Faces of HR

How Cornerstone Keeps Culture Alive During COVID-19 and M&A

Keeping culture alive and well during the coronavirus pandemic has proven to be challenging for many organizations, but can you imagine trying to keep your culture intact in the middle of a pandemic while also going through a merger and acquisition? Today’s guest did just that and is here to share the challenges of maintaining a strong culture throughout turbulent times.

Meet Kimberly Cassady, Chief Talent Officer at Cornerstone OnDemand.

So, how did you get into HR?

I only know one person who probably grew up wanting to be an HR professional, but it was not me. It’s not something you think about as a career, like they speak to you about in elementary school. It actually started when I was in school and working full time. The warehouse where I was working needed somebody to support and help with HR-related activities.

Much like a lot of HR professionals, it starts through the gateway of recruiting, the entry drug to talent and Human Resources, and I just really enjoyed that aspect of interacting and working with people specifically and helping them in their career. And it just springboarded from there.

It’s true that a lot of people come in from recruiting but not just there; pretty much a lot of psychologists have come into recruiting. A lot of people go for business management and end up in HR. I mean, it’s always like they fell into it or someone advised them. I may have said this a lot to other people, but I just think it’s so interesting how HR collects people in a way that I’m not really sure other roles can.

Right. I think it comes from the notion of working with and helping people because any function you go into touches people, whether you’re in manufacturing, a leader, a salesperson, or in finance, even if you’re only working within your peer group. You have that human interaction that I think for some people speaks to them in particular.

Absolutely. It can be a very nurturing kind of role. It should be, anyway. I think if you want people in that HR role, you’re going to want them to be a little bit of a humanitarian because they’re going to do some difficult things. You’re going to see people at their best and at their worst—when they’re getting hired, when they’re getting fired, and when they’re having kids. It’s pretty high stakes emotionally and interpersonally.

Yeah. I think a lot of roles in HR today are akin to someone’s ability or relatability to put his or her own self in someone else’s shoes. But even as we look to the future of HR in that intersection between technology and HR and where we’re going, not every role is going to necessarily need to be akin to doing that directly.

If you become an HR data specialist and you’re looking at what the data are telling you, either via artificial intelligence (AI) or machine learning, you have to be able to take those data and really adapt them to the human. You also need somebody who may not relate but at least understands the background in psychology of human behavior to apply those mechanisms to.

Speaking of transferring skills like HR into automation, we’re undergoing obviously a huge transformation. It’s been a pretty crazy one. I mean, other than the fact that so many people are remote now, we’ve also had the concern of “how do you transfer company culture remotely or in a mixed environment,” where some people are remote and some people aren’t?

Any company that doesn’t understand company culture is going to have a crisis at some point. And now, we have this multiplying factor of remote work. I think under the best of circumstances, it’s probably difficult to maintain a good culture, and it would be very, very difficult to create one from scratch at this time. How have you guys tackled that?

To describe how we tackle it all, I’ll dial it back just a little bit. I think when you ask, most people say, even in recruiting, “Tell me about your company culture.” A lot of places go to a place of describing perks. “We have this in the office, and we do this. We have free lunches. We have happy hours.” And that’s just interaction.

Culture is really built around most companies’ core values, and most of them are public. They’re the way we either approach work or interact and behave with each other.

If you’re really holding dearly to those values and they’re not just words and you’re not just giving them lip service, then that’s transferable no matter where you’re sitting. Whether you’re sitting in an office or you’re sitting at home, the way I approach work and the way I work with my colleagues truly are what creates culture. So that should be transferable even in these big times of change and maybe even more so and where folks can really double down.

That’s where we have tried to double down more than anything. We’ve ramped up the way we expect people to work and communicate and the way we expect people to treat and interact and behave with each other. We probably tripled—not just doubled but tripled—down on our interaction and communication and the frequency in which we’ve done it.

Not only did Cornerstone—and everyone else—go from an environment of half remote/half office, or vice versa, but we also decided to go through a major acquisition in the middle of it all. So we have to bring people into a culture they didn’t know on top of doing it all remotely.

We’ve come away with some key learnings; whether we ever go back to an office or not, or this goes on, we really understand some key aspects about the way we communicate, the frequency in which we communicate, how often we need to say something, and whom it needs to come from because it can’t just come from the HR team either.

That’s interesting. I was thinking about mergers when you were talking about the core values of the company because that’s one of those instances when you could have two companies that have the same lists of values, and then you go to tie their cultures together and realize they don’t define those values the same.

You can say the word “trust,” and that can mean a thousand different things. And what trust looks like in one organization could be drastically different from what it looks like in another one. You guys must have learned a lot.

Yeah. Luckily, to a degree, and I loved how you positioned it. A lot of the words and the way we describe our core values were really the same; they just play differently. But we’re still two very different cultures because of different leadership styles that intersect with that culture.

We’re in the middle of blending those two. And this isn’t a time to sit back and say, “Let’s see what evolves out of this and what culture will reign.” So we’re really trying to lean in with support from new leadership and saying, “No, this is who we are.” We’ve taken the best of both worlds because we really want to honor both who Cornerstone was and will continue to be and the company that’s coming in and saying, “In this blended world, this is who we are.”

And of course, we don’t just say, “These are our values.” We actually have them be part of our annual review process because the core competencies associated with the way somebody behaves, we feel, are things we should discuss and push and drive with our employees on a regular basis but even formally at least once a year. We will be incorporating those combined core values into our annual review process going forward, which will be new for our new “Cornerstars” coming in to be evaluated on those behaviors.

We believe it’s important enough to say that this is what we live and breathe and what we expect of people and how they behave. It’s just part of what we expect from employees, and ultimately, we tie it into our annual rewards process, as well.

I know how important reviews can be for how you feel as an employee. I mean, both ways, they can tear you down, and they can lift you up. I can feel a little bit of what your new Cornerstars are going to go through. What’s your approach to that?

Well, this is something I’ve been talking about for a little while because some companies have gotten rid of them completely, and I tell leaders, “I will give you any mechanism you want. I just want you to have a conversation with your folks about what their opportunities are for growth and development.”

To the point about maybe reviews feeling too heavy-handed, that’s not where we want those performance reviews to go. We really want them to be about development and what somebody’s opportunity is for growth—not just leadership growth but growth in role and how workers can better interact with their colleagues, better perform their work, and approach it from the notion of what they can do, not just what they’ve done.

This is how we think it’s best to move forward to level set. We try to encourage folks to have those conversations on a regular basis. We provide lots of different opportunities optionally for those conversations to occur with some of the HR tools we have as an organization, with check-ins, 360 reviews, etc. We only push that one formal, once-a-year review.

As a talent management organization, we have employees who say, “I still like the annual performance review because it’s the only time I really have a thoughtful discussion with my leader about where I am.” And that’s just a mechanism for a conversation. Really, leaders can have those anytime on a regular basis.

Switching gears, how are you looking at the evolution of your culture as you go forward? Do you guys have a 5-year plan? Do people do 5-year plans anymore? Or are those ridiculous to even think about?

For Cornerstone, coming together now as two companies, we are really saying, “What does the future look like?”—not just redefining our product and our go-to-market strategy but also who are we as an employer. A lot of that is also thrust upon us in a COVID world and in the midst of civil unrest from George Floyd’s and Breonna Taylor’s murders. The future of work is an active discussion we’re having and still defining.

We recently surveyed our employees. We’re about 50% office-based and 50% non-office-based pre- and post-COVID. For our office-based employees, we asked, “What is your interest in returning to the office?” At least 25% of the workforce—50% of the 50 who were in the office—is saying, “I’m really only interested in coming back once in a while.” And the reason they’re interested in coming back is for the social interaction and to connect and meet with people.

So, the real concern for us is how we can create that connection virtually without creating video fatigue and more meeting fatigue—which we, like most companies, quickly found out 3 months in—when you’re like, “Everybody’s got to be on video to create culture.” And then you’re like, “I’ve had enough video. I can’t take anymore video.” And that’s like reeling back from that.

I know some companies are coming out really strong and saying, “We will never go back to the office, or we’ll go back to the office as soon as we can.” And we’re in no rush. We really want to see what our employees want and what we feel like we need from a business perspective. We’re finding that some of the positions and teams we thought would be dying to get back in the office and who are here and have a network are the ones, regardless of position, who are already successful at home.

But we’re seeing a longer ramp with new hires, regardless of position, because they haven’t established that relationship. “Who do I go to when I just have that dumb question? Or I just need to usually have a cube mate or somebody to just ask real quick.” You can establish that relationship, and it propels your success much faster. With our new hires having a slower ramp, we decided to redesign our onboarding, provide a potential buddy system, etc. There are mechanisms like that that we hadn’t thought of before and that we need to invest in more going forward.

Employers have really had to confront the reality of social interactions today and look at what it really means to be an employee from the employee perspective, which is something experts, professionals, and consultants have been raving about for years. Now, due to remote work, you basically have to, or you become a draconian big brother monster.

I’ve read there are organizations out there that went the other way and started doing employee monitoring at home and all kinds of crazy nonsense. You guys don’t do employment monitoring, do you?

No. We believe in managing the results, whether it takes you 10 hours to get to those results or if it takes you 40 hours. So if you had a goal to get something done in this period in this amount of time, that’s what we’re looking for, not how long it took you to get there but really just that you got there in the time we needed you to.

Yeah. I think it’s the right way. Maybe future research will find the holes and the problems of remote work, and there are definitely some, no doubt. The questions then become, even from a company culture perspective, can you live with them, and are they insurmountable or not? I think they’re probably solvable, but I don’t know.

Right. I think they are with technology that hasn’t been developed that doesn’t focus on employee monitoring but that is more focused on where workers are struggling in the process. How do we help and develop them to be successful at-home employees versus successful working employees or in-the-office employees? It took me, personally, probably a good 2 months to figure out how to be successful working at home.

I used to work at home before but not full time. So sitting at the kitchen table once or twice a week was not a big deal. A couple months in when my back started to hurt and I didn’t feel like I had the right tools, I hadn’t really succumbed to the fact that I wasn’t going back to the office this year. I hadn’t gotten myself there yet.

Then we realized, “No, this is long term. This is permanent. What do I need to be successful now at home?” And some of that is setting those healthy boundaries between where my work space is and where my life is when the clock is on or off.  It’s OK to step away in the middle of the day to take the dogs for a walk if I need to.

If I’m feeling that way, we certainly realized our employees probably were, too. So we actually started a weekly communication that comes directly from me to our employee base that is predominantly focused right now on what they’re going through from a personal, an emotional, and a work productivity perspective.

Sometimes, we’ll lean in and talk about parents with kids at home and how much more challenging that is right now. We advise our leaders not to schedule meetings with their working parents in the morning because these employees are trying to get their kids set up and successful for the day, get them out of bed and in front of their iPad® or computer, and get them set up.

We started doing companywide meetings at two different times to accommodate for what’s happening and going on in people’s schedules. We’re talking more openly about these challenges instead of saying, “These are the business updates, and this is what’s coming. Go in and set goals, and go in and complete your compliance training.” Instead, it is, “How are you doing? What are you focused on? How can we help you?” And just that vulnerability and notion that not everyone is OK right now have been a tremendous welcome.

COVID forced everyone to go remote so quickly that, like you said, no one was really prepared for it. And now, the burden is on HR and the employer to figure out what workers need in order to stay productive. People working on tiny screens and people working with the crappy mouse they found in their drawer—it becomes the employers’ responsibility to go find that stuff out actively. It sounds like you guys are doing that.

I mean, when we realized it was going to be longer than just a week or 2, we offered our employees a stipend to purchase some equipment. Then, when we realized it was going to be even longer, we offered them an even larger stipend because the cost of dual monitors, chairs, an ergonomic keyboard, or whatever it was they might have needed was going to be more than we had.

We’re continuing to evaluate that stipend, from home Internet to mobile phone, etc. When we talk about not being one and done, as I mentioned earlier, like back to the office, it’s not one stipend. If we have to keep going back and offering more than one, then that’s what we need to do to make people successful.

We also set up a company direct line (DL)—a simple, remote DL. People are submitting their requests there, and it goes to HR and IT. It doesn’t need to go to their manager when you’re talking about something simplistic; it could be personal needs they have, or it could be IT-specific or equipment-related needs, and those get addressed holistically. This way, we can make sure we’re consistent in application, as well. I think when you talk about something beyond an easy solve, which is equipment, although it does cost money, it may not be an easy solve for some companies.

A lot of manager training and communication has gone into this process and is especially coming from the top down. Our CEO says that if kids are “in the room, invite them in.” I always help the CEO facilitate questions that come in, and early on, in a companywide meeting, you can see him looking off camera, and there’s something going on. He finally says, “Kim, can you take over for a minute?” He had to leave because he had a school-aged kid in the room who was starting to have a meltdown about some Internet connection. And he’s trying to address more than 3,000 people and had to pause.

It’s just the humility of that and the vulnerability of “I have a problem at home, and I need to address this problem at home. And by the way, that’s OK.” You’ll see it happen often, and we invite that in. We encourage managers to say, “If there’s a kid in the room, have a conversation with the kid, or invite him or her into what you guys are doing and learning.”

We do a daily “dev day,” not only for our employees but also for their families. Like, here’s a virtual museum we found that you might want to go and explore or an article you might want to read or something interactive. We also do look for a daily “bring your kids to work” day. It could be a craft activity or something simple that they don’t need to think about already because they have enough on their plates.

Here’s something else you might find useful. We also have a working parents group. A lot of companies call them “employee resource groups,” and they can be primarily centered on diversity initiatives. But there are plenty of ways to expand beyond just race, as well, which is the working parents group and has helped us manage through some of those aspects.

That’s a really good point about using the employee resource group network or framework for working parents, and that is why so many organizations don’t ever think they have enough people to make another employee resource group or even make their first, but you can always identify diversity, and there’s no reason it can’t support it.

Agreed.