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Strategies for high-performing organizations: Developing resilient companies + people

Insights from Trent Savage, SVP of HR for Mountain America Credit Union

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

In July, visionary HR leader Trent Savage, the Senior Vice President of HR for Mountain America Credit Union, sat down with Jason Lavender, the Co-Founder and CEO of Electives. In his People Developing People interview, Trent shared his passion for building high-performing organizations. Trent’s expertise in strategy development, executive coaching, leadership effectiveness and talent management shines as he shares insights about culture building and people development.

In this interview, you'll learn:

  • About the changing role of HR leaders and impact of the pandemic.
  • Strategies for fostering a sustainable culture in remote and hybrid work environments.
  • The significance of storytelling in articulating and reinforcing organizational culture.
  • Differentiating factors between successful learning and development programs and those that struggle.
  • The importance of actively engaging managers in employees' development.
  • The future outlook for reskilling and adaptability in an ever-changing AI-driven job landscape.

Jason Lavender, Co-Founder + CEO of Electives: Trent, to kick things off, please share a little bit about your background and what has led you to your role today. 

Trent Savage, Senior Vice President of HR for Mountain America Credit Union: After obtaining my bachelor's, I went to work for my father's company and got into recruiting for truck operations. Eventually, realizing the shortage of drivers for the number of positions we had, I proposed building a truck driver certification program that was approved for pilot.   I developed a training/certification program to help bring truck drivers in and train them to operate at the expected level of performance and safety. After the program's success, the company rolled out the initiative across the company, and I realized the impact HR could have on organizations in solving business problems. And, so, that was my early endeavor into HR training.

From there, I got my MBA with an emphasis in human resources and occupational development, and then I spent nearly nine years working at Procter & Gamble in various HR roles.

That led me to a short stint at eBay. And, then I led HR for Amazon’s global customer services for a few years. After that, I took my first CHRO role at inContact (later purchased by NICE), the leading provider of software for call centers. When NICE was acquired, that led me to the role I'm in today, leading HR for Mountain America Credit Union. I've been here for five years.

HR has a tremendous opportunity to contribute and add value to the business.

Jason: We've been hearing that the role of people leaders has changed significantly over the last decade, but it feels like change has been accelerating since the pandemic. I’m curious to hear your perspective on that change. 

Trent: I'm one of those HR people that is actively excited to be in HR. And at the same time, I’m also frustrated with HR. And what I mean by that is I think HR has a tremendous opportunity to contribute and add value to the business. But too many people are spending time on what I call the “business essentials” — the transactional side of HR. And they just are not breaking the mold.

There's a level of critical thinking that goes into HR that we, as practitioners, need to really dive deep into. And things like Covid put HR in a position where we had to think critically about how we would help the organization move forward through this chaos in a rapid time. 

I think Covid gave many of us in the HR function a lot of opportunity and credibility with the business. And the question is, what are we doing with it now?

Did we, as a function, step up and really take on that next level of leadership that we should be doing? Or did we fall back into old habits? 

One of the biggest things that came out of Covid was hybrid work. Now, one of our biggest challenges is figuring out how we can continue to drive a sustainable culture in an organization with a heavily remote workforce. 

Flexible-friendly cultures empower hybrid organizations to prioritize people.

Jason: Is your current company fully remote or hybrid? 

Trent: We have about a hundred branches across six states. And obviously, it's difficult for that part of our organization [the branch employees] to be remote. 

Slightly more than a third of our organization is corporate or service center. Our service center is very heavily remote. Corporate is hybrid.

So the way we've done it is, we've said, “We want to be a flexible-friendly company.” So, we don't really talk a lot about remote work. We say “flexible-friendly” because we can't have our frontline branch employees remote, and we want them to feel we have flexible options for them too.

We want to figure out how to provide flexibility for the branch employees. So, we just introduced some tools that allow them to pick up shifts and get others to cover for them at any location. For example, if an employee from Idaho is going to be in Utah and wants to pick up a shift, great! That's part of what flexibility looks like on the branch side.

Culture building must be intentional.

Jason Lavender: You mentioned trying to build a culture in this remote/hybrid world. What have you tried, and what has worked well?

Trent: We use a model that helps people understand what our culture is through artifacts, stories, taboos, rituals, all those things.

We've tried to become a little bit more intentional around some of those things. We ask ourselves, “What are the really important artifacts that we would want somebody remote and someone in the office to have?” 

During our first phase, we had some good successes. But we learned a few things that we needed to adjust.

So now we're into round two, and we’re asking ourselves, “How do we continue to evolve in a way that helps people get it?” I think one of those key things is storytelling.

When I worked at Procter & Gamble, they had a couple of core stories that every employee knew. It was the same at Amazon. And I think that's the key. How do you create meaningful stories that help articulate your culture that everybody can understand and regurgitate back to you?

Jason: That might be a nugget we use at Electives, because our whole model is built around learning through storytelling. 

Effective training requires customization to meet the needs of an organization.

Jason: Without naming companies, who did learning and development really well and who struggled, and what do you think are the factors that decided that?

Trent: For one organization, their whole philosophy was, “We bring you in off the college campus, and we want to plan out your retirement date. And we're going to promote and develop and grow you from within.” And they do. And, so, the development systems they've created are very intense and thoughtful in how they go about it. 

At another successful organization, the leaders bought into it [learning and development] and believed in it. And they had a lot of built-from-within training programs that were really tailored to what they were trying to drive in their culture. 

At other companies, they gave what I call “lip service” or “the plaque on the wall.” They relied almost entirely on off-the-shelf courses.

I believe you've got to find the balance of both. But if you're going more outside, you still have to tailor that to match your company's language, your cultural values and those things you're trying to teach. Otherwise, there will be a disconnect between what you're saying your culture is and what you're teaching and training and developing your people. At the end of the day, you've got to have both. And so that's where the difference is. 

Training benefits from more management involvement.

Jason: If you put yourself in the employee's shoes, can you fill in this blank, “Engaging in my corporate training would be easier if _____.”

Trent: I'll share my experience here to answer that question. 

When I got here, if an employee needed development, they would be “sent” to training. And so, to answer that question, “My development would be easier if my manager were engaged in it.” 

What we've had to do is shift this mindset. Development doesn't happen just because you send employees to training. You have to take an active role in the development of your employees.

So we, like many companies, have shifted that mindset from “Oh, just send them to training…” to “Yeah, I can send them to training. But more importantly, what am I doing? How am I building this into their goals and expectations of performance?”

I really believe employees engage in development when they see that it's helping them do their jobs more effectively. Employees want to see how there's a connection between what they're being asked to do in their work and the training they go through. 

Sometimes, we put employees in this training, and we don't really give them any context of why or the rationale behind it. And then they sit there and go. “Why? Why am I wasting my time on this?” But, if they feel a connection between their day-to-day job and the training, and the development is focused on making their life better or achieving their career goals, their development will accelerate.

There's a big opportunity to do that better. How do you connect the development, the capability you're trying to build, to the work that they're doing so that they connect the dots? I believe that makes a huge difference.

We all need training to stay relevant.

Jason: If you step back and think over the next two or three years, what do you anticipate employees will need more than ever from a development perspective?

Trent: The organizations that can adapt, adjust and be agile to build skills and be flexible will be the winners — in other words, the capacity to change.

We've been through a lot of turbulence. We had Covid. We had the great resignation. And now we have this inflationary market. We're in turbulence, and I'm not convinced that the turbulence will go away. And so the organizations that build this agility to adjust and reskill people, and have people willing to embrace that reskilling, will win. 

I saw some research showing that a third of any given person's job skills change about every three years. I'm going to guess that it probably will keep accelerating. 

And so one of the things that we focus heavily on here is having a development mindset as a company.  We're saying, “If you're not actively developing, you're going to be left behind.” Leaders need to lead out on this or it won’t happen, our role is to make the case for it and help enable it.

Earlier in my career, I watched people who had been at the pinnacle of their careers – who were considered high performers… until market shifts happened. For example, in the sales organization at P&G, there had been a shift from the relationship-based model to a more data-driven approach. And I watched some of these people not make that shift. These were people who had been there 20-30 years. I watched people in tears as they were being performance-managed, whereas only a few years ago, they were at the height of success. It was tough to see.

You don't want to be that person, because that's not a fun place to be. You don’t want your job to outgrow your skill set. I see it in any company that's growing. If people aren't actively developing their skills, they will be outgrown. And then that's a painful discussion that has to happen.

Jason: Thank you, Trent. That’s a powerful image to end on.

Hear more from Trent:

About Trent Savage

Trent Savage is a visionary and strategic human resources leader with a remarkable 18-year track record of driving success at market-leading companies. Passionate about fostering high-performing organizations, Trent excels in partnering with business leaders to provide clarity of direction and alignment to goals. His expertise in strategy development, executive coaching, leadership effectiveness, organizational design and strategic talent management has left a lasting impact across diverse industries, including technology, retail, consumer product goods, transportation and finance.

Trent has held significant leadership roles throughout his distinguished career at esteemed organizations, including Procter & Gamble, Amazon and eBay. As the Senior Vice President of HR at Mountain America Credit Union, Trent spearheaded transformative initiatives that shaped the company's HR landscape. 

Committed to giving back, Trent invests his time supporting his family, colleagues, fellow BYU alums and the community. He envisions an HR legacy focused on empowering employees to excel, ensuring that the profession transcends transactional tasks and enables employees to achieve greatness. Trent’s unwavering dedication to HR excellence continues to shape the profession's future with every step he takes.

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