Inside the Mind of a CHRO
An organization’s true value lies in its people. So in the aftermath of a global pandemic that’s left millions of open roles available and not enough workers to fill them, how can HR leaders prioritize their people’s value and build better, stronger companies in the process?
To answer that question, we couldn’t think of a more qualified person than industry thought leader and new Phenom CHRO Jess Elmquist. Elmquist joined Talent Experience Live and revealed his own origin story, the biggest priorities in employee engagement and retention today, and why purpose, mindset, and culture are the most valued form of currency for today’s talent.
Read the major takeaways below, or catch the full episode here (we promise you’ll be inspired!).
A Career Journey Guided by a Service Mindset
Too often, HR gets a bad rap due to challenging employee situations that they need to address. But Elmquist looks at it another way. “I think most people who are CHROs or in talent have a service mindset of wanting to help other people become the best version of themselves that they can be. That’s what I love about HR.”
He credits his passion for helping others to his family of teachers. A few years into his own teaching career, Elmquist decided to explore new ways to make a difference in people’s lives, getting in on the ground floor of what would become one of the nation’s most successful fitness companies: Life Time.
Elmquist worked first in sales and marketing, which laid the foundation for his eventual role as Chief Learning Officer and EVP of HR. Learning operations first gave him a good understanding of the positive business impacts of helping people find the right job role.
How A Tech Search Led to a New Calling
Faced with mass-hiring challenges at Life Time and frustrated with an ineffective homegrown solution Elmquist describes as a “Frankenstein monster of technology,” he and his team looked for a vendor that could help. They vetted many products until finally discovering Phenom’s Talent Experience Management platform. The sophisticated AI technology, experience-first approach, and memorable meeting with Phenom co-founder and CEO Mahe Bayireddi resonated with Elmquist.
Elmquist recalled asking Bayireddi why he created Phenom, noting that “it’s an important question because that origin sets the tone for where you’re going.” The answer sealed their future: to help a billion people find the right job. Over the next several years, Elmquist worked closely with Bayireddi and the Phenom team, viewing them as true partners and valuable advisors to meet their talent acquisition and management goals.
Customer Story — Armed with Data: How Life Time Hires with Agility & Efficiency
Because of this relationship, becoming CHRO and Chief Evangelist for Phenom was a natural next step in his career journey, Elmquist relayed. “I believe in this technology — that it’s purpose-driven, and that it absolutely helps people create efficiencies in their organization so they can focus on what they’re supposed to focus on, which is transforming people, helping them become the best version of themselves … and giving [them] a sightline as to where they can go in the company,” he said.
In his role at Phenom, Elmquist hopes to encourage fellow CHROs who may be tech-averse to jump in and “learn the language. “When you do, you’ll start to see how a platform like this can transform your entire business,” he emphasized.
Top 5 Priorities for CHROs Today
The last two years have permanently transformed the employee-employer dynamic, Elmquist said, with people opting out of employment altogether until organizations become more people-centric.
“There is an empowerment happening, with people now saying, ‘I have something to offer this organization just as much as this organization has something to offer me.’” And many companies are failing to adapt quickly enough. As Elmquist noted: “It’s like having a global engagement survey, and you know what? Companies are not engaging.”
So how should CHROs re-engage talent that has chosen to sit on the sidelines waiting for a company that better matches their values? Elmquist provided the top 5 priorities CHROs need to focus on now:
1. Supporting Employee Mental Health
Employees will be feeling the mental and emotional impacts of the pandemic for the next several years, Elmquist pointed out. To help employees navigate this, organizations first need to destigmatize mental health challenges, and then build long-term structures to support them. Elmquist quoted his wife, a mental health professional: “How do we, as organizations, get into our employees’ lives, [in the place] between ‘I’m ok’ and ‘I need help’?”
Here are some key steps he recommends:
- Get senior leadership educated and involved as early and as often as possible.
- Implement structures and systems so employees feel supported in pursuing treatment. A great example? Phenom’s benefit that offers $1K specifically toward mental health care.
- Give a voice to the issue within the organization by encouraging executives to share their own stories, if they feel comfortable doing so. While at Life Time, Elmquist recalled being transparent about how he dealt with high anxiety during the pandemic.
2. Improving Connection to Purpose
Cultivating connection to an organization’s purpose is an important piece of retention, but this isn’t a current reality in our post-pandemic world. “Some organizations are tone-deaf, holding their breath and waiting for things to go back to normal,” Elmquist observed. The reality is that today’s workforce wants more from their organizations. Elmquist advises a four-step process employers should adopt: mission, mindset, service, and action.
Mission: Companies need to get to the heart of why they exist and remove any barriers interfering with seeing it through.
Mindset: Identify any shifts in organizational mindset needed to better fulfill the mission.
Service: When companies base culture and decisions on “service as a calling,” a positive ripple effect happens throughout the workforce, and eventually comes back to elevate the community as a whole.
Action: Set your goals and take action. “Do something. Move … take action to change lives,” Elmquist encouraged.
3. Providing Work-Life Balance
Confronting the hot-button issue of work-life balance is integral to succeeding in today’s market, Elmquist said. The major challenge? From the corporate standpoint, there’s the concern that employees will lean more towards “life” in the work-life balance. On the other hand, most workers are now working from their homes, and with computers and cell phones keeping them connected to work 24/7, they end up feeling like they can never truly turn off.
It’s up to HR leaders to help people navigate this tricky territory. Elmquist suggested addressing it by considering what work-life balance means within your organization’s culture. Define when employees are able to turn off, and when it’s appropriate to ask them to turn on.
According to Elmquist: “This is what the new normal is… we are working through a change process, and change is hard.” In the three phases of change — unfreeze, move, refreeze — he believes we are in the first, unfreeze, phase. Once change takes place, work as we know it will be different going forward.
4. Making DEI&B Actionable & Evolving
During his tenure at Life Time, Elmquist reflected that, as a leader, acknowledging what he didn't know was critical to fully understanding how to build a better DEI&B culture for his organization. By establishing an inclusion advisory board made up of powerful voices — from women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community — he understood the importance of being part of the conversation. As he put it: “How can we get allyship unless everyone is willing to get on the ship?”
Similar to the topic of mental health, “The journey is the destination” for companies that want to become more diverse and inclusive, as long as there’s continued learning, education, transparency, and action along the way.
When it comes to creating a culture of DEI&B, Elmquist added that the professional work cannot be separated from the personal work: “It’s everything — read, learn, talk, make mistakes, apologize, move a different way.”
5. Embracing Technology for Better Experiences & Outcomes
When we think about companies on the cutting-edge of technology, we know that AI and machine learning is everything from a consumer standpoint. How do we make those things applicable to what we are doing every day, especially in a job market where there’s not enough talent to satisfy the demand?
A full-fledged talent experience platform is key, Elmquist said, providing the speed, analysis capabilities, and automation needed to attract and engage the right candidates and instantly communicate your employer brand and culture. This kind of people-centric tech is also a key driver of employee experience, centralizing everything a company has to offer its employees in one searchable, easily navigable place.
Elmquist believes in what he calls a “psychological contract” between a company and their people, and breaking that commitment erodes trust. As an employer, how are you expressing that commitment to potential candidates and current employees? And how will you keep everything organized without a technology platform?
“At the end of the day, you’ll never be able to staff enough recruiters to meet the need,” Elmquist concluded, but technology can, and “that’s the power of AI.”