Faces of HR

Faces of HR: Elizabeth Chrane on Evolving the Purpose of HR, Culture Champions & Total Wellbeing

Over the course of Elizabeth Chrane’s nearly three-decade career, she’s spent most of it serving in Marketing and Communications in the financial services industry. Like other professionals who accidentally found themselves in HR, it wasn’t until 15 years ago that Chrane found herself in the same boat.

Elizabeth Chrane

At the time, she joined OneDigital – an insurance, financial services, and HR consulting advisory firm – to lead its Marketing function. Then, in 2015, she was promoted to Executive Vice President of Culture and Corporate Development. Chrane notes that while she didn’t have experience in HR, she did understand people and what motivates them, which is why she structured the team to treat every person in the company like a customer.

“I knew that I needed really smart people to build the expertise of the team,” she told HR Daily Advisor. “I empower everyone in my group to step outside of the typical human resources box and become strong business partners. That is one thing that I love about this profession and the people in it. Human Resources tended to have negative connotations at work. I continue to learn from other CHROs and Chief People Officers how to evolve the purpose of HR. We now have a seat at the table as important strategic advisors to the business.”

Four years later, Chrane was named Chief People Officer (CPO) and continues to hold this role today. As CPO, she leads the firm’s human resources, benefits, talent management, internal communications and diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging functions. Chrane’s also responsible for maintaining high employee engagement and a unique culture for OneDigital’s top priority – their people.

Since stepping into the role, Chrane has created a total wellbeing approach for OneDigital’s people, ultimately elevating its culture to a place where “every employee can do their best work and live their best life.” Her hard work is paying off as the firm has been recognized as a best place to work industry-wide, as well as nationally and regionally where OneDigital operates.

Chrane has much to be proud of, including not only having grown the firm’s People and Culture team from three to 45, but also being the first woman in OneDigital’s C-suite.

“From a career perspective, I am most proud of OneDigital recognizing the importance of our people and culture,” Chrane says. “Beyond my CPO title, I am also proud of what this meant as I became “the only.” I was the first woman in the C-suite and the only for many years. It was uncomfortable, but also an unbelievable opportunity. I continue to be excited to show others that this was possible. I have the important role of helping others see themselves in spaces where they haven’t yet been reflected. I can help bring their voices to the table.”

In our latest Faces of HR, meet Elizabeth Chrane.

What’s your favorite part about working in the industry? What’s your least favorite part, and how would you change it?

I love that OneDigital is in the people business. We offer employers and individuals insurance, financial services and provide HR consulting, which is improving the wellbeing, health and financial security for millions of people across the US. It’s exciting to be the Chief People Officer for a company that is 100% devoted to improving the lives of people through the same types of wellbeing programs we provide to our own employees.

That can also be quite a challenge. As a company that specializes in providing HR Consulting, Employee Benefits, and other workforce solutions, we are a company of internal experts in financial, physical, mental and professional wellbeing programs. My team is developing programs for our employees that are the same as what we do every day for our clients. 

This industry is changing constantly, whether it’s due to regulatory, legislative, or technological influences. Like all companies in the insurance, financial planning, investment management and HR consulting industries, we are adapting to these changes. As industry leaders, we are also playing a key role in transforming the status quo. This starts with a desire to do better. We are setting the example for our clients, our people, and our competitors alike. We do this by providing programs to support a total sense of financial security, physical and mental wellbeing, and personal growth for all our OneDigital team members. What makes this unique is our approach of relentless compassion. By leading by example, we can help set a new standard that will propel employers, individuals, and the entire industry forward. The result is truly making a positive difference in the lives of millions of people every day.

It sounds like through your experience you really care about people, and you want to help them feel safe and comfortable, which is important in the industry. Please elaborate here.

Caring is at the core of who we are. We lead with heart. This comes to life in many ways. First, we enjoy each other’s company and see each other as more than just colleagues, but as a community. We care about each other both inside and outside their work lives. We also hire people who are culture adds (not a culture fit). We want the “real you” to show up every day. What makes you, you are the skills, experience, ideas, values and even your sense of humor. This isn’t just an aspiration, it’s the expectation.

  • We help you feel safe to speak up, even when you don’t agree. In fact, we are stronger and can manage risks more effectively when everyone fully contributes.
  • We aspire for everyone to be seen and respected for who they truly are and feeling genuinely cared for by our leaders and team members.
  • It’s ok to fail, because we know we’re supported and will learn and grow from every experience.

We ask for input and feedback frequently from our people and act on it and we are equally invested in the success of our people. We are as motivated to help everyone meet or exceed their personal and professional goals.

  • Our people are encouraged to share their career goals, hopes and dreams with their manager and work together to help achieve them.

Most importantly, we have each other’s back. We give each other grace always assume good intent. You never know what someone is dealing with in their personal life. We create an environment where you can be seen and given space when needed.

How can company leaders make HR a value within their organization?

The term “HR” can have a connotation of being a bit administrative to leadership since the function is far removed from revenue generation. HR can also be perceived as “the bearers of bad news” to employees. At worst, the team responsible for the company culture can be perceived as overseeing party planning and ping-pong tables. Changing the perception of HR to a function that is highly valued by executive leadership is not easy, but it can be done in several ways.

First, compensation and benefits tend to be the highest expense of any company. The role of HR can make a huge impact to the bottom line if these expenses are managed correctly. When the HR function is seen not as a cost center but as an investment that creates cost-savings, you will have not only a seat, but a louder voice at the table.

  • Set measurable goals and share your data with senior leadership. This goes beyond employee engagement data. Measure the costs for losing a high performer and recruiting and training a new one. Measure the correlation in total wellbeing utilization to your retention stats.
  • Take it a few steps further. ​Demonstrating the connection between talent and revenue. Measure time it takes to hire a new revenue producer until they make their first sale. Demonstrate how your talent acquisition processes and development programs are reducing this gap and accelerating top-line growth for the company.

Secondly, winning the war for talent has an outsized impact on a company’s productivity and costs. HR leaders have the power to help the executive team understand the difference between measuring retention and doing something about it. When leaders focus on growing their people, it not only increases retention, but it makes people feel more valued and their work becomes more meaningful. They are willing to go the extra mile and are more committed to the quality output of their work.

  • When companies focus only on retention, they tend to find short term solutions like raising pay. Sure, pay raises may work for a while, but like any drug, it wears off. Most importantly, pay is not the biggest driver of retention, but it is one of the company’s biggest expenses. Once it goes up, it’s never likely to go back down.
  • Strong retention requires both removing the most critical frustrations of your people. It also requires enhancing all of the drivers of maximum employee satisfaction. Before you can address them, you must have a firm understanding of what they are. Understanding your company’s frustrations and key satisfiers takes a lot of listening and a lot of data, but it is what makes it possible for your leaders to have deeper conversations about what motivates your people to do their best work.
  • While growing people takes longer, it completely changes the conversation between people and their managers. It creates a stronger connection between the employee and the goals of the company, it creates written, measurable goals for each individual and creates more clarity on what’s expected of each team member.
  • When people feel a sense of accomplishment, when the feel appreciated and have a career with a sense of purpose, they not only want to stay, but they want to do their best and even refer others to join the team. A grateful employee who one day outgrows their role may leave and become a customer, an advocate for the company, or an inspiration to the next rising star.​

Third, changing the language from “Human Resources” to “culture champions.”

  • Nobody wants to be perceived as simply a “resource” or have a person described as “a valuable asset.” The better approach is to treat the trust of your people as your most valuable asset. In short, they know that the company, their manager, and their colleagues have their back. If people feel trusted, if they feel appreciated, if they feel fairly recognized for their contributions, if they feel encouraged to be their true selves and safe to speak up, they will be more willing to do their best work. A culture that celebrates successes will increase the quality of work produced and the willingness of your people go the extra mile.

Finally, changing the language from “total rewards” to “total wellbeing.” Total wellbeing goes beyond physical wellbeing and includes financial, mental, professional, and having opportunities to make a positive difference in their local communities. This isn’t just the honorable thing to do, there are significant material business reasons to do so.  By focusing on all five of these wellbeing factors, companies have a leg up on attracting the right talent, keeping their highest performers motivated and continually re-recruiting their people throughout their career journey. ​

  • Wellbeing programs may be underutilized if they are not communicated consistently and frequently. The solution is to continuously communicate and re-recruit your people by telling your total wellbeing story.

Where do you see the industry heading in five years? Or are you seeing any current trends?

What many people call trends, I tend to call fads. We’ve all seen trends come and go. From bringing pets to work, to the aforementioned ping-pong tables as a culture driver. It’s hard to predict what ideas will become true trends and which will be simply a flash-in-the-pan.

At a macro level, it can be mind boggling to look at the immense change that has taken place in the past ten or even twenty years in other areas of our life. From the transformation of the rotary to the flip phone to the smart phone, the rise in social media and decline in traditional media, from self-driving cars to space tourism, everywhere we look, the way things “used to be done” is being turned on its head. That is not the case with much of business, especially in the professional services industry. If you look at how organizations are structured (the traditional organiation chart), how we pay and recognize our people, to the offices we work in, corporate life is not that much different than it was a generation ago.

Sure, dress codes are changing, flexible work has become more prevalent after remote working became the norm during the pandemic, and some innovative total rewards programs are becoming more common, such as deferred salaries, the choice of getting paid in options/stock rather than cash and implementing as-needed paid time off policies. HR has a big opportunity to think differently and help drive “what’s next” for the function as well as for their company.

One trend that will continue is the investment in HR technology and HR data as a critical asset. Using technology to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of the HR function will continue to be a top priority for Chief People Officers. Similarly, utilizing HR technology to “radically simplify” the employee experience has already started, but will become a game changer in the coming years. Throughout the entire employee journey; from becoming a career candidate, throughout the hiring and onboarding process, all throughout one’s career path and ultimately as an alum; a seamless, digital experience will have huge implications for employees and their talent partners alike. Integrating all work tasks, benefits systems, and communications into a customized, personalized employee portal will save time, costs and reduce frustration at a companywide level.

This will lead to more skills needed in “big data” within HR functions. HR leaders will use data not just for reporting what happened in the past or monitoring what is happening in the current state but to use data to help forecast and predict the future. I am becoming a dedicated student of “future casting” within HR as external factors such as political shifts, societal changes, and economic uncertainty (and how your company and CEO respond to them) are just as important to employee engagement and your employer brand as the internal forces you can control (such as your internal technology and the employee benefits programs you offer).

Whether we automate beyond the human experience, such as AI algorithms to scan resumes and generate offers to “HR Talent Holograms” in field offices, still seems like science fiction than a realistic emerging trend.

Secondly, I am seeing a very positive trend that employers are placing more value on their people beyond measuring productivity and work output. When companies measure their assets, they take into consideration both their physical assets as well as their reputational or brand assets. No marketing, brand or advertising campaign can compete with the impact that your own people have on your brand. According to many studies, including one by the Forum for People Performance Management and Measurement in the Medill Integrated Marketing Communications program at Northwestern University and Washington State University among others, your customer satisfaction scores are almost never higher than your employee engagement scores. Your customers can see and feel the impact of your culture when they interact with your people.  

Furthermore, as employees engage more with their company brand on social media, they can impact the perception of the company to current and potential customers. Just look at the number of leaked internal memos where leaders have treated employees poorly (such as mass layoffs via Zoom or the “be hardcore or quit” memo from Elon Musk at Twitter), and the affect it had on the company’s reputation, brand and in many cases directly impacted their share price. It can be harder to recover from reputational damage than from physical damage. In short, if you want to achieve strong customer loyalty, invest first in the wellbeing of your people.

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