Employee Experience

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In this episode of Talent Chronicles, T.J. Crosby joins us to talk about Employee Experience and Engagement in the realm of HR. T.J. has industry-leading experience as the Head of Talent Experience with FirstKey Homes. Crosby talks about the importance of listening to employee’s feedback and how to drive engagement amongst employees.

JCSI:  Hi everybody. This is Bergin Sullivan with JCSI. I’m here today with T.J. Crosby joining us for another interview in our Talent Chronicles series. Thanks so much, T.J. for being here with us today.

T.J.: Thank you.

JCSI: So, I know you have vast experience in HR and Talent Acquisition roles within industries like Real Estate, Marketing, Insurance.

Would you like to give us maybe a quick explanation of how you got into HR and kind of what brought you to your current role as the Head of Talent Experience with FirstKey Homes?

T.J.: Sure. So, I was in sales coming out of college in the financial services and employee benefits space. Sales weren’t really for me and to leverage that opportunity to go into my first HR role, using the employee benefits aspect, and just fell in love with HR. For what it could be and be able to really build a strong talent brand and most importantly, make sure the team members feel valued and cared for by the company.  Obviously, we’re all in this to make sure that at the end of the day there’s profit but we can do that responsibly to make sure that people feel cared for along the way.

So, as far as how I got into my current role, I was with a prior company that is owned by the same parent company that owns FirstKey. I was asked to step over into this new portfolio company to help grow the startup. We’ve grown from around 250 team members to right at 800 at this point over three years and, we expect to probably triple from here.

So just continue to kind of have increasing levels of responsibility as we go. And so, it’s been a pretty fun journey.  No one day is the same as the next, so it’s exciting to be here.

JCSI: All right. Awesome. As your position as the Head of Talent Experience, what are the prime responsibilities that you focus on when thinking about both employee experience and also employee engagement?

T.J.: So, in the experience realm, the biggest things, what I would say is are: listen, react, and then follow up. So, the biggest part is if you’re trying to really have strong employee experience engagement is to understand what the challenges are and to ask the team members for their feedback. Have that conversation. When I say team members, I want to make sure it’s clear that it’s management as well, right? It’s not uncommon to sort of leave management out and go talk to the frontline team members to try to solve it. And you not only need to solve it for those team members, but also for the managers and then partner with the managers to solve it for the team members.

So, to listen to people’s feedback is kind of taking that collective feedback and get some sense of what really matters most, react to what matters most, make some changes and then follow back up and say, “Hey, did it work? You feel better? Do you feel worse?” And then just kind of, sort of rinse and repeat it’s that simple, but it does take effort and focus.

JCSI: Okay, and what would you say the biggest differentiator is between the employee experience, so I guess that first listening part and the employee engagement?

T.J.:   I would say the experience piece is controllable, right?  I can control how I treat you as a person. I can control the things I say, the environment I create around you, whether you have to be in my environment or your own environment. So that’s the experience aspect. I can control it to a level how your management team engages with you and how empowered you are. What I can’t control is how engaged you are, right?

So, the experience piece I can control as an employer, and the employee is the one who has that reaction sort of the feelings or the engagement, right? So, a lot of times people may say, Oh, you made me feel this way by what you did. It’s like, well, the reality is you sort of chose to feel how you feel in reaction to what somebody did separately, don’t give them that power. But practically speaking, most people react to their stimulus and so their engagement is usually in reaction to the experience they’re having.

So, improve the experience, engagement hopefully goes up, but it has to be more than, as I say, ping pong tables and beer. It has to be something that really is substantive and meaningful and actually provides a better working environment for them.  Lots of times it has to do with being allowed to work in the area that they’re the strongest or develop the areas I would like to develop. If you focus on their experience, their engagement should increase. If the engagement increases, oftentimes production and profitability increase too.

JCSI: Okay and going into that with improving experience, what types of things and strategies have you found to be successful in trying to improve that? I know you mentioned it’s more than beer and ping pong tables, which makes sense.

So, what kind of things do you think helps with it and what things have you found to be unsuccessful? So, things that just never work or they’re just not a good idea to get into in the first place.

T.J.:  I’ll start with what I have found to be unsuccessful mostly because I see it in my view to be so common.

What normally happens is people try to engage themselves. Especially the HR department tries to engage directly with team members to make them feel good about work. Well, the reality is HR departments are never that large compared to the employee population. I don’t care how large your HR department is.

It’s never going to be big enough, really. And if you look at the spans of control that oftentimes exist or the layers of management, the management team members are much more equipped and much closer to the team members day to day. So, it doesn’t work to try to go around the management team, and sort of solution for their lack of professional treatment of employees or lack of engagement with the team members. To try to go and make it better as HR and be the friendly HR.

What does work is to make sure that the management team feels engaged. That the management team feels that they’re cared for, that they’ve developed. It’s so common to not develop management, to promote somebody because they were a really good programmer. And now you’re managing other programmers, but did we teach you how to be a manager of the program?

So, making sure the managers are developed, but also makes sure the managers are cared for. They want to be empowered. They want to have clear lines of authority and an understanding of what the strategy is. They want to understand. And we care about them as people, that they get to take the time off and things like that. If you engage the managers properly, oftentimes managers will be so naturally engaged with their team members. And the team members will just feel good about where they are because their managers are in that alignment with you. That’s my view of what successful.

Now you can’t forget the team members, you can’t forget to develop, but that’s usually just such a given that people forget though, that managers are team members on their own. And they need their own level of focus.

JCSI: That makes sense. Do you feel like people sometimes will focus the opposite? So, they’ll start with the team members and forget about the management. When in reality it should be the opposite?

T.J.:  Ideally, right? Because if you train the managers, you teach the teachers so to speak.

If you make them really good at it, then it just happens organically with the team members. The development of people happens naturally because managers know how to develop others because they’ve been developed.

JCSI: It seems like something you would normally think about, but I’m sure it’s not as common as we think. So, kind of leading HR, and you mentioned this before, how you guys have grown, you’re expecting to triple the team size. You’re leading HR across this very large organization at First Key which seems like a big responsibility. So, what types of things do you focus on when you’re trying to plan and oversee those team members?

T.J.: There’s a lot of things that you have to make sure you take care of tactically speaking. You’ve got to make sure people get paid and all that kind of stuff. That’s a given. But really in my view, as I lead the team, talk about having the mindset first you know, Carol Dweck wrote the book about mindset, growth mindset, and having a mindset is really powerful.

The mindset that we want to empower teams, the mindset that we want to engage managers, the mindset that you want to have a development culture. That really all by itself can create a lot of momentum in the right direction. So, then the things you do around, you know, comp packages and development, formal training programs, things like that. That’s important, but if you had that mindset and you can get that mindset viral within the company where other people have that same belief system, you’ll kind of create this pull. Like push versus pull marketing.

You create this pull that people want, what you’re trying to provide. They want the training. They want the opportunity to take on more opportunities. They are maybe a little less concerned about exactly how competitive the pay is dollar for dollar versus some other competitor because they don’t want to lose the culture.

You still have to be competitive. You can’t be out of the ballpark altogether, but it’s less about the exact dollar amount that is about the collective experience they have. So, it starts there. It’s got to start with mindset.

JCSI: Okay. And looking into the employee engagement aspect, how do you necessarily measure that? And employee experience as well? What steps do you take to improve when you find that and how do you identify that it’s in a bad place to start with? It seems like it’d be hard to point out those things in recognizing them easily. So, what sort of KPIs have you thought of and use in order to recognize that?

T.J.: That’s a great question. So, I mean, for us, we start primarily, with surveys. I mean, surveys aren’t great. Who wants to take a survey? But oftentimes outside of having anonymous feedback, it’s hard to know how people really feel or how they believe they feel.

There is the opportunity down the road to look into some level of workforce analytics and level of engagement.  We’re currently trying to navigate in our environment, those waters and figure out how we feel about privacy versus understanding of how engaged people are, because you don’t want it to become a big brother, “gotcha” culture. So currently we’ve not crossed that threshold. We currently use the surveys at various points in the employee life cycle. We feel pretty good about the results we get from that and it’s pretty accurate. If not clear causation, pretty good correlation to understand.

Culture Amp is the platform we use. They will go further and help you understand where to focus the most. That’s the difference versus   Survey Monkey or just regular survey platforms, the engagement platforms help you have a sense of where to point yourself.  We find where there’s the biggest challenge, perhaps maybe the biggest neutral zone, where there are people that don’t really feel one way or the other. Neutral is bad, right? You don’t really want it to have that neutral mindset.

So, if they’re neutral, you might focus there. Or clearly, if you have a lot of disengagement, you might choose to focus there. Although often has a high disengagement might be harder to move the needle, that it might be some of the other things that might be able to be changed and improve incrementally and you might see some of the other ones change on their own.

As far as KPIs, obviously, the engagement level itself is important. Turnover rate voluntary turnover is a clear indicator. Although I would also tell people that involuntary turnover is a sign as well, because oftentimes involuntary turnover is a result of disengagement, right?

It’s not because of “I woke up today and said, I’m going to do a bad job, man. I don’t like my job. I’m going to do a bad job.” Normally as people we like to do a good job, we like to be recognized, rewarded, right? So turnover is a good indicator.

Honestly, for the surveys themselves, participation rates. If you haven’t reached the point of survey fatigue, where you just know you’re surveying too often, then you can look at how many people respond. So, in our case, when we look at onboarding surveys, week one might be 80% of the people might respond and say, here’s how I felt about it. If it drops to 50% when you do a 30-day survey for onboarding, your results might say it’s still good, based on who responded, but what happened to that 30% of the people who did respond? How are they feeling? Are they already out the door mentally?

JCSI: We already kind of talked about those KPIs. Would you say those were the three most important ones that you focused on? And as the Head of Talent Experience, what would you say, or even just in your experience as a whole, what would you say is the best advice you could give someone who’s just starting out in a lower entry-level, TA, or HR position?

T.J.: That’s a great question, and I will tell you that a lot of other HR practitioners might twitch a little bit when I say this one, but I would say, learn the business first, speak the language. And the reason I say that is because it’s not uncommon for HR people to feel like “I know HR” right? Well, great. You know HR, but the company you work for doesn’t necessarily know HR. They know their business.

If I can find a way to speak your language and translate the right thing to do in your environment, it’s going to have this outcome. Oftentimes that outcome is beneficial to the employees, right?

So, I want to get you to a place where you feel like that’s a good idea to do it. Not because HR said so, it’s because it’s the right thing to do, and it’s ultimately the better result, right?

You look at diversity and inclusion surveys and things like that. You look at companies that have better inclusion, better diversity. They have better financial performance. There’s a reason for that. It’s not because it’s just the right thing to do. Because it actually has the impact of the different perspectives and backgrounds and all that has a positive net result.

So that’s the idea. Learn the language, learn the business. You’ll be respected as a trusted partner, you’ll have a lot more ability to have the conversations you need to have, understand what they’re thinking about, and you’ll be able to meet them where they are.

JCSI: Okay, that’s a great point. Great advice. So, we have gone through all of the questions we had prepped for today. Were there any final thoughts? Anything we didn’t cover that you’d like to touch upon before we close out?

Sure. I couldn’t get away without saying the two main things that I like to tell people that want to develop an HR team.

One is the Pygmalion effect: positive expectations, yield positive results. If you expect that we go take positive action and you have positive intent. Oftentimes because you smile, other people smile and you nod, people nod. Same idea, right? That positive expectation typically yields positive results. So, you expect your team’s going to do well, if you empower them to do a project, guess what they’re probably going to do well if you empower them to do the project.

Similar kind of thing, I say all the time is: perception is reality. It’s pretty common for people to say, “Oh, well, I don’t understand why they feel that way. They don’t really have a reason to feel that way.” And somebody very close to me at one point said, and she’s very wise, that’s my wife. She said, “It should matter less to you why I feel the way I feel it should matter more to you that I feel the way I feel.” And, you know, she won the argument that day that we were having.

But the perception is the reality that how you feel about things, how you perceive things is your truth. So, we have to recognize that instead of trying to argue with somebody that their perception is wrong, per se, we might try to figure out a way to have them have a different perception. ” What caused you to feel that way? What caused you to perceive it that way? What can I do differently? What’s in my control to alter that whatever happened so that you can have a different perception?” And to focus there versus just more than combative, “You’re wrong. My perception is this and you’re presenting this wrong.” Well, if you believe that perception is reality, you’ll accept that that’s how they feel about it. And you’ll work to try to help them feel differently.

Great. I love that point, especially working in HR and management, that’s just a great mindset to have. All right. Well, thank you so much for joining us for another episode today in our talent Chronicle series!

T.J.: Thank you, glad to be here!

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