A conversation with Melissa Lewis, SVP of HR at Hunter Douglas
One of the things I’ve noticed talking with other leaders in recent months is this: Many organizations have been more agile than they ever imagined possible in their responses to the pandemic.
Now, leaders are asking: How can we continue being this agile into the future?
Recently, Melissa Lewis, senior vice president of HR at Hunter Douglas, and I discussed what that might look like. Together, we came up with four key focus areas:
- Protecting and communicating the desired corporate culture and staying grounded in purpose
- Maintaining the social capital across the organization
- Rethinking our tools and processes
- Supporting resilience in our people
Hunter Douglas is a family-run company with a rich history that has made window coverings for more than 100 years and Melissa joined them just as the pandemic hit. I started by asking her about that experience, because while she had met key company leaders in person, most of her onboarding took place virtually.
Protecting and Communicating Corporate Culture
That’s one area in which companies waiting to reopen their offices or which continue remote work for some employees will need to get more comfortable going forward: imprinting the corporate culture on new employees.
Reflecting on her own experience, Melissa suggested that purposeful storytelling can help. “Our senior leaders are very good at storytelling, in part because they have such roots in the company. As they welcomed me into Hunter Douglas, their stories really gave me that essential backdrop to understand why we do things, and how we make decisions,” she said.
Melissa’s observations prompted me to think more about the role that purposeful storytelling plays in establishing and maintaining a strong company culture, which we all know is a critical factor in sustained success. Culture is tightly intertwined with an organization’s purpose, values, and principles, all of which have been put to the test by the pandemic and the compounding social and political tensions the world is currently facing.
Looking ahead, those organizations not planning a full return to the office will need to think consciously and purposefully about how to keep their company culture alive and well. Some say it’s working fine now, why worry? The answer is likely that we’ve been coasting on the culture we created and shared before the pandemic, but that may not work in the long run. Storytelling could help keep those shared experiences alive and help new hires get a better sense for the corporate culture with context.
Trust in Leadership
Developing trust among leadership is also a fundamental requirement to protecting the culture, and even more so in a crisis. When the pandemic hit, Melissa and her team had to ensure people that they would be safe coming to work, so the company mandated the use of masks in their factories early on. Melissa said this and other “decisions they made about people reflected who we are. And in return, people have gone above and beyond for us because we continued to build that trust during a difficult shared experience.”
Maintaining the social capital
There’s a similar challenge with social capital, which is the network of relationships between people in the organization that facilitate cooperation between groups. We all depend on trusted relationships to function successfully at work, but in an exclusively virtual environment, it creates challenges to making meaningful connections. It helps when people have empathy, are good at listening and excellent communicators, but right now, we’re primarily using the networks we built pre-pandemic. As turnover occurs, there’s a risk those relationships and network may weaken if we don’t put conscious effort into maintaining them.
As Melissa observed, “In summits I’ve been on, initially we heard so many of the tech companies were going to go virtual forever, but then you start to hear people coming back from that because they recognize that those connections, the culture are at risk.” She thinks they will aim to strike a balance with a hybrid workplace. “I do think it’s going to be harder to come to a clear answer on what the model looks like. We have to have a clear answer from some employees when they ask: Why do I need to come back? But there is still so much to gain from being together at certain points. Does that need to be all day, every day? Probably not.”
Rethinking Tools And Processes
Another area we dove into was tools and processes. I think we all found ourselves breaking some of our own “rules” during our initial reactions to the pandemic when it came to our normal processes. That meant quicker decisions and less bureaucracy. If we want to keep that going into the future, it’s essential we take a thoughtful look at our processes and tools. Which processes can we streamline to reflect how we actually did things when we had to move fast? And for those who will stay remote, as Melissa says some roles will have the option of doing, she points out that it’s critical that “we make sure they have the right equipment and support to do that job not just in the short term, but for the long term.” What we got by with in recent months may not be ideal, and for optimal performance we need to address that.
Teaching and Supporting Resilience & Agility in People
The final topic we focused on is resilience. As we continue to persevere from the pandemic and the experiences we’ve been through, many would probably echo Melissa’s thoughts: that apart from looking for people who can bring their skillset with both the confidence and humility that make a great team member, “resilience is one of the top characteristics we are looking for.”
Having people who can overcome adversity, rebound from its negative effects, and learn from the experience has been proven to be extremely valuable. None of us know what the next challenge we’ll face will be – but we all know it’s coming. Organizations that can sustain a new level of agility once this “burning platform” period ends will be a step ahead when it does.