Insights

HFA Leadership Forum: Advancing to Chief People Officer in the Ad Tech Industry

2019-06-11T18:08:24+00:00
  • Deb Josephs

As a leading executive and board search firm, Howard Fischer Associates works with some of the top companies and senior executives throughout the nation. Our success stems from our commitment to a candidate’s success after their hire and our belief that exceptional leadership is the most powerful competitive advantage a company can have in the global marketplace. The HFA Leadership Forum features interviews with some of these exceptional leaders, providing insight into their career paths, recommended best practices, and the industry trends that are worth paying attention to.

In the interview below, Michelle Fisk, HFA Principal, and Eric Ferst, HFA Senior Principal, talk with Deb Josephs, Chief People Officer at NCC Media, the only media, data, and technology company that represents video programming providers in every U.S. market. Deb began her HR career straight out of college, eventually transitioning to the advertising and ad tech industry, serving in executive-level positions with DoubleClick, Everyday Health, eXelate, and IAC Applications.

What initially attracted you to HR as a career path?

I had an influential psychology teacher in high school who gave great insights into human interactions. As a result, I elected to be a psychology major in college. I quickly found out that I was more interested in behavioral sciences than applied sciences. I took a behavioral psychology class and really enjoyed learning about industrial/organizational psychology. I eventually became a TA for the class because I just couldn’t get enough. I realized a career in HR would enable me to pursue those same passions, so I jumped right in after graduation. I’ve never considered any other career.

What have been the biggest changes to the HR function since you began your career?

In the more than 25 years I’ve worked in this space, I’ve seen widespread, exciting changes. When I first began, HR was called “Personnel” and we were mainly administrative (payroll, benefits, hiring, firing, paperwork, etc.). Administration is the foundation of the work we do now – if you don’t have those skills, you shouldn’t be in HR – but it’s certainly not a reason to go down this career path, nor how to be successful in HR.

Luckily, I worked with two executives who believed, even back then, that HR had more to offer. They wanted to change the perception of the department, and they really taught me that that was a possibility and showed me how to make that shift. I learned how valuable HR could be in growing the business.

Where do you predict HR is headed in the future?

Companies are in different stages and have different needs. I think we’re done with the days of “one-size-fits-all.” More and more, HR will need to be in tune with the stage of the business and its culture, dictated by skillsets, employee composition, industries, and geography. As a function, we’ll need to be more adaptable and fluid to help drive the business. We will also need to actively enable companies to embrace diversity and inclusion and guide and educate executives to be better leaders.

What are the most important aspects of being a true business partner to a CEO and how do you think you have been successful at this partnership?

The word “partnership” is key here. The best CEOs view the role of Chief People Officer as a peer to the Chief Financial Officer. People and money – that’s what makes up the business. So, to be valued as a partner to the CEO, you need to be able to understand the business and how the company makes money through its employees – and make that understanding obvious to other leaders in the organization.

More than anything, I personally strive to be trusted to offer advice and make decisions that will lead to improved outcomes for the business. HR executives are in a unique position to provide objective insight that considers all perspectives – top to bottom – and the impact they can have. This means that sometimes I need to push back and not be afraid to share a contradictory opinion, particularly if I have the data to back it up.

What attracted you to the advertising and ad tech industry?

I started in banking, moved to publishing, and was recruited to technology almost 15 years ago. I had no idea what I was getting into, but I quickly realized that the pace of the business really aligned with my style. I like change, I like challenge, and I like high growth (which often stems from high risk). What drew me to NCC Media was the opportunity to help drive change and evolve the business. In traditional industries, very little changes and if it does, it’s quite slow. Those early industries were terrific training grounds for me, but I can’t imagine ever going back.

How has this industry changed in the past 15 years and how have those changes affected your role?

The technology industry is constantly pursuing innovation, and that naturally leads to changes in recruiting and the composition of a company. When I started my career, we had hundreds of engineers. Now, while we still need engineers, we also prioritize data scientists and seek out hires with a background in artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Experience is now of less importance. We’re targeting recent graduates, who are often the most skilled in the digital space. Those hires come with a whole new set of challenges and expectations that I’ve needed to learn and adapt to. What motivates them is very different from what motivated employees ten years ago. More than anything, these young people want to be working on the latest technologies and products and to always feel challenged. That’s not always easy to accomplish.

I need to continually evolve the ways in which I evaluate the skills and potential of new hires. Regardless, I’m always looking for folks with the highest Emotional Intelligence (EQ), as I believe that technical skills alone are not enough to drive success.

You’ve mentioned the concept of “play, purpose, and potential” before. Can you explain what that is?

It’s all about understanding what motivates employees, as described by Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor in their book, Primed to Perform.  Play is what excites your employees. You want to create an environment where people can enjoy what they’re doing, so you have to be mindful of what those things are.

Your employees also want to understand how they fit into the company’s bigger picture – that’s purpose. They don’t want to feel like a cog in a wheel; rather, they want to understand why they’re doing what they’re being asked to do. Helping employees set goals that align with the company’s goals can help to provide purpose.

Potential is about your employees knowing their career path within their organization – where can they go next? You have to make the roadmap transparent and provide those opportunities to advance. Further than that, you need to advertise your company’s potential. Every employee wants to be a part of a winning team! If they know the company has the potential to succeed, they will be more confident in their role.

I view many of my professional conversations through the lens of “play, purpose, and potential;” it gives me so much insight into how people work and what they need to succeed.

In your role at NCC Media, what do you see as your most important initiatives and what are the challenges in executing on those initiatives? 

First, we need to build a prominent brand as an employer of choice. Today, we have a very niche reputation in the media industry, but as we build our new business model, we will need to attract different skills to our organization.

Second, but related to the first, we need to cultivate a culture of inclusion and attract more diverse talent to NCC. The challenge here is that the media industry is not very diverse, so we will need to expand our reach.

Third, we need to create a learning culture and build programs to enhance our employees’ career opportunities. We have the foundation to do this, we just need to build the practices.

What role should HR play in encouraging an organization to pursue diversity and inclusion?

Before you can hire someone who is diverse, you need to prepare your culture to embrace that. Internal education is key, making people aware of what it means to embrace diversity and to be inclusive – we provide unconscious bias training to fuel this. If you skip this step and just start onboarding diverse employees, those new hires often feel excluded and it can have significantly detrimental impacts on the overall culture. So, lay the groundwork first and then source the candidates.

What is your drink of choice after a long day at work?

Tough question! The HR professional in me should say, “Of course, I don’t drink!”. But a glass of wine never hurts!

Many thanks to Deb for sharing her background and expertise with us. Read other interviews from the HFA Leadership Forum here:

If your company is recruiting a Chief People Officer or other senior functional leaders, reach out to Michelle Fisk at michelle.fisk@hfischer.com / 215.587.2735 or Eric Ferst at eric.ferst@hfischer.com / 215.587.2750.

About Deb Josephs

Deb brings broad expertise building strong employee organizations at some of the media world’s most innovative companies to her role as NCC’s Chief People Officer.

Prior to NCC, Deb was Chief People Officer at IAC Applications, managing all facets of the company’s HR function. In this role, she implemented multiple organization-wide training, mentorship, and leadership programs, helping to shape a positive, agile, and high-performing workplace environment.

Earlier, Deb served as VP, Human Resources at DoubleClick, where she built the company’s global HR team, led employee development and culture operations, and facilitated integration plans in preparation for the company’s acquisition by Google. Her advertising and media industry experience also includes roles as SVP, People Operations at eXelate and EVP, Human Resources at Everyday Health. Other HR management experience includes positions at The McGraw-Hill Companies, Standard & Poors, and Ogilvy.

Deb holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Boston University and an MBA with a focus in industrial/organizational psychology from Baruch College’s Zicklin School of Business.