47. Coretha Rushing: companies are well-advised to act as if “human capital” really matters

November 15, 2022

Coretha Rushing talks about the important role a Chief People Officer plays in management and on the board.  Many companies say people are their most important asset, in this episode we talk about what an organization should do to reflect that priority. 

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Coretha Rushing Bio

Quotes

I haven’t worked at any company where they don’t say people are our most important asset. I’ve not worked at any company where they say they want to operate in an ethical way and that people should be respected in the workplace. But we hear, unfortunately, every day, both in the news and personal engagements with friends and family members, that there are things that happen in the workplace every day that should not be happening, and that must be impacting how people are showing at work and their effectiveness when they are there.   

I think what has changed dramatically with the pandemic and the lack of talent in the marketplace is that smart companies are looking at their talent very differently. The role [of CPO) becomes critical, and they’re sitting there with the CFO talking about the other major assets of the company. When I left Coca-Cola and people contacted me about opportunities, I wasn’t interested if it didn’t report to the CEO.

I was very fortunate to work for CEOs who felt it was important I attend the strategy sessions, to ensure I was aware and informed on real-time basis those things impacting our business

The reason I’ve had the benefit of being contacted about so many board opportunities is because so many boards have lack focus on their people assets and  are deficient in the area of human capital.

It’s amazing to me when I’m sitting on a board among former and current CEOs and COOs and CFOs, how little they understand about the basics in managing, engaging and retaining talent.

Productivity is not “I’m sitting at my desk all day long.” Productivity is you ask me to deliver X by X date with these performance parameters, and I’ve checked the box on each one.

Big Ideas/Thoughts

For the majority of time when I grew up in HR, the majority of employees in the human resource function were women. But when I reflected on my own career, most of the time, the most senior people tended to be men.

Most companies spend a lot of time, effort, and money on the acquisition of their human capital, but like people who save their whole life for something like a brand-new car and then later you see it and it’s got dents in it and it’s not clean, and you’re thinking, “I remember this guy wanted this car, and now look at it.” Sometimes I feel like companies acquire people and then they don’t take the time to understand what the asset is that they have.

All of my boards have been very, very different, but they all have a common thread, which is the expectation is not that you run the company, but that you weigh in on the runnings of the company; that you hold the CEO and the leadership team’s feet to the fire around what they espouse as the strategy and whether or not they’re staying on track to the strategy that they’ve communicated.

When I was at the Coca-Cola Company and Equifax and things happened around the world, it had an impact to us in the US.  Even though we may want to believe that we’re the dog wagging the tail when it comes to talent, I’m not always sure that that’s the case.

In my mind, companies are better, and our country is better when we have people from all over working and making us a better place. I’m hoping the pendulum will swing back to the middle because I think there are many organizations that know they have benefited from having diversity of talent in their talent base.

I think this whole focus on employee engagement is trying to find that happy medium.  I do believe that people want to come into the office, but I also believe that people don’t think they have to come in every day.  Management believes some employees are not productive and they’re using “productivity tools” to test, but employees believe that they are hugely productive.  I think what we are missing here is productivity should be based on outcome, not just physically being at a particular place, at a certain time.

Transcript

Hello and welcome to On Boards, a deep dive at what drives business success. 

I’m Joe Ayoub, and I’m here with my co-host, Raza Shaikh. On Boards is about boards of directors and advisors and all aspects of governance. Twice a month this is the place to hear about one of the most important aspects of any company or organization, its board of directors or advisors, as well as the important issues that are facing boards, company leadership, and stakeholders.

Raza: Joe and I speak with a wide range of guests and talk about what makes a board successful or unsuccessful, what it means to be an effective board member, the challenges boards are facing and how they’re addressing these challenges, and how to make your board one of the most valuable assets for your organization.

Joe: Our guest today is Coretha Rushing. Coretha has over 30 years of corporate business and leadership [00:01:00] experience. In 2000, she became the first woman and black EVP and Chief People Officer for the Coca-Cola Company, and she also served as the Senior Vice President and Chief People Officer for Equifax, a $3 billion global credit and data analytics organization based in 24 countries.

Raza: Coretha has served as President of her own human resource strategy and executive coaching firm, CR Consulting Alliance. She is also a Managing Director of the ExCo Leadership Group, a board member of several companies including 2U Inc. Benefitfocus, Plastique and ThredUp and served as external board advisor for Spencer Stuart.

Joe: Coretha has been active in several professional and community organizations, including the Society for Human Resource Management, and has continued to serve as a panelist and keynote speaker [00:02:00] at various business, university, women and human resource conferences. Welcome, Coretha, its have you here today.

Coretha: I’m glad to be here.

Joe: Thanks. Let’s start with your background as a Chief People Officer first at Coca-Cola. Tell us a little bit about that experience.

Coretha: Well, obviously, it’s a great company and I always say to people, the gift that keeps on giving is the fact that it’s such a global company and it’s so ubiquitous, so there’s no place in the world literally you wouldn’t go where you wouldn’t see a Coca-Cola sign. And as a lifelong avid traveler, one of the perks of being in that opportunity was that I actually can say I probably have friends everywhere, and any time I travel, I reach out to a former colleague and say, “Hey, I’ll be in Madrid,” and they’re like, “Oh, absolutely. Make sure we connect and have a Coke.” It was a great experience and I have a lot of lifelong friends from that time at the company.

Joe: How was it to be the first woman and [00:03:00] black EVP?

Coretha: Well, I was the first woman and black EVP to lead HR. Luckily when I came into that role, there were other black women who were in executive positions, so that was a good thing. In fact, one of my first clients when I joined the organization, Ingrid Saunders Jones, ran the foundation for the company.

I think what was probably unique about it was, one, that I was the first woman. I was really surprised for the longest, I didn’t know that. Only because, as you know, for the majority of time when I grew up in HR, the majority of employees in the human resource function were women. But when I reflected on my own career, most of the time, the most senior people tended to be men.

If anything, I think it helped me form an opinion and a thought around what kind of leader I wanted to be as a Chief People Officer of a company. I mean, it was things that were little, like I can remember getting in the elevator, I worked at IBM, I worked at Pepsi. First, I worked at Macy’s as a corporate recruiter when I first graduated from grad school, [00:04:00] and I can remember getting in the elevator with the very senior leaders of those organizations in HR and they would not speak to employees. They would just get in the elevator and they would just not say anything. 

I remember saying, ” If I ever get a job like that,” not that I actually aspire to that job, but early on in my career I kept saying, “if I ever get a job like that, every morning when I get in the elevator, no matter how I feel, I’m going to start the conversation,” because the more senior you are, if you don’t talk, no one is going to talk. 

Joe: Yeah, 

Coretha: And so I would always get in the elevator and say, “Good morning, how are you?” And interestingly enough, but not surprisingly, they know who you are. You may not know who they are.

Joe: Mm.

Coretha: But once you do that, I literally remember having somebody say when I was retiring from Equifax, “I think you were the only executive that day in and day out, I remember seeing you, we had a big data breach and this guy kept saying, ‘I thought we were going to be okay,’ because every day you come in, you’d go to the cafeteria and you talk to people and he would say to me we had millions of [00:05:00] attorneys running around doing the breach,” and we were all holed up in these meetings, and I made a point every day, no matter what, to go down to the cafeteria and have my lunch in the cafeteria, not in my office because I know how I felt when I thought my company was in crisis if I didn’t see the executives. I just thought they were up there planning something awful,

Joe: I think from a leadership point of view for the director of HR, or actually in this case, Chief People Officer. Boy, great way to lead by example.

Coretha: I didn’t think about it. It’s a no brainer, and it didn’t cost you anything.

Joe: While you were a chief people officer there, you played a significant role in the resolution of the largest US racial discrimination lawsuit. Just tell us a little bit about that and what your role was in helping resolve it.

Coretha: Well, it was a very painful process, to say the least. I would say my role was to be the connection between the company’s board, and one of the things that we did as an aftermath as part of the settlement was we created, if you will, another [00:06:00] board that oversaw any people and process and organizational changes that we made as a result of the lawsuit.

The class was never settled, but the company was committed to making positive changes, and I would say those changes are reflected even today at the company, and so we had to meet with the plaintiffs and their lawyers, and we had to identify a person who would lead that panel. It ended up being the former Secretary of Labor, Alexis Herman, and they could put three people on this panel. The company could put three people on the panel, and I was kind of the connection between the two to make sure that what we were doing in terms of process, programmatic changes, that our board understood and supported it, and that this board supported as well, so that was probably the biggest role that I played, making sure that these two parties understood that we had a common goal and in the end, it all worked out because Alexis Herman then joined the Coca-Cola board of directors, seeing how effective it was, I think.

Joe: You said you created a second board just to oversee [00:07:00] this aspect of the culture, so to speak.

Coretha: That was one of the agreements that we struck with the plaintiffs, that we would create it. Again, obviously if someone is alleging discrimination and you say, “Okay, we’re going to settle and we’re going to do better,” that doesn’t sit well, right? We want to have an independent body overseeing what you’re doing, and like a regular board, we met on a regular basis quarterly to apprise Alexis Herman and that board of the changes that we made. We shared data, the same thing we were sharing with our own board.

Joe: Were any members of your board on that board?

Coretha: No it was a separate body and we had a lawyer from the EEOC. We had a person who was a subject matter expert in this in terms of adverse impact. Each person on that board brought a certain capability and experience that when looking at our programs, they were not just looking to say, “Oh, I think it’s good,” but they could look at it from a technical perspective in terms of whether or not they felt like it was addressing the issues that had [00:08:00] been raised.

Joe: Years later you became Chief People Officer at Equifax. In what ways was that different? What was your experience out there? You served for a pretty long time, I believe.

Coretha: Yeah, I was there for 13 years and I tell you the most interesting thing is, first, my decision to look for a mid-cap. When I left Coca-Cola, I really was burned out and I took a break, and when I decided to go back into working full time in a corporate environment, I was very purposeful about what I wanted to do. I’d only worked at basically Fortune 50 companies; IBM, Pepsi, Coca-Cola and I wanted to be in a company where I felt like each person kind of matters. When you start on a project and it end on a project, you know what it looks like. The bigger the company, the more things kind of morph as they move around the organization.

But what was probably different is I joined Equifax in 2006 at the beginning of the big recession at that time, and going into a credit bureau and data analytics company, it was mind boggling, the information the company [00:09:00] had and the trends and data that it was showing, and I never forget one of my first meetings, some data and analytics people came in and they had these charts and they were saying at the very beginning of 2006, because of the many mortgage tools and products in the market, that they were predicting a major mortgage meltdown.

This is the first time we had all these special mortgages where you could basically use your mortgage at an ATM machine and take money out, and I remember sitting there going, “I’m not sure that makes sense. I think these guys are just kind of overreaching, overreacting,” and sure enough, a couple of years later, those charts, the lines on their charts showing the defaults and mortgages, particularly in certain parts of the US was spot on.

The data told the story, and so it was really interesting being in a company that was more of a B2B company after coming out of a B2C, a large consumer company. It was also very different going to a company where people were very clear, or at least they thought, they were clear around what [00:10:00] IBM delivers, what Coca-Cola delivers, although there are so many different jobs in those companies. People would say to me, “Where do you work?” “I work at IBM.” “Oh,” like they knew what you did, right? But they knew work at computers.

Joe: Yeah.

Coretha: When I worked at Equifax, people would say, “Oh, is that the the credit bureau?” And what I would say to people is usually if people say to you, ” Oh, is Equifax a credit bureau?” They have good credit and they’ve never even thought about it. If they had bad credit, they know exactly who you are because often when credit is denied, the vendor will say, you know. I was at Hertz one time at the counter and a woman in front of me was denied access to rent a car, and the guy told her that the credit thing came back and he said, “Equifax said we can’t give you a car,” so I’m kind of like, “It’s not us.”

Joe: Yeah, you didn’t mention that you worked there. 

Coretha: Yeah, that’s not totally right. Yeah. It’s a very different industry and a different awareness that the marketplace has of the company. 

Joe: One of the things we talked about a few weeks ago that really [00:11:00] stuck with me is something you’ve said, many companies say people are our most important asset, but they don’t act that way. I really thought about that and there were a number of examples, so one of the things was, who does your chief people officer, or if you still call it Director of HR, who do they report to? Talk about the importance of having that person in a place where they can have a real impact on the people, “the most important asset of the company.”

Coretha: Well, if you think about it, people are probably, if not the greatest hard asset a company has in terms of where they spend their money. It is probably the second or third. It’s pretty high up there, so even if you’re a large technology company, like an Equifax where you’re buying lots of data, the three things we spent the most money on was data, people and the analytics, the technology to massage and come up with something from that data, to have that data tell a story. 

Most companies spend a [00:12:00] lot of time, effort, and money on the acquisition of their human capital, but like people who save their whole life for something like a brand new car and then later on you see it and it’s got dents in it and it’s not clean, and you’re thinking, “I remember this guy wanted this car, and now look at it.” Sometimes I feel like companies acquire people and then they don’t take the time to understand what the asset is that they have. 

Now, I think what has changed dramatically is with the pandemic and the lack of talent in the marketplace, smart companies are looking at their talent very differently, and where that role reports becomes critical because you’re sitting there with the CFO talking about the other major assets of the company. When I left Coca-Cola and people would contact me about opportunities, if it didn’t report to the CEO, I wasn’t interested.

Joe: I understand it.

Coretha: If I need someone to filter what I’m trying to get to the top leader in the company, which is a major [00:13:00] component of the company, I don’t think I’m the right person for that job.

Joe: Should the chief people officer be attending board meetings? Should they have people with that background on boards? And how often do you see that?

Coretha: Well, like I said, I was very fortunate. I’ve never worked at any company where I wasn’t involved. One, you’re talking about executive compensation. At a minimum, you are in those meetings, because you are the one explaining that the company’s philosophy and strategy around pay, which is tied to your strategy around growing the business.

Again, I was very fortunate to work for CEOs who felt it was important that I’d be a participant in those meetings, that I attend the strategy sessions, that I’m aware of what’s going on, and I get to hear it firsthand. And when I talk to my colleagues that work in the profession of HR, the majority of them that I respect have that role. They play a critical role as a member of their leadership team. As a member of the management team, you are not a member of the board. You are not. Usually it is a CEO who’s the only [00:14:00] member of the board if or she is a chairman or a member of the board. 

But again, you play a role and especially now, what I’m finding is the reason I’ve had the benefit of being contacted about so many board opportunities is because so many boards have been staffed and they’re deficient in the area of human capital. There’s a lot of people in finance with strong financial back, a lot of people, technical backgrounds, 

Joe: What role do you play when you’re in that seat on the board as a chief people officer?

Coretha: I feel like I’m very similar to the other board members, in that every board member is supposed to bring a unique capability and experience. My capability happens to be in the human capital space, but I’m still required to speak to and opine on all the other components from a strategy perspective for the company. As I say to people all the time, even if you are the chief people officer, when you’re in your executive leadership meetings, you should not be the only ones talking [00:15:00]about human capital. You should care about the operations of the business. You should care about the financials of the business and be able to understand what’s happening and speak to those as well.

But I would say what I bring as a former chief people officer to the boards that I sit on, generally speaking, I’m always a member of the comp committee. In a couple of cases, I chair the comp committee. I’m a member of the audit committee at one organization, and often what happens is when the leadership team comes in and they talk about turnover and they talk about their efforts in DE&I and they talk about the appeal process and the grievance process, and they talk about lawsuits that may be of interest to the board. Often, obviously, they involve the workforce, and at that point, having someone who may have experienced that or even knows what the process ought to be becomes really helpful. 

It’s amazing to me when I’m sitting on a board among former and current CEOs and COOs, and CFOs, [00:16:00] how little they understand about the basics in those areas. They’ve left it up to their HR people and they really haven’t taken the time to understand, as an example, what are the real metrics. Like when you look at turnover, can you make the numbers say what you want? You absolutely can.

Joe: Well, that’s really helpful. Thanks.

Raza: Coretha, maybe then let’s talk a little bit about your board work. Can you tell us about the 2U board and what the company does and a little bit about the composition and how is that board coming together?

Coretha: That board I’ve been on the longest, and it is an educational technology platform company so if you are a university and you want to have an online degree program, you want to offer a degree program, we provide the technology and the support to the degree program the organization decides. What we do is we identify those degrees that there is a lack of capability in the marketplace.

A perfect example, one of the very first programs that 2U launched was with Georgetown [00:17:00]University and it was the nursing program, a Master’s in nursing, and you might ask, how do you do an online program for nursing? Well, you actually dial in and you have your classes online, but we also assist in helping you identify hospitals to do a practicum.

Again, the university identifies the criteria necessary, so for example, in Atlanta, if someone were getting a Master’s degree from Georgetown University through 2U, with the support of 2U, their practicum more than likely would be at Northside Hospital here in Atlanta, which is one of the biggest hospitals and has one of the largest delivery practices the area, and the program also has a special in OB-GYN, and one of the things that we talk about is in order to graduate with a Master’s from that program, you have to assist in the delivery of real babies, not virtual babies, right, so not babies online, but real babies. 

One of the things I would say that 2U does the most from a purpose perspective is it brings higher level education [00:18:00] to parts of the world and parts of our country where access to top education would not be available, and so every year when we would have our annual meeting, our all-employee meeting, we would bring in graduates from those programs. 

I remember being struck by two women who worked and lived on a reservation in New Mexico and they talked about the fact that they had a top tier university degree and they were able to help support the people in their community because they were highly educated and attuned to what the needs of their community were, and they never would’ve been able to go to Georgetown if they had to up and move and leave their families.

Raza: Tremendous impact for a platform that enables that education. 

Coretha: Absolutely.

Raza: Talk about the board, how big is the board and maybe the diversity on the board, and I’m guessing not a super large company like Coca-Cola. Is the board more hands on than…

Coretha: No, I would say it’s a public company and in a public company [00:19:00] board, the role of the board is not to be hands on. The role of the board is to be at the strategic level. I was really blessed because as my first board, it happens to be a very diverse board. At the time that I joined the board, one, that was a woman, Sallie Krawcheck, who runs Ellevest which is a platform to encourage and support women investing. She was on the board and was the only woman and insisted that when an opportunity opened up, that they add another woman to the board.

As a result of Sallie’s efforts on the board at the time that I joined, there were three women on the board. It was Sallie, myself, there was Valerie Jarrett from the Obama administration. We had three black board members; myself, Valerie and Earl Lewis, who is a distinguished professor at Michigan State in their African-American studies program. We had a person of Latin descent, and I want to say there were maybe about 10 people on the board.

It was a unique company in the sense that it is a company that the majority of the workforce is millennials, and so the issues that have [00:20:00] come up, the George Floyd issue, all of the issues around the pandemic, you get to see up close and personal the new expectations that workers have because, by and large, many of them are what I would call new workers.

The workforce has begun to increase in age as the scale of the company and the tenure of the company has grown. But in the early years, I mean, it was a very young workforce, and their expectations of what their CEO should speak to, their access to board members and their view of who should be on the board, not that they run the company, but they have a role, and the role of culture and understanding what the culture is and how the culture interacts with how effective the company is, becomes an issue for the board. It was a really great opportunity to see up close and in person what a contemporary board looks like, how it operates and the challenges that it has.

Raza: Yeah, Sounds incredible. What about the Plastique board?

Coretha: That’s one of my fairly new boards and let me tell you their major [00:21:00] product; they help small- and medium-sized businesses basically have access to funds so that they can manage their cash flow. If I had a small business and you were providing me support as a vendor, let’s say as a lawyer, I would have to pay you cash and then that may impact my cash flow. What happens is there’s a credit card that I can use and I can charge your services, and so they play that role.

Again, it’s a very different company. It’s a tech-based company. They’re in a space that is continuing to grow. More and more companies, I think, are looking to see how they can innovate and support small- and medium-sized businesses because that’s the growth in terms of the workforce in the US and around the world.

Again, being in a technology company and being in more of a startup mode has also been a very different kind of experience, so I would say that all of my boards have been very, very different, but they all have a common thread, which is the expectation is not that you run the company, but that you weigh in on the [00:22:00] runnings of the company and that you hold the CEO and the leadership team’s feet to the fire around what they espouse as the strategy and whether or not they’re staying on track to the strategy that they’ve communicated.

Raza: Let’s switch to another area about talent, the role of immigration. The US has been always a big attractor of talent via immigration for a really long time, yet legal immigration has actually been going down a lot and declining in recent times. In the bigger picture talent wars, how do you see that playing out in the future for the US maintaining its competitiveness and its being just able to fill its talent needs?

Coretha: It’s problematic. It’s problematic on a number of fronts. I can remember employees who were in process of getting their green card. Many of them I’m sure were very distracted and had difficulty focusing on the day-to-day responsibilities of their jobs because they’re so worried about the possibility that the [00:23:00] green card process would not go all the way through. 

I was in London at a board meeting in Dublin with Spencer Stuart, and one of the issues that London is experiencing in all of the UK because of Brexit, they’re losing talent. Meanwhile, when we were in Dublin, Dublin is flushed with talent. Everyone is moving to Dublin and it’s becoming this real epicenter of technology. 

I think it has implications around whether you can stay current. We know that our workforce is aging and many of the countries where highly-trained technologists exist tend to have younger workforces, and so it’s a problem now. It will continue to be a problem, and I also think the world is getting smaller and having a diverse workforce on every spectrum makes the company more competitive. 

ThredUp, as an example, had workers that were in the Ukraine, and so the world becomes very, very small, very, very quickly when we have these civil unrests around the world, and obviously I experienced that when I was at the Coca-Cola Company and Equifax, that when things happen around the [00:24:00] world, it has an impact to us in the US even though we may want to believe that we’re the dog wagging the tail when it comes to talent. I’m not always sure that that’s the case.

Raza: Yeah.

Joe: Yeah. Great point.

Raza: You’re right about that nervousness. I was personally in that situation as an immigrant coming here and I distinctly remember moments when I maybe had three months or leave the country, so I’m totally with you on that. I think I’m also always struck that computer science enrollment, for example, in US university and colleges have been steadily declining, and on the other hand, software eats the world and you know that you need that talent so we hope that the US will rationalize immigration policies in line with the talent needs of the future that the country needs.

Coretha: In my mind, companies are better and our country is better when we have people from all over working and making us a better place and I’m hoping the pendulum will swing back in the middle because I [00:25:00] think there are many organizations that know they have benefited from having that diversity of talent in their talent base.

Joe: Yeah, no question about that. 

Raza: Maybe talk about the ExCo Group, what is it about, and what is it bringing for executive coaching?

Coretha: I joined the ExCo Group in January of ’20 when I retired, and I think there are about 70 to 75 former C-Suite executives. I think there’s only a couple of us who are actually former chief people officers, but I would say the secret sauce that the ExCo Group brings is that we are coaches/mentors, and when we are assigned to a client, it isn’t based on our functional expertise as much as it’s based on our experiential knowledge. 

I may be assigned to someone who’s going through a lot of integration because when I was at Equifax, we probably had 150 techs in acquisitions. If an executive is going through a transformation at their organization, a huge step change, I may be assigned to that individual. We [00:26:00] typically are engaged through board members, usually the board chair or the nominating governance chair when they’re either bringing in a new C-suite executive or they’re moving someone who’s already a C-suite executive to a different role, and the person is transferring from maybe a functional area into a business area. 

Then more recently what we’ve been doing is a lot of cohorts where companies are trying to accelerate the development of women and people of color and other high potentials that they believe have a really short runway to become potential C-suite executives.

It’s been fun. It’s been great to have a bird’s eye view. When you’re actually coaching someone, you get to learn a lot about the company. Our framework of coaching is really, we’re coaching the individual to better effectively meet their organizational goals, and so it really is a business-focused coaching, but in doing that, you get into some of the softer, more [00:27:00] critical skills, like their communication style, their ability to build, key shareholders and stakeholders in their organization. 

I’ve had the opportunity to work with people in Pfizer, in Intel, in McDonald’s and IBM and so you see different companies and you see that as different as these companies are, they’re all kind of going through the same thing, which is a whole generation of new leaders who up until the pandemic had never really seen anything but a growing market and a group of executives who also have built their strategies on, “We made X percent revenue the prior year. Our strategy is just to make more money the next year and using the demographics and the data and the analytics from the prior year.” 

Well, guess what, the last four years, every year has been different, and you had two years doing the pandemic. I don’t know that you want to use that data. Look at Peloton, they were killing [00:28:00] it. Now, they came out of that really struggling, and so using historical data to make a case for what you’re going to do going forward has been more difficult and so you have a bunch of new leaders that are really having to be innovative in terms of viewing their business, maybe possibly changing their business models. It’s been really interesting serving as a coach and then going into the boardroom and seeing in some cases how all these companies are having very similar experiences. They’re all having experiences around employee engagement and this whole hybrid model. They’re all experiencing that.

Raza: It sounds obvious, but coaches should be people that have real world experience, so that’s something really spectacular about the ExCo Group.

Coretha: Yeah, we think that’s a secret sauce.

Joe: Sounds like it probably is. 

What I wanted to talk a little bit about is culture, which has kind of come up several times in this conversation. I think you saying hello to people in the elevator as the chief people [00:29:00] officer, that’s leadership in culture, and it’s so important. This expression, I think, it’s one of Raza’s favorite expressions is “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” We all know what’s important, just like we all know that people are important. Who has the responsibility for setting that tone in a company?

Coretha: You know, it’s funny because I would tell you historically people would say management has the responsibility for establishing the culture. I think we’re going through a very interesting time where it is the workforce that is taking what is on paper and what management is espousing, and they’re saying. “Yes, that’s what it is. No, that’s not what it is. This is what we want, and if we don’t have what we want, we’ll walk or we will just continue to stay this whole quiet quitting and kind of just come in and do our peace and leave.” 

I haven’t worked at any company or heard of any company where they don’t say people are our most important asset. I’ve not worked at any company where they say [00:30:00] they want to operate in an ethical way and that people should be respected in the workplace. But we hear, unfortunately, every day, both in the news and personal engagements with friends and family members, that there are things that happen every day in the workplace that should not be happening, and they have to be impacting how effective people are coming to work and how they’re showing up. 

I think this whole idea of working full time and being in the office every day is a challenge because the great experiment of the pandemic where we all worked remote opened the eyes to tons of people that they didn’t have to go in every day. But here’s what we do know, work is very social. Most of us when we list our friends, I would say if you’ve ever worked, very few people would say, “Here’s a list of friends,” and not have someone on that list who they worked with, who they met at work, and so I think the challenge now is how do you speak to what the new employee wants in the context of the culture that you’ve communicated and get the job [00:31:00] done. 

I think this whole focus on employee engagement is trying to find that happy medium. I do believe that people want to come into the office, but I also believe that people don’t think they have to come in every day.

I think Fast Company just published an article about one of the big issues that’s happening. Management believes employees are not productive and they’re using productivity tools to test, and employees believe that they are hugely productive, and I think what we are missing here is productivity should be based on outcome, not me just being at a certain place, being in a meeting at a certain time.

Raza: Measuring heat. Yeah. 

Coretha: It’s forcing us to kind of get really clear what is productivity. Productivity is not “I’m sitting at my desk all day long.” Productivity is you ask me to, to deliver X by X date with these performance parameters, and I’ve checked the box on every one. I cannot tell you over the course of my career how many times I’ve had to fight, particularly as a [00:32:00] junior manager ,for an employee who worked for me who was very productive, but was not a person that was in the hallway.

A single mother who comes in, she gets to her desk, she does her job, she gets her lunch, she comes back to her desk, and at four o’clock she has to leave to pick up her baby. She is productive versus the person who gets there at 7:30. They’re in the cafeteria, they grab a cup of coffee, they’re talking to the boss, they’re walking down the halls, they go out for lunch, they know everybody, they’re standing by the water cooler, they may be productive, but hour for hour, minute for minute, that woman may be more productive.

Joe: Yeah, that is a great observation.

Coretha: That’s the issue, that’s the reason why I think so many people are pushing back on wanting to be in the office. I think they believe that working remote to some degree or working a hybrid schedule becomes in some way the great equalizer. It’s not face time now, it’s [00:33:00] just I’m delivering what you told me to deliver.

Joe: Exactly.

Coretha: So, the biggest challenge in my mind is not the employees. The bigger challenge is leadership and management, do you know what the outcomes are that you want? Because if I know what I want from you, I don’t have to see you every day. I want to see you, but I don’t have to see you every day.

Joe: What is the role that the board should play?

Coretha: The role the board plays, I think, is, first of all, and most importantly, understanding what is the culture that the leadership team and the company is espousing. What are the words in your mouth? What are you telling people? And then based on what you’re telling people, ask for the data that basically verifies that that in fact is exactly the workplace that exists. 

Joe: For example.

Coretha: For example, when you look at turnover, most boards get access to turnover data. Have you asked to see the data, not an aggregate, because, again, if I roll it all in, I could have a department, a [00:34:00] major department, where people are spinning out like crazy, but if I roll it all together, it doesn’t look that bad. Asking for the data and then specifically asking questions, where is our churn high? Asking about churn in terms of what is our churn as it relates to gender, as it relates to age, as it relates to tenure in the organization, who’s leaving? What’s the profile of the people that are leaving and then more importantly, who’s coming back? There is a boomerang effect, and if you are the culture that you said you were, often people are going over and they’re finding out the grass isn’t greener on the other side. They might not even have grass and decide you want to come back. 

If you are a certain kind of company when you go in, I would say it’s red carpet in, and my tagline used to be red carpet in red carpet out, so that if you get there and you are a critical loss to us, you may say, “You know what, this is not what they told [00:35:00] me it was going to be,” and you call back and say, “Is there an opportunity for me to come back?” There may not be one, but if there is, the fact that you want to come back speaks volumes about the kind of culture that we have.

Joe: Absolutely. That is just right on the money. Thank you for that.

Coretha. It’s been great speaking with you today. Thank you so much for joining us.

Coretha: Thank you guys. Thanks for having me.

Joe: you all for listening to On Boards with our guest, Coretha Rushing.

Raza: Please visit our website at OnBoardsPodcast.com. That’s OnBoardsPodcast.com. We’d love to hear your comments, suggestions, and feedback.

Joe: Please stay safe and take care of yourselves, your families, and your communities as best you can. We hope you’ll tune in for the next episode of On Boards. Thanks.

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