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Developing people at work: Perspectives from an HR leader

Ellen Raim, Founder of People Matter, shares insights during part two of our People Developing People interview.

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Insights from Ellen Raim, Founder of People MatterWe focus more on solving than preventing People problems.

Jason Lavender recently joined a Zoom room with Ellen Raim, an HR leader, a nonprofit board member and the Founder of People Matter, to chat about common opportunities and challenges for HR and People leaders, especially in the category of people development. Click here to read part one of Ellen's interview. Read on for part two of Ellen's interview.

Developing people at work would be easier if managers believed in development.

Jason: We often talk about how hard it is to develop people at work. So I'm curious to hear how you fill in this blank: “Developing people at work would be easier if [blank].”

Ellen: It [developing people] would be easier if the managers of people believed in development. 

We're herd-like creatures, and we're always looking to the alpha to see what the alpha thinks and does right. For example, you look up to your manager and think, “Do they want me to do this? Do they not want me to do this?” 

At most companies, there's some training available. Of course, it’s often one-minute sound bites on some video channel (and don't get me started on how I don't think that that's good enough), but there's usually some kind of training in a company. But if you feel like your manager doesn't support you taking that training, you don't [take it]. Because it means you're going to have to work into the evening. Or you're going to be missing meetings. 

It's really about the support that you believe your manager is giving you.

At some companies, it seems they think training is an extracurricular activity, even though it is really central to employee success.

We can create a virtuous cycle of learning.

Jason: Have you seen any managers get KPIs built into their performance reviews that are specifically around their team participating in training?

Ellen: It's been years and years since I've seen anything like that. 

Pepsi used to have a section on their performance review about how managers managed, and there were a series of things underneath it that would suggest what “goodness” looked like. But, I don't think they do it anymore. I'm not aware of any companies that do. And, I think it's a miss.

I think most managers in today's world are player-coaches, because there's so much that needs to be done, and we're running lean organizations. But there's still that coaching aspect.

I'm experimenting with an idea around a coaching culture. There's a very old saying, “Each one, teach one.” I don't know the origins of it, but I hear that it's attributed to Gandhi trying to help with illiteracy in India. The idea is, if you know something, you should teach it to the next person. 

If we're always relying on the managers to teach things or make it okay for people to go to classes, maybe that's an unfair ask. Maybe if we were able to move the whole culture so that everyone could learn something, then there could be many teachers. Like in staff meetings, each person could teach something that they learned.

I think that this plays really nicely into what Electives is trying to do with Electives Membership allowing people to take classes without it having to come through the organization, because that will give each person some level of knowledge that maybe everybody else doesn't have. And so if we can, we should practice “each one teach one.” I think that's a way, maybe, to get a grassroots of development going.

Jason: We have a client who was an early adopter of the Electives Membership model that had all of their employees choosing the classes they wanted to take each month, and then they asked five people at every monthly all-hands meeting to share for three minutes on what they learned in their class. To your point, it felt like it made everyone even more engaged in their class, because they knew they had to teach it later. So they're really into it. They're taking notes. They're sharing back. And now you have all the employees learning five different things. 

Ellen: If you create grassroots interest, you can build on that, too. So it doesn't just have to be everybody teaching each other. But, maybe you have a groundswell of employees who then say, “We would like you to bring in someone that teaches us about X.” It becomes a virtuous cycle.

Connection builds trust and collaboration.

Jason: At Electives, we're big believers in helping people connect. Particularly in this hybrid/remote world, we think connection is super important.

How do you think about connection as it relates to overseeing the People and HR function? Have you seen anything work really well, particularly in the last couple of years, to make people feel connected to each other or the business?

Ellen: One of the reasons I'm not a fan of quick video training is because I think if you're going to learn something, you have to put in the time to actually learn it. And the hook for a lot of these things seems to be, “I can teach you a foreign language in 11 seconds if you just click on this thing every day.” And I just don't think that those things work very well.

Conversely, I really like interactive things. When you can get people sharing with each other, it's so much more of a meaningful experience. If you can get people speaking up, and you can get them speaking to each other (and not only to the person in the front of the room or the front of the Zoom call), it's a much more meaningful experience because people relate to each other.

How do you create connection? And how do you help people relate to each other? I think you have to get them outside of their roles. While the things you've heard companies do, like happy hours and offsites, sometimes seem hokey, they actually do work.

I worked at a company where we built an adult-sized ball pit in the middle of the lobby, and on each ball, there was a question. If you were in the ball pit and somebody else came in, you had to ask each other and answer each other's questions.

All those things work. They feel awkward at first because we're adults. But we really haven't lost the spark of having best friends and going to the playground. And so the more that you can do those kinds of things, I think the better off you are.

And if you can't do that [create in-person connection], then the more you do at the beginning of meetings, like where you go around and you ask people a question that doesn't have anything to do with work, the more you humanize each other. The more people can find that they have in common with each other. The more benefit of the doubt they'll give each other. The more help they'll give each other. And the more willingness they have to take direction or negative feedback from each other.

People need to know how to thrive in ambiguity and be resilient to change.

Jason: I remember seeing an exercise years ago that always stuck with me. To kick off a meeting, everybody had a blank piece of paper and a pen. We each paired up with a person, and we had to draw them. We only had 30 seconds, so the drawings were just terrible. At “pencils down,” everybody showed their drawings, and everyone said, “I'm so sorry.” 

The point was to show that 99% of adults apologize for their ideas. But when you do that exercise with kids under the age of 8, everyone gets so excited to share their pictures.

We used that exercise at the start of a brainstorming conversation to essentially say,  “There will be no apologizing for ideas today. Be the kid, and just be proud of your idea.”

Transitioning back into questions… In the next couple of years, what do you think people are going to need to learn more than ever?

Ellen: The ability to thrive in ambiguity and be resilient to change. The world is so sped-up right now. If you just look at what's happening in the work world, hundreds of jobs are not going to be here five years from now. 

AI is the “newest thing” everybody's talking about. But AI is real. It's going to have some effect on the workplace.

There's a big shift in the way I think about work — in the relationship between employees and employers. If you think all the way back to “once upon a time,” we had sweatshops and bad relationships between employers and employees. Then unions came along and they fixed wages, hours and working conditions. Then unions waned because a lot of really big companies like Motorola and IBM put people initiatives in place. They were the first ones to come up with health insurance, pensions, vacations and those kinds of things. And then those things started to morph. (For example, we don't have pensions anymore, we have 401Ks.) The relationship between employers and employees keeps changing.

And then we had the pandemic, and people had a whole new way of thinking about what work meant and what they were willing to contribute to work. You can see that now with the “great resignation” that happened and people's continued unwillingness to leave their living rooms and come back into the office.

That's not done. Unions look like they're on the rise again. The actors are striking. The writers are striking. Ford and GM employees are striking. You throw AI back in the mix, and I don't know where all of this is going to end. 

I believe both employees and those who manage and run companies are going to need to understand how to stay above it all as things are falling out.

Jason: I agree. The term “unprecedented” is starting to lose its power, because there are so many unprecedented things that we've lived through in the last couple of years. It's overwhelming.

Ellen: And I don't think it's finished. A lot of the pundits proclaim, “It's a Gen Z problem…. It's a Millennial problem…” I don't think so. I think it's a shift in the way the relationships or the contracts between employers and employees are being created right now. I think we'll reach another place of calm for a while. But I don't think we're there yet.

Jason: Is there a data point or statistic that you have recently learned about that you find troubling or exciting in a positive way?  

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About Ellen Raim

Ellen Raim, Founder of People Matter, has passionately navigated the world of HR, becoming a beacon of transformative solutions. With a background in law, behavioral economics and organizational design, Ellen is uniquely positioned to fuse human behavior with business needs. From her early days as an employment lawyer to spearheading global HR teams, Ellen’s journey is a testament to her dedication. Through People Matter, Ellen is transforming HR from administrative to strategic, by designing systems and cultures that drive growth.

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