Welcome to the Workology Podcast, a podcast for the disruptive workplace leader. Join host Jessica Miller-Merrell, founder of Workology.com as she sits down and gets to the bottom of trends, tools, and case studies for the business leader, HR, and recruiting professional who is tired of the status quo. Now here’s Jessica with this episode of Workology.
Episode 338: Creating a Candid Culture and Experience at the Workplace With Nicole Roberts (@NRobertsHR)
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:00:26.76] Welcome to the Workology Podcast sponsored by WorkologyCouncil.com. This podcast is part of a series on the Workology Podcast focused on the roles and responsibilities of the Chief Human Resources Officer, or CHRO. The CHRO is also sometimes called the VP of People or the Chief People Officer. It is an executive-level or C-level role that deals with managing human resources, as well as with organizational development and implementing policies of change to improve the overall efficiency of the company. The CHRO Podcast series on Workology is powered and sponsored by WorkologyCouncil.com. One of the reasons I wanted to do this series is because there is so much mystery around that CHRO role, and honestly, I wanted to know more about what different Chief HR Officers are doing and how they’re doing it. I also want inspiring CHROs to know what type of skills and experiences they need to promote into future CHRO roles. Along with hearing from senior leadership, how they are partnering and collaborating with their executive peers, today I’m joined by Nicole Roberts. She’s the Vice President of People and Culture with MVAH Partners, where she is responsible for the overall people and culture strategy, fostering and strengthening a culture of collaboration, innovation, excellence, and initiative. Nicole has a passion for people-centric transformational leadership, as well as creating space for authenticity and connection, and she is inspiring others to bring their best, most authentic selves to work every day, which you will see in this interview. Prior to joining MVAH, Nicole was the Vice President of Human Resources for BrightView, a private equity-backed substance abuse disorder treatment organization experiencing two hundred percent plus growth year over year. Nicole, welcome to the Workology Podcast.
Nicole Roberts: [00:02:19.92] Hi, Jessica, thanks so much for having me.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:02:22.68] You’ve worked in HR since the beginning of your career. I don’t think that happens for everyone, but you’ve been in HR a little while and in HR leadership for more than 10 years. Can you talk to us about how your early experience led to your current role?
Nicole Roberts: [00:02:38.49] Yeah. So I’ve always been passionate about learning more and doing more, and I started my career working in corporate HR, so it never intimidated me to have a conversation with the CEO or the executive team because I saw him every day. I mean, I was waiting in line for coffee behind the CEO. I never had that ivory tower or untouchable view, and so I’d ask questions and I’d ask to be part of things. And I’ve always been in progressively amplified roles that build on one another. So I started in benefits and then I got experience with employee relations and labor relations. And I’ve been a department of one a couple of times, and I really just established strong relationships with my managers and take things off their plate that I’m capable of in my role with compassion first. I was even the backup for the VP when I was a regional director and I went to New Jersey and sat in her seat when she was on vacation, and it prepared me for my next role of being a vice president.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:03:40.49] I love that, and I love that you were specialized, too. You don’t hear that always that often somebody who’s in that senior-level HR role present that maybe was in benefits or they were in payroll, but they have, you have had sort of the specialty experiences, too.
Nicole Roberts: [00:03:56.33] Yeah, I’ve, I’ve done it all. I used to say, you know, I’m a true generalist. I’ve done, I mean, in different roles. I was specialized and then I, it really helps with the teams that I lead because there’s nothing that they do that I haven’t done before. And so I’m certainly not asking anybody to do anything that I wouldn’t do or I haven’t done. And I can bring my own insights to it, but also really excited to see what they do with the role.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:04:24.82] I think that’s great. Before we move forward, I wanted to ask what is the employee size of any MVAH Partners?
Nicole Roberts: [00:04:32.50] We currently have 189 people, so we have almost a hundred locations in 15, almost 16 states.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:04:42.76] Oh wow. So it doesn’t sound like, I mean, you know, under 200 employees. But then you say, Wow, 15 different states, all these locations. That’s a lot of different state-specific employment laws to juggle and all the different people who are leading and managing those different locations.
Nicole Roberts: [00:05:03.73] Yes.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:05:05.32] Wow. Good for you, good for you. What does the structure of your team look like within the overall HR organization?
Nicole Roberts: [00:05:15.28] So MVAH has two managing partners because our business has the development side where we’re getting the new deals and we’re creating the communities for people to live. But then we also manage our properties. So we’ve got the development side of business and the management side of the business. The management side of the business is about sixty-five percent of the business. And so of the two managing partners, I report to the one on the management side and then I’m fortunate to have an amazing team. I hired two of them and one, Danielle, I met when I interviewed with the company and I asked, you know, who she was and what she did when after I met her in my first interview, I just loved her energy. So Danielle is our talent and engagement manager, so she’s focused on engagement, employee experience, rewards and recognition. And obviously, I wanted everybody to have that welcoming experience that I had, so I asked for her to be on my team. And then Jenna, who I hired in August of 20, is our people and operations manager. So on that services side, she’s passionate about providing that concierge-level service for payroll benefits, employee relations and things that let you take care of your people and let them focus on their work. And then Cecily joined us in the end of September of this year, and she is our recruiter who takes care of people from application and interaction to the company through the offer letter. And then she does that warm transfer to Danielle.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:06:57.93] Wow, I feel like your focus is so much on the experience, whether it is recruiting and the onboarding piece, but also as they’re in their roles, why, why the focus on that? Why is that so important to you?
Nicole Roberts: [00:07:14.67] For me, that’s the differentiator. I mean, anybody can pay you more, anybody can give you more perks, let you bring your dog to work, whatever it is. But really the experience and the culture and the way that people feel at work and we are so mission-driven here that they’re there’s just so much passion with every person that comes to join us that we truly want them to go home and talk to their friends and talk to their family and say, I’m so glad I took this job that it’s exactly what they told me in the interview. You know, there were no negative surprises and they just, I mean, I love what I do, and I love my job so much that I want everybody else to have that same experience.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:08:02.19] I love that, and I have I mean, it’s been a hot minute, but I have been in jobs where I interviewed and it sounded great. The boss was great, the job sounded amazing and I think most people in HR or anywhere probably have had this experience. And then they walk into the role and it is a shit show, and it’s not what I expected at all. And the job really wasn’t what it was made out to be, and that is not a great way to introduce that new employee to the organization.
Nicole Roberts: [00:08:33.98] Absolutely. I mean, even if you have us, I mean, every organization has challenges, right? But if you have a situation where you know that maybe you guys are not your best selves when you’re doing the interview, be candid with people and say, Hey, just so you know we are not blind or, you know, tone-deaf, we see that we have these challenges. Part of your role is to come in here and to be a part of the solution. These are the resources that we’re going to provide you. You know, I mean, let them know like we can see that and we do have a plan. The worst thing that you can do is that bait and switch when somebody makes this, you know, very serious decision to change the trajectory of their career and to join your organization. And you can’t redo that first impression on day one when they realize, what did I just do?
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:09:27.28] Agreed, agreed, and you had mentioned earlier that you also have been a department of one, I wanted to take a step back and, and just say at what point, maybe if you’re a department of one or you’re realizing that you need to grow your team, at what point do, did you know it was time to hire someone maybe dedicated to, to a different part of the HR function? Let’s just say recruiting on your team, what does that look like?
Nicole Roberts: [00:09:54.52] So for us, we have a level of service that we want to have that be our reputation, and we got to up about 40 recs, I think because we were opening new places and we were dealing with the impact of turnover and the pandemic. And so we weren’t able to provide that level of service that met our expectations anymore. You know, it was more than 48 hours that somebody had another touchpoint. And my expectation is no more than two days go by without having a touchpoint with a candidate because every second counts to them when they’re in search. And so we knew that if we were really serious about being focused on providing a great candidate experience that we needed someone full-time dedicated to recruiting.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:10:47.30] I love that, and it makes sense to me as you’re talking like you’re, HR to employee ratio, I think is higher than others, but you have a certain level of service that you’re committing to and your organization can grow very quickly. And so you need to be able to be out of flex as needed.
Nicole Roberts: [00:11:05.84] Definitely. There are, I mean, we’re very fortunate, right? I mean, there’s not a lot of organizations and certainly being in HR for 18 years. I can speak to this where you actually have the ability to have someone dedicated to rewards and recognition and employee engagement. And I mean, like, you either get to have all of these wonderful programs and things, but you can’t have that focus and that attention to it. And people feel that like if that’s an afterthought and that’s just a part of your job, then the focus isn’t there all the time. The focus is there whenever you’re rotating priority list, you know, like a roulette wheel comes up and oh, well, now I can focus on that. You don’t have that culture where things are interwoven when you don’t have that focus.
Break: [00:12:01.24] Let’s take a reset. My name is Jessica Miller-Merrell, and you were listening to the Workology Podcast. We’re talking about the role of the CHRO with my friend Nicole Roberts. She’s the Vice President of People and culture with MVAH Partners. The CHRO podcast series on Workology is sponsored by WorkologyCouncil.com.
Break: [00:12:22.03] The Workology Council is a mastermind community for HR leaders. We are a group of HR professionals with a common goal to succeed by leveraging the influence, resources, and expertise of others on an annual basis. This will be the HR business tribe that you’ve wanted to be a part of for your entire career. Learn more and apply at WorkologyCouncil.com.
Being Comfortable With Change
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:12:48.89] I want to shift gears just a little bit and talk about your role, so you’re the VP of People and Culture and you’ve been in the space for a number of years. What skills and experiences do you believe are absolute requirements for somebody in your role? Or maybe somebody who is thinking about stepping into that role for the future?
Nicole Roberts: [00:13:10.59] So I would say definitely being comfortable with change and being able to galvanize others around it. Not being afraid of not having the answer. I learned that very early in my career that I actually just because somebody asked me a question didn’t mean that they 100 percent counted on me having the answer, but they did count on that I would be able to find the answer, or push, or put them in the right direction, or connect them with somebody. Asking a lot of questions, demonstrating humility when you make a mistake. People don’t trust people when they know that a mistake has been made and they’re just silent on it. I mean, the biggest demonstration of strength that you can have is to demonstrate humility when you make a mistake. And also not being emotionally attached to a project or a process because it was your idea. You need to be in a mindset that this may have been what was best for us at this point in time, but now we need to grow. And, you know, it’s that old adage what got you here isn’t going to take you there. You need to, to make changes and you need to be supportive of others that I mean, you don’t want to be the only person that comes up with ideas when you have meetings and when you’re in rooms, because sooner or later you realize people aren’t speaking up because either they don’t feel like their input is valued or that nothing that they suggest is going to be implemented. So you’ve got to pay attention to whether or not people are contributing and you’re in your meetings and in your conversations, and also having a mindset of truly wanting to help others and help the organization and that there’s not going to be a parade every time that you do something to make the company better because it’s truly not about us. You have got to have that mindset in order to be successful in H.R. and successful as a leader.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:15:16.26] Agreed a lot of times in HR where the unsung superheroes of the business, and I kind of like, I kind of like that. But it’s nice to be recognized, but you’re not going to get a ticker tape parade every time you roll out some new initiative.
Nicole Roberts: [00:15:31.38] No.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:15:32.55] So you joined MVAH Partners in March of 2020. So right at the beginning of all the chaos, what has worked during a global pandemic been like for you and your team as you’re just settling into this role?
Nicole Roberts: [00:15:49.08] Yeah. So it’s really funny because I always say, you know, my start date was March 9th and essentially March 11th is when the news started to, to really talk about COVID and what was happening. And all of that uncertainty and affordable housing is an essential industry. It’s essential that people have a place to live. And, you know, as I said before, we have close to one hundred properties in 15 states, so we’re very distributed workforce. It seemed like every state had its own guidelines at some point in time. Some of them even down to municipalities and some of the states. And so it was a lot of information. And even though we happen to work at our corporate offices in Ohio, we have one in Ohio and one in North Carolina. And so this kind of shared services team that’s in Ohio, we were sent home because we could still do our jobs there. And but we knew that in the field at the properties, they’re not able to do that job from home. And so we made sure that we were really sensitive and mindful of that. We knew that they needed information. And so we doubled down on communication and providing resources, you know, as the guidelines were published and making sure that they had everything that they needed so that they felt safe and supported and really just thanking people and taking care of them and asking how they are and how are their families. And, you know, I mean, some people, the schools closed. And so there, you know, it was just all this, this stress and just needing resources. And so we created a kind of a central place using Ask Here in PayCom to report any symptoms or exposures or because we wanted one central place where people could go and they knew this is where I report that this is where I get information. We set out communication to residents so that we were showing like, Hey, from the organization level, this is what our company is doing in response to this. This is what you’re going to see in the community rooms. These are the, you know, different measures that we’re taking just to keep everybody safe.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:18:09.87] Well, hats off to you and anyone who started their new gig at the beginning of this crazy madness because I feel like you just walked right up and turned on the firehouse and it has been going strong ever since.
Nicole Roberts: [00:18:27.21] Absolutely.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:18:28.35] You talked a little bit about supporting employees, supporting your residents. What are some other ways, maybe, that you and your team have been supporting team members with regards to mental health and wellness? I mean, this is the third year, unfortunately, of the pandemic. Do you have a renewed focus in this area? And if so, what does that look like?
Nicole Roberts: [00:18:51.12] Yeah. So we implemented curling platform that’s called SupportLINK. That made the most sense to us because it has over 10 different touchpoint options for people to seek care. So telehealth, text therapy, mobile, app, desktop, app, phone counseling. And then we expanded those services to include legal financial referrals to different care services because it’s not just mental health and wellness, you know, maybe they need a referral for child care. Maybe it’s elder care. You know, maybe it’s, you know, something to do with their home. And so things that people just don’t have the emotional capacity to deal with, they don’t need one more thing to Google. They want some kind of trusted resource because nobody is operating from neutral, and we’re fully aware of that.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:19:43.98] I love this, and one of the things I love about you and this is, this is so true, this is my truth, is that you just keep creating new programs that I feel like it’s not for the sake of creating new programs, but you listen to your people and you say, Hey, they don’t want to run around and do all this crazy stuff. Let me make a centralized point for communication or for them to get access to benefits and information. And I feel like that’s the best kind of HR person in my mind because they’re listening to their people. You’re not coming to this from a place of ego. You are just wanting to create a great level of service and support your people, whether it’s during a pandemic or, you know, at a future time. So those are one of the things I love about you and, and also you have created a, have a have a commitment to your own mental health and wellness, and I think that you really live that and it comes through.
Nicole Roberts: [00:20:43.47] I do. I think it’s really important that you demonstrate personally that you don’t have a stigma, that, you know, you can speak openly about, you know, doing yoga or using the text therapy yourself or the telehealth or getting support for your children. Or, I mean you, you have to demonstrate that it’s, that it is part of your life and that is part of your own personal wellness so that it becomes safe to others. There has been such a stigma on mental health and I’m proud of us as a, you know, humanity that we’re getting better at it, but we still need to do our part. Understanding that people are taking their cues from us.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:21:36.52] Well, I, I love that about you. I think that it makes, you’re normalizing mental health, but you’re also leading with vulnerability, which I think is a really great quality in a leader.
Nicole Roberts: [00:21:50.83] Well, thank you.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:21:51.97] It’s true, it is true. One of the HR topics that comes up a lot is how HR leaders can build relationships with their executive team. I feel like it sounds like to me that you have done a really great job in this area. What is your advice?
Nicole Roberts: [00:22:08.32] So for me, it’s, it’s the mindset that the executive team is a team of people and you are a person, so one, you want to make sure that you’re part of a culture that is aligned with your values on the role of HR in the organization. Do they truly see the value? Are you on the team first and foremost, and not just getting the debrief from your boss, you know, after the fact? So make sure that you’re in those meetings and that your presence in those meetings is supported. Your contributions are valued when you speak up and, you know, have an idea or have a question, and you can tell that that respect is really there and learn the business and help them solve problems collaboratively. You know, share data that is meaningful. I survey the organization all the time. I am constantly wanting to know, Hey, what’s, what’s it like out there? What’s going on? What would be meaningful to you when we were creating our rewards and recognition program? That’s a sizable investment. So we wanted to know what would be meaningful to our people so that we didn’t make decisions in a vacuum and then come to the table and say, OK, this is what, you know, I saw a webinar, and this looks like something that we should do. And then thankfully, our managing partners say, OK, well, is that something that would be exciting to our people? And I’m able to say yes. As a matter of fact, we did a survey and this is what they have told us would be very meaningful to them. And so you don’t want to come in there and make recommendations that you don’t have data around and, you know, you were hired for a reason and your expertise is needed. You are that person to give colors to decisions that would otherwise be made in a vacuum.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:23:58.36] I love that, and I love that you’re arming yourself with information, and I may be arming is the wrong word because you’re not going to battle. Like it’s a conversation and relationships and trust is being built, but you’re informed and you have talked to the employee population, maybe along with another study or a best practice of some peers, so that you’re able to help present the best option for the collaborative group to, to move forward on it, maybe a new program or initiative. I love that. Well, Nicole, I appreciate you taking the time to chat with us, and I love all your insights. Where can people go if they want to connect with you and learn more about the work that you’re doing?
Nicole Roberts: [00:24:41.29] So my, my blog is HRWithoutEgo.com. I don’t write as much as I used to, but that’s, that’s where I’m going to go if I have something to share. On Twitter, I am @NRobertsHR. I am Nicole Roberts on LinkedIn. I have Instagram and Facebook, but I keep that more personal because I am a single mom and there’s pictures of my kids on there and things like that. And although I certainly share a lot, I am a private person when it comes to my children.
Nicole Roberts: [00:25:18.73] Well, we will link to all the relevant social medias, LinkedIn, Twitter, your blog, and then some information about MVAH partners in the event that there is an HR opening that somebody would, would love to apply for. So thank you again, Nicole. I appreciate you taking the time to chat with us today.
Nicole Roberts: [00:25:38.86] Thanks so much.
Closing: [00:25:40.51] It’s really interesting to delve into how a role like the CHRO, whose experience connects them to strategy and operations of the overall business. And I love seeing the different industries and the different initiatives that come into play. The CHRO or the VP of People doesn’t just lead HR within the company. The company depends on this leadership role to set the standards and benchmarks for everything, and that includes manager training to company culture, to employee engagement, and connection. I appreciate Nicole taking the time to share her experiences and insights with us today on this special series, our CHRO series on the Workology Podcast. And thank you for joining the Workology Podcast, which is sponsored by WorkologyCouncil.com. This podcast is for the disruptive workplace leader who’s tired of the status quo. I know that’s you. That’s why you’re here. My name is Jessica Miller-Merrell. Until next time you can visit Workology.com to listen to all our Workology Podcast episodes.
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