Developing leaders through human resources

April 24, 2014

What is the role of human resources in the rapidly changing technology industry?  As corporate structures evolve, removing layers or creating matrix reporting structures, employees must be empowered to lead, be creative, and make a positive impact.

Recently, professional MBA students at the Ohio University College of Business heard from Debbie Cohen, Chief of People for Mozilla, the global, nonprofit organization behind open source products like Mozilla Firefox, the browser of choice for half a billion people around the world. She talked about the role of human resources and leadership in a peer-to-peer culture. 

According to Debbie, Mozilla is a unique organization that prizes people and values.  Mozilla looks at the web as a resource to be tended to, rather than a commodity to be sold.  It was born from the belief that the internet would be an open resource for all to access, and to ensure that the web remains available and within consumer control. 

Cohen entered the organization with limited HR experience.  However she brought with her a belief in the ‘capacity of human potential’ gained as an early childhood educator and executive director of childcare centers for Stanford University and the Department of Interior. That perspective allowed her to increase the effectiveness of the HR function.  She describes it this way.

“I am not a native to HR. I entered the function during my tenure with Time Warner. Having spent decades doing work in parallel to the HR function I became increasingly disenchanted with the limited impact and effectiveness of this vital function. So, rather than sit on the sidelines and complain, I jumped in. I committed the balance of my professional life to changing the world of work using HR as the leverage. At all levels in an organization I connect the dots that bridge the gap between the world of complex ideas and their practical application.”

As she started her career at Mozilla, Debbie found the work environment unfamiliar and uneasy.  There was a lack of communication within the organization that left her feeling less like a part of team than an interloper. That feeling of alienation led her to the CEO’s office.

“I was told that I was more concerned with being liked than being respected.  From then on, I took the initiative to demand information, rather than ask for it.  That’s when I changed from an ‘alien’ to one of them. Three years later, my work experience is still uncomfortable, but within this field of work everything is unexpected.

As the Chief of People for Mozilla, my job is to help our organization be its best by enabling the best in our people. Helping others to realize their fullest potential and expression has been the work of my life. This work is not for the faint of heart.”

Debbie offers this advice to foster leadership skills in yourself and organization.

  1. We don’t grow from a place of comfort, we grow from a place of discomfort. If you take away the struggle, you remove the opportunity to learn and find a way through it.
  2. Enable the fullest potential. Look to every member of the organization to meet their fullest potential. 
  3. Be unconventionally creative.  At Mozilla, we want to be known as unique, not the “best practice.” It’s about finding what works for OUR organization.
  4. Credibility is earned, not given. Work should be a meritocracy and leadership roles should be given to those that have earned it.
  5. The real test of leadership is when turbulence hits. Working with people requires boundless patience, acceptance, and respect for differences.

The Ohio University Professional MBA program is a 20-month, 36-credit hour general business and management degree designed for working professionals who have three or more years of full-time work experience. For more information on the PMBA program at Ohio University’s College of Business, visit   Our students have access to leaders in industry that teach, inspire, and motivate.

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