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Why a High-Trust Environment and Accessible Leadership Matter in a Time of Remote Work

Tia Smith
VP, People Development
Collaborative Solutions
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“We had to stop and ask ourselves if the values that we put together 15 years ago are still applicable.”

Tia Smith

In this episode

This has been a taxing year for companies trying to navigate an unprecedented shift from traditional work environments to almost everyone working remotely. Who better to offer valuable insight than Tia Smith of Collaborative Solutions, who has extensive experience in people development and performance management. 

Accessible leadership, listening, and inclusivity are all key to fostering a company culture where employees feel free to express themselves and realize their potential, according to Tia. And in this extraordinary time of remote work, nothing is more important than trust.

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In this episode


Introduction to Tia


Advice for HR leaders and people managers


Fostering a supportive work environment


The culture at Collaborative Solutions


Tia's professional background and working in recruitment


Resetting and reevaluating values


Visible leadership and the rise of the chief culture officer


Balance and integration in a challenging time


The role of trust in a time of remote work

Resources from this episode

Transcript of episode

Cassy: Why don't you start by telling our listeners a little bit about yourself?

Tia: Sure. I'll start way back in the day. I actually went to college to be Jodie Foster from Silence of The Lambs. I double majored in psychology and sociology. I minored in criminology. I moved to Las Vegas. I was going to be part of the police department and work my way into the FBI. When I got to Vegas, it was in the early '90s when the dot coms were all the rage. I started with a telecom company, and very quickly went from receptionist to customer service for a short stint, then into process and systems training, and I found my niche. I really loved it.

I did that for about seven years and then started to train into more soft skill training and leadership training, which is a very different facilitation style. I really struggled with leadership facilitation because I was in my early 30s. Who am I to be telling all of these managers and leaders how to manage and develop their teams when I have never done it before myself? After some therapy with my manager, I got over that, and then started to focus more on the organization development side of things. I got into performance management, high potential identification, succession planning, and that's probably when I started to become a little bit more of a data nerd.

Then over the last five years, I would say just more strategic focus, HR, leadership type roles specifically in my time here at Collaborative Solutions where I am now, very focused on enabling our managers to be great leaders. Employee experience is really important to me. Company culture is top of mind all the time, and I see all three of those things really interconnected, which we can talk about a little bit later. Then also I am a contributing author for Forbes HR counsel, and on a personal note, I have two teenage daughters who are my IT help desk, my fashion police, my cosmetologist, and on a more serious note, wise beyond their years. The recent events that we've had here in our country have shown me their maturity, their compassion and their willingness to take a stand for what is right, so that is me in a nutshell.

Cassy: That's amazing. I think now is especially a moment where both families and organizations are coming together, like you said especially, right?

Tia: Absolutely.

Cassy: What's it been like for your organization? What kind of advice would you give HR leaders and people managers right now on the things that they're focusing and prioritizing?

Tia: It's been interesting that this whole first half of 2020 has really been an interesting time for HR in general. We started out with COVID-19, now we are in the midst of, at least here in the States and I'm sure this is affecting people globally, the George Floyd death and the protests that have happened. I think more than anything else, HR needs to listen. We need to be listening to our employees, giving them the time and the space that they need to process things with COVID-19 for example.

That we went from working in an office or even if you work from home, you had your own space, kids were at school, spouses, significant others were at work. Now everybody is in one place, so we need to provide resources and tools, information around stress. Wellness in general. I just think there's so many things that HR really needs to have a finger on at this point, and have that awareness with their teams and their organizations.

Cassy: It's, what you said about just listening, so simple but so powerful. How do you think you can create a culture that makes people feel comfortable to reach out or to express themselves?

Tia: I've really been thinking a lot about this, especially over the last few days with the protests and stuff. I can't pretend to understand what it's like to walk a day in somebody else's shoes, but I can help to lift their voice. I can continue to learn, to listen, and to educate people that I work with, or even my own kids on the history of racism, oppression and injustice. I can reach out and ask my friends how they're doing and my colleagues, how they're doing. I think most importantly, back to the listening piece is being an ally and an advocate for them.

Cassy: That's powerful. I know that Collaborative Solutions really lives that, because Collaborative Solutions has been named a best place to work by both Fortune and Great Place To Work and recognized as a place that fosters diversity, inclusion and belongingness. What have you done and what has your team done to create an environment like that?

Tia: It comes down to culture, we've earned a Great Place To Work Certification for six years in a row, and I think it has to do with high trust and leadership, a really strong culture where we're fostering that positive and supportive work environment. Giving employees the autonomy to bring their natural self to work, their whole self to work and not feel like they have to leave certain things at home. The inclusivity is a really big piece. One of the things that we've done here at Collaborative, this is just within the last year, is really focusing on diversity inclusion. We have pulled together employee resource groups. We have several different ERGs now that we are pulling together that have gone a long way to help employees feel more comfortable and engaged at work.

Cassy: Yes, that's powerful. I saw that you started offering and your team had worked on a resource portal, specifically for COVID-19. How did you decide to do that? What things did you include in that portal for other teams that are thinking about doing the same thing?

Tia: Yes. When COVID-19 first started to become a thing, we immediately pulled together a task team. We all stopped and asked ourselves, we were looking at all the different initiatives we had going on around the organization, we said, "Is this thing important right now? Is it relevant and meaningful to the company at this moment? If it's not, let's put it aside and focus on what's right in front of us." Nobody knew what was happening. It was new territory for everybody, but we have really done a lot to, hopefully help our employees adjust.

Just let me give you a couple of examples of different things. We leveraged Microsoft Teams internally. Well, we did video on, for almost all of the meetings that we did in our conference calls. We also leveraged Microsoft Teams and other collaboration tools in different ways. We have Collabie Cruise, which we can touch on in a little bit. We started to do virtual happy hours and all these different fun and creative trivia games for employees. The interesting thing about that was we didn't have this fun committee that was saying, "Oh, here's all this fun." It was all happening organically within the organization.

It was interesting to see those kinds of things happening naturally. Early on, as I mentioned, we were sending out communications to employees almost daily. We were trying to give them different resources, and we had so much that we were sending out through email. We thought, "We need to put all of this in one place, so managers and employees have it." We had a SharePoint site. It had an FAQ guide. As we started getting questions from employees, we would add them to this FAQ guide, so we could share that out with everybody across the organization. We provided guidance on how to talk to customers. What remote work really looks and feels like.

We were primarily remote already. We're a consultancy firm, so we were travelling back and forth to customer sites. Being home 100% of the time was very different. We also offered wellness tips and health and resource options. Then we had a separate SharePoint site just for our managers to talk a little bit deeper about employee mental health. We had one on one meeting guys in there to talk about the importance of one on one meetings during the crisis, tips on how to have those critical conversations and different templates or types of conversations they could be having. It was very well-received throughout the organization. We definitely saw people leveraging the tools and resources that we were giving them.

Cassy: That's amazing. I think the thing that you touched on there is allowing these things to happen organically, right?

Tia: Absolutely. It was really great to see employees coming together and supporting one another and understanding the need at times for people to just need their own space. Again, it still is a very interesting time, but it's great to see when you have a really strong culture, the ability to pivot into a crisis like that is a much smoother transition when that strong culture is in place.

Cassy: Amazing, and what is the culture like there?

Tia: Oh, goodness. The culture is I would describe it as high trust, I would describe it as leadership that is accessible, Our employees have the autonomy to obviously, we all have our focus, but we have the autonomy to say, what if we did something this way, innovation design thinking has been a buzzword within our company for the last several months. I think too something that's really important in a strong culture is making sure that employees can see a clear path when it comes to their own development, their own growth, understanding what that looked like for them, and then empowering managers and leaders to help them navigate that.

Cassy: I think that also how you're supporting these team members with internal resources is just so powerful. It speaks so much to that culture of living those cultures. You mentioned Collabie Cruise. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

Tia: I'm actually going to take a step back from Collabie Cruise and to give you an idea of how those actually started. We had put together Collabie combos, which are very small, intimate, informal 45 minute conversations with our leadership team. They were primarily led by our president and chief culture officer Bob Maller. It gives employees an opportunity to come in cameras on about 15 employees per session. They were pretty small and there was no agenda, it was really just an open QA to give employees again, the ability to come in and have that face to face with leadership.

Over the last 18 months, we've had over 50 sessions with over 650 participants. We've had our topics we do different topics. We did one on our values, which corporate value resonates most with you. We did another session around our sweet 16 where we asked our tenured Collabie's to come in and walk us down memory lane. What did it used to be like what changes have you seen within the organization since then.

Then recently, in the middle now of a Collabie convo series on it's called the next chapter. It's open and honest discussion about our recent acquisition with Cognizant and navigating those waters, we are part of the Workday ecosystem. There's been a lot of acquisition happening within that space. Some people went through a not so stellar acquisition in the past, and we wanted to make sure that employees felt comfortable this has a very different look and feel to it for the better. We wanted employees to have a space to dialogue about that.

The Collabie convos led to our Collabie Cruise and that continuation. We leverage Microsoft Teams, we have various channels, fitness and nutrition, we have an LOL channel, we have a Collabies care channel for community outreach. We have a kudos channel, a pet shop, a book club, and people will just go in randomly throughout the day post something that's relevant for that particular channel. It's just another way and forum for us to continue to dialogue and connect with one another.

Cassy: Again, so few companies, I think actually follow-up and actually support the teams in making programs that support the company culture happen. Kudos to you and your team and the entire organization. Because that's incredible. Previously, you worked at a global French supply chain company supporting over 8000 domestic and international employees. What was that like and what did you learn from that experience?

Tia: That was about 10 years ago. As a logistics officer, it's not a sexy industry by any stretch of the imagination. The role that I held at the time it was OHL, then it was acquired and brought in to be part of Geodis. My role there was an interesting one, and probably one of my proudest moments, I would say. That is, I really started to pivot from having a learning and development focus into more of strategic HR at that point where I started to get into more of that organization development space. It was interesting I had a peer of mine at the time she ran recruiting, I was more in organization development.

She was leaving the organization. She reached out to me and said, Tia I think you should take over the recruiting team. I said, I had never had any experience with recruiting, I've never done anything in that space before. She said, I think you would be really good at it. I went in to talk to my VP of HR. I said, I think I'm going to be crazy enough to raise my hand and say, I want to take on recruiting, and he said if you're crazy enough to ask, I'm crazy enough to give it to you.

It was an interesting merge of those two groups. It was a great recruiting team, they were very good. They were your traditional recruiters where they were very reactive somebody would leave the organization, we get an open rack, we would fill the rack. We would go on to the next one. What I decided to do is turn our recruiters into talent advisors. Over about six months with a lot of guidance, we actually transitioned them into being reactive into more proactive. Rather than opening a rack, they would ask leadership about internal candidates or shifting people around to promote from within or looking at performance data to see who we have internally, making recommendations to the leadership team.

Our recruiters also started to attend weekly staff meetings with the different parts of the business that they supported. It got to a point probably after about six to eight months, where those leaders within the organization would not make a people decision without reaching out to their talent advisor first. We completely transitioned that role of reactive recruiter into proactive talent advisor, and it was a huge value to the organization.

Cassy: Wow, I guess that must have really sped things up as well.

Tia: Also going from just traditionally hiring externally, to taking a deeper dive on who we are, what talent we already have within the organization, and maybe just moving those things around a little bit so things fit better. Internal promotions, internal movement into roles that were a better fit. It was just a win-win all the way around.

Cassy: You've also been an official member of the Forbes HR council since 2019. You wrote a piece for Forbes in 2020. It was called It's Time to Dust off your Company's Core Values. Can you talk a little bit more about that? Because I think it's such an interesting piece, especially at least in recent history it never been more important.

Tia: I actually wrote that article after going through an exercise to refresh our corporate values at Collaborative. I really wanted the values to be in front and centre, I was working on revamping a new performance process. Manage your development training was top of mind for me and building out a feedback culture was something that I was starting to work on. I really wanted the values to be at the centre of all of those.

Collaborative was founded back in 2003. Over the years, we've obviously grown into this very successful consultancy firm. We just had to stop and ask ourselves if the values that we put together 15 years ago are really still applicable. We decided to hit refresh on those. It was really a family affair. Leadership obviously was involved on the front end, but our employees are really the ones that drove this whole change home. We've developed a core team to brainstorm a really robust list of possible values, but then we pulled in employees, and we put out a survey.

We asked employees to identify, from that robust list that we had pulled together what their top three would be, what are the three that resonated the most with you? We didn't just stop asking them for their top three, we also asked two additional questions. How would you define those three things that you just selected, because they were just a couple of words or a phrase?

Then how have you seen those different words in action, we wanted a way to be able to behavioralize those after we have rolled them out. It was very intentional how we did that and also, very intentional in how we now use our values across the organization. We leverage them in our sales collateral, we talked about it with our customers, we ask value-based interview questions, they are part of our onboarding program, we start meetings discussing a particular value and these are big meetings with two, 300 people, we start by talking about one of our values.

We have somebody come on internal guests, and they will tell us what value resonates most with them and why they selected that particular one. In our HR system, you can go in and leave feedback for others. As part of that, we have a drop-down list with all of our values identified, and you can select one to associate with that feedback that you're leaving for the employee.

We also do an annual award ceremony, and we have a values and action award, so employer employees who best exemplify our values throughout the year will receive an award for that. Then our leadership team talks about our values, we had a whole Collabie Convo series dedicated just to talking about our values. It was important for us not to just hit reset, and then put them up on the wall so everybody can see them as they walk through, they are truly ingrained into the fabric of our organization.

Cassy: I want to go back to the refresh. We have listeners that are founders of startups to people working in Fortune 500 to organizations that are private organizations that have been around for 20 plus years. How can those companies that have been around for several years, how can they think about when the right moment is to have a refresher? Or how often should you be thinking about refreshing those values?

Tia: Well, I think you really need to look at those values and ask yourself, do these still identify? Is this who we are? Is this what we stand for as an organization? Organizations move, shift, and change over time so there's nothing wrong with saying, "Let's reevaluate and see where we are." I think it's important to, and I don't know that there's a certain time for that maybe if your organization goes through some significant change, definitely.

Also, if they are not a part of who you are, and they're not interlocked into the culture of the company, then it's probably a good time to refresh them. It may be a refresh where you're not changing the values, but maybe you're redefining them, you're behavioralizing them, you're figuring out how to better integrate them into the company. A refresh could be anything from, "This isn't who we are any more, let's throw it to the side and start over." Or it can be a refresh, "Let's literally dust them off, and rebrand them again, work with marketing and really get something that's going to stand up within the organization and be noticed."

Cassy: It's interesting because I think-- It's something that I haven't thought about. How often you need to refresh. Do you think with everything going on in the world today that there's going to be change in the culture of companies too? Do you think that's going to happen?

Tia: It's definitely a defining moment. This is the defining moment for a lot of organizations and how they react to a lot of the crises and things that we're going through. I could see on the other side of this it being a good time to stop and say, "Let's really reassess and see." Hopefully, everybody's coming out for the better. I think it's going to be important, especially again, if there's with all of this shift happening, to take the time to at least acknowledge and take a look at that.

Cassy: Yes, because I think it's only June 2nd today, it feels like we've lived five years in the last six months, right? Yes, it's like you said, we're going to look forward at the end of this year probably and think who are the organizations that stood up in these moments, who are the organizations that said something, whether internally or externally, that stood for their values, that stood up for their teams, that supported their teams.

It's going to be interesting. I think people are going to take a moment to step back and really ask that, and I think we've seen that already with different organizations in the last week or so. It's apparent. Great. Well, I wanted to ask you this question, you have a chief culture officer in your organization, and you've referred to him before. What's that like to have a chief culture officer?

Tia: Well, he wears two hats. He's our president, but he has [inaudible 00:26:10] passion for the organization's culture, that he wanted to add that to his title. He is not just our president, he is also our chief culture officer. He is the face of culture within our organization. I mentioned before the Collabie Convo, he is front and center on every single one of those. With the COVID-19 response, we saw him very present in a lot of communications that came out there.

With some of the protests and stuff that we have going on this week, we just got a video from our executive leadership team, they were each sending their own personal message on how it was impacting them, and how they're there as a support mechanism. He eats, breathes, and sleeps our people. The culture is made by people, the culture isn't just something that shows up.

Cassy: It's powerful. It is from the people. I think a lot of people like to think that culture can be a top-down approach, but that's clearly not right?

Tia: No, not at all. It goes back to what I was saying before, you have to give-- I think, first and foremost, for me, it's trust, there has to be high trust within the organization. You can't have a strong culture without that, you have to have leadership that's visible, you have to give people the autonomy to bring their whole self to work and leverage their strengths and just empowering managers and employees to be great and, hopefully, they love what they do, and they're engaged and committed.

Cassy: Before the call, we talked a little about integration. You said you have two teenage daughters, and finding balance is not easy or integration. What do you think about balance or integration? What's your perception? I know you mentioned before having fun is important, right? How would you describe finding balance and integration like we've been thrown into this working from home scenario?

Tia: I mentioned before the call to you, there was always this work-life balance thing. I really feel and I've heard other people say it, but it really now is work-life integration because if that wasn't a thing in 2019, is a thing this year. We have kids at home, our spouses, and our room-mates are now working from home while we're here, we're sharing a space, kicking each other out of the kitchen or the office. I think, too, we also have to be okay with a kid jumping onto someone's lap or hearing the dog bark. Those are things now, especially here, I just had a meeting yesterday with somebody and her son was on her lap the entire time and it was okay, we were fine with it.

I think it's just understanding that work is different and our day is not like it used to be and I think it's going to be this way for a while. Balance is actually one of our five values here at Collaborative. For us, it really is balancing work and life. Again, if you need to step away, you don't have to be at your desk, I'm not going to look at the green dot next to your name from 8:00 to 5:00. As long as work is getting done, then go do what you have to do. I took a call the other day sitting with my daughter at the orthodontist office with Bob and it was okay, he was fine with it. Again, it comes down to trust. Having that trust that people are going to do what they need to do and get it done when it needs to be done.

Cassy: So important. I talked to someone else about this, but they were-- I've heard people say like, "How do I know that people are working right now?" It's like if you have to think about that then there's something inherently wrong with the way that you're thinking like you just don't. There's a lack of trust. There's an inherent problem here.

Tia: Absolutely. I think the other important piece is the open dialogue and the ongoing communication between. For people who were traditionally in an office, having a one-on-one meeting every two weeks might have been just fine because you were also seeing each other in the hallway and having that small talk. Now that everybody is remote, you may need to reassess that. Every two weeks may be a really long time so you need to probably take a look at the timing and the cadence of when you're communicating with your teams and the people that you're working with because I think we've probably all seen a shift with that.

Cassy: We're three months in now to working remote. It feels like forever but a lot of people are starting to get used to the motions. Is your organization, is Collaborative Solutions looking at continuing to stay remote? Do you think that this will continue to feel normal or this is really the new normal?

Tia: We were primarily remote before. We have offices across the US in different locations, bigger cities but it was always optional to go in. A lot of people like to have that collaboration with others. They like the interaction. For those that were in the office a majority of the time, it was a big shift for them. Do I see us going back to? I think we're going to keep our office space but I think people are also adjusting to being fully remote now. The office space will be there. We love going in and hanging out. People have a lot of fun when we go into the office and play paddle ball and pool and all that kind of stuff. Definitely looking forward to getting back to do some of that too.

Cassy: Tia, thank you so much for joining us on the Culture Builders Podcast. Is there a way that our listeners can keep in touch either by subscribing to some of the publications and thought leadership that you publish on Forbes or the thought leadership on LinkedIn?

Tia: Everything that is posted through Forbes, I do put on my LinkedIn channel. People can definitely follow me on LinkedIn. Thank you so much.

Cassy: Thank you so much for joining us.

Tia: Absolutely. This was great.

Cassy: That was the Culture Builders Podcast. To find out more about Hoppier and how we help people leaders build a culture of growth and recognition, visit Then make sure to check out Culture Builders in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or anywhere else podcasts are found, and make sure to subscribe so you don't miss any future episodes. On behalf of the team here at Hoppier, thanks for listening.

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