Faces of HR

The Pandemic Has Made Compassionate Leadership Almost Mandatory

Over the past 6 months, employee needs have become more front and center for business leaders than ever before. With so many employees worOver the last half of the year, business leaders have found the needs of their employees to be more front and center than ever before. With so many working from home, leaders and managers have to bring their attention to the employee, and that has led to some very positive results. In this issue of “Faces of HR,” I discuss this and related issues with an HR veteran.

Meet Jill Katz, the CEO of Assemble HR Consulting.

How did you get into HR?

Over the past 3 to 5 years, HR has become a more well-known field. It’s gaining more popularity right now, and we’re seeing more and more people move into the field and transfer into the practice out of other roles.

I’m meeting more and more people who spent a period of time in another operating area but realized the piece of their work that was most meaningful or important to them was the part that impacted the people.

So they’re now entering a second part of their career, and they’re moving into a people or talent role. I’ve spent most of my career in HR, and I am both proud and embarrassed to say that when I went into HR, it was not even a field. It was still called personnel. That’s how old I am, so let’s just start off with that!

I started my very first job out of college in an account executive job—so a sales training role—and I did that job for about 2 years. At that job, I got involved with their annual “Headquarters Week,” a time when they would bring prospective college recruits to woo into the company’s training program.

I worked alongside the personnel department that year, and I ended up recruiting more new incoming sales team members than the entire HR team themselves.

So awkward for them.

It was super awkward, and I thought, “Wait a second. This is interesting. What do you guys do over here in this department? I really liked this.” So I set up a meeting with the VP of HR, and I’ll never forget this meeting.

I said, “I think I would like to do what you do. I’m interested in people’s careers, their growth, and their trajectory.” And at that time, at 22 years old, I thought recruiting sounded like a lot of fun. The VP of HR responded firmly: “No, no, no. We need you to stay in the business. We need you to stay in sales.”

And that’s all I needed to hear as an ambitious young woman living in New York City. So I quit that job, like any 22-year-old would do, and I took my very first Human Resources job as the assistant to the global CHRO at Merrill Lynch. I mean, I basically stepped into an unbelievable opportunity without even knowing it because that person was leading a 1,000-person Human Resources department in the 90s.

Not too many of those out there even today.

Not too many. I got to be right next to the head person in a 200,000-person organization and learn everything from her. And she saw that I was determined and smart and young. And since that role, I have never left the field.

Well, it’s interesting that you started when things were called personnel, and now we’re seeing another change away from “Human Resources” toward “people.” I think people thought “human capital” was a pretty messed-up way to look at employees because it’s just putting a dollar amount on people.

“Resources” I think was a somewhat light improvement because resources can be good, but there are still people out there who get offended about that.

I don’t love “human capital” also for the same reason because equating people directly to dollars is kind of yucky.

The main reason is because it’s a rebranding or refresh—the same way any company or brand would refresh because of a lot of the things you said when our conversation started, and HR has gone through its own journey from 10, 15 years ago, it was the corporate police. And you would hear “Oh no, HR is in the room” or all of this super lame stuff that I think is starting to go away.

Now you’re seeing things that are much more thoughtful. Now you’re seeing chief Human Resources officers and chief people officers move into the CEO seat, which makes a heck of a lot more sense.  Why? Because chief executive officers aren’t leading products; they’re leading groups of people in any organization—whether it’s 4 people; 40; 400; 40,000; or 400,000. CEOs need to lead people in making decisions, communicating effectively, being empathic, and listening well. That’s what CEOs do.

My understanding is that the most important things your employees need to feel are respect and trust. And those are the same things, in my opinion. So if you’re treating them like a step ladder for your own personal success, then they’ll know because they’re smart and capable; your business might still run, but it’s not going to be what it could be. It could be something much grander.

I agree with you completely, Jim. At the end of the day, people look to leaders for exactly what you said. They look for care, they look for trust, they look for hope, and they look for compassion. Those are the four things people want from leaders. And that’s actually been statistically proven through the Gallup organization. Those are the four components of leadership that people are hoping for. So at the end of the day, leaders could look back and track what they either lost by not showing those behaviors or could have gained if they had shown more of it.

I always found the sort of disengagement that goes along with an overbearing or an uncompassionate leader to be very dangerous for all the ordinary reasons but also because it can be invisible. Let’s say 80% disengagement that some organizations have—well, that’s extreme, but that lack of engagement is leading to a loss in your bottom line. But every year, you still have the same terms of engagement, and it might be about the same amount of loss.

If you’re really focused on balance sheets and the budget and everything, you may not notice that the reason you’re doing poorly is your people are disengaged because it’ll be a constant. It can take a little bit of an outside force. I think that’s where HR personnel really need to come in with their levers and force those people to understand there is something more that you can unlock in this organization. And if you can’t do it, then HR should do it and be empowered to do so.

Absolutely. I’m a big fan. There has been an important shift that I think has come over the past maybe 3 to 5 years—at least I’ve experienced it throughout my HR career. First, HR was fighting for a “seat a table,” but it was more of a silent seat. Next, HR started to have more of a voice, but it seemed we were encouraged to use it outside of the meetings so that we didn’t “create a stir.” A few years later, HR started to take on more active roles in leadership meetings. And today, HR often leads or co-leads the meetings. We’ve come a long way. 

We certainly have a seat at the table, but what’s really important now is that HR doesn’t own HR. I try to say that as often as I can. HR is a partner, a guide, but we all own HR together. Because if you think about the definition of “human resources,” the resources in your organization that are humans, we all own them. So if you’re the head of production, I’d like to think you are responsible for everyone on the production team, not me; I don’t own them. I’m the head of Human Resources, but you’re the head of production, and they’re your team.

I want you to feel that way about your team. So if there’s a challenge, a problem, a joy, or a celebration on your team, don’t send them to me. It’s your family. I’m your partner. I’m your guide. I will help you. We are all in this together.

Would you consider HR to be more of a support role?

Or a partner role. I think the word “support,” depending on the environment, can sometimes be seen as a subordinate role. Traditionally, in corporate, people would say there are frontline roles and support roles. I like to use the word “partner.”

Let’s say a pipe breaks in my house. I’m going to call a plumber. And that person is going to be an expert in fixing a pipe. I’m responsible for the house because it belongs to me, but I’m not an expert on pipes. So in that moment, I’m going to bring in an expert who can help me put that pipe back together so I can run my shop.

So think about a healthy organization as one that staffs itself with experts in all kinds of areas, and your Human Resources or head of talent is a person who has expertise in the areas of culture, leadership, conflict, and communication. And when things are breaking down, or when things are building up, and you need to bring in an expert to help you run your shop or be your partner in that moment, that’s what your HR business partner is there for.  And that is why “HR business partner” is a helpful and descriptive title.

That’s a good way of looking at it. We had a lot of changes in HR before the pandemic. One of the most, I think, valuable things that has come out of it, and it’s met and measured by a lot of really terrible stuff, is the leaders are forced to start caring about their employees a little bit more in a very overt way.

Because now, you have many people either at home or under critical roles doing much more difficult jobs and more dangerous jobs and those who are out there dealing with COVID and on the front lines. And both of those things require a special attention to employees who could have been taken for granted and were taken for granted often before this all happened.

You have leaders reaching out to individuals—or at least somebody in the organization reaching out to every employee who’s working from home. That’s considered almost a standard practice now.

That’s not something that was really done. In fact, there are all these studies about how little coworkers know each other. And that always stems from the fact that the professional deal comes down to the idea that you walk into work and you don’t talk about certain things. You don’t dig necessarily. Maybe you’d get to know a couple people and stuff, but it’s sort of that idea that we don’t want to know about your personal life.

I think it’s really forced leaders to understand that they have to dedicate a little bit more effort toward their people. What do you think?

I would offer the silver lining side to the problem. I think it is and has always been so important for people to be known in their fully authentic way of who they are. I think the idea of having a “work self” and a “home self” is just silly. We’re all full people, and we need to be able to be our full, authentic selves at work.

The idea of showing our “whole selves” and “letting the guard down” isn’t an easy concept for everyone.  The Gen Xers, for example, were raised by Boomers who taught us to keep our emotions tight to the vest at work. I remember managers in my early career teaching me to share nothing about my private life, asking me very little and taking barely any time to get to know me. It felt very formal and impersonal.

Today, that is not what people are hoping for or experiencing. Here I am on this call with you in sweatpants and socks, and I’m not afraid to share that with you. The bosses who raised me would be devastated to hear that, but it doesn’t make me any less credible. It doesn’t take away my experience. I still did everything I did and led every team I led.

And the fact is that is who I am. And this is my office, and this is my circumstance. And in fact, all of those things impact how I show up at work, how I’m feeling, and what you’re getting from me. Without asking, you wouldn’t know that I’m working from home, and I wouldn’t know that right before you got on this call with me, you had to contend with your 3-year-old girl, who wanted to walk 30 miles to day care.

And when I don’t know all of those things and you don’t know all of those things, there is so much of a gap between us that is missing that then causes buckets and buckets of friction, miscommunication, missed opportunity, and missed productivity in our workforces and has for 20, 30, 40 years. And there are also so many studies that have shown the closer and more authentic the relationships are at work, the more productivity you see, the less absenteeism you see, the less turnover you see, and the more safety you see.

So I’ve been working for 20 years with leaders to help them build teams around authenticity, honesty, and candor and to help people feel cared about because the more we have to act and put on an error, the less comfortable we are, and the less comfortable we are, the less able people are to deliver their best.

Very well said. It’s like everything I need to know, I learned in kindergarten and nowhere else, particularly the being genuine aspect. My little daughter, even a year ago, when she could barely talk, was able to call me out when she knew I was faking or being disingenuous.

I mean, it’s an instinct we know immediately. It’s so apparent when your company cares about you or doesn’t care about you. It’s shockingly apparent. And you can put all the bells and whistles that you want, and you can have a free lunch every once in a while or give people a $5 gift card or whatever it is, but it’s not going to make an iota of difference if you don’t do it with a real respect.

And it’s always been surprising to me.

There is a program I run called “unlocking the power of feedback with candor, courage, and care.” And we go through each component of the model: candor, courage, and care. And in the care section, we talk about just what you talked about—how important the care component is and how it really is a differentiator. You can send me every Starbucks gift card in the world, but everyone knows what it feels like to be cared about.

And during that section, we ask members of the program to share a time when they felt someone cared about them. And the stories that emerge are unbelievable. When I ask you, Jim, can you give me an example of a time in your life when you knew a leader you worked with cared about you? What comes to your mind?

I mean, I guess it would just be my most recent supervisor. When my kid’s sick or something, I got to take care of her. It’s not a problem. I just go do it. She covers whatever needs to be covered. And that’s something that has always been available but has felt like I didn’t earn it or something beforehand or like I was putting a bunch of people out.

This amazes me time after time, and this is one of the many programs I deliver. When I asked that question, I can’t tell you how many hundreds of people I’ve heard answers from. Every one is like that. And what’s amazing is it’s never about work. No one ever says, “So-and-so makes my spreadsheet circular reference better.” It’s always about who I am as a person.

It’s about my health or my child. It’s always about who we are, which maps right back to your other question about letting down that wall and not having to put on an air of just being super extra professional. Knowing that someone really, really cares about us goes right over that wall and changes the game.

And once you know you work with a person who has your back and really cares about you, suddenly your loyalty goes up, and your desire to deliver for her and not let her down goes up. Your willingness to meet the deadline and have her back goes up. And that is how you pull together an organization. That’s it—that’s the game.

Let me ask you the same question about a time you could tell someone cared about you.

That’s so nice. I’ve been lucky. I’ve had a lot of great care stories. For me, I think the most powerful care story is when I came back from my second maternity leave. After my son was born, unfortunately, I had a terrible, terrible medical experience. I had a pulmonary embolism—who could ever expect something like that?

So it was a life-changing event. I had a 99% blockage in my left pulmonary artery and 6 clots to my right lung—obviously not such a good thing. I had already taken a little bit of an extended maternity leave. I clearly wasn’t going to make it to work tomorrow.

I guess my husband had texted my boss and said, “Jill’s in the hospital, and this is going on.” And a few days later, when I was able to reach out to my boss, I remember connecting by e-mail with my boss and also the president of the business at that point when I was told by the doctors that they didn’t know if or when I was ever going anywhere, and the care that came back to me at that time that nobody cared that I had been out already for more than 3 months that year—no one was counting anything.

And the only thing that was on anybody’s mind was my health and wellness, and I received offers to take care of my daughter, who was a baby at that time. It took me almost 2 months to get back to work again. There wasn’t a week that went by that my boss and my company didn’t reach out to check on me, and work was mentioned zero times.

They were truly calling to check on my health and how I was doing. When I was able to go back, which was 2 months later, I was welcomed back like nothing had ever happened. I stayed at that company for much, much, much longer than I ever, ever expected because the way they cared about me and treated me and treated my family is something I will remember and be grateful for as long as I ever live.

So that’s a great story, and I’m glad you pulled through that-

Thank you.

That was quite deadly. It must’ve been very painful, too. So I’m sorry you had to go through that.

No one’s taken me out, that’s all I can say.

And here you are, very able to have this interview. Thank you again for joining me for this.