This week we sat down with Sandi Hildreth, Global Director of Human Resources for Wieden+Kennedy. With over 15 years of experience in Human Resources, Sandi shares her expertise on managing a global team while maintaining a company culture that prides itself on a "lack of corporateness."
Tell us a little bit about Wieden+Kennedy and what your role is there.
W+K is the world’s largest remaining independent advertising agency, with offices in Portland, New York, Amsterdam, London, Tokyo, Delhi, São Paulo, and Shanghai, and over 1500 employees.
I’ve been at W+K for almost 26 years, being hired after university. I’m based in our Portland headquarters. I worked in our Finance department for over 10 years and then in Human Resources for the past 15 years. I’ve worn many hats in HR, including Director of HR for the Portland office. For the past 6 ½ years I’ve been in this global role overseeing people and culture strategy for all eight offices.
What inspired you to pursue a career in human resources?
To be honest, I kind of fell into it. I’d been in our Finance department for 10 years and was starting to get the itch to make a career change when the new HR Director asked me to move to the HR department to run payroll and benefits. That was my gateway into the world of HR and I’ve never looked back. I really love this work and believe my personality traits of being action oriented, dependable, and pragmatic have helped me succeed.
Why do you think company culture is important and how would you describe W+K's company culture?
Company culture is the most important thing any company can focus on, and I think is one of the biggest differentiators for employees on where they choose to work.
Culture is extremely important for W+K. Dan once said “We’ve got to create a culture that is so damn weird, so wild, so sticky that it will hurt your very soul to leave.” So we have focused on building, nourishing and protecting it.
W+K’s company culture is based on a foundation of values set at the outset by Dan Wieden and David Kennedy (the founders)—creativity, independence, diversity, and a lack of corporateness. These values are the foundation for what makes W+K’s culture what it is, but as the company has evolved and changed, the culture does too, based on what is currently important to our employees and the external world at large. From those values, we’ve created behaviors and beliefs that resonate throughout all eight of our offices, but can show up in different ways. We like to say each of our offices is a mixture of our W+K values, the city/country the office is located in, and the people that make up leadership. This ensures that whenever you walk into any W+K office it feels like one, but also feels different. And that is by design.
What are some unique ways you maintain a positive company culture at W+K?
We focus on promoting and supporting creativity, diversity, inclusion, independence, and innovation in order to create an environment for employees to make the best work of their lives. This is our north star from an HR standpoint.
We like to say we are at our best when we are in the eye of the cultural storm. Therefore, it’s important to expose our employees to many different perspectives in order to see and experience the world differently. We’ve done that through an emphasis on diversity, inclusion and creativity, which comes inside our walls in various ways; through speakers, learning and development programs, mentor programs, and race and gender workshops, just to name a few.
Beyond programs and culture, in order to support our employees to do their best work, we work hard to provide peace of mind and meet differing needs in their personal lives by providing excellent health benefits, generous family leave, sabbaticals, and in several of our offices onsite doctors, dentists, massage therapy, acupuncture, workout facilities, and even manicures.
We never want to become too comfortable in doing things the same way - the world is constantly evolving and so our programs and policies must continue to be innovative. We definitely aren’t perfect, but, as a network, we are always pushing ourselves to learn, grow, and be better to keep our culture positive and a place employees want to work.
As Director of Human Resources for a global company, how do you create pathways to build trust with employees that are all over the world?
I feel incredibly fortunate that part of my job is to spend quality time in all eight offices. Being a frequent visitor and a recognized face, creating strong relationships with office leadership and my heads of HR, as well as connecting with (and understanding) as many employees as I can has helped me gain trust. For me, trust comes down to two things: actively listening to best understand how to help, and then following through. Talk without action doesn’t move anything forward or build trust.
How have you seen the human resources industry evolve during your time at W+K?
Absolutely! Fairly or unfairly, the role of human resources in every industry has typically been perceived as paper pushing law enforcement, not focused on people. There are some really awful examples of bad HR out there.
W+K has always had a people first focus and that is a massive differentiator. As an independent company, we’ve been able to think big, be nimble, and create programs and policies that were ahead of trend - because it just seemed like the right thing for our employees. For example, we’ve had sabbaticals for over 25 years. We’ve had lactation rooms for over twenty years. We’ve had generous infertility benefits and family leave for all employees for more than 15 years.
When you factor in current social movements and cultural revolution happening in the world, it’s critical for human resources to make sure they know what is affecting their employees, both in and outside of work, and what the company can do to support them.
What are the exciting trends you see coming up in the future of work?
Our company’s workforce is 75% millennial, and Gen Z is about to enter the workforce - this plays a huge part in how I think about the future of work. I am very excited about future work trends, such as how to build succession and leadership development plans for a generation of employees that aren’t interested in lifetime loyalty to only one company; how to truly build a diverse and inclusive workforce that puts representation at all levels at the forefront; creating workplace flexibility programs, to name a few.
What has been one of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your career and how did you overcome it?
The stigma that HR faces is probably one of the toughest challenges. How I, and my hr teams, overcome it is to just plain prove it wrong. I’ve always thought of this role as resources for humans and how we can build the best work environment for them.
Another challenge I periodically face is impatience when my vision doesn’t (or can’t) always play out overnight. Being independent, W+K moves pretty fast when it comes to innovation for employees, but sometimes I just want to move even faster!
What do you find most rewarding about your job?
The most rewarding thing about my job is creating (and then continuing to evolve) a work environment that is safe, fair and dignified. Beyond that, I just want to help employees do the best work of their lives. I work with the most talented people in the world, my global HR team is amazing, and the office leaders are truly the best at what they do. I’m in awe every day of the work W+K puts out into the world for our clients which so often affects culture..
Who is a leader you admire and why?
It is too hard to narrow down the list as so many inspire me - from co-workers and industry colleagues to HR thought leaders to leaders in completely different industries. Bottom line, I admire leaders who are honest, transparent, communicative, care about their employees, and try to create work cultures that give employees the ability to grow and thrive.
What would your advice be to others in the HR or People space that want to promote a healthy workplace environment?
Know your employees/workforce and what is important to them, both through using data and analytics and connecting with them personally.
Hire people who are better than you, give them every opportunity to shine, and celebrate their expertise as often as humanly possible.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion are critical to the future success of every industry. If you haven’t started doing this work, start by educating yourself. Get outside your comfort zone. Forge relationships, take seminars, read books, listen to podcasts, and partner with diversity organizations in your community and/or industry.
But most importantly, be human. It’s literally in the title of our jobs.