Episode 315: Scaling Empathy & Company Culture With Claude Silver, Chief Heart Officer at VaynerMedia

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Episode 315: Scaling Empathy & Company Culture With Claude Silver, Chief Heart Officer at VaynerMedia

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Welcome to the Workology Podcast, a podcast for the disruptive workplace leader. Join host Jessica Miller-Merrell, founder of Workology.com as she sits down and gets to the bottom of trends, tools and case studies for the business leader, HR and recruiting professional who is tired of the status quo. Now here’s Jessica with this episode of Workology.

Episode 315: Scaling Empathy & Company Culture With Claude Silver, Chief Heart Officer at VaynerMedia


Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:00:26.88] Welcome to the Workology Podcast sponsored by Upskill HR and Ace The HR Exam. This podcast is part of a series on the Workology Podcast focused on the roles and responsibility of the Chief Human Resources Officer, or CHRO. It’s also sometimes called the SVP of HR or the Chief People Officer. This role is an executive or C-level role that deals with managing human resources, as well as with organizational development and implementing policies of change to improve the overall efficiency of the company. The CHRO podcast series here on Workology is powered by Daily Pay and Ginger.com. One of the reasons I wanted to do this series is because there is a lot of a mystery around that CHRO role, and I want aspiring CHROs to know what kinds of skills and experiences they need to promote into that future CHRO role, along with hearing from senior HR leaders, how they are partnering and collaborating with their executive peers. Today I’m joined with Claude Silver. She’s the Chief Heart Officer at VaynerMedia. Her passion for creating spaces in which people can thrive to find her previous leadership positions at JWT London, Publicis London, SAYMedia and Organic, among others. Claude’s passion is facilitating growth and change in people, teams and companies. She is dedicated to helping people find meaning in what they are doing and guiding colleagues in how to identify and remove roadblocks. Claude has a successful track record of hiring great talent and leading global teams of people in solving complex client challenges with digital innovation, simplicity and passion. Claude, welcome to the Workology Podcast.

Claude Silver: [00:02:15.54] Thank you so much for having me. It’s a real pleasure.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:02:19.02] Let’s start with some of your background. How did you get into HR and how has your work evolved over time into your current role?

Claude Silver: [00:02:27.63] Yeah, OK. I got into HR when I started the Chief Heart Officer role, which was five and a half years ago. Prior to that, I had been in advertising agencies for years, working as a strategist or account director for almost 18 years. I had also started my own surfing and outdoor adventure company in 2002 to 2005. So for me, being with people, understanding human behavior, being curious about human behavior, being a coach, a mentor, that was something that’s always been in my DNA and I loved it. I studied to be a psychotherapist about a zillion years ago, and I never, ever thought I would be in the world of HR. I didn’t, I didn’t have a draw to it. And then, of course, when Gary and I discussed creating this role, it firmly sit over HR. I did change the name of the department to People and Experience to be just more common sense. It made more sense to me and it also made sense that I wasn’t going to run a department that I had never run before. That seemed a little out of integrity. So I oversee the People and Experience team, and I work for and I work with almost 1,200 people now.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:03:48.42] Wow, I Gary is, the company, Gary and the company, you guys have grown so much.

Claude Silver: [00:03:54.24] Yeah, we have. We really, really have. I started seven and a half years ago. I was employee number 389. And then when I took over the CHO role, there was about 450 of us and that was six years ago.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:04:09.31] I will say that and you know this, I’m sure, but I’ll say it again that like when I’m giving your bio at the beginning and describing your job, it is very different than a lot of the other chief human resources type roles. Can can you talk a little bit about your role as the Chief Heart Officer and, and what you do?

Claude Silver: [00:04:32.47] Of course, absolutely. So we’re a very high touch culture, and when I say that, I really, really mean that. We are accessible, available, open door. My only job description that I have in this six years is still the following: Tto infuse empathy and touch every single person in the agency. So when I asked him what my job description was and he told me that I had to figure out how was I going to do that, how, how was I going to make sure that I could connect with every single person in the agency? I’m not in London, I’m not in Chattanooga, so I had to figure out how to scale myself very quickly. But I also started to do 15 minute meetings with everyone and everyone at any point that I could either people proactively set it up with me. I proactively set it up with them, or I have like more jam sessions where I bring people together that don’t know each other, and I’m trying to get a sense of what’s going on for them, what’s working, what’s not working, where they’re, where’s their growth, where are their bottlenecks, I’m doing a lot of one-on-one coaching. And really finding out and understanding like what is going on with our people, not only during the workday, because of course, their life isn’t just this 9:00 to 5:00, and their life certainly just isn’t on Zoom.

Claude Silver: [00:06:00.47] You know, life, their day starts at 6 a.m., 6:30 a.m. when they work out or get the kids ready or homeschool the kids or anything like that. So, for me, I really am in touch with what’s going on with individuals and in certain offices and regions. I do a lot of resourcing. I oversee recruiting in a lot of global strategy meetings in terms of where we’re taking the company, opening up new offices in different geographies and fundamentally like how our people are doing, how they’re feeling, what’s going on. Is this a culture of collaboration? Are we creating inclusivity from top down, bottom up? Everything and everything and anything that has to do with people and their experience from the minute they apply for a role to their last breath at Vayner and quite frankly, after they leave.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:06:53.09] I love that you do these 15 minute meetings and then you do the jam sessions. I would love more Heads of HR, Chief Heart Officers, or in, within the HR community to do more of those. It’s, it’s just really a challenge when you think about all our time commitments and how things are quickly changing in our workplaces, especially right now during the pandemic.

Claude Silver: [00:07:19.97] Yeah, I mean, so much has changed and it’s continuing to change as we’re, especially in America, are figuring out this hybrid work model. Are we returning to work at the office? Are we not? What’s going on in different locations? And, and really fundamentally the most important thing right now and always is the, the mental health, emotional health of our people, and what can we do to support them? How can we walk side by side alongside of them to let them know that they’re not alone? Let them know that we got their backs and all the while giving them growth, development, feedback opportunities.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:08:05.75] We’ve been doing this podcast series talking to CHROs for a little over a year, and I have asked everyone we’ve interviewed, so I will ask you and I’m always, I’m just really curious about your response. What are the new unique skills and experiences that you believe are an absolute requirement for a Chief Heart Officer role, especially thinking maybe for HR leaders who are just starting out in the industry?

Claude Silver: [00:08:32.78] Yeah, I love the question. Thank you. The, the, fundamentally the first thing I believe is you have to have a heart that wants to help. You have to, you have to be a person that wants to in some way, shape or form, partner with, serve, be there for others. This is not about being the lead actress or actor. This is about turning other people into heroes and champions, and that takes a certain breed of person, I believe. And then I think, you know, obviously being a great listener is very important and understanding who you are, your own self-awareness, having patients. And then one of the things that I think is really different is. At least today is being proactive rather than reactive, not reacting to the problems, but really trying to stay on top of where you can see the smoke because there’s always going to be smoke. And what are you doing about that smoke?

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:09:38.56] Can you talk a little bit about what it’s been like for your team, which is the people and experience team during this global pandemic?

Claude Silver: [00:09:47.63] Yeah, it’s been a wild ride since, what? March 17? March 16? Since 2020 and when we sent everyone home. And as everyone you’re speaking to will attest, there was no playbook. You know, I couldn’t like, look this up and say, what did IBM do in a global pandemic in 1979? You know, there was there was nothing to look at, so we all had to learn from each other. All of our CHROs had to learn from each other and thus, you know, trickle back down and through the team. Getting people home safely. Working with people on their benefits was huge, making sure that people had the right type of Wi-Fi, making sure that people were safe and everything like that was, was really, really important. And all the while we had to downsize and to do that via Zoom, which is never fun and figure out how to have comms on Zoom to tell teams when there were shifts going on. A lot of all hands we held and really, I would say fundamentally what this team has done and risen to the occasion is much, much more transparent communication than ever before. And I love that I really do, because I don’t want the world of HR people experience to be this vault that no one could get in. Obviously, yes, we’re not going to share salaries, we’re not going to share private things, of course. But I, I want accessibility because at least the way we’re set up is we’re set up to, to be really almost a centre of excellence for training and development and different courses and reviews and our people management system and everything. So I want people to be able to use and lean on our team as much as they do and even more, which is definitely happening.

Break: [00:11:49.03] Let’s take a reset. This is Jessica Miller-Merrell and you were listening to the Workology Podcast sponsored by Upskill HR and Ace The HR Exam. We’re talking about empathy in the CHRO role with Claude Silver. This CHRO podcast series on the Workology Podcast is powered by Daily Pay and Ginger.com.

Break: [00:12:11.44] Every employee has different mental health needs from preventive behavioral health coaching to therapy and psychiatry. Ginger offers effective, convenient mental health care for any level of need. All from a smartphone. Learn more. Visit Ginger.com.

What is a Chief Heart Officer?

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:12:30.27] When we spoke previously on the prep call, you mentioned your one liner job description. Can you tell us what that is and why it’s so impactful?

Claude Silver: [00:12:39.21] Yes, to touch every single individual and infuse the agency with empathy. That’s the job description, and it’s so impactful because it says it all like, yes, you can click into any single one of those things and I can tell you how I do it, and I can only tell you how Claude does it. Someone else who has this role could do it very differently based on not only their personality and how they’re organized, but what they care about. So, for me, that is my North Star every single day, and it’s also, not only is it aspirational, it is attainable. And I know it’s attainable when I feel that, when I’m with the person and I feel that those chills, or I feel that A-ha happening and I feel like, yes, we’ve just created a relationship out of nothing. It’s, it’s very, very fulfilling.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:13:36.51] I feel like you just succinctly described, I mean, for most people, I think what their job in HR is, but normally it’s like a 700 word document or more, that’s on several pages. So I wanted to ask you specifically about empathy because you mentioned that in the one liner. How do you scale that within a company culture? And then how do we translate those intangibles-like emotions into to data and business?

Claude Silver: [00:14:08.70] Yeah. You know, the empathy is a word that’s been used now a lot in the past five, six, seven years. And really, if you break it down, empathy is an emotion. The actions of empathy are kindness and compassion. Those things are very easy to scale. If it’s known that this is a kind and compassionate culture that we treat each other well, that we aim to be the bigger person in every situation. That we aim to be a “yes and” not a “no but” type of company, so that right there, kindness and compassion are very, very scalable. It’s a matter of having the intention. And wanting to do that, you know, it’s also a matter of not always needing to be right, but just being better. And that’s, that’s, that’s huge. You know, I often say to our new joiners on Mondays and orientation on Zoom right now, you know who, who’s the smartest person on the screen? And of course, they all look around or they put their head down. They don’t know. I mean, they don’t know each other. That wasn’t me. Is she going to call on me? Did I say something right? And all of a sudden I say, it’s the Zoom. It’s the room. The room, the sum of all of us is what makes us so smart, not just one person. There’s not just one rock star here. You’re all. You’re all stars. So that is how you scale sharing who we are, how we go about our day, what our vision is, what our guiding principles are.

Claude Silver: [00:15:56.26] And then acting on that because action, of course, is how you bring anything to life, so that’s how we scale empathy. And then the, the intangibles, you know, that’s a real interesting one because everyone always asks me, what’s the ROI of like a happy culture? What’s the ROI of like the Chief Heart Officer? What’s the ROI? I mean, obviously, what’s not the ROI of a happy culture? They’re, they’re, anything and everything is. But we know that you’re going to have less sick days. You know that you’re probably going to have more innovation or creativity because people enjoy working together. You know, you’re going to have more collaboration, friendliness, warmth, you know, you’re going to most likely have healthy debate. You know that you’re most likely not going to treat people on or off the island. Those types of things and a few of those things you can quantify. You know, sick days, of course, absenteeism, how many people are actually taking their vacation days, how many people are not taking them? There’s, there’s things like that that you can quantify. And then there’s other things that we just haven’t gotten around to actually figuring out how do you measure optimism in a workplace. Like I, I’d like to figure out how to measure that because it will blow the socks off of CEOs and board members when they see just how fruitful an organization is when optimism is in its bloodstream. And that’s not toxic positivity I’m talking about. I’m talking about possibility. I’m talking about the “yes and.”

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:17:39.01] Thank you for answering that question, I, I just feel like when you talked about the 15 minute meetings and leading with empathy, like we all want more human or heart in human resources, but how do we, how do we find that time? So I think that’s one thing that every HR leader is seeking to find a balance and an answer to how to scale that.

Claude Silver: [00:18:09.73] I think so, too, I really have to say I, I am so incredibly fortunate that I have a CEO that is a CHRO. I have a CEO that cares about how we treat people because this is, it just makes it easier for me. It’s not an uphill battle. And I recognize that that’s not how every CHRO is positioned. I recognize that not everyone has a CEO or reports to a board that is open to bringing more heart into companies and corporations because it’s hard to quantify.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:18:52.84] One of the things we talked about on the prep call was something that happens at VaynerMedia at 1:37 pm Eastern Standard Time. Can you tell us what that is?

Claude Silver: [00:19:04.72] Yeah. So something that we implemented during the pandemic and while we’re all at home, we have decided to every single day at 1:37 East Coast Time for 15 minutes. We ask everyone to not have meetings, not have client calls, not be doing their other work, but to watch live programming. And we’ve done this because we want people to take a time out of their day. And whether or not it’s Gary interviewing Novak Djokovic or will.i.am, or one of, one of, person on our our staff talking about their side hustle, which is creating some incredible hot sauce or interviewing DE&I experts, or doing something fun for pride, every single day. At 1:37 pm, we have inside and outside voices come and talk to us. And today, for example, we already passed 1:37 pm, we had a very famous skateboarder come on, and one of our media analysts interviewed him and it was really cool and it was 15 minutes. And because it’s a closed YouTube channel, all of us start chatting with each other as it’s going on and asking questions and giving people high fives. And, you know, kind of like razzing people. And it’s so wonderful to see. It is so, so incredible.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:20:33.00] So this is on YouTube, which is free, and you guys are able to utilize that every dayat 1:37, and you can connect with all 1,200 employees at that time for just 15 minutes.

Claude Silver: [00:20:46.41] Yeah, yeah. Well, let’s be, we’ll be honest, Singapore’s sleeping at that time so they watch it recorded, and then London is having dinner at that time. So but, but most of the time we get L.A., New York, Chattanooga and London watching.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:21:02.97] I love this because it’s simple and that it’s a tool, YouTube, that everybody is probably familiar with or can easily learn about. And it didn’t, doesn’t require a bunch of technology implementation or setup. And then you’re spotlighting an employee, an influencer, a friend of Gary’s, and you’re just connecting.

Claude Silver: [00:21:30.93] Yeah, we’re just connecting because the way this company works, and I mentioned how high touch we are is through this interconnectedness, this connective tissue. And quite frankly, when every single person starts, we always say to them, go find 10 people to meet. Maybe they’ll come to me and they’ll say, Who are the 10 people? Or they’ll go to their manager, who are the 10 people? And then those 10 people will give them 10 other people. Because we’re, even though we’re 1,200 people, we’re still small. If you think about it and there’s so many of us have been around for six, seven, eight years. So it’s the relationships. The relationships are everything.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:22:13.65] I love the creativity of this because it’s such, it’s 15 minutes a small way to make a huge impact in this high touch culture that you are as the Chief Heart Officer charged with leading. Are there any other examples that maybe you would want to share of different ways that you’re putting this high touch culture into practice?

Claude Silver: [00:22:39.63] You know, our all hands are, are very, very active for us because everything’s on screen. We can have people, if Gary is leading the all hands, we can have people come up and do Q&A with him on screen. So just use stream yard and they are backstage. And you know, Bobby gets up there and he asks a question and Gary answers and jams with him for a second, and Sally gets up there. And so ahead of time, people will send me and Gary’s Chief of Staff the questions. And so we’ll know, Ok, this question is asked three times. So let’s pick someone who’s never been up on screen yet. This question has ever been asked. That person will go to the front. That kind of stuff. So, you know, Zoom and this virtual world has proven to be very fruitful to us. Of course, we miss each other. We miss the, the talk in the kitchen and getting coffee and going out for coffees and all that stuff. I mean, we really, really miss each other. But I have to say there’s a beautiful intimacy that we have been able to create on screen. And I’m, I’m so proud of every single person that has leveled up and, and really sat up and been a part of our culture during this very forum time. So, anyway, so that’s another way that we do this and then every SVP who’s overseeing, you know, big books of business, they have their own team meetings, they have their own, whether or not it’s wine Wednesday, they do or whether or not they do trigger or treasure scavenger hunts online. There’s tons of things that we’ve now socialized around the agency in these last 18 months that we’re sharing. You know, games, stand ups. You know, we have, we have meditation two days a week at 12:30 p.m. East Coast Time that anyone could take part in. We’ve done a lot with our, our CRG’s, our Community Resource Groups during this time. So it’s, it’s been really exciting. I have to say, like people, people continue to amaze me.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:24:49.43] Well, Claude, I appreciate you taking the time to chat with us and sharing what your role is and how VaynerMedia is really driving a empathy first culture. I love it as you grow. Where can people go to learn more about you and VaynerMedia? Maybe they want to apply for a job with your team?

Claude Silver: [00:25:13.67] Well, please do. Please go to the VaynerMedia.com Website and check out careers because we are hiring a lot right now all over, so we’d love that. You could check out me on LinkedIn or Instagram. My website ClaudeSilver.com. And then I have a podcast, so hit me up and I really do, I respond to everyone that writes, so I’d love to hear from anyone.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:25:39.95] Well, thanks again, Claude. I really appreciate you taking the time to chat with us today.

Claude Silver: [00:25:43.58] Thank you. Have a great one, Jessica.

Closing: [00:25:46.19] It is so interesting to me to see how a role like the CHRO whose experience connects them to strategy and operations of the overall business and how that is changing. The Chief Heart Officer doesn’t just lead HR within a company. The company depends on this person’s leadership to set standards and benchmarks for everything, and Claude talked about a lot of different things that she is leading the charge on. Could be DEI, company culture to employee engagement and connection, leading with that empathy. I appreciate Claude taking the time to share with us her experience today. Thank you for joining the Workology Podcast, which is sponsored by Upskill HR and Ace The HR Exam. This interview is part of the CHRO series, and it is powered by Daily Pay and Ginger.com. This podcast, the Workology Podcast, is for the disruptive workplace leader, maybe the empathetic workplace leader who’s also disruptive, who is tired of the status quo. My name is Jessica Miller-Merrell. Until next time, visit Workology.com to listen to all our Workology Podcast episodes.

Closing: [00:26:55.28] Personal and professional development is essential for successful HR leaders. Join Upskill HR to access live training, community, and over one hundred on demand courses for the dynamic leader. HR recert credits available. Visit UpskillHR.com For more.

Connect with Claude Silver.



– Claude Silver on LinkedIn

– ClaudeSilver.com

– Claude Silver on Twitter

– VaynerMedia Careers Page

– CHRO Job Description

– Episode 312: Featuring Lisa Rosendahl, CHRO, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

– Episode 244: Building Workplace Culture For Remote Employees

– Three Keys to Drive Engagement & Retention for Your Hybrid Workforce

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