Masha Osherova, Warner Music Group's HR Guru, On Exec Diversity & the #MeToo Movement

BB3 2018 - DO NOT USE!!!
Annie Tritt
“Harassment is just one manifestation of a whole continuum of problems around bias and discrimination, which is directly related to diversity,” says Osherova, photographed on Jan. 17, 2018 at WMG in New York. “This societal change is hitting the music industry hard, and I welcome that change.”

A quarter century before her promotion to ­executive vp human resources at Warner Music Group (WMG), Masha Osherova was on the other side of the world, working toward something much different: a master’s degree in quantum mechanics from St. Petersburg State Technical University in Russia.

"The idea was that I would eventually win the Nobel Prize,” she says with a laugh, sitting in her brightly lit office at Warner Music Group’s New York headquarters. But a steep decline in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) funding from the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War lowered career prospects in those fields, and Osherova was forced to look elsewhere for job opportunities.

Armed with few credentials aside from fluency in English -- still valuable in Russia -- Osherova took a marketing position at Coca-Cola, where, impressed by her people skills, the company asked if she would be interested in moving to human resources. "Without having any idea what HR was, I said, 'Of course,’” she recalls.

So began a human resources career spanning multiple countries and industries, from global HR manager at Shell to a 2006 move to WMG International, where she played a key role in the acquisition and integration of Parlophone Label Group.

Since being promoted to her current role at WMG, Osherova has set up several new recruitment and training programs, including the global leadership development program Topline, a college recruitment system and even a "Rock N Roll High School” seminar series on music history for WMG employees, run by Pete Ganbarg, the newly promoted president of A&R at Atlantic Records.

"I found my calling," she explains. And even that quantum mechanics background is put to use: Her process values technology and data as much as people, and recognizes the importance of rigorous processes in moving beyond lip service to tangible policy and program changes.

At a time when HR departments across industries are busier than ever -- WMG has let go at least two top executives in recent months following sexual harassment allegations -- Osherova spoke with Billboard about WMG's current hiring and training priorities, the role of HR at a major label and the impact of the #MeToo movement on her career.

What is your approach to HR?

I believe you need to teach people to fish, as opposed to giving them the fish. It’s about creating an environment in which people not only get more opportunities to learn new skills, but also take ownership over that process. I have a degree in physics, so data is really important to me -- it’s in my DNA -- and I believe that technology and analytics have a big place in HR. While instinct still plays a significant role, in order to have actionable insight you need to understand data really well as it relates to people.

How does your Topline program work?

Every year, we recruit 32 Warner employees from different countries, job functions and backgrounds, and host three in-person leadership development sessions over nine months in different cities around the world. There are three segments: learning about yourself and who you are as a leader; how you work with people; and how you work with the business. We try to wrap together our core values of collaboration, creativity, agility, innovation and diversity. Topline is now in its third cycle, and people are fighting to get admitted.

What are your recruitment priorities?

We need more capabilities and skill sets that weren’t as relevant before, from technology and consumer marketing skills to social media fluency. Those skills can come from very different companies, not just from tech. A great consumer marketing company like Adidas or even Lego comes with skills and experiences that could be really valuable for us.

How are you keeping WMG competitive with tech companies like Facebook and Spotify?

We’ve revamped our student programs. We just launched our paid emerging-talent program a few weeks ago, catering to senior- and graduate-level students who have already had two or three internships in the music industry. Associates in the program will be placed in a specific department based on their background and interests, and will get to present their own business ideas to Warner executives as a final capstone project. If we as a company don’t invest our time and attention in strengthening our internal leadership pipeline, we’ll just be relying on our ability to steal them from somewhere else, which is not a great place to be.

What’s the toughest part of your job?

On one hand, you need to focus on higher-level strategy for approaching the market and building a solid platform for the future of the company, be that through organizational setup or a big acquisition. You also have to deal with individuals who need something here and now at the company, either to help them progress with an issue or to cater to their interests at the time. You can’t have one without the other.

How are you working to increase diversity?

It’s not just the right thing to do; it’s also a smart business decision. There have been so many studies that conclude definitively that diverse leadership teams do better commercially. We need to think holistically about how we can create an experience for everybody such that they feel comfortable and included and have access to the same opportunities.

Diversity is certainly more present at the junior level, but as you grow within the organization that diversity clearly goes away. Part of the problem boils down to historical biases and pressures, like having to make a choice between family and career. We just introduced a new, more flexible childcare policy for U.S. employees at the end of 2017 that shows our commitment to both women and men to create a workplace where people no longer have to make that choice. As for data, we’re not just interested in how many trainings we hold in a year, but also in metrics like how many more women or racially diverse candidates get promoted internally as a result.

How has your job changed in the #MeToo era?

I genuinely believe that all my colleagues have a desire to change things and to get to the point where this doesn’t even need to be a topic of conversation anymore. In order to get there, we need to be more open and transparent, express our commitment to zero tolerance of this behavior and raise awareness of what constitutes harassment and what to do if you see it.

What is reassuring to me is that so many Warner employees have reached out to me saying they’d like to know more about the issues at hand and how to deal with them, whereas it was not at the forefront of people’s minds even just a few years ago. Awareness is so important, because even if it’s not happening to you, it could be happening to someone right next to you, and you have a role to play there.

What policies and programs are in place at WMG for addressing sexual assault and harassment?

We’re in the middle of rolling out a new set of internal training programs around identifying and dealing with sexual harassment, as well as a new code of conduct that focuses on harassment of any type, not just sexual, and expresses zero tolerance. There will always be an investigation after a claim. The investigation is handled in a sensitive manner, and it has to be fairly balanced. There’s a lot of training for my team to make sure they can handle investigations in the right way.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 27 issue of Billboard.