Gaby Toledano plays by her own rules—and is winning by a landslide.
By Kim Shanahan
In an industry that changes at the speed of technology, Electronic Arts (EA) keeps ahead of pace through a team of forward-thinking business leaders including its head of human resources and facilities, Gaby Toledano. The HR executive has been with the global interactive entertainment software company for the past nine years and has helped lead a significant transformation during an era in which the gaming industry entered a digital revolution. With fiscal year 2014 net revenue of $3.6 billion, EA is recognized for critically acclaimed, high-quality blockbuster franchises including The Sims,
Madden NFL, EA SPORTS FIFA, Battlefield, Dragon Age, and Plants vs. Zombies.
Recently, Toledano shared her experiences, the importance of the human element in an evolving company, and how solid leadership can develop future CHROs.
Describe the market conditions when you joined EA.
Gaby Toledano: The transformation of the company from almost completely a retail packaged goods distribution model to a combined model with significantly more digital, mobile, and live services had implications on leadership, the talent mix and skills needed, organizational structure, and culture. During this transformation, we had leadership changes at every level, including the CEO: three transitions over a seven- year period. For much of this time, the company had to focus on cost management and mergers and acquisitions to pivot the company to move more toward digital. This work required HR to step up.
When I joined EA in 2006, I needed to build an organization that operated with centralized, high- performing global teams that could drive alignment and efficiencies. The HR business partners needed to work as a team so I started to build different global centers of expertise: compensation and benefits; HRIS; learning and development, facilities; and talent acquisition. EA was very siloed, and so was HR.
We also changed the company’s corporate values—and it turns out that they really do matter. EA needed to prioritize “quality and innovation” and put our “players first.” We also had to develop priorities for behavior, rewards and recognition, and recruiting. EA Leadership Competencies, including “Be Human First,” “Play as One,” and “Listen and Improve,” have helped shift EA from a siloed, inward facing culture to a one team, customer- focused culture model.
Given our recent digital priorities, various leaders across the business had to change and we needed to add new capabilities. For example, a few years into the transformation, we created a centralized technology function for the company and a centralized marketing function. We also ramped up our college recruiting program to recruit digital talent. In order to achieve these goals, we needed to change the culture, incentives, and leadership models to attract and retain this talent.
Describe the market conditions when you joined EA.
Toledano: We are in a highly competitive talent market with hot start-ups and other Silicon Valley tech giants all around us vying for talent. At EA, our focus is on high quality teams versus just on high quality individuals. We focus on bringing together communities of talent for projects. Then when a project is over, teams remix for the best capabilities and cultural mix possible for another project.
There have been 12 HR leaders who have worked for you at Electronic Arts who have gone on to become CHROs of other companies. We don’t see this development ground for CHROs often anymore – What has been the secret to your success?
Toledano: First, I would say it’s their success and not mine. EA values the work HR and facilities professionals do. We are a hits-driven business and great games come from great teams. Talent is central to what we do at EA. The human resources business partners are embedded and central to the business at all levels. The work that my team gets to do is high impact, strategic, and recognized and valued within the company. For my part, I am not 100 percent sure there’s a formula, but I do hire and promote for passion and potential more than just experience.
I do value skills and capability as well, but again, more than experience or time in a role. I have found that passion and values—integrity, honesty, courage, and commitment—are indicators of success more so than experience.
What would these HR executives say about you?
Toledano: I think they would say EA was a great work environment for the kind of work they do with great challenges accompanied by recognition for results they drove. They would say that talent is the business strategy. They might say that they valued my courage to tell the truth and courage to make decisions that led to putting them in the roles they experienced here. Building what resulted in a high functioning, collaborative team involved a lot of change that was driven by intuition, decisiveness, and boldness at times. We also worked through a huge transformation of the company that included difficult times. HR is in the front of the room and highly valued during these periods. The HR leaders on my team were front and center solving for significant business and talent challenges. This work made us all better at what we do. Finally, trust matters. They might talk about the importance of authenticity, transparency, and trust in our work together. (See sidebar, Building Leaders)
What is the best advice you have received in your career? Why?
Toledano: You don’t need to be the smartest person in the room when you’re leading, and intuition matters more than you might think. It’s critical to hire people better than yourself. It becomes so clear when you are in a position like mine that your team is everything; how they work together and how they contribute individually is everything. A successful CHRO is someone who can hire, promote, and retain talent. A collective team that learns from each other and has fun together.
What are three pieces of advice for leaders who want to build the CHROs of the future:
1. Your team is everything.
2. Hire for passion and potential.
3. As a leader, authenticity and your values may matter more than your experience.
Kim Shanahan is CEO of accelHRate. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gabrielle Toledano, executive vice president and chief talent officer of Electronic Arts is responsible for the organization’s global human resources, facilities, and corporate social responsibility functions. Prior to joining EA, Toledano served as chief human resources officer for Siebel Systems. Prior to that, she served in human resources positions for over six years with Microsoft Corporation and several years with Oracle Corporation. Her portfolio has included a wide range of HR assignments including international work, most notably in Latin America. She is bilingual and received her bachelor and master’s degrees from Stanford University, followed by a Rotary Scholarship assignment in Santiago, Chile.
Toledano has been on the Board of Directors of Big City Mountaineers, a non- profit focused on mentoring and providing outdoor experiences for disadvantaged kids, and on the Board of the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM). Currently she is on the Board of TalentSky (www.talentsky.com) and Visier (www.visier.com), focused on workforce intelligence solutions.
BOX: Building Leaders
Gaby Toledano’s track record of setting her team members onto the path of becoming CHROs is impressive. We asked two of the 12 CHROs their thoughts on the reasons for her success.
Steve Cadigan reported to Tolendano for one and one- half years while at EA. He then left to become CHRO of LinkedIn where he spent three and one-half years; he is now Founder of his own firm Cadigan Talent Ventures.
Cadigan: I would say her success at developing ready- now CHROs comes from a little bit of many things. First, she is a great asset in the way she attracts talent to the creative company of EA. Her unique way about her puts people at ease and makes them want to create—this helps her team realize their potential. The very first time I met Gaby I was struck by how real she was and how fun she was to be around. She builds personal connections with people and develops real relationships by showing she cares and soliciting for advice, which fosters loyalty.
Gaby is also a highly engaging problem solver. She is not too shy or conservative to try new and innovative things and she loves to get into debate and push you on your thinking. Under Gaby, EA built a “Profitable Creativity” game for all of the budding leaders in the organization. She was not afraid to put her money on high potentials all across the company—it was so innovative. How else do you keep the creatives innovating and learning?
Gaby’s bias has always been toward investing in people and developing them. It was never about herself. That got the HR team to try leading-edge things. EA was not easy to navigate with multiple cultures, acquisitions all coming together. But Gaby has survived three CEOs: every one is different and unique and the fact that she is still leading the function says a lot. So many times you see new CEO’s come in and change out their CHRO.
Colleen McCreary first reported to one of Gaby’s direct reports and then to Gaby. She left EA to become CPO of Zynga, Reputation.com, and currently The Climate Corporate.
McCreary: I have been telling people about Gaby for years. When I joined EA, I was a director of talent acquisition and reported to one of her direct reports. I really wasn’t interested in HR because I thought it was all about rules and process. She convinced me that I should be interested in HR. She put me as head of corporate HR and diversity reporting to her. It was a great time to be in the role as the organization was moving from a decentralized to centralized model.
Gaby excels at hiring exceptional people: She is a great finder and identifier of great talent. She looks for raw smarts and the ability to deal with ambiguity versus simply past experiences. She hires people who have a voice and are open to possibilities.
She is also an amazing developer of talent since she isn’t afraid of people on her team excelling. In fact, she welcomes that. There weren’t a lot of confining rules and processes, rather Gaby trusted her team and empowered us to make decisions and work together.
Many HR functions are so siloed and don’t have exposure to all of the responsibilities you need to take on when becoming a CHRO. At EA, the scope of the director/VP HR roles were large enough where you feel like you are impacting the business, making decisions, and you got exposure to all of the areas and actually speak to those things.