“Don’t think about culture as a project or initiative. It’s a journey with no end date and requires continuous attention.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Donnelly, JD, Senior Vice President and Senior Consultant in the Organizational Effectiveness Practice at Segal, the benefits, compensation and investment consulting firm.
Jennifer provides strategic planning and cultural transformation guidance to clients. Jennifer has created innovative approaches for building leading-edge workplace practices and improving work cultures. Jennifer is also a member of the Board of Directors for the U.S. Olympic Bobsled and Skeleton organization, where she is leading a comprehensive strategic planning effort for organization.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Istarted my career as a lawyer in private practice, and never envisioned that this is where my professional path would take me. After practicing litigation for a few years I realized that the work wasn’t that exciting, rewarding or inspiring. When you look at the factors for job satisfaction and engagement, one of the big components is feeling a sense of purpose and mission in your work, and working on behalf of big insurance companies made it difficult for me to make that connection. I had the opportunity to leave the practice of law and take on an employee and labor relations role, which at the time was not a common move or a traditional role coming out of law school. I was early in my career and really debated whether stepping away from a traditional law career was the right move, but took the risk and made the switch. It was that move that started me on the path to becoming an HR professional and leader, and ultimately into consulting. I often think it is the best professional decision I ever made, as it set me on this path of doing such engaging and fulfilling work.
What is the most interesting story that happened to you since you began working in Organizational Effectiveness?
Before becoming part of Segal, my partner that leads our national Organizational Effectiveness practice and I owned and operated our own consulting business. There is nothing quite like owning and growing your own business, and the responsibility, accountability and entrepreneurial mindset that comes with it. I definitely carry that experience and the lessons learned every day in my current work. About five years ago, we had the opportunity to join Segal and build and grow this business for the firm. This change has been a wonderful opportunity that has opened many doors and enabled me to make an impact on all kinds of organizations throughout the country. Building something and being part of growing it is as our own business, and for Segal, has been as rewarding as the actual work we do for our clients.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I feel fortunate to work in organizational effectiveness where the work is so interesting and you can really make an impact. Right now I have a couple of strategic workforce planning projects that involve assessing workforce issues and creating approaches for transforming the workplace culture and recruiting and retaining top talent. One of these projects is for a major hospital system in a large urban area that has major competition in the form of high-quality health care providers. In recent years, Millennials have become more than 50% of this organization’s workforce, but the organization’s employment practices were dated. They had a high turnover rate, and younger employees in particular are leaving for companies with more modern and appealing practices and cultures. The hospital system is also challenged to recruit quality new talent. At the same time, the cost of living in the area is rapidly increasing, making it difficult for younger workers to live in or near the city where they work. We are helping them to rethink their entire culture and their employee value proposition by reducing the bureaucracy, modernizing technology, offering more flexible work options, investing in support and resources for various living and commuting options, and revamping unnecessarily restrictive employment policies. We are also building a range of creative programs, perks, and activities aimed at creating an environment that appeals to younger generations. Leveraging their great mission in patient care and finding ways to connect employees to that mission with passion are also key strategies. The goal is to transform the work culture, the overall workforce, and in turn improve the patient experience and quality of health care for people in the region.
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?
A lot of organizations take culture for granted or assume that a good culture will just happen. In reality, the places with the best work cultures are purposeful about building and sustaining that specific culture. Great organizations have a clear picture of what kind of culture and work environment they want to establish, and employ a range of targeted strategies to create it. I also see some employers fall into the trap of treating the workforce like a commodity, and not creating an environment where people feel valued. Taking even small steps to demonstrate to your workforce that you care about their wellbeing also goes a long way in helping people to bring their best selves to work each day. The Forbes study you mention also talks about the importance of having a sense of purpose in your work. I have seen a lot of organizations fall short in helping employees make the connection of how their work and contributions support the broader mission, which plays a big role in employee happiness and fulfillment. Also, it is easy to get lost in the work and tasks of the day, and lose sight of the health and happiness of your employees.
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?
Placing a dedicated focus on culture and engagement is a business imperative and will become central to an organization’s business and financial success. There are several major shifts going on in the U.S. workforce that will make paying attention to culture and work environment more important than ever. The aging workforce, a wave of baby boomer retirements coupled with new generations of employees entering the workforce at a rapid pace with very different needs and preferences related to the work environment are fundamentally changing how employers recruit and retain talent. At the same time, unemployment is at its lowest rates in over 50 years, and the competition for talent is intense. And the American workforce is also as stressed out as it has ever been. Innovative companies are finding ways to invest in not only the physical health of their employees but their mental health and well-being.
Having a compelling employee value proposition and creating a dynamic work environment where employees want to come and stay will be key to supporting employee well-being and satisfaction, supporting a high-performing workforce, and ultimately financial performance and profitability. Employees have lots of options and want to work at a place that values its people and offers an environment where employees can thrive. Happy, healthy, and engaged employees are more productive and provide better service to customers, both of which impact the bottom line. Organizations can’t afford to not pay attention to these dynamics or they will fall behind.
What 5 things should managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?
Leaders drive culture and set the tone. During my work in helping organizations transform their work cultures I have learned that there is no one thing that makes a work culture great, but a host of interconnected things that impact work environment. Leaders should consider the following guidelines:
- Listen. Become tuned into the culture and learn what motivates your team. Then, tailor your approach to mentor, develop and support your people in a way that is genuine and that speaks to what drives them. An employee’s experience with their leader is probably the single most important factor in how they view their work environment and experience, and how loyal, engaged and productive they will be
- Celebrate successes and milestones, big or small. Consistently reward hard work and accomplishments. Saying thank you sounds so simple and goes such a long way, but I am always surprised at how organizations I work with have trouble doing this consistently and struggle to get recognition right
- Encourage fun! Build a sense of camaraderie and family. If you think about the number of hours people spend at work, building friendships and bonds with those around you is crucial to the work experience.
- Build a supportive environment. Instill a culture of inclusion, fairness, openness and transparency. This is especially significant for leaders working to build a sense of trust in the culture. I often work with organizations that have a mindset that trust from employees is assumed until something is done to change that, while in today’s workforce, trust is something that needs to be built and nurtured by decision-makers and leaders alike
- Inspire intellectual curiosity and risk taking. This includes creating an environment where people are not afraid to make mistakes. I have seen first-hand with clients I work with how much innovation is stifled in a risk-averse culture where people are afraid to make a mistake. Striving for perfection can actually perpetuate a status-quo culture where people don’t bring forth big and bold ideas
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 see a lot of companies set strategic priorities that relate to growth, financial health and operations, but rarely see a clear strategy or priority aimed at culture and people. A focus on culture is critical to ensuring an organization is positioned to achieve its vision and goals. It is the people that will enable the company to follow its vision and meet those goals. Culture is often not part of the conversation of broader business vision and strategy but it needs to be — it drives everything else and can be the biggest barrier to progress. Clearly defining the culture you want and how you will achieve and sustain it is a fundamental piece. We need to make it a true strategic business priority to change the broader view and conversation on culture.
I often tell my clients: Don’t think about culture as a project or initiative. It’s a journey with no end date and requires continuous attention. It also requires the unwavering sponsorship and support of leaders. Culture starts at the top and that is where ultimate responsibility and accountability lies.
How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?
There is a wide variety of ways to motivate performance and help people be their best and there is no one-size-fits-all leadership style. The way I approach leadership is I work on getting a sense of what individual needs are in order to be successful and tailor my leadership and mentoring approach for each team member. Generally speaking, there are a few things that I believe are fundamental: having transparency, being an advocate, treating people with fairness, always giving credit to your team for individual and team accomplishments, and taking ownership and responsibility for failures. Being genuinely invested in the success of others is also vital. Recognizing milestones, celebrating successes and just saying thank you are also really important. I also think it is important to know your team and take an interest in what is happening in their lives. The reality is people bring their personal lives to work. When employees know their leaders care about them as people that goes a long way in creating a culture where people feel valued, cared for and can thrive.
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?
I was the first person in my family to graduate from college, which I managed mostly through scholarships, working a variety of jobs and financial aid. I certainly never imagined that law school was even a real possibility. In my junior year of college, I had an advisor who I really admired. She was barely in her 30s but had her law degree and PhD, and she really encouraged me to pursue graduate or law school. She invested her time and energy to help me pursue and navigate that path to continuing my education, which can be tough for first-generation college students.
Without her pushing me and getting me to think bigger about my future, I doubt I would have ended up where I am. She was truly instrumental in setting me on the path that led to my career, and I still think of her often with gratitude. I’ve also been really fortunate to have many great mentors along the way. At every stage in my professional life, I have carefully observed the leaders and noted the qualities I admire and those qualities I would like to avoid. I would encourage people at any point in their career to proactively take ownership of mentoring relationships. There is always something to learn from the leaders and peers around you, even if it isn’t in the form of a formalized mentorship.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Growing up my family had limited means. As a result, I’m incredibly grateful for all of the opportunities and successes I have had, and it is really important to help others that haven’t had the same opportunities. For many years our family has worked with a local county agency to support a family in need for the holidays, and we usually choose a family with three or four kids. Each year when I receive the wish list from the kids, I’m always struck that they rarely include toys and video games that typical kids expect. We live in Buffalo where the winters can be long and cold, and the kids often ask for things like coats, boots, hats, socks, gloves and blankets — basic things most of our kids completely take for granted. I feel fortunate to be able to make a difference even for one family. This year we also supported meals for several families at our local homeless shelter. I’m proud to be part of an organization that cares about the communities it serves and gives back. While I think one person can make a big difference in the lives of others, a company can make an enormous impact. My firm is always looking for opportunities to expand its presence in its communities and bolster volunteer efforts for our employees, and I’m proud to be helping to lead this effort.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
While in my first professional job I came across this quote in a magazine: “You didn’t get where you are by sitting in the most comfortable seat in the room.” I saved the page and kept it in the top of my desk drawer for years where I would see it regularly. It was a great reminder to always push yourself to be better, to not be complacent, and to be willing to take risks and step out of your comfort zone. I have found this to be such a valuable lesson in both work and in life. I try to encourage my team to do the same and push themselves as part of their development.
You are a person of 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.
I love the idea of organizations making corporate responsibility a priority, and to see that become a common practice among all workplaces. When companies invest in and support their communities it can bring good to a large amount of people, and it creates a stronger sense of purpose for employees, which is a major contributor to a great culture and employee experience. It’s easier for mission-based organizations to naturally provide passion and a sense of purpose to their workforce for the work they do, but tougher for other businesses. I would like to be part of a movement where we institute a standard practice for having robust employee volunteer programs that provide employees with regular opportunities to volunteer within their communities, take paid time for community service activities, and offer incentives and rewards the workforce for serving others.
It’s a great way to instill a stronger sense of purpose among employees, a sense of pride in the organization’s values, and build overall camaraderie. Volunteerism can bring people together who may not normally cross paths, and builds a different kind of bond among people that may not have similar roles or work. Plus, communities would benefit, work cultures would benefit, and businesses would benefit. This can be done with a small investment in a resource to create and maintain the program, and can also be supported by a committee of dedicated employees. While there is a cost to giving paid time off for employees to engage in the community, the investment is minimal compared to the benefits of doing good in communities and having an engaged, happy, loyal and passionate workforce.