Group Nine Media is one of today's top modern media companies, combining POPSUGAR, The Dodo, NowThis, Thrillist and Seeker. Reaching nearly 70% of millennials (18-34), Group Nine has profound reach, and according to Nielsen, Group Nine is the #1 video publisher on mobile in the United States.
Annie Trombatore is the Chief People Officer at Group Nine Media, Mike Solomon is VP of People Operations at Group Nine, and they come from a slightly unconventional background: A combined 14 years of product management. It doesn’t seem like the obvious choice, but during the search for a new Chief People Officer, the executive team felt Annie was right for the job, and, Mike in his own words, “I was crazy enough to say: I’ll go from a tech role to a people role and see how that goes.”
It went well, needless to say, and three years later, Mike took the time to talk to us about some of the processes from the product team that mapped well into the people team, as well as giving us insights about how Group Nine runs its People organization.
In this article, you’ll learn:
- How to successfully run people team using learnings from product
- How to leverage automation that even non-tech people can implement
- Specifics of the processes in the People team of Group Nine
🗣️ People Product Parallels
The transition to the People team went smoothly for Annie and Mike, because of their customer-centric orientation as product managers. From their perspective, their roles have always been about understanding people, their needs, and serving them. When they moved to the People team, it was simply a transition from external customers to internal customers.
In the product world, your users are somewhat faceless. Unless you do a lot of user interviews, there's no face there, just blips populating a bunch of dashboards. But in this role, you know your users, they talk to you, and the feedback is immediate and personal. You’re also a user of your own product, so changes affect me as well.
As Mike moved from thinking of outside customers to the employees of the company as his customers for the “product” of human resources program, Mike was able to improve the feedback loop in ways that were previously impossible:
- Formal and informal feedback from colleagues.
- Observing first-hand how new policies and products are adopted by the people in the company.
- Having the personal experience of the product as a real consumer. Of course, a product manager can try their own products, but if the external customer has a different user profile than the product manager, the “experience” isn’t particularly useful as a feedback loop. As a real employee, all the policies and tools affect him personally.
- Being surrounded by “users” every single day.
- Implementing feedback on a regular basis through an agile process of rapid iteration.
⚙️ Automation for All
While automation is the default on the product and marketing teams, in the People team, Mike found there was tremendous potential to improve processes through automation. The company still hasn’t taken on any major AI initiatives for the People team, but almost everyone is using basic automation, primarily developed internally by the actual people using it.
I’ve seen people who have no coding background and no tech background using Airtable and Zapier, essentially doing database design, and they don’t even know it. They’re doing automation with Zapier and creating databases and integrating a number of automation tools which frees them up to do more creative and interesting work.
📝 Adopting New Processes
One of the main changes that Mike and his team implemented when they moved from product was to adopt Agile development processes — including managing teams using Jira — into the People teams.
When he moved to the People department, the team did not have any formal processes for implementing their ideas. Although they were creative and understood the needs of the company, without a formal process, most of the ideas remained ideas. Superimposing the Agile method on the people team involved:
- Division of the team into pods with specific areas of responsibility: Compensation and Benefits, HRBP, Workplace Experience, Workplace Operations, and Talent.
- Independence of each pod to use the Agile method they choose, such as Kanban or Scrum.
- Regular standups, scrums and retrospective meetings, just like the product team.
- Release schedules that provide continuous value based on two-week sprints.
Implementing the Agile method has been a tremendous success. “The result is that those discussions and those great ideas are transformed into actual policies or benefits or onboarding programs for the employees of the company,” Mike says
The coordination efforts have allowed the team to implement new ideas during COVID and work-from-home, such as virtual bingo and online happy hours. Now the team is fully engaged in preparing for a return to the office.