Katie Burke (HubSpot): Leading With Clarity In An Uncertain Market

October 6, 2022

Everyone in the business world has read the headlines and felt the impact of the current market on their industries and organizations. Given the pervasive sense of concern and uncertainty, how should leaders respond? How can they address their team effectively and appropriately, while retaining and recruiting high performers?

Katie Burke, chief people officer at HubSpot has been with the company since 2017. She’s experienced all kinds of markets, and helped the company grow to thousands of employees all over the world.

Katie recently joined Blake Bartlett on the BUILD podcast to discuss her approach to handling current talent and recruitment in today’s economy.

Address your current talent with empathy, honesty, and clarity

In a time where employees feel deep uncertainty over the state of the economy, communication from leadership becomes more critical than ever. However, this type of communication does not come easy, especially for those who are not used to it. Leaders need to balance being honest and straightforward without being insensitive or oversharing.

Katie shared four tips for handling these conversations:

1. Tell a simple story

Ensuring that your employees understand your organization’s business trajectory is what ultimately keeps them engaged—and employed at your company.

“You need those people to believe in the future of your business, because ultimately that’s why they’re going to choose to stay,” said Katie.

Being able to tell your business’s story is incredibly important for any leader, and having strong presentation skills can definitely make you more effective and engaging. Though the reality is that telling a story successfully has less to do with dazzling your audience, and more to do with simplicity. The best leaders are able to reduce complex concepts to a single simple message.

Katie calls it ‘cartoon clarity.’

“If you’re not communicating with cartoon clarity, you’re missing the point.”

Cartoon clarity means that your message is obvious and accessible to everyone, regardless of their levels of understanding and vantage points in the business. You want to avoid any complex visual elements, acronyms, and graphs that require a Ph.D to comprehend.

“It has to be so simple and so compelling that your employees could describe it at a cocktail party to one of their friends,” she explained.

It’s also critical that your employees see how they fit into that story—how their day-to-day work contributes to your vision and what growth potential is available to them. People need to understand how they add value to the business and how they can directly benefit from staying in their role and working hard.

2. Communicate with empathy

Uncertainty in the market also translates to uncertainty in people’s roles. Given the macro environment, it’s understandable why so many people are concerned for the sake of their job security.

As a leader during this time, and a people leader in particular, “assurance and empathy and overcommunication are absolutely pivotal right now,” Katie asserted.

Knowing that your employees may be fearing the worst, transparency becomes more valuable to both them and you. The question is how much. How can you pull back the curtain on the right amount of information without oversharing?

There are levels of information that are appropriate for different levels at different times. When it comes to sharing information empathetically, there’s a tough line.

“A great leader during this time would take a giant step back and go, okay, what do people need to know about the business to feel confident in its future? How do we create space for people to ask questions that clarify the business’ future, their own future, that might be useful?” Katie explains.

By demonstrating empathy for people’s uncertainty while also providing clarity on the path forward, you can effectively address concerns in a way that comes off as both actionable and solution-oriented.

3. Avoid overpromising

“You need to use this interval of time to build trust and transparency with employees, but you can’t do that by being overly ambitious about what you can deliver on,” Katie shared.

As a people leader herself, Katie knows how good it can feel to tell people what they want to hear. That said, there’s a difference between delivering good news and making a promise that you aren’t certain you can even see through.

“The promise is a sugar hit. It feels amazing,” said Katie.

It also feels good to be on the receiving end—it can be huge for boosting morale and can help quiet people’s anxieties in times of uncertainty.

On the other hand, Katie made sure to note the danger of making frivolous promises.

“The truth of the matter is if I make you a promise I can’t deliver on, or if I make you a promise and don’t do it to other employees at the same level, I’m actually hurting my long-term ability to build trust and psych safety, which is way more important than feeling great in that one conversation,” said Katie.

4. Clarify priorities

When everything feels like a top priority, then in reality, nothing is.

Clearly communicating the highest priority is an important responsibility of the leadership team. Frontline employees might remain unclear as to what these core priorities are.

Katie describes a simple mechanism for organization-level prioritization she was introduced to by a teammate at HubSpot. In a quarterly exercise, each member of her team will list five or fewer things they’re going to focus on in the upcoming quarter. They also have to list out omissions—things they aren’t going to let themselves touch. Finally, they list a few things that bring them joy.

People tend to overestimate what they can achieve in a given amount of time. For Katie, this forced reflection helped her come to terms with the reality of what her team can achieve, given their bandwidth.

Once priorities are aligned on the highest level from the leadership team, leaders can communicate them to their teams, connect the dots between these priorities, and show the kind of work they value. Katie recommended that you give specific examples of frontline employees doing that kind of work.

How to handle recruiting talent

Despite the economic downturn, many companies still are looking to make key hires to drive strategic goals and initiatives.

“What I see from my vantage point is a bit of a tale of two cities,” expressed Katie. “In the macroeconomic environment, I think you see a lot of uncertainty and, honestly, a lot of layoffs, but I think the market for top talent remains hotter than ever.”

Katie shared her advice to people leaders on how to approach recruitment and hiring in today’s economic landscape.

Set the bar high

“Anytime the market has changed, there’s a huge opportunity to get meaningfully incredible talent,” Katie said. “So set the bar really, really high. And I mean that both for aptitude, but also for building out the diversity of the given team.”

This is a huge opportunity for leaders to solve for diversity in their organization. Analyze the current composition of your team and look to fill roles in ways that add to diversity—whether that be racial, gender, geography, or something else.

Screen for adaptability

Screening for people who are comfortable with change and ambiguity should be a top priority at any high growth company, regardless of the economy. In today’s environment, companies need to hire people capable of adapting to any circumstance.

Katie explained that she has screens for adaptability in the interview processes by asking candidates about the biggest degree change they had to navigate in their current role. Specifically, how they navigated the situation, and how they decided to make that pivot.

Overall, Katie looks for people who can take initiative.

“If you’re only good at adapting, when someone tells you you must, that’s not real autonomy, that’s being versatile, which is a good thing,” Katie continued, “But ultimately what I really value is leaders on my team who look around and go, ‘wait a second, something’s off here.’”

Invest in culture

Much like showing employees why you value them, you need to show them a culture that is worth participating in. That includes supporting both remote and in-office culture, and asking why people want to return.

“I think what’s interesting to me about the office hybrid culture discussion is I think we’re focusing all of our energy and attention on the where—where collaboration happens and where connectivity happens,” Katie remarked.

In her eyes, what we should really be asking is why and how these things happen.

“People are far too focused on day a week in the office, hours of week in the office as a connection point,” Katie said. Instead, she thinks what they should be asking is: “Why do humans actually want to come to work every day, and how do we create compelling reasons to connect them?”

People want to come into work everyday to feel connected to a purpose and a mission, but also their peers.

“We’ve completely lost that relational element of making sure people establish those friendships or the connection to the team, which is why so many people are not staying as long at current employers,” says Katie.

Creating those connections is possible in any work environment—fully remote, in-person, or hybrid—as long as leaders actively provide opportunities for people to socialize and get to know each other.

What opportunities, events, or initiatives should you be offering to most effectively help your people connect? Nobody has the answers. Good leaders make it a priority to experiment and see what works.

Key takeaways for leading in a recession

  • Make sure your people understand your organization’s mission and vision. This requires telling a story that is so straightforward and simple, that your employees could easily explain it to their friends and family in casual conversation.
  • Empathize with your employees’ concerns. Having read about so many layoffs in the news, it’s reasonable for your talent to feel insecure in their jobs. Approach each interaction you have with your employees keeping this in mind.
  • Don’t make commitments you can’t follow through on. Building trust with your employees in the long term is more important than making promises that you might not be able to keep.
  • Clarify top priorities at all levels. Especially considering the condition of the market, it’s more important than ever for your teams to be aligned and focused on what’s mission critical. Frontline workers should know how these priorities translate to their day-to-day work and should have examples of what good looks like.
  • Set your sights on recruiting top performers. With any market change comes the opportunities to win top talent. This is a great chance to hire for aptitude, diversity, and ability to handle change.

Contributing Writer

Mikaela is contributing writer at OpenView. She specializes in writing articles for VC and product-led SaaS startups, and is dedicated to creating content that is both educational and unique.