Stella Tran: “If you want to create a fantastic work culture you need to call out culture killers”

Use your power to foster inclusion and call out culture killers. Connect people from different teams that could promote collaboration. If you’re a bystander to an off-putting comment towards someone, call it out with a look of disappointment and some choice words. Lead through awkward and tense moments by creating a safe space for discussion. […]

Use your power to foster inclusion and call out culture killers. Connect people from different teams that could promote collaboration. If you’re a bystander to an off-putting comment towards someone, call it out with a look of disappointment and some choice words. Lead through awkward and tense moments by creating a safe space for discussion. Have lunch in the lunchroom, not at your desk. Think about how you distribute responsibilities and tasks and do it equitably.

I had the pleasure to interview Stella Tran. Stella powers all things “people,” ensuring that HighRadius’ people and culture continue to thrive, even during periods of rapid growth. She leads the human resources team with a “people-first” mentality with the goal of hiring, retaining and developing the best talent around. Prior to joining HighRadius, Stella spent nearly a decade at a fast growth specialty retailer finishing her tenure there as Director of HR. Stella received her Bachelor of Arts in Communications from Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.

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

My career started in consumer finance and lending at HBSC and ended abruptly with the housing market crash in 2009. One of my employees saw the Yahoo! headline announcing the closure of all HSBC US finance branches and called me…before we heard the company announcement a few hours later. Talk about a spoiler alert! Losing that job was one of the best things that could have happened because it allowed me to think differently about what I wanted to do next. I wanted to find something new while still leveraging what I was good at — sales and people. I put the two together and found recruiting — if I could sell mortgages (blah) then I’d have even more fun selling a company’s culture and opportunity. I saw it as an chance to be a career matchmaker and to make a difference in people’s’ lives. The timing was far from ideal. Here I was trying to find a new job along with the other 12 million Americans that found themselves out of work that year. I came across an opening for a Recruiter at a fast fashion specialty retailer that I loved to shop at, and they were going through rapid growth despite the economic recession. A friend (who was a Buyer) landed me an interview with the head of HR and the rest is history. Over my 8 year tenure, I grew from the very first Recruiter to the Director of Human Resources. Unfortunately, the company eventually went through a bankruptcy, so when the opportunity at HighRadius came along and I had the chance to build a people function from the ground up, so I was all about it!

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

Hands down, having the opportunity to travel to our Asian headquarters in Hyderabad, India, for our annual UMIXO (U MIX with Others) employee event. When the US team arrived, we were greeted with floral necklaces and headpieces. As is HighRadius custom, they also went out of their way to prank us by having a fellow HighRadian act like a doctor who needed to see proof of vaccination records or else we had to immediately hop back on the 20+ hour return flight to the US (funny now, not then). This week-long tradition fosters collaboration and healthy competition through culture, performance and creativity. All of our 25+ teams participate in a sports event, spend countless hours transforming and decorating their departments and to top it all off, there is a huge production where all 800+ employees perform with their teams on stage for the entire company. Our leadership team even did a surprise Bhangra dance on stage that we had rehearsed and the crowd went wild. I was blown away by the talent and dedication of our teams. Upon meeting everyone for the first time, I was immediately pulled into rehearsals for a department skit and cultural dance with our India People & Culture team. This is just a sneak peek of how the week started:

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

We went through a major initiative last year to release our culture guide and core values. We assembled a global team of 40 employees and asked them to submit their ideas about HighRadius’ core values. After reading through over 260 detailed submissions, collating the data and trimming it down, we landed on 8 core values. This year we’re focused on embedding our core values at key moments of the employee journey. We want to be intentional about building the right culture. It’s not only a differentiator, it creates a deepened sense of loyalty when people can self-identify with our core values and see it as a part of who they are and how they think, feel and act.

Ok, lets 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?

People are unhappy when their expectations are misaligned with reality. It all starts with the job interview and the ability to paint an accurate picture from both sides of the interview table. If your manager isn’t who you thought she’d be, if your responsibilities and career path do not line up with what you were told, if you’re doing something that doesn’t utilize your strengths or if the promise of a fairytale culture ends up being a nightmare — then you’ll be unhappy. The list goes on. On the flipside, if your manager inspires you, you believe that you’re making an impact and you can find a reason to laugh everyday with the people around you — the answer is much more positive when one or more of these variables exist.

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?

  1. Company productivity — An unhappy workforce majors in the minors. They may allow trivial matters and gossip to overshadow what’s important. In the absence of communication or information, they assume the worst because they do not believe that the company has their best interest in mind. If there are politics, people will smile and nod during a meeting then have their own private post-meeting with their chosen alliances and say how they REALLY feel. Toxicity can spread faster than you think, and it can be a total buzzkill for others.
  2. Company profitability — Turnover is expensive. It’s partially about the ones that leave for another opportunity and it’s also about the employees that quit then STAY. Disengagement sounds like “Ugh, why are we doing this?” and engagement sounds like, “I get to do this! What else can I be doing?” Engaged employees are advocate that champion the company in good times and bad. They get purpose, fulfillment and want to go the extra mile.
  3. Employee Health and Wellbeing — If you only care about the ‘work version’ of someone, you’re missing the bigger picture. Engagement is not just about discretionary effort and what employees can do for the company. It’s a reciprocal relationship and companies have to play an intentional part in what type of environment they are cultivating for people to thrive in.

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?

  1. Be a culture champ. Live out the values in your big moments and everyday moments. The next time you want to recognize someone for their results, call out specific examples of model behavior, traits or values that the person exhibits. Our leaders do this when someone on their team gets promoted, and it adds a personal touch that goes beyond just KPIs and numbers.
  2. Transparency builds trust. Trust is at the foundation of every interaction. If we can be open and honest and take complex issues head on instead of dancing around the sensitive subjects, people will appreciate it. People see information as a gift. In the absence of information, people will either assume the best (high trust) or the worst (low trust) outcome. And if you’re ever worried about messing up a major message, it always helps to clarify your intent in the beginning so people know that you have their best interest in mind.
  3. Care about the whole person. Do more than just care about the work version of someone, care about the whole person. You should always try to bring out the best version of someone at work. This goes beyond the golden rule of treating people how you want to be treated and it becomes the platinum rule of treating people how they want to be treated. Having a high EQ as a leader is an accelerator to understanding someone’s motivations, intentions and actions. The more you can connect on a personal level, the greater chance of influence you have to steer them in the right direction for success.
  4. Use your power to foster inclusion and call out culture killers. Connect people from different teams that could promote collaboration. If you’re a bystander to an off-putting comment towards someone, call it out with a look of disappointment and some choice words. Lead through awkward and tense moments by creating a safe space for discussion. Have lunch in the lunchroom, not at your desk. Think about how you distribute responsibilities and tasks and do it equitably.
  5. Never be too busy for a smile. Leaders have to model the right behavior. Sorry not sorry but it’s part of the gig. There is a heightened sense of visibility when you are a leader and people will pay attention to your reactions, interactions and how you carry yourself. Introduce yourself to someone new. Humanize yourself by making a personal connection with others outside the borders of your team.

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?

Creating culture isn’t an HR responsibility, it’s in everyone’s best interest to get it right. A great culture also gets confused with perks. Having a ping pong table and sparkling water on tap can only get you so far. Trying to transform the stuffy corporate giant into feeling like a fairytale startup is a huge uphill battle. One size does not fit all and companies have to be vulnerable enough to understand their employees before trying to make a major change in culture.

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

Ok, I admit I had to poll my team to answer this for me to make sure that my self-awareness is on point. The one thing that I’ve tried to live by is that I’ll never have a bad day in front of my team. I may have moments of intensity but we find a reason to laugh everyday, no matter how crazy it gets. They can always count on me to help filter a tough conversation they need to have or just vent. I actually hate emotionally charged situations (comes from being bullied as a kid) so I’ve always tried to be the equalizer in tense situations and can get everyone back to being focused on what’s important. These are quotes from them:

  1. “Strong enough of a leader to listen to me and take in my ideas even if they are different than yours.” I am always open to contrary points of view. I try to recruit diverse talent so that we can find how our differences can complement each other vs. hiring a mini version of myself. If I hire someone exactly like me, then one of us isn’t needed.
  2. “Empowering, motivating — making those around you want to work hard for you” I’m an Activator — I put thoughts and ideas into action. I can help clear the clutter from ideas and help people focus on a gameplan to get across the finish line. I extend trust and give autonomy to allow people to work in their own independent ways.

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’m a first generation born American and my parents were immigrants from Asia that came to the US in the 60s. I owe my success to my mom who is equal parts loving, gritty and tough AF. As a kid, I remember telling her that I was thirsty and she literally told me to drink my own spit. Not in a mean way, but she started nodding and acting like she was swallowing her spit to quench her thirst. Guess what? I forgot I was thirsty. I used to think my mom was highly impatient growing up, but it’s because she did everything with urgency and purpose. My mom did it all (without all of the progressive parenting hacks of today): wife, mom of 2, head chef, housekeeper, career woman and more. Being raised by Tiger Parents taught me how to stay the course and push through the obstacles. I don’t rank which areas of my life are more important. I want to be the best version of myself in all areas of my life: wife, mom of 2, and career. All of them matter greatly to me.

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

I’m often asked, “Why are you still going to college career fairs at your level?” and it’s because I care deeply about the next generation of talent. I remember being a college kid, with self doubt and unclear direction about what I wanted my future to be. I’ve never turned away someone that wanted advice, mentorship, a quick coaching session or a resume review. I’ve been really fortunate to have worked for amazing leaders that have inspired me and I hope to continue to pass on that knowledge to others.

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

“Pressure is a privilege.” I’m forever thankful to have my brother as my sounding board because he’s had a 9 year headstart in life and has given me advice at every stage. I remember venting to him very early on in my career about a bad day and he told me that pressure is a privilege. I had to repeat it back to myself and take in what that meant. It gave me a new perspective. I get to choose what I do and have to accept the associated pressures that come along with it. Every moment of every day is a micro decision that adds up to doing something that I really enjoy. I have choices. That in and of itself is a privilege that I never want to take for granted.

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. 🙂

I want to help women stand out in their own unique way. As a double minority, I’ve gone the extra mile to make my impressions memorable because if anything, people remember that I’m Asian. It’s especially important for women to understand the power in leveraging their differences from others in order to make an impact. Rather than attending a networking event and shaking everyone’s hand, adding a ton of new contacts on LinkedIn (that you eventually forget about) and making a lot of first impressions, be intentional. Don’t make the first impression your last. If you want your first impressions to make a lasting impact, be more selective and intentional about who you meet, how you meet them and why it matters.

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