Intuit CEO and HR VP Share Their Perspectives on Innovation

whitelyHR Symposium 2013

SANTA CLARA CONVENTION CENTER—HR Symposium 2013 kicked off its 27th year with an insider’s peak into HR innovation at Intuit, a company that has been recognized by Fortune Magazine as one of the “Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For” each year since 2002.

The symposium was attended by hundreds of new and seasoned HR professionals who were taking a half-day break from the usual day of firefighting to learn from some of the brightest and most successful leaders in the industry.

On the Santa Clara Convention Center stage for an informal executive discussion were Brad Smith, Intuit CEO and president, and Sherry Whiteley, who has served as Intuit’s senior vice president and chief human resources officer since 2000.

Smith and Whiteley, who have spearheaded an “employees first” culture, admitted they have been known to finish each other’s sentences and have neighboring offices in the Mountain View financial software company.

Employees As Air

It’s no accident, Smith told the audience. It symbolizes, he said, how important employee stewardship is to the company. In a wilderness survival scenario, the human body needs air first, then water and then food, said Smith.

“If we were a human body, and the employees would be the air, the customers are water and the shareholder would be the food,” Smith said. The top priorities at Intuit are employees, customers and shareholders. In that order, he said.

According to Harvard Business School, a 10 percent increase in employee engagement leads to a 6 percent increase in productivity and a 2 percent increase in sales.

Intuit Workforce Innovations

Best known for TurboTax and QuickBooks, Intuit is known for its employee “idea jams,” or science fairs that allow employees the opportunity to show off ideas and get feedback. The company has formal rotation programs for new employees and supports employees’ pursuing their own projects on company time. The company has promoted innovation by rewarding top innovators with cash, stock and funding. Work-life balance programs have included support for in-home childcare, telecommuting options and matching contributions to dependent-care accounts.

Smith became president and chief executive officer in 2008, after five years leading several of its major businesses. He served as senior vice president and general manager of the company’s Small Business Division, head of the company’s Consumer Tax Group in San Diego.

Whiteley, who joined Intuit in 2000, leads the team responsible for acquiring, developing, mobilizing and rewarding the company’s global workforce.  She also leads the diversity and inclusion program and community giving efforts. She and her team have worked to support a high performance culture. With a passion for employee-driven philanthropy, Whiteley is also president of the Intuit Foundation board of directors. She also impressed the audience as a leader at home where she has five teenagers.

Enabling a Community of Innovators

“They’re empowered to be their best,” Smith said. “We try to create an environment where people can fulfill their dreams.”

Smith said Intuit is “a leadership development factory” with 8,000 leaders. “We try to create an opportunity where we can grow and stretch them. They grow by the questions they ask, not the answers they have.”

Inuit trains people, embedded throughout the company, to be innovation catalysts. Rather than focuses on new creation or inspirations, employees are encouraged to reimagine things in existence as well, to create something that borrows best practices.

“We don’t view innovation as someone’s job in a lab” he said. “It’s in 8,000 people’s job. We think of it as a new way to do their job better.”

Customer-Centric Challenge for HR

Two years ago, Smith challenged all functions to be more customer-centric, to function more like a business. For HR, that posed unexpected challenges, Whiteley said.

Our business organization has high business acumen and is strategic, she said, noting that her department still struggled to clarify offerings. They struggled to find the owners of offerings and even to put them in the language of the customer (employee and vendor).

The question, How are we going to delight our customers end to end? would mean the person closest to the product would make most of the decisions around it, she said.

The aim is to have the most talented and engaged employees. They want to wow their employees with HR offerings as well as any company wows its customers with its products.

“Are employees’ heartbeats beating faster because they work at Intuit?” Smith asked. “Would they leave for a job down the street for the same pay?”

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