On September 29th, Silicon Labs promoted Serena Townsend to be our new Chief People Officer. In this role, Townsend is now responsible for the company's global talent strategy, people programs, and values-driven, inclusive culture. Serena joined Silicon Labs in February 2017 as director, HR business partners and was promoted to vice president, HR business partners in March 2020. She has held various HR leadership positions at companies including Samsung Austin Semiconductor and HomeAway (Expedia). Serena deeply believes in giving back to the community and actively volunteers for organizations including Crossing Thresholds and Make-A-Wish Central & South Texas.
I spoke with Serena to get her thoughts on a variety of topics, and that discussion is reflected in the Q&A below.
MS: Congratulations on the new role, Serena! You’ve been at Silicon Labs for several years now. How would you describe our company culture?
ST: We have a deeply curious organization. Solving complex problems is a competitive sport for us and a part of our DNA. We’re proud of our heritage of innovation but we never rest on our laurels. There’s a drive and ambition central to the culture here that’s exciting to be a part of. While we are an engineering-led business at heart, we care not only about making great products but also about the positive impact they can and do have in our world. Making our world a better place is a really inspiring and motivating concept within our culture and helps bring everyone together – engineers and non-engineers alike.
One of the biggest things that attracted me to Silicon Labs in the first place is the company’s values and ethical compass. Our commitment to giving back to our communities, being a great place to work, and “doing the right thing” resonate with me personally. It’s important that the values of where I work mesh with my own guiding principles, and that’s certainly the case at Silicon Labs.
I’d also like to point out Silicon Labs’ commitment to an inclusive workplace. This is not a quick fix, but a long-term investment to create a global culture of belonging where everyone can thrive, exchange ideas, and innovate together. I grew up internationally and have been lucky enough to experience diversity of culture and thought from an early age, and I’m so excited to be part of this effort.
MS: What’s it like to be a non-engineer in an engineering culture, and what do you bring from outside of engineering that contributes?
ST: Pretty obvious I’m not the engineer in the room. I’m not going to out-math or out-design the engineers I work with. They know and appreciate that I bring a completely different perspective to the table. Diversity of experience and perspective is a strength, and I try really hard to bring unique value by looking at challenges through a people lens first and foremost. I’m happy to say that – since day one – that perspective I bring has been welcome at Silicon Labs, and a big part of the responsibility I bring to my seat at the executive table is to represent the human needs of our global workforce.
MS: What are your main priorities as Chief People Officer and how will you measure success?
ST: Generally, my role as Chief People Officer, and really the role of anyone leading people, is to enable business, people, and culture. I must be in-tune with Silicon Labs strategy, know our products and markets, understand the needs and concerns of our teams, and align our people programs to fit. I believe culture is built through a thousand small deliberate acts that influence and impact others. We can build great programs, but that’s just one piece of the puzzle. Building culture is on all of us.
Success means that employees feel supported and valued, are doing their best work, and that we are achieving our company goals. In a typical year, we measure that in many ways, ranging from employee engagement scores to attrition percentages.
This isn’t a typical year, of course. In 2020 our focus has been solely on taking care of our people, and that includes taking care of the caretakers – ensuring our essential workers and support organizations (including our People team) are healthy so that they can support our workforce at large. We’ve taken a very flexible and personalized approach to it all.
MS: No doubt, COVID-19 presented some very unique challenges for you and your team as you provided continued support to our people through an unprecedented time. Can you share a little more about that, and what changes to work at Silicon Labs triggered by the pandemic that may ultimately be long-term?
ST: For sure, a big focus has been on wellness. The mental, emotional, and physical well-being of our workforce is a top priority for the People team and everyone who manages people at Silicon Labs.
As you might suspect, there is no playbook for how to do HR in a global pandemic. Our workforce relied on us to figure out what happened next in an environment where people’s health was on the line across a number of global sites.
We quickly formed a cross-functional global COVID-19 Response Team (CRT), which includes our COVID Taskforce in our Austin headquarters, our Global Site Health Leaders (GSHL), and key individuals from our offices around the world to ensure the right measures at the right sites happen at the right time. This approach proved highly effective in handling curveballs coming our way and witnessing the level of care and urgency of each site team has been truly inspiring.
We of course had to quickly pivot every people program to remote delivery. Recruiting, training, onboarding and so forth – it all had to turn on a dime to virtual. We were about to welcome over 100 interns into our global offices and that needed a quick and creative overhaul. We are fortunate to have very skilled, very innovative people who were able to make the move to virtual in a people-first way.
In general, our rapid transition to virtual and remote has helped challenge some of the pre-pandemic norms, assumptions, and beliefs about the effectiveness of in-person vs virtual engagement, and some of these changes will be long-lasting. Virtual meetings and trainings are prime examples, as this has led to more accessibility and created a level playing field for all attendees.
As I mentioned before, we are a deeply curious culture so we always look for opportunities to learn and evolve. COVID-19 is certainly a teachable moment for us all.
MS: You have managed some pretty complex onboarding from acquisitions, most recently Redpine. What are the most challenging aspects of onboarding large numbers of employees in other parts of the world, and what wisdom can you share with other HR professionals from that experience?
ST: I’ve learned that every acquisition is unique, so you have to check your assumptions at the door. You can’t assume something that worked well in a previous acquisition will work well in the next one.
In terms of wisdom to share, it definitely takes a village to do acquisition work: you have to have close collaboration, clear swim lanes, and mutual trust with all of your internal partner teams to orchestrate a complex integration. Early engagement with the acquired leadership team is key to success. When you have both teams working together, aligned on milestones, and leading through change, the entire process is so much smoother. Establishing a baseline early of trust, mutual respect and teamwork is crucial. Our philosophy in acquisitions is that we can learn as much from them as they can learn from us, so let’s be open-minded and collaborative throughout.
There are always things that happen along the way that you don’t expect, that can be difficult, and having that baseline of trust, respect, and teamwork makes a real difference in those situations.
Lastly, the work to support acquisitions doesn’t end on day one. It takes a year to 18 months of very disciplined, thoughtful, targeted work to get teams integrated and thriving. That may be an eye-opener to those who haven’t done an acquisition yet.
MS: Serena, thanks for taking the time to talk. Any final thoughts you’d like to share?
ST: I want to take a moment to recognize my predecessor, Lori Knowlton. I worked with Lori for many years, and I respect her deeply. She’s been a great coach, cheerleader, and advocate for this team and she’s helped prepare me to step into this role and do it successfully. I know I speak not just for myself and the People Team, but everyone at Silicon Labs when I express deep thanks to Lori for all she did during her tenure here.
Through Lori’s efforts leading the People team, we have formed strong partnerships with our business groups. We are collaborating and innovating in new ways, unlocking potential that’s really starting to pay off. That’s extremely rewarding, and I look forward to continuing on this path with our team.