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Career Lessons from Steven Rice: Cultivating a Mission-Driven Culture

The CHRO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation creates a climate designed to advance its global mission.

A man in a suit smiles for the camera.
Steven Rice​

Steven Rice’s professional and personal passions converged when he joined the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s largest philanthropic organization, to serve as its chief human resources officer in 2015.

“Leading human resources at an organization sharing my strong belief that all lives have equal value has been rewarding in ways I never imagined,” he says.

Rice is responsible for leading the global HR function at the Seattle-based nonprofit with 1,500 employees around the world. The foundation focuses on global health and development, U.S. high school and postsecondary education, and supporting vulnerable children and families in Washington state. 

Rice, who has more than 30 years of experience designing innovative human resource strategies, is blunt about how HR leaders can build strategies that move their organizations forward: “We need to minimize the language of HR and stay focused on the impact we can have, and not on how the sausage is made.” 

He recently spoke with HR Magazine about his career journey.

Family Roots 

My parents met at Pearl Harbor during the Korean War. My dad was a Marine, and my mom—a native Hawaiian—was working as a switchboard operator. They were products of the Great Depression, which meant that they were grounded in hard work and they expected me and my siblings to do what we could to make our community better. One thing they didn’t believe in was allowances. They left it up to me to figure out how to earn my own pocket money. 

Mr. Independent

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, a third-generation Californian. I moved out of my parents’ home before I was 20. I wanted to be independent, and I thought I knew it all. I got a full-time job at Hewlett-Packard working in quality control. I took advantage of the company’s tuition reimbursement program to go to junior college. Although I was advancing rapidly, I was struggling to balance working full time and pursuing my education. But I stuck it out and earned my associate degree. 

Moving into HR 

When I joined HP in 1982, the company was the Google of its day. Dave Packard and Bill Hewlett still walked the halls. Being part of a founder-led organization was a great experience. After working for a year in quality control, I wanted to explore what else I could do. I saw a job posting for a position in personnel as a records and benefits administrator. I applied and got the job. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the start of my HR career. Working at HP for 25 years was a tremendous learning opportunity. In my last role there, I was responsible for global delivery of HR, leading a team of 2,000 people in 172 countries. 

From HP, I went to technology provider Juniper Networks, where I worked with co-founder Pradeep Sindhu, holding a range of HR leadership positions. I also chaired the Juniper Networks Foundation Fund, which invests in educating students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM); providing scholarships for emerging engineering leaders; bringing technology to rural communities; and stopping human trafficking.

Hiring His Team

Our HR function is organized around three dimensions: HR business partners, operational teams and functional teams structured around centers of expertise such as total rewards or leadership development. I love surrounding myself with people who have curiosity about their work. I tend to hire individuals who are strongly goal-oriented and look at everything we do in HR in terms of how it serves the business. 

Into the Future 

The generations coming into the workforce—the Millennials and Generation Z—have different ideas of how the workplace should operate. They want access to their organizations’ leadership and key data about the business. Nimble leaders will embrace that openness and transparency, pushing their enterprises in a direction where innovation and creativity can thrive.

Don’t Get Tripped Up by Trends

I’m not a big fan of fads. Whatever you’re doing as an HR leader must tie back to the outcomes you are trying to achieve—which will be specific to your organization. In other words, you can’t just pick up what’s working for another company and embed it into your culture. That doesn’t work. I’ve had greater success by searching for the gold nugget contained in others’ ideas that I can adapt to fit my business’s context and platforms. 

Let Self-Doubt Serve You

I am constantly curious about what’s possible and where I can contribute, both personally and professionally. That inquisitiveness helps me to challenge myself and my team. But there’s also a certain level of insecurity in me about whether I’m good enough, smart enough, bold enough; it pushes me to stay relevant and set high standards for myself and others.

Sparking a Sense of Urgency

What drove a lot of the work I did in the for-profit world was having shareholders and investors to be accountable to and measuring progress in terms of earnings. It was a race to get through each quarter. There was a natural drumbeat. Coming to a philanthropic organization, those same conditions don’t exist, so you have to create your own metrics—and a sense of urgency to meet your goals. I work to cultivate a culture designed for achieving results. Bill and Melinda have high expectations about the impact they want the foundation to have around the globe. It’s one of the main reasons I wanted to serve in this role. 

Adapt or Die

There are so many dynamics that are changing the way work gets done. HR must constantly ask, “Do the processes we have still serve us? If not, how do we break them down and rethink them?” One example for our organization was getting rid of performance ratings, which tend to be backward-looking and punitive, and replacing them with frequent, constructive conversations with employees around a person’s contributions, connections, capabilities and career—our four C’s. Doing that has paved the way for important discussions about what great work looks like in today’s business environment. 

Work/Life Lessons

Two leadership lessons that really resonate with me are “fail fast” and “trust your intuition.” The first one is about learning how to accept failure, recover quickly, and then move on so setbacks don’t weigh you down. 

The second is something I picked up from a former boss at HP who told me that, while she valued my expertise, as a leader I sometimes came across as too analytical. She advised me to trust my intuition. Her insight was a gift that I will never forget.

Favorite Business Book

When attending a conference years ago, I remember thinking to myself, “If I get one or two big ideas out of this, I’ll be happy.” Luckily, I did. The presenter talked about how to align passion and profit and cited research from The Firms of Endearment by Rajendra Sisodia, David Wolfe and Jagdish Sheth (FT Press, 2007). The book explores the connection between personal brand and an organization’s people practices. The idea was that who you are on the inside—as a person or as an organization—should match who you are on the outside. For example, the Gates Foundation is heavily invested in promoting gender equality around the world, so we work hard to ensure that our pay practices don’t have disparities based on gender and that they reflect the principles we advocate. Bringing in perspectives that align with our mission is how we drive innovative HR practices.   

Desda Moss is managing editor of HR Magazine.

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