Janet Phillips, VP of People, Kong: “The best advice I ever received was to think of my career as a jungle gym and not a ladder”

Kong is a thoroughly modern company. After all, its technology helps power some of the biggest brands in the world, including PayPal, Peleton and Volvo. So it should be no surprise that Kong embraces tech itself behind the scenes when it comes to HR — and the person in charge is Janet Phillips, VP of People at Kong.

In this interview, Janet generously shares great insights into the tools that Kong uses to empower its staff (“Kongers”). But she also gives us a glimpse at the culture required in a company that is “exploding” in size, with a distributed workforce across 26 different countries. The old style of working was never going to apply!

Kong is not Janet’s first gig. She has held leadership positions in multiple disciplines, including HR, Technology Services and Operations, Sales and M&A Integration, in Fortune 500, mid-size and startups. In short, she has earned her stripes and learned many lessons along the way. Lessons she is kind enough to share with us here.

Tell us about your role at Kong

I’m the People Leader at Kong and along with our Talent, HR Operations, HRBP, EE Development, Total Rewards and HR Technology team, we manage all aspects of the People Business here in Kong. Kong’s HQ is in San Francisco, and I am based here too. However, the People team and our 500 employees are located in 26 countries. Talk about complexity!  

Janet Phillips VP of People Kong
Janet holds a B.A. degree in Communications from Temple University in Philadelphia, PA

What made you pursue a career in HR? And what advice do you have for anyone considering a career in HR?

My journey towards a career in HR has been non-traditional. I’ve held a variety of operational and management roles in different areas, including Sales,  Tech Services and Operations, M&A and, of course, HR. This experience gives me a unique perspective and allows me to be a better business partner. 

The best advice I can give is to become well acquainted with your business model, and then develop your team and HR programs so they make a direct impact on the company’s growth.  

We hear about terms like lazy-girl jobs, indicating a shift in employees’ approach to work post-pandemic. Is this something you’ve seen at your work?

We haven’t seen this in Kong, thankfully. 

Call me an optimist, but I don’t believe that many people intentionally want to do a bad job. A few bad apples aside, it’s actually the opposite. People want to excel.  And a big part of what we do is to give our employees the tools, and the knowledge, necessary for them to perform and grow.

Here at Kong, we have a strong culture of high performance and as such, we tend to be very outcome-focused. Our employees, or Kongers as we call ourselves, know when to sprint and when work can be more evenly paced. Managers are attuned to this, and as a remote-first company,  we try our hardest to respect boundaries and to “unplug” together as a team each quarter. 

Related reading: What’s lazy-girl jobs? The TikTok work trend tech companies should know about

Post-pandemic, what are your thoughts on remote work trends and how do you think they’ll shape the upcoming years?  

This trend is here to stay.  Smart employers will embrace the opportunities that remote provides, and develop effective strategies to maximise productivity. A key aspect of this is to create meaningful engagement and collaboration opportunities for employees that enable them to better navigate the new reality.  

Flexibility, accountability, great “communications highways” and good tooling are the key underpinnings to work more effectively in this new era.  

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received and how has it shaped your career?

The best advice I ever received was to think of my career as a jungle gym and not a ladder. This freed me up to consider taking on new and interesting challenges versus being preoccupied with the next level within a single discipline. I was able to discover my strengths (and weaknesses) and acquire new skills that could be transferred across multiple roles while gaining invaluable insights into how business works. 

Looking back on my career today, it’s been a fun ride with lots of learning that continues to this day! 

What are the top three challenges HR professionals face today? 

The pandemic sure took its toll on HR professionals and many are just coming up for air now. 

  • First, the way we work has forever changed and HR professionals need to continue to fine-tune relocation and remote work policies.
  • Secondly, as the global workforce has shifted, there is added complexity in virtually all operational areas including compensation, benefits, payroll, employee mobility and development. 
  • The third area that gives me pause is how to foster a great culture and high engagement in a remote-first company. There are no easy answers and why developing HR cohorts is so important is to share best practices. 

Can you give us an example of how your HR department/team leverages technology and how that has helped the company?

In 2023, we successfully implemented Workday along with 36 integrations, in seven months, and incorporated Visier Analytics for our People Insights, completed the heavy lifting around JaCA, our Job and Career Architecture framework, all of which provides us with a solid foundation for managing the employee lifecycle which is supported by technology. Now, instead of managing many spreadsheets, the systems and workflows do the work, allowing our team to focus on more strategic efforts as our company grows. 

Relative to where we plan to be in five years, we’re still a modest team of 500 employees globally. However, due to our growth trajectory (and aspirations!), we made the decision early to invest in technology that would scale with us.  And our technology decisions are paying off as they’re helping us grow quickly and with sound operational efficiency. 

What do you think has been the most significant way in which technology has impacted HR?

Technology done well, with systems and data integrity, intelligent workflows and integrations across internal and external systems is a game changer for HR Professionals.  

The ability to provide analytics, measures and predictive insights around the most valuable asset a company has, its people, allows us to partner with the business in more meaningful and strategic ways. We can make better decisions, operate faster and be compliant in increasingly complex environments.  AI will be the icing on the cake. 

What is an HR initiative you’ve spearheaded that you are particularly proud of?

One thing we are proud of is the attention we pay to getting new Kongers off to a great start. It’s one thing to find and hire great people, yet it’s another to ensure we equip new Kongers with the knowledge they need to be successful. 

Despite being a remote-first company and in 26 countries as we speak, we want new employees to feel welcomed and empowered. The welcome experience begins the moment they sign the offer letter. We send warm greetings, company swag and “pre-boarding” information designed to orient new Kongers before Day 1. This includes educational materials, virtual tours and tips for managers to keep engagement high. 

Once they join, we welcome new hires with a virtual corporate orientation, including “how we work”, online technical and operational courses, and department overviews, including “who’s who” at Kong and where to find just about everything. We also focus on getting our new hires plugged in and engaged with other Kongers by introducing them in our “Cheers and Celebrate” Slack channel and in our monthly all-hands meetings. Each department has a high-engagement new hire orientation plan as well. 

As I alluded to earlier, there’s nothing more important than giving people the knowledge and tools to be their best at work.

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Tim Danton

Tim has worked in IT publishing since the days when all PCs were beige, and is editor-in-chief of the UK's PC Pro magazine. He has been writing about hardware for TechFinitive since 2023.