It’s not a question of whether Serena H. Huang, PhD, will find her way to a board of directors position but rather when her wealth of experience will secure her such a role.
Currently the global head of people analytics and HR technology at PayPal, Huang has worked at some of the most prominent companies in the world, including GE, Kraft Heinz, and Deloitte. Throughout it all, she’s somehow found time to become a data analytics and fintech influencer on LinkedIn. You come to Huang if you’re seeking expertise in analytics, digital transformation, HR, strategic planning, or business development. A board comes to Huang if they’re looking for an HR veteran, a transformation expert, an analytics all-star, or any combination thereof.
Huang is keenly interested in the next phase of her evolution as a thought leader, and it’s why she believes she’s ready for the boardroom. “This would be my way of reaching and impacting people in a different way,” the executive says. “I want to be able to make a broader impact outside of the scope of just the employees of an organization. Whether it’s about helping to expand a business line, grow globally, or execute a digital transformational strategy, I want to share my expertise. I love a challenge, and I love to find new ways to grow.”
Those new ways of growing include bridging the gap between academia and the corporate world. Huang was asked to serve as chair of the external advisory council of the Data Mine (a large-scale learning community for graduate and undergraduate students) at Purdue University after successfully overseeing a partnership and pipeline creation program between Kraft Heinz and the university. Huang was able to identify several ways in which that partnership could be further enhanced (e.g., providing more corporate experience for students going through the program).
“It was incredibly fulfilling work,” Huang says. “There were so many energetic and brilliant students who have great careers ahead of them. My job was just to figure out how to make this program work even better. It’s a challenge I had fun taking on.”
Huang also boasts extensive international experience: she has set up offices and led global teams with a large presence in Asia and Europe, and she understands how different cultural contexts can affect one’s willingness to speak openly and honestly.
“It takes different types of leadership practices to truly be inclusive,” Huang says. “If you’re soliciting feedback and only hearing from Europeans or Americans, you have to understand this is a broader cultural situation that you need to learn how to translate.”
While building one team in India, Huang made sure to rotate meeting times so that her colleagues wouldn’t be forced to stay up late each and every time they had a meeting with leaders in the US. “They told me no one had ever thought to do that for them before,” Huang recalls. “It’s just a small thing, but I think if you want to be a global company, you need to act like one.”
A bona fide analytics geek, Huang says the COVID-19 pandemic offered a prime opportunity to demonstrate the value that data experts provide to their organizations. Huang was at Kraft Heinz when the pandemic hit: her data team and two others were consulted about the creation of a COVID-19 response committee. Huang’s team blew away the competition by providing both a near real-time dashboard for COVID-19 caseloads and protocols and a response team in twenty-four hours.
“Standing up those war rooms was something that was happening at every company across the world. I don’t know if I expected to be so good in a crisis, but I saw it as an opportunity for analytics teams to demonstrate the true value they bring,” Huang explains. “This was a real business problem in the world that needed to be addressed right away. Analytics continues to play a leading role, whether it’s setting up remote workforces, facilitating return-to-office scenarios, or figuring out just how many roles we need to continue to fill as we see attrition rates slowing down.”
Huang has helped spread the word about her love of data and innovation by hosting design-a-thons for PayPal and other organizations (she also organized an escape room activity for team building that included Microsoft Excel problems that had to be solved in order for participants to leave the room, but that’s a story for another time). Those design-a-thons were attended in part by fresh-out-of-school developers and coders who were able to present their creations to executive-level judges. To ensure those developers and coders put their best foot forward, Huang held three different prep sessions to help them not with technical or design skills but with their presentation abilities.
“When we talk about innovation, I just believe in trying out new things, seeking feedback, and adjusting accordingly,” Huang says. “It’s how I was able to quadruple the size of my team. That doesn’t usually happen unless you’ve demonstrated the business case of what you can do.”
The good doctor has repeatedly made the case for data-driven HR and the power of analytics. But any way you look at the numbers, they all seem to indicate that Huang belongs on a corporate board, and soon.
Thoughts from Guest Editor Michelle Collins
Serena’s talent for creating and utilizing technology and data systems and programs for human resources (as well as other purposes) is essential for today’s large and scalable enterprises. Technology and data are foundational for successful HR practices that provide the information the executive leadership team needs to make excellent people decisions.
Serena’s perspective as a human capital leader is highly valued in today’s marketplace, where top talent is a huge investment and highly competitive in almost any capacity—and therefore higher risk.
Serena’s ability to adapt to whatever the situation requires—whether that be standing essential teams up for a COVID-19 response or becoming an influencer on LinkedIn—demonstrates a fluidity in the face of new challenges and calm, rational, action-oriented responses. She works well with people, as shown by her experience building up teams across the globe, and humanizes the use of technology and data analytics for the greater good.
Importantly, Serena’s work also reveals a strong ability to collaborate and function in teams as a core leader. She would enhance any board, but especially those where achieving scale is critical to success and where systems implementations are required. Serena could provide resources, insights from her network, and general management advice in these situations. And she would make it interesting as well!