Company Health (Beyond Profit)

youdo talks to Carrie Walecka about all things company culture. Episode 8, Part 1

Luke Gaydon, CEO of youdo discusses the impact of ESG and CSR with Carrie Walecka, Chief People Officer at Yapstone.

Executive Summary

  • The HR function is now a key driver to any organisation. In the past, HR was responsible for bringing in employees to fit business requirements - now focus is more on employee experience and ‘how to develop that person’

  • Leadership roles:
    • Covid and a more dispersed workforce meant that organisational cultures have changed - the old way of ‘leaders leading by presence’ was/is no longer possible

    • Covid coincided with the millennial generation coming into leadership roles - they have a better perspective on things like corporate responsibility, mission and environmental footprint. Millennials are also gaining buying power across the world - their requirements are more important.

    • Generation Z have started coming into the workforce. They’ve learnt to live screen first/people second & are comfortable with technology replacing 'in-person' in away that other generations are not.

  • ESG/CSR:
    • Gaining importance with all audiences but ESG teams are generally lean - HR is having to add to workload to others

    • Getting audiences to engage is difficult unless its led by the C Suite and is perceived as a real direction and not paper pushing or greenwashing

    • ESG is growing in importance - if it isn’t on a company’s values - then an organisation won’t be employing the right people to develop its ESG offering. ESG has to be part of the entire employee lifecycle.

    • People think ESG comes at the cost of the bottom line, but it actually drives your bottom line (Patagonia example)

  • Last 3 years has led to a better balance of business priorities - with leaders, employees, suppliers and customers all becoming more aligned.

Luke - I'm very excited and happy to welcome my friend and ex colleague, Carrie Walecka to the discussion series. Carrie, thank you so much for giving us your time. As always, could I just start off by asking you to give a brief profile of you and your, your career and and kind of what you're up to now?

Carrie - So I'm in the people business. My job title officially is Chief People Officer but I'm just a person that loves helping people get lit up and do their best work. I currently do that for a FinTech company, but I’d be happy to do this job almost anywhere. It’s just an exciting thing to be in the field that I'm in - supporting people in what makes them do their best work at a time where everybody's reevaluating what that looks like and how we do that. So it's really cool to be doing what I do now.

Luke - What has been the most significant change to the HR field since you entered the space?

Carrie - I think the biggest change is that HR used to be its own function and separate from the rest of the business. HR was over here, decisions would happen over there, and HR would just move along accordingly. And now HR is the key driver to the business. One of the key job titles in HR is HR business partner because we truly partner with leaders to make decisions through an organisation.

I started my career in HR in recruiting. And that was really significant to me, because I view recruiting as the front door to an organisation. Recruiting pitches the reason a candidate should join the company while also uncovering where the candidate can bring value, and then figures out how the company can give them the professional gain they want in return for their career. HR has really changed over the years to help focus more on employee experience, and what's called the employee value proposition. You bring your carefully crafted career here, so what will we give you in return for all those hours and talents that you bring? And it used to be so much more driven from the perspective of what the business needs. It used to be ‘Let's find a person’ and now it's ‘how do we develop that person’ at the same time. That power dynamic is starting to shift and it is exciting to have a critical role in how this plays out.

Luke - In an earlier discussion series, I alluded to my first job interviews - it was not a two way process! Now it seems to me that it's a lot more about both sides of that equation, interviewing each other and both making a decision about whether they are a good fit rather.

Going back to your point about HR sitting separately from the business, that doesn’t seem well-aligned with the oft-repeated phrase that a company’s most valuable assets are its people?!

Carrie - In the past three years or so, the focus of the workplace has shifted from being led from the top to being led throughout an org where the employee experiences are the driving factor. HR had its moment during COVID and that’s continued as we have gone through the great resignation, salary and talent wars and quiet quitting. The list goes on and on. And that’s really reinforced the role of the people function in an organisation. And it's also really shifted the power dynamic. Some companies are still catching up to that, and they're really going to lose out if they do not give HR the proper recognition in an organization because HR does represent the best resource of almost every company, the people.

Luke - So the shift towards focusing more on the people part of a company should make it easier to build a really great company culture?

Carrie - I think that this is a non answer, but it's harder for some, and it's easier for others. The last three years have created a more dispersed workforce, which has increased the ability to hire from broader demographics. We've gotten closer and gained a better understanding of each other. I don't think of culture as the values on an office wall, but instead as the tapestry of bringing people’s workstyles, beliefs, etc, together. Our work and personal lives have blended so much, and companies that have claimed having a global footprint have actually had to face them. That's been really challenging, but also really rewarding for the companies that have done it well. As we have seen, many one dimensional leaders fostered cultures in a way that was largely defined by physical presence, and they have had to adapt.

Another thing that’s been pretty interesting is how COVID coincided with the millennial generation rising into leadership. The millennial generation has brought a different perspective to the workplace in regards to corporate responsibility, mission, environmental footprint, etc. Companies are starting to shift because not only are these millennials now in leadership positions, but they're also quickly gaining buying power in the world. And that's a big overall development for an organisation.

We're also starting to see the impression of Gen Z coming into the workforce. They have grown up in what I would think of as a ‘screens first’ culture. Their behavioural norms are largely going to change how we look at building corporate culture and communities because their natural way of finding personal connection is through apps and tools. This sounds so backwards to many of us and for many leaders it doesn't feel authentic or real, because it's not in person, but we need to find a balance.

Luke - One of my questions was what developments have really impacted the HR field, but I think you’ve answered that. It's the new behaviours of the generations of people coming into the workplace.

Carrie - Most of us work in global environments where it can be hard to connect synchronously. A lot of things happen in an async way and technology enables this. It makes the world smaller and this helps build culture and connection. You can be talking to somebody in another state or in another country in two minutes, but you can't get there on a plane. I love in person interaction but I also know that my circle of colleagues, mentors, and friends has grown so significantly through technology.

Luke - How do you see the relationship between HR & ESG working, given ESG isn’t (yet) a function of its own?

Carrie - ESG is really, really important to some employees and relatively important to others. And sustainability is normalising. Employees, candidate customers, investors all want to see companies transformed and this new norm. In many companies, like you said, there isn’t an ESG function per se and even the companies that do have one, the teams are lean. There's a general shift globally in headcount whereby HR has had to learn to place a new focus on internal talent mobility to ensure that employees are deployed to the priorities that matter most to an organisation. And HR equally needs to find ways to engage those employees in areas in which they want to develop professionally, without necessarily adding headcount. So how do you actually address an important issue like ESG, without having the headcount to do so?

This coincides with where HR has really shown an increased focus on employee engagement and development. We’re putting a stronger emphasis on stretch assignments and upskilling existing employees that want growth opportunities that actually connect to what they care about - like ESG - that utilise their skills that meet the evolving organisational needs at the same time. Where it can be hard is that a lot of companies are just checking the box. Employees - and people in general - really want to work on things that have value or are important. If it feels like your company is greenwashing or checking a box, that's not that motivating or meaningful to an employee. So the C-suite and leadership have to be just as active in the initiative as anyone else.

Unfortunately burnout, exhaustion, career insecurity, all those things that have been fueled by the pandemic, have eroded the desire for a lot of employees to take on stretch assignments, or stretch work that doesn't actually have a light shone on it in an organisation, because we've got a lot of competing priorities right now as people. This is the time to show how ESG and CSR add value to personal and professional growth, as well as growth to the bottom line.