Faces of HR

How to Convince Your Leadership that the Culture Needs Improving

How do you convince leaders that a long-term plan, like implementing an organizational culture strategy, is worth the short-term investment? How do you find the bravery to deliver the bad news of layoffs and conduct challenging workplace investigations? Today’s face of HR gives us her approach to these challenges.

Kelli Spence, VP of People & Culture, GameWorks, Inc.

Meet Kelli Spence, VP of People and Culture at GameWorks, Inc., an entertainment organization that caters to gamers. At GameWorks, Spence and her one HR direct report handle the HR duties for all 480 employees across 7 locations.

How have you evolved over your 20 years of HR experience?

“That’s a good question because HR alone has evolved from being more of the paper pushers to the more strategic role of getting involved with the business and actually being part of the P&L review, understanding financials. I’ve been fortunate to be able to see it change and be part of those changes. I’ve gone from more of the administrative-focused novice to someone who can actually see the impact on the individual business and the overall business and the impact on our employees and then our brands, the various companies that I’ve worked with.

“I’ve also learned that creating and nurturing good working relationships with all employees is the key to my success, as well as the key to their success and the key to the success of the company. It’s been really amazing to see that evolution happen right in front of my eyes and be able to experience it.

“Also, I’ve watched HR move away from the role of the police or principal of the organization. I’m not looking to do that—catch employees doing something wrong or breaking policy. My goal is to get to know them as people. I think that’s been fun to see that we’re stepping out of that box, so to speak, to really be able to engage with people and let them know that hey, I’m a person, too, just like you. I want to get to know you. I happen to be in a different department than you; there is nothing else different there.”

The evolution of HR is something that is very interesting to me. I think it’s been great for organizations, but I sometimes wonder how good it has been for HR workers.

“Everybody has challenges with leadership. We’ve got four generations working in the work world right now, so we’ve all grown up with our various mind-sets and personality traits; we are a product of our own environment. That factors into how we manage and how we lead. And there are definitely still companies out there with leaders who are not open to how HR has evolved or how growing your culture and making sure your culture is at the top take priority versus profit. Profits come with culture. And as long as it’s a good one, you are going to see that effect, as well.

“Without a good culture, you are going to have a hard time making money and retaining profits. There are definite challenges with a leader who doesn’t want to listen to you when you say, ‘Hey, really, this is the way to go.’ It puts a little more on HR to be that influence to the leaders, and that’s also part of just building relationships, so it’s an interesting dichotomy. There are those challenges where you just have to keep pushing. You know what you are doing is right; you are not doing anything that is wrong. You just have to hope that those leaders who are a little more set in their ways will come to their senses and they’ll see what you are saying is actually the right way to go and engage you a little bit more on that and start to engage their culture, too.”

How do you approach informing leaders of things that might seem invisible, such as a poor company culture?

“They don’t necessarily see it. They just wonder: What are we doing? Let’s take sales in a retail market, for example. They might start saying, ‘OK, we need better offerings; do we have the right offerings? Do we have the right price point? Do we have the right demographics? Is it age-related? Is it geographically related? Are we selling to the right people?’ We look at all of those things because those are a lot easier and quicker to tackle and get an ROI on faster than culture because with culture, you are dealing with people, and people have emotions and feelings. And, there is also this thing called ‘trust.’ If your employees have had bad experiences or their trust has been tested, it’s going to take a little bit longer to chip away and get them to really start to trust what the management or the company is wanting to do in terms of building that culture or believing in them.

It is really difficult, and I can’t say that I’ve had a perfectly successful time with convincing leaders that we need to focus on their culture. Sometimes, they buy into it for a little while. But, they have to report this to the board or stockholder or whoever. To them, things need to have a quick turnaround, and realistically, that’s just now how it’s going to happen. It’s a huge undertaking for HR professionals these days and a big challenge. You just have to tow the line, and you have to be persistent. Sometimes, you have to show leaders the studies and the research surrounding culture and constantly bombard them with that until they see it.

Many CEOs or the people in those roles have other relationships with people in similar roles, so you can try to compare with someone they’re familiar with. Oh, hey, look at how that company did that with its culture; look at its impact. Sometimes, you can remind them and say, ‘I really respect that person or company, so maybe we should try, too.’ Sometimes, that’s good. It’s really interesting. It’s kind of a fun time. It’s got its challenges for sure, but I think the sky is the limit now that HR is outside of its box.”

What is something that HR really needs to get better at?

“Moving away from being the police agency. And thinking back on some past experiences, I think that’s something that we need to consciously move away from. I’ve worked in some other organizations where it’s one of the HR personnel’s jobs to track when people were late and write them up. I said, ‘I get it; there are rules for attendance. But let’s kind of figure out why this is happening and if this is really the best use of our time.’ You go through a whole checklist: Is their position dependent on them being on time? And in certain roles and positions, it is. So yes, that needs to be addressed.

“But for others, you know, we need to look at the fact that life is so incredibly busy these days, and people have lives outside of work. If we push back on the idea of HR being the police and find a new approach, it can be very valuable. We can ask, ‘Do we trust these people? Do they enjoy what they are doing? Can we rely on them to be fantastic employees?’ and go down that line. Then, when someone is 5 minutes late because of traffic, I’m inclined to let that slide. I think being a little more compassionate in the day-to-day and moving back from the principal of policing is something we could improve upon.”

Part of being in HR is being brave. You have to deal with how employees are going to view you and bringing unpopular things to leaders. Can you talk about that?

“I’ve had many occasions when I’ve had to summon courage to deliver bad news, and I would say the biggest fear is always delivering that news. You don’t know how that’s going to impact people. I’ve had to deliver—more than I care to remember—bad news about employees being impacted by layoffs. That is the most disliked part of my job is doing that. You are fearful for how it’s going to impact the employee. You just have to put on a brave face and do it with compassion.

“Another area where you have to be brave and is quite a challenge is doing investigations. I’ve had situations when I’ve had to ask the most challenging questions that are not normally what you would talk about. If I would talk about them normally, I’d probably get in trouble for sexual harassment. These are deep-down, dirty questions I’ve had to ask. And I’ve even had employees say, ‘Wow, I would not want your job.’ But you need to get to the bottom of it and figure out where this investigation needs to go and what action needs to be taken. So you have to stuff that fear down inside, take a deep breath, and proceed with your plan until you can get it resolved.”

Would you like to be profiled in a future Faces of HR and share your experiences, challenges, etc.? Or, do you know anyone else in HR you think has an interesting story to tell? Write us at HRDAeditors@blr.com, and include your name and contact information; be sure to put “Faces of HR” in the subject line.

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