this is where there is a difference when our technology or our product departments talk about data and how they use that. The way I talk about it as in HR is that it is important to really stress that we are data informed and not data driven. And I usually use the metaphor of a bikini, which makes my team and also sometimes my boss stress. But you know, the bikini really hides. You know, it shows off a lot. But it hides the most important part. And I think data is the same thing. If you let yourself be driven only by data, it could actually lead you down in a rabbit hole. It can make you make wrong decisions because it gives you so much to go on. Right? And then you feel very comfortable. And you also think that your decision if it goes right, maybe you can lean in and say I took the decision and like to have all the pleasant things that come out of that. But if it leads you wrong, you can always get the data set right. But here I think they’re human beings and intuition and our experiences soon. We’re super important and also where all the data could point us in one direction. But something tells us you know, we have seen this before, we have seen the pattern. So it’s not just about collecting the dots, you also have to connect the dots. And here I think, you know, this is where HR is important if you are a people first company and you mean that and you could also put yourself are you in an IT company? Katarina? Are you a tech company like Spotify, you know, music or audio company? I think my boss usually puts it like this, when we have our intraday, it’s that we are a talent company, we have some of the best and smartest talent in the world. And that is why it’s a pleasure to come in every day. But this is also why we succeed in doing a lot of things. While we’re still a pretty small company, compared to some of the bigger, you know, competitors that we have.

Neelie Verlinden: And then if I may say, so get if you without the bikini, right, that’s when you have everything. If I understand your analogy correctly, there are a few other initiatives that I like to touch on briefly as well. Katarina, you mentioned it already. But maybe let’s start with the Spotify work from anywhere program. Can you tell us how this originated? 

Katarina Berg: So Spotify started as a Swedish company, and quite fast or even before launching our founders, Daniel, Eric and Martin Lawrence. And we’re quite set on that it would be a global company. And quite fast to when we started to launch different markets. And we also then decided to have people in all these markets and local people, which meant that from the early days, we would distribute it. And then when we were growing also in the mothership of Stockholm, in our headquarters, as soon as you have two levels, if you really think about it, are two floors and three floors. And then four floors and five floors. You also distribute because people tend or have a tendency to email or ping or chat or slack or whatever you use, instead of getting up and you know, go over and talk to people when you become quite a big company. And then we started to have conversations, talking about football walking around in Stockholm, having our walks and talks when we we had our you know, weekly check ins four years ago, Daniel Saad say that I think we should actually be a distributed first company, because it doesn’t make sense that we are clinging on to the office, the way that we were people. We are a 100% Digital company, we have the tools. So let’s really challenge some old truths, when it comes to where people need to be to be happy, to be efficient, to come together to collaborate, to be creative, to be innovative, I can make that list long. And then four years ago, I was like Not really. And here’s back to change, right and change yours. I was not ready for that change. And I didn’t believe that our leaders and our employees were either. To be honest, he is persistent. And he is a stubborn man and also very, very smart. So we have these conversations on our walks and talks. And then I had to, like take that to heart in a way that I wanted to see what technology actually could do for us because we had the offices, we had like 79 offices around the world. And people came into them most of the time. But we also have measurements saying that on a normal day, 33% of all the chairs in the desk were used in an average 33% and we had a chair and a desk per person. It didn’t really make sense not to say to my boss that he was right, we are distributed. And our reaction was not like this only 33? What are they doing? Are they skiving off what they are not working on? We understood that they’re working somewhere else. And whatever makes sense for them. What works for them? Obviously seems to work for us too. And, and boom, then we have you know, COVID and now we had a different chance to you know, have service surveys four times a year of being one How are you doing? Obviously you know about well being and health and all that. But also how does this work for you? And what type of equipment Do you miss? And what can we support and what can we fix you know, in your home office so it’s accelerated our work from home, work from anywhere program. And then I asked two people in my team, Alex. Could you see if we could put a program together and turn every stone that we could? Think about when it comes to insurance, contracts, labor law, and what we can start to do with our offices if we need to change them. So we use this year, which we thought was a year now here we are 1516 months in. So that was kind of the background of the program was a long, long, long dialogue about what we could do. And really thinking about the people of place, what we usually call an office, but also technology and what will shift and what will change, and how do we already work to be honest?

Neelie Verlinden: Yes. Because by the sounds of it, Katarina, it is something that was already ingrained in the way that you were working before, because you mentioned that 33% of occupancy, on average, and in your offices. So it does seem like it already was part of, of how people were working at Spotify and part of your culture, I think, by extension.

Katarina Berg: Yeah. And I think here, this is also why it was quite easy and not painful in that regard. When it came to work, if anyone, if there were like one person in the organization thinking that efficiency, efficiency or productivity would go down, or this is not good, or we’re, you know, in a very old lead ship of my job is controlled. I think it’s proven now. And it really works. But it’s other things that are not working, such as I want to ask them, What is not working, as well as mental health, that is not working for any, for I think everybody is feeling it. But I don’t think it’s work from home, I think it’s forced working from home. And this is also why when we ask our people, what are the things that are really important, and they all say that they got him very comfortable and very used to and it hasn’t, maybe it had an acquired taste. But now when they taste it, they like it, it’s the freedom and flexibility. But what they do miss is to have a focused area or a lot of colleagues, or what research is usually referred to as the third room where you can bump into each other and have spontaneous meetings, or whiteboard something, or discuss things or just get inspired by other people that gives you energy, I saw that you have been redesigning your offices. And I think partly, or maybe entirely based on what you’ve learned from what happened over the past 15 months, what we did with everybody home. And the survey that I mentioned was to actually ask people, what would you like to do? Would you like to use the office when you can and again? Would you like to work from the office? How many days? Would you then prefer to work from the office? Do you want us to decide? Or do you want to decide for yourself? What do you think you will use the office to do and when more questions like that. And this is where we thought it was smart to rethink it’s the year a rewrite, and 2021 is everything pre shuffle, redesigned. So we took the office home, right, what we are now doing, we’re taking home into the office a bit more. And what do I mean with that? People are asking for more areas for collaboration, more areas that will provide and support innovation, more areas that would be, you know, tending to the creative side. Some areas or more areas that we are used to that are like one arm set silent, where you can go and do focus work, but you want to come in, because you might have a partner or kids that are home or as a home setup. Or you might also maybe share a flat with other friends, which means that you want to come in but you want to have a quiet space. So we’re taking out a couple or much more of the usual desks and providing them with us. And then when people are allowed back into the offices and for the people that will choose that we will keep listening and do these check ins and temperature checks and then iterate from there. But I have to say that the officers were always super nice and very, very neat. And one of the things that we might have been famous for. I actually think with these changes, we upgraded all of them nicely.

Neelie Verlinden: The last thing that I wanted to do with you Katarina is something that we always do on our episodes of all about HR with our guests, we always ask them to share an epic win and or an epic fail with us.

Katarina Berg: I think one of the epic wins that still puts a smile on my face on a weekly basis was in 2015. We decided to do something that I usually refer to as putting Swedish values on x Or Swedish leadership on export, meaning that this was when we host our lead on leave program, global parental leave to all our employees. No matter if they same sex or if it’s surrogacy or adoption, or, you know, for the Father, for the mother, we thought it, we think it’s a super important time to spend with your family. So we decided to give all our employees six months of paid parental leave and one month to kind of ease back into work. So I think that is accurate, because it still gives me happiness. And I get reminded that what we take for granted in Sweden is not something that you can take for granted in us or, or most parts of Europe or you know, in Asia. So that is the epic, when I think my biggest epic failure was when we were trying to spend time, which was more than two years trying to scrub data, meaning thinking that it was corrupt. And then thinking that it was hard for us to choose how to also then build the data warehouse within HR, which meant that we lost so much time of where I wanted to end up and where we are today with an HR insights rather than people analytics with a platform our own that actually are connected to all the tools internally today. But the failure leading up to that was me not leaning in, accepting that the data was corrupt and also not understanding that something that a lot of people in HR might not have as their first or the second or their only love. It was okay to put that aside for too much time. But my god that that was beyond epic, I have to say that

Neelie Verlinden:. Yeah, that is also I think a good one to share. Thank you. Thank you so much. And thank you for this. Yeah, this truly awesome conversation gathering where we had so many things. I think I could have talked to you for at least another hour. But this was amazing. Thank you so much. 

Katarina Berg: Thank you. And it was my pleasure. And it was nice to meet you.

Neelie Verlinden:. Yeah, absolutely. And thank you everyone for listening to today’s episode. As always, if you enjoyed the episode, don’t forget to give it a like, share it with a friend. And also subscribe to the channel if you haven’t done so yet. Thank you so much. And see you again next week for a new episode. Bye

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