Dan Spaulding of Zillow Group: “To create a fantastic work culture make sure to treat employees as whole people”

I think the single greatest shift would be to treat employees as whole people. As employers, we can do this by ensuring ALL employees feel they belong, through programs such as Employee Resource Groups. We should also address employees’ mental health — an issue that’s rarely discussed in corporate America but that has wide-reaching implications. People are […]

I think the single greatest shift would be to treat employees as whole people. As employers, we can do this by ensuring ALL employees feel they belong, through programs such as Employee Resource Groups. We should also address employees’ mental health — an issue that’s rarely discussed in corporate America but that has wide-reaching implications. People are dealing with a lot in our modern world and we can do more to help them.

As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dan Spaulding, Chief People Officer, Zillow Group. As chief people officer of Zillow Group, Dan oversees the company’s people operations including human resources, recruiting, community & belonging, and learning & development teams. He focuses on creating solutions to attract, engage, develop and retain Zillow Group’s talented employees across our offices nationwide and multiple consumer and business brands. Prior to joining Zillow Group, Dan was the Vice President of U.S. Stores and Operations HR for Starbucks, where his team drove support and strategy for over 8,000 stores and 140,000 partners nationwide. Before holding his position at Starbucks, Dan held roles on leadership and human resources teams at Life Technologies and Dell, Inc., where he integrated HR teams through numerous mergers and acquisitions and supported global growth initiatives. Dan serves on the Board of Trustees for Knox College. He received his bachelor of arts in political science and history from Knox College and his master of science in human resources and industrial and labor relations from the University of Illinois.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’ve always been passionate about helping build teams and careers. After earning my Masters in Human Resources, I worked at Dell followed by a biotech company, and was then recruited to Starbucks to lead HR for the U.S. retail business. Zillow Group hired me to help formalize HR practices as our company was growing rapidly. Each of these experiences taught me how to empower people to “own” their careers and how to recruit, retain and motivate top talent. It’s been a great journey so far.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Last year, we had a suicide near one of our offices. Several employees witnessed it on their way into work. Hard on so many levels. The day was a reminder of how important the connections between people at work are. Many employees had been touched by suicide, and it brought a lot to the surface for them. The employees who witnessed the event needed special support. We brought support onsite for the rest of the week, and the utilization was so high that we opened it up to other employees that were triggered by the suicide or struggling. It was a reminder that when something traumatic happens, we need to support those who are immediately impacted and those who are navigating a past trauma; both need our support. I’ll never forget that week.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

As a company, we’re at a really exciting inflection point. We’re transforming from a place where consumers search for a home, to a partner that helps consumers find and get into a home they love. Our goal is to create an on-demand real estate experience at all points of the process. Within my org, we’re laser focused on cultivating a culture that empowers employees to achieve our mission, do their best work and grow their careers. When we recruit, retain and motivate our talent, we’re well positioned to streamline the entire real estate experience for buyers, sellers and renters nationwide.

Ok, let’s jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

In my experience, employees can become disengaged at work when they don’t feel connected to the mission or don’t feel they belong. Everyone, especially millennials, wants to understand how their work furthers the mission. They want to feel empowered to grow their careers, and they want to know their voice matters. Companies face a huge opportunity to cultivate trust, transparency and a sense of belonging with employees to improve engagement.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

Employee engagement is one of the single greatest factors in driving business outcomes. At Zillow Group, we measure employee engagement, since happiness is hard to quantify, and it’s often impacted by things outside of work. We define engagement as the intent to stay for two years and to recommend Zillow Group as a place to work.

We know from survey after survey that when employees are engaged, they do their best work. They’re more productive and more likely to stay at the company. Research also shows that engaged employees actually feel their work positively impacts their health. Work comprises such a huge part of our lives that it’s no surprise it impacts our physical and mental wellbeing.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

At the manager level, there are four qualities that we found are most correlated with being a great manager. We encourage our managers to:

  • Show They Care: Great managers don’t seclude themselves in a corner office or only talk about work. They say “good morning,” show interest in their team members’ lives outside of work, and understand bad days.
  • Empower Their Team: The success of a team is also the manager’s success. Great leaders give employees the tools and info they need to feel confident in the work they are doing so they can be successful contributors.
  • Know How to Get It Done: The best managers know how to make things happen, who to talk to and how to navigate the organization. If the manager isn’t the correct person to answer an employee’s question, they know who to send them to.
  • Communicate: The most effective managers overcommunicate; they make sure the team is informed, knows what’s going on and what’s expected of them.

And at the executive level, consider how you can build trust and transparency across your company, whether it’s soliciting and sharing employee feedback, helping employees understand how to grow in their careers, or job leveling to ensure you have pay equity.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

I think the single greatest shift would be to treat employees as whole people. As employers, we can do this by ensuring ALL employees feel they belong, through programs such as Employee Resource Groups. We should also address employees’ mental health — an issue that’s rarely discussed in corporate America but that has wide-reaching implications. People are dealing with a lot in our modern world and we can do more to help them.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

Big question! One of my core beliefs is that you are the most impactful when you meet people where they are, not where you are. This is in both small and big ways. One small way is that I communicate with my team the way they prefer to get communications. Some love email, some want texts, some need to discuss topics live, some love a quick Slack message. I don’t focus on what I prefer but rather how I can be the most effective at bending to their style. Meeting people where they are builds trust, and when you build trust you can get to the really important conversations.

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?

Mentors are everything. Jeanine Kestler was my first boss and mentor to this day. She never once treated me like I was too junior to tackle something complicated (even when I was). She pushed and supported me from day one. She saw the professional I could be before anyone else.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I am fortunate to support nearly 4,400 people every day. I never lose sight of any positive impact our team can bring to their lives is amplified across all of the lives that they touch inside and outside of work.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Do the work that others aren’t willing to do.”

Early in my career, I always looked for the roles and work that others were running away from. This opened so many doors and gave me experiences that fueled my career. It also helped me develop the resilience that I need in my current role every day.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

We need to tackle the very real issue of the impact work is having on mental health. So many challenges we see in the workplace that impact businesses everyday are the result of mental health challenges inside and outside of work. We need to acknowledge this and focus on it in different ways. Mental health is important to the success of everyone, and carries too much stigma today. At Zillow Group, we have begun to make outside counselors available on site (confidentially, of course). The uptake so far has been encouraging and shows us that our employees value this service.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

About the Author:

Phil Laboon wants to live in a world where actions speak louder than words, people shout their stories from roof tops, and where following one’s passion is the norm. As a serial entrepreneur and investor, his personal and professional life has spotlighted in hundreds of publications such as People Magazine, Rueters, Forbes, Inc, HuffingtonPost, and CBS This Morning. When he’s not building memorable brands or launching exciting startups, you can find him backpacking exotic countries looking for new inspiration and challenges.

If you would like to book Phil for an entertaining speaking engagement about inbound marketing or growing a business, he can be contacted HERE

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