- Tracie S shares more about the Granite Group and her role as the Chief People Officer, including the most pressing challenges coming out of COVID, and her role in creating a psychologically safe environment for the team at the Granite Group. (00:53)
- Tracie S addresses how she and the team balanced business goals, while also working to create a physically and psychologically safe environment for the team (4:57)
- The group discusses the process of developing culture, and how the approach to growth can also help build a great culture (8:20)
- Tracy, Tracie, and Mike discuss the importance of creating a truly diverse and inclusive culture, and being intentional about challenging our own biases (17:56)
- The group discusses strategic planning and and how companies like hte Granite Group manage this process (24:50)
- Tracie and Tracy talk about the challenge of driving great employee engagement among different employee groups, for instance: hourly vs. salaried, working from the office vs. remote workers. (36:20)
- The group closes the discussion with a conversion on what it means to be “people-first” in all things (41:58)
- A great part of this discussion was focused on challenging our biases, and on the process of becoming more diverse and inclusive as organizations, and as people. Following are several links to resources discussed in this podcast: How to Be an Antiracist, Biased, White Awake, Brene Brown, White Fragility
- Do you want to learn more about The Granite Group? Visit: https://www.thegranitegroup.com/
- Learn more about how TEAMES & CO builds effective and empowered teams that deliver results
- Follow TEAMES & CO on Facebook LinkedIn, Twitter (@teamesandco) and Instagram (@teamesandco)
- Want to watch the podcasts on video visit TEAMES & CO on YouTube.
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If you liked this episode, here’s a throwback episode to our conversation with Brett Hampson.
Listen to Episode 36
Episode 35 Transcript
Mike Vaggalis (00:24):
Welcome to this week's episode of Building Teams with TEAMES & CO. I'm Mike Vaggalis, here with my co-host, Tracy Eames, and our awesome guests for today, Tracie Sponenberg, the Chief People Officer with the Granite Group. Tracie, Tracy, welcome in.
Tracie Sponenberg (00:40):
Thanks, Mike. Thanks, Tracy. I'm glad to be here.
Tracy Eames (00:43):
Thanks, Tracie. We're excited to have you here. Maybe we could kick off with you telling us a little bit about your work with the Granite Group, and let our listeners know a little bit more about what you do each day?
Tracie Sponenberg (00:52):
Sure. I'm the Chief People Officer, which it sounds like a pretty straightforward title and there are a million things that go into that, but basically, my job is to kind of shepherd our north star of ensuring an incredible people experience for our team. And there are lots and lots and lots of things that go into that, but we're a plumbing, heating, cooling, water, and energy supply wholesaler based in the Northeast. And we're in all six New England states. And we have about actually closing in on 700 people, but 650 and growing in about 50 locations all over New England.
Mike Vaggalis (01:27):
That's very cool. Well, Tracie, I'm sure so much goes into being the chief people officer of a company that's growing quickly and has over 700 or right about their employees. What are some of the challenges that you face in your role?
Tracie Sponenberg (01:41):
So, right now, I wouldn't have told you this actually even a year ago, but right now, unfortunately, we're having the same challenges, literally everybody else in finding people.
Mike Vaggalis (01:53):
Tracie Sponenberg (01:53):
So, we didn't really experience much in the way of turnover until the past year. We didn't experience much trouble hiring people at least over the past several years. And so, that's been our greatest challenge. I think the other one we've certainly seen over the past year is just ensuring that we're creating a psychologically safe environment for our people, and we're an essential workforce and where a lot of people had the opportunity to work from home or were forced to work from home, most of our people had to keep going into an office every day, so that lasts, right? So, that feeling is challenging when you have to balance that with your family needs.
Tracy Eames (02:35):
Yeah, definitely. I think a lot of folks to your point, it's obviously been a very tough year and a half, but also just kind of what happens next, right? And a lot of those key decisions, I'm sure you and your team are kind of involved in and leading the charge on. So, what are some of the ways that you're taking that into account for your team and saying, "Hey, we know that this year has been incredibly difficult. We know that there's been unique pressures, maybe on our team, specifically." How do you kind of engage them and how do you move forward as an organization to keep supporting them?
Tracie Sponenberg (03:05):
So, we're in a really weird position where when March of last year, we had no idea if we'd even have a company, then nobody knew what was going on. We ended up having an extraordinarily good year, which we certainly couldn't have foreseen at the beginning of the year because everybody stayed home, and everybody worked in their homes or built new homes or moved into new places, and we're selling those products that supply that. Plumbers were busy, contractors were busy. So, we've had to balance the challenges with creating that psychologically safe environment, with also our people being busier than they've ever been ever at work, and trying to keep up with the hiring, the pace of the hiring, we actually hold about a month ago, the talent portion of what we do into the people team, that sat in the individual locations.
And we pulled that in for lots of different reasons, certainly to do better with our DEI efforts is one, because we weren't going to the places where we should be going to attract a diverse group of folks, but also because we were hiring in 50 different ways and we were interviewing in 50 different ways. So, we're working on a lot of different things on our team, but always with the upfront or people front of mind and letting them lead the way. And everybody says that, not everybody means that.
Mike Vaggalis (04:32):
Sure. Yeah. Tracie, I'm so curious to hear more about that term that you said earlier, psychological safety, and I'm sure that there are a lot of employees that had roles that required them to go into physical locations and maybe they weren't as comfortable doing that. How do you balance those priorities of obviously, you need to run the business, but then also create a safe workspace for your employees?
Tracie Sponenberg (04:56):
So, very beginning of March last year, we got out early and formed a COVID response committee, which was made up of a few of us on the executive team. And we saw the need to figure out what the heck was going on pretty early and reassure our people. So, we committed to daily communications at least once a day, every day, and we did this for probably four to five months. Videos from our CEO, most days, if not emails on the days they weren't. And not only that, but offered up my cell phone number, his personal cell phone number, and invited that two-way communication and people to reach out to us at any time for any reason. And I think, at a time when we weren't traveling, we were trying to put a halt on inter-branch travels. We call our locations branches as much as we could because we didn't know who had what and how to... That was even before the masking, it was scary.
So, we did everything that we could to open those lines of communication, listen to our people and keep them safe. And a lot of the ideas that we put in place for safety came from our people and we got them very, very involved super early on, including having one of our people recommend a seamstress that we commissioned to sew 1,200 masks before masks were widely available, and putting up plexiglass barriers and making them and putting barriers in front of where we stood in our customers, which these are all ideas that came from our people. So, I think as companies, we're going to do the best if we... And this is a novel idea, actually, listen to our team members.
Tracy Eames (06:42):
Yeah. And it sounds like you guys did that, right? And I think we often get the question from our clients like, "How do I know what to do?" Or, "How do I make these big communication changes?" And I'm going to encourage them to listen to what you just said, right? Because it's not about these big, massive changes, it's about opening up that line of communication, getting that feedback. And as leaders, I think we often think we have to think of everything and really just the key is listening, right? And kind of taking that feedback and saying, "Hey, I do this job every day. So, what about X? Right? Could this work?" And maybe you can't do every idea, but I love that approach of saying, "Hey, let's get as many ideas on the table, and then together, we'll figure out which ones of those rise to the top and we can implement quickly."
Tracie Sponenberg (07:25):
And not making it a big deal, not making it, "Oh, this person had an idea, so here you go, here's a $100." There are thousands of little ideas every week that come out of our people that are extraordinary and everyone can have a chance to make a change. And we function in a very team-based way, our locations are very small and very team-oriented.
Mike Vaggalis (07:49):
Do you find that the Granite Group was operating in that sort of collaborative fashion in advance of COVID or did COVID really accelerate that collaborative feedback loop sort of culture?
Tracie Sponenberg (08:00):
No, it definitely existed before, which helped. And we have a culture of communication and a culture of trust and entrepreneurial is one of our core values. So, our local managers are really empowered to make most decisions at their local level and the decisions that are best for their teams. So, that was in place, and that really helped us.
Mike Vaggalis (08:21):
Tracie, what advice would you give to our listeners who like the sound of communications of culture and feedback and empowerment and entrepreneurship, but aren't necessarily sure how to develop and build those cultures?
Tracie Sponenberg (08:35):
So, it starts at the top and I really believe everybody owns culture. And I don't love it when we say see a chief people and culture officer, because culture is part of the fabric of everything we do and everybody's responsibility and certainly, set from the executive team, but it's not one person's responsibility. It's part of the job to create an environment that fosters collaboration and that is in the best interest of people, but it really starts with the CEO, the president, whoever's leading that organization. In our case, our CEO, Bill Condron is an excellent communicator and he is... And this is critical for us in our 50 locations all of the time, people actually see him regularly. People actually see me regularly. And for us, because we're a face-to-face business, it's really hard to build that trust and create that culture of communication with people not seeing you face-to-face. So, that's the best way that we get things done.
So, I think somebody who's in a position like mine or somebody who's listening to this, really take a look at your top executive and are there areas for improvement there? Because there could be some areas that could be improved to create that culture of communication, but it's going to be hard if there's not support from the top. Everything's going to be hard if there isn't support from the top.
Tracy Eames (10:01):
Yeah. I think that's a great message. We see that with leaders all the time, they say communication is important, but then they sit in nine hours of meetings a day and never speak to their team, and we get that, right? Because if you're at the senior manager level or director level, and you're expected to be in these meetings and that's what's coming from the top and you don't have time to speak to your team, it's hard to build those channels, right? And so, we work a lot with teams to say, "Okay, how do you get out of that, right?" Like, "How do you make an hour or have coffee meetings early in the morning?" Or just kind of make that time for your team, because that as a leader is really your most important job.
Your most important job is leading your team and empowering them to kind of get to the next step in their careers. And so just love hearing that and I love hearing that you guys are out and seeing the team, and when you couldn't be, you were taking their phone calls and sending the daily messages. And I imagine sending a daily video message is quite a lift in terms of effort, but really proved to your team that they matter and that you want to have that communication.
Tracie Sponenberg (11:02):
It was just done on our CEO's iPhone and just kind of sent out, so it wasn't all polished, and we do those kinds of things once in a while, but for the most part, it was just him flipping around his phone and sending out a heartfelt message. But the most important thing with that is everything that we knew, our team knew. So, every piece of information we had when we had our first COVID case, we as our COVID response case... And this was extremely early on when we had the media calling when it was a big deal and it was one of the early ones in the state, and we get together, we get a communication together, and we had our people notified within probably about a half-hour of us being notified. So, once we figured everything out, we had a statement on our website within about an hour. So, if we know something, our team's going to know something. And we pass that on, that goes for things through COVID, that goes through for new locations we're opening, that goes for just about everything.
Tracy Eames (12:04):
Yeah. That transparency is really important with your team, especially in times when there's a lack of knowledge generally, right?
Tracie Sponenberg (12:10):
Tracy Eames (12:11):
That was obviously, COVID is something that none of us knew really what was going on all the time, right? We were all learning together, and so having that transparency, I'm sure, made your team feel like, "Okay. We may not know everything, but we're in this together. And if we're in this together, we can make that work," so.
Tracie Sponenberg (12:27):
Tracy Eames (12:27):
I know this is a big change of tact, but you said something and I really don't want to miss it, which is that you centralized kind of the hiring process. And I think for a lot of teams, this is one of those pain points that we don't talk about a lot.
And so, I'm kind of secretly glad that you mentioned having this happen at your organization, which is, I think that can feel to the local team sometimes like, "Oh, why is this being taken away from us?" It can feel like from the headquarters like, "Oh, we have some real reasons why we want to do this." Right? Then they're valid reasons. How did you and your organization kind of handle that, right? Because it's a delicate balance of saying, "Hey, we're not centralizing this because we don't think you know how to do it. We're centralizing it for these completely different reasons." But we also need to kind of have that conversation in a real way, so people know that and know the why behind it and just be great to hear a leader talk about that because it is a sensitive topic a lot of big organizations go through as they grow.
Tracie Sponenberg (13:26):
Yeah. And it was something that I walked into the company going, "What do you mean? Hiring doesn't sit in HR? That's crazy." And then when we were smaller... We're double the size as we were when I joined, and when we were smaller, it worked pretty well. And so, it's something that I've always wanted to do, but we baked it into our strategic plan last year. And so, we had the resources, the support, we had a team who was championing it. So, we communicated a lot about it. We talked a lot about it, explained how it would go, worked through with members of our team, what that would look like and how we positioned it was as help. And I don't think I have yet to run across and Jeff, our head of TA just started about a month ago, but I've yet to run across with one of our managers or one of their managers who's unhappy about it.
Of course, we haven't completely pulled it in. We pulled in our hotspots and then we just got a new applicant tracking system, and then we're going to drop everything. All of a sudden, it's going to all pull in, but so we positioned it from, "This is a resource for you. We're going to help you. And you're not finding people, we can find people. And here's what we're going to do. We're going to create the ads that are better. We're going to eventually pull candidates in instead of waiting for them to come to us. And it's going to be your hiring decision, but it's a guided hiring decision." So, we're a largely male workforce. We're a largely white workforce. And when you have largely white male managers, they're hiring largely white males. And so, that was only one of the reasons, but it's a very important reason, and for us to really be a diverse, inclusive culture, we had to make that change. We absolutely had to make that change.
Mike Vaggalis (15:15):
Have you gotten any pushback?
Tracie Sponenberg (15:17):
Mike Vaggalis (15:19):
Yeah. Yeah. One of the things that I think is just a fascinating topic and I definitely want to dig into more of the impetus to drive a diverse and inclusive culture. But before we do, Tracie, it seems like we're hitting sort of a broader topic of there's a growing organization that needs to implement policy and procedure in order to drive efficiencies and make the organization run better. How do you balance the need for efficiencies in setting up those policies and procedures without... Well, people in general, I find don't love policy and procedures, right? [crosstalk 00:15:53].
Tracie Sponenberg (15:52):
Neither do I. Yeah.
Mike Vaggalis (15:55):
Yeah. So, how do you balance the tension between the need for efficiency and the desire not to stifle innovation or creativity with too much governance?
Tracie Sponenberg (16:07):
That's a really great question. And I will tell you things like... And I wasn't very policy compliance-driven HR professional early in my career, and I've really evolved to the point where our handbook needs to be updated. I'm not super worried about it because there are things that are more important, and when we do update it, it's going to be more of a guidebook, not a handbook. We don't need an SOP for everything. I came from a regulated environment, right? We don't need an SOP for everything.
Tracie Sponenberg (16:38):
And I have a good friend named Steve Brown, and I really listen and learn to him. And he's like, "Look, our handbook hasn't been updated since 1998." Ours is much more recent than that. "Our handbook hasn't been updated since 1998. I don't care. We do the right thing. We treat our people well." And while that may be a more extreme example, we treat our people well. There are things that require governance, but we aren't actually a regulated company in a large extent, and we're not a super policy-driven company. We have to have processes for certain things, of course, because it helps people, but we're not super governed and regulated. And that comes largely from our CEO, and it allows us to operate a little more nimbly than we would otherwise.
Mike Vaggalis (17:30):
Cool. No, Tracie, I think that's such a helpful response and something that I think recognizing that there is attention, recognizing that you've made a conscious decision to operate in a certain way with good reasons is something that our listeners can really learn from, right? You don't have to be crazy policy, procedure-driven, at the same time, there is a need for some governance in order for any organization to operate efficiently. But I want to go back to the strategic plan that you had mentioned earlier and the need to drive a diverse, inclusive organization, recognizing that a certain demographic is likely to hire people that look and think and sound a lot like them. So, what was the driving spark to say, "We need to change that, and we are going to put intentional design behind changing it."
Tracie Sponenberg (18:23):
So, I think like a lot of companies, we were sort of asleep at the wheel. We figured, well, we treat people well. We have people from all different areas and people who look different and think different and who have different abilities, but we weren't being intentional about it. And then after George Floyd's murder, I had a woman, a black woman, friend of mine reach out and basically say to a bunch of her friends who are white, "You have a voice and you need to use it. And your black friends are in pain." And I really didn't think much about my silence and our lack of being intentional about creating a diverse and inclusive workforce. I didn't think much, and then I did.
And we also have a weekly, what we call a rebels group that was monthly. It was a lunch group. It was local. We pivoted to weekly and Zoom during COVID of folks in New Hampshire who think people first. And at that same time, we looked around and saw that we were all white women. And so, we put out a call on LinkedIn and just basically said, "We want to learn. If you want to listen or educate, join us." And so, we had people from all over the globe, join us. We had about 30 people in that call and we've since had guest speakers and we've created a group, a wonderful group, and I just had the call earlier today of people who look differently from all over the place, all different kinds of jobs in the people's space, and we all challenge each other to think differently.
So, when you look at it like that... So, I went on my own personal journey last year, it's a daily journey. When you look at it like that, you can do amazing things. If you create a workforce, if you create some kind of group, some kind of team with people who aren't just like you, people who look differently, who think differently, who act differently, who love differently as my friend, Kayla Moncayo says, "That's how the magic happens," and that's how you create an incredible company. And that's how you create a successful company. And there's a lot of metrics around that. So, we're not doing it for the business success, we're doing it just because it's the right thing to do to be intentional about it.
Mike Vaggalis (20:51):
Yeah. And I think this past year starting really with George Floyd, but-
Tracie Sponenberg (20:57):
So much. So much.
Mike Vaggalis (20:58):
... so many different things that happened, and not just in 2020, but for years and years, but that was such a spark for so many of us. I know my wife and I went through a similar book club where we said, "We need to sit down and really think through this." It's a topic that we hadn't been as intentional about addressing, and we learned so much over the course of the past year. And yeah, I guess, just any resources that you would have or encouragement that you would have for our listeners that you and your group have found helpful for people that are still navigating and learning, and wanting to be intentional about learning more about diversity and inclusion, both in their personal lives and from a professional standpoint as well?
Tracie Sponenberg (21:36):
Yeah. I think the first thing you need to do is look deep within yourself and acknowledge your own biases. And there are... And maybe, I don't know if you could share this post podcast because I can give you a bunch of recommendations, a few off the top of my head. How to Be an Antiracist is one that comes top of mind. Biased is one that comes top of mind, and there are many, many, many. Others are podcasts. Aiko Bethea who works with Brené Brown, has done some incredible work. There are people like Madison Butler on LinkedIn who's doing incredible work. So, there are a lot of people to learn from. So, I think... I'm a white woman, if you're listening to this, and I first had to take a look at myself and acknowledge my own biases, and this goes for not just race, but for we're in, this month is Pride Month.
So, for acknowledging biases across the spectrum of the LGBTQ spectrum, and then applying that to the workplace. And are we creating an environment where people who aren't like me are going to feel safe? And not only that, but feel like they belong and that is critically important. So, I had been fortunate that I had already learned a lot through my own education, but it's also listening to others and listening to others all the time. So, we had a discussion today, as we often do in our group about race, and about one of our people in our group had a location that was largely white. So, we'd started talking about what that look like and how to change that. And so, it's just talking and learning and listening all of the time.
And I think one of the first things you need to do is look and see are your friends made up of people who are exactly like you? And do they look like you? Do they think like you? Do they love like you? And if they are, and often they are, then change that, change that. Be intentional about creating a network of friends and colleagues that think differently and who can challenge you, and start there and then roll that out to your company.
Tracy Eames (23:43):
And we will definitely share resources in our show notes. So, for our listeners, they know that they can go into our show notes and kind of get those resources that we mention during the podcast. So, we'll take you up on that offer, but I think it's such a valuable lesson, not only for leaders, but for all of us, right? To say, "Hey, you know what? We don't know everything and we're not walking or living anybody else's experience." Right?
Tracie Sponenberg (24:04):
Tracy Eames (24:04):
So, how do we learn from other people to say, "Okay, I may feel one way in terms of my safety or my inclusion." But others may not, and that's something that we all have to kind of take those steps and as leaders listen, right? And I think it kind of comes back to that mantra of really trying to learn from others and making sure that when we do learn, we use our ability and our voice to make that change, right? So, it's not just learning, but also how do I take action and be an advocate and an ally to make the changes that we can as a team and as a company and as an organization, and much bigger. So, I really appreciate you sharing that with us and sharing the intentionality, I think that's a good lesson for all leaders, right? If we want to make a change, we actually have to be intentional.
And you mentioned strategic planning, and I think a lot of times, we actually talk about strategic planning all the time on this podcast. It's not everybody's favorite topic, but it's one that Mike and I, we ended up getting into a lot of topics on it, and I think it's changed in one of the things people have talked about is should strategic plans be shorter, right? Should we be doing strategic planning more often? But I love this approach which is, what else should we be planning, right? Like, yeah, strategic plans usually, we're like, "Okay, we need to make these financial metrics and we need to do these things." But thinking about that in the broader health of the organization is a great perspective, and I just wonder if there's other ways that you and your team and the broader Granite Group organization have thought differently about like, what are the things we should be planning? And how often should we be planning them? So much has changed and how do we kind of keep changing the process to fit our needs today?
Tracie Sponenberg (25:44):
I think that's a great question, and we do strategic planning every year. We do the major strategic planning to set the strategy every three years. So, we kind of have a check-in every year and then every six weeks, we check in on progress. So, for example, I own three initiatives. They're all people-based, which is pretty cool that a strategic plan would have three people-based initiatives. And so I'm responsible for driving those forward and for making that happen. And I think this process is a little bit different in every company. I think it's a little bit more structured for us, and I think I've experience in the past, except for my last company, which was very structured and it's works for us, and I think that's the important thing. You don't feel like you have to have this strategic plan that fits in this box and that looks a certain way. It should be unique to your company.
Mike Vaggalis (26:35):
One thing Tracie, that's come through in a couple of different ways throughout this conversation has been a focus that you have personally, and it sounds like the Granite Group has organizationally on intentional introspection, and stepping back and taking a look in the mirror and saying, "Who am I? What are the things that I care about? Where do I need to work on myself personally?" And then organizationally having a commitment to saying, "Every six weeks, we're going to check in, do a self-assessment and see where that lines back up to the strategic plan that we do every year, and then every three years." I think that's a really important point for our listeners, and would love any reaction that you have to the self-reflection processes that you have both personally, and then that you've worked to implement within your organization?
Tracie Sponenberg (27:25):
Well, you make it sound much fancier than it actually is. I think its-
Tracy Eames (27:31):
Part of our job.
Tracie Sponenberg (27:32):
... yeah it sounds so great coming in I'm like, "Wow, I'm going to use that?" I've learned to be self-reflective. Self-awareness was a blind spot of mine until a few years ago. So, I really learn to be much more self-reflective, but I think that that's something as an organization we're always working on, and as people, we're always working on. So, it sounds great, but I don't think for us, there's a huge strategy around that. There should be though now. Now, that I listened to you.
Mike Vaggalis (28:02):
Maybe just recognizing the need for, and this is one of those things I use this analogy a lot, but I think there's a lot of things in life where you're like, "Oh, if I were being tested on this, on an exam in college, and there was a multiple-choice test like, it's good to be intentionally self-reflective. True or false?" Nobody's going to check false, but it's not a practice that we often put in place in our real lives. So, that was just something that struck me, I thought was a good point for our listeners. Like go do that, find ways to put some self-checks in place, so you can learn more about yourself and about your organization.
Tracie Sponenberg (28:41):
Yeah. And ask for feedback as much as you can from as many people as you can. And that's something that's challenging, but very important. And back toward our last topic on DEI, it's uncomfortable, but growth only comes from getting uncomfortable and that goes for everything.
Tracy Eames (29:00):
Well, I'm going to take this opportunity to ask potentially one of the most controversial topics in all of HR and business, which is we hear it a lot, right? We talk about culture. We talk about people and people always say to us like, "Well, my business still has to grow. So, how do I make sure that I'm doing these things? But if I focus all my time on HR and on employee engagement, are we going to grow?" Right? There's this myth out there that we find a lot that culture and growth are dichotomous kind of thoughts, right?
And what we always say to people are the things that you have to do to grow your business are the same things you have to do to create a healthy culture, right? Feedback, innovation, communication, these are all important to both. So, as a people leader and a chief people officer, want to kind of bring you into this hot topic that we always get asked, which is how... Obviously, the Granite Group is growing and growing quickly, and they're also very focused on people. So, how do you find that balance and how do you work with business leaders to say, "Hey, we're all on the same team here. And we're all trying to grow, and these things don't have to be competing priorities?"
Tracie Sponenberg (30:11):
I think that's great. And I love that we're talking about this. And I think that when you think about culture, I think that at least the way we used to think about culture and the way we saw in a lot of larger companies and a lot of famous companies, and a lot of tech companies where culture meant free food and free beer and a game room and a yoga room and free tickets to sporting events or what have you. So, all things that were actually designed to keep people at work for longer and make them feel better about being onsite when they should be home or doing other things, and that's kind of where culture or culture being a cool culture, a good place to work, kind of where it started.
And we do enter these contests, and I still read things about like once in a while, do you have free food? Do you have this? And that being a measurement of a good culture, and that's just wrong, right? So, good culture is created by all of the things that you mentioned and that feedback and people having a voice and having supportive management, and the chance to move up within the company and a great communication. And so, those are the things that really create a great culture. And so, I think it's important to be intentional about setting that culture and what you want it to be.
But really when it boils down to it, having a great culture is like just being a good human being. If you're a good human being and you treat people well, you're going to create a great culture and then you can set the intentionality from there, but it's not as complicated as we've historically made it out to be.
Tracy Eames (31:56):
Yeah, I agree, and we're going to talk a little bit about DisruptHR because I know we both kind of done those presentations and I'd love to hear your thoughts and kind of things that you've learned, but we often talk about that, like I think somewhere along the line... Because we're all busy, right? So, this is my theory on this, which is, we're all busy, so we're like we heard employee engagement and then we made a checklist, right? Like got to get a ping pong table, got to get this, got to get that. And like it became an action item versus to your point, just how would I want to be led, right? Like as a team member, "How do I want my boss to treat me? How do I want to treat others?" And just kind of doing the day-to-day work to build that communication and build that comradery.
But I think somewhere the checklist became more of the focus than the actual results, which is, "Hey, if we all enjoy working together, we're probably going to do great things because we enjoy each other's company. We have that open communication where we can have a healthy dialogue. We're going to come to better solutions because we have that debate and we have that feedback loop." And anyway, I appreciate you letting me take you down the road of the one bigger debates that we always hear, but-
Tracie Sponenberg (33:03):
And sometimes we're our own worst enemy in HR. Sometimes we're creating these challenges that may not actually always be there.
Tracy Eames (33:12):
But I would love to hear your feedback. So, I know that we were chit-chatting a little bit before the podcast. This is a total side note for our listeners and maybe I'm way off topic from anything but Tracie, does a lot of presenting, a lot of speaking, and one of the things we both done is speak at DisruptHR, which for those of you who don't know the format, it's a five-minute presentation and I might get this a little wrong, but I think it's like 15 seconds a slide per 20 slides. And one of the things I was saying before we get started is the reason I loved it, my career as the listeners know, has been mostly in marketing and sales.
So, lots of presentations, right? You make like hour-long presentations all the time, no problems, stand up in front of a crowd. The unique thing that I found about a five-minute presentation is you have to have priorities, right? Like you spend most of your time cutting things out versus putting things in. And I just loved that exercise. I loved the exercise of like, what is really the most important thing I want to say and I want to have a dialogue about? Versus, "Oh, how many slides can I make?" So, I would just love to hear kind of what you learned through that process and how you enjoyed it?
Tracie Sponenberg (34:17):
I love it. So, I co-organized the one in New Hampshire. So, gosh, probably four years ago, I got a call from my ADP rep and it's like, "We have this chance to sponsor this thing called DisruptHR. Have you ever heard of it?" Like, "Yeah, I had been following it for a while. I've watched a bunch of videos and really admire Jennifer McClure who's since become a friend and she helped co-founded the whole movement." And so anyway, we put it together. We did our first one three years ago. It was so needed and went so well. It was so needed because it really, it's DisruptHR. It's meant to shake up the world of HR and get you to think. And I presented three times, I did two in New Hampshire and one in Boston, which I don't organize. But as we talked about pre-meeting, I'm an introvert, and so speaking is harder for me than for a lot of people, and I've gotten better at it and DisruptHR is the hardest thing I've ever had to do. And that's why I loved it because I did it.
Mike Vaggalis (35:18):
Tracie Sponenberg (35:18):
I got up there and I did it. The first time I almost threw up. I don't remember it at all. One of my slides skipped, so I had to figure out how to do that. It was just a technical glitch, but I loved it. I loved the feeling of, like you said, trying to kind of make that magic happen within that five minutes. And you also have to try to make it funny, which isn't easy. And funny story, when I did my Boston one, that was the end of 2019, we did a run-through and mine was funny.
I had some squares in it because that's how I talk and I had toilets and all kinds of things, but it had a message and we're scrolling through all of the presentations. And I said to the organizer, I like, "Oh no, is it okay that this is funny," because it was all like super serious. And it turned out like toilet jokes were just what people needed, like midway through the whole event. So, it all went fine, but it's still one of my favorite things to do. It's a fun event. It moves fast and it's great. I love it.
Tracy Eames (36:19):
One of the things that you have great experience in, and I want to make sure our listeners hear is, especially kind of right now, right? All of our team members have different schedules. Some might be working from home. Some might be in the office. There's hybrid, some may be in the office a couple of days. You also in your role have a company where people may be hourly, maybe salary, maybe part-time, maybe contractors.
So, a lot of times, leaders will ask us and kind of, "Hey, I want to build a team and I want to make sure everybody feels included, but how do I do that with various schedules, with various locations?" Like the constraints that may be within different roles, so not everybody's working the day shift from nine to five. Some people are working at night in a different time zone. How do you kind of manage that as a leader and as a people leader, specifically making kind of easy for all the team members to kind of feel like they're part of the community, and participate in a lot of the team events or team kind of discussions?
Tracie Sponenberg (37:16):
It's really hard. That's something I think we still haven't totally cracked the code, but I'll tell you what's worked well for us. And every year... And we only bring the whole company together once a year and we do it on a voluntary basis, and we have our annual meeting. For the last two years, it was virtual. But prior to that, we pick a location that's right in the middle of all of our other locations. So, some people are barely driving at all. Some people are driving as far as three hours, but we try to pick it centrally located.
And then we do a big dinner. We do a kind of state of the company. A few years ago, we added in a lot of fun elements. One year, we did a trivia contest and then we give away a whole bunch of prizes. A couple of years ago, we added in a charitable component where people could put together bags for kids who were in foster homes and just so they'd have a blanket and the teddy bear and things like that. And we usually have 70%-ish of our team go. We shut the far-flung locations down early. Pay people for the rest of the day. And then again, it's totally voluntary and it's just our team members coming and getting together, and people love that.
So, that's kind of our one event that we will continue forever because it's one of the best things we do. And we kind of share a state of the company. We usually have a funny video that we've made up and a few jokes and make it a couple of hours, free food, free drinks for a limited period of time. And it's been great. We do several... Usually, in normal years, several customer events where most of our people in our locations come together and get to see others from their locations. And then either by region or by location, we tend to do events there. And that's because we are so dispersed and it's really hard to do that. So, but the key there is asking people and not assuming. So, not everybody wants to get together outside of work.
So, are there things that we can do within the workplace, right? Like I don't drink. So, the amount of virtual wine tastings that I've been invited to is crazy. So, you have to kind of know your audience, right? What do people like? And for the most part, our teams do that really, really well. And then you find other ways. So, if we can't physically bring people together, can we virtually bring them together? So, we do things, as a people team, we have now virtual benefits orientations that we started last year that actually went really well. We found that people like just getting on camera and chatting with other people all around the company. So, we're still figuring that out, but I think the key is listen to your people, don't assume, like really ask what they want to do. Some people just want to go home at the end of the day and spend time with their family. Some people want to hang out with others after work. Some people are totally game to do something, but only if it's during work hours.
So, I'm a big fan of keeping it to the work hours and definitely personalize it for your people. I don't think I answered that, but it's hard. That's one of the hardest things that we're still trying to crack.
Tracy Eames (40:28):
No. I think you answered it. And I think it is hard, right? And I think that alone is what our listeners need to hear, right? I think a lot of times people come on podcasts and they're like, "Oh, I've got all these answers." But the thing that we often shy away from is like, no, it's genuinely hard, right? It's hard to be a leader. It's hard things that we try to manage every day. And I think recognizing that and saying, "Hey, I don't have all the answers, but I'm going to ask my team, and we'll figure this out together," is probably the best advice we could give somebody just in terms of there is no magic bullet, right? These are some difficult things. And to your point, I've seen organizations that I've worked in handle it in different ways as well, right?
Like maybe they'll bring in lunch or dinner depending on the shift. Right? Like what time of day it is, they'll bring it in, and then people have like an extended time where they can just sit around and chit-chat and kind of have that together time, but it's not outside of the work hours. I've seen leaders do early morning coffees, but also do after-work kind of appetizers or something and do a... Oftentimes, I think for the leader, it means you have to go that extra mile and be available a few times during the day, in different times of the day, in different days of the week. And that's what's required, but I think that's really important to make everybody feel included and kind of get that feedback. So, I think your answer was great.
Tracie Sponenberg (41:48):
Yeah. And don't overthink it. Sometimes we're inventing problems that we don't have, that it may be a much simpler solution than we're thinking.
Mike Vaggalis (41:58):
I think, and Tracie, I've got your LinkedIn pulled up right here. And one thing that's peppered all over, and I think it's amazing is people first. And it's not employee first or contractor first or introvert first or extrovert first or morning person or evening person, but finding the opportunities and the ways to make yourself available to Tracy's point for the people in your organization and seeking to serve them and put them first is something that's come through loud and clear throughout this entire conversation. But especially going back to, I think Tracy's specific point and something that I would say comes through again just loud and clear for you is people first seems to be a really huge priority.
Tracie Sponenberg (42:40):
Yeah. And I actually embrace this or fully embrace this because of my CEO who truly leads people first and in his reason for having the company and he's the owner is to create a dynamic growth engine for people. It's not to make money for himself. It's not to serve our customers, it's creating a dynamic growth engine for our people. And there's... We don't have enough time to go into all of this, but there's lots of ways that we do this and how we do this, and how we promote people from within. And we almost never hire managers externally and how we create opportunities and, or grow organically. And it's really, really pretty cool, but it's pretty simple. You put your people first, you just put your people first and everybody says it, few people actually do it, but we're really trying to do it.
Tracy Eames (43:31):
Well, I think that that is no better way to end the podcast than on that note. So Tracie, again, can't thank you enough for spending your afternoon with us, where we're excited to share your story with our guests and we'll share all the links in your show notes, but we also, now that you've teased us with this another piece of information about how you put people first, we might invite you back again. So, if you get another invite, you'll know why? It's because you said that you have this whole other piece of information to share with us. So, thank you.
Tracie Sponenberg (44:00):
Well, thank you, Mike. Thank you, Tracy. Appreciate it.
Mike Vaggalis (44:03):
It's great to see you, Tracie. And before you log off, make sure that you give us a thumbs up, a comment, and be sure to share us with your friends, family, co-workers. We'd really appreciate it. And I know that this message, in particular, is going to resonate with a lot of people, so please go ahead and share it and we will see you next time.
Tracy Eames (44:21):
Awesome. Thanks, everybody.