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Traci Wilk Shares Her Most Effective HR Strategies with Kage Spatz

HR Strategy Series, Real Human Resources

The Learning Experience Human Resources

Consistent communication and transparency between employees and leaders are critical factors in retaining employees. When leaders consistently communicate with a candid and open management style, they are providing context behind decisions and playing a key role in maintaining an engaged, motivated, and overall happy workforce.

As a part of my HR Strategy Series, I’m talking to top experts in the field to teach prospects what hiring managers are actually looking for, while also supporting business leaders in their hiring and retention strategies. Today I had the pleasure of talking with Traci Wilk.

Traci Wilk is the Senior Vice President, People, at The Learning Experience. Previously, Wilk served as Chief People Officer for Rag & Bone where she led the opening of three global offices for the company. She has also served at Coach, responsible for all of the company’s North American human resource initiatives, and Starbucks for seven years, leading human resources in the company’s most complex flagship market — the New York metropolitan area — which boasts an employment base exceeding 10,000. Wilk has over 20 years of experience in a diverse range of industries including retail, technology, hospitality, and franchise operations, shaping high-performance culture for both Fortune 500 and major progressive brands. She holds a master’s and professional diploma in Psychology from Fordham University.


Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I have always been deeply interested in exploring human behavior, always trying to ascertain the context behind why people act and behave in the ways they do. I naturally gravitated towards psychology classes in school, and I quickly surmised that this was my calling. However, I didn’t have a clear picture of what this would translate to after graduation.

After graduating from college, I immediately moved to New York City and began a graduate degree in Counseling Psychology. My goal, at the time, was to become a Psychologist. In order to afford to live in NYC as a grad student, I took a job at a fashion startup as their first Human Resources manager. At the time, I believed this to be an administrative or regulatory function within a company. However, I quickly learned that this wasn’t the case. I found myself taking knowledge from my coursework and translating it into the workplace- helping people become their best selves. The company scaled very quickly during my time there. It was an ideal “first job,” and where I realized my passion for developing organizations and people.

Since that time, I’ve been privileged to work for some incredibly progressive, high-growth companies throughout my career, spanning industries (multi-channel retail, fashion, tech, media, food & beverage, & hospitality), and growth stage, from founder-led startup up to Fortune 500.

Can you share the most interesting or funny story that happened to you since you started this career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Back in the early 2000s, Starbucks was emerging as one of the very first companies to take a humanistic approach to scale a business. I was lucky enough to work for Starbucks during their early growth, and it was the ultimate experience for me as an emerging leader. It was there that I began to truly appreciate the great responsibility that leaders have for the development of others.

I learned that to create and cultivate a great work environment through large scale growth; leaders must value people development above all else. In order to excel at Starbucks, you need to be a developer- of yourself and others.

Are you working on any exciting new projects at your company? How is this helping people?

My role at The Learning Experience as SVP, People, is to be a leader who can visualize, implement, and lead a scalable, long-term people team strategy. It’s my job to ensure all employees have the tools and resources they need to be successful and build their careers. Currently, we are working on multiple initiatives designed to elevate talent throughout the company, using technology to accelerate how we source, hire, develop, engage, and retain our talent.

We are taking a fresh look at everything we do as it relates to our people and are continuously innovating. One example is the introduction of our new Applicant Tracking System and its integration with Onboarding. One might say I am fanatical about the importance of creating a great first impression for people that join our amazing company.

Fantastic. Let’s jump into the main focus of our series. Hiring can be very time consuming and difficult. Can you share your five most effective techniques used to identify top talent for any position you are looking to fill?

Every hire is an opportunity to elevate the talent within an organization. There are several key things I’m looking for when sourcing and assessing potential people to join our company.

1) A Growth Mindset– When assessing for potential, no matter what the role, I am looking for someone eager to learn and grow. Growth mindset is a term coined by the psychologist Carol Dweck, and it means that you believe your talents can be developed.

2) Self-Reflection– I often ask people about challenging situations they’ve faced in their career. I want to see them share some “reflection” or a postmortem that they may have done after the situation. How have they taken what they’ve learned and applied it to future situations?

3) Self-Awareness– I’m always impressed by candidates that want to understand the challenges they will face in their role before they join the company. For example, I recently had a candidate ask me: “Knowing I don’t have prior experience in this type of industry, I do bring other attributes that will make me successful. That said, what do you think my major challenges will be in getting immersed into the company if I’m selected for the role?”

4) Emotional Intelligence– The ability to empathize with others, build lasting relationships, and manage emotions in the workplace hasbeen proven to me time and time again to be one of the biggest indicators of workplace and interpersonal success.

5) Innovation: This is critical to assess as it’s the way in which a person approaches their work. Essentially, innovation is the ability to come up with new ideas and bring them to life in every functional area of the company.

With so much noise and competition out there, what are the most effective ways to attract and engage the best talent in an industry?

Proactively sourcing future talent is the hallmark of a solid talent strategy. This means taking the time to create and nurture relationships for future opportunities and experience with the company. To find and engage outstanding talent for a specific vacancy, all hiring managers need to change their mindset. It starts with creating a profile and considering: “who is the best possible person for this potential future role?” The days of creating a job advertisement, posting it online, and waiting for top talent to apply for is what I call relying on the “post and pray” technique. Its very short-sighted approach to talent acquisition.

Building relationships far in advance is a smart move. What would you consider to be the most effective strategies currently being used to retain employees?

Retention of talent is the outcome of employee engagement, and typically, this responsibility falls squarely in the hands of one’s leader. Leaders have the responsibility to role model and influence others to act in ways that bring out the best in people. In my experience, the most effective leaders are naturally focused on the needs of others and helping them to develop, seeing this as the route to both personal and organizational success.

Taking a traditional, authoritarian leadership approach can harm employee morale and hinder creativity and innovation, ultimately stifling growth. Leaders don’t necessarily need to carve out discrete time to focus on these areas; rather, they should infuse these concepts into everything they already do. This may include taking a fresh approach to a recurring problem or building in retrospective activities once an initiative has been implemented. Incremental adjustments may ultimately yield greater, more sustainable results than radical, sweeping change.

Consistent communication and transparency between employees and leaders are critical factors in retaining employees. When leaders consistently communicate with a candid and open management style, they are providing context behind decisions and playing a key role in maintaining an engaged, motivated, and overall happy workforce.

In your experience, is it important for HR to keep up with the latest trends?

An innovative mindset is the hallmark of being a great leader of people. While my role requires me to be a leader who can visualize, implement, and lead a scalable, long-term people team strategy, to me, this means finding ways to simplify processes and create a more effective people operation. If I can do this, it enables time to have more authentic human to human interactions, which is critical in the world we live in today.

Can you give an example of a creative way to increase the value provided to employees without breaking the bank?

At The Learning Experience HQ, we are proud to offer a state of the art office building with a lot of great perks and a fun work environment. That said, true employee engagement should not cost a dime. Despite what some believe, people aren’t intrinsically motivated by benefits and pay raises. Rather, people want to feel valued for the impact they make. They want to be appreciated. Simply thanking someone for the work they do, and praising them when they do something especially great is the easiest way to boost morale, and it will encourage them to do more.

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?

It’s simple- I want people to take more risks in the workplace because I look at failures as opportunities. When something doesn’t go the way I expect it to, I think about what I learned from it and how I could modify it or make changes to be successful the next time. If all leaders used their influence to demonstrate the impact of a growth mindset and innovation in the workplace, we could shift traditional notions of leadership and better prepare companies to face uncertain futures.

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

“Life is all about progress, not perfection“ is a quote that I live by. I have so much to be grateful for, and I have very high standards, but I know firsthand that life can be messy. I tend to focus on the journey, not the destination, and I strive for learning, growth, and ultimately, understanding.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private lunch with, and why?

Oprah Winfrey- Oprah is that she treats life like one big classroom and to me, epitomizes a growth mindset. She’s constantly asking questions and is flexible in her thinking. She herself has said: “I trust that everything happens for a reason, even when we’re not wise enough to see it.”

Thank you so much for sharing your valuable insights with us!

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