January 18, 2022

#017: Leading In a COVID World: Compensation & Rewards With Laurie O’Brien

Hosted by George Randle

Compensation and rewards are essential parts of the conversation about human capital, but they’re not everything. During this time of COVID, remote work, and the massive attrition rate dubbed as the “Great Resignation,” it’s important to understand that money can only get you so far. What gets people to stay more nowadays is excellent leadership in all aspects. Few people understand this better than Forcepoint CHRO Laurie O’Brien, who found herself the most senior leader in a massive organization during an unprecedented crisis. There was no playbook for Laurie during this pivotal time, and she had to muster all her leadership powers to get the organization through. There is a wealth of leadership lessons to be learned from Laurie’s experience, and we are lucky she shares some of them now with George Randle on the show. Tune in and get some fresh perspectives on how HR leadership has fundamentally changed and what changes it still has to expect moving forward.

Listen to the podcast here:

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Key Time-Stamps:

5:12 – “Getting ahead of COVID”

6:57 – “Getting Global Governance in Place”

8:50 – “Leadership during Turbulence”

10:50 – Having a Communications Toolkit is so Important

15:38 The Great Resignation

28:33 – Compensation Challenges

40:00 – Lessons Learned as CHRO

45:19 Best Advice

Leading In a COVID World: Compensation & Rewards With Laurie O’Brien

We have Ms. Laurie O’Brien, a great leader that I had the privilege to work with who came up through the HR space over 25 years in all kinds of roles, specializing in total rewards compensation, global compensation, and who spent the last three years as the CHRO of an industry-leading human-centric, cybersecurity company. Stand-by as we talk about compensation, Great Resignation, and how you lead and can lead better in the COVID post-pandemic environment.

We are continuing the talk of the Great Resignation. I’ve had the good pleasure that I’m getting on are people that I’ve all had the privilege to work with. She was a peer then she became my boss. As I pushed her and as she leaned that way, she was a real pain in the ass getting her to that point but she was phenomenal in the role. Without further ado, we’re going to talk to the great Laurie O’Brien.

Warriors, welcome back. We have Laurie O’Brien who has taken her brief sabbatical. When I met her, she used to sit in a cube across from me and she’s a little shorter than me. I would see this blonde hair pop up over my cube. When I said something that was made her wonder why I was in the HR space, which was about 2 or 3 times a week but she was our head of total rewards, compensation, and benefits. As we’ve talked about many times when you lose somebody, we lost our CHRO, and most people would turn to the outside. We had the great fortune of having Laurie and somebody that at that point in time, there couldn’t have been a better person to go lead our HR organization with the trust, respect, knowledge, and personality.

For those of you, that know me and you remember Karen Clark, two of the most cynical HR leaders on the planet. This is our polar opposite. Somebody who is optimistic and somebody who has a big heart and lead with the head and the heart, which was great. She has risked it all to come back and talk with me. Laurie, welcome. Tell us about you other than the crazy stuff I told about you.

I’m glad you brought up that visual of the cubicles because one of the fondest memories I had was when we get back into the office. One of my favorite times was being in that interim CHR role but I was in a cubicle. How many CHR roles get to be in a cubicle and sitting amongst their team? It was fun. I enjoyed that. I like being among the people that I was working with day in and day out. It was great. I’ve been in HR for my entire career. When I was in college, I had no clue in the first couple of years what I wanted to do, took an HR course, and then I was hooked and it was all over from there.

I’ve seen a lot and I know you have too in the last 25 plus years. Even after going through Y2K and then the 2008 financial crisis, I don’t know that anything prepared me for the last couple of years. What was unique for me personally was going into a role where I was the most senior people leader in a time where there was no playbook. It was totally unprecedented. It’s stretched me in ways that I could’ve never imagined.

As I reflect on where I am now versus where I was a couple of years ago, going into the pandemic and then where we are now in the Great Resignation, I keep going back to a lot of the things that you’ve talked about, which is there are certain attributes that are so critical. We can’t predict everything that’s going to happen in the future.

We can have all the right skills and we can be technically great but there are certain character level attributes that are so critically important that help us navigate through that difficult time. That was one of the things that helped me get through. It is leaning on some core principles that I lived by and didn’t even necessarily know that I had for the last couple of years.

It was so funny because you and I had lots of healthy discussions. I want to tell the readers this because I thought this was unique and I have to call myself out for being the skeptical one. I was because I’ve been all over the world in the military. I’ve seen disease and all kinds of things. When COVID started kicking up, there was a huge part of me that was like, “Seriously?” I know that social media and the media blows everything up. If you want to be smarter in the world, turn off the news and social media. You’ll get smarter standing still.

This was weird because one of the attributes that we talk about is effective intelligence. To your point, effective intelligence is coming up with a solution where no previous book solution existed. As much as I was skeptical, I finally came around because you got ahead in a way that I haven’t seen any other company get ahead when you started classifying employees before the lockdown. That was seriously genius and you went into it. It didn’t look like genius at the time. It was ruffling feathers.

What I look back on it, I was skeptical and I learned a ton but you were ahead of that. You started classifying your workers. That was one of the things but it came so natural to you. I’m jealous. How did that come about? Is it paying dividends now that it did helped mitigate the turbulence that you went through?

In order to lead effectively throughout the organization, you need to have a structure and a system of leadership that you can leverage through any transformation, change, or turbulence. Click To Tweet

It was helpful interestingly enough. We had started even before the pandemic came together. We had an enterprise preparedness council and we started to try and put together all of these what-if scenarios. We needed it. Like every other company, we had to put a good governance structure around it. I don’t know if it’s fortuitous or if it was luck but when I take the broader view of all things HR, it all starts with what do we do as an organization and what are the roles that we play in the organization. That serves as your foundation.

If you don’t have that then when you try to create organization through chaos, it’s too difficult and turbulent. That classification system was something that I’ve done in previous organizations before even coming to Forcepoint. It served me well because it creates the truth and the foundation beyond which you can build everything else off of.

I remember the conversations we had when you took the interim job. Who could have predicted that you’d be smack dab in the middle of COVID lockdown, vaccinations, not vaccinated, who is and who isn’t and on what should we do? You had a PE firm decide to buy you in the middle of all of that as if the degree of difficulty on this dive was not sufficiently high and then the Great Resignation kicks in.

Perhaps being new in the role was helpful rather than a hindrance because it allowed me to look at things from an open slate perspective and go back to those things that I felt were critically important. It was funny, I was thinking about this that when we first went into lockdown and everybody went remote around the middle of March 2020. I remember having conversations with senior leaders about, “We’ll do this through May or June of 2020.” We weren’t even thinking at that point.

One of the most important things I felt in order to be able to lead effectively throughout the organization was to have a structure and a system of leadership that we could leverage through any transformation, change, turbulence or whatever you want to call it. We set up that global leadership forum and that was about 50 to 60 top leaders. It was intentional in a way to be the conduit for how we were going to establish culture, communicate to the organization and set strategy.

I was so glad that we put that in place a couple of months before the pandemic came into play because we started leveraging that group more. It was so easy to bring 50 or 60 people together on a Zoom call and talk through what’s going on and what do we need to share with people, as opposed to constantly having to get the CEO and a couple of other people up there on a stage every week or every other week. Having that system or that structure in place was critically important. I’ve learned since then that it’s a great structure to have in place on an ongoing basis because it’s an easy way to constantly try and keep connected to the organization beyond your top ten in the C-Suite.

I would imagine it probably made the clarity of communications a whole lot easier. There’s a couple of clients that I’m coaching now that it’s like an edict or a lightning bolt that comes out of the CEO, the visionary, the COO. It hasn’t gone through. Some people call it the filter’s bureaucracy but in times of COVID and rapidly changing scenarios, collaboration on how you communicate keep that cohesive decent culture, that consistent messaging. Did you have to drag people kicking and screaming into communication or were they less skeptical than George and they go, “We’re with you. Let’s get after it?”

As with every leadership group in every company, you have those that are great adopters, great communicators and you have those that rise up through the ranks and maybe communication wasn’t their strong suit and it may never be. It was a little bit of a mix. One of the things that we did was we did this communication survey to test to see how well we were communicating as an organization.

I was able to pinpoint certain leaders who had some challenges. I started digging in with each one of them individually and coaching them on some strategies. We also rolled out and partnered with this external firm to come up with this toolkit around different ways we communicate and how we leverage all these different tools between one-on-one skip levels, town halls and how we had to use all of those things in our portfolio to make sure that we were communicating on an ongoing basis.

We couldn’t communicate enough during that time. I felt very strongly about that in communicating from not just what’s happening but being more personal with people. I remember having a conversation with the CEO at the time where our big overall cybersecurity strategy was we were a human-centric cybersecurity.

I remember having the conversation with him as a pandemic was heating up that we need to take that human-centric strategy and apply that to our people. We’ve got to put the human in how we lead and manage people on a day-to-day basis, especially now. It’s most critically important that they see us not just as leaders but as humans.

You guys did do a phenomenal job which was using the whole toolkit because there’s clearly an over-reliance now with COVID some in the office and some not in the office and that email, “We sent an email.” Everybody understood it and everybody knows what to do. I’ve passed the ball off. It drives me nuts. The Great Resignation came on. Did it catch you by surprise? Did you start seeing early signs of it? You were in a little bit of a pickle. A lot of companies or people that read to are when a private equity firm buys you, there’s always going to be a trimming of the sales.

There’s always going to be a look at the inefficiencies, maybe where we’re over-leveraged in headcount or under leveraged. There are going to be personnel changes. That’s always going to be in the mix but did you see this Great Resignation and people saying, “I’m done with work.” It’s coming in all kinds of forms. Did you start to see it early or was it one of those things that one day you’re looking at it and going, “Houston, we have a problem?”

It’s hard for me to separate what happened to us because the senior leadership team had completely anticipated some level of increased attrition after our acquisition. You’ve got this period of time where new ownerships coming in, there was a massive senior leadership change. There’s a natural change in strategy.

You’re in this cloud of uncertainty for a period of time. That is a recipe for attrition. People don’t know what’s happening. They don’t know if they’re secure. You can communicate all things. We certainly went through a restructuring and that adds to the whole uncertainty of, “Where are we going? Why am I here? Am I going to still be here?” We knew it and interestingly enough, when we finished our first major round of restructuring, that was when the Great Resignation started heating up around the rest of the globe.

What was surprising to me was how it was happening to us but seeing it happening elsewhere. In hindsight, the signs and the signals were all there. We could all say that there was probably a period during 2020 when people were sitting and staying put and not going anywhere because they weren’t sure what was happening. There was probably a little bit of deferred movement where people started catching up to that in early April of 2021 and that continued on through the summer.

The bigger thing that happened not just within Forcepoint but across the board is that this has been a real period of soul searching. Things happen to people. We saw death on a scale that we hadn’t seen before in our lifetime. That changes people. It changes people fundamentally. When I think about the big events like Y2K, dot-com bust and boom and the 2008 financial crisis, we swung back and things went back to normal after that but this feels different. I feel like there’s going to be this fundamental shift and time will tell if that’s truly the case.

The signs and the signals the people had been telling us for a period of time, “We’re going too hard and fast. We need to slow down a little bit because there’s too much of my life that I’m giving up. As I’m now working remotely, the lines are blurred. I don’t know when work ends and when personal life begins and I’m not managing it very well. The choice I have in front of me is I got to leave to get out of this versus staying and seeing where it goes from there.”

I wasn’t going to correct you but I want to get your opinion on something because I’m giving a presentation about 70 people. I did a test drive in this mastermind series. The phrase that I thought I heard you say is that people think we are going to get back to normal. The more I thought about that in my presentation, the more I thought that’s not right. It can’t physically happen because when we move people to remote, they now had to change healthcare, fitness, relationship, grocery shopping and down to the little tiny things.

We now cook at home and binge-watching but then as it started to unwind, what people did is re-craft their whole life to the point of, “Where does work and personal life began?” They’re all blurred. I wanted to ask you if you think that’s true because we’ve been doing that for so long, that’s everybody’s new normal. To say to come back to work is unwinding yet again. We’re not going back to normal. We’re in the new normal.

The new normal is still to be defined a little bit. We went so far to the other extreme from where we were so quickly and we’ve gotten used to that but I do think that there was something that we haven’t acknowledged to the extent that we need to, which is we’re made to be interactive. You and I can sit here and have a conversation on Zoom online but it doesn’t replace being face-to-face. It doesn’t replace me sitting in that cube and you leaning over the cube and us having a conversation. You can’t replace that.

Giving people the choice and allowing them to be maximally flexible will make the biggest difference. Click To Tweet

There’s going to be some element of needing to be with each other. What that means and to what extent we come back in and how often that is, that is the big question. That’s going to certainly vary by industry for sure. You and I know a colleague, Karen Clark, who is one of the greatest HR leaders of all time from my perspective. She made a comment not long ago that I loved and keep stealing, which is we should pivot hard and give people a choice. That’s pretty dramatic.

In industries where you can, you should because that’s what gives you the competitive advantage. Comps going to take you only so far from that perspective but the more we can introduce flexibility and we give people that choice and allow them to be as maximally flexible, that is what will make the biggest difference.

I do want to get to the comp because there’s no better person when I brag about you. I talk about, “We’ve got this project. We’ve got to ask Laurie.” I don’t know if you can do it but to me in my mind, you can. There’s one time when you looked over our queue but it was Friday and we had our own little happy hour there at the cube, which was one of those moments. She did come all the way around and participate. She wanted to say that she leads by example.

One topic that I started to coach people on because they have to be flexible. I have seen the nature of leading remote and now via Zoom and email, if you had cracks or shortcomings in your leaders at every level, those cracks became chasms. I was wondering if you had seen that because it’s one thing to teach leadership and it’s another thing you got to start over communicating but you run into Zoom fatigue. I have seen that more.

One of the things that I’m about to present is part of the Great Resignation is that we’re teaching people how to hire better, hire faster, look at the attributes and quit over rotating on experience. If ever there were a time for you to take a flyer, pivot hard and go on the attributes versus experience, this is the time because the labor market is all a candidates market.

I was sharing with these people that thought, “Go ahead and double down. Push hard on getting better at your talent acquisition piece.” The one thing you can do now is start doubling down and investing in your leaders and making them better leaders because even with the Great Resignation and people re-evaluating their lives, they were also re-evaluating their bosses and how good they were.

I totally agree and it’s funny you bring that up because there is in your book towards the very end, you have this section that it’s called Build a World-class Leadership Foundation. There’s this quote in it that I love, “Talent has a choice where it chooses to work and it won’t put up with bad leadership.” I don’t think we’ve been suffering necessarily from collective bad leadership but you can do a lot better. There’s one word that keeps coming to mind that those who navigated well and who are navigating well now are doing this extraordinarily well.

I have this good friend who started a ministry this 2021. She was telling me that one of the things she does every January is she comes up with a word and that word defines her for the year. She organizes her whole life around that one word. The word that keeps coming to my mind now and into 2022 for leaders is, “Listen.” You can have Zoom calls all day long but what everybody’s going through is so uniquely different. You have to take the time to listen.

There was a strategy that I heard a consultant say which was, “Don’t get on a Zoom call and say, ‘How are you doing?’ The person says, ‘I’m doing okay.’ Lean in, ‘How are you really doing?’” Get specific, draw them out and listen to what they’re telling you because what they need is going to be different. Every single person on your team and the needs that they have are going to be drastically different. One size doesn’t fit all. Compensation is not going to fix all of that. It’s going to take your great listening skills and then doing something about it.

Carly did a great video snippet and the title of it was It’s Time to Lean In. She said that each employee has a different ROI for your organization and a completely different set of needs.

That is the biggest challenge from a compensation perspective. We think about the future and where we’re headed from a compensation perspective. We’re becoming more diverse. You look at what those who are reaching retirement need versus what those who are entering the workforce need. There have been differences there but it’s becoming much more individualistic, which is very difficult to accommodate in three compensation programs.

One of our biggest challenges and one of the things that I’m going to be thinking about in the next 5 to 10 years is how do we set up processes and systems to allow us to be much more individualistic? Maybe we take X percent of the total package and that becomes the core and the foundation but then there is this X percent, maybe 20% to 30%, which becomes much more choice driven. How do we make that happen? How do we deal with all of the constraints like Tax Code, systems and all of those things? That is where we’re headed.

One of the things that I wanted to ask you about is most of the people talking to them, coaching about talent, hiring and planning, how to hire them, how to look for the attributes but there’s always that piece of compensation. One of the challenges is because it’s a candidates market, you’re having to pay a little bit more and sometimes a lot more either to rest people away from where they are or to bring them to your environment, be that remote, flex or in the office. I was talking to somebody and they’re like, “I will pay whatever I need to pay.” I’m like, “Hold on.”

There are two things that stick out in my mind. Number one is going to be salary compression, the people that stick and have stayed with your firm, not being able to move those compensation up by 5%, 6% or 7%. You’re sometimes having 15% to 20% jumps to hire out into the market. Now, we’re accelerating wage compression. My second thought is when we do come back around, the people that are sitting on high comp are now more at risk. We’re creating solutions now that are creating problems in the future. Did you see the people that you wanted to attract a quick rise in wages? How did you tackle it?

It was a little bit of a mix. In the aggregate, we did not have a major compensation challenge on our hands. We had it in pieces and parts. In areas like in our government business where we had these very specialized engineers that had to have certain levels of clearance where they were so high in demand, we saw some crazy stuff out there from a compensation perspective.

In some cases, we had to match and get more aggressive by doing some proactive market adjustments. In parts of the business, we ended up having to make some strategic investments where we weren’t quite there where we needed to be from a market perspective or the market was starting to get way out of hand.

Overall, there are other strategies you can deploy. If someone’s leaving you, you can take a look at how you’re going to backfill that role. If you backfill that role and you’re going to have to upgrade the comp by 20%, do you think differently about the role? Over time, that compensation growth that is across the board is going to be unsustainable.

Being in tech, we were somewhat fortunate because, by and large, we’re in an industry where people are paid fairly well compared to other industries. Think about retail and hospitality where they were faced with having to go from $12 to $15 an hour overnight. That’s a tough thing for an organization to take on immediately. We didn’t have that issue.

Let’s think about compensation differently and how we’re backfilling this role. Let’s also make sure that compensation is not the real root reason why people are leaving. If you’ve got people mass leaving you for 20% increases and it’s across the board, you’ve got a compensation problem. If you’ve got happening here and there, you don’t have a major compensation problem but if you still have high attrition, there’s something else going on. You’ve got to dig in and see maybe compensation is not the real reason they left. Maybe that’s the icing on the cake as they left.

You got to have leaders in quite a panic that are wanting to throw money at people, counteroffers, and otherwise. You’ve heard me argue this when we work together, not with you but with business leaders. This is why HR has to be strategic because you’re going to get those managers that are losing people or want this shiny object that’s out there. The first thing they do is money to pull somebody in. The first thing when somebody is leaving, they want to throw money at them. It’s like the only arrow in their quiver.

It’s the easiest lever you can pull. It doesn’t require much leadership effort from you. As long as you’ve got the budget, you can make room in the budget or you can make some appropriate trade-offs, it’s an easy thing to do but it’s short-term. If you don’t address the root cause truly why that person’s leaving and understand the real reasons that made them want to look in the first place then you’re going to be back in that same boat six months, a year down the road.

Money is the easiest lever you can pull. It doesn't require much leadership effort from you. But it's short-term. If you don't address the root cause of why your people are leaving, then you're going to be back in that same boat six… Click To Tweet

One of the things that we tried to help leaders understand, we had in our HR organization where two people on the same team resigned. They were part of that Great Resignation. We could have thrown money at them, given them better titles, or glossed it up but we took the time to understand what was driving them to leave. Neither one of them had a job they were going to so that was interesting. We leaned in with them and understood they were burned out and fatigued. They had been part of the HR organization that had been caring for the rest of the organization. They were tired and they couldn’t see any relief down the road.

We took a step back and we said, “What if a couple of months off, what if you had time to recharge, relax and then come back? With all of the things that you like about working here, the developmental opportunities, and the great team you work with, those would still be in place when you get back. If you got the rest that you needed, would this still be the place that you’d want to be?”

We agreed to give them that time off. We agreed as leaders that we were going to have to step up and do some of the work while they were out but they came back. Not only were they more engaged when they came back but the people around them started seeing, “This is an organization that’s going to listen to me and take care of my needs. It’s worth being here. Somebody might offer me an extra 10% or 20% but this and the way my leadership treats me is worth more than that.”

For those people reading, there’s got to be such a small percentage of people who have thought that way or even considered giving people a break to suck up their work. That requires everybody else to be a little bit more overloaded. I know the circumstances there when you have the private equity and they’re leaning HR out, COVID, the Great Resignation and the cuts, my feeling on that I thought that they were brained out all of the people that needed to be invested in. It was because it was people that’s going to carry it through but I’ve argued that until I was blue in the face. It was great that you were able to do that. That’s such a wonderful example.

I hope the people reading will take that to heart. Maybe somebody doesn’t need a break. Money is the easy answer but it isn’t the answer. Mike and I, when we give speeches, there’s this Project Oxygen, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it. It went 8 to 10 years. They said to 20,000 to 30,000 people to rank the things that were most important in leaders and the technical skills came in eighth.

Listening skills were up near the top, a good boss with leadership that listened, communicated, and created a great culture and culture is behaviors. Money wasn’t in the top ten that my boss gives me money. It reaffirms. What’s interesting is I hadn’t heard anybody say that. It’s such a great example to give those people time.

We are in for a little bit of a challenge that we haven’t had to experience, at least since I’ve been working. That’s here in the US the inflation that we’re starting to see. That’s going to put pressure on compensation in ways that we haven’t had to address in a very long time.

One thing that we don’t get into or the politics because then all of my shows would be about seven hours long.

It’s a real thing we’re going to have to face. It will put pressure on us. I also think that it’s going to make all of those other things that we bring to the table from an engagement and employment perspective even more important because we’re not going to be able to very quickly raise everybody’s salaries 5%, 10% or 15% in two years. All of those other things are going to become increasingly more important.

I keep telling people that the most important thing you can do is bring good leadership to the table. That is the biggest safety net that you can have. If somebody leaves for more money and you’re providing great leadership, you can always move the money if you need to. You’ve taken your rest break. How many years in the seat are you?

Under three.

When you look back, if you had to pick 2 or 3 things that you would pass on because one of the things that I appreciated and I am extremely biased because the people that were on my team and talent acquisition, the people that were on your team that were in ops or HRBP. You and I have always agreed in my evil twin, Karen and then Emily McLachlan. We had assembled one of the finest teams on so many different levels. We had our wars and our problems but an unbelievable team.

When you look back over your three years, if you were to say three things that you got right or that you wish you had done differently, that you were going to coach somebody to be a more, not a better CHRO but a strategic human capital leader to keep in mind to better take care of people and companies. You can go anywhere you want. You’ve had time to think. What stands out to you? What would you pass on to people?

There are two things that I’ve found that are important from a consistency perspective. This is something that I felt very strongly about if I focus on these two things and all of the things that feed into them that we can navigate through this and create a great culture as well. One is to be purposeful and the second is to be personal.

Purposeful especially as you look at some of the younger generations, they’re increasing, as they assess where they want to work, working for an organization that has a purpose. They know where they fit and how they’re contributing. It has become an increasingly important part of what defines them in their working lives. I could say that for every generation.

As a leader, what I have tried to do for the last couple of years specifically is keep front and center. We have to know what it is we’re about as an organization. We can’t slap a vision and a mission statement up there and let it go. We have to keep it front and center. We have to have very specific objectives and strategic imperatives that tie to that, that as leaders we have to understand intimately.

We have to connect the dots every single day. It’s not about, “Let’s talk about it, bring it up,” every quarter or once a year and say, “Here’s what we did.” In conversations and meetings that you’re having as you’re talking about the deliverables, always be connecting those dots, make people understand and keep that front and center of, “This is why I’m here,” because we all get to that point in time in our day, week, month or whatever timeframe when we are sitting there going, “Why am I here? Why am I doing this?”

It’s important that we’re always keeping that front and center in people’s minds so connecting those dots every single day. The second part of that is being personal. It is understanding who the people are that are around us, that work for us and that we work for, especially for those people that we lead. Understand what’s going on. You don’t have to be their best friend but understanding what’s happening in their personal lives, letting them talk about what’s happening.

Listen to the times where you might have to lean in a little bit and take something off their plate or you might have to lean in a little bit and then help coach them along but understand them on a more personal level and not just look at them as the person who is producing some work product or a deliverable for you. They’re a whole person and they have a whole life outside of their interaction with you. Allow them to bring who they are to work every single day. That means getting much more personal than we ever have been in the work environment. Purposeful, personal and be present.

I’ll ask the final question. For our readers, I give these in advance. If you had to go back and tell 22-year-old Laurie O’Brien the things that would make your career, performance and overall life better, what is your wisdom to pass on to leaders at every level about having a great career? You are one of the people both personally and professionally that it was a gift for me to work with you.

When I first looked across the cube and saw you over there, I’m like, “She’s a little stiff. She’s in total rewards, comp and benefits. She is totally not going to get my sense of humor.” Which was true because the first few weeks you’re like, “Who is this guy on the other side of the cube? Did anybody vet him before he came in?” I get that and it took a while. On my end after getting to work with you, I’m immensely better of having the great privilege to work with you and come to know you personally. From a leader that I admire and respect, I’m anxious to hear what you’re going to pass on to those people who want to be the next Laurie O’Brien?

When it's something important, keep speaking your mind and don’t give up. Click To Tweet

Before I answer the question, the last few years have been such a blessing for me. You indicated the team that we had, which was unprecedented for me. I learned so much from each and every one of you. I love the fact that sitting in 25 years into a career that I’m still learning something, and I can still learn from the people that report to me and my peers as well. If I could go back to my younger self, they’re two very different things. One is to say thank you more often, be much more intentional and liberal with acknowledging, encouraging and praising others.

Early on through, especially the first few years I was managing people, I didn’t do that enough but you see what that does to people and how that brings out discretionary effort in people hearing thank you, hearing those words of appreciation and doing that more often. Not being disingenuous with it but I was probably a little too stingy in my early days. The second piece is speak up often and don’t give up. Sometimes when we’re early in our careers, we may not feel the confidence of speaking our minds.

Maybe we feel like we don’t have the experience and those that are surrounding us who may be 10, 20 or 30 years into their careers, we feel like they might know a little bit more than we do. There is something so wonderful about a fresh perspective that those of us who have been working for a long time need to hear. Even if you feel like you’re getting shut down and people are saying, “We tried that. We can’t do that.” Don’t give up. Be persistent. When it’s something important, keep speaking your mind and keep speaking up.

I’m going to give you a twist at the end. What would you ask me now that I’m not working there?

If you were to go back to work for a company again then you work in your own company, how would you describe the next person you would work for?

There are so many things. The first thing that I would try to do is make a composite of all of the great people, including you, that I’ve worked with. I would want them to have your heart and your sense of optimism. Alternatively, I’d want them to have Karen’s cynicism and dry wit. I would want them to have Emily’s posture and professionalism.

What I would want is what you said in the purposeful and personal is somebody, number one, that was always articulating to the company, the why we do things and the criticality of my role in the ecosystem. I don’t need to be the best in the organization. I’m not the one developing the product. I’m not doing those things but whatever it is the company that my team or me personally, I’m recognized for my value, my insight and my experience. You’ll notice what I left out was I don’t need them to do always because there are times I’ve been known to be a little bit further out there than most people are willing to risk but that was one of the great things with you.

Matt, our old CEO, at least he listened. That’s a sign of value and trust and somebody that would invest in me. To your point, it’s amazing how much we were learning from one another. I want somebody to see the potential in me and say, “George, here’s where you can take your game to the next level.” I don’t like being second best or falling short. My insecurities want me to nail it every time. That’s a good thing that the right leader could tap into and say, “George, I liked that presentation. I give it a B-plus, A-minus.” This is what an A-plus looks like to me. Here’s what I think you could do to put a sharper edge.

Somebody that listened had your heart or had cynicism. This one’s been hard for the leaders that I’ve worked with. Our team was very good but we admittedly with lucid from time to time, which is perspective. In talent acquisition, “I got to have that person now. I got to fill that role. The sky is falling.” I’m like, “Okay.” This is not climate change whether you agree or don’t agree in this political statement. It’s not world hunger. It’s not the nuclear arms race. It’s recruiting. It will be there on Monday when we come back.

I appreciate that COVID has accelerated the pressures on executives and leaders to deliver revenue and stuff. I get that but the best leaders that I’ve ever seen are the ones who had a great perspective because it allowed them to go do that detach and have the appropriate forward direction or course correction and it wasn’t, “I needed this yesterday.” You get less emotion.

I don’t know that I would ever find all those things that I wanted. Working with you and with some of the people over my career, I’m the beneficiary of two things. One, people far smarter and better leaders than me that took the time to invest in me. I’m the beneficiary of their unending patience with somebody like me. There are people in me that could have said, “That guy’s got a lot of potential but he’s a pain in the ass.” I’m sure all of them did.

All the leaders that I thought were great that I’ve worked with, including you, Karen and many of the people we’ve had and spoken with, they’ve all invested not just in me but everybody around them. Leaders that invest, listen, have a big heart and cynicism perspective. Those are the people I love and. Who knows what the future holds? When you and I got together, who the hell knew that I’d be saving Matt from himself from time to time or that you would be CHRO?

We walked into our jobs working for a person who was not nice. We thought we were doomed to embrace the suck together. Our resiliency and all of that, I don’t know what’s next. Another leader that I would work for would have to have all those things. I’m pickier than I’ve ever been on leadership because of the great people that I’ve worked with.

On the next one, we’re going to ask you what’s next for you. I’m going to give you the last word then sign us off. As always, your insights are brilliant that you lead and what you did for the people, me, my team and for others is gratitude that we could never pay back. You get the final word to those people who want to be better leaders and talent warriors. I’ll give you the last word and we’ll say good night.

This is appropriate in the age of the Great Resignation where we’re having to say goodbye to people. I remember when I stepped into the CHRO role, not long after I stepped into it, we had to go through a restructuring. It was important to me that we do it with great care and dignity. As people are walking out the door, don’t treat them as if they broke up with you.

Treat them the same way that you did when they walked in the door. Treat them as that whole person because you never know. They may be leaving you because you don’t have an opportunity for them now but they could come back in a few years, having gained this amazing experience and bring that much more to the organization. Be as careful and intentional around how you treat people and keeping those relationships alive when they leave as when they come through the door.

It is the one thing that matters more than anything else. It’s not your product, service or sales. It’s none of that. It is always your people. Great advice. Laurie, thank you very much. I look forward to talking again.

Thanks, George. Bye.

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About Laurie O’Brien

Global CHRO and Leader who partners with business leaders to deliver people strategies that build business value. Builds and leads engaged, high-performing teams to implement innovative solutions, support growth and deploy scalable processes to achieve optimal operational efficiency. Highly effective relationship builder and key influencer with all stakeholders. Trusted advisor and coach to CEO and executive management team, providing organizational design strategies that optimize talent and drive successful execution. Leads with inclusion. LOVES pioneering new things! Extensive history of leveraging expert analysis skills to assess and initiate short- and long-term strategies, enhance alignment, reduce expenditures, and drive profitability. Hands-on leader who enjoys doing as well as leading, comfortable transitioning from presenting to thousands of employees to Excel analysis. Intensely committed to the principle that people drive business success and they are the single greatest asset in every company.

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