Ayishah Williams has more than 20 years of strategic HR, consulting, and business operations experience. Throughout her impressive career, Williams has done everything from developing teams to building and implementing HR best practices at startups – all in the belief that a holistic approach to HR can create measurable and lasting organizational change.
Currently, she serves as Director of People + Culture at Sounding Board, the first unified Leader Development Platform designed to bridge the leadership gap, and says the company is, “hands down, the best space I have ever worked in.” What makes Sounding Board so unique? According to Williams, being a human being is encouraged.
“Unlike in other organizations where HR is a segment of the employee population, we are fully integrated,” Williams told HR Daily Advisor. “We are able to experience things as an employee but also provide the expertise that comes from being on the people and culture team. Because we’re fully integrated, we have a greater, deeper connection, and we are better able to support our team’s needs.
“We work really hard to make sure that we have processes and protocols and that we communicate that employees don’t have to choose between managing things in their life that may affect how they do their job” she added. “We’re very caring, understanding, and compassionate, and we want people to take care of their own needs first, so they can show up better at work. We don’t penalize people for being people.”
Williams notes that she doesn’t like the phrases “people are your most important resource” or “people are an organization’s biggest asset” – because people are more than resources or assets.
“They’re human beings with a bunch of different needs,” she explained. “If you can effectively address those needs, then you’re automatically going to protect the company. People who are treated well — even when the organization is failing — will go above and beyond. Being compassionate is critical. You have to be a whole human being in order to do this job.”
In our latest Faces of HR, meet Ayishah Williams.
How did you get your start in the field?
I fell into HR accidentally. I worked for a think tank in the late nineties, early 2000s, and started there because I had technical skills. The company had grown pretty quickly, and we had an entire wing for the HR department, but there was no space for me. All the offices were filled, so they built a desk at the end of the hallway. People would get tunnel vision coming down, and they would pass up the benefits manager and the payroll person. They would only see me at the end of the hallway and come right to my desk and ask questions. Initially, I would point them back to the right person, but eventually, I learned how to answer the questions. One day, the executive director happened to be in the office close to mine talking with my boss. They overheard me answering a question for someone.
I thought I was going to be in trouble. I hurried the person off, but they said, “You did that really well. Have you considered moving fully into HR?” I didn’t think it was for me, so I did not. I’m extremely introverted and very shy, but they found a way to coach me into that position. I went from small contributions — the data that I put together for different meetings, employee headcount, and things of that nature – to really contributing during meetings. I was actually leading certain pieces of it, and before I knew it, I was ready for an opening. When one became available, I was encouraged to apply for it, and that was the start of my HR career and my introduction to coaching.
Who is/was your biggest influence in the industry?
Early in my career, SHRM was my go-to because I knew that if I had any questions, I could immediately go there for information. As a department of one, I did not always have someone to bounce things off of. It was usually, “Okay, make your best judgment here based on the people and resources that you have.”
Additionally, my family not only taught me HR techniques, but also to really expand upon them. I have 15 siblings: I’ve been in HR all my life. Let’s say my mom said we couldn’t go outside until the house was cleaned. Well, not everyone is motivated to clean the house. My role was always, “Okay, as soon as we get this done, then we can go do this. She might actually give us some money. We can go get ice cream.” I always found ways to convince everyone else that we needed to get things done so that we can do what we want to do.
I’m also the communication translator in the family. I help with, “Well, she didn’t really mean it that way. She meant, or you should look at it this way.” I ensured that things didn’t escalate. I’ve always been in a mediator-negotiator role, so I grew into HR naturally. Honestly, my family has been a larger organization than some of the ones I worked in. They’re my guinea pigs. My undergrad degree is in organizational leadership. So, as I grew and learned, I would test things on my family to see if they really work in a situation where things aren’t necessarily organized, or where people don’t choose to be in the situation. You don’t choose to be in a family structure. You’re born into it.
You choose to be in an organization. You apply for the role; you choose to accept the position if it’s offered. I used my sister, who was in the Navy, as my biggest guinea pig because she went through a lot of different roles. As a recruiter within the Navy, I would lend her advice on how to have conversations, and how to sell people on wanting to come into the Navy as opposed to the Air Force or the Marines. In her first year, she ended up becoming the rookie recruiter of the year. They always wanted to know: “Hey, what makes you so special?” She would always say: “My sister’s in HR. I’ve been talking with her about how to talk to people.”
What’s your best mistake and what did you learn from it?
My biggest mistake happened early in my career. I did not recognize that HR was archaic and that you don’t always have to go with the flow. It’s okay to build something greater or to do things differently. A focus on people is the most important thing. The best way to be successful in this industry is to truly be yourself and to ensure that you’re making those valuable people connections. I actually once worked in a contract role for a social services organization. I was working with the director, and they had a lunchroom. So I brought my lunch, had lunch in that lunchroom. One day the director called me to her office and said, “We’re the HR team; we don’t mingle with everyone else in the company.”
I thought that was weird. If you don’t interact with people, how do you know what’s going on with them? How do you know that the programs and services you’re offering are truly what they need and want? It felt awkward to have that disconnect, to force myself not to interact. It’s unnatural for me.
What’s your favorite part about working in the industry? What’s your least favorite part, and how would you change it?
My favorite part is the people. There is nothing like offering people their firsts: first job, first retirement plans, one of the very first. Maybe six, or seven years ago, I had a young lady apply for a position at a company I was working with, and she was the first person in her family to graduate from college. It was her first job out of college, and she was just so excited, and she shared those things with me. I often get to be part of these moments in people’s lives, first children, first marriages, even first divorce.
My least favorite part is also the people. I’m extremely empathetic, and since the pandemic, people have experienced so many changes, and I experience them right along with them. I would change that experience for the world, but remote work can also be challenging. Without careful, intentional effort, the workforce may suffer from disconnect. It can also be hard trying to be creative while making sure that people are connected and not feeling the isolation of working from home.
To change that, I find creative ways to keep people connected — other than just, “Let’s hop on a meeting and have some kind of engagement.” It’s about coming up with ideas that will help people interact with one another on an ongoing basis, then also being extremely empathetic, lending an ear, and having more frequent interactions with people. Previously, HR was a space where you waited for people to come to you and share. Now we do more check-ins to make sure that people are actively considering their wellbeing. Wellbeing has been an important topic, and a popular topic of focus since the pandemic began, but it’s from a mental health perspective, and a negative one: Employees are experiencing this, morale is lower, etc. But while not everyone has mental health issues, everyone should be concerned about their mental health. We should support that no matter what’s going on in the world.
Part of that is focusing on employee wellbeing from every single angle: emotional wellbeing, mental wellbeing, physical wellbeing, keeping people safe. It’s much harder in a remote environment, but there are things you can do to make sure that these basic needs are met. This is what I mean when I talk about holistic HR and looking at people as whole human beings. From that lens, mental health is not just a part of them, it’s who they are.
Their emotional wellbeing is who they are. Their physical wellbeing is who they are; it’s best not to separate them into different categories. Instead, look at people as whole, functioning human beings with a variety of needs, and be prepared to address those needs at any point in time. Don’t just come up with and settle for something middle of the road because it addresses most of the needs within the company. Be creative and understand what types of specific employee needs come up. Be prepared to address them in some way and remind employees that the company provides particular resources. That way, even if your organization can’t address that need directly, there is something available to help.
Even establishing a process can seem inorganic if it’s not done thoughtfully, through a holistic lens. When you are people focused, even a process has to be genuine. It can’t just be lip service. There also has to be buy-in within the organization because the first thing that people notice when they’re having a difficult time is when words do not match actions. That is far more deflating than if a company makes a mistake in another area. Organizations have to be conscious that employees are watching, thinking, and remembering: How do you show up when I need you the most?
Something my mom always told me was, “You can tell who your real friends are based on how they show up for you when you’re not well.” There’s a difference between the people who pick up the phone and ask you how you’re doing, if you need anything, versus the ones who just show up and knock on your door and say, “Hey, I know you’ve been under the weather. Not sure if you even want these things, but here. I brought them because you have sniffles. This ginger tea will be helpful.” It may not be what they requested, but it’s how you show up and what you offer that’s more important than just saying, “Hey, what can I get for you?” That puts the responsibility back onto that person for their wellbeing rather than saying, “Hey, I’m here to help you through this.”
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.
Because you hire whole. There’s a movement toward understanding that people are whole human beings and not segmented, especially in a remote work environment. Now that we’re living at work, working from home, however you wish to phrase it, there’s no separation between the two. People show up as they are. The movement towards holistic HR is driven by the understanding that you’re going to get a whole human being when they show up at work, and that should be expected. Having a whole human being means that some days, they’re not going to be able to separate their work life from their home life, that there’ll be children in the background or pets.
It’s all part of who that person is, all of their experiences, what goes on in their life, the things that they deal with on a day-to-day basis all factors into how they show up at work. Being able to address that holistically means looking at your employee population and knowing that you have these full human beings who have specific needs, and then providing services outside of the traditional medical, dental, vision. It’s looking at the employee population and saying, “Okay, we now have this particular need, we should address this.”
For instance, we have employees within this certain age range who may want to start planning or having families. Let’s make sure the benefits we offer support that. Instead of having one cookie cutter approach for every single thing that we do, we flex to make sure that we address or meet employee needs in as near real time as possible.
Where do you see the industry heading in five years? Or are you seeing any current trends?
The need for agility in HR will be huge. The pandemic was disruptive in a number of ways. Of course, we recognize how negatively it impacted people, but within the HR space, it was extremely disruptive because we literally had to shake things up. We had to become more agile quickly. We had to learn how to lead and develop people who were not right next to us and use technology to improve our communication. The trend around remote work is no longer a trend. Remote work is not going anywhere.
We have to be able to adapt and to understand people through a screen. Formal and informal coaching and mentoring strategies and tactics become invaluable in this context because we have to build more meaningful connections with people who are not right in front of us.
The design of the workplace has changed. There’s more distance. The role of HR is no longer just to act as the policy and people police. We’ve had to really adapt and learn how to bring people close.
Before, HR’s primary focus was on putting policies and practices in place so that people would follow them, and that would protect the company. Now the focus is more on protecting people because that is a company’s bread and butter. You’ve seen the great resignation statistics. People are leaving in droves because their needs are not met by their organizations — organizations that promised certain things.
So, it’s really important to live up to those promises and to make sure that you are prepared to meet people’s needs rather than focusing more on the numbers, the bottom line, the policies, compliance. If you take care of your people, those things happen naturally. You don’t have to worry as much about people violating policies. They’re going to do what’s desired because they think the policies are fair, they make sense. If they’re not making sense, then you adapt accordingly.
What are you most proud of?
I completed an MBA during the pandemic. There was so much going on professionally and personally, and I changed jobs during that time. I went from one company to an even greater company, while the world was going crazy. It was a huge risk, at a time when work required intense focus, but I stayed focused, and earned that degree, and frankly, it feels amazing.
Do you have any advice for people entering the profession?
HR is not just about being the policy police. It has evolved so much that now you have that in-house counsel piece, you’re a counselor and coach, a mentor, leadership’s right hand, and an encyclopedia for people, policy, culture and increasingly operations. Be prepared to be flexible, and make sure that you genuinely have compassion and concern for people. If you’re going into this field, it’s not about keeping people in line. It’s about helping people become their best selves.