It is a great time for reconnecting with others and I have seen relationships strengthen. That facetime chat I did with college roommates wouldn’t usually happen because normally I was commuting, going to a school meeting or reviewing homework. As I shared before, in reconnecting, I reached out to someone I have known professionally for years. Turns out he was starting a who’s who in HR pod cast and ask me join. Usually I would say no, I am too busy, however, with a little extra time as a result of not carpooling on weekends led me to use that time to try things I usually don’t.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place.
As a part of our series about how busy women leaders are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alexis Daur.
Alexis Daur is Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) Global Head of Human Resources. ISS is an International Financial Services Company. https://www.issgovernance.com/ Alexis has responsibility for leading the team dedicated to ensuring and supporting a diverse and inclusive environment for high performing professionals around the world. Alexis leads the company’s strategic efforts to develop human resources programs and policies which support both ISS’ business goals and people. When not at work, Alexis is a hockey/soccer/baseball/lacrosse mom of three (ages 10, 8 and 4) and can be found either taking a kid to practice, coaching her daughter’s lacrosse team or, now, homeschooling.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Of course! I attended Cornell University and when I was looking at schools you could narrow your interest by applying to a specific school within the university. I knew I wanted to help people, but to do so in a professional/business environment. So, I applied to the school of Industrial and Labor Relations believing I could help people as a lawyer or politician. Starting off in school, I didn’t realize that Human Resources was a career. While at school, I realized I loved working (more than studying) and the practical aspects of experiential learning while on a job. This led me to apply and attain an internship with a U.S. Senator’s office. It was an amazing experience which made me realize I wanted to get into the working world as soon as possible. But for both law and even politics, I realized more schooling would be necessary; something I wasn’t inclined to do at the time. As graduation neared, I interviewed for as many types of roles as I could, with many companies which were recruiting for HR roles from my major. Upon graduation, I got a great opportunity and found myself working in labor relations for a power company in Richmond, Virginia. I loved it, but after a while I wanted to be closer to my family (and current boyfriend now husband) so I started looking for opportunities in New York. I applied to every large company in NYC with an HR role opening (I had that working woman on Wall street conquering the world vision) and landed a recruiting role at a large accounting firm. In 2000, with the pop of the tech bubble, the demand for recruiting skills and expertise diminished and I moved to a Human Resources Generalist role and fell in love. People came to me with all sorts of issues and problems and were so grateful when I resolved them. Added bonus — the company was happy that their employees could sharpen their focus on work instead of dispute resolution. Then one sunny September day, the world changed. It was September 11, 2001, I was living in Hoboken NJ, and the firm I was working for was located just outside NYC, and, like everyone else, that day I was forever changed. Thankfully our employees were all okay, but as I was helping employees and their families during that time, I realized I found my calling.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?
Seven months ago, I probably would have shared the story of one of our seven acquisitions, and the delicate process of integrating employees into the firm. But Covid, and the complexity and intensity of the last few months has trumped anything I would have shared before. Most families are now intimately acquainted with the difficulties of pivoting their family away from what was usual, and over the course of just hours and days, redefining life for a family sequestered under one roof. As the Global Head of Human Resources I was pivoting not only for my family but also for my a diverse group of 2,000 colleagues spread across more than 30 offices, 13 countries, multiple time zones, and all with varied priorities. Moving and directing our employees from being fully in the office to being 100% remote was intense! Pre-covid we had a BCP (Business Continuity Plan) that usually planned for just one office going down because of a natural disaster or other incident and had even implemented this plan a few times when a tornado stuck, or a volcano erupted. But we never imagined more than 30 offices closing simultaneously! And not only going down, but with everyone working remote indefinitely! We were monitoring the news early on, and thus had a slight head start on our communications and realizing our technology needs. It was great to see our amazing employees partnering seamlessly to facilitate our people to transfer to their homes and continue working with minimal impact to our business. In the first few days I was partnering with our CFO and CTO to continually review and adapt our BCP plan. We met multiple times a day, every day, as we had to make hundreds of decisions in rapid fashion. We were resolving all sorts of issues, from technology needs, building updates, shipping of equipment, and addressing health concerns all while making sure that our first priority, our employees’ safety, and our clients’ needs were still being met.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes, despite the environment, we have a lot of great projects underway. Some are initiatives started as a result of the pandemic. During this time, we have had to think outside the box to keep people connected. In HR we launched initiatives to help employees stay connected. We rolled out a global training platform, to support employees’ development while working remotely and began hosting audio casts with our leadership team. The audio casts are an exciting way to connect employees to the leaders in the organization and share a little more about each other and the, sometimes, unconventional paths our leaders have taken to arrive at their current positions. My favorite, however, was an initiative that started as an effort to improve the recruiting section of our website. We reached out to many of our employees around the globe asking them to share what they liked about working for ISS. It was so powerful that we turned it into a video which we shared during our most recent global town hall. I saw a lot of eyes tearing up when watching that video as people around the world saw and connected with their colleagues.
On a company wide scale, the firm has an ESG (environmental, social and governance) business and I am a member of the ISS CORE (Corporate Responsibility) Council. ISS advances Corporate Responsibility with our organizational programs and policies, but also with our products and services. We are committed to positively impacting the environment and society through our market-leading solutions and leading by example. For example:
Climate Change — we support investors with a wide range of market leading data and analytical solutions to understand, measure and act on climate related risks and their impact on funding across all asset classes.
Sustainable Development Goals — we build tools and analytics to help investors understand how their portfolio companies positively or negatively contribute to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. These solutions help investors measure the impact their funding can have on actively supporting the transition process required to achieve these goals.
We are also actively working on emerging themes in sustainability to include diversity and equality assessments, biodiversity risks, and the physical risks of climate change.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are many, truly many, but three stand out. First, was my 10th grade chemistry teacher Mr. Moffit. I wasn’t a rockstar in chemistry, but I did enjoy his class, I took it very seriously and wanted to excel. In one parent-teacher conference, Mr. Moffit told my parents “Alexis may be getting a B not an A in chemistry, but I tell you she is going to set the world on fire.” I am embarrassed to even write that but having someone believe in you really helps one to believe in themself and then strive to achieve more. I am not sure if he even realizes the impact he has had on me. Now that I think on it, I will give him a call when I finish this interview to thank him! The second is my parents. My parents are both incredibly supportive of my three sisters and me. My mom raised four girls while working full time outside the home. She showed me it was possible to be a great mother and professional, often reminding me of Mr. Moffit’s words whenever I needed it. My dad was a “girl dad” before that was a cool phrase. Occasionally, he was asked, with a questioning tone, “What it was like having all girls, was it tough?” He answered something along the lines of “I guess it’s just like having all boys…but better.” Positive reinforcement is incredibly important, so I make sure to spread positive comments to my team and co-workers. The third person, and I am not just saying this for brownie points (he will actually probably wish I didn’t mention him) is my current boss, Gary Retelny, CEO of ISS. Six years ago, moving into the Global Head of HR role (in a newly formed company where the HR function needed to be created) felt like a big step to me. But Gary believed in me when I didn’t quite believe in myself and gave me the chance to prove it. I am grateful that he entrusted me in a role we both see as so valuable to the firm. He encourages and supports his entire organization and leadership team with a hands-off style. He encourages his team to stretch their wings and try to fly while knowing the organization has your back. This permeates throughout the organization. He encourages diversity and is very supportive of women. Three out of our five businesses are run by women, various others have important leadership roles. No surprise Gary is also a girl dad, with bright and talented daughters.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman business leader during this pandemic?
For me it is feeling that you have let your kids down. I worked hard over the last few years to leave work at the office door or on the train platform, so I could come home and be present (at least for a few hours before sometimes jumping back online after their bedtime). But in this blurred situation, a tense workday can bleed into the home. At work, I have over 2,000 people counting on me, with colleagues waiting to hear back from me, which from time to time leads me to put my three little ones second in the queue. If a work meeting runs late while a kid is waiting for me to log them into a zoom, they end up joining late and they feel upset. Or worse, is when I am stressed with work and since there is now no clear break between work and home, and work emotions are on display in the home and thus you adversely affect your children. Sometimes my son or daughter (or husband) is looking for help while I am dealing with a stressful work-related problem and I snap or respond curtly. It isn’t fair to them and it makes for a bad night for us all.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Triage as best you can the night before. At night, or over coffee in the morning, my husband and I will pull up our work calendars and kids schedules to see which parent can monitor the kids at each hour (with one eye on work emails of course). We make a morning schedule for the kids to follow so they can get themselves going. And as a family, we discuss when we are free and when we all need to be working.
And when I really can’t be interrupted, I put a note on the door and, as soon as I can break, I check in on the kids.
One trick we started early on, was to take a family walk at the end of the day to proximate the “commute” or transfer from work to home.
I found early on during the pandemic that there was a direct effect on my mental and physical well-being when I worked out. Any type of exercise, a bike ride, walk or run has helped me as much, if not more, mentally than physically.
Lastly, I try to cut myself slack. Some days are good workdays, some are good home days, and occasionally some are both — and some are neither! But you move on and try your best again tomorrow. And when all else fails, I have been known to occasionally hide in the bathroom with a glass of wine until I am ready to come out with a smile and be mommy.
Can you share the biggest work related challenges you are facing as a woman in business during this pandemic?
Staying professional on days you feel down. Being in the house all the time you start to lose your identity as a leader. When I was in the office, I got a charge and motivated from working with or connecting with people. Now working at home, I toggle back and forth between being mom or Head of HR. I am extremely busy and productive, but not feeling as much professional accomplishment. Being so busy it is also hard to develop professionally, mentor, network, or expand my skill set. It is also hard to feel professional when, and this is a true story, you are on a global video call, speaking with leaders of the organization and a little voice yells from down the hall “I’m done! Can someone wipe my tushy?”
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I decided to make time for professional accomplishments that stimulate me. I took the advice I was sharing with our leaders. Put yourself out there! Connect with others in the industry, network, reach out, even offer to mentor or develop others. While I no longer had my officemates walking by to bounce things off of or debrief with, I made an effort to connect via zoom calls. I started walks around the neighborhood with other professional women to create that interaction and reflection. In the weekly company BCP note I have written since the pandemic started, I encouraged my colleagues to reach out to someone they hadn’t connected with professionally in a while. I did the same which sparked a conversation which led to a podcast. Even as an extrovert it is uncomfortable to self-promote, some say women are particularly guilty of this, but as soon as I shared that podcast on social media I got a few other requests leading to this interview today! And for the tushy story, well I figured I gave everyone a good laugh that day and a story to tell their family that night.
Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?
Working from the office and balancing is tough, working from home and balancing is tough. As a working parent, the holy grail is how to find that perfect balance. But we learn there is no one answer. What works one day, or even one year doesn’t work the next. So, trying a tactic and then trying something new when that doesn’t work is the way forward. Two main tactics worked for us.
First, get help however you can. A few moms and I realized we could set up the iPads so the 8 year old boys could Facetime while playing x-Box. They had an awesome virtual playdate and we had an hour (okay the truth maybe one day it was closer to 3 hours) of uninterrupted work time. My mother-in-law helps our daughter with her math homework over the phone, and my parents come over and sit outside chatting with the kids for a distraction. One day a neighbor offered to have my 4 year old son come out and draw with chalk, each kid distant in their respective driveway so I could make an important call. So next week I offered the same for them. And lean on your partner. My husband Chris also has a big stressful job, but he is more patient at times with homeschooling and is the better cook. So, I learned to let go and we each took on tasks. I am lucky and grateful that he is a true partner.
Second is to communicate and then communicate more. The day is smoother when I tell my daughter I need 15 more minutes to finish work then we can debrief on her day when we sit down to dinner. Or I tell my youngest that I love him so much but if the office door is closed tight that means do not come in except for emergencies, and no the fact he can’t find a blue crayon is not an emergency! I also communicate with my co-workers and let them know when I need to shut down early one day to help my daughter with her school project. Most importantly, and this took a few fights to figure out, I tell my husband if I am feeling stressed or was bothered by something at work, so he knows I may be a little more on edge.
Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place, or simply staying inside, for long periods with your family?
I mentioned this before, but first and foremost is exercise. Those endorphins are for real! When you can get outside it is great. As I shared earlier, we instituted a family walk. Some days it is in raincoats, the four-year-old loves puddles, other days we run into neighbors and catch up from a distance. On the cold or lazy days, we try yoga or just crank the music and have a dance party.
The next strategy is to mix it up. I stole ideas I would see while scrolling social media at night. Puzzles, monopoly, cooking, building forts. My husband came up with chopped cooking night everyone was given the same 4 ingredients and made a different part of the dinner. We are still laughing at what we ate that night from that one! For a treat we looked forward to ordering dinner from a local restaurant and now our town has set up outdoor sidewalk seating so we can go out for a night!
Of course, we all have bad days, but extra dessert and a movie usually creates sanity for at least a night!
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
- It is a great time for reconnecting with others and I have seen relationships strengthen. That facetime chat I did with college roommates wouldn’t usually happen because normally I was commuting, going to a school meeting or reviewing homework. As I shared before, in reconnecting, I reached out to someone I have known professionally for years. Turns out he was starting a who’s who in HR pod cast and ask me join. Usually I would say no, I am too busy, however, with a little extra time as a result of not carpooling on weekends led me to use that time to try things I usually don’t.
- Which leads me to number 2. Trying things, you normally wouldn’t. Maybe it is the type A in me, but at the start of the pandemic I said “I am going to make the best of this and be productive however I can! I will clean my closet, learn to bake with the kids, and try yoga!” I also had been writing a weekly note about BCP happenings to all employees even before we left the office. I didn’t want to write the first update; I saw it as just another thing I didn’t have time for. But as the weeks went on, I started to enjoy it, find a cadence and open up. As the pandemic went on, my writing became more personal, sharing tips, stories and quotes. In return, employees across the globe responded with their own stories back. While building an even closer connection with those from work I also discovered that I derived great pleasure from writing and sharing. And yes, I did try yoga and liked it, but cleaning my closet is still on the list.
- We now have a chance to “stop and smell the flowers”. Many business leaders and parents are always going, going, going. I always wished for more time in a day; well now, without a commute and sports games or social events, we have time to reset and think. Yes, it can get boring, this pace at times is too slow but to be able to have time to enjoy what is around you, your family, your environment and nature and appreciate these things will help us to reset priorities.
- The environment is better for it. At least for now, emissions and pollution are down. People are traveling less, staying in more. Hopefully some of these changes stick and we realize you can have a video call instead of getting on a plane and make other smart changes.
- Gratitude. The things we took for granted every day we now miss. Eating in restaurants, going to the movies, gathering in groups, celebrating and being less cautious about our health. I am more grateful for the simple things. I hear about friends and colleagues getting sick and losing loved ones which reminds me to cherish relationships and our health. This pandemic has helped me to recalibrate and say what is important? While I desperately want the pandemic to end, I am grateful for extra hugs and cuddles in the morning in leu of my commute.
From your experience, what are a few ideas that one can use to effectively offer support to their family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Positive thinking. So many days when feeling down I would say we can make this a good day or dwell on the bad. It is a mindset. I push the negative thoughts out and think on the positive ones. Such as, what a treat to see the kids more, to see some milestones and have more family time. We miss the sports fields and friends, but we get a break and a chance to slow down. When I feel negative, I tell myself to think about the positive outcomes of the pandemic. I say what are the 3 things that I have done during this time that I want to continue doing when things get back to a more normal state. (Most are on the list from the previous question.) I challenge others, what can we learn from this and let’s think forward and plan what we want to accomplish in our future.
And then sometimes just a simple call can help. I make it a point each day to check in on one person. Because I know when I get that random call on a bad day it can change my whole mood around.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite life lesson quote is one I follow for both my professional and personal life and work to instill in my children. “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said and forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya AngelouShowing empathy and caring for others costs very little and can make others feel so good. I have two stories regarding this, one personal, one professional. Just the other day as my four-year-old started pre-school, his teacher who had also taught my 8 year told all the other teachers standing around that my 8-year-old was one of a kind. She said 4 years ago on one of the first days of school, one child said to another — “Ewww what is your snack, that’s gross.” My son Connor turned to that child and in his 4-year-old little voice said “Don’t yuck someone else’s yum.“ I have never been prouder as a mom to hear that, and the fact that his equally empathetic and amazing teacher is telling this story 4 years later shows the impression he left on her. Professionally I experienced this lesson early. As an HR professional, part of the job is sometimes having difficult conversations. Early in my career, I had to let an employee know we were going to end his employment as his skills just weren’t the right fit. I had the conversation and was as honest and kind as I could be. I let him know he was great (he was) and very talented and would find the right place where his skills would be a better fit. I offered to help him anyway I could, I shared names of headhunters and reviewed and edited his resume. I still felt horrible that night and was sure he hated me. Two months later, during my commute home one evening, I realized he was directly in front of me on the sidewalk on a busy New York City block. I wanted to duck as I am sure he was going to tell me he was so angry with the company, but he saw me, smiled and embraced me in a large hug. I stood there stunned. He told me he was doing wonderful and thanked me so much for helping him, that despite my message of termination, I had given him the right pep talk. He left that day with a positive attitude, used the contacts I provided and found a wonderful new position. He said “you made what could have been a horrible situation feel good, like I was meant to be somewhere else. You made me feel confident and that reflected in my attitude as I searched for my next role.” That NYC happenstance stuck with me, in turn made me feel positive and became my barometer for future interactions.
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Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!