Please Welcome Kristin Thornby, Our New VP of People!

Meet our VP of People, Kristin Thornby, as she talks with Emil about how she wants to shape Neo4j's culture.

It is my pleasure to introduce Kristin Thornby, our new VP of People at Neo4j. Kristin is a passionate People leader, and has built award-winning cultures from the ground up in a multitude of company environments. She focuses relentlessly on company culture and creating innovative systems and processes that attract top talent.

Kristin’s also the most recent executive we’ve hired, and the first one leading a people function. We’re so excited to have her at Neo4j – it’s a major win for our company and employees!

Why did you decide to join Neo4j?

Kristin: When I first received the phone call from the recruiting agency, they explained the company, and it sounded like a total bullseye for what I was looking for. But, when they talked about the geographically distributed leadership team and the CEO being in Sweden, I told them I didn’t know if I could do my job well if I wouldn’t be sitting at the same desk as the CEO. Regardless, they came back to me a week or two later asking me to give it a shot. This was last February, before COVID-19 struck, and after coming into the office and meeting you and Mike Asher, I felt that instant chemistry.

Once I learned more about the company, the culture, and what you were looking for in a people leader, I realized it was exactly my brand of people leadership. It felt like such a natural fit. As we were talking and spending that time together, I knew exactly what I needed to do at Neo4j. Obviously now that I’m here, there are nuances, wrinkles, twists, and turns, but it was evident what you guys were looking for, and I knew I could deliver on it.

Why I decided to join Neo4j obviously included basic facts about the company and its size and stage. But ultimately, once I met you and Mike and really connected with what you were looking for, all of my kind of anxieties around remote work faded slightly. I knew I needed to work with these people.

Emil: Our readers might not know this, but we basically have two main hubs at Neo4j. We have our headquarters in San Mateo, and then we have our engineering headquarters in Malmö, Sweden, in addition to two satellite offices or minor hubs in London and Boston. This was the main thing that was the obstacle in your mind, but then COVID-19 hit. So I think this is one of the few recruiting processes that was actually helped by COVID-19.

Kristin: COVID-19 actually did help me in this way. Previously, I wasn’t sure I could effectively do my job remotely or distanced from the CEO, but COVID-19 forced me into that role, and I realized I actually can make an impact, work with teams, and stay connected to people remotely.

Interestingly, one of the things I did underestimate was just how long it takes to really get in the weeds remotely, especially relying on Zoom. However, over this time, it’s gotten me so much more comfortable with my ability to not only lead a people function, but to impact and develop a culture and company remotely.

Why is a “People” role important in a company the size of Neo4j?

Kristin: Because it’s Neo4j’s first people leader, our chemistry was even more important than it would have been otherwise.

Specifically regarding the size of Neo4j, timing and bringing in a people leader at this size is important. The first thing that comes to mind for me is ensuring there’s a clear career path for people here and that we have a framework set up through which people can see how they can put down their roots here, grow, and develop their career.

In early startups, everyone’s rolling up their sleeves and doing lots of different jobs. With that, opportunity and development comes inherently. People generally feel fulfilled, and they see what’s coming next or they see opportunities in the variety of work they’re doing.

But as you get bigger, people’s scopes start to narrow a bit, since we need them to be more focused in specific areas. We need to understand each function group, department, and its associated roles, as well as what we expect from people at different levels and positions. In this way, making sure this is defined for employees is really important at this stage, as well as ensuring they have the support from their managers to bolster this growth.

Interestingly, in my meetings at Neo4j thus far, almost every manager I’ve talked to has reached out asking for coaching around managing their teams. Naturally, when you get to this size, you have a lot of people that are coming out of startup mode and have just become people managers. They’re asking how to manage a team of 15 or 20 people, how to provide tough feedback, and how to make sure their employees feel empowered. Therefore, it’s really important to have somebody here that’s owning that and ensuring it’s all happening.

Emil: That’s amazing. I’ve always been searching for answers on how we can scale what’s amazing about our culture and evolve the pieces that still have to evolve, because culture isn’t a static thing. Do you have any comments about this – anything you’d like to share?

Kristin: My background has included business, advertising, and operations, before moving into people leadership, so I appreciate a CEO that can look at this role as something different than Human Resources. I like to classify my role in the realm of People Strategy, because to me, magic happens when you align the people strategy to the business strategy and sync the two.

There are plenty of companies out there where the CEO or leadership team don’t see the value that a strong people leader can bring to a company. It’s not just about benefits, bagels on Fridays, and Halloween parties. There’s so much more to it, so it was music to my ears when I started to hear your philosophy around what a people leader could bring.

Emil: The other thing that worked really well for me throughout the process was your ability to connect. You connected really well with sales people, but also with technical people. This ability to connect with people in all functions is such a foundational part of being a people leader.

Kristin: It is. I’m lucky that I found the right career for me. I grew up in Maine, but I had best friends in all different friend groups. I have always been able to find interesting pieces in everybody I meet. I really feel like if you give people the time to listen, there are connections that can be made with everyone.

What I’ve learned through my personal life and work is about finding that common ground with people and meeting them at their levels in terms of what is meaningful to them. I’m lucky this comes really naturally to me, and it’s so helpful in my job.

Especially here, it’s such an incredible group of people who are so open, kind, and smart. It’s been such a pleasure to meet everybody.

What are areas in which Neo4j can improve?

Kristin: The things that come to mind right now are what I’ve actually heard from a lot of employees too. As we’re growing very fast and with the challenge of COVID, there are still a lot of drawbacks to our remote nature. I’m hearing signs of silos potentially forming. It’s hard since the bigger we get, the more focused people are with their own teams, and they have less of a broad view across the company. In the absence of being in the office together, that’s exacerbated a bit. It’s something we really need to be careful of.

I don’t have the silver bullet answer to share with everyone here, but it’s just something we all need to work on and make sure we’re continuing to try to keep that connectivity, because that’s where things can start to fracture. Hopefully, as we start to get vaccines and come out of COVID in some way, we can stem that a bit.

The other thing I’ve been getting used to is working with a company that has a bit of a Swedish culture, where everything is very much grounded in kindness and taking care of your peers. It’s an amazing place to be, but what I’m hearing from people is it’s harder to deliver tough feedback. It’s harder to be straight with people if they need development, because you feel bad and don’t want to derail them.

In this way, we have to work to make managers more comfortable with understanding that by giving people tough feedback, you’re actually helping them get better. It’s coming from a place of kindness. I’ve been doing some coaching with a couple managers around how to frame the conversation in a way that puts the employee at ease and highlights that this is in an effort to help you get better.

Emil: Indeed. It’s about long-term kindness; sometimes you have to deliver tough news in the interest of the long term, in an effort to ensure that the individual becomes the best they can be.

Kristin: Exactly. Everyone I’m talking to wants to get better. There’s so much intent there. I would so much rather be working with a group of people that are coming from such a good place, as opposed to companies in my distant past where there was not this good intent and the environment was more toxic.

What would you say to someone considering working at Neo4j?

Kristin: I’ve had the opportunity now to speak to a few candidates, and one of the things I talk about is whether you’re a builder or an operator by nature. Are you comfortable going into a machine and turning the crank, or do you want to roll up your sleeves, build something, and be a part of growing something? These are two very different work environments.

Yesterday, I talked to an employee who saw an opportunity within his role to build something really cool for his team above and beyond his day job. So what I would say to people considering working at Neo4j is, “Are you a builder or are you an operator? Are you excited by the startup mindset and hypergrowth?” It’s not for everyone. For me, I’m addicted to it. But, that’s something people need to know coming in.

Emil: That’s a mindset. When you look at growth, we’re at 400 now, growing to 600 by the end of the year.

Kristin: Exactly. But what I do share with people, of course, is that the people at this company are absolutely beyond incredible. Brilliant, funny, kind, laid back, and motivated. It’s an amazing place to work, and we do a great job at making people feel welcome and part of the family. For people on board with all of this, I can’t think of a better place to be. So far, it’s everything I hoped for during my candidacy, and then some.

Overall, I’m really excited for this journey, and I thank you for being so open to the kinds of things I want to do here. I have a phenomenal team, so I’m excited to take what honestly is a really great culture and make it into something more fantastic.