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Episode
13

How Fostering a Proactive Support System can Fuel Growth

Featuring
Erin Miller
,
Vice President of People and Culture
at
Lulu Press
Listen on Spotify
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"Get curious, not furious."

Erin Miller

In this episode

Erin started her career in sales, but after realising the potential of people management, she moved into people leadership to work toward boosting satisfaction and therefore productivity of employees. Erin emphasises the importance of building a culture of trust among employees, providing a safe space and building an inclusive culture.

She covers: 

  • The story behind Erin’s career shift
  • How to incorporate sales skills into people development strategies
  • The importance of providing a supportive environment for employees
  • How companies can nurture an inclusive culture for their people to allow them to progress professionally
  • Ways in which companies can develop their people and teams
  • The metrics that can be used to measure success
  • How to be an active listener
  • Using curiosity to seek understanding and avoid assumptions

. . .

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In this episode

00:18

Erin’s Introduction

01:17

Erin's career transition 

04:12

Sales relationship skills and trust-building strategies that can be applied to HR

07:30

Starting a career and the culture at Lulu.com

09:15

Organisational culture

14:25

How to develop teams

15:41

How leaders and individuals can stays supported as a company grows

19:02

Using metrics to measure people success

21:19

How to incorporate proactive check-ins 

23:16

Advice to other leaders 

27:40

Quickfire questions

Resources from this episode

Transcript of episode

Cassy Aite: Welcome to the show, Erin. How are you today?

Erin: Thank you so much. I'm doing well.

Cassy: Why don't you start by telling us a little bit about yourself.

Erin: I grew up in Nebraska and I started my career in sales. I studied business management. Then during my time at The Motley Fool, I stumbled into the people field. I like to say that I grew up at The Motley Fool. I was asked to join the team doing employee check-ins and we quickly found that that was a really incredible experience to offer our employees. I became the director of People Development and ran a coaching team along with a few of my colleagues. Then from there, I've stepped into leadership roles, really helping companies establish a people strategy that is aligned with business objectives.

Cassy: That's quite the change. You started in sales, but can you walk us through that transition and also, with the team around you to make that transition? What was that like?

Erin: I sold advertising for most of my early career. When I was hired at The Motley Fool, I was focused on selling online advertising. I looked around and we had a lot of salespeople on our team. When we went to our chief people officer and told them, "I understand the direction of the business is changing, and I love The Motley Fool. I would love to stay on as a team member. Do you see any other areas where I might be able to contribute and have an impact?"

He said, "It's funny you say that because people have been telling me that when they get in a pickle or they're not sure how to have a conversation, that they come to you and you give them-- You're a sounding board. You walk them through how to approach something." The stars just kind of aligned. I was proactive and speaking to the chief people officer, but they also established a need, and so I started doing employee check-ins.

After doing some of those employee check-ins, I realized that for each employee, one, it's nice to be heard. Two, sometimes, it's important to have someone else to talk to other than your manager. What came of that was creating the coaching program. Again, the stars were aligned. We were also a pretty flat organization. We didn't have that traditional corporate ladder you could climb. The coaching program really was put into place to help individuals on their career path, develop new skills, and also take some of that pressure off of the manager.

They're focused on their day-to-day metrics that they need to meet. Sometimes, those career development conversations don't take as much precedence as they should. It just was a great timing for the business, great timing for me. Also, they took a chance on me. They gave me some training. I went to Agile Coach Certification and it's all history from there. I would say being proactive, paying attention to what was going on in the business, but then also having a team around me that could see that potential in me and take a chance, because I have never done it before.

Cassy: Did you find that your sales background helped at all?

Erin: Absolutely. In sales, it's all about building relationships, building trust. People buy from you when they know they can trust you and they feel they're getting the best out of you. That's very true in HR and the people function. We are not successful unless people know that they can trust us and they know that we have a reasonable mindset, and we want the best out of them. A lot of the sales relationship-building skills that I had, I transferred those into the people realm.

There's many times in HR where you're dealing with a change in a process or a system or a strategy and really helping people see why they should get on board with that new strategy, or why they should try to work out that conflict that they have with that coworker to help them see the larger goal at the end of the tunnel. It's true in sales and it's true in a lot of the people work that I do.

Cassy: After you left Motley Fool, you continue to work down the path of people, culture, HR, why and what drives you?

Erin: Goodness. I would say what drives me is I think I'm a natural cheerleader. I grew up with a lot of positive people around me, who helped me power through challenges by looking for the silver lining. Just in life experience, I've always gotten more out of people when I'm supportive and empathetic and assuming positive intent and really seeing the best in people. I continue down that path because I think every day when we come to work, we want to be seen as human. We want to be valued. We want to be appreciated.

When things get busy and stressful in the office, it's hard to demand that from our colleagues or our managers. I think that's why people strategy is so important. We're really here to support the organization. We don't make everyone happy and it's impossible to make everyone happy, but when you can guide managers and individual contributors down a path where they are improving their skill set, they feel supported and valued and appreciated, productivity goes up, innovation goes up.

You can scale a business faster when there's a lot of trust. That gets me out of bed. That makes me feel so happy and so fulfilled when I can work with someone and see them start here and end here. I help them power through those challenges and really, it's the fulfillment of seeing someone else grow.

Cassy: You joined Lulu Press two months ago. Oh, wow. What's the culture life there? What led you to join Lulu Press?

Erin: Lulu is really interesting. We're an online, open-source book publishing company. One of the main reasons I responded to their outreach was their mission. Their goal is to change the world one book at a time. Bob Young, who is the founder of Lulu, he started this company back in 2002 because he was working on his own book. He just did not have a great experience getting published. It's because a lot of the large publishers, they only want to take contracts with a book that's going to be a number one New York Times bestseller. He said, "Forget it. I'm going to start my own publishing company because I want anyone who has a story to be able to publish a book."

I think now more than ever, that mission really resonates with me because of everything that's happening in our country around social justice, around diversity and inclusion. Really, giving anyone the platform to share their story is how all of us are going to continue to grow and evolve. My experience, growing up in Nebraska and growing up in the United States, is very different for someone who doesn't look like me. I think it's really, really important that all voices are heard. That just, again, warms my heart. It's about seeing someone grow, and it's about seeing someone who has a meaningful story be able to touch other people who can learn from their story.

Cassy: It's powerful. What's the organizational culture like there?

Erin: The organizational culture is really fun. I would say, one thing that I noticed immediately about Lulu is they really cultivate individuals to be who they are. If you walk around the office, which you'll probably never walk around the office given what's going on, but you'll just see people's individual personalities are really apparent. I think we just really nurture who are you as an individual, how do you want to show up to work, and how do we build an inclusive culture where everyone feels like they belong.

For me, I never want to be somewhere where everyone looks the same or they're cookie cutter. I want people who are into self-expression and able to do it in a way where they feel comfortable and feel that they're not being judged.

Cassy: When you're at Motley Fool, it grew like crazy over the 10 years you were there. How do you make sure that people who oftentimes are becoming managers, leaders, or growing as an individual contributor stay supported as the company grows that fast?

Erin: I'm so glad you asked this question because there's an old HR metric that I hear often. It's, 1 HR person for every 50 employees. Some companies say 1 HR person for every 100 employees. One thing that Motley Fool does very well is ensures that their people team is a large team because they understand the amount of time it takes to support managers and individual contributors. When I started at the Motley Fool in 2007, we were a little over 100 people. When I left the Motley Fool, we were closer to about 350. With 350 employees, our people team was about 20 people. It's phenomenal. When I tell people that they're like, "What are you thinking?" but it's true.

A lot of the people work and the support that you have to provide is not something that you can automate. It's about building trust, it's about having meaningful conversations. Those things take time. Really, to ensure that you are supporting those individual contributors and those managers, as you grow and scale, you need to put the right process and team in place that is operationally going to support them.

For me, I think, if budgets are tight, I would still say, 1 to 2 HR professionals for every 50 employees. There's a lot of tech startup companies who won't hire HR until they reach 100 people or 150. I think that's a really bad way to go about it because when you look at a company's budget, they spend the most money on salaries and they spend the most money on their people. Why wouldn't you spend the most money supporting those people? Because again, it goes back to when someone feels valued and appreciated and they're learning and developing their skill set, they're always going to perform at a higher level, they're going to be more productive, and they're going to be more innovative.

Cassy: It seems like you're pretty metrics-driven. Are there any other metrics that you look at to measure success?

Erin: Absolutely. I look at all of the metrics. I am a big data-driven decision-maker. I never want to come into an organization and make a guess or think one thing that worked at another company will work at this company. With my first month at Lulu, I met with as many employees one-on-one as possible. I also did a couple of focus groups. Then we'll be doing our first survey next week. The idea is that I want to come into a very curious space. I want to hear what's going well, what isn't going well, and what's one or two things that could be going better from the employee's perspective.

Then from there, I take the data from the individual meetings and the survey and look at where the low-hanging fruit is. What are a couple of things that we can quickly impact, and then what are the larger objectives that we need to improve? Right now at Lulu, one of the objectives that we've established is diversity and inclusion training. That's really educating people on what an inclusive culture looks like. What are microaggressions and also, how do we hold each other accountable in a empathetic and healthy way in order to maintain the type of culture that we want to have from now until going forward over the next few years? I do poll surveys but really, I'm very big on proactive check-ins.

Cassy: How do you scale those check-ins and make sure that you're able to check-in because I think Lulu Press is about 500 employees approximately now?

Erin: A little bit smaller than that.

Cassy: How do you manage doing those check-ins and having a pulse in other ways? Because as everyone knows, it's hard to get full participation on a survey.

Erin: That's another metric that I look at. I not only look at the participation rate, but I also look at the company as a whole. Then I also go team by team. Just paying attention to how many people are responding and really, if you haven't engaged culture, it doesn't mean that your scores are going to be off the charts. If you have an engaged culture, you are also going to hearing what you're doing wrong. I'm never afraid to hear that feedback because it shows these people trust us enough and they care enough to voice when things aren't going well.

Again, when it comes back to data, I look at participation rate, I look at the E and PS score for the company. Then I also look at there's the culture of the company, but then there's culture within each teams. Doing regular surveys every two weeks, we can take a look at, "Okay, what teams are coasting and doing well and what teams have we seen slip a little bit, and how can I go check in with that manager or better understand what's happening with the team?" Again, that's why I always pair employee surveys with those check-ins.

Cassy: I love how you talked about being curious. What kind of advice can you give to other people leaders out there to be curious and then to find creative ways to make sure that they're keeping their team engaged and feeling supportive?

Erin: One of my favorite phrases is "Get curious, not furious." As humans, I think we're quick to jump to conclusions. I learned this from Lee Burbage, the chief people officer at The Motley Fool. He really taught me how to come into a situation objectively and pay attention to any unconscious bias I might have. When you go with a curious mindset and you assume positive intent, it's better for you because you can be more of an active listener and you're not working toward listening to things that will help you prove your assumption, but you're genuinely being curious.

I think as people leaders, it's really up to us to assume positive intent and to come into a space with curiosity to seek understanding and not necessarily, again, define or ensure the assumption that we made was right. I've really worked on not assuming and focusing on how can I better understand the situation. The other thing is, if there is something that happens, you talk to two or three people, and then somewhere in the middle is the truth. You have to look at what's their level in the company? What's their level of trust? Do they have role power because they're a VP? Do they not speak up because they're an individual contributor?

There's all of these different things that happen in situations so I want to be curious about their level in the company, their ability to speak up. If they're a manager, were they flexing their manager muscles, and maybe shouldn't have been. Again, I've always been a curious individual. I think that's really served me well in people work because it allows me to ask a ton of questions and seek understanding versus try to be the smartest person in the room or try to be proven right.

Cassy: You mentioned trust and I saw that you gave a presentation about The Power of Brazen Trust. What is brazen trust?

Erin: Brazen trust, the way I would define it, is just really, from day 1, trusting someone and allowing them that support and safe space. Some people say, "You have to earn my trust and trust is earned through small moments.' In an organization, if you assume positive intent, you trust your colleague, and you trust that they're doing the best they can, we're all humans, we are all going to mess up, we're all going to have bad days. Really, it's about trusting someone and allowing them to be the best version of themselves, instead of assuming they don't care or assuming they're not their best.

That is, again, the book that I brought up in that talk. Stephen Covey wrote the book, The Speed of Trust. When you're able to trust everyone in the organization, you can move faster. It's really important, but that is definitely something that's been a baseline for me.

Cassy: Erin, we're going to move on to the quickfire round. I've got a few questions for you. You can just say the first thing that comes to mind, and then we'll move on to the next question. What is your favorite people and culture-related resource?

Erin: Oh, I would have to say the Workhuman blog. Workhuman used to be global force a few years back. I blogged for them for about five years. They are an incredible company. They've got a software platform where it's about appreciation across the organization. They definitely have a product to sell. For me, the thought leaders and the people that they gather around the table to teach the progressive forward people strategy is second to none. I really love them as a resource.

Cassy: Which people leader would you most like to take for lunch?

Erin: Oh my gosh, that is a great one. I would probably say Candice Morgan. She is the diversity leader at Pinterest. I heard her speak at a conference a few years back and I just love her approach. I think it's very direct and kind. What she's been able to do at Pinterest has been incredible because not only has she improved diversity and inclusion within the organization, but she's also done it in a tremendous way on their platform.

Cassy: Single piece of advice you would give to new people leaders?

Erin: Oh, let's see here. That's my, "Get curious, not furious."

Cassy: Erin, what is your favorite team building activity?

Erin: Favorite team building and activity. Do you know what, it's going to be hard to explain but-- At The Motley Fool, we had a chief puzzle officer. His full-time job was just creating puzzles as team building events. One event that he had is-- Oh, it's going to be hard to describe, you get into small teams and you have to pair all of these different words. At the end of the game, you have to build a shape. I can't give away the secret. One of my favorite team building activities was one that was homegrown at The Motley Fool.

Cassy: Erin, what do you do when you're not leading people?

Erin: Oh, goodness. When I am not leading people, I am typically reading about how to lead people. [chuckles] I love reading. I read a lot of philosophy books and a lot of self-help books. I'm also raising a seven-year-old boy and an almost four-year-old girl. I'm also just enjoying seeing the world through their eyes.

Cassy: Well, Erin, thanks so much for joining us on the Culture Builders podcast. Is there a way that our listeners can follow you?

Erin: Absolutely. I'm on LinkedIn as Erin Corr Miller. I'm also on Twitter. My Twitter handle is @thistweety. I feel very clever with that Twitter handle. The origination of that Twitter handle was my grandma. When I was born, she called me Tweety Bird. It's a near and dear name.

Cassy: Love it. All right. Well, Erin, thanks so much for joining us.

Erin: Thank you. Take care.

In this season

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