Speaker 1: Welcome to the SBI Podcast, offering CEOs, sales, and marketing leaders ideas to make the number.
Greg: Hello, everybody. This is Greg Alexander, the CEO of SBI, and this is the SBI Podcast. Today, we are joined by Kim Mitchell, and Kim is the chief people officer at Renaissance Learning, who is the world leader in cloud-based assessment, teaching, and learning solutions. Renaissance Learning has one-third of U.S. schools as their customers, does business in sixty countries, and employs approximately a thousand people.
Prior to Kim’s current role as chief people officer at Renaissance Learning, she spent twenty years in leadership roles at First Data Corporation, the payment processing giant, ultimately obtaining the position of senior vice president of HR. During this time, Kim reported to the EVP of corporate development, David Treinen, who recently had this to say about Kim. “Kim is a highly talented HR executive with seasoned judgment, strong execution skills, and boardroom presence.”
Okay, now that we have established why Kim is qualified to speak to this audience today, let me officially welcome Kim to the show. Kim, glad to have you.
Kim: Thanks, Greg, for that great introduction.
Greg: All right. Today’s topic is helping sales and marketing organizations “make their number” through employee life cycle marketing, and the HR leader plays a big role in employee life cycle and managing the employee life cycle. Let’s start with a contextual question here. Kim, if you wouldn’t mind, please provide the audience a working definition of the phrase “the employee life cycle.”
Kim: The employee life cycle really encompasses everything from establishing that relationship actually even before the employee arrives. You really start to establish that relationship in the interview process and when you start to build a network of people that you want to recruit. It encompasses everything from before you even come to work, to onboarding, to really that entire cycle of what you go through as an employee, so the engagement process, the development process, succession planning, all facets of what an employee is looking for when they come to work in a company.
Greg: Yeah. When I listen to you, I have this visual that pops into my brain, which is the bell curve. You have an employee enter on the left-hand side of the bell curve and then they rise up that left-hand side and then maybe at some point on a crest at the top. Then on the down side, they might be progressing towards retirement or maybe leaving to go somewhere else or whatever the reason is and then eventually they exit. This is the visual that I have in my mind. Is that a good visual to have when I think about employee life cycle?
Kim: It’s a great visual to have because you want to ensure that at each of those points that you’re keeping that employee engaged. On the bell curve, obviously you’re coming in, you’re learning, you’re rising up that curve, you’re becoming engaged. Then you want to keep that engagement with that employee throughout their time with the company, but there does come a point in time where an employee makes a decision that maybe it’s time to move on or to retire. Obviously, you want to keep the good ones.
Greg: Yeah, for as long as possible, right? Your definition reminded me of an article that recently appeared in the Q2 edition of the SBI Magazine. This article featured Kelley Steven Waiss, who is the senior vice president of global HR at Extreme Networks. Let’s take a quick break here and educate this audience on how they can get that article by subscribing to the magazine, because I think if you’re listening to this and you have an interest in employee life cycle, you might find this article interesting. Bear with us. We’ll be right back in a moment.
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Greg: Okay. Welcome back, everybody. Right before the break, Kim Mitchell of Renaissance Learning had given us a working definition of the employee life cycle. It’s intuitive to me that committed employees are more productive, and engaging with an employee differently along the life cycle makes a lot of sense. The trick is employees can be fickle and trying to get them to emotionally connect with the mission of the company can be hard, which takes me to my second question for Kim, and that is, Kim, how does an employee’s relationship with the company change over time as they move through this life cycle?
Kim: First of all, Greg, the important thing is to attract the right talent for the position that you’re recruiting for, and you can do that through many different ways by using assessment, by using different types of interview questionnaires today. The next step is really to onboard people and to ensure that they’ve got the support they need when they come to work, to include the necessary tools. A good best practice is to ensure that you have a mentor and someone that they can go to along the way to ask questions and someone who can help them navigate the culture. That’s important for a new employee coming in. How do things work? How do you approach people? What’s the path for getting the work done? How are decisions made, which is really important for a new employee coming in.
Greg: Let’s talk about that cultural, I guess, adoption or integration. A new employee comes in. You followed a rigorous hiring process and used all available tools. They enter the company, they’re excited, but they’re also on a steep learning curve and then you assign them a mentor. The mentor shows them how to get things done because every company has a unique culture, and culture is really how things get done. Tell me a little bit about that mentor-mentee relationship and how you’ve seen that work throughout your career, not just at Renaissance but all the years that you’ve seen that in practice.
Kim: Take my prior company, which was Centura Health. I spent some time in healthcare. We had a really robust program where a new executive would come in and learn about all the assessments that they took along the way to get hired, and then they were assigned an executive mentor. We paired them with folks that would help support their career and help them become very familiar with the company, and they were strategically aligned. For instance, if a business development person was coming in, they were going to be working on transactions, we might have the chief legal counsel actually help support them or help mentor them, which really established those relationships that were critical to their role early in their tenure with the company.
Greg: When I think about that and I think of an executive that has a title chief legal officer, that’s a very senior executive, right?
Kim: It is, yes.
Greg: Now you’re asking them to perform in a role of mentor. The question there obviously is what’s in it for them? Why would they do that?
Kim: A couple of things. One, folks would learn about the employee’s background quickly and also, it gave them a sense of, wow, my experience as a chief legal officer of the company is valued in different ways, not just for my legal knowledge but also for my leadership and for my opportunity to tell new employees about the great things the company has to offer.
Greg: That’s interesting. That didn’t dawn on me. When you work for a company, you want to feel appreciated, and one of the ways to feel appreciated is to be asked to be a mentor. That’s a recognition of the company to an individual that says you have a lot to offer and we’d like to share what you have to offer with these new employees. What a great program. I encourage all the listeners to follow Kim’s lead and think about assigning a senior executive as a mentor to high-potential employees.
All right. If we come back to this concept of the employee life cycle, so far we’ve been speaking about somebody early on, the whole process that happens pre-hire and their relationship with the company as they go through the interviewing process. Then they make the decision to join the company and they’re going through this onboarding process, and Kim just gave us a great example of the power of mentorship during that time period. Let’s move to the next step of the employee life cycle, which is how an employee grows within the company over time, which is career progression or maybe succession planning and nurturing this employee during that middle time period on that bell curve.
Kim, what is your opinion or experience or advice you would offer the audience in terms of managing somebody’s career expectations and progressing them along the promotion curve?
Kim: I would offer a couple of things, Greg. One, it’s important for companies today to have leadership programs. If you think about why an employee comes to work, it’s for growth, it’s for opportunity. That’s usually why you keep them there. You’re giving them opportunity to learn, to apply, and to use that knowledge in their role. So many times it’s not just about that formal program that you have, but it’s about the opportunity you give them in terms of working on different projects, projects that could impact the growth of the company, which could be M&A transactions, or projects that help maybe design a new business, a new avenue for the company to grow.
It’s really taking what you learn in those leadership programs and applying that. It’s important for companies to remember it’s not just about the formal programs, but it’s about that on-the-job learning. So many times we forget to promote that with our employees and to remind them that this is an opportunity to learn and to take on new responsibility.
Greg: It’s a great point. We’re a sales and marketing consulting company, and people often ask me why we spend so much time with human resources. It seems odd that our company, which is committed to helping our clients make their numbers, why are we spending so much time with HR. The reason for that is our firm’s point of view is that sales and marketing excellence is equal parts the performance conditions that a company sets and the talent of the organization. It’s a fifty-fifty equation. If you put highly engaged and capable employees in bad performance conditions, you’re going to get a bad result.
On the same token, or I should say the flip side of that coin is if you put average people that aren’t committed, engaged, into optimized performance conditions, you’re going to get bad results. The trick here is balancing those two things. One of the things that’s often left out that you just mentioned, which caused me to think about this, is the real reason for growth. Sometimes as sales and marketing leaders, we focus too much on the financial benefits of growth. If we make the numbers, the stock goes up and everybody gets rich. Yippee.
The real reason for growth is that when a company grows, it creates opportunity for employees. It creates promotion opportunities. It creates things like you just mentioned, new opportunities to expand into new businesses. It creates intellectual challenges. It creates opportunities that might be out of the normal job description, special projects that maybe high-potential employees can assign to. It’s a great recognition on your behalf that so much of this is operating in the gray area, and I don’t mean that in a negative way, I mean that in a positive way. There’s the formal side of managing somebody’s career and then there’s the informal side of managing somebody’s career. A great point there.
Let me ask you a difficult question. Are you ready?
Greg: That is I think it’s too much to ask of the HR department to do this on their own. When we think about the employee life cycle, which is the topic for today’s show, I believe that the marketing department can play a role in this. It’s almost as if they’re marketing the company to that employee to keep them engaged over time, and they’re marketing to them differently as they move through that employee life cycle. Now this is Greg’s opinion based on working with companies and seeing outstanding marketing leaders partner with outstanding HR leaders. It’s not common, it’s rare. The top performing companies have a great relationship between the HR department and the marketing department.
Let me get your perspective on this because you’ve been a senior HR leader for a long time in some of the world’s best companies. What’s your opinion on that? How can the marketing department help the HR department market the company to employees at different stages of the employee life cycle?
Kim: Oh, there are lots of different ways, Greg, and it’s a great question. In today’s world, you’re right, if you look at what marketing does and how marketing works today, they have to know so much about the consumer or about the customer and how that customer buys things, how that customer thinks about the products, depending upon what the company may be offering. It’s no different when you think about employees. You need to understand what motivates them, what they’re looking for, how do you attract them. There is a huge link between attracting and recruiting and how companies market to employees today or market to the consumer today. Some of the practices that marketing uses HR can certainly learn from and certainly need to apply them to our own practices.
I think it’s important that the chief marketing officer and the CHRO or the CPO, whatever the title may be in organizations for that top HR role, that they’re talking to each other on a regular basis and really building a partnership between what’s being told in the external market and what’s being sold internally to employees, and the two need to match. So many times, we tend to go to the market and we forget about, oh, my gosh, what are we really doing within our own company and are we selling our own employees on our products, but also is our brand in the external marketplace matching our brand in the internal marketplace. It’s so critical that the two come together.
Greg: That’s a great point right there, the brand in the external marketplace matching the brand in the internal marketplace. I love the term “internal marketplace.” If you think about a brand promise, which is the commitment that you make to your customers, and because I’m on the phone here, I’ll use myself as an example. Our brand promise is we help our clients make the number. If that doesn’t happen, if our clients don’t make the number, then it’s an empty brand promise. When I promise that to future customers, I have to back it up. I have to give them proof points on where I’ve done that elsewhere.
The way that we connect this internally is that our team is bonused and their careers go up or down based on their clients’ results. If their clients make the number, then they get rewarded. If their clients don’t make the number, they don’t. I will tell you that sometimes they complain about it because they feel as if as consultants, they can only effect so much change. They’re not on the other side of the desk and sometimes there’s things outside of their control, but that brand promise has to be real externally and internally. It’s a really interesting way to look at it.
When I discuss this with clients and encourage them to do what you just suggested, which is this tight partnership between the CMO and the head of HR, sometimes I hear from HR leaders that the CMO isn’t as receptive. They push back, and the reason why they push back is because they’re measured on things like the number of leads generated and they have limited budget, limited staff, and like many of us, they feel overworked, there’s too much to do. Yet here comes a request from HR to help market the company directly to the employees and make this brand promise real internally.
If you were speaking directly to an HR person that was sitting in front of you right now who wanted to go do this and wanted to approach the marketing leader with this idea and win that marketing leader over, what advice would you give him or her?
Kim: I would give them a couple of pieces of advice. One would be, you know what, start out slow, build that partnership just in terms of the value that could come from working together, and that value proposition has to be created. Resources in all companies today, there’s not enough to go around. You hear it everywhere. Folks need to understand that it may not come together right away, but you can build it over time. I’ve had this conversation with our own CMO internally at Renaissance, and he said, “Hey, we haven’t gotten to that.” I said, “Nope. I certainly understand. We just need to start it and we need to bite it off in terms of what do we want to accomplish this year and what do we want to accomplish in the next couple of years in terms of building this partnership and building employee engagement internally.”
I would say start out slow, build the relationship, decide what that value proposition is going to be, what both marketing and HR can do together, and then continue to build it. Over time, obviously, the two coming together can lead to great things within the company.
Greg: Great advice. I recently had Greg Head, who is the chief marketing officer of a software company called Infusionsoft, on this very podcast and we spoke about this topic as well as others in a very engaging thirty-minute interview. This would be a good time to explain to our audience how to get that episode by subscribing to the SBI Podcast. Let’s play a brief commercial here to the audience that gives them instructions on how to sign up for the SBI Podcast. We’ll be right back.
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Greg: Okay, welcome back, everybody. This is Greg Alexander of SBI and I am speaking with Kim Mitchell, the chief people officer at Renaissance Learning about the employee life cycle. Just before the break, we connected the marketing department to the HR department by discussing how marketing can market to employees along the employee life cycle, and Kim gave us some great advice on how to do that.
Let’s shift our focus a little bit here. Kim, many of our listeners are sales leaders, so let’s turn our attention to the sales-specific employee life cycle. In the B-to-B sales world, turnover can run very high and it can be very disruptive. My question to you, Kim, is how should the HR leader and the sales leader think through the employee life cycle with the specific goal of reducing sales turnover?
Kim: A couple of things I would say, Greg. That would be really to look at what are the competencies that you need for the future of your sales team and how do you build those competencies internally but also how do you start to look for them in the marketplace. Business cycle changes and what you need today, you may not need tomorrow, so I always build what I call an aspirational competency model, so you’re looking at the future of what you need. It’s important to always be collaborating and talking about what’s a sales person look like in maybe two years down the road versus what the sales person is today, what the profile of the sales person is today.
I would encourage folks to really spend that time doing what I would call building an in-depth competency model to understand those needs. For example, our competency model is built upon the framework of what’s legacy, what’s leading for today, and what’s horizon leadership. Folks are starting to think about how do I move up that bell curve and what do I need to do for today but also how do I build my skills and capabilities for tomorrow.
Greg: Interesting. Let’s talk about that. That’s a competency kind of progression ladder. I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but that’s how I interpret that. There’s the legacy, so that’s what were the competencies yesterday. There’s the leading, which is how do you perform today in some type of outstanding way. Then there’s … I think you used the term horizon competency. Did I capture that correctly?
Kim: You did, yes.
Greg: Okay. I haven’t heard that before. That is an innovation. Let’s talk about the horizon competency list. You’re thinking about maybe two years down the road what the individual sales rep needs to be capable of doing, what competencies he or she needs to have. How as an HR leader do you figure that out?
Kim: If you think about innovation, if you’re going to innovate, you’re going to disrupt. One of the things you want a sales leader to do is to think about toxics that would disrupt and support the company’s long-term objectives. For instance, in our marketplace maybe someone is building relationships with a new channel or maybe they’re building relationships at the state level, so we’re selling our product differently. We’re not just selling to that school, but we’re starting to build those relationships at the state level where we can influence things that are happening just because of how our sales cycle works and how we need to build bigger relationships to influence.
Greg: Interesting. That’s a demonstration of being a strategic HR leader. You’re so in touch with the strategy of the company that you know where the company is taking its products and what markets you’re going to be entering, what the future holds, and you’re working backwards from that and you’re saying, back to this concept of the employee life cycle, that a team that I have today is meeting the company’s objectives today but the company’s objective is going to change in the future. How do I either develop the team that I have right now to be able to do that in the future or how do I attract new talent to bring them in? It’s a really advanced application of the science of human resources. Congratulations on that. That’s a big insight.
I can’t help but think about my friend Joe Vitalone when I hear you speak. Joe is not in HR, he’s the president of the Americas Region of Mitel. The reason why he’s jumping into my brain right now is he just appeared on SBI TV, and he talked about the proper balance of the carrot and the stick. What I mean by that is he’s motivating people to develop skills by putting a carrot out there and he’s selling internally to his sales team the vision of the company and is suggesting that today’s performance isn’t going to be good enough in the future. He’s a master of balancing the carrot and the stick.
I think listeners of this specific podcast are going to want to check that episode of SBI TV out, so let’s run a quick spot here to make sure that everybody listening knows how to subscribe to SBI TV. We’ll be right back.
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Greg: Welcome back, everybody. This is Greg Alexander, CEO of SBI. This is the SBI weekly podcast series. I’m having a fascinating conversation this week with Kim Mitchell, who is chief people officer of Renaissance Learning, about how she is innovating within HR specific to this concept of the employee life cycle and is doing advanced things such as building a horizon competency model, which is what does the sales rep of the future look like, and tying that directly to the CEO’s vision for the company. It’s been a really, really great conversation.
Unfortunately, we are in ADD society, and my producer tells me that a podcast that takes longer than thirty minutes doesn’t get listened to, so we have run out of time. It has been fun discussing this intellectually fascinating subject with Kim. Before we run, Kim, I just thought maybe since you’ve added so much to our audience here if you had any closing comments that you’d like to make, I thought I would just throw that over to you and see if there’s anything else you’d like to add before we jump off.
Kim: Thanks, Greg. I really enjoyed talking to you. As we talked about today, it’s important to think about the future in terms of sales talent and what a company needs. My advice would be continue to think about that and build for the future.
Greg: Great. I would like to offer that we win and lose based on how committed our employees are, and employee engagement along the employee life cycle is as much of a marketing challenge as it is an HR challenge. This was the big takeaway that I had from our call today. For HR leaders and CMOs, I hope that you shake hands and form this partnership that Kim discussed. I think her advice on how to do that and how to take it slow and build it over time is the appropriate approach. I think if those two executives on the leadership team are joined at the hip, I think employee engagement goes up.
Kim, on behalf of all of our subscribers, thank you for joining us today.
Kim: Thank you, Greg. It was great.
Greg: Okay. Bye-bye.
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