As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nora Jenkins Townson, founder of Bright + Early and HR expert in the tech sector. Nora has 10 years of experience building unique cultures for successful startups like Wealthsimple and FreshBooks. She is the founder and CEO of Bright + Early, a collective of modern HR consultants focused on helping companies craft world-class cultures. Nora also has a passion for inclusivity in the workplace and is a frequent speaker and writer on diversity in tech.
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 loved technology, and grew up coding my own games and websites. But because I didn’t see many examples of people like me in programming, I didn’t view it as a career path. When I got into HR, I wanted to focus my career on making work as welcoming, inspiring and inclusive as possible. We spend a huge chunk of our lives at work, and we should feel good there.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Because we work with startups and other creative, early stage companies, we’re totally down with laid-back office cultures. It takes a lot to surprise me. However, I once walked into an office that was in the middle of a food fight AND a weed smoking session. We’re in Canada, but still!
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We recently finished a project called “The Parenting Playbook” (www.theparentingplaybook.ca), which is a resource for companies that want to be parent friendly. Going beyond parental leave, the playbook has a ton of strategies, many of them totally free, that help you support parents on your team. Millennials are currently in their 30s and starting to have kids, so recruiting and retaining parents is important even for “younger” companies.
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?
The world has moved forward, but the way we work hasn’t adapted quickly enough. Employees are still expected to work 9–5, but with the advent of smartphones, apps like slack, and a culture of “hustle porn”, we’re expected to go beyond and be available 24/7. But we’re not afforded the same work-life integration from our employers. It’s normal to answer emails at 10pm, but not to dip out of the office at 10am to get errands done.
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?
An employer that isn’t actively investing in engaging its employees can expect high turnover, lowered performance and trouble recruiting new staff. Even the most engaging work can’t undo a culture of overwork and burnout.
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?
- Collecting regular feedback. At least quarterly, companies should be conducting surveys on employee engagement, well-being and happiness. As culture consultants, it’s one of the first things we do. A survey can also help you highlight the positive. One company, after soliciting feedback from staff, found that the company’s inclusiveness towards LGBTQ+ folks was something their employees were proud of. They decided to make this a cornerstone of their culture, sponsoring local LGBTQ+ causes in the community.
- Ensuring each manager is having effective 1 on 1’s with everyone on their team. These should be separate from a status update, and led by the employee’s feelings and priorities. After sending managers to training for active listening skills, we’ve seen huge jumps in employee satisfaction.
- Show up! One of the most common complaints I hear from teams is that their executive team is often absent from company social events. It’s very important to not skip out. Why should employees care about culture if you don’t?
- Be transparent. Saying you have an “open door policy” isn’t enough. Hold regular Q+A sessions with employees at all-company meetings, with the option to ask questions anonymously.
- Support the “real lives” of your employees. Things like flexible hours (a godsend for parents) and the ability to work from home on occasion are highly valued by employees, often even more than additional pay. Compassion goes a long way. One company we worked with had a fund set aside for employees in tough circumstances, and coworkers could nominate each other to receive it. It was granted for unexpected expenses like a fire at home or an emergency pet surgery. As you can imagine, this company has high employee engagement and very low turnover.
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?
The US has one of the lowest amounts of parental leave in the world. Mandating longer (and paid) parental leave will keep a large amount of employees more engaged, and keep more women in the workforce.
How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?
As you can imagine, I like to be supportive of my team’s personal goals as well as their professional ones. I’m always aware of what my team is working towards in their life, whether it’s buying a home or improving their coaching skills, and try to connect them with resources to help.
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?
One of my first bosses inspired me when it came to leading with compassion. He’d hire people based on character vs educational background, and always started with the human, not the policy.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Bright + Early strives to make everything we build inclusive. If we’re designing an interview process for a company, we’re going to ensure that it can handle accommodations for those facing barriers. We’re going to ensure the companies we work with have a policy to address harassment before it happens. Our goal is to build human cultures at work.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Not everyone will raise their voice. Leaders tend to be the type to voice concerns, so it’s easy to assume others will, too. They believe that if someone is unhappy at work, that they’d come speak to them about it. It’s a costly mistake, as many employees aren’t comfortable coming to the boss and saying “I need us to have a parental leave policy” or “my manager is a jerk”. You need to give them opportunities as well as encouragement for feedback without retaliation.
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. 🙂
The “companies pay for daycare” movement. A gal can dream!
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