With nearly 30 years of HR experience, Shelly Azen chats with us on the evolution of Organizational Health and the opportunity metrics play in aligning operational and people strategies.
unHR is an unconventional Human Resources consulting firm that creates custom HR solutions for every workplace situation. Whether you're merging two organizations, realigning internal strategy or looking to develop the talent you have - unHR is there to support you.
Shelly Azen, founder of unHR talks with LEON's Bryan Smith on the Organizational Health Podcast to share her insight on how the way people work has changed over the years, as well as, the importance of embracing those changes in order to create a healthier, productive and resilient organization.
Key insights include:
Bryan: I'm Bryan Smith and you're listening to the Organizational Health podcast. It’s a show where we get down and dirty for 15 minutes with people leaders, executives and founders on the Playbooks they use to improve organizational health. In today's podcast, we have Shelley Azen, founder of UnHR, a strategic HR firm based here in Philadelphia. Shelley, are you ready to kick this off?
Shelley: I’m ready! Happy Monday!
Bryan: Fantastic. So tell me about your background, your experience of people leadership and what you do now.
Shelley: Yeah. So quickly I've been in HR for almost 30 years. I started out as a recruiter, my first job out of college and then really worked my way through HR roles and organizations and really specialized in what I call HR operations. So you know, partnering with the VP of Ops or the COO - whatever that person's title was - for the market segment or org that I supported and I think aligned sort of what our talent and people strategies needed to be to make the business successful through that relationship. I started my own consulting business about five years ago and continue to do the same things for a variety of clients across the country.
Bryan: What size companies have you worked with? What size teams, what are we looking at?
Shelley: Yeah, sure. The sweet spot for me, just based on my experience, is at least 1000 employees. Often that's you know, upwards of 500 million to you know, 2.5 billion in revenue are the types of clients that I typically work with. Only because of my expertise and sort of, the way I approach aligning people strategy with operations - that's really sort of the market segment where that seems to work best.
Bryan: Okay, and when you are working with that size company, how big is the people team usually?
Shelley: Yeah, anywhere from like 12 to 20-ish. You know, there's always a variety of sources depending on costs and dispersement and decentralized teams, but that's about the average size.
Bryan: Okay, Alright, fantastic. So you know, as the name of the podcast and I love your background of working with companies, 1000 employees, 500 million to 2.5 billion - in your own words, can you define organizational health? And the second part of that is - how is that definition now different in sort of the environment that we're seeing today?
Shelley: Yeah, well that's a loaded question. So I think to me the way I define organizational health and I think everyone has a different way of defining it, but for me it is how will the business be successful with its operational goals. Right? So how do we as leaders of the organization help the business succeed? Sales goals, operational goals, people metrics, customer service goals, customer experience, etc, all those things. For me, as I mentioned earlier personally, it is how does the people strategy align with the operational strategy to make that business successful. And then how we make that work is really what I see my expertise and sort of what I loved doing over these last 30 years. I think how that is different today - for me - the definition is the same. I think the way the world works is defined very differently, right? As an example, I do a lot of recruiting, and staffing for senior level roles in my clients. And the first question I'm often asked now is, is this job remote. That would have not even have been a consideration or a question three years ago or 2.5 years ago. Of course, organizations have always had remote workers depending on the role, but now it is almost one of the game changes on whether or not a candidate wants to continue their experience or their application through an opening. I think the way we engage people to feel satisfied at work is a game changer. Now, for example, again, back to the remote, which is a big deal, people don't want to come to the office every day and don't feel like they have to and that they want their productivity and the value of what they give to an organization to be measured differently now. Like - can I get X done by Friday whether I'm in the office or not? And I think certainly today we have organizations that are really faced with treating each individual as a unique commodity versus all of our employees in this department should work this way and this department should work that way. It really is becoming about the candidate or employee experience way more than ever before. And again some companies did that well, but for now that is really, I think on the forefront of everyone's minds.
Bryan: Yeah, I mean it's really interesting, you know. It's when you look at the market and where we're at today and the resilience of an organization, you know by far is going to be dictated by the capacity of the people that work for them to be able to accomplish the task or the job at hand. Especially right now where funding, hiring and turnover is going to be an issue - your ability to support the people team that you have right now and then improve their overall capacity, education and skill set of that team is so very, very important. So going back to your point about what you do is how you align people strategy and growth strategy, right? What is your process for doing that? So you walk into an organization…zoom out for us a little bit and give us an idea of what that process looks like and how you define that.
Shelley: Sure. I think one of the biggest area where HR teams, talent acquisition teams, I sort of use that bucket the same - is not using metrics to your advantage. I think that's one of the areas that HR professionals have the biggest opportunity - is to stare at metrics and look at what the trends are. And by that I don't just mean what is your, what are your engagement scores? The way I think about engagement is I always give this example is it's like I go to the doctor and say I don't feel well and the doctor says welll get a haircut or buy a nicer shirt or something when really it's like what's on the inside that's not making me feel well right? So when your engagement score is not where you want it to be, you've really got to dig deep. I think some of the questions on the engagement score are really critical, but it sometimes is more granular than that. Almost looking at more of the tactical aspects of HR? Simple things like how long is it taking you to fill jobs? How long are people staying in jobs? Do you have promotional opportunities? What is the percentage of your employees being promoted? Which employees are taking advantage of your benefits? I mean I think you have to get extremely granular to figure out where your employee effectiveness and or happiness - if that's the right word to use at work still - and then you've got to dig in deeper. So as an example, I had a client once who really wanted to grow organically meaning they were really - it's a retail organization - they were really proud of their culture and what their consumers came to get when they walked into one retail store versus one of their competitors. Like you knew when you walked straight ahead, those were the cash registers to the right was the women etc. It was very, very consistent. They wanted to grow in markets where they didn't exist and they wanted to do that, using the same pride of the culture that they think sets them apart from their competitors. And then when I went to look at their people metrics, turnover, longevity of employees, things that would substantiate, expanding that culture - they didn't have the capacity to do that at the store level. They certainly had it at the executive level, but executives aren't going to go open a store and stay there for seven, eight or ten or twelve months. And so what we realize is they really needed to do a better job engaging their employees who had the potential to number one relocate to the new market. Number two, those managers who did a really good job cultivating great store cultures, good longevity in those stores, good customer experience, certainly also making money and we went and tapped them on the shoulder and said - what if we put you through a manager training program to help you expand your skills but we knew at the end you had to go move somewhere, right? And so what we did is we asked those employees that we thought were the top performers, went to them and said, if we put you through this training and made this investment, would you and your family be willing to move to southeast, northeast, southwest - pick a territory? And we really had to get very, prescriptive about who those employees were, who we wanted to invest in and where they were willing to move. Some people said, no, thank you. My kids and my family aren't at the right space and time where we can get up, move up and relocate. And so when you look at like engagement score and you say like 74% of employees are happy - Are 74% of them the right people to move to create this new business structure and new revenue for you. We had to get extremely granular around what could we do to create the culture in those cities where we didn't have retail stores. It took two years, but we ended up growing $25 million in revenue by opening new stores on a book of a business just shy of $300 million. So again, it's the granularity with which you look at people metrics that are tied to what the business objectives are.
Bryan: I love your point and I say this a lot where you know a lot of times we treat engagement surveys or pulse surveys as going to the doctor. You telling your doctor that you have a headache and your doctor prescribing you chemotherapy right?
Bryan: Right. Where a doctor is actually gonna dive deeper and it's gonna go to sort of this like issue tree sort of matrix right? Like why do you have a headache? What have you done? Are you sleeping? This, this, and that. And that's what I feel like we don't dive deep enough into understanding the health of our organization because we take surface level signals and turn them into diagnosis.
Shelley: I couldn't agree more. Yeah.
Bryan: Okay cool. So engagement data, driving deeper into that engagement data. Any specific software you'd like to use, any specific tools you like to use to sort of dive deeper into understanding what's going on with your people?
Shelley: So yeah, there are many HR IS systems out there. And there's different value and the cost of them depending on the size of your organization and how much money you have to invest in a system. I have my favorites. But I think it's also dependent upon you know - the client, where they are, how much money they have. And then also some of the vendors only do well sort of in a mid market, not in a small market. For me, I love the vendor partners I've worked with but what I would say is it’s not just about the metrics, it's who's looking at them and who's going to detect the trends, which I think is a skill set that every HR team should have on their roster. Often what I do is when maybe an HR team is too small and they feel like they can't afford just a pure analytics person as you partner with someone in finance. Those folks are trained to look at analytics and trends and if you're at the infancy stages of where you are just pulling a bunch of data - right? Data isn't metrics, that's just data. Like how many people left last month versus versus the month before versus the month before. But when you can have someone look at trending data across a time period, that's really what's impactful. All of those systems, HR systems can pull the data for you. But it's really about the storytelling of the data and how it's aligned to your business. And in my opinion, you need someone internally to say - great, turnover was down the first quarter of this year, but what was the business doing and does that really matter? Similarly, what I often say is people will say to me this: Great news! Turnover was 17% last month and now it's only 15% and I say why is that good? And they look at me like I can't do math, I know 15 is less than 17. But the point is if the good employees are leaving - those that serve our customers and do a good job serving our customers - that's a problem. I don't really care about the 17 and 15, I care about what story does the 15% tell us. And for me, I think you need someone internally who understands your business to help do that trending and analysis to see what that story is?
Bryan: Okay, great point. Alright. So to sum it up, Shelley, you work with $500 million to about $2.5 billion companies, roughly about 1000 people, 12 to 20 people team sort of makeup - how you look at organizational health is primarily looking at engagement metrics of some sort and then using that data to sort of drive down and to your point, tell a broad story within the data to help you make better strategies and better diagnoses is with the teams that you work with. Does that, does that make sense?
Shelley: That's true but only if I know what the business objectives are because without that connection, those HR metrics don't really matter.
Bryan: Now to that point, those business objectives and this is sort of off script a little bit, but when it comes to organizational health, how often do you find that people leaders do not or are not necessarily aligned with the executive team on the business outcomes to be able to match those two things together.
Shelley: So when you say people leaders, I assume you mean any leader in the organization, is that fair?
Bryan: I apologize. So it's going to be someone within the people team, HR team, CHRO VP of people.
Shelley: I think it's hard for me to put a number on it. I typically get hired when that part of the puzzle is broken, but I know that there are organizations who do it really, really well. What I would just reiterate is if your top HR professional CHRO, VP of HR whatever that title is not married internally to the person who leads operations, that's where there's an opportunity for success or failure. So whatever those two top titles are HR and operations, that has to be your best friend at work. I sort of prided myself on doing that when I was inside. If I didn't spend time with that COO or VP of Ops regularly, almost daily, knowing what was going on - I felt like I couldn't be as effective at my job. And so for me, those are where the real opportunities lie Bryan.
Bryan: Okay, fantastic. All right. So last part this is gonna be called our top three at three.
Shelley: All right.
Bryan: So your favorite CEO, people leaders, HR leaders, people that you follow - that you look up to.
Shelley: Well, Adam Grant is one of my favorite people leaders who you know, live sort of locally where I live outside of Philadelphia. I've seen him speak a few times. I think he has extremely practical application for talent strategies and people strategies. So I love Adam Grant. One of my favorite bosses of all time, Javier Rodriguez, he is the CEO of DaVita, a dialysis company in the United States and and throughout. He's in charge of the United States. Javier is honest, thoughtful, upfront, very direct communicator and a very inspiring leader and someone who I probably learned the most from in the six years that I worked for him out of my 30-year career. And the third one, I think now maybe my perspective is a little different having my own business for the last five years. I think this sounds like a very generic answer, but I think other small business practitioners like myself, I have found a really nice network of small business owners who are open to listening and sharing and bouncing ideas off of each other. And I think one of my favorite quotes from Ava Duvernay is - when you're in your own lane, there is no competition. And so when you find colleagues in your space that are willing to tell you the truth and help you and support you, I know that's not a direct answer to your question, but that's a really important part of my network now that I don't take for granted.
Bryan: Okay. Alright, next one. Top three books either you’re reading right now or books that you love.
Shelley: Okay, I'm sitting right over here. Think Again, it's probably one of my favorite, you know, the whole point about my company is on HR and I think things differently about running HR. So Think Again. Let's see what else I have over there. Originals also by Adam Grant and then I don't know whatever the hottest biography that's out by whomever in the United States. That's my fun reading.
Bryan: Okay. All right. And last one - 3 things you like to do in your personal time.
Shelley: Oh gosh, I love to exercise. I go to the gym a couple of days a week and work out with a trainer, which I love to do. Just being outside, I love the beach, I love being outside and warm weather and being in the sun. And then I live about six hours from my family. And so anytime or chance I get to spend time with them is super important to me as well.
Bryan: Big shout out to our personal friend Jim Ferris who connected us so that is awesome. Alright, fantastic Shelley. Thank you so much for your time and have a wonderful day.
Shelley: You as well. Thanks so much Bryan.