In a recent exaqueo blog post, we shared why “business as usual” is gone. These current times call for open communication with candidates and employees. In fact, they require more than updates and responses. Leading an organization during a pandemic requires honest and timely communications that speak and relate to the audience as real people facing uncertainty.
In the coming weeks, we’ll be putting organizations and leaders in the spotlight who are going above and beyond with their candidates and employees during these challenging times. First up is Lacey Stenson, Partner and Chief People Officer, at NorthRock Partners. NorthRock took an immediate and unique approach with their candidates—sharing a vulnerable, transparent, and authentic response with job seekers.
Here, she opens up about why she is passionate about cultivating a culture rooted in human connection and authenticity, and shares excerpts from those communications.
exaqueo (EX): Tell me a little bit about your journey at NorthRock.
Lacey Stenson (LS): When I started two and a half years ago, NorthRock was only about 20 or so employees and our corporate culture was, in large part, a reflection of the individual personalities that made up our organization at the time and the best attributes of our CEO. As owners of small businesses know, when you’re that small, you don’t really do culture intentionally—it organically comes together, starting with leadership and growing thereafter with each new hire. As we grew over time, it was an incredible journey transitioning from an unintentional roadmap to a very intentional experience that I had the unique privilege to design.
EX: How did COVID-19 change that experience?
LS: We’re in the business of humans. I’m watching the impact of an unpredictable and volatile market affect our clients and loved ones and I’m expressing the exact same, serious tone when talking with candidates. The great thing about our business, we’re now 84 people, is that when unexpected things happen, I get to activate my department to think about the employee experience as fast as my CEO activates the firm to think about the client experience. We’re able to quickly discuss parallel approaches with the same thoughtful intentionality. As a people team of two, my colleague Sara Schlipp-Riedel, and I can balance action and experience to help our employees during this time.
EX: You’ve taken a very honest and empathetic approach to candidate communications. Tell me about your thought process.
LS: Exploring and choosing a new career is almost as intimate as any conversation you could have. You’re dealing with real human lives—they call up their parents or spouses after every interview to talk about how it went. We approached every candidate communication piece like we did our client communications—being responsible and mindful about what we were experiencing and what we wanted to say, with an emphasis on service and support. Our goal was to be thoughtful and transparent. We didn’t want to shut down hope for those in our pipeline, and yet we wanted to also give people closure for positions we weren’t moving forward with.
EX: What has been the response from candidates?
LS: So many people have expressed how thankful they are to know that they’re still top-of-mind even in this climate and they’ve let us know that their families are safe and that they are on our timeline. For us, that solidified our value system in a way that is true—creating more interest and more engagement from remarkable candidates. It also gives us the grace and freedom to figure it out during this time of uncertainty.
EX: In your opinion, would this approach to candidate communications work in a bigger company?
LS: That’s incredibly hard to say. While I lack direct experience within a large company, there’s a need in every organization to balance the legal and the human side of communications. You don’t often see a lot of culture and voice come through HR or people-department communication pieces. They tend to lean more legal than humanistic. We’re incredibly lucky that our firm promotes the freedom to leaders, like myself, to write very authentic messages. In my case, I’m allowed to be very transparent and authentic with candidates. In the end, it’s one of the leading ways our firm can offer insight into the true culture of our firm; and not hide behind the promise of company values written on a website. Company values should be felt at every interaction by a candidate during the interview process—not promised on the other side of an executed offer letter.
EX: Your external communications have been so engaging, what are you doing internally for your employees?
LS: In this instance, the timing of something so unexpected worked to our advantage. Over the past year, we added three additional offices across the country. Because of that, we were focused on redesigning multi-office communication strategies. For instance, we had already flipped our all-team meetings to live virtual webinars and implemented weekly people analytics through the mobile feedback app 15Five, to engage with employees regularly across every office location. These changes have proven successful so, when everything went remote, we dialed up our virtual initiatives and adjusted only leadership expectations and team member flexibility. Recognizing that it was important for people to focus on things they can control—like personal fitness and mental health, we started virtual micro-workouts led by various team members. We hosted relevant community break out sessions, with recognizable industry professionals, geared towards the employee parent population and broke down advice into age-specific topics like how to deal with the grief of seeing your child’s graduation canceled. We also took some time to create the space and permission to have fun, remotely. Like many others, we started virtual happy hours to close out the week, assigned themes and gave away gift cards to contest winners for best dressed and best virtual background, etc. It’s hard to balance being silly during this time when things are very real and very serious for our community, our clients, and our team member household, but we hope every employee feels supported in a way that resonates with our company values and can participate in some way that’s meaningful to them.
EX: What has been the response from employees?
LS: The mood amongst employees is ever changing, it starts with, “I’m fine,” and evolves into “This is hard and I don’t think this is going away.” For the first couple of days we were working long hours to talk with every client and remind them of the plan in place. Now we’re getting back to the day-to-day responsibilities associated with a national rising firm. We’re still very much growing and planning for opportunity in this season, and we want our employees to celebrate that. Some days are definitely easier than others, and virtual displays of what we used to pride ourselves in as “experience competency,” like staying on mute if there’s background noise or being mindful of background imagery, have been completely thrown out the window (anyone hosting a virtual meeting with a child sitting on their lap?). And our team is learning to trust that it’s OK in this season, and that missing important meetings to facilitate e-learning with your son or daughter is most important. I’ve been humbled by our employees. Everyone is posting to our private Instagram account real stories of what life looks like. It’s amazing to see everyone’s different lifestyles come into focus and how everyone is coping right now with being OK with not being OK. Seeing our community active and thriving while mindfully staying away from one another has become my favorite part of the day.
EX: Are these activities challenging to support during this time financially or otherwise?
LS: Every company will be impacted, financially. Especially small businesses. I think some companies, like ours, have an opportunity to rethink the business model, rethink the culture, rethink the need for office space, and rethink the future in a way that we all come out stronger in the end. Our firm is no different. This season is no different. For us, when difficult decisions need to be made, we always prioritize the same three things (i) preserving our culture, (ii) protecting our people, and (iii) upholding our promise of exceptional service to our clients. The current climate requires the same formula. It’s the expectation that every department manager is firm first, and department second. We make it a regular practice to align our department budgets against the firms’ priorities and the greatest advancement of the firm. Like every firm, we’re evaluating every line item, every week. Sometimes I get the green light to recruit for a new impactful position because a colleague of mine postponed a piece of new technology or other department resource. When traveling and in-person events stopped being feasible and we had to cancel upcoming seminars and conferences, there was an immediate mutual response to give that line item back to the firm or to another department. While we’re grieving that those events aren’t happening because we believe so strongly in continued employee development, we’re committed and appreciative to have every job in the company intact and would gladly trade employee workshops and events to make that a reality for every employee household.
Honest communications and authentic engagement have never been more important than they are today. During these uncertain times, our connections have become our most important asset. How we take care of ourselves, our families, our colleagues, and our candidates will be how we are remembered in the future, when all of this is behind us.