Jennifer Schmeiser of HR4D Consulting: “To create a fantastic work culture ensure that top leadership is ethical and authentic”
Ensure top leadership is ethical and authentic. Nothing will take a company down faster than leaders who are unethical. People sometimes believe that a few unethical leaders won’t make a big difference. But, if that leader is in the c-suite, the trickle-down impact to other leaders and staff is tremendous. Their behavior does not go unnoticed. And, people are always watching the leaders to see what will be tolerated and what won’t be. I worked with a company that routinely reorganized so that they could eliminate certain employees that they felt weren’t performing rather than going through the difficult conversations about not meeting expectations. The resulting culture was one of fear and a lack of loyalty because everybody thought they could be next.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Schmeiser. Jennifer is an owner of HR4D Consulting, LLC which provides strategic HR and operational effectiveness consulting along with executive coaching. Jennifer is a seasoned leader and executive coach with significant HR experience across multiple industries. She helps clients plan for and achieve people related goals, as well as guide organizational transformations. She has experience transforming multiple under-performing HR functions into high-performing, strategic and business focused teams. She has led large-scale change efforts for organizations including executive team effectiveness, total compensation, organizational restructuring, leadership development, and many others. As an ICF accredited coach, she partners with her clients to increase emotional intelligence, leadership capabilities and improve effectiveness. She has over 20 years of experience in corporate HR and as a consultant, including serving as the Chief Human Resources Officer.
Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was fortunate enough to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison for college. After graduation the job market was booming, and I interviewed with several companies. I think I was a bit different than most of my peers at this point because one of my most important criteria I was assessing was whether the company had a good culture. I ended up accepting an offer at a large HR consulting firm because the culture of the organization really resonated with me. I learned in that job that I loved variety, new challenges and serving external clients. The organization grew immensely while I was there which afforded me great growth opportunities and new assignments. After several years, my husband and I really missed Madison and decided to move back. At that point, I moved into corporate human resources (HR) and over the course of the next 15 years I had the opportunity to work for 5 different organizations and work in every part of HR. My last organizational position was as the Chief HR Officer leading HR and Communications. During my time in HR, I really learned and lived the importance of strong, ethical leadership. I decided that it was time to marry my passion for great leadership with my love of helping clients and am now focused on providing consulting and coaching services to clients.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Well, this hasn’t been since I’ve been leading HR4D, but one of the most interesting things I’ve witnessed is how much company culture impacts individual’s performance. Multiple times I have worked with the same person in two different organizations and watched them be a high performer in one organization and a weak performer in another. The culture influences how the same behaviors are interpreted and assessed by the people around them. It’s amazing — the person is the same, but the impact of the company culture on them and how they work is tremendous.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes, I am! I am working on how to make sure that executive teams are effective and adding value as the organizational asset they should be. I really believe that organizations fail or succeed based on the strength of the people managing others and how effective they are at that component of their job. Unfortunately I have seen strong companies deteriorate quickly when weak leadership gets put in place. So, most of the things I am focused on are about increasing the skills needed to effectively lead others and lead the organization. Having an executive team be very effective at working together and contributing as an asset to the organization adds so much value and can really impact all leaders in the organization. This includes working across silos to solve big problems, thinking strategically about how to improve the business without regard for the impact to themselves, and ensuring they are developing and holding the other leaders in the organization accountable to their vision. Many times the individual executives are strong contributors for their own function — say finance, legal, operations, sales, etc. But, when you put the executives together on a team and ask them to think broadly about the entire organization, things like ego, positioning, fear and power-grabs get in the way. When you put these strong executives together, there should be synergy and they should be an asset to the organization. 1+1+1 should equal 5. But, instead, it is often the opposite and having the executive team together is a detriment and instead you get 1+1+1 = 2. I created a program that improves this effectiveness, ensures the vision is being shared with the organization, provides individual coaching and team coaching, and confirms that value is created.
Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?
I think most people are unhappy at work because we have a management crisis on our hands. The most impactful and meaningful relationship any employee has at work is with their manager. It has been proven time and again that the number one reason employees leave their job is because of their manager. And, yet, most managers are there because they were technical experts at their job and wanted to make more money and saw the management track as their best option. Companies have a responsibility to do better. This means a few things: 1) they need to be clearer about what it means in the organization to be a manager and what the expectations are for anyone managing other people; 2) they need to provide the right training to new managers, so they know how to do the basic tasks like completing a performance review and having a compensation discussion without feeling overwhelmed; and 3) they need to ensure that they only hire or promote people into management positions that are dedicated to, and want to spend time leading others. These are the basic building blocks for someone to be a front-line manager. For leaders that are managing managers or at an executive level, development and support looks different. Those leaders need a different kind of support system that is more individualized and tailored specifically to them rather than going through routine leadership development training courses.
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?
I think happy is a relative term. To me happy employees mean employees that are willing to go above and beyond at work, are highly integrated into the organization, they are not looking to leave, and they say good things about the organization to others. Based on that definition, an “unhappy” workforce has a hugely negative drag on company productivity and ultimately profitability. Stress at work is directly linked to health issues for employees. Being in an unhappy environment every day can literally make employees physically ill, increasing the likelihood for absenteeism. Additionally, when they are at work, unhappy employees spend a lot of time talking with their peers and coworkers about their unhappiness, which is like an injection of toxic poison into the atmosphere every day. Some companies think having a happy workforce is soft and squishy. But the reality is that without the employees, there likely isn’t much of a company left. And, unhappy employees are just one step away from leaving. The result is hard dollar impacts to the bottom line.
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?
Too often in the press, we hear about companies that are making ping pong tables, other games and nap rooms available to their employees as a way to have a good culture. While those things may be fun, they do not actually have a lasting impact on a positive culture. It’s time to get back to the basics to build a positive culture.
1. Ensure top leadership is ethical and authentic. Nothing will take a company down faster than leaders who are unethical. People sometimes believe that a few unethical leaders won’t make a big difference. But, if that leader is in the c-suite, the trickle-down impact to other leaders and staff is tremendous. Their behavior does not go unnoticed. And, people are always watching the leaders to see what will be tolerated and what won’t be. I worked with a company that routinely reorganized so that they could eliminate certain employees that they felt weren’t performing rather than going through the difficult conversations about not meeting expectations. The resulting culture was one of fear and a lack of loyalty because everybody thought they could be next.
2. Help employees understand how they impact the success of the organization. It is critical to be clear about the focus and goals of the organization and show employees how the work they are doing on a day to day basis is contributing to that larger vision. This includes providing them clarity on what they should be focused on so they know where to spend their time, explaining your expectations, and then holding them accountable. I once took over leadership of a team that was under-performing. They told me they didn’t really understand how their work contributed to the larger organization. When we set our goals, we tied them back into the organizational goals and showed how their work impacted the overall success of the organization. We spent time discussing what good looked like and what my expectations were and then I delivered feedback to them on a regular basis. They were considered strong performers by others in the company within the year.
3. Involve staff in problem solving and decision making. Oftentimes leaders believe that they are supposed to be the smartest person on the team and have all the answers to any pressing problems. But so many employees would rather that the leader ask for input so that they can contribute to these bigger issues. Involving employees in meaningful work and empowering them to do the work leads to their growth and an increase in their satisfaction. My team was asked to lead a large company initiative. While I was excited about it, I also knew I was not the expert, nor did I have the time to become the expert. It required me to lean on my team to do the heavy lifting of designing and implementing the solution. Of course, I supported them along the way, but I was amazed and impressed by their creativity and capability. And, they loved the opportunity to grow their skillset and contribute to this meaningful initiative.
4. Be an excellent communicator. This means being good at both sides of the equation — listening and sharing information. It also means being proactive in sharing important information about the organization with the employees, sharing difficult situations and decisions in a transparent and honest way, and asking for upward feedback in order to learn. Open communication increases trust and helps employees feel connected to the organization. A lack of communication, or even hording of information, creates secrecy and erodes other benefits that employees may be enjoying at the company. I worked with an organization that had excellent communications internally to help keep employees informed. A new leader joined the organization and stated that this kind of internal communication was not important, and resources should not be devoted to it. There was a big impact on the culture. Employees felt that something was being hidden from them and the level of distrust began to rise in the organization.
5. Genuinely care about the employees who work for you. This means caring about the whole person — not just who they are at work and how much work they get done for you. Ask them questions about their personal life and support them when something outside of work is difficult. And, most importantly, have fun and laugh with them at work. This positive rapport can make it so much easier to get through the tough times when they happen. I once had a manager who used to say to me, call me if you need me to bail you out of jail. It was funny because there was never a chance I was going to jail. But, his point was that if I needed anything personally he was going to be there to support me and I understood that!
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 need to truly value good leadership and make it the top priority skillset for the people in those positions. The old stereotypes of what makes a good leader are outdated — being strong, always having the right answers, making sure others are afraid of you, and never letting others see your weaknesses. Even though these are outdated, they continue to be rewarded and reinforced by hiring and promoting leaders who behave like this. The organizations that value leadership skills as the top priority see a marked change in the strength and value of their leaders. When the CEO demonstrates and values leadership skills, s/he will put leaders in place that also value and demonstrate strong leadership skills. Ultimately, we need to get comfortable saying these “soft” skills are important — in fact, more important than the technical skills.
How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?
The five suggestions I gave above for how to create a great culture are key parts of my leadership style that I try to demonstrate every single day. In my personal examples above I gave a few examples of how this played out with the teams I have led. More than anything, being a leader has helped me grow as a person and I have gained so much from my leadership experiences that were unexpected and wonderful!
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?
I know it probably sounds corny, but I am most grateful to my husband. He has been my sounding board, my cheerleader and my rock for over 20 years. He has also been a fantastic support network to get the regular chores of life done! Having a partner that I could be vulnerable with, fail in front of, celebrate successes with and who would challenge me to keep growing and stretching has been immensely impactful. Without his encouragement and belief in me, my career would have looked quite a bit different.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Great question and something that I want to continue to do more of. I volunteer my time with organizations that really strike at the intersection of my personal beliefs and work passions. I am mentoring several women who are earlier in their careers and want to be in leadership positions, including a women that I have been matched with through the Wisconsin Women’s Network. I also provide coaching through Women for Change Coaching Connection which is a resource to provide coaching to women who have low incomes.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Oh there are so many. I have collected quotes over my career that I come back to time and again. But, one of my favorites is “Bad managers tell people what to do; good managers explain why they need to do it; great managers involve people in decision making and improvement”. I think this quote is so impactful for me because it is focused on good management and leadership. The distance between the bad manager description and the great manager descriptor is large and many people struggle with getting from one to the other. For me, I have been blessed with three great managers in my career who really showed me what it looked like to be empowered and involved in decision making. Those three managers spanned half of my working years but were responsible for nearly 90% of my growth. Working for a great manager provided me significant learning opportunities, gave me confidence in my skills and modeled for me what I wanted to do for others when I was in a leadership position. I was so invested in each of those relationships that I would have followed those leaders through fire if they had asked.
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. :-)
I would love to rename “soft” skills and elevate their importance. Words matter. The very terminology makes it sound less good than “hard” or “technical” skills. We could call them people skills or interpersonal skills. I’m not exactly sure what the right term is, but it should be something that holds a bit more weight and importance. When interpersonal skills are talked about or considered in an organization, they almost always take a back seat to the technical skills. These interpersonal skills have a huge impact on the culture of an organization and how people feel about their co-workers. They should have a front and center role in the typical HR practices of an organization. When we hire or promote people, we should be assessing the strength of their interpersonal skills and not moving forward unless they have the right skills. When we assess performance and determine compensation, we should be assessing their interpersonal skills along with their job performance to determine how they did and how they will be rewarded. By renaming “soft skills” and making them a more integral part of how we hire and assess employees, we will elevate their importance.