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Libby Sartain: After the Bubble, Beyond the Bust

Libby Sartain: After the Bubble, Beyond the Bust

Libby Sartain works as senior vice president of human resources and Chief People Yahoo at Yahoo! She focuses on attracting, retaining, and developing employees who promote and strengthen the company's culture while representing the powerful Yahoo brand. Here is a rough transcript of her remarks:

People talk about the New Normal. If the '90s were normal, this is the new normal. What was normal about the '90s? What's normal about 20 year olds scootering down the hallways? It's not perfect anywhere right now. But motivating and inspiring employees has always been important. This is not a time to be pessimistic. I see the glass as half full, but then I fill it up.

In Silicon Valley, we're having the wine wars, and we've seen the emergence of the $2 bottle wine. At Yahoo, we wanted to have a little celebration, so we had a $2 bottle wine tasting party. And you know what? Some of them are quite good.

Because I've worked at Southwest and because I've worked at Yahoo, maybe I know the secret behind motivating workers. Yahoo's turnaround -- we've recorded projects in the last four quarters -- wasn't the result of one person or one executive. It was the result of everyone. In these kinds of environments, you get the finger-pointing thing. People look at another department and say that they're not carrying their load. It's not how you get the most out of your employees, but how you can help your employees get the most out of your company. We don't have the dream of stock options any more. But we do have the goal of emotional fulfillment. Employees are looking for opportunities that ignite their creativity but also bring balance to their lives.

We read all about the uncertainty, but we don't read much about people who love their jobs. The '90s were relatively flat workplaces. We also came the realization that one knowledge worker could set back a project for six months. Just as the war on terrorism won't seemingly end, the war for talent will linger. I'm in the trenches every day looking for stars.

People like us are not sitting back, wringing our hands, and wondering what to do. I have met people working in Silicon Valley who have told me not to invest in training and development because you're only training people who will go to work for your competitors. But if we can build an environment in which people can learn and grow, the grass will not be greener on the other side.

When I first went to Yahoo, I noticed this buzz in the hallway. There was a huge purple cow in the lobby. I got a café latte. I stepped outside and took a breath of the air, and I called my husband and said, "Pack your bags. We're moving to California."

What do people want from work? They want challenging work. They want to make a difference. They want to have fun. They want a sense of community -- and community involvement. They want to take occasional time off to spend with friends and family. And more and more we're going to customize the job experience. We're doing a lot of that at Yahoo. One of the coolest jobs at Yahoo is that of the Surfer. Their job is to surf the Internet. There are more than 150 surfers who surf the Internet and provide our editorial content. They surf the Web, be free, and be individuals, but they need to speak with one voice.

Employees in the New Normal want you to help them succeed. They want you to outline their role and what it means. They want to know what success means for them and the organization. At Yahoo, we want to change the world. We didn't invent the Internet, but we want to improve it. That's our cause. But we have other causes. Right now we have an effort to beat cancer. We're big on diversity.

From leaders, people don't want politics, bureaucracy, games, exclusion, or a one-size-fits-all approach to anything. Recently I revised our employee handbook. I hate policy books, but there are some policies we need to have because they're laws. Instead of coming up with another policy book, we developed a Guide to Working at Yahoo. As leaders, we need to find new ways to talk about things, work with our people, and nurture our high-potential people.

One of the things I learned at Southwest was that everyone is a high-potential person. We really need to believe that. But this is what we've been dealing with in the last 30 years. Almost every single leader is under tremendous scrutiny because they've lied, cheated, and stole. We need to show people through our actions that we can be trusted.

We need a new definition of loyalty and trust. At Southwest, we said we've never had a layoff. We didn't say we will never have a layoff. We did our best to live in good times as though times were lean. A loyal employee is not naively committed. A loyal employee is re-recruited over and over again. One of the big challenges we face at Yahoo is that we still have a lot of our dotcom millionaires active at work every day. How do we keep our most valuable people? We have to make sure their roles are important, that their jobs have meaning, and that they're enjoying their work. Trust fuels productivity more than almost anything else. You can be a great employer and have business setbacks.

Culture is still a competitive advantage. Every company has a culture. And some parts of your culture you want to shed. Identify what are your cultural imperatives. Embrace that. Not every company can have a purple cow in the lobby.

The second thing is that people are the most important ingredient in that culture. Extraordinary results come from people who have extraordinary attitudes, not necessarily education. We hire nice people. We hire people who smile. And then we create an environment that tries to keep them that way. There are people who may be arrogant, be really smart, but not get the job done. Those are the people you need to rid yourself of.

You need to give people work that is meaningful. Find a way to attach compelling meaning to the work that your company does. You have to stop thinking that work is hell and that employees need to be aggressively managed to get the job done.

The fourth thing is communication. It's old, but even though we talk about it and talk about it, we don't seem to do it very well. Communication gets projects done. And you have to communicate the meaning of what you do time and time again.

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