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Q&A Week 18

"We need to get this right to make sure that Zynga is representative of our players."

Zynga leaders Phuong Phillips and Kate Huber are transforming a company once known as an example of Silicon Valley's male-dominated culture.

Before bro-dom was a pop-culture term, Zynga was an oft-cited example of the hard-charging, male-dominated culture of Silicon Valley. One of the first social gaming companies, Zynga was wildly successful, going public in 2011. Like many Silicon Valley companies, it was also criticized for a culture of over-work and arrogance. Now, under its relatively new CEO Frank Gibeau, Zynga wants to make social gaming more inclusive...including making its own culture more welcoming.

Phuong Phillips and Kate Huber are key to Zynga's ongoing transformation. As Chief Legal Officer and Senior Director, Talent Management and Development, respectively, Phillips and Huber are thinking comprehensively about how to help the company better reflect the people who actually play Zynga's games. I caught up with them in the company's San Francisco headquarters to learn more.

TT: Let’s start with you telling me a little bit about yourselves.

PP: I’m a refugee. My family fled Vietnam in 1980. When we came to the US, my parents sat me and my brothers down and explained to us that having an education would give us a leg up in this new country and position us for success.

Our parents expected each of the four of us to go out into the world and give it our all; gender was never part of the equation. We were their children, and we could be whatever we wanted to be in our new homeland.

My upbringing, and the fact that my parents didn’t limit my pursuits based on my gender, has deeply influenced the woman I am today.

I’ve only questioned my career path once. I wanted to be the next Connie Chung. After earning a degree in journalism, I realized something very important: there was already a Connie Chung in the world, it was time to introduce Phuong Young.

I decided journalism was not my path. At a friends’ suggestion I applied for a few paralegal positions. After only two days, I interviewed with Wilson Sonsini and became a corporate paralegal. It was during the dot com boom that I had the opportunity to work with companies like Netflix and others where I learned more about IPOs and transactions.

PP: It was incredible to see such deals happening. Soon after I left for law school, the economy unfortunately fell apart. However, thanks to my paralegal experience, I was able to acquire several legal job opportunities.

I joined Wilson Sonsini after graduation from UCLA law school and had the great fortune of working on the Google IPO. Then, in 2011, I got a phone call from the general counsel (GC) of SolarCity who said, “We would love for you to take us public. Come and join us.” I had originally said no, but five minutes after hanging up the phone, the GC called back and said, “No, I’m giving it to you on a silver platter. You don’t have to interview, I don’t need a resume, it’s yours.” Still, I hesitated. After his third phone call, I said yes.

KH:  Wow. What a great story.

PP: On that third phone call he said, “I want to give you, Phuong, the opportunity to raise your two daughters. How can you turn that down?” I said, “I’ll take it.”

The truth is most lawyers tend to be nervous about making big changes. But, to succeed, you have to take those risks. For me, the ability to raise my young daughters was worth the risk. This new in-house role provided me numerous opportunities to be involved in my children’s lives (something I found difficult to do in a law firm).

TT: It’s a fantastic story.

PP: I worked at SolarCity and was one of about five female VPs out of 15,000 employees. After Tesla acquired SolarCity, I realized something big: I have the grit and experience to be a GC. After the acquisition was complete, I stayed with the company for another nine months. As soon as I decided that I wanted a change, I was lucky to be approached with numerous opportunities.

KH: Not lucky, good.

PP: That’s fair, one should never confuse luck with their skill set.

One thing I am incredibly proud about Zynga is that our board of directors is made up of 4 out of 8 women. Also, since joining Zynga, I am now the executive sponsor of Women at Zynga (WAZ) support Kate in her initiatives on Diversity & Inclusion (D&I). We need to get this right to make sure that Zynga is representative of our players. After all, that’s our mission, to “connect the world through games.”.

TT: I saw that. That’s amazing.

KH: Phuong never fails to impress! My backstory is a little different from hers, I grew up in the Midwest. I was raised by a strong mother and a father who recognized her brilliance—their partnership was built on a mutual respect and contribution.

My mother was in the first class of women at Notre Dame. She was a CEO of a company in a male-dominated business. I grew up thinking that it didn’t matter if you were a woman working in a male-dominated space—it doesn’t mean you don’t belong, what matters is how you make a difference.

PP: Women leaders were normalized for you. As you grew up with that, it’s no wonder you wanted to achieve that for yourself.

TT: Absolutely.

KH: I found my calling when I helped establish the retail giant Target’s headquarters in Bangalore, India. Working on that project, I got to know the people who would be working there on a deeper level and saw firsthand how strong individuals can make a great team. I absolutely loved investing in the growth of the individuals and have pursued a career in people operations ever since.

TT: I would love for you to speak a little bit about succession planning. That’s where we are able to take women to the next level and help them rise to the top.

KH: Absolutely. Talent management is such an important capability. You can really help support under-represented talent to advance into prominent positions.

PP: And by preparing them too, that’s why we offer executive coaching.

KH: It’s necessary to evaluate skill sets, experiences and what makes someone successful in a position. Not everyone is meant to be the head of their department, but, you can still show them how to lead by example. This is how I examine positions: Let’s say a company’s c-Staff has a single female member. We recognize this as an area for growth, and to continue to take our company in the right direction we need better representation, especially of our player base. This is when you begin looking at the women around you who are demonstrating leadership, integrity and resilience. Which of these women shows the potential to become the next Chief People Officer? Who will lead us as the new Chief Operations Officer? You apply this to every position, so that each team has a good leader, and that you have the right mix of experiences and skills across that level.

PP: Zynga’s board is involved with this and they want Kate to come in and say what’s going on and where are we, which most boards don’t have time for, but that’s not the case with our board.

What we don’t want it to be is, “Hey bro, do you want to have another bro come into your bro organization?” That’s not a culture fit.

TT: Something I hear so often with companies is how to create access to stretch opportunities, starting fairly early in a career. How do you get the experience to get you to manager?

KH: I think that starts with really understanding what it takes to be successful at a new role. When you start a new job, you can’t go in with a narrow view of success both for a role and for each individual; It’s important to keep an open mind to how skills that are necessary to be successful in a job can be gained from a variety of experiences across multiple industries. Without that openness, we could miss out on great talent!

PP: Right. So, the example I’ll give is for the General Counsel role. What they didn’t realize by requiring the experience of being a previous public company GC is that 80% of public company GCs are white men. If you really follow the spec, only 15%-20% of people outside of the white male lawyers are thinking about even applying, right?

TT: Right. Then everybody is looking for those people, so it becomes a really difficult competition.

PP: Exactly.

KH: ... and what Zynga ultimately and intelligently did was say, “Okay, while we might have put that on the spec, we realize that though Phuong doesn’t necessarily fit those two criteria, she’s had that experience. She has the right levels of skill.

PP: And more so.

What we don’t want it to be is, “Hey bro, do you want to have another bro come into your bro organization?” That’s not a culture fit.

TT: To this question of fit, a lot of times we hear people talk about culture fit. I’m imagining that culture fit is a strong value here.

PP: It is a strong value but it’s viewed differently. What we don’t want it to be is, “Hey bro, do you want to have another bro come into your bro organization?” That’s not a culture fit. For us, a culture fit has to do with mentality. Are you enthusiastic? Are you hardworking? Are you loyal? Are you passionate? These qualities are not gender biased at all.

If you can show us that you have an interest in the company, or that you’re passionate about gaming, or even just passionate about whatever field it is that you’re in, you have an opportunity with us.

TT: I was going to ask you about that because it’s a culture change. It’s creating a culture change internally, so putting women into the process is one piece of that. What are some of the other pieces? You mentioned allies earlier.

PP: Our CEO is very vocal about supporting women. He wants women at Zynga to thrive.

TT: Do you ever encounter resentment or questions from other people in the company about these kinds of strategies? I’ve heard other companies, when the CEO provides that level of attention to a particular group, sometimes other groups can feel a little left out.

PP: Frank’s philosophy is, “I want to turn Zynga into a destination for women.” But he hasn’t talked about it at every juncture of every speech. It’s all about actions first, and he wants Kate and her team to put together not just an agenda but a timeline of when things should get done, and at what point to announce it.

KH: I think the other thing is, Frank sees it as a business imperative. So, it’s not just, I think Zynga should be a reflection of our player base. It’s an initiative to make our business stronger, more innovative and delivering more value to our players. He’s a very thoughtful CEO in that way. A lot of our leaders feel very similarly.

PP: Like I said, more than half our players are women. We should really get the women’s perspective.

TT: So, coming back to something that you had mentioned earlier, Kate, you were talking about the ecosystem beyond your employee base, which I thought was really intriguing. Can you say more about that and how you’re thinking about diversity in that context?

KH: I think obviously internal representation is incredibly important. You need to make sure that you’re getting all different points of view from all dimensions of diversity. We’re talking a lot about gender today but diversity isn’t just limited to gender, and it’s critical that everyone is encouraged to bring their differences to the table. In order to really be an inclusive environment, you need to think about different avenues for diversity that can influence the thought of the organization. Who are your suppliers or vendors? Who are your key partners that you’re working with? What organizations do we support? Also, how are we showcasing a commitment to diversity in the games that we make?

I think it’s incredibly important that if you say that you’re going to be a great champion of diversity as a company that you’re thinking about it 360. It takes time.

Coming into gaming, and knowing D&I would be something I’d be working on, there’s a lot of stories you read that aren’t always very positive in this space. What has most surprised me is the amount of advocacy there is here. I think that is pretty exciting. And we’re still at the start line. There is more to do, but we’re rolling up our sleeves and putting in the elbow grease.

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