Transform Spotlight Series: People-First Leader Gianna Driver, CHRO

Welcome to Transform’s People-First Leader Spotlight Series, an exciting journey into the minds of innovative people leaders who are disrupting the now and next of work.

In each Q&A-style article, we’ll introduce you to people-first leaders like Gianna Driver who are redefining the boundaries of their industries with forward-thinking ideas and transformative approaches.

About Gianna

Gianna Driver is the Chief Human Resources Officer at Exabeam, a global cybersecurity company. As CHRO, Gianna manages the strategy and processes related to building, investing in, and retaining talent. She’s responsible for architecting the company’s people and organizational design strategy, driving company culture initiatives, and leading the global People function. Gianna has been in the HR and tech industry for two decades and is passionate about the intersectionality of people, productivity, and business results. She’s a recognized HR industry speaker and is frequently quoted in media publications including Forbes, US News and World Report, Insider, and The Wall Street Journal.

Let’s dive into Gianna’s people leader story, and learn firsthand about her inspirations, challenges, and breakthroughs that marked her path to success.

Leadership and Influence

Q: Share the journey that led you to focus on people-first leadership.

A: My journey to focus on people-first leadership was a rather circuitous one that began in my childhood. I’m Filipino-American and grew up in a small, rural town in East Texas, which meant I grew up feeling like I never actually fit in. My ethnic heritage didn’t fit the dominant racial groups at the time; no one looked like me, and I was “too Filipino” to be “American,” and “too American” to be “Filipino.” This meant I didn’t fit in anywhere, or said differently, I equally fit in everywhere. I floated around between various groups–ethnic groups, as well as the various social classifications that come with high school, i.e. the nerds, the jocks, the band geeks, the theater group, etc. What I learned early on is that despite outwardly different appearances and backgrounds, people are people. This is a mantra I’ve taken with me to business school, in my professional list, and honestly, in my personal life as well. No matter someone’s background or station in life, they have thoughts and perspectives, and if we take time to listen and truly understand, there’s almost always something we can learn. This has been invaluable in my leadership journey.

Q: Why did you choose to work in this industry?

A: While I currently work in cybersecurity, I don’t identify as a cybersecurity industry expert. I think of myself as in the people-industry. Show me an organization, and I guarantee it’ll have people. And people are what I get excited about. 

I’ve loved working in tech and for tech-enabled businesses my entire career. In this space, we’re on the forefront of people strategy and leverage technology to make our lives more efficient, impactful, and scalable. It’s a space that’s ever-evolving, and that’s exciting! 

Q: What was your first job and how did it shape your perspective on work?

A: My first real job was as a carhop at Sonic, a fast food drive-in restaurant prevalent in the South. If you’re not familiar with a carhop, think of a carhop as a server in a fast food restaurant who brings your food order to you while you eat it in your car.

I loved this job and remember one day during a staff meeting, the owner of Sonic (also my boss) giving a speech about delighting customers and handing me a $20 bill. We’d had a secret shopper visit our store, and unbeknownst to me, I’d served them. Their review said they were impressed by the friendly service, the follow-ups to see if they needed anything else, and the prompt cleaning of their leftovers when they were done. What I learned at 16 years old is that giving people your best, no matter the job, matters. I also learned the value of doing the right thing, even when you think no one’s looking. These are lessons I’ve taken with me to this day.

Q: How have your leadership methods evolved over the years?

A: When I look back at a younger version of myself, I have to apologize to anyone who was on my team 15 to 20 years ago! I worked my way up and did lots of jobs, so when I started leading people, I had strong opinions about how things should be done. Some of that passion may have been translated into micromanaging. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned the art of trusting and empowering teams. To be a leader of leaders, and then an enterprise-level leader means understanding others will do things different to how I might do them, and that’s okay. In fact, that’s needed to truly scale and harness the most out of a team. We each bring our unique offering to a team, and as a leader, my job is to create the right environment and conditions so everyone can contribute, know they’re valued, learn, and have fun along the way.

So said succinctly, my delegation skills have evolved over time, and I still lean on communication, authenticity, kindness, and joy when working. 

I’m at a stage in my career now where I’ve found my voice (although I still have much to learn!), and I enjoy helping others find, then evolve their leadership methods.

Vision and Impact:

Q: What motivates you to prioritize people over processes?

A: Processes are useless without people and are only as good as people. I firmly believe that if we value people first, then create the right systems, processes, and rewards, we have the core ingredients for a truly successful organization. I’ve seen over and over in my career situations where prioritizing people and nurturing the human side of our employees has fostered innovation beyond what prioritizing processes first could ever do.

I grew up on “the other side of the tracks” and watched my family get confused and frustrated by systems and processes they didn’t understand, but needed to leverage to avail social services. These were situations where processes were prioritized over people, and I saw the result. Processes should support people and the business. Make processes simple, straightforward, and easy to implement. And always be open to improving them with input from people! 🙂

Q: Can you share a significant initiative you’ve led that focuses on enhancing employee well-being or engagement?

A: I get very excited about culture, well-being, engagement, eNPS, and similar initiatives! My answer here changes depending on what’s on my mind, but right now, I’d say our ERGs have been very impactful and a source of joy for me. They raise awareness about important topics, increase engagement, and build connective tissue between people; I love that! 

We also have monthly peer-nominated recognition programs, like “Cheers for Peers,” which is a shout-out aligned to each of our company values, and we recognize many “unsung heroes” during our All Hands. These types of initiatives matter so much, and I’m grateful I work at a place where these programs are valued. 

Strategies for Change:

Q: How do you foster a culture of openness and innovation within your team or organization?

A: It starts with looking in the mirror. As Gandhi said, we should be the change we wish to see in the world. If we want to create a culture of openness and innovation, then we, ourselves, need to be open and innovative. Be mindful to create an environment of psychological safety, celebrate learnings from mistakes, and seek out perspectives different from your own. I make it a point during team meetings to talk about lessons I’m learning because of a recent failure (this helps others feel safe to “fail forward”). During meetings and also during 1:1s, I openly ask for feedback, as well as ideas for how the person I’m meeting might do something differently. Then go try their ideas!

The tone we set as leaders is so important to culture in an organization, and it begins by walking the walk. 

Q: What leadership lessons have you learned that are unique to managing people?

A: Ooo! I could go so many directions with this question! 🙂I believe people are good and want to do a good job. When people struggle in a role, it’s likely either they’re not set up for success, or the job isn’t a fit for them. Both of those are addressable, and addressable in respectful, kind ways. 

I’ve learned that when you value joy, respect, authenticity, and communication, almost everything else will fall into place. Of course being flexible to change is important, and yes, different people may thrive with different types of leadership (something we used to call ‘situational leadership’), but always remember that people are people and all deserve fairness and respect.

I’ve learned mistakes are okay, whether my own or those of others. Honesty goes a long way, and honesty with kindness and a few laughs can help fix a problem faster than blaming or being unkind.

Problems will come up; that’s unavoidable. Great teams leverage the team to solve problems when they arise.

Engagement and Influence:

Q: How do you engage and inspire your team to adopt people-first practices?

A: As we talked about a few minutes ago, it starts with ourselves. Modeling good behavior is half the task. If I notice someone isn’t quite living our values as a team, I address this during 1:1 conversations. Publicly praising and privately providing constructive feedback is so helpful in creating people-centric organizations. When I notice someone practicing people-first principles, I like to call this out and give the person recognition. Noticing the efforts of others helps to reinforce these positive behaviors!

Q: Can you describe a moment when you realized the true impact of your people-first approach?

A: Over the course of my career, having team members come back years later and talk to me about how a conversation we had a long time ago put them on a trajectory of following their dreams, or pursuing a particular path, or finding courage to do something hard really shows the power of people-first approaches. 

A couple weeks ago at a cybersecurity conference in San Francisco called RSA, a former team member and I met for coffee. “Jon” wasn’t successful as a recruiter on the team, and over the course of multiple 1:1 conversations years ago, Jon realized that his role at our company wasn’t his calling. And that was okay. He found another role that he’s thriving in today, and we reminisced about how our conversations were hard, but they were done with kindness and empathy. Jon didn’t have shame about choosing another path and actually felt grateful he could explore and make mistakes in our supportive environment (that still held him accountable). Never underestimate the impact of authentic 1:1s, and remember we are humans first, employees second.  

Looking Forward:

Q: What future trends do you believe will further shape leadership and workplace dynamics?

A: Have we talked about AI today yet? AI will most definitely shape leadership and workplace dynamics in the future! I could talk about this for another hour… 

Gen Z and Gen Alpha are fundamentally changing how we work, and I believe we’re just getting started in terms of seeing the changes these generations will have on our workplace. I’m personally very excited about these changes!

Global events. We live in a very interconnected, global workplace, so as various events happen on a worldwide stage, I think isolationist policies will shift, and we’ll see leaders and organizations making decisions with a global lens. More decisions will have stated values, and employees will get to decide if those policies work for them or not.

Q: What’s next on your agenda for fostering a more people-centered workplace?

A: My company just announced the intent to merge with another organization, so in any M&A transaction, there’s a significant people component to consider. My near-term focus is ensuring we’re as people-centric as possible in the integration planning process. 

Personal Reflections:

Q: What is a specific project, initiative, or career highlight you are most proud of?

A: Oh gosh. These questions always stump me! I think I’m most proud of the impact on people’s lives. I have the most amazing job in the world and get to help people, not just my team, but the entire organization and their families, and that’s something for which I’m incredibly grateful. It’s a huge source of joy for me.

Q: How have you changed as a leader over the years?

A: I’ve become gentler as a person as I’ve gotten older and more mature. I think being a parent in my personal life has made me a better leader in my professional life. I’m more patient and have more empathy.

As I’ve evolved, I’ve also become more courageous to speak up and say what I think. Imposter syndrome still rears its head every so often, but I have language for it and have developed ways to address it when it comes up.

I’m more okay being me as a leader than I was when I was starting my career. “Leader” is an identity that I own now, whereas it wasn’t always that way.

Q: Who do you go to for advice and inspiration?

A: I’m fortunate to have an amazing community of people who are much smarter than me and whose doors I can call when I need advice. Sometimes I also just need someone to listen as I process. Talking is a way of processing for me, which I’ve come to understand as I’ve gotten older. 

Mentors could be industry friends, personal friends, leaders I fan-girl (Brene Brown, Simon Sinek, Angela Duckworth, and others), or a group I call my Board of life advisors. 

Q: What methods do you employ to stay current on leadership and management trends?

A: Time is so precious and one of our most valuable resources, so I try to be thoughtful about how I consume information, including the latest on leadership and trends. I employ a combination of tools–listening to books or podcasts while I’m out for a run, reading, following industry gurus on social media, attending conferences (like Transform, which was incredible!), and being part of several groups of innovative people leaders talking about what’s on our minds. 

Q: How do you balance the demands of leading with personal well-being?

A: Oh, that’s a good question! You’re asking me at a time when I’m a bit sleep-deprived, so very timely. I’m in tune with my body, and when I start to feel out-of-sorts or stressed, I know I’m unbalanced. It’s typically because I’ve not set good boundaries or said, “Yes” to something when I should’ve said, “No thanks.” This awareness is important because if you can understand when you’re becoming imbalanced, you can put a stop-mechanism in place. 

I have a group of very dear friends who help me remain balanced, and I reflect on what we all hear on airplanes, “Put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others.” This is a great metaphor on the importance of self-care. 

When I’m feeling unbalanced, I pause, reshuffle a bit, and make time to do things that refuel me–working out, spending time with my daughter, reading, and catching up on sleep. 

Q: What is one piece of advice you would offer to future leaders aiming to prioritize people in their leadership style?

A: Remember that we must be leaders to all people, not just those who are similar to us. A leader’s role isn’t to be the smartest person in the room; it’s to enable rooms of brilliant people to come together and do amazing things together. Find your voice and create inclusive spaces where everyone knows they belong and have an important role in a shared mission.

Q: How do you create work-life balance in your own life?

A: Finding balance is a continual correction, followed by an over-correction, and then another correction. Or said differently, it’s a real struggle for me personally, and I never feel like I’ve got it quite right. A mentor once told me, “You can have it all, you just can’t have it all at the same time.” Achieving perfect harmony all the time isn’t a fair standard for ourselves. What I’ve learned is that there are seasons of life and times when it’s appropriate to focus on certain domains of our life. That feels okay, so long as the arc of life is balanced.

I say all of this, and it’s important to add that a grounding force for me in work-life balance is my daughter, Abigail, who’s currently 11. No matter what I do in the world, coming home to her and creating memories together remind me what truly matters in life. That centers me. 

Q: What career advice would you give to your younger self?

A: There’s so much I want to say to her! A stream of consciousness would be–Gianna, believe in yourself. Remember there will be times when you’re scared. That’s okay. Push through. The fear of failure has killed more dreams than failure ever will. When you’re going through hard times, it’s okay to ask for help. Trust the process; trust yourself; and speak from the balance of your heart and your mind.

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