A Conversation with Viasat's Melinda Kimbro
Melinda Kimbro is no longer colorblind and now celebrates diversity through a new lens.
As the Chief People Officer and SVP of People & Culture at global communications and satellite internet company Viasat, a company she's been at for nearly 20 years, Kimbro is responsible for shaping, with the rest of the leadership team, Viasat's approach to diversity and inclusion at work.
That approach used to follow a common refrain in corporate America: "We don't see color."
"Our demographics have remained pretty consistent over the years and I believe that stems from a philosophy of, 'We don't care if you're black or white, a man or a woman, we just want the best talent," says Melinda. "But we've had to come to terms with the fact that striving to be color or gender blind isn't the right goal in the first place, and the numbers confirm it. We haven't moved the needle as much as we would have liked. Now it's time to set the concrete goals that will result in the long-term vision we want for our company and our leadership team."
Viasat's reevaluation of their commitment to D&I started before the most recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests swept the country, and the current climate has only reinforced how important it is for Viasat and all companies to create workplaces where everyone—and particularly historically disadvantaged groups like Black workers—can succeed.
We sat down with Melinda to discuss why she joined Viasat nearly two decades ago (and why she's never wanted to leave!), and how the very values that attracted her to the company have allowed Viasat to respond to the double crises of COVID-19 and racism in a way that centers their customers and employees.
How Viasat's values help them evolve and respond to change
When she was in college, Melinda became a debater by chance. "I had every intention of being an art major," she says, "but ended up falling in love with debate after taking an introduction to argument class. "The process of challenging ideas and coming up with arguments to support your position was right up my alley. At that point there was just no turning back, so I switched my major to communication. And these days art, specifically photography, is a hobby I love."
When she interviewed at Viasat a few years later, she was immediately struck with how similar the company's culture felt to the environment on the debate team. "There was this sense of defiance I picked up from the very first interview and a feeling that this was a company that didn't feel pressured to do things the same way every other company did. That really appealed to me. They thought critically about things, what they were doing, and why. They weren't just going through the motions" she remembers. "Early on I was told, 'It doesn't matter what your job title is. It doesn't matter how long you've been here. Everybody has the opportunity to influence. It's the ideas that matter.'"
That willingness to hear different perspectives —whatever they might be—"struck a chord with the debater" in Melinda, she says. She joined Viasat's HR team and her career grew from there.
Over the years, Melinda and her team have worked to create the best possible environment for Viasat's employees, and she's especially proud of the company's focus on employee engagement as part of that process. Viasat conducts a formal employee engagement survey every 18-months and pulse surveys on key topics in between. While there wasn't always widespread support for conducting these surveys, the leadership team has come to find just how valuable this insight is in understanding what's working for employees and what's not. Melinda says this is a great example of Viasat's value of "explore and evolve" and "the opportunities employees have to influence the shape of the company."
"As a company, we're not wired to do or design the same thing, the same way, for 10 to 20 years, she says. "In contrast, we sort of live by the motto 'always a better way' so we're constantly exploring new ways of doing things, whether that's a product, service, or how we approach the organization - our people and our culture," she says.
That value and focus on constant improvement, along with a parallel value of tolerating ambiguity, allowed Viasat to respond quickly when the COVID-19 pandemic hit earlier this year.
"While everyone wanted answers, being candid and acknowledging that there were some things we did know and other things we didn't, was tolerated pretty well," says Melinda of the first few weeks of managing through the crisis. "If you're able to tolerate ambiguity, you preserve optionality. So we didn't rush to provide answers that didn't absolutely need to be answered at that moment." she says. "We tried to communicate very, very regularly, even to say that we didn't know what this was going to look like, but here's what we do know today."
That communication extended to everyone, including the summer interns who were planning to be on Viasat campuses around the world. Back in early April when the pandemic made that option look less viable, the Viasat University Recruiting team was providing regular status updates to interns and partnering with business leaders to assess how a particular intern project might work in a virtual environment. "Being able to quickly pivot and offer many internships virtually, enabled us to preserve a large portion of the intern program albeit in a new form," says Melinda.
Another Viasat value is that of "one team," or the idea of making decisions and setting priorities based on what's best for the team. That drove the rest of Viasat's pandemic response, including plans to offer the following:
- "Ask Me Anything" town hall meetings with company leaders, including Melinda, for employees to get their questions addressed directly
- Ultra-flexible work hours
- Work-from-home kits to enable productive, comfortable remote work
- Training on remote leadership for managers
- Telehealth offerings so employees can get mental and psychological healthcare from home
- Additional support for Viasat's employee research groups (ERGs) to help employees come together and feel part of a community
- Zoom happy hours and tea times where employees can connect "outside of work" and dogs, cats, kids and partners are all welcome to make cameo appearances
Viasat already offered generous healthcare, including sessions with licensed mental health providers or therapists, and unlimited sick time, so employees who are ill or taking care of ill family members don't have to worry about missing work. "We've always been a very flexible and compassionate organization. Whether it's a mental health day or it's a day to go have a dental procedure or help a family member, we get that our employees have lives and families and interests outside of work and sometimes even overlapping work. Our approach is, 'If you're sick, be sick, we want our employees to take the time they need'" says Melinda.
Creating actual change when it comes to diversity and inclusion at work
Melinda is seeing a change in how topics relating to diversity and inclusion are being talked about and explored. "In general, I think people define reality based on what they've personally experienced. So if you haven't ever experienced racism, sexism, or some other form of bias, up close, or on a regular basis, these aren't topics that seem as relevant or real as they are for those who have been living it, and for too long. Today, and within Viasat specifically, I'm seeing more interest in understanding the experiences of others, particularly people of color and women, and an openness to accepting that 'Even if that experience isn't the same as mine, it's real' so what does that mean for society, as well as our company? And what can we do to change that?"
"Being an engineering company, we have a strong bias towards data, which is really helpful in a time like this, because we have lots of it. And so the conversations that I've been having with other executives at Viasat are really around, 'What does the data tell us?'" says Melinda.
By looking at that data, Melinda and her team are starting to see what is working and what isn't. "We have data that shows us that what we've been doing in some areas really hasn't resulted in much change," she says. "So the bottom line is that it's time to take a different approach."
One of the new approaches they are exploring is a more targeted leadership development curriculum. Beyond considering the unique development needs of employees at different stages of their careers they are also looking to target specific offerings to women and people of color in order to grow a more diverse set of leaders internally. They're also changing the nomination process for some programs so that employees can self-nominate, and peers can nominate one another, as well as accepting nominations from senior leaders. This too should result in a more diverse set of employees having the opportunity to participate in these development programs. And they've added additional unconscious bias offerings, which they believe should be mandatory for hiring managers and interviewers.
And Viasat's executive team has doubled down on their focus on D&I, with a plan to hire a senior D&I leader who will sit on an executive steering committee and play a key role in helping to set and execute on D&I strategy at both the corporate and business area level. "D&I is not something that HR owns. As a leadership team we are all accountable for increasing the diversity on our teams and ensuring an inclusive climate where all employees can thrive. If we do this right we'll have D&I naturally integrated into all that we do and it will be part of what enables us to achieve our strategic business objectives" says Melinda.
"We would like to see more decision makers at all levels within Viasat be a reflection of our customer base, and the customers we serve are Black, they're white, they're Hispanic, they're members of the LGBTQ+ community, they're women, men, and they're veterans. They span the gamut," says Melinda. "There's a lot of talk about D&I right now as a result of the current social justice movement, and in many companies I'm sure a time will come where regardless of what sort of public statements of commitment might have been made, the talk will die down and there will be a return to business as usual. At Viasat, we're not going to be in that category. This movement has not only changed how we are approaching diversity and inclusion, but the entire employee experience. We've already made some really positive changes and there's so much more on the way!"If you're interested in working with Melinda at Viasat, check out more about their company values and their own roles here.
Melinda Kimbro on how the Viasat culture distinguishes it from other companies
In this episode of the Viasat podcast, host Alex Miller talks with Melinda Kimbro, Senior Vice President — People and Culture. As Viasat's Chief People Officer, Kimbro oversees the company's human resources and recruitment activities, and in this interview she talks about what makes Viasat such a desirable company to work for.
Having recently been recognized in Glassdoors' list of Best Places to Work in 2020, Kimbro says Viasat is appealing to employees for its innovative technologies as well as its culture. Maintaining the spirit of a startup with the resources of a larger company enables Viasat to be a strong option for people entering the workforce as well as those from other companies looking for new opportunities.
Listen to the podcast here.
Alex Miller: Hello and welcome to the Viasat podcast. I'm Alex Miller with Corporate Communications and today we're talking with Melinda Kimbro. Melinda is Viasat's Chief People Officer, and we're talking with her today about the Viasat employee experience. So that includes everything from the kinds of roles we're hiring to what kind of candidates we look for and what it's like to work at Viasat. So thanks for being on the podcast today, Melinda.
Melinda Kimbro: Thanks for having me.
Alex Miller: All right. Well, we can start off by asking you about some pretty exciting news related to Glassdoor. That's the online site where employees review employers. So Viasat was just named as one of Glassdoor's 2020 Best Places to Work for the very first time. So why is that an important recognition for Viasat?
Melinda Kimbro: Yes. Well, yes, it's very exciting for us. The recognition is important to us because for a long time we've been known as a best kept secret in San Diego, at least by our employees and those who know us. I think. 'Why don't more people know about Viasat? You guys have such a great thing going up here?' And once they get to know us new employees are even more surprised, you know: 'How come I didn't know about you sooner? I wish I had.' And so this recognition is an indication that word is gonna get out and that word has, in fact, gotten it out. And so that's pretty exciting. It's also recognition that's important to us because it came from our employees past and present. It wasn't something we solicited or applied for. We didn't seek to get our name on the list. And so the fact that it was something organic that came from our employees means a lot to us.
Alex Miller: Right. You know, I think a lot of people look at Glassdoor, you know, when they're looking at companies that they might apply for. So do you hear that a lot of people do look at those those ratings?
Melinda Kimbro: Most definitely. You know, I think that Glassdoor actually started out as a site that was more appealing to millennials and other college, recent college grads and and younger demographics. But I think that that's really changing. And I think that it's a source of truth, if you will, that people of a broader demographics now visit in order to gain some insight as to what it's like to actually work at a given company.
Alex Miller: Right. Yeah. And it's something that really didn't exist until, you know, not too long ago. So it's certainly gotta be a lot of help for people to get an idea of what the company is like. So if somebody does hear about Viasat, whether it's through Glassdoor or another job board and they want to apply, what advice would you give them about the application and interview process here at Viasat?
Melinda Kimbro: I think the most important advice that I could provide would be to simply be yourself. If you try to be some version that you think will be more appealing, something other than yourself, it's not going to work long term. And I think that the best experiences that anyone can have at a company, whether it's Viasat or any other company, is where it feels like a good fit. When you feel like you can be yourself and you don't have to pretend, you don't have to be another version — then it's gonna be comfortable, it's some place that you're going to want to stay. And it's some place that's going to be more than a job. And I think that those that have applied with Viasat and followed that, they find that it's a place that's comfortable — not comfortable from the standpoint of performance, as it's a challenging environment, but comfortable from the standpoint that you can be yourself. There isn't a stuffy expectation of formality here. And I think that, you know, if that's what somebody is looking for, then then we're a great spot for them.
Alex Miller: So what are the roles — some of the bigger roles that we're hiring for right now?
Melinda Kimbro: Well, we're always hiring engineers. So whether it's a DevOps engineer, systems engineer, R.F. engineer or data scientists, we're always looking for top engineers to come and join our teams. We also have roles in finance, I.T., human resources, marketing. There's there's a ton of opportunity around the company and around the globe really at this point, because we have over 5,700 employees today and they're in 26 offices in the US and 16 offices outside the US. So we're continuing to grow and we have opportunity in all of those locations.
Alex Miller: Okay, great. So what makes a candidate stand out when they're applying to Viasat? What are the teams looking for in candidates?
Melinda Kimbro: Well, first and foremost, I think we're looking for somebody who's really smart, so somebody who's going to bring the intellectual horsepower to the table. But that describes a lot of people. So beyond that, what else are we looking for? We're looking for somebody who possesses what we call learning agility, somebody who can learn quickly, who can unlearn, relearn and, you know, doesn't get stuck in the way things have been done before or the way they might have been taught. They can evolve and grow because one of the things that we take a lot of pride in is that Viasat over the 30 plus years that we've been in business, we are not the same company in the same markets that we were 30 years ago today. We've continued to evolve, which is really exciting and keeps the opportunities coming. But we want employees who want to learn and evolve with us. So if you can do that, then this is going to be a great spot for you.
Alex Miller: Is that sometimes a challenged, to identify that trait in a candidate?
Melinda Kimbro: It can be, but it's something that we've we've practiced over the years and, you know, we do our best to try to mine for different, you know, examples of how someone has learned, experiences where they've tried to learn and maybe they've failed because those are learning experiences as well. And somebody who's not afraid to talk about their failures, but what they learned from it, you know, that's a great quality in a candidate.
Alex Miller: So for someone who's maybe just starting out in their career, why should they be looking at Viasat?
Melinda Kimbro: Well, I think that by the time most companies reach our size, they've given up on their startup roots. Right. They started out as this kind of quick and nimble company that — there was a lot of flexibility and a lot of opportunity because in a startup, everybody does whatever needs to be done to get the job done right. But by the time they become a larger company, our size, they think, OK. Now it's time to get structure. We've got to grow up a little bit and we've got to get a little bit more bureaucratic and structured. And I think that we've made a really concerted effort over the years to hold on to that, because those are some of the very qualities that have contributed to our success. It's this culture where, you know, if we hire great people that we can trust and that they will thrive in this environment where there's a lot of freedom, then really great things can happen. So I think that we're appealing because of the opportunity that we provide and the freedom that's in the environment to learn and grow and move in different directions that aren't necessarily on some prescribed path that somebody else decided was the right thing for you.
Alex Miller: So, yeah, culture is a big part of what people here and talk about with Viasat and why they like the company. And so you articulated a couple of things, but when people ask you, well, what is the culture? Viasat, do you have like kind of a couple of key points that you would say?
Melinda Kimbro: Yeah. So in in addition to what I mentioned, I would also say that I mentioned that it's a it's definitely a team environment. And I mentioned that our CEO often says that, you know, it's a team sport here at Viasat, and I think it's very much true that we we win as a team. We learn as a team. And and that's a really important part of of our culture because it's important to be able to make decisions and think about what you're doing and how it impacts the team and put the the needs of the team ahead of your own when they don't line up. And that's not easy for everybody to do. Other aspects of our culture that I often discuss are the fact that we we thrive on challenge. So we're not the type of company that's going to do the same thing again and again and again. We're going to do it and then we're going to find a way to make it better. And yes, that makes it more challenging, but it's also really fun and and gratifying when you meet those challenges.
Alex Miller: Do you think that's part of the reason that people stick around for a good chunk of their career and Viasat, is that ongoing challenge in that culture?
Melinda Kimbro: Well, I think certainly for some people, it's the challenge. I think for others, it's the opportunities that they've been given or that they were able to seek out on their own. You know, in other cases, it's the fact that we are providing a lot more opportunity than they might find in other companies. And I think that sometimes when people have been in another company, what's attractive about Viasat is the fact that we are less structured and they perceive that there are going to be more opportunities here. And I think that they generally find them.
Alex Miller: So that was one of my questions I wanted to ask. If you were thinking about somebody who's maybe been in the job market for, you know, a couple of years or even a couple of decades and they come to Viasat. Is that kind of why they might land here? Is they want to get into that environment?
Melinda Kimbro: Yeah, I think it's often the appeal of something different. Right. I've been in this very structured, established, larger company. And what I'm hearing, whether it's on Glassdoor or from friends or colleagues that work at Viasat, is that it's different. It's not quite as bureaucratic or policy driven. And that's pretty appealing.
Alex Miller: So thinking about employees, you know, once they're here and they're on kind of a career trajectory, what sort of learning and development programs do we offer employees to gain new skills and grow in their jobs?
Melinda Kimbro: Oh, goodness, tons. We have everything from mentoring and buddy programs or something we call a facilitator program for engineers. We also have employee resource groups that are great learning opportunities. We also have a number of different leadership development programs for people at every stage, whether you're a first time leader, whether you are an executive or somewhere in between. And then we have a number of technical programs to help our engineers and other folks in technical roles to keep their skills sharp. And then everything from influence to presentation skills to negotiation, you name it. Education has always been a core part of the environment here at Viasat. And just to be able to have the ongoing learning available and — something that it's embraced by leaders is is really important.
Alex Miller: And, you know, since you've been in this role at Viasat for some time, you've probably been instrumental in building up a lot of that — has been a kind of a fun part of your job?
Melinda Kimbro: It's been a really fun part of my job. In fact, when I first came to Viasat, I was hired into the role of learning and development manager. So that's my roots, or background, is in learning and it's something that's still really important to me. And in fact, that's a big part of why I wanted to come to Viasat, because I could see just through the interview process based on the people that I was meeting with, it was really important to the company.
Alex Miller: So I did want to ask you. You touched on it, but I wanted to ask a little bit about when we're talking about careers. What what your career trajectory has been like at Viasat. So you started out in learning and development …
Melinda Kimbro: My my career path has been a little accidental, but I think that that's not uncommon at Viasat. As I mentioned, they came to Viasat as the learning and development manager. And then over the years when there was a need or, you know, we had a a set of responsibilities that somebody needed to take care of. I would raise my hand and say, I'll help with that. And it just resulted in my set of responsibilities getting a little bit broader and broader. And in fact, early on, someone asked me, you know, have you ever thought about heading up HR? And I said, no way. No, I'm not an H.R. I'm in learning. And so it's it's absolutely accidental that I'm in the spot that I am today. But I couldn't imagine doing this anywhere else. It's been a fantastic opportunity. And I love what I get to do and where I get to do it.
Alex Miller: Great. Well, you know, you mentioned HR, which is kind of like a I guess, kind of an almost outdated term. And so we call we call it People & Culture now. What does that mean? That that change in just nomenclature about how we describe this is part of our company?
Melinda Kimbro: Well, I think when you mentioned HR, a lot of people naturally visualize this rules-driven organization, the group within the company that's responsible for telling you what you're not allowed to do. And it's bureaucratic and administrative. And I think in some companies, people try to work around HR for those very reasons because it's going to slow down the business. And so for us, I think we've never really wanted an HR department, at least in terms of how HR was typically perceived. But we did want an organization that would help our businesses make sound decisions with regard to their people, help influence the culture in a positive way. And so that's what we tried to do, is provide our business leaders with information to make sound decisions that relate to their people and help reinforce the culture that's enabled our success for so long.
Alex Miller: Okay, that's great. Yeah, because I think a lot of people aren't you know, they hear the name change like that and like, what does that mean? You know, and it's actually there's there's some real thought behind it and it makes sense. So I mean this question I just wanted to ask. What do you think that Viasat offers that maybe other big tech companies don't?
Melinda Kimbro: I think one of the key things that we offer that you don't find a lot of companies is this tolerance for ambiguity. Oftentimes people hear that and think that it's part of our culture by mistake. Do you realize that that's on your list? Why would you have that on your list? That can't be a positive thing. And it really can. And it has implications for almost everything that we do. It has implications for how we make decisions when we make decisions. But from an employee standpoint, tolerance for ambiguity means we can have a policy that says we're going to do X, Y and Z. But if there's a situation that comes up that is unique, at Viasat,we're going to listen to the details, we're going to think critically about the situation and leave room for the possibility that we do something different. And, you know, that could be doing something for an employee that's going through a really tough time or providing reimbursement for an educational program that is slightly different than the norm. But we think that tolerating ambiguity is a real positive thing for employees. And, you know, maybe a simple way to think about it is if you go to the DMV, there's very little tolerance for ambiguity. Right. No offense to anybody at the DMV, but there's just no room for it. Right. And as a result, if if you're asking for something that's not allowed, forget it. And I think that Viasat will leave room for the possibility that situations can be different and unique. And so we want to listen. We want to think critically about the situation and then do the right thing.
Alex Miller: Well, Melinda, thanks so much for taking the time and talk with us today. And I guess congratulations on the Glassdoor recognition or congratulations to all of us here at Viasat. It's really it's it's really cool to see, you know, that that everybody feels that way about working here, so. Thanks. Thanks again for your time.
Melinda Kimbro: Absolutely. Definitely a team effort.
Who thrives at Viasat? Those who believe there's always a better way – and have the passion to pursue it. At Viasat, you have the chance to do the best work of your career in a culture that promotes pride in teamwork, trust, and collaboration.
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At Viasat, they're committed to providing a sense of community, connection, and personal and professional development for women. See how they foster female leadership at Viasat through opportunities to pursue careers in STEAM through sponsored community events and mentorship opportunities.
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