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Laura Durfee of Galaxy Vets: Five Things Business Leaders Can Do To Create A Fantastic Work Culture

An Interview With Tyler Gallagher

… Empowering people and encouraging them to take risks and speak up. If you want to move up in your career and affect change in your environment, you have to be comfortable taking risks. A lot of people are afraid to speak up. They’re afraid that their voice won’t be heard or that they’d be judged.

As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Laura Durfee.

Laura Durfee brings over 15 years of diverse HR-related experience. She is an accomplished people strategist and HR ops leader with extensive experience in the manufacturing, service, and hospitality industries. Laura is a consultant to C-suites for strategic planning, HR policy, M&A, corporate restructure, change management, organizational behavior, HR compliance, talent development, DEIB, employee relations, and HR project management. At Galaxy Vets, Laura Durfee is the Vice President of People and Culture.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

During my days in high school and college, I worked several jobs including fast food, customer service, retail, etc. In the restaurant industry, I was a manager and trainer, and my duties included performance enablement, positive reinforcement, some training curriculum design, and representation of particular cultural and workplace behaviors. This is where I really got my exposure to the training and development element and managerial components of HR.

When I was at the University of South Carolina working on my master’s degree in HR, I had a nine-month contract with Michelin Tire, a Fortune 500 company. It was an interesting time because the company was facing a two-pronged talent crisis. They were expanding the physical plant in South Carolina and they needed to hire workers to compensate for the increase in production. At the same time, they also realized they had not adequately planned for a looming mass retirement and they were expecting around 30% of their workforce to retire in the next five years. This was really a great learning experience for me as I juggled short-term talent attraction and mass hiring, while simultaneously forging relationships in the community and with academia to attract talent for future positions.

As my master’s program was concluding, Michelin approached me about exploring a full-time position, but I accepted an offer from a different organization. This new role also included a great deal of high-volume talent planning with a blend of safety supervision, training and development, succession planning, and benefits administration. I was also working with vendors, performing investigations, navigating compliance, and driving culture in a 24-hour workforce environment — essentially what you would call blue-collar.

After a year, I transitioned into the hospitality industry when I accepted an HR director role with Zealandia Holding Company. Zealandia’s growth strategy was through acquisitions, so a significant component of my role included onboarding and integrating small employee populations ranging from six people to 75 people, depending on the size of the acquisition. I was promoted to senior director, and then eventually to senior vice president, and my subordinate group grew from one direct report to 18 direct and indirect reports. It was really a developmental experience for me.

I left the company at the end of 2020 because I believed the development opportunities and the degree to which I could be effective there had been exhausted. I spent 2021 exploring other ventures and then eventually joined Galaxy Vets in March of 2022.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I am sure that the most interesting stories are ahead of me. There are always interesting stories in HR. Galaxy Vets is a veterinary healthcare system and we expand by acquiring veterinary practices across the U.S. During our recent acquisition, I visited the team and I listened to what their experiences have been and some things they were really looking forward to from joining Galaxy Vets.

In these first meetings, first impressions are the most crucial in order to connect with the human element behind a business transaction. That’s the primary component of HR, the human element.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

At Galaxy, we are trying to transform the veterinary workplace and reduce burnout. Poor work-life balance, toxic work environments, lack of appreciation, and excessive workloads are depleting the mental health of veterinary teams and driving them out of the profession. Employers need to take action because soon there will not be enough veterinarians to serve the growing pet population.

As vice president of people and culture, the number one thing I’m trying to do is to drive a people-first culture; a culture that values and appreciates diversity of thought, varied perspectives, and prioritizing the employee experience.

We run our regular burnout studies, and lack of autonomy or lack of control is the number-one factor that contributes to burnout. When someone comes into an organization, they want to be able to have some degree of say in how they drive their work.

What I have recognized in most companies, especially startups, is that there is an intention or even a verbal commitment that the company values the “whole human,” but in reality, they only value certain components of a person; a skillset or an alignment on values. Usually, this amounts to valuing only 80–85% of who someone is; the remainder of who someone is is tolerated at best and devalued at worst.

The thing that companies have not gotten quite right is, “How do we value the entire human being? Not the 80% that matches what we want. Not the 80% that fits into our values or fits into our expectations. The totality of the human we hired.”

Organizations practicing this “whole human” culture will be able to recognize a different perspective and look at that perspective and say, “You know what? Rather than trying to mold you into what we think you should be, we’re going to let you be exactly who you are, and we’re going to figure out how to appreciate it and value it and prioritize it.”

So, that difference between valuing most of who someone is versus valuing the total entirety of who someone is is what I’m trying to do at Galaxy. It isn’t easy. It’s a difficult thing to do, but I think that Galaxy has a real shot.

Ok, let’s jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the U.S. workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

When you’re talking about a number as high as 50%, you can relegate that to employees not having some of their needs met. Some have sacrificed part of what they desire. For example, some people want to be able to work three or four hours at a time rather than eight or 10 hours straight through, but if they find an organization that can’t accommodate that, they’re sacrificing a little bit of who they are and what they need.

Some people need a lot of collaboration and a lot of social interaction, and a lot of face-to-face interactions. So if the only position they can find is one that is very cold in culture or may be remote with very little interaction and they’re sacrificing a little bit of who they are, they’re not going to be able to have what they need.

Some people are exhausted by social interactions, some people are introverted or have social anxiety, so if they join a culture or an organization that has a high emphasis on meetings and they constantly have to be on camera, they’re not going to be happy.

For 50% of the workforce to be self-identifying as unhappy, that has to be coming from some employers’ failures to meet their needs.

There are ways to prevent and rectify it, and it starts with feedback. Employers should be regularly doing surveys and interviews with their employees and collecting data.

It is important to note that it is not enough to just collect data or to take a “majority rules” approach to the data; it is important to prioritize everyone. So, if you do an employee survey and 75% of the people give you congruent answers, and the other 25% tell you that they want something different, you have to respond to both. Otherwise, you’re prioritizing the 75, and you’re sacrificing the 25. It is critical to have a feedback loop of employees who are going to have their needs met because the first thing is to be able to tell you what those needs are. Then you have to actionably prioritize meeting those needs consistently across all groups. Those are some of the key factors in creating a whole human culture.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity, b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

Generally, we have two personalities when it comes to managing unhappiness. One personality is slightly more optimistic in that if an employee is unhappy, they are going to drive change, and if they can’t impact change where they are, then they leave, and that creates turnover. When you lose the skill set, it creates a pull on other resources and other people have to pick up the slack.

You now have to hire somebody and because you have lost institutional knowledge and the new recruit has to be brought to speed, your HR department and sometimes other departments, have to get involved in the hiring process. While the hiring process is still going on, other people have to compensate for the loss in headcount where the workload is concerned. If you don’t have enough people to manage the workload, then they all become turnover risks too, because you might be driving exhaustion and burnout in those remaining.

The second sort of personality is the employee who just gives up when they are unhappy. They stop speaking up, they stop trying, and their work performance suffers. They’re not going to perform their best if they’re unhappy, and they’re not going to empower other people to perform their best as well. Their unhappiness can create a drag on their productivity and on the energy of their department.

Both of those things affect productivity and are really damaging to the organization’s productivity and culture.

When you collect feedback and respond to feedback, you give your employees an experience of being heard, seen, valued, and prioritized. And it leaves them with the feeling that they matter and their perspective matters as well.

Usually, these things have a positive effect on other employees as well. So, an employee who expresses their unhappiness is a fantastic opportunity for an employer to prove through their actions that they value that feedback and they value the retention of that employee.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

When it comes to generating a list of five things, there are really two. Collect employee feedback and act on that feedback. Whatever the other three things are, they’re coming from the employee feedback.

There’s no point in collecting feedback if you’re not going to respond to it. You’re better off just not collecting feedback.

I was asked recently what are some of the benefit plans and total rewards programs can companies implement to increase employee retention.

Well, here’s the thing, your employees have to tell you that. The HR person shouldn’t be saying, “Well, you have to do this and I think you should do that.” The HR person should be saying: ask the team; ask the employees, and when they tell you, listen.

So, when it comes to the things that improve culture, the best culture is driven by the employees. Ask the employees, and when they tell you, act on their feedback. The greatest culture is only built bottom-up.

Your team has to tell you what culture they want. Culture is always and only a product of employee experience, and in order to understand what your culture is, you have to ask your employees. To me, that’s what the hiring strategy should be.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

We’ve heard terms such as “the great resignation” or the “talent crisis” where jobs are open for longer or people are staying in their roles for shorter amounts of time. Companies are having all these challenges but no one is stepping up and saying, “Well, hold on, maybe the system is broken.”

The problem in the United States is that no one is going first. What we are trying to show at Galaxy Vets is that you do not have to force people into a values-based culture; you do not have to force people into a top-down mission adoption; you do not have to maintain those confinements, conditionings, and that control. You can have an even better organization with a more engaged talent population and higher employee retention as a result.

Companies have practiced this top-down idea because they believe that if they don’t force people to have these values or think in a particular way, then they have no control over what they do. With the “whole human” approach, you have to be fearless and let people deliver their work product on their terms, and if they underperform or don’t deliver a good result, you can always let them go.

No one likes to work with people who are not performing, but you also shouldn’t force people to perform within your confined space if they can perform outside the space; especially if they can perform better outside of that space.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

I’m high-trust, high-autonomy. I do not micromanage but I hold space for the bottom-up feedback loop so that people can tell me if they need more instruction or more communication, and I will respond to that. I can’t force them to conform to me. It’s my responsibility to conform to them.

I am very trusting of my employees to do what they are asked to do. I trust them to identify the deliverables that need to be met for their function. I trust them to come up with the best plan to execute on those deliverables. I will know if my team is not performing, and then I’d take action accordingly, but until then, I trust them, and that has worked very well for me.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are a lot, but I will just briefly talk about one. Fairly early in my career, I worked in the food and beverage industry, and Rob Coenen was one of my bosses.

I was a very high-volume executer. I was very much what you would call a “doer.” So, if work needed to be done, I would go ahead and do the work. If I saw that service was slow or tables were dirty, I would just do what needed to be done.

There was this particular shift when Rob pulled me aside and showed me one of the other managers standing in a corner watching the whole dining room. And I asked myself, “How come that manager is not working?”

Rob explained to me, and he said, “At the end of the night, you’re going to be able to tell me a list of things that you did and the tasks you performed. But the other manager standing in the corner is going to be able to tell me what else was happening; who specifically wasn’t keeping their drinks full, who wasn’t bussing their tables, whose food wasn’t coming out on time.” He said, “All you’re ever going to be able to do if you don’t learn to watch is execute. You have to learn to watch.”

At first glance, it looks like I’m working hard, and that guy is just being lazy, right? But in reality, that guy is going to be able to give a clear picture of everything that went on with the operation, and all I’m going to know is how I contributed to the operation.

This was an early strategy lesson and a good life lesson in the difference between being an executor and being a manager.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I like to believe that my emphasis on the whole human culture is going to bring goodness to the world, but some other things that I do include:

  • Helping people in career procurement like giving advice on their resume, how to ace interviews, how to job search, etc.
  • Empowering people and encouraging them to take risks and speak up. If you want to move up in your career and affect change in your environment, you have to be comfortable taking risks. A lot of people are afraid to speak up. They’re afraid that their voice won’t be heard or that they’d be judged.
  • Equipping people with information about their rights. I believe it’s important that people know what their employers have to do for them and what they are accountable for. People should understand that if they’re experiencing something that is non-compliant or unlawful at the hands of their employers, they need to be brave enough to speak up.

There are lots of companies working with partial human culture, but not a lot of companies are executing the whole human culture, and I feel like that’s sort of my next goal or aspiration. I want to effect high-level change in the direction of the whole human culture at Galaxy Vets.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite life lesson quote is: “If you don’t ask, the answer’s always ‘No’.” If you don’t try, you’re guaranteed to fail.

I grew up with some subconscious belief that career success was for other people. The idea that I would ever hold a vice president or a senior vice president title was incredibly foreign to me. When I was applying to the master’s program in HR at the University of South Carolina, I looked at their published statistics on career placement and it was impressive. Almost all of their graduates were placed at a high salary within 90 days of graduating. And I saw those numbers and immediately thought I was not going to get in. “If this is what happens when you come out of this program, if this is the kind of money people are making, if these are the job titles people have, I’m not going to get in; this is for ‘other people.’ This isn’t for me.”

I applied with a backup plan in place because I was so sure I wasn’t going to get in. But I got in. It was unbelievable, and for a long time, I told myself that I must have been the last one that got in, but I later found that out to be false.

If I had chosen not to apply because I was scared or because I was so sure I wouldn’t get in, I wouldn’t be where I am. I had to take a risk and see what would happen, and it worked out. Then I kept asking, and I kept getting “YES.” I skipped entry-level titles in my initial HR job search and looked for manager roles, and I got one! I skipped the entry-level HR certification, and I went straight for the senior-level certification just to see if I could, and it worked!

Most people don’t do that. That’s not standard. But things were just working, and my life was reinforcing to me that if I rolled the dice, it would pay off. Every time I asked, I was given a “yes.” So if you don’t ask, the answer is always “no.” You have nothing to lose by trying.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

If I could inspire a movement for good, it would be to somehow broaden perspectives around human experiences, in a way that transcends work or geography or culture. We live in a time of immense judgment, division, and polarization, which I believe stems from our inability to recognize and appreciate all of the diverse perspectives in the world.

Holding tightly to our own individual experiences, or using our own life template as the measuring stick for everyone we meet, is counter to acceptance and human connection. If I had a way to address this, I would inspire everyone to meet people where they are, as who they are. We have such a tendency to project our own personal definition of “normal” onto others with the expectation that they adopt it as their definition of normal, too. That’s narrow-minded and can be very exclusionary. My movement for good would be a dramatic increase in the tolerance of and appreciation for people who aren’t like us, and an acceptance and understanding of the fact that many definitions of “normal” can coexist at the same time.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

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