Sara Stowe, PHR, SHRM-CP, is president and founder of Reel Culture, Portland, Oregon. For over 20 years in the human resources field, she has been working on the right fit between people by focusing on culture. Sara Stowe spoke with impactmania about companies’ cultural purposes gone awry, what is required to build a solid employer brand, and offers advice for people looking to (re-)start their careers.
Yes, it is. Some people struggle with defining what culture is, particularly when we talk about it in the workplace. I usually show an M.C. Escher drawing because that’s usually where people find themselves when they’re trying to articulate what their culture is.
They conflate the experience with what it takes to be successful, with how they have fun. The best way I’ve heard it described is, “culture is the way we do things around here.” That’s based on the values, which is at the core of who we are.
It’s also about what it takes to be successful. How do we behave? How unstructured are we? What kind of systems do we have? How automated is the work?
It really doesn’t matter what the product is, rather it’s about the problems that you get to solve.
As a leader of a company, how do you impact culture?
It’s critical that the CEO and/or the board, whether they know how to articulate culture or not, intuitively know that culture is absolutely critical to their success. When I was at Smarsh, the CEO said, “I want to keep this a place where people want to work.” If this is not committed to at the top, then there’s really no amount of heavy lifting that I could do, that your front line employees could do, that’s going to change that.
Tell me more about leadership gone awry.
What I often see happen with companies is that they end up hiring people who they have affinity with. Then you get what’s been called a ‘just like me’ culture, which is a bias. It’s very risky because you can end up with unintended discrimination when you hire people who, say, like the same sports team that you do or somebody that you’d like to go have a beer with.
If everyone’s pulling in the same direction, with people doing great work, you’re feeling like you’re moving forward, trusting each other, and stepping into conflict in a healthy way… at the end of the day you might want to go and have a beer with that person. But, just because you want to have a beer with that person does not tell you if they have the behaviors that are going to be necessary for you to enjoy working together because of the good work you do.
Sometimes I hear companies describe their culture as fun. I would say that’s the outcome of a good culture. You want to have a healthy culture, and then you’ll have other good outcomes that start to form what I call the employee experience. When I talk to candidates and they ask me what the culture is like at the company, they are often asking, “What’s the experience like?” Day-to-day what is it like to go in? Is it fun? Are people intense?
Have you seen a shift where companies have culture on the table, more so than before?
Yeah, companies have to think more about it because employees are not going to be there for 20, 30 years. So much like marriage, there’s no economic bind anymore. Companies have to think about how to keep good employees.
You have to be intentional about it, and it doesn’t happen by accident. I think where diversity and inclusion come into culture — this comes up a lot in tech because we’re so out of whack in terms of representing the communities in which we live — culture will shift and you have to really bring everybody along with it. For instance, people make comments in a meeting and don’t realize it is micro-aggression. They have to be educated; companies are starting to think about, “Okay, how do we have that conversation? How do we do that in an inclusive way so that the person who has been in the organization understands what inclusion looks like?”
Tech has had to think about it because it’s so competitive for talent. An extra $10,000 is not going to get somebody to stay at a company with an unhealthy culture.
According to Forbes, 50 percent of our workforce will be free agents by 2020. What do you think work is going to look like in the future?
That’s really an interesting question, because it’s something that I’ve been thinking about myself. I moved from being a full-time employee to being a consultant. One thing I have noticed and missed is my sense of belonging — feeling a part of something.
With the workforce going to 50 percent contingent labor by 2020, how do they get that sense of belonging? We’re seeing that in collaborative workspaces — the piece that you did with Great Space and Jody Turner. We’re seeing quite a few of the co-working spaces pop up here in Portland. WeWork has had tremendous success because it gives workers a sense of community.
I’m curious to see as that develops, what new dimension that’s going to bring to the workforce, and how all the consultants, freelancers, and contractors are going to network and maybe create a new way of working. I believe what will drive it is the very human need to feel like you belong and that you are part of something bigger than yourself and the work.
What will happen in these co-working spaces in terms of culture?
You could have project teams that work together pretty consistently but aren’t necessarily part of a specific company, they’re all still freelancers. The risk of a contingent workforce is, you are bringing in people that are going to bring new dimensions to your culture and that can have a negative impact, even if they’re there for only two or three months.
Perhaps there’ll be less of an impact if you bring in people who have worked together before; they’re tried and true. Perhaps people will tend to bring others with them as they move from company to company. This might happen more often than what we’re seeing it today.
That you happen to share a space doesn’t mean that that’s going to be a relationship that works.
Yeah, there isn’t anybody that’s doing any sort of vetting on culture in the co-working spaces. But inevitably, culture exists everywhere. There is going to be inherent culture in a collaborative workspace.
And maybe as those become more popular and more in demand, that will be part of the process of deciding if you get to have a space, or if you fit in with the culture of the other people who work there and are awarded a membership or not.
I interviewed economist Tomáš Sedláček; he said that in 20 to 30 years work and leisure will be interchangeable. What do you think of that?
I’ve seen similar things where we shouldn’t be calling it “work life balance” but more “work life integration.” Certainly technology has primed the ability for me to get out of the office for a personal commitment, but not have to worry about missing an email or call.
It’s going be more incumbent upon the individual to manage that. Managers are going to need to build their emotional intelligence and their empathy to make sure that if somebody’s earlier in their career and maybe doesn’t know how to make that integration a healthy one, that they can help coach the way.
We look at managers more as coaches than delegators and reporters these days.
Why should companies take culture seriously?
Through my career I have seen hiring managers and interview teams approach interviewing poorly, it doesn’t seem that it should be that hard. It isn’t, but it requires preparation, it requires structure, it requires being consistent.
And consistently what I have found is that no one’s training how to do it. If you don’t have the training approach, you’re going to get it right about 20 percent of the time. Which means you’re going get it wrong 80 percent of the time.
Whether an employee leaves voluntarily or involuntarily, the cost of a bad hire can be anywhere from one and a half to four times their salary. Once you start getting up into the executive level, or very highly specialized technical skills, it can be up to ten times their salary.
That’s very expensive and then you hear companies say, “Okay, we don’t want to risk that. I’m going to the staffing agency,” where you’re going to be paying a minimum of 20 percent of that salary fee. Companies seem more sensitive to agency fees because it ends up as a line item on their budget. Perhaps companies will take it more seriously and managers will be more accountable if the cost of a mis-hire appears on their P&L, too.
What insight do you have for people who are starting out their career and those who are changing their career?
I probably have conducted 15,000 interviews in my career. One of my favorite interview questions to ask is, “How did you get into what you do (this career)?” Eight out of ten times, they will say, “Well, I kind of fell into it.”
Your job is so important, it’s more than a third of your life. You spend more time with colleagues than you do with family. There’s been a message, particularly over the last five to ten years, to do what you love. And the subtext of it is, because that’s the only way you can be happy.
I think that’s a dangerous message because I believe and have seen that you create your own happiness where you are. Nobody gives you happiness, it is something you work on, a skill you develop over time. I’ve talked to so many people; those eight out of ten people are not mediocre performers. A lot of top performers in that 80 percent tell me they fell into the work that they did.
People who have just graduated college or are re-entering the workforce? My advice to them is if they don’t have a clear view on what they want to do, do something. When you take that step, a lot of other possibilities start to open up around you. Do what you can to discover how you are connected to that work, where the purpose is in that work that emerges.
The way I describe top performers are people who love what they do, they know their work is important, but they’ve got humility that they don’t become self-important. They’re always learning, evolving and growing.
So how do you create that passion? My advice is to really dive in deep. There’s so much available through online communities and thought leadership articles. Find a mentor, or somebody who can help you connect to the purpose of the work, at an emotional level. These efforts then becomes the fuel for a top performer, because not only are they reading about it, they are becoming better at what they do through this learning, inspiration and focus.
Choose something. There are tools out there to help uncover what your strengths are. I send people to StrengthsFinder that gives people their top five strengths. Then I have them map each of those strengths to a story that they can share. This solves a struggle for candidates, as they wonder how to talk about themselves without sounding like an ego maniac.
Tell your story, the story will show it.
Any specific advice for women who are looking to reentry?
I would say, don’t apologize for a gap in employment. If the person conducting the interview would like to know what was happening during this gap, you can say, “I took time out for family reasons.” That’s all that needs to be said.
There is a Conference in Portland called Advancing Careers of Tech Women (ACT-W); I coordinate volunteers for the mock interview segment and the resume review part of the conference. Often we’re telling women to stop apologizing for what you don’t have.
If a woman, occasionally you’ll find a man in this position, has been the stay at home parent, and has been involved in volunteer causes, there are a lot of behaviors that are developed that you can talk about in the interview process. It doesn’t have to be about paid work.
It’s reasonable to expect that if you left a position as a Manager six or seven years ago, you’re probably not going to step back into a Director position. It might be a lateral move; it might be a bit of a step back temporarily.
Companies are starting to evolve how they think about women or men reentering the workforce. They are also aware that there are more and more households where both parents are working and commitments happen during work hours. This is why work life integration is so important, it allows parents to have that flexibility to take care of those commitments. Even if they’re not parents, often they’re caretakers so more and more companies have to have that flexibility.
I do see women very sensitive with the subject of returning to work after a period of time. And rightly so, I won’t say there’s no discrimination out there. But know what you have to offer, come forward with that in hand.
We always ask our interviewees who has left an imprint on your professional DNA?
I have a few professional heroes. Jody Turner is one of them because she’s so future forward thinking. Certainly her work talks about the work experience.
Simon Sinek has been a good influence, I read his stuff and watch his presentations; he absolutely nails this notion of purpose. That is the core of everything that can inspire us and keep us fueled and energized in our work.
Then there is Scott Crabtree. He has a business called Happy Brain Science, which is about how we create happiness at work. There again is that accountability that we are the ones that makes ourselves happy at work.
Any last thoughts on your purpose and what drives you in what you do?
There are things we can do to empower ourselves, whether it’s identifying purpose or managing distractions. When we’re in a flow of work, we feel happier than when we’re being distracted and interrupted. As simple as this may sound, this impacts your happiness greatly.
If we’re getting the culture fit right, employees certainly are happier, your shareholders and your board are going to be happier too. I feel that’s my contribution to helping the world become a healthier and happier place, simply by helping people identify the right fit.