Career Lessons from Marianne Jackson: Stay Driven and Fearless

Boundless energy and bold thinking keep the chief talent development officer at eBay driving HR—and her career—forward.

By Novid Parsi Apr 18, 2017
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Early in her career, Marianne Jackson found herself succeeding in HR but not enjoying it. “Honestly, I didn’t love working in HR for a long time,” she says. “That’s what drove me to do HR differently.” 

She didn’t accept the way that human resources was often viewed as a peripheral administrative function. For her, it was absolutely critical to a business’ success—and deserved respect. “I never stayed in my HR corner,” she says. “I played my role, but I’ve always been on C-level teams and I contributed to every conversation. I didn’t wait for the topic of HR to come up.” 

Her convention-bucking character was established at an early age. “I was the wave maker in my family,” she says of her childhood in California. “I was a curious kid, and I didn’t accept the status quo.” She still doesn’t—even in her current position as chief talent development officer at eBay, where she revamped the company’s performance management system. 

Her natural curiosity has benefited from an unstoppable drive. “When I say I’m going to do something, I do it,” says Jackson, who has a Bachelor of Arts in psychology and sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She also has been blessed with an apparently bottomless well of energy. When Jackson isn’t working at eBay or her own firm, 3g Human Capital Consulting, she’s serving on five boards.

She recently spoke with HR Magazine about her career journey.

I decided early on I was not going to do HR the old administrative or bureaucratic way.

Childhood Changes
I’m one of seven children. That shaped my early understanding of what it was like to be on a large team. My dad was a banker, and we moved every two to three years. I had a particular role in these relocations. Our station wagon would pull up with the moving van, I’d hop out, and I’d scout the neighborhood on behalf of my brothers and sisters. I knocked on doors to see if there was anyone to play with, and then I’d report back. 
Being part of a large family that moved a lot, having a consistent change of environment—that established my skills early on about operating in a big system and having to adapt.

Young and Fearless
Right after college, a woman who owned a search agency asked me to create and run a startup, a temporary agency in Santa Barbara—which was daunting because I had never even worked as a temp before. So at 22, I started signing up with all the temporary agencies around in those days—Western Girl, Kelly Girl—so I could figure out the process. I created the business from that. I realized I didn’t want to compete with all the administrative temporary placements, which was mostly what they were back then. High-tech was starting to ramp up, so I decided I would create a niche market for technical temp workers. That’s how I got into HR. It was a complete fluke. I was this fearless little entrepreneur.

Rejecting the Status Quo
After running that temp agency for a year and a half, I got out of a bad marriage and came back here to Silicon Valley. I got hired by a small firm specializing in placing technical talent. Then, for about two years, I worked as a recruiter for one of my clients, a semiconductor manufacturer, but I got bored. In those days, there was no such thing as an HR generalist. Everyone was a specialist, whether it was in employee relations, benefits administration, or training and development. But I like every day to offer very diverse and unexpected challenges. I’m a high-impact, high-energy person—an adrenaline junkie. 
So I went to an HR leader at that company and said, “How about I become an HR rep that does everything? I’ll do the recruiting, the employee relations, the platform training.” The HR leader said I had to pitch it to an executive, and he said yes. 

Making Her Job Work for Her
I decided early on I was not going to do HR the old administrative or bureaucratic way. I approached my work through the lens of organizational development and systems thinking. So I looked at HR as a dynamic system that involved culture, leadership, business capabilities and talent engagement. The charter of HR is to optimize a company’s ability to perform and compete. So to help an organization do that, you have to hire the right talent, make sure they keep learning, forecast needed capabilities, align the culture to your goals and hone your leadership style. I realized that there’s an expertise in getting all those components to work together optimally. 
Once I oriented myself toward that and could trace my work back to the company’s strategic objectives, I quickly advanced. I got to the top HR jobs while I was still in my 30s. I decided I liked HR when I grasped that it enabled me to be part of running a business. 

Telling It (and Hearing It) Like It Is
When I interviewed to be the head of HR at Blue Shield of California, I remember saying to my future boss, “This is how it has to work: You have to be able to coach me, and I have to be able to coach you. That means we have to have the most honest, power-balanced relationship possible. I have to be able to speak truth to you. I don’t want to be in a work relationship where that’s hard.” 
That style was natural for him. He implicitly trusted me, but he also never let me continue if I was not leading as effectively as I could be. He called me on it every single time, but in a way that was caring. We could be honest with each other, and I knew every day that he was in my corner. He groomed me as a leader. And we became friends as a result. We still are.

[SHRM resource: HR Jobs]

Learning to Lead by Letting Go
I used to be driven by leading others because that’s what fueled my advancement. In general, your success is measured by the accomplishments of your team, so when your team doesn’t perform, it’s reflected on you. 
For me, the nuance shift—and I liken it to parenting—was to stop leading for my success and start leading for theirs. I learned to become a better leader by letting go of my ego. 

Success Is a Joint Venture
I brought that nuance shift to eBay. When I was consulting there, before they brought me on as an employee, I designed a performance success system that replaced the company’s performance management system. It positions leaders as coaches, making them responsible for creating the conditions for other people’s success. Everyone in a leadership role goes through a leader-as-coach certification program. And because coaching is collaborative, we compel every employee to come to the relationship as a full partner with mutual accountability.
Who She Looks For
I aim to hire people who understand how the system comes together. I also look for typical things: I like people who are really smart and highly curious and who get stuff done. I particularly care about those focused on the future and on the company’s uniqueness. I’m not too interested in individuals who just want to “plug and play” their last great idea that worked someplace else.

Work/Work Balance
I have the same energy I had in my 20s. I have 12 plates spinning all the time. I’m completely on until I go to bed, and then I’m off. I’m just wired that way. 
Sometimes I work for eBay five days a week, sometimes seven days a week, and sometimes I do my consulting work two days a week. It’s a super flexible work arrangement. I’ve tapered back a lot of my consulting, but I’m still free to take good assignments. I’d never be able to do that if eBay wasn’t a willing participant. This model is absolutely the wave of the future: You see it with the emergence of freelancers. People have a portfolio of capacity and competence, and they want to architect how they use it.

The Future of Work
HR professionals will become the organizational engineers doing trends forecasting. We will look for signals indicating that change is on the horizon that will affect human capital and development. We see the whole organization as a system, so we’ll have to anticipate changes and translate that to a company’s people strategies, and that will become more complicated. For instance, we now have the issue of co-employment in which a worker has simultaneous relationships with two or more employers. We have to treat these independent contractors differently; otherwise, we would have to give them all the benefits of full-time employees. But, in reality, they’re part of the fabric of your workforce. They carry your brand and your reputation every day. If co-employment laws don’t change, an increasingly blended workforce will be a real challenge.
Also, there are trends around culture and community activism. Millennials demand that their employers are more than just good corporate citizens with giving programs. 

In general, your success is measured by the accomplishments of your team, so when your team doesn’t perform, it’s reflected on you.

What Young HR Professionals Should Know
A lot of people think of HR as a bunch of siloed disciplines: recruiting, development, culture. But increasingly, the profession requires the ability to understand the interaction between the business and its people strategies. HR professionals are experts in organizational systems and how those systems interact with human behavior, desire and capability. Business operations, financial acumen and even industrial engineering will be critical because some HR departments also help design facilities’ physical layouts. 
We have the most diverse job on the planet. We help create physical, emotional and intellectual workspaces. 

Her Favorite Business Book
Charles Handy’s book The Age of Unreason (Random House Business, 1989). He wrote that change is constant, so you’ve got to develop the capability to anticipate it, embrace it and do something with it.  

Novid Parsi is a freelance writer based in the Chicago area.

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