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Janine Milne

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Talent Spot: Monica Walls, vice president of Human Resources at Nexenta Systems


 Monica Walls, vice president of HR at Nexenta Systems loves working for startups. “You can have a bigger impact and see results much quicker,” she says. “I fell in love with working for startups and and cannot imagine going back to working for a company with 13,000 employees.” 

Walls has her work cut out feeding this Californian startup with the talent it needs to fuel its rapid growth and innovation. “Nexenta is a company that runs the length of a marathon at the pace of a sprint,” she points out.
But her first role as an executive administration assistant in 1994 was with a much bigger firm in the semiconductor business, called Applied Materials. “I loved what I did and thought that the next positive thing to do would be to become a project manager,” she remembers.
It was while she was working on a 360-degree feedback project in the corporate HR group that she first hit upon the idea of HR as a career. She had been impressed by how powerful a tool 360 degree feedback seemed at getting the most out of people. “I was very excited to see how it helped people become better leaders,” Walls recalls.
It inspired her to study for a Masters in organisational management, which led to her moving into a more HR-type role as an organisational effectiveness specialist within the company. Altogether she stayed with Applied Materials for about a decade, but the semiconductor business was a tough place to be at that time. She survived 13 layoffs, but eventually she could dodge the axe no longer. That’s when she decided to follow her plan of working for smaller startups. But working for startups has its risks – particularly of the financial variety and the first startup she joined, Venture Recovery Fund, ran out of money after two and half years. 
She next joined Pinnacle Installations, but after 18 months she felt as she’d done as much as she could HR-wise for the company and moved on once more to mobile testing and monitoring firm Mobile Complete. She helped steer the company through a period of massive growth, trebling its employees from 50 when she joined in 2007 to 150 by the time she left.
And then she found Nexenta. She knew from her first meeting with the CEO that he was someone who truly recognised the value HR could bring to the business and appreciated the importance of attracting and keeping talented people and how having the right company culture was key to wooing those people. “I needed to work for a CEO how valued HR and its strategic input,” she says.
Big challenge
When Walls joined as HR director in February 2011, the company had 120 employees and she was the sole HR employee, but since then, staff numbers have more than doubled to 260 and the company has a worldwide presence. Last July, she was appointed vp of HR to reflect the growing strategic importance of the role and she reports directly to the CEO. 
With the HR foundations in place, Walls is looking at how HR can impact and support the business. “Now we have the basics in place and now we’re looking at the culture,” she says.
In particular, it’s important for Nexenta to create a uniform culture across all offices worldwide, or as Walls describes it: “one company: one culture”. Walls and her team work hard to communicate this idea within the company. “We value our diversity and continue to teach essentials of leadership and diversity in the workplace,” says Walls. 
Earlier this month [January], Walls held a class for the executive team on the importance of finding a common language and other key areas that impact culture, such as empathy in its place in the office and flexibility in group interactions. “Our motto in HR is ‘maximising on return on investment in our human capital and minimising our risk’,” Walls points out. “We strive to hire the right people, always find room for rock stars and extraordinary talent and pride ourselves on finding that perfect fit for our ever growing team.”
Another new initiative is the new hire orientation programme. All new hires spend one week at headquarters to “jump start their onboarding,” says Walls. The first two days consist of sessions with all departments to give them an high-level understanding of the each business unit, as well as information they will need day-to-day. “For example, finance talks about our fiscal year, the goals we have, how we recognise revenue as well as how to fill out an expense report and a purchase order,” notes Walls.
There’s an informal lunch with the co-founders, as well as a dinner with other people working at their location. The rest of the week is spent in technical training, where appropriate, or getting to know their specific groups.
in 2013, this programme is being expanded to include 30, 60 and 90 days plans for each new hire, which HR will help put together and measure to ensure that new recruits and their managers have a clear understanding of what’s expected of them. “We look for bright and innovative thinkers with strong academic performance who are interested in making a difference and give them the opportunity to grow and develop,” Walls explains.
Walls is also setting up a new college graduate programme, where new graduate recruits will spend four months in on rotation in marketing, business development and sales. At the end of the year, they are free to choose which department they would like to work in. 
Recognising talent 
Together with its recruitment programme, Nexenta also brought in three different types of employee recognition programmes last year: a quarterly award decided by the executive team, a quarterly peer recognition programme and a ‘gold star’ that can be awarded at any time. These accolades are designed for people that demonstrate the core values and go above and beyond in one or more categories such as teamwork, customer service or innovation. 
Competition for staff is fierce, but the company is confident that it has the right mix of culture and challenge to attract top performers. “We are able to attract our talent with the promise of innovative work, solid team members, a positive atmosphere and rewards that are farther reaching than just a paycheck,” believes Walls. This is created through a flexible,results-driven rather than a “face time” culture.
Walls also feels it is important to support managers, particularly those who are fairly new to that level of responsibility. “In 2012, we launched HR ‘lunch and learns’ for supervisors – casual lunches with various HR topics covered at each: how to conduct a proper interview, how to start a PIP (performance improvement plan), some were training on sexual harassment and policy adherence,” explains Walls. “In 2013, we are adding to that programme by having monthly one-on-one meetings with each supervisor to discuss the teams and how we can help them be better managers.”
These meetings will cover topics such as the difference between mentoring and coaching, how to write a good review, understanding cultural difference and how to develop career paths. “We have many new or first-time managers and we feel this will help them be better at managing, supporting and growing their diverse teams,” she says.
Walls has worked hard to ensure that the HR team is viewed as a strategic business partner by the rest of the business, making sure that any initiative it undertakes is relevant, measurable and adds value. An example of this, cites Walls, is how they are planning for the use of social media and communications for employees working in the office and virtually.
She describes her department’s job as solving the problems that lie in the interface between technology, people and performance and helping to create a culture for innovation across the organisation. “We must deal with employees or leaders who are not the right fit for the business, be able to identify where tomorrow’s leader will come from, help a team when they are not performing well, and design and build an organisation capable of executing the strategic direction,” she says.
Quick Q&A
Who do you admire most and why? 
From a business standpoint, I would have to say Jack Welch. He has shown by example that how you treat people matters. He has given people self-confidence and information on how to be a great leader: you are only effective as a leader if you have followers. Understanding where your organisation’s abilities, strengths and weaknesses are provides an amazing competitive advantage and Jack Welch pushed this type of thinking.

What’s your least favourite buzzword? 
‘It is what it is’. Does it mean that we are accepting instead of addressing?
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? 
To be myself and stay focused on the end result – not to lose myself in the noise of the dailies.

How do you relax?
I love to travel and have a very close friends and family. I spend time with them or take them with me on an adventure (my most recent was the whole family to Disneyland at Christmas time: parents, sister, her husband and their two children). I have spent time in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and South America.

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