Strategizing human resource management - Tracie Sponenberg [Interview]

About Tracie Sponenberg

Tracie is the Chief People Officer at The Granite Group. She specializes in strategic Human Resource management. She is the co-founder of DisruptHRNH & HR Rebooted. She’s also a very well-renowned speaker on technology, leadership, branding and all things HR. We are extremely happy and honored to have someone of her stature on our interview series.

Strategizing human resource management - Tracie Sponenberg [Interview]

Vanessa Rose

We have the pleasure of welcoming Tracie Sponenburg today to our interview series. I am Vanessa Rose from the peopleHum team. Let’s begin with just a quick introduction of peopleHum. peopleHum is an end-to-end, one-view, integrated human capital management automation platform, the winner of the 2019 global Codie Award for HCM that is specifically built for crafted employee experiences and the future of work. We run the peopleHum blog and the video channel which receives upwards of 200,000 visitors a year and publish around 2 interviews with well-known names globally, every month.

Vanessa

Welcome, Tracie. We’re thrilled to have you.

Tracie

Thank you for having me, Vanessa. I appreciate it.

Vanessa

So, the first question I have for you Tracie is, could you tell us a little bit about your journey so far? You’ve had quite a career in HR. 

Tracie

Yeah, I think when you hear people or speakers where they advise on certain things, often their consultants. But I’m actually a full-time practitioner, to do some fun things on the side. And I’m also one of these weird folks that very early on knew that they wanted to work in HR. So I was in high school when I realized that that really combined, that feel really combined my love of people, of business and how the brain worked.

I was a psychology major in undergrad, and while I was in college, I interned at a very large global public transportation company and got a great training background. But I realized that my home was really in smaller places. 

So I’ve built my career for the last 20 plus years in smaller to midsize businesses, mostly mid-sized businesses where I found that I could really have the most impact of business and that I could really do my best work. 

Vanessa

That’s nice how you realized that you wanted to do HR right from the beginning.

Tracie

I did and it looked very different back then and I was very tactical early in my career, very much, pushing paper and policies and things like that. And it was an evolution for me to get to where I am now, but I’ve changed along with the times, I think, and I think you have to do that. 

Vanessa

That’s true. 

So Tracie, moving on, can you tell us how we can choose a human capital management software that is best suited for our organization?

Tracie

I think first and foremost that you need to know your organization. So you have to deeply understand the business and no one does this alone. So it’s important if you certainly go through a process to assess and evaluate what you need to look at different vendors, and we could talk probably for days on that entire process. But I’ll just make it simple with a few things. So you don’t want to go to it alone.

So certainly as you’re going through the process, you want to get different stakeholders involved. IT, finance, and most importantly, end-users. So people who are going to be using that technology every day and the last time we went through this we had a group that got together at several times to look at different products and providers, and they would find out things that I wouldn’t, so I may think that we need X, Y or Z but I’m not using that particular product.

I mean, I’ll be using a time recording function or I may not be using a learning function. Well, hopefully, I’m using a learning function. I may not do that. Our IT team may not do that, so it’s important to really crowdsource that and not every system is right for every organization.

“Not every system is right for every organization.”

And I think us being in a smaller kind of field, we are a small, mid-sized business, where we’ve got about 600 people. A lot of enterprise-level systems are necessarily geared toward us, so we had to really look really carefully at that and ask a ton of questions, so there’s a lot that goes into it.

But I think if you get different stakeholders involved super early, know your business deeply, know what work works for your people, and then continually ask a ton of questions that are going to go a long way toward getting you where you need to go with that. 

Vanessa

Yeah, so it all comes down to what you want out of it in the end. 

Tracie

For everyone, it’s different for every single company, this, I talk about this a lot. There’s no work system that works for every single company in the world. It’s very unique. So each individual is unique. Each company is unique. Each part of their needs are very unique. 

Vanessa

Tracie, so now while talking about employee engagement, how do you think we can leverage technology for a maximum outcome, output? 

Tracie

So, I like to measure things. So I came late to being embracing data and embracing analytics. But I’ve really come to believe that data tells a story and you can measure just about anything.

“Data tells a story and you can measure just about anything.”

So in our HCM, we have an analytics tool that will measure anything that goes in, right? And when you’re looking at engagement, there are different ways to do that. And certainly, it’s something that can be measurable. And there’s really to me, to our company, there is nothing more important than the health and happiness of our employees and well being and engagement are really tied together. 

So we do have tools that work together to help us measure that, but it’s also important to actually go a little bit old school and talk to people so you could measure things. But it’s important also to have those conversations and right now we’re using some virtual tools to have those conversations because it’s not always face to face. 

Vanessa

And speaking of virtual tools, like you said, so, how do you think in the current pandemic scene, how important is the virtual wellness program, especially for employees?

Tracie 

I think that all virtual programs are much more important now. So we’re having leadership meetings over Zoom, where we would pack 30 people into a conference room setting, eight inches from each other all day. We just can’t do that right now. So, we, in our HR team, we had to go remote so that all we had to do was leave one day and not come back because we had all the tools that we needed in our computer.

And one of the things that I think has been great is we do have a virtual wellness program. And for companies that do that, being isolated if their company is remote during a pandemic, is really incredibly challenging. 

So there, everything from the loneliness factor, if somebody lives alone, even if they live with a family and they’re not seeing other people to, overeating, under-exercising, drinking too much. I was watching the news early this morning and saw a statistic that ⅓ of people and these were people that admitted to it, were drinking during the workday now. ⅓, that seems like a lot, but, and I’m pretty sure that that didn’t happen quite to that extent before. 

So take a look at our place well being and measuring that and having a tool that they can use to help themselves and then that can transition when people start coming back into the workforce, I think is never more, was never more critical than it is right now. 

Vanessa

Speaking about the leader, how is the leader especially, what factors does the leader play to build high performing teams, while working remotely?

Tracie

So, working remotely is a challenge for a lot of people and I think that we found that some people absolutely love it and thrive and some people hate it. And so you have to really balance that. And we talked about things like Zoom or use Google Meets sometimes, things like that can really help you see each other, and I think that that is really important.

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So when you can’t see each other in an office, then seeing each other over a screen is incredibly important and my team meets every day and we never, we didn’t meet with that frequency when we were all in the office, but because we’re all dispersed and some of my team lives alone, some lives with other people but seeing each other every day, even if it’s for 15 – 20 minutes, a half-hour is really critical.

But the most important thing is in whatever form it takes is communication. And It looks a lot different for companies. I think during the pandemic, it’s really important to give people a lot more leeway than they may have had in the past, to be understanding, to really practice the art of grace and to realize that people are living through something that none of us have lived through before, and they’re responding to that in really different ways.

“I think during the pandemic, it’s really important to give people a lot more leeway than they may have had in the past, to be understanding, to really practice the art of grace and to realize that people are living through something that none of us have lived through before, and they’re responding to that in really different ways.”

And some people here have children at home that they’re trying to educate while also trying to hold down their jobs, some of the people have ill family members or family members that need helping. It doesn’t look like it used to, so it’s hard right now to really focus on high performing teams. 

I think right now we need to focus on our teams and give them the support that they need so that as we move through this, certainly we’re getting the work done. But as we move through this, we can figure out how to support them in the best way possible. And the focus is really on them because a lot of companies now are just trying to survive this and not worried as much about thriving. So it looks much different than it did even a few months ago. 

Vanessa

I think empathy matters most now. People still need that touch.

Tracie

Absolutely, we talk about that all the time. Actually, our HR system is working on a project on empathy for managers so that we can explain things like why it’s important to wear masks and what that means, you can still practice, you can smile and you can practice sympathy and even in a really strange situation.

Vanessa

Tracie, what is your idea of an ideal work culture?

Tracie

I think that’s really, it’s personal to everybody. I think for me my ideal culture is one that’s very supportive. I often talk about that when I go to any new company, when I move on, my number is, in my position I would report to the CEO, but my number one thing is having an excellent relationship with the CEO.

So I need to work for a CEO that I can like and respect and grow to trust and that have that mutual relationship. I often compare the relationship to a Chief People Officer and the CEO, is it like a hand to the King and a Game of Thrones reference and that you’re really the ear, the sounding board for the CEO, there’s such a relationship of trust because in the best companies and hopefully in most companies, but in the best companies, there’s nothing more important to a business than its people, and the Chief People Officer really has a role in making sure that people are happy and engaged and certainly performing. 

But if you’re taking care of the people’s needs and if you’re servicing them in the way that you should, they’ll take care of the business So for me, having that supportive relationship with the CEO, being able to make changes for the better and move things forward. I’m really motivated by growth and so once getting in there and assessing and we did a full-scale HR Tech overhaul several years ago. And I left up because we were able to improve the lives of our people and our managers and our HR team and get more efficient and really focus on the things that mattered and that’s our people. 

We have 45 locations, and I’m not really visiting now, I will be soon. But I spent a lot of time doing that, a lot of time out in the branches and we will find things out that I would never sitting behind a desk and I couldn’t do that if we hadn’t really focused on technology. 

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Vanessa

Tracie, do you have any last soundbites you’d like to leave our audience with?

Tracie 

I think that it’s, this right now is a moment for HR and I have seen some remarkable things that friends have been doing for their team and really, it’s truly been difficult for all of us. And while the HR profession, we’re not front line responders, and I have an enormous amount of respect for the medical professionals and the teachers and the grocery workers and our own people who are dealing with customers every day, HR professionals are dealing with a lot of heartaches and the emotional weight of some of the challenging decisions businesses have had to make.

So, and it’s been a time, and I think you have a chance to either go this way or that way. So as you know, especially during a situation like now, you have a chance to, when faced with an obstacle, develop a bunch of policies and go the tactical route. Or do what you need to do and focus on the people. And I talk often about people over policies, and certain policies have a place and are important.

But the focus needs to be on your people. Everything needs to be on your people’s, whether it be focusing on technology, focusing on their well being. Your people are why you got into HR and your people should be why you stay in HR. And there’s nothing more important than the people to your company.

“Your people are why you got into HR and your people should be why you stay in HR. And there’s nothing more important than the people to your company.”

Vanessa

Really good advice Tracie. In the end, it’s your people.

Tracie

Absolutely. 

Vanessa

It was really nice talking to you, Tracie. Thank you so much for joining us. 

Tracie

Thank you. 

Vanessa

I had a great time.

Tracie

Me too. Thanks for having me. It was very nice talking to you. Thank you.