Jason Berg
February 1, 2024

Insights Everywhere #001: Eric Solomon, PhD

Branding’s Impact on Organisational Transformation

Eric Solomon, founder and CEO of The Human OS, and Ex-YouTube, Spotify, and Instagram, shares his background and journey from academia to brand building and leadership. He emphasises the importance of understanding the human operating system (your reasons behind why you do what you do) and how it impacts leadership, brand building, and business transformation. Eric discusses the need for businesses to focus on qualitative outcomes and not just measurable metrics. He also highlights the role of brand in internal and external positioning and the need for organisations to embrace radical collaboration. Eric's intention for the new year is to collaborate with good people who are committed to making positive change.

Key Takeaways

  • Understanding the Human OS is the process of defining your reason for being, which in turn impacts effective leadership, brand building, and organisational steering
  • Brands should exist not just in external communications, but in the OKRs, employee ethos, and performance management systems of a company
  • Businesses should focus on qualitative outcomes, and not just measurable metrics to ensure they are thinking beyond shareholder gains
  • Radical collaboration with good people is key to making positive change in the world

Interview Transcript

Hello and welcome to Insights Everywhere, where we have the privilege of hearing advice, ideas, experience, and perspectives from rare talent in the world of brand marketing and leadership from around the world. Today we have with us Eric Solomon, who is the founder and CEO of The Human OS. Eric has a fascinating and wide ranging background working at the intersection of cognitive psychology, technology, creativity, culture, and business for nearly 30 years. He's held executive leadership positions at top technology brands, including YouTube, Spotify, and Instagram. And prior to that, he earned his PhD in cognitive science with a focus on language processing and artificial intelligence, well before chat GPT was invented. Here is the transcript:

Could you provide an overview of your background and journey - how you transitioned from a technical field and PhD to brand building, leadership, and transformation?

I feel like I often have to caveat this just to ground myself a little bit, but I think when people hear PhD and those companies, they assume some amount of systemic privilege that's attached to those things. But for me, even going down the academic path to start out with was a bit of an act of rebellion in my family - given my family barely made it out of high school and I was raised by a single mom that had three jobs, which meant zero money, and had a dad that I couldn't live with due to his profession.

And so, the start of my career and going into academia was to be the first person in my family to go to college and was all driven by pure necessity of not having the life that my parents had. So it seems like it was all planned out and strategic, but the reason that I ended up going and getting an undergrad degree and then going into a PhD program in cognitive psychology was purely because I went to the places that paid for me to go.

I happened to get interested in language and the structure of language, so I studied computational linguistics at a time that it was really unfashionable and super dorky to do so. This was in the 90s. And then when I entered the program in cognitive psychology with a focus on machine learning and artificial intelligence, it was still the 90s and it was completely in a trough. Nobody was really studying it, which is probably why they allowed me to get in. I was attached this entire time to government funding, which meant that I was really young by the time I got out of the academic system.

Not many people earn their PhDs by the time they're 25. Ones that do are usually smarter than me. So for me, it was not intelligence. It was the sheer drive of necessity or I get my funding cut. So I did that. And when I was 25, I had no clue what I was doing in life whatsoever. All I knew was the path that I was on. So I continued on that path and ended up looking for postdoctoral positions thinking I was going to be a professor. Because what else did I know at that point?

The position I had accepted was at the medical school at UCSF. And it was at the intersection of big data and tech and big data and corporations. I was looking at how big tobacco had basically manipulated big data sets to get kids hooked onto smoking. They had all this data knowing that kids were highly susceptible. They hired hypnotists and stuff like that. It was pretty wild. And as part of this work, they said “Well, you don't know anything about counter marketing or advertising at all, which is what we need to do to get the tobacco industry right-sized. So why don't you interview people in that space?” And through those interviews, I started to realise, and other people started to realise, that I'm not an academic at all. I don't enjoy the academic setting. I am much better in team settings and in leadership settings. And so I got poached into business through interviews that I did in the academic world.

And so I was on a pretty sturdy path. I started in the creative agency world as a planner, a brand strategist, people might have heard, and doing things from a quantitative perspective because that was my background, always in technology. Did that for a while. And then through some of that work, I coached into and co-founded a team at YouTube back in, it was 2010, 2011, and this was the very start of digital video and brands using digital video. And I started to get more into this emerging space of tech platforms and what role they played. And that was my first experience leading really, really big teams and really enjoyed that and working at a global level.

Then about four and a half years into that, I was giving a talk and the founder of Spotify and his assistant were in the audience. And they came up to me and asked “Hey, would you be interested in applying to come work for us? We just hired our CMO. We're looking for our first head of brand. You seem like you might be good at that given your background”.

It was a bit of a dream job because of my love of music - I was invited to be a part of the intersection of music, technology, and storytelling. It all kind of came together. But of course, at that perfect corporate moment in life, that's when really my world started to shift. I do talk openly about this and it can be hard to hear, but I moved out to start that job in August of 2015. And in March of 2016, I was coming back from this big leadership team meeting in Stockholm where Spotify is headquartered. When I landed, I had a couple of voicemails from the hometown where I grew up. And it was from the Chief of Police who told me that morning, my father had been found in his backyard, hit in the head, and it was like this moment of pure and utter…even though I didn't grow up with him, he stood large in my life as a friend, and as an advisor to me, just about three times a week, and I looked up to him very much, and then boom, he was gone. And boom, there was a federal investigation that had opened up, and a criminal investigation opened up. And so I had a gag order and wasn't allowed to talk about this. And during that time, you know, from 2016 to 2018, It's crazy because I look so buttoned up on paper. I look like I climbed this corporate ladder in such a strategic way. But I ended up getting fired from Spotify and then ended up going back to Google where I'd been with YouTube, this time leading up an AI marketing team. And then I just took a trajectory up into the right for a while, pouring myself into work. I became the Head of Marketing on the business side for Instagram in charge of growing a $10 billion business globally. It took everything out of me, as you could possibly imagine. And then I was pushed in by Andy Dunn, the founder of Bonobos to be his new CMO, as he had elevated his CMO to be the CEO. And that was in 2018. And it's like the universe just has a way, right?

I was about five months into that job that I got another call, that due to lack of evidence, all charges of my dad's criminal investigation were dropped and deemed inconclusive. So I'll never truly have closure on a really transformational event. And that's when I took a step back and realised, the path that I was on was one that I had done fairly unthinkingly. It's not that I didn't like it at the time. I just didn't put any intention into it whatsoever. I was climbing a predetermined path up and to the right. And, you know, I realised that even though we understand that things like this and our phones run on an operating system, that's the foundation of everything we do, I didn't understand what my own operating system was, what my human operating system was, what I stood for, what I was trying to go for, and what my approach was to doing that.

Instead, I was just blindly following a path. So in 2019, I said goodbye to the corporate world. And for the last five years, I've been running my own company called the Human Operating System, which is truly about foundational brand building from the inside out, which is understanding that the brand is a system, and that system is as much about employees than what we say to our customers. And so I really work with leadership teams to figure out who they are, who they wanna be - not just externally, but internally.

And the only last thing I'd say, here I am five years into it and I'm at a place now where I'm really interested in only working with people who are good people. Truly good people who have their intention set towards trying to truly make incremental change to make this world better, not worse. So people that are not just interested in developing products for the world, but developing solutions for the world.

And so that's where I'm really at now. So a lot of the work that I do is revolved around helping people truly make change, big or small, through innovation.

Could you provide further insights on your transition into the Human OS - how you derived your approach to brand building, and what that means for businesses internally and externally?

It all started out because I needed some kind of systemic way of trying to get to the heart of who I want to be as a leader - not just who I want to be and who I am, but what steps and approaches do I have towards leadership and towards being a leader? How do I go about communicating that so people understand what I do and who I am? What do I stand for in this world? What's my belief system and how do I translate that in tangible behaviours that people can measure? And so I started out by saying, I'm gonna take myself on as a project and as a client and do that work to try to figure myself out.

Then I said, okay, well, if I can do that for myself, what I need to do is figure out how to visualise this and articulate this in a way that people can really understand. The way that I started to build it over time is really through understanding that as much as we understand that an atom is a building block of life and the atomic structure is something that everybody's familiar with, it's a simple atom, it's what we're made of. In a very similar way, I use that same kind of atomic structure to talk about the human operating system in terms of something that's a building block for leaders and a building block for businesses. And the way that I really think about it is I am so tired of in the brand marketing and branding world of people using words that have become meaningless for the most part. I think people use words like vision and mission interchangeably. People talk about values, but they don't mean anything. I can't tell you how many companies I've worked in that say they stand for one thing and then act completely the opposite of what they say their values are. And then people that truly at their core don't know who they are because they've never done the introspection that it takes. Just like people can go through their whole lives without understanding who they are if they don't put a little work into the introspection that it takes to understand that. So, you know, I really think about it as business psychology which is really helping people uncover the truth about who they are and then backing up that truth with behaviours that they commit to in order to enact that.

What I saw was in 2019, it felt like I was truly selling a vitamin. People were like “That's great, great to have it. I'll take it every day if I need to.” And then COVID hit, and there were distributed workforces and people felt like they were losing control over their own people within organizations. That's when people really started to call me and say “You're right, we've never codified what we're about. We've got a bunch of people that we are onboarding virtually and we're not going to ever come back to full-time. We might be hybrid forever. If we don't start to codify these things, we're not going to have any way of ensuring that everybody that works for us is marching to the same beat.”

So it became more of a painkiller for people, especially during those early years of COVID. And then of course, once things like recessions start to hit and people start to get more conservative, I think right now, especially with the rise of generative AI, there's a new type of freakout that's going on right now where people are panicking and not knowing what the hell they're gonna do to manage the technology onslaught that's coming on. So what I've done is translated some of the work that I've done with the human OS to helping people develop “what is your point of view around AI adoption? What's your AI strategy? Not what are you going to execute on, but what is your ambition? What ethical commitments are you making? And then how do you go about communicating it in a way that aligns to the values of the company?”

So more and more I've been called on and the Human OS has evolved from just helping people do foundational brand storytelling for their company inside and out to transitional business transformation. Because now they're like, “How do we talk about AI? How do we think about future technology?” So I'm starting to get really excited about playing in that space more.

It's fascinating how your background in the brand-centric world transformed into something more comprehensive and influential for companies, with an impact that permeates every aspect and decision of the business. The true promise of brand, as you've evolved it, lies in its ability to become an integral part of a company's identity rather than just superficial elements like words and visuals.

Yes, I hear that increasingly. I don't view brand as the kind of packaging that you put out to the external world, even though that's an important part of the brand. If you think about an iceberg, that's the tip that's sticking out of the water. But the rest of brand should exist in the OKRs of a company. Brand should exist in the performance management systems of a company and the onboarding of employees in the company and the commitment to what they're going to do outside of the walls of the company for their communities and their planets. That's what brand is, not just what you slap on your package and the pretty colours that you use.

How many companies do you see actually applying brand in that way?

I find that the companies that have the most credibility and are dominating the market don't do this work. By and large, this is absent from a lot of corporate America. That's why increasingly the companies that I work with are not the traditional companies in corporate America. It goes back to the incentives that people are aligned to.

If we only think that the purpose of a business is to increase profit for our shareholders, then it makes it really difficult to convince anybody that doing this stuff matters. But I do believe that younger people and businesses that are trying to be category creators and disruptors are thinking about the role of brands and business differently. They are not just thinking about return on investment (ROI) and just about productivity and efficiency, but they are thinking about the quality of outcomes that they wanna deliver. And so long as there's a few of those, I don't care about the rest of the world. I just care about who I care about.

What specific benefits do companies experience when they start implementing these methodologies and shifting their focus from solely shareholder value to a more comprehensive point-of-view?

It’s easy to forget that what companies are, are collections of people that are working together towards an outcome. So when you're able to do this work, you end up with a workforce that's not just aligned, but committed and energised on a bedrock of psychological safety and of dependability and accountability, are able to find meaning and impact on the work that they're doing. With this, the outcome is not just 10X, but 100X.

When you forgo this kind of work, you've got a bunch of people that are punching the clock and showing up or dealing with toxic leadership or having one conversation on Slack channels, but other conversations face-to-face. And so, very often, the outcome that I've had with the work I do is a better product delivery, better customer experience, better for the people that are delivering the customer experience, and that leads to increased ROI and better profits. So I think this, in fact, impacts the triple bottom line.

Where does it begin? Who do you primarily work with within organisations?

I think it's both top down and bottom up. So it's got to start, especially with younger organisations, with leadership and early employees. And you can’t discount people that are considered “rank and file” employees from the conversation. So it starts with really discovering and understanding who these people are and what matters to them.

One question that I always like to ask a CEO (and I've heard now 50 to 60 different answers) is “You're a talented smart, invested, and engaged person. You could be doing anything in the world. Why the hell are you doing this?” And this opens up the doors to conversations that they're not used to having with people.

I can tell you the stories that I've heard and the amount of vulnerability that people will give me by truly understanding why they've chosen this path and without just the understanding that they're trying to make money. Cause it's never just that alone. Founders don't start companies for monetary gain alone.

Once you identify their ethos with a founder, what are the steps that they usually need to take to then instil that through the organisation?

We start with Discovery, not just with founders, but across their leadership team and an agreed upon set of people to talk to inside and outside the organisation. Once we’ve got to a place where we’ve got a human OS built, I'll then work across their different silos, whether it's HR, operations, product, or marketing to sit and translate what that OS then means for team’s behaviour. We’ll outline how they're going to measure this, what their OKRs are going to be for their team, how they're going to then interact with each other on the team, what matters for them in order to provide and to deliver on the results that they've committed to. So I take a lot of that ownership off the leadership team.

Their job as a leadership team, or as a leader, is to be the shepherd of that work, but not necessarily to be the ones that are implementing it. They've got too much on their plates and they're pulled in too many different directions from both internal and external stakeholders.

How is this work positioned within the organisation? Is it considered brand building?

The most simple way that anybody can understand it is that it's both about internal and external positioning. And that involves storytelling. It's what is the foundational internal and external positioning that you have for consumer brand.

I'm resisting the urge to directly ask you about AI given how much of the world is asking questions about AI right now… Instead, what valuable lessons have you learnt from your experience studying Cognitive Psychology and AI and working in pivotal roles at various companies like Spotify, Instagram, YouTube, and Google that now enable you to apply your current human-centric approach to your work?

In regards to AI, what I can say is, no matter how transformational the technology really is gonna be, whether it's the new electricity or not, you can say with every technological shift, we always see people go through this initial stage of panicking and being like “What the hell am I supposed to do?”

Also I must say that part of the reason I've been hired at these places to do brand or communications work has been because I also have a background in AI. With AI, none of this is particularly new. Companies have been using advanced technology, including generative AI systems, for a long time now. It just hasn't hit the consumer-facing market in the way that it has now.

So what I've taken from my experience is - I'm really, really comfortable in helping people navigate digital transformation in organisations because I've been foundational to organisations’ digital transformation agendas. So I view AI or any advanced technology as part of navigating digital transformation. And again, it's related to communication because I think the one thing that people forget all the time is that as much as CEOs and leadership teams are freaked out about what's going on, employees within organizations are doubly freaked out because they're also concerned about their jobs being eliminated. And so nobody's communicating appropriately around what they're thinking about, what their ambitions are, what their strategy is to approaching this kind of stuff. So what I've learned is think before you act. And I can't say every company I’ve worked at has done a great job of that - it doesn’t work for companies that have mantras like move fast and break things as they will eventually break things.

But Spotify was a great example. When I joined, they had just acquired Echo Nest, which is one of the largest A- based music discovery platforms ever to have existed. And one of the first things we did was get product marketing, design, and business to together to talk about what was going to be our company's approach to how we were going to use AI in a consumer facing way to deliver experiences that didn't feel creepy, but felt additive. Which is why you have things like RAPT or Year in Music or Discover Weekly as part of those products.

We thought very strategically about it. So what I've learned is how to help companies think before they act. And that's where I'm most valuable to them in these cases. And that's what I'm looking to do more of is to help companies really not slow down, but rather to understand that the better they figure out what an articulation of their strategy is, the better they're gonna be able to execute it and the more comfort and relief of anxiety they're going to have for themselves, the rest of their workforce, and their customers too for that matter.

Many individuals and organizations tend to superficially market themselves as “AI-powered” without truly understanding its purpose and application, which raises the importance of discerning its genuine value and considering its impact on business strategy, product development, workforce dynamics, workflow efficiency, and customer communication.

I think it's related to all aspects of the future-of-work. For a while, people were talking about how companies are going to value prompt engineering. The reality is everybody's going to have to be a prompt engineer. There's not going to be a special role for that. Everybody's going to have to know how to prompt large language models to get the output we need. So who should companies be hiring?

This is the future-of-work conversation that I've been having more and more frequently, which is not just on the marketing side, but what kind of talent should you be looking for? And how do you ensure that talent's who they say they are?

It's been a fascinating time because its in this intersection of technology, creativity, and storytelling where I like to play the most. And I think that AI has presented nothing but an opportunity for me there in a lot of ways, just like it's provided opportunity for a lot of other people once you get through all the fear.

If you were leading a brand or marketing organization today, what are the key indicators or signs that would suggest the need for implementing concepts like the human OS or shifting perspectives in order to effectively address organizational, business, and brand challenges?

I think a tell tale sign is that you see a lot of slick external communications and advertising, but then you can see on Indeed or Glassdoor that the employee experience is less than par or the CEO has got a 50% approval rating. Or you see outward blasting on platforms like LinkedIn or TikTok, where people are work shaming their boss. You see, you've got young people who are totally unfiltered about how they feel about work environments. And I really worry that the command and direct style of leadership that was of the past, that I've also been subject to and was very prominent before and through the 80s, the 90s, and 2000s, is just not going to be accepted in the future.

So the telltale signs are of people doing really slick Super Bowl ads, but then having really shitty work cultures and really shitty communications internally. I think it's more common than not, and so diagnosing is fairly easy. The signs tend to be everywhere. You can't hide anymore because people have a voice.

Any other words of advice?

The overarching thing that I've been thinking and writing about a lot lately, is that it is very easy to take accountability for things that are super easy to measure. And so it's really easy to measure things that are productive and efficient and generate a lot of money. It's super easy to measure all those things. And all of those things are super important to a business thriving.

But truly the myopic focus on those things that are just easy to quantify because you can measure them easily doesn't diminish the value of the things that are more quality and the things that are more qualitative in nature. And I really want to see businesses embrace qualitative thinking and subjectivity.

I myself am a measurement person. I came from teaching statistics. But to think that you can measure the hell out of everything and that you're going to get the good quality outcomes from that is ludicrous. So the only thing I would say is just put a little of that spotlight on better quality outcomes for people - not just on the easy things that are measurable. And you'll find that the things that are easy to measure go up as well.

What is your intention for the new year?

Thanks for asking. Intentions for the new year are always fun because they're not resolutions, right? Five years into running my own company and doing a lot of things on my own - generating my own IP and doing everything I can to get that IP out into the world. A lot of that I think has made me super boring and I'm so tired of my own medicine. So the openness to what I'm calling radical collaboration is really the intention for 2024 and radical in this case really means why I'm not just looking to collaborate, but I'm looking to collaborate with good people who are truly not interested in just the status quo, but making change big or small. So for me, that is the intention for this year. And I'll say that divorced from an expected outcome. Who knows what I can achieve, but I can at least intend to do that and see what happens.