China Gorman, an advisor, speaker and board member of HRCI and Workforce Institute at UKG chats with host John Hollon about how workplace culture has fared in the wake of the pandemic. It’s been hard times and a lot of the responsibility lies with leaders, China shares her best rule of thumb for leaders as we continue through and advice to get the organization out the other side stronger.
In this episode they also delve into building a strong workplace culture with a remote workforce through her personal leadership experiences of what techniques have been successful in the past.
Here’s how the conversation went… This interview has been edited and condensed.
John Hollon: How has workplace culture fared in the wake of the pandemic and global lockdown? I’ve always thought of culture as the real secret sauce of great organizations and that employee engagement flows from that. That being said, what is the state of workforce culture when so many organizations are struggling with just doing what they can do to survive?
China Gorman: There are some standouts who are doing it right and there are some standouts who aren’t. As with most things, there is a great big middle of folks who are just kind of trying their best. When it comes to culture, it’s all about leadership. If your leaders are trustworthy and open communicators, there’s almost no wrong step you can make. Employees know if their leaders are trustworthy. Employees know if they can believe the words coming out of the mouths of their leaders and if they feel like they have a relationship with those leaders, they are able to be forgiving if they misspeak.
US companies got hit with a double whammy with the pandemic and the social justice issues and so very senior leaders were struggling, are still struggling. How do you handle political speech in your organization? At the same time you’re dealing with the very real threat of whether the business can sustain itself during these pandemic times and government regulations that in many cases are putting small and medium sized businesses out of business.
It all really comes down to leadership, the kind of relationship you have with your employees, whether you tell the truth or not and whether you have a personal relationship. The best rule of thumb I have for leaders is be honest, be real, be human. Be human more than anything else. Always tell the truth, whether it’s good news or bad news, but never ever prevaricate. Never, ever leave breadcrumbs that go in the wrong direction, never ever make promises that you know, you cannot keep. That’s the path towards engagement going away, right alongside your employees going away.
John Hollon: Is technology any help in all of this? The debate over building culture and trying to better engage workers has gone on for a number of years. I know I’ve written about it a lot and it’s been a struggle. But now the growth of AI and data driven solutions seems to offer some hope. What’s your take on this? Do you think that technology can help?
China Gorman: I absolutely do but if your leaders are not trustworthy, if they cannot be believed, no amount of technology is going to make that better. If we’re starting at a point of your leaders tell the truth then technology can be a big help. Whether it’s communications, giving props and thank you’s to employees, timecard management or payroll, technology systems that help employers and employees be together on the same page will always help. They’ll help with engagement as long as your leaders are trustworthy, honest, and believable.
John Hollon: What’s the responsibility of our top leaders in all of this? Do you think that CEOs and other senior leaders are doing what needs to be done to help their people, and ultimately, their organizations get through this difficult period?
China Gorman: I think many are. I think many leaders are really turning inward to really strengthen the relationship of their employees to the culture. I look at three things and this comes out of the work when I was the CEO of the Great Place to Work Institute. I know their models have changed somewhat over the last five years but what really resonated with me was that I really think for a leader to be seen as human, as somebody that you want to have a relationship with there are three characteristics.
- You have to be trustworthy and fair, without fail. If you stumble, you have to own it instantly. You can’t hide it, you can’t try to talk it away. You have to be trustworthy and fair in all your decisions. You can’t have favorites, if the rules are the rules, and somebody you really like breaks them there have to be consequences and everybody has to know.
- Leaders now more than ever have to be personal, accessible, approachable, you have to be human. You can’t be one of the leaders who gets on an elevator full of employees, turns their back to the employees doesn’t say a word and gets off as fast as they can. You need to be that leader who gets on the crowded elevator full of your employees, turns around and starts engaging the employees.
- Provide and acknowledge meaning in the workplace. For every employee there’s got to be a hard line to the culture, a hard line to the mission and a hard line to the work that we’re doing for our customers, whoever they are. Great leaders make sure that every employee knows what those hard lines are and creates opportunities for every employee to see exactly why what they’re doing moves the mission of the organization forward. Whether it’s a service organization, a manufacturing organization, whatever it is, every employee’s leaders should spend time with them so that they really understand what their piece of it is, even if it’s really small, even if it’s really huge but they understand exactly how they fit in to the mission and to the work at hand.
Those are the three things about being a human and very successful leader. Be trustworthy and fair, always, no exceptions. Be personal, accessible, and approachable, be a person. Be a human being with other human beings and then provide and acknowledge the meaning of the work of every employee.
John Hollon: How do you do all that with the new wrinkle that so many companies are dealing with, and that is, so many of their people are working remotely? Before the pandemic, I think there was some sense of maybe 10% of workers in the United States were working from home and now that figure depending who you hear it from runs between 40 and 50%. A large number of our workers aren’t around and one of the things I used to do as a manager was try to walk around a lot and be visible. I always found people told me things when I was just stopping by to say hi that you never would imagine getting and they were really important. How do you get that now though with so many people working from home, how does remote work factor into trying to build a strong workplace culture?
China Gorman: I’ll share a quick story when I became the CEO of a large global organization. It was an organization in transition and so we needed to get a lot done in a short period of time. I really believe having personal relationships with the employees is really critical and because it was a global organization meaning I spent the first six months on airplanes, traveling from country to country to country to meet with employees so on Fridays I would send out an email to all employees. It would say I know you haven’t seen me except for the people in these countries, here’s what I’ve been doing, here’s what I hear about what you’re doing (and it’s fabulous) and thank you! I started this on my first week and I thought I was going to just do this for a month, six weeks, two months tops.
So every week for the first couple of months, I sent an email, three/four paragraphs, mostly about I know you can’t see me, but here’s what I’m doing and here’s what I hear you’re doing and it’s fabulous. That really was the message week over week over week. After the third month I’d been in a lot of places and I wasn’t going to be traveling quite so much when I talked to a couple of my direct reports and said that I thought I’m just going to do one of these once a month now and they said, no, it’s the best thing ever, you can’t stop! So for as long as I was the CEO in that organization every single Friday, I sent out an email. Connections were made this way, I often got emails back so when I went to a new city and was meeting with people, I sort of already had a relationship with them. It was an email relationship, but already a relationship so we could start moving forward really quickly. It was maybe an accidental genius move on my part because it tied us all super closely together.
Because now we have the connectivity of a Zoom call, we have email and all kinds of ways to communicate, in some ways communicating and creating those kinds of relationships now isn’t as hard as it could have been. We have lots and lots of ways to connect with our employees to be that trustworthy, fair, personal and accessible leader who’s providing contexts of meaning for everybody. I think in some organizations where technology isn’t pervasive, it might be a little harder. But in many organizations, and maybe even most organizations, technology is so pervasive that the ability to connect via technology is there and so there’s really no excuse for not having really strong outreach and really strong connectivity with your employees.
John Hollon: I have found that it’s really hard to over communicate, the more you communicate with people the more they want. Alongside that what advice would you give to a fellow leader who sought out your opinion on what they should be doing to get their organization through these times? My guess would be you tell them, communicate more. Communicate, communicate, communicate?
China Gorman: Yeah, and be super grateful. Every opportunity that you have be super grateful. Our employees, wherever they are in the world, whether they’re working from home, or they’re trembling into an office, no matter how and where they’re working this is a hard time. This is a super hard time and those employees who are sticking with us in our organizations, who are innovative, who are solving problems for our customers, problems they’ve never seen before, they deserve our gratitude and our thanks more than ever. Not only can you not communicate enough, you cannot say thank you enough.
John Hollon: One more question which we always ask. On the TalentX Podcast, we wholeheartedly believe everyone should have a job that they love, that they’re passionate about. China, what do you love about what you do?
China Gorman: I was a CEO and Chief Operating Officer for a long time which is really in the guts of the business, the operations, and I loved it so much. Now though I mostly serve on boards of directors, which is not so involved with the operations but being really more engaged in strategy, more engaged in future planning and future proofing the organization. I’m loving this, this is really intellectually engaging and satisfying in a way that’s so different than leading operations and fixing operational problems and measuring yourself against all the data points and all the goals. Being really future oriented is really fun. It’s really fun.
We hope you enjoy listening to this episode of the TalentX Podcast with China Gorman! Look forward to sharing more learning with you.