November 23, 2021

#013: You Can’t Use Covid as An Excuse – The Great Resignation With Karli Waldon

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The great resignation is sweeping businesses across America. Many companies are losing employees left and right, with leadership blaming the COVID pandemic. But are they correct? We challenge those assumptions in this episode as George Randle talks to the COO, President, and Managing Partner of Talent War Group, Karli Waldon. Karli and George examine the current state of companies and analyze why people leave their jobs. Hint: It isn’t COVID. Tune in for more great insights into corporate America here on The Talent War Podcast.

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Key Time-Stamps:

6:24 – All problems are leadership problems

9:20 – COVID is not an excuse

12:44 – Where can I get better as a leader?

14:22 – Leadership Value Proposition

You Can’t Use Covid As An Excuse – The Great Resignation With Karli Waldon

We are going to make it short and sweet as I talked with Karli Waldon. We are going to have a conversation about the Great Resignation, what managers, leaders, organizations can do to attract and retain their top talent. Karli Waldon is truly one of the best leaders that I have ever worked with. A former US Air Force Cryptologic Language Analyst, speaks six languages and distinguished herself across multiple intelligence agencies on several classified critical missions and hostile areas.

After her great career in the Air Force, she and I had the privilege to work together and she was the Senior Leader for all global sales recruiting. She is truly an expert in designing, building, executing complex talent strategies, and helping business leaders attract the absolute top-end best talent. Stand by as we hear from the best.

We are going to do a short segment on what’s being called the Great Resignation. Every article and fifth LinkedIn post, it’s about resignations and hiring. I thought it might be a good day for Karli, our President here at Talent War Group. She’s somebody I have worked with for many years, who’s the best on their craft to talk about some of the things that we have done, some of the ways that you as leaders can face up and tackle the Great Resignation.

With that, I’ve got Karli Waldon, the President and COO of the Talent War Group. Folks, she’s truly the best recruiter that I have worked with and one of the best leaders. Karli, Nayara gave us a bunch of statistics and we both see them but it’s like 62% of employees are on an active job search. I know I’m hearing it from the clients. Is that what you are getting when you’re coaching and working with our clients?

It is but first, George, thanks for having me on. This is a really exciting topic for me. I come from the HR world, so it shows you a lot about how much fun we don’t have in HR a lot of the time. This is a super relevant topic. It’s not industry-agnostic at all. It’s applying to everyone across the board. I have heard of it referred to McKinsey. They are calling it the Great Attraction or the Great Resignation, or something like that.

I have heard it in a few different terms but it is the number one problem that companies are facing. It doesn’t matter how great their company is or think it is and what industry they are in. Everyone is facing this problem. To go back to your question, a lot of clients that I’m speaking with might come to us for one specific issue but all revolves around this one topic right here.

What’s interesting to me is, for those readers, on occasion, we get this opportunity for Karli, Mike Sarraille or myself to go speak to a group of people. They send you this pre-speech questionnaire. They asked my opinion about things. They were talking about the Great Resignation as though it was strictly COVID-related.

One of the things that I flipped back out of this is COVID did a couple of things. First of all, people had to all of a sudden halt and get used to working remotely. They changed their whole life. They start working remotely and delivering results. Some companies had to shed employees from a revenue perspective, a lack of demand for their services and product or whatever. I said, “What this did is, COVID may have been the precipitating event or the causing event but it exposed leadership. By the way, it isn’t just because of COVID.”

Now, people are like, “People are vaccinated. We can bring it back to the office. Everybody, come back to the office.” You had thought that the leaders would have caught on that the Great Resignation isn’t simply COVID, vaccinations or work from home. It’s a leadership issue for Christ’s sake. How the hell did you miss that? That’s what’s driving me nuts.

As you said, this was bound to happen. COVID came in place and sped it up however many years. I have heard people debate that, whether it’s 3, 5 or 10 years but people are re-evaluating what they value, motivates them to stay at a company, and what they value in an organization. What used to work is not necessarily working for everyone anymore.

All problems are leadership problems. Click To Tweet

I had one client ask me, “What do we do?” I said, “You have doubled down on investing and building great leaders.” I remember I walked in and you were already there. What a toxic sometimes, I don’t quite get it. It was the weirdest environment. I walked in, and I was like “What the hell is going on here?” We were able to figure that out and work through a very difficult environment.

Before I asked you the question, I was going to say that we are going to make this very short but I wanted to share with people that it doesn’t matter about COVID. It comes down to leadership. Every problem is a leadership problem. If you are a good leader, your company can be whatever it is. You, as a leader, are responsible for your portion of, whether your employees are engaged, valued and taken care of. You weren’t getting much of that before we built the team.

There wasn’t a pandemic to blame back then for a lack of leadership, toxic culture, and a whole bunch of different things that were happening as we do speak to some of our clients, some of these issues that are popping up where they have high attrition. Again, all problems are leadership problems. You can’t use that as an excuse.

Going back to this company, as soon as you came in, you diagnosed what was going on and certainly built some solid rapport with the team. Things shut up. People had a purpose and understood the why. You instilled a solid framework for success because prior to that, the team was reactive at best. They were the doormat to the business. Who wants to work in that type of environment?

What struck me as I looked around and remember doing this assessment was like, “There are a lot of talents here.” What I would share with the leaders that are reading is you need to look around and take stock of what you have, especially some companies that are having to lean out. You are asking your employees and teams to do even more. When I was responding to the speech that I was hoping would happen is I said, “Leaders or managers, stop taking their teams for granted.” We have had to talk to clients about that. They think it’s a matter of filling positions with the right people that you can hire your way to success but that’s not true.

You are spot on. There have been many different surveys out there and we did one ourselves. It was showing that 62% of our people who had left a role were because of lack of leadership. It wasn’t because of a vaccine mandate or they didn’t have flexibility in this.

When I was responding to that inquiry, it was like the perfect storm. You have a pandemic and there are the requirements to be vaccinated. Some people don’t want to get vaccinated. It’s their choice, whether they do or they don’t. Employers have the right, whether they let people back into their facilities, where they are vaccinated or have to be vaccinated. People getting used to remote work, and then you throw bad leadership on top of that. That is a hell of a cocktail for leaders to deal with.

TWP 13 | The Great Resignation

The Great Resignation: People are re-evaluating what motivates them to stay at a company and what they value in an organization. What used to work is not necessarily working for everyone anymore.

 

I spoke with some leaders here. They are using all of this as an excuse for why all these things are happening in their company, and a lot of them are department heads. We speak with CEOs and COOs and such. When I’m speaking with, let’s say, a VP of Sales or a Head of Marketing or whatever, they are using this as an excuse. I want to point them back to, “All this stuff is going on. There are going to be many unknowns. Policies are going to be changing by the hour. It feels like it sometimes but you, as a leader, have the responsibility but you have the power to create your own subculture.”

If the company culture feels toxic or maybe there’s a lack of leadership upstream, you can block that from your team. You are enabling your team to do their best work. You are motivating them to stay at your company. You show that you value them because that’s important. Why the heck are you going to go work somewhere when you have other options when your current employer isn’t valuing you and what you bring to the table.

The best point that we can bring up is that you can’t use COVID as an excuse for why people are leaving. It’s not COVID. It may produce the rare circumstance that things aren’t working out and that person has got some responsibilities at home that being at home works better but it can’t be an excuse for poor leadership.

I was talking to the person that I was coaching and I said, “It’s all on your shoulders. You are either leading or you are not.” Too many leaders are. You are absolutely right. Using COVID as an excuse when this should be the motivator to say, “How do you like it to be the boss that I would work for?” That’s how I approached our team. That’s how people looked at you when you were leading your global team. It’s like, “I want to be like Karli.”

Some people watched you like a hawk. Your desire to be a great leader actually caused everybody to look at you more sharply and drive the standards higher. Leading your team regardless of the rest of the company, you nailed that but you were good at that. What would you tell junior and senior leaders that are most important to you?

There’s always going to be a pandemic of some sort, issue or something, whether it’s COVID or your company is being bought out by a PE firm or say you are a publicly-traded company and your Q2 results are well below projection. There is always going to be something but you, as a leader, can be a constant.  I appreciate everything that you have said about me being a leader and you’ve got to see me in action.

There's always room for improvement, even on the margins. Click To Tweet

I’ve got to learn from the best in working for you in a previous life. For me, I am always figuring out on the margins, “Where can I get better?” We all have tough days as leaders but as soon as I crack, that opens the door for something to happen. I have to be constant. It doesn’t mean I’m not vulnerable with my people when times are appropriate. I would say that there’s always going to be a pandemic, crisis or something that doesn’t work in your favor, and that can be an excuse.

It’s almost like the victim mindset a little bit. It is what it is. There is nothing that you can do to change it but what you can do is you can be a bad-ass leader. You can be somebody that people want to work for and people will give their right arm to have an opportunity to work on your team. We talked about this before like how important employee value proposition is. Why should people come and work for your organization?

It has been talked about a little bit. There are not a ton out there about it but it’s called A Leadership Value Proposition. Why should people come and work for the company? Why should people come and work for you? If it’s a candidates’ market, it’s not, why should you come work for my company? Why should I hire you? You have to sell yourself as a leader, too. Do you have a proven successful track record, not a proven bad track record or do you have a successful track record of developing and retaining top talent? What are those examples? I feel like I am coaching clients how I used to coach candidates a few years ago.

That’s a real good point. I think that’s the question I used to prep candidates. There are all kinds of questions I can ask candidates to stump them. I was surprised by your point, Karli. For some of these searches that we are doing, we picked up the search for the CHRO. We are doing multiple COO searches. I was on a call at 11:00 and I asked the guy, “Why should somebody work for you?”

You could hear that audible gasp like, “I can’t believe he asked me the question how audacious is he going to be.” At the same time, he was like, “I don’t have an answer.” It’s true. I’m going to curveball it a little bit because I want to share a war story. You said I should be on guard but I’m going to put you on guard. When I met you, were you a contractor?

I was, yes.

I remember asking you, “What it took to be full-time?” I was trying to sell myself. I’m not sure I wasn’t doing a poor job as many of the people we have talked to but it certainly wasn’t good. I remember the look on your face, which is like, “We will see if you could deliver what you are talking about.” Even you and I working together, it’s the very same point. “Why should you be working for me?” Amazingly, people can’t answer that question. People think they are selling a role but they are actually selling their leadership and investment in somebody.

The days of being able to throw a bunch of money at someone and be like, “Go and do your job. Sit at your desk. Stare at your computer for 8 to 10 hours a day. Give me the results I want to see. Pack up and leave. We will pretend like we don’t know each other or we pass each other and say, ‘Bill, how’s it going?’” Those days are 100% gone. They are gone for businesses that want to be competitive and win.

Companies and leaders have to do an honest assessment of themselves as an organization and as a leader. When you walk in the door, what is that like? How do you treat your employees? How do you engage with your employees? Is there some room for improvement? If anyone says no, I’m calling BS. There’s always room for improvement, even on the margins.

Going back to the story. You asked me, “Do you want to be a full-time employee?” I said, “Do you want the nice things or the honest answer?” You tilted your head a little bit and you are like, “Of course, I want the honest one. What will it take?” I’m pretty low maintenance. I love what I do. I pour everything I have into it, whether it’s a project, it’s my team, my family or whatever it is. I had a pretty lengthy list because, at that time, there was no light at the end of the tunnel for the team. I could see that day one when I walked in the door.

TWP 13 | The Great Resignation

The Great Resignation: Leaders have the power to create their own subculture. If the company culture feels toxic or there’s a lack of leadership upstream, you can block that from your team.

 

Let’s say they did a good job of selling the role to me, which is fantastic. It’s a completely different role. I don’t know which one they were selling but it wasn’t the one at that organization. It looked great on paper, so you said, “Give me 90 days.” Not only did you say what you were going to do but you also did it in record time. It was day 60, and you are like, “You asked me to do X, Y and Z. This is what I did. Are you going to hold up to your end of the bargain?” Of course, I am because I’m a person of my word here.

By that time, there was a light in the tunnel. How can these teams become partners with the business and not dormant? You made some tweaks. There were some big ones. Some of them were people, processes but again, you were trying to sell me, and you did it in the right way. You said what you were going to do.

I was thankful I delivered on all of it because you stuck around. One thing is you always deliver for your team, which is huge. Going back to that private equity thing, we talk about no excuses. I think that’s a big thing because we have been through that. I wanted to say one of the leaders on the private equity inserted team but leaders would not be the appropriate title.

I’m not even sure the manager is. We could call that person an executive but an attrition rate that we had taken from the ’40s by hiring and selecting the right people. Knowing the teams and team dynamic, and what people you needed to place into that sales team, drop that by over half then you depart. I think they had a banner quarter. They went from 51% to 47% attrition.

If you are attriting people, this particular guy from the private equity firm wants to blame product, service, and to your point, there seems to be nobody in the world that can hold up a mirror at this guy and for him to see that the problem is him. He doesn’t get it. That’s the thing about this COVID pandemic. Those reading here, it is your responsibility. Karli is right. This is one environmental condition.

There are going to be pandemics, fire drills, changes in the market, and all kinds of things. You have got to be leading and taking care of your team. People do not care how much until they know how much you care. Don’t talk about the Great Attrition. You need to be being the boss that you want to work for. We would do these climate surveys. Karli, everything would come back on you, and if you remember, there’s Jody and Miranda. Everybody was aspiring to be like you. That’s how I knew we struck gold. When we’ve got that, we were golden.

I think a lot of the audience is probably in a similar state as a lot of our clients, where they are at this triage state, trying to plug holes in the ship, the boat or whatever. It’s important to have some pretty direct conversations with the key people on your team if you are afraid of losing them. That does require you to take some ownership and be like, “Here’s what’s going on.”

Obviously, there are things that you can’t share but being honest, transparent, and asking questions like, “What can I be doing better for you?” People generally feel pretty comfortable giving their opinions on stuff. In the environment that we have at Talent War Group, we get some pretty honest feedback, good, bad, ugly like, “If I screw up, I want to know about it. If I tick you off, I want to know about it.”

People didn't leave because of a vaccine mandate. It wasn't because they didn't have flexibility in this. It was because of a lack of leadership. Click To Tweet

Typically, it’s not intentional. Sometimes, I’m moving fast and somebody goes, “Can you explain this to me?” I’m like, “Sorry, let me sit down, and let’s walk through that. Address any questions that you may have, and hopefully, it didn’t affect your day or anything that you are doing.” A lot of your audience is probably in this triage state, “What should people be doing?” You can’t go into this, “Let’s build out this leadership development program if that’s not already in place.” People are plugging holes now.

I have my personal biases that I think some of this blending of politics into the workplace. I don’t like it. People are afraid of having authentic conversations and getting to know people. People have to look at it. Especially leaders have to look at it the other way. The blending of the personal and the professional happened and continues to happen.

As a leader, you need to bring your whole self. You also need to recognize that the talent that you have, you need to be investing in them. You need to know and make them better, whether they are staying or not is not a question you should be asking. You should always be investing, mentoring, coaching, training and listening. There’s a skill that most managers and leaders could always improve on. I know I could.

Listening to their people, what do they want? What do they need? What do they value? What motivates them so that they feel good about bringing their best selves to work and being part of a community? That’s one of the things that we did well on our team. It’s not simply because I was in the role. I created the space for us to do that in some ways. The team knew everything about everybody. Not from a gossip perspective but we cared about how this team did. It wasn’t the performers.

If somebody was slacking off or somebody was having a bad week, bad day, God knows in talent acquisition, it’s a masochistic world. We had all kinds of crazy manager tricks, crazy candidate tricks, and we were always picking them up. For me, it’s always about investing the most important thing that you have in your people. That’s your time and your ears. I don’t think people are doing enough of it. They are not bringing their authentic self to the table to do that.

I’m working with some of our clients and going through exit interviews, data and feedback. One of the things that have stood out to me is people don’t feel like they can be themselves at work, whether that’s in a virtual environment or an in-person environment. I was like, “I wonder what that truly means.” It brought me back to this company that we used to work at.

When I had taken on the global role, I was like, “I’ve got to figure out these teams.” I was taking on global teams that I had had minimal interaction with. Some people had been at the company for 5 or 10 years, both in the US, whether that was in AMEA or over in the Asia Pacific. They had never talked to each other. I was like, “I thought this team had already been established. I have to go in here.” The team had to get to know and work with each other and like, “I have never worked with this girl in the UK. She has been here since 2015. Fast forward 4 or 5 years, you have never talked to her?” They never talked to each other.

It made me think of something. We have all had Zoom fatigue but people are doing these virtual happy hours. They think it’s a team-building event. When we do them, I’m thinking, “This is an opportunity for me as a leader to get to know my people.” This isn’t a trick, a tip or something we had a schedule so we can drink on Zoom. That’s a nice side benefit, of course.

When we would have them, people got to see the real me and I’ve got to hear about their lives and their kids. Everybody has got their stressors. I don’t know that people are looking at what the surface thing is. People could value and need these things to be connected, part of a community, greater purpose, and a team that they know has got their back. There are many things that leaders could do.

TWP 13 | The Great Resignation

The Great Resignation: We’ve been dealing with COVID, which feels like a century now, but we’re going on almost two years now. It’s not an excuse anymore.

 

I was talking to a client and I talked about two separate leaders. I’m like, “When do they talk? They are both critical components of your company. When did they socialize? When do they get together? When do they talk about how their teams can work together?” The answer was, “I don’t know.” I was like, “I thought we were advanced but in many ways, we were not.”

I hear this so many times in a lot of these leadership ecosystems, whether it’s a small or large organization. There will be someone a little bit more reserved. Usually, there’s an ask for me to come in and coach that individual, which is fantastic. I love doing that but one of the statements I always use like, “We are a bunch of A-type personalities and this person needs to speak up more.”

If anyone knows me, I am very blunt, which I’m like, “Do you ever shut up? Do you allow them to speak? You obviously hired them for a reason. You hired them for their leadership. Maybe if you shut your mouth for a little bit and provided a venue for that person, then where would your business be if you did?”

You reminded me of another tip. I thought that we did this very well and I share it. It’s not something that we created. I’m sure that you and I have learned it from other great leaders that we have worked with. When we would promote somebody, give somebody a team lead or hire a manager, which we rarely did, we mostly promoted.

I remember this with you, Jody and Miranda. Once you have made that hiring decision, that person is not going to work out on their own. One of the things that we did is we said, “In the first 90 days, what do I expect of you? Little to nothing.” I took the burden. You took the burden off leaders that we were promoting and that’s happening with the Great Resignation.

People are having to step up and be in positions. Don’t put the expectations on that person’s shoulders that they are going to go from one position to another and be killing it because you didn’t do it as a manager or a leader. Give those people room to grow and realize their success or failure is all on you.

We wanted to give some good tips. It all boils down to it doesn’t matter what the external environment conditions are. When you are a leader, you need to lead. You need to take care of people. For me, I hate to say it, it’s a very snowflake term but it is smart, which is people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

If you are not investing in people as a leader, giving them the benefit, helping them get to where you are, you could expect to be another statistic in the Great Resignation. What would you leave people with and leaders with to make sure that they are taking great care of people and building the right climate?

It's really important to have some pretty direct conversations with the key people on your team if you're afraid of losing them. Click To Tweet

It’s time to pause to do a little self-reflection to yourself as a leader and figure out where you are making excuses. Figure that out first, and then make major or minor adjustments but make those adjustments. It’s time to do some self-reflection. If you think you are the best and you are going to shrug it off, then I would like to speak with you and see how your department or your company is doing.

How is that working out for you?

You have to take a humble step back and do some self-reflection. We have been dealing with COVID, which feels like a century but we are going on a few years now. It’s not an excuse anymore. What can you change?

We are going to leave it at that because the best leaders I have worked for have always been their own worst critics and tried to get better. I have tried to be that way to the best of my ability. I know I’m my own worst critic. I don’t know that I have done everything that I can do. I’m always trying to get better but I remember, what can you do? The better you get and give, which is always true.  Thanks, Karli, for being on the show. For all the leaders out there, Great Resignation is one more factor in an ever-challenging world. This is a moment you lead your way through it. You be humble, driven, resilient, and if you want some help, reach out to us at the Talent War Group.

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About Karli Waldon

TWP 13 | The Great ResignationKarli Waldon is a former US Air Force Cryptologic Language Analyst, proficient in 6 languages and has served with distinction across multiple intelligence agencies on several classified but critical missions and in several hostile areas overseas. Following her career in the US Air Force, Karli was the Global Sales Talent Acquisition Executive Leader at Forcepoint, a human-centric cyber security firm.

She is known in the Talent Acquisition space for designing, building, and executing complex talent strategies to help business leaders plan, attract and retain top talent- helping them achieve exceptional business results. Her experience spans across multiple industries and within corporate and agency settings.

Karli is a trained expert in human behavior analysis through complex questioning and observation as well as talent acquisition selection and assessment. She earned her Bachelors’ Degree in Communications from the University of Maryland and is considered an SME in all things relating to veterans’ transition efforts.

Karli was the clear choice to take the reigns as President and COO of Talent War Group, leading and evolving the executive search function while driving best in class business processes from the start-up through maturity phases of our company’s evolution.

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