‘We want our employees to have the best career experiences of their lives’
Most Trusted Leader award-winner Chris Byrne of Workday on what makes a great leader
Chris Byrne: “People don’t give their trust easily and I think it takes a bit longer to earn it in Europe and Ireland than in the US.”
Chris Byrne of Workday confesses to being shocked when she learned she had been chosen as this year’s Great Place to Work Most Trusted Leader. “It’s doing my head in really,” she says. “I first came to Ireland 10 years ago and to have come this far in that time is amazing. I am very honoured and surprised. I feel that Ireland is a very special place for us.”
That us is Byrne and her husband, who is showing two restored films in this year’s Dublin International Film Festival. “This is a year of anniversaries for us. We are 30 years married and it is 10 years since I came over here first to start setting up Workday. At that time, my husband had decided to go back to college to do a film restoration degree in Amsterdam and I asked my boss in Workday if there was a possibility of a move to Europe to be near him.”
It turned out that Workday, having recently acquired Irish software firm Cape Clear, was just about to establish in Ireland and the opportunity presented itself for Byrne to become a regular visitor to Europe.
“Workday has participated in Great Place to Work for the last few years, both in the US and here in Ireland,” Byrne adds. “We see it as a very good way to gain a better understanding of our employees and to make Workday a better place to work. I didn’t realise that this extra part was a possibility.”
For her, trust is something that has to be earned. “People don’t give their trust easily and I think it takes a bit longer to earn it in Europe and Ireland than in the US.” Earning that trust means treating others with respect and genuinely caring about them and their needs, she adds.
“There is no magic in it; it’s just all the things you do every day. It’s like being a parent in some ways. It’s what you do when you are looking after your family.”
Byrne’s leadership style is firmly rooted in collaboration. “We make better decisions together. Workday has a very collaborative style.” She speaks to her management team all the time and says she “wouldn’t dream of making a decision affecting the Irish operation” without discussing it with others first.
“Our expectations are very high. We don’t want to fall into groupthink or arrive at the lowest common denominator. We want everyone to raise their game. No single person has all the answers.”
This doesn’t mean there is no conflict. “You have to be able to debate. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. But when we make a decision we have to move on. Not making a decision is very expensive.”
Workday arrived in Ireland as a result of an established relationship with Cape Clear. “We realised that there were some aspects of software that we were not good at in Workday. Cape Clear did some of these very well and we integrated their software into our solution.”
That resulted in Workday buying Cape Clear and setting up in Ireland in 2008.
“My first hire in Ireland for Workday was in July 2008 and that person is still with us and is now a senior director,” says Byrne. “I am very proud of that.”
She spent several years effectively commuting between Dublin and California. Then in 2012, Workday brought the Irish country manager back to California and that facilitated a move for Byrne in the opposite direction. Since then, the company has grown to employ more than 800 people in Ireland, with 50 nationalities represented in that workforce.
Culture is very important to such a diverse organisation. “Our culture is based on our core values which start with our employees. We want our employees to be happy. Next comes our customers and everyone in the organisation has a shared goal to achieve high customer satisfaction.”
The next value is integrity. “That’s part of high trust and our Great Place to Work feedback is really high on trust. Then there is innovation – we are always on the look-out for ways to improve our software and service to customers. We want to be a flagship of innovation, not a company that is lagging behind.”
The final two core values are profitability and fun. “These go hand in hand. Profitability allows us to keep great employees, give them fantastic careers, and opportunities to grow and learn. We want our employees to have the best career experiences of their lives and to get to do something they never thought they would.”
When asked for advice for other aspiring leaders, Byrne recalls her father. “He was a blue-collar worker and when I got my first job offer out of college from IBM, my salary was already more than he earned in a year. He told me to make sure I did an honest day’s work for that pay. Leaders should always make sure that people can see them do that. The best leaders never ask people to do something they wouldn’t do themselves. I have that feeling from our CEO David Duffield down.”
Her third piece of advice takes her back to trust and integrity. “You have to be authentic. People can smell a lie and they can sense dishonesty. Authenticity will mostly get you through the toughest of times.”