5 Questions for Rackspace Chief People Officer Laura Sue D’Annunzio

Laura Sue D’Annunzio has spent much of her career helping companies and their employees work successfully through major changes; she’s now bringing that experience to her new role as chief people officer at Rackspace.

She served most recently as an advisor to CEOs on strategic human resources issues, and as a career coach for MBA students at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Chicago. Before that, she was a senior human resources leader at Grant Thornton and at Bain & Co. Earlier in her career, Laura Sue worked as a vice president for what is now Strategy&, and for A.T. Kearney, where she advised major corporations including General Motors on issues such as change management and human capital development.

Laura Sue sat down with the Rackblog to talk about successful change management, the importance of culture, and her plans for helping Rackspace continue its evolution into the leading provider of IT as a service — on the latest technologies, across applications, data, security and infrastructure.

Here are her thoughts on five key questions:

How did change management become a specialty for you?

After spending the first half of my consulting career helping clients develop new business strategies and operating models, it became clear that the hard part is executing those plans. You must have your people on board. Navigating change is hard; we know that. Communication and engagement are critical, so people understand what is changing and why, and equally important, what is not changing. You also need to make it relevant to them: ‘what’s in it for me?’ And it must be relevant to everyone, from a third shift support employee, to a remote worker, to an executive.

The challenge, and what I’ve learned from experience, is that the buy-in to change often breaks down at the upper management level. It’s critical to communicate and engage way more than you might think necessary. Consistency of message is extremely important, so developing a cascading strategy is instrumental to successful change.

That’s part of what I’m excited to help with here at Rackspace — to make sure the reasons for the changes we’ve made and are making — as we broaden our portfolio, market and sell to larger customers, and evolve our values and culture — cascade successfully through the organization. I’m excited about the opportunity Rackspace is facing, and am looking forward to helping Rackers protect and adapt the culture that will continue to make Rackspace so unique.

Why is culture so critical for companies to be successful?

As any Racker knows, culture is the way we work. Having a well-understood culture allows us to work more effectively and deliver on our customer commitment to a Fanatical Experience. The culture is one of the things that attracted me to Rackspace, and I know that’s the case for several of our new leaders.

As Rackspace evolves its business strategy, we must refresh our values and behaviors to be consistent with our strategy. These values and behaviors are what create our culture. We must keep the parts of our culture that make this a great place to work, while also being open to new or refreshed values and behaviors from Rackspace and our recent acquisitions.

Technology never stops evolving, and we can’t either.  So areas where we might need to update, for example include rewarding teams that quickly pivot to keep pace with customers’ transformation journey, those who keep up with relevant certifications, and an employee value proposition that attracts and retains the best experts in the industry.

You’ve spent much of your career as a consultant; what prompted the move to HR?

I have always come at business challenges from the people angle and have always gotten involved in recruiting, onboarding, and training throughout my career. What I really enjoy doing is helping people get better. That’s why I chose the title of chief people officer here at Rackspace. It fits the culture better, and the job is about the Rackers. I view my role as being the voice of the Racker. I’m not really about the bureaucracy. I can’t help Rackers through this evolution sitting at my desk or going from meeting to meeting. I want to know why it’s good for the business and what it means for the people who work here. I ask four questions all the time: What are we doing? Why are we doing it? What’s not changing? And what does it mean for employees?

What inspired you to coach MBA students?

My fantasy job is to run a career center! A fellow HR leader was a career coach at Kellogg, and he connected me. It has been a blast and highly rewarding. I worked mainly with people who had seven to 10 years of experience — evening and weekend MBA students who work while they’re going to school. I helped them prepare for on-campus recruiting sessions and off-campus job searches. I helped them learn how to network, do mock interviews, navigate through changing jobs and careers, plus work-related opportunities, like learning how to be an effective manager, delivering a difficult performance review, and providing difficult feedback. As a career coach, you’re always helping people, and that’s what I enjoy doing.

This will be your first time living in the great state of Texas. How do you plan to get acclimated?

I’m so excited to be moving to San Antonio! I am loving the city already. And can I tell you something? Rackspace needs to get better at selling this city. People who fly in to the airport then go straight to our headquarters for an interview and then straight back for their return flight miss out on so much here — the food, the historic neighborhoods, the Pearl district, the arts scene. There’s so much more than the Riverwalk and the Alamo. I’d especially like to thank all the Rackers who read the announcement of my hiring, which included some of my interests, and who then sent me great recommendations for restaurants, gluten free bakeries, and country music venues.

I’ll definitely get involved in the community here. In Chicago, I volunteered at a food pantry on Fridays. The people we served there were very appreciative, so even if you’d had a bad day at work, that helped. I will likely find something similar here. And I miss mentoring, so I would like to do that, likely helping women in business, or perhaps women in tech specifically.