Performance Leaders' Podcast S2 Ep 1: Adam Hall

Ray D'Cruz
Performance Leader

How Employee Experience Builds High Performance Firms

Welcome to Season two of the Performance Leaders' Podcast.

In Episode 1, Ray D'Cruz talks to Adam Hall, Talent & Reward Leader at Willis Towers Watson, about how Employee Experience contributes to high performance.

They cover a range of topics in the half-hour podcast including:

  • The theory and ROI of Employee Experience
  • How to create a positive Employee Experience in professional firms
  • The application of Employee Experience theory to partners in professional firms
  • How collaboration and inspiration play a central role in the Employee Experience
  • Using an Employee Experience lens to respond to COVID-19

About our Guest

Adam helps HR adapt organisations to a new future of work. He has deep experience in organisational culture and employee experience measurement and change consulting and has worked extensively at senior executive level with his clients. He has a special focus on the legal and energy/resources sectors.

Adam's specialties include:

  • Future of Work
  • Strategy-culture alignment
  • Talent management
  • Talent analytics
  • Employee opinion surveys
  • Sustainable engagement
  • Global employee survey benchmarking
  • Employee wellbeing
  • Safety culture.

We hope you enjoy listening.

Interview Transcript

Ray: [00:00:00]  Adam, thanks for joining us today on the podcast. Can you tell us a bit more about the employee experience and why it's an important concept for firms to think about?

Adam: [00:00:23] Thanks, Ray, it's great to be with you. So when we think about employee experience, it really is an evolution of the way we have been thinking about how people work in organizations for a long time. So the big shift, I guess, for employee experience is like the approach that has been taken with clients and customers is to turn the lens around and look at that from the experience of the employee rather than from just the experience of the organization. So we made this transition in the customer client space a while ago where we used to be very focused on our services and how we provided them and quality and those kinds of things. And we turned that around to say, 'well, that's great, but what really matters is how does the client experience them?' And so when we think about employee experience, we think about it as being the sum of all of the touch points and the moments that matter for the employee. And so that makes us think very differently about the way we might go around trying to create an experience, trying to measure that experience. But also it requires a lens of personalization, a view about what is it that an employee values that might be a moment that matters for them. And how might those moments that matter differ for individuals who are different, but also for groups who have different needs? And so it allows us to think about inclusion differently. But it also requires then from an organization that we think about how do we craft experiences that suit more people and develop organizational ways of operating that enable that. So it requires more flexibility and more agility in all aspects of how the organization functions.

Ray: [00:05:20] The model that you've developed around the employee experiences has four dimensions. Let's start there, it might be really useful for our listeners to get a handle on how you really break down the employee experience.

Adam: [00:05:32] Yeah, that's right. And again, what we did was look at all of this data that we have and analyze it to understand what are the core dimensions of this moments that matter. Right. We can't just we can't just go out and try and figure out every single interaction touchpoint that an employee has with an organization and try and measure that and change that. That's, you know, that's unworkable. And it's different from the customer space, because when we were in the customer space or the client space, the touch points a much fewer right, they are much simpler. We have a lot more control over them. And so we can do we can say, well, every touch point with the customer, we should do something about. Every touch point with an employee, they're embedded, enmeshed within the organization, millions of interpersonal or interactions. You just can't do that. So we use the data to understand what are the kind of big areas that really matter. And so the first is purpose. So the first area where the experience really matters is how are people connected to the purpose, a strong sense of purpose in the organization, the organization's purpose, the firm's purpose and their personal relationship to that purpose. The second area is having good work. So working in an organization that is thriving and that is enables you to do good work. And so we know in in legal firms in particular, working on good matters, interesting matters that that allow people to to do great technical work that grow that capability has always been a really important part of what matters to the lawyers. The third area is the rewards that you get. So the way you think about those in total reward concepts. So these are things that I'll give you individual growth and reward for the work that you're doing

Ray: [00:07:21] Not just financial.

Adam: [00:07:23] Definitely not just financial. So it's financial. It's career progression. It's personal growth. It's, you know, interpersonal growth. It's all of these things together that that are beyond just the financial outcome. And then the fourth area is people connection with great people and great leaders and the way that is experienced. And so when we look at those four quadrants, we pretty much can capture most of the things that the organization does that an employee might experience within one of those areas. Not absolutely everything. And I think we've seen as we've moved to a remote working that some of the things that got a lot of hype around employee experience, like fancy offices with bean bags and table tennis, they're probably not very important and they're certainly not going to be important in going forward. So we're trying to reduce those things that really do matter when an employee is having a good or a bad experience.

Ray: [00:08:23] There's also research that Willis Towers Watson has done in the last year that shows the link between firms or companies that excel in the employee experience and their financial outcome, the return on investment, if you like. Can you talk us through what you found there?

Adam: [00:08:41] Yeah, that's right. We have long looked at a subset of our clients that we have called global high performance companies. And we track them as a benchmark cohort for our clients to compare themselves against. We define them based on outperformance financially of the of their sector, of the industry over a three year period. So the first and foremost, financially high performing. But they also have to have above the industry and at other high performing companies performance levels on the sort of employee experience measures. In the way we look at them is if we looked back at this group and we took a thousand dollars in in 2002, for example, and we invested that a thousand dollars in an index of those high performing companies versus investing in the Dow Jones or the S&P, and we constantly reinvested the returns of that a thousand dollars. By 2017, so over a 15 year period, the high performing companies outperform those indexes by over four times. And so What is it that they consistently do that that outperforms? And on the basis of understanding that we have taken that insight and taken our employee experience framework and defined what we call a high performing employee experience approach, where we look at the things that those organizations most do differently, which is about 'excellence'. Where is it that companies - high performance companies - really excel. There are areas where they 'emphasize' where they do better than other organizations, but not enormously better. And then there are the 'essential', things in which high performing companies slightly outperform other organizations, but they don't massively differentiate.

Ray: [00:14:06] The Excellence Emphasis Essentials model is broken down into 12 components, each of those three things has four components to it. And I just want to pick on a few of those things and how they might relate to professional services firms. Let's start at the very top of the list with the with the element that contributes the most to high performance companies, and that is inspiration. What does that mean for professional services? From what could it mean, particularly a firm in a mature market? Inspiration has connotations of Silicon Valley and and technology companies. But can it apply to a professional services firm in a mature market?

Adam: [00:14:55] Yes, it absolutely can, and I think, you know, when we see a word like inspiration, the tendency is to think of sporting coaches and great rhetorical speeches that that inspire people. That's obviously not really what we're talking about here. The way we think about it is, is the employee being inspired by what they do, by what we do as an organization collectively, and what I can do as an employee., And so why is this a differentiator, high performing organizations? Because we know that what really matters and what you'll see across the four top dimensions of excellence is they are about things that the organization facilitates in the experience, not about something that an individual experiences. And so we've often talked about the distinction between having a great manager and having an organization where many great managers exist. And so the excellence is defined by an organizational capability to systemically create these great experiences. And one of these is around being able to bring people together around what you're trying to do. Right.  It's the way that you make them feel like what they're doing is worth doing every day, but without it being a kind of constructed false sort of narrative. So it has to be true. And I think this is where the work that many organizations have done about trying to define a purpose that is not just about making money, but it's about, you know, the core of why are we providing professional services to our clients? What is it that we believe about what we do that should matter to our clients and to our people? And, you know, Simon Sinek and he's, you know, sort of foundational stuff about getting to why is well, why should why should someone buy from you? Why should someone want to come and work for you? And if you can tell that story, then you are you get a lot of traditional engagement at that emotional connection, but you also get time to get all of the other things right. People who stay with you, if they believe in your purpose and what you're trying to do, even if some of the other elements don't quite work all the time.

Ray: [00:19:02] Inspiration ties into excellence. One of the elements that ties into emphasis is collaboration. We're hearing a lot in professional services firms about collaboration at the moment. Tell us a bit more about how organizations can make that work in order to improve the employee experience.

Adam: [00:20:13]  So the ability to perform well at sharing information and effort across the organization is something that we see high performing organizations do really better than other organizations. And the reason it has often been a struggle in in professional services firms because we practice groups, right. So we're grouped into areas of specialty. And so we construct this way of operating that tends to try and get the most out of that particular team and how it can best achieve its potential and maximize its performance. The problem, of course, is that as all professional services leaders know, is the cornerstone approach us on technical specialties. So they're not they don't care how we're internally organized as a firm. They want a solution to their problem. And those problems are getting more and more complex and less and less able to be solved within a single technical domain. And so we have to a little bit unlearn this way of operating as a firm, where we said, 'you know, here's a P&L for this practice and you manage it, and, you know, I want you to make sure that the utilization of your people is so that we've got this margin. Whereas the mindset needs to change to 'we're trying to achieve an outcome for our clients and for the firm, and we should do that by bringing the best of our talents and the best of our thinking to the problem, wherever they may sit.' The challenge often is that some of the structural financial models and approaches and reward mechanisms that we have about how to measure performance don't align easily with that way of thinking.

Ray: [00:22:24] What is it about collaboration that makes employees feel good? Is it being part of a bigger team, a bigger picture? Is it the social element? What is it that's driving this as something that is important?

Adam: [00:22:37] It's all of those things, but I think actually at the core it is being able to see that your contribution has value beyond your immediate sphere. So we have clients who tell stories about leaders who reach beyond their own teams to recognize contribution for people outside of the area. So one of my financial services clients, you know, the chief information officer, was telling a story at a leadership retreat where his team had done, you know, there was a problem and something had gone wrong with the systems and clients were being impacted and his team had come together and just worked all weekend to try and solve it. And he had obviously then turned around and said thank you to them. But what really mattered was that the the retail part of that organization where the customers were hurting most took the time out to go and speak to that team and say thank you for that effort. I know it wasn't your fault. It went wrong in the first place. And I really valued your work and your contribution to what was important for my business. And so that's that starts to to create a way of working inside an organization where people are willing to do that across the organization without necessarily expecting an immediate payoff in return. So that the heart of collaboration is that I'm prepared to do it for you, but no immediate benefit for me, because I know that at some point I'll ask the same thing of you and that you will come, you will come and help me.

Ray: [00:24:10] The final element of this model that I just want to pick up on is in the essentials bucket, and it is fair pay. And that's appropriate today because the day we're recording is equal pay day. It's still an issue in the professions, isn't it?

Adam: [00:24:28] It is, and it's an essential because fairness in the employee experience is is foundational, you if you look up that reward element, so it sits fair pay and fair progression, if you if you like, sit at the at the essentials element, you have to do well. Otherwise you have a really foundational flaw in your employee experience. And once you do it well, then you can build on that with a way of developing capability and growing potential that will take you through the emphasis on excellence, elements of the experience. But you can't have a experience of achieving a widespread experience of people feeling like they achieve their potential. If you don't have it underpinned by fairness, because then it won't be widespread, it will be only for the select few. And that is not going to create the kind of employee experience that you're looking for. So these kind of foundations are often about fairness, equity, the structural basics of managing the organization. You absolutely have to get right, but don't unfortunately really differentiate your employee experience from anywhere else. It's a license to play. It's the hurdle you have to get over. If you can't pay people fairly, if you can't provide managers that support people, if you can't have an organization where the way work gets done is efficient and and and flexible and people understand what they're trying to do, then it's really hard to see how you have a successful organization.

Ray: [00:26:06]  a final question on this model, Adam, how does it apply to business owners and in particular within partnerships, how does this model apply to partners?

Adam: [00:26:24] It's a good question, and so we obviously developed it primarily from the point of view of employees, but the challenge of owners and partners has always been those sort of, you know, dual nature of their of their relationship with the firm. So they're both owners and employees. And so they still experience the organization. They are in a leadership position and they have some control, collective control over things that happen. But they still have the same wants around the experience that they have as any other person. So I've yet to meet a person who doesn't want to feel like they're going to a place that is inspiring and purposeful and just being an owner may not be enough. And sometimes being an owner where you don't really align with the direction of the firm is going is actually creates a whole sense of tension. So I struggle to look at an element of the model that I can't see how it would apply to a partner in the way they experience things. I think, you know, some of the things that actually matter in the moments that matter are going to be different. But the actual concepts that sit within the framework, I really do think are pretty universal because they're really about what we want as individuals, as people in in our work and our relationship to an organization.

Ray: [00:28:00] That makes a lot of sense, and particularly as partnerships grow and reach a certain point, or you have a partnership structure where you have department leaders and leadership teams, then I guess you're automatically starting to create a situation where you have some partners that have more power than others, or at least more responsibilities in terms of leadership. And so even the partner experience of being partner can differ depending on what role they're in.

Adam: [00:28:29] Absolutely. And we know, you know, global firms have local and international partners. We have salary partners. We have and we've seen a proliferation of different in legal firms, you know, structures of leadership with executive directors and those kinds of roles being created that are kind of between partner and senior associate to try and create a pathway to partnership that is a little bit easier and has more has more steps along the way that that enable that.

Ray: [00:29:31] It would be a mistake to undertake an employee experience survey process without including the partners.

Adam: [00:29:39] Absolutely. Absolutely. Because, I mean, firstly, in all the the partner surveys that I've done, and sometimes you do them as a standalone separate thing, you might ask slightly different questions. But, you know, sometimes the most surprising results have come to the firm leadership from the partner feedback about actually the challenges the partners are having with what's happening inside the firm. And so that's obviously a critical insight that you may not get if things are, you know, a little bit rocky. There's some difficult times not partners may not be super happy. Speaking up openly will probably be the the whispering behind the scenes, but they may not be the the the open speaking up. And so the opportunity to have a confidential way of sharing that feedback is very valuable.

Ray: [00:31:14] There's a lot of debate in professional firms at the moment around KPIs and metrics and the employee experience process that you take firms through has the capacity to generate a significant set of metrics, I imagine. Talk us through those metrics and perhaps their capacity to both help us with reward decisions as well as inform leadership and management.

Adam: [00:31:43]  Creating, reward-link KPIs is certainly an area to be entered very thoughtfully. And so a lot of the work we do early on with clients is running some workshopping to try and bring this way of thinking together to say these are the things the firm understands it needs in order to perform, and these are the things the employees are telling us they want in their experience. And we when we bring those together, then we can build what we think about as an employee experience measurement approach Some things are truly leading, they're formative experiences. So we often think about you can think about this from an employee lifecycle perspective. So the onboarding process is an important experience to set the tone of how people come into the organisation to reduce time to productivity to all of those things. And so that that truly is a leading indicator because it's one of the very first interactions. At the same time, an exit survey or a measure of a turnover is very much a lagging indicator. So it has come as a result of other experiences. And so if we just measure track KPIs related to turnover or absence, what we're what we're essentially doing is is looking mainly at lagging indicators. So what we want to do is, is think about how do these how do these experiences relate to each other? So how do they build to create a total experience and look at what are the key measures that we should develop along the way that would give us essentially a continuous feed of what the experience is. It doesn't mean you've got surveys that are always on. It doesn't mean that you're constantly surveying people. Rather, you're creating a way of gathering insight on those touch points about those moments that matter that give you a constant sense of what the experience is like.

Ray: [00:38:22] Adam, how is Covid affecting the employee experience? And we're recording this podcast in late August, so what should be on the agenda for firms right now?

Adam: [00:38:54] So it depends where in the world you are because different places are having different experiences. And so the employee experience lens helps out here because it encourages us to take the lens of the experiences of the employees where we're operating and think about how are they experiencing things. But largely the employees feedback we're seeing is that they give their organisations quite a lot of credit for the effort they've put into communicating, using kind of social technologies to to communicate to employees. Quite a lot of them are listening. About a third of the organisations that that we interact with globally have done some sort of listening to their employees. And clearly that is one tool from our perspective one of the first things that you would want to do is to understand, actually understand how your employees are experiencing things But what we largely see is that a lot of people are experiencing anxiety and worry, particularly financial concerns are probably the biggest trend that we've seen since we first started tracking in in March is the financial concerns of employees about their financial well-being is continues to rise. So it started low and it's getting higher as this has gone on. A high proportion of people say they experience anxiety. So we're up in the sort of high 80 per cent of employees say that they're worried or anxious about coronavirus or their future. They are clearly see differentiated experiences for parents and carers who obviously have more demands on their time working from home, from those who don't. But at the same time, we see people who are don't, who are isolated, work, live at home, feeling very isolated. And so the what we're seeing is sort of the full range of experiences are being had. And it really does come down to: in your firm's workforce, what are the demographics and what are the experiences that are people having and how does that help you tailor your solution? So, you know, we're seeing lots of activity around sort of online yoga and wellbeing seminars of various kinds, parenting seminars. But often it's the team level initiatives that people are most enjoying around the social connection. So a team deciding to run a trivia session, doing a shared playlist, those things are really helping people stay connected. But there's no doubt that there's a lot of anxiety about how long jobs will remain and what jobs will look like in the future as organizations try and think about 'well when we come back or we start to work again, what does that what does that really look like?'.

Ray: [00:46:35] Adam, it's very hard to predict where things are going at the present moment, but if you were advising HR directors on what they need to be thinking about for three and six months time - the start of 2021 really - what are the sorts of things I should be thinking about.

Adam: [00:46:57] Yes, that's a good question. So we've done two pieces of work, I think, that are relevant to that. We co authored an article with the Society for Human Resource Management called The Future Chief People Officer. And another piece of work we did with the World Economic Forum is called HR 4.0. And so both of these look at how people strategies and people experience need to change and will change in the future. And they're obviously highly informed by the fourth industrial revolution. So the kinds of things that that he talks about is these some of them we've already mentioned the need to try and accelerate the push to become more agile as an organization. And we often I certainly like the way of thinking as of COVID, as an accelerator of things that were happening in organizations and the ability that that the necessity of changing has brought to being able to do that more quickly. So looking at how you can create an organization that is more able to respond quickly to changing environment is absolutely, I think one of the things. The second is around using the technology, so embracing digitisation, looking at how we can use automation not just to replace work and reduce cost, although that clearly is going to be a need for many organizations, but but to augment the performance of people in really critical roles. And so one of the areas I think we see H.R. needing to be more proactive and the people functioning organizations being more proactive is to think about how can we identify where augmenting people's work through technology will add most value to the firm, not just thinking about how can we use robotic process automation to automate a process that takes out some costs and gives us efficiency. But where are these opportunities to reinvent the way the work is done through augmenting capability with technology that will most enhance value through to clients? And I think that's a really key area.

Ray: [00:49:18] That seems to have a better fit, that concept of augmentation for the professions right now, than the idea of replacement.

Adam: [00:49:25] Yeah, and absolutely. It fits with an employee experience lens because what we're doing in that work is trying to create more meaningful, more engaging work through augmenting the capability of people to do it. So you can combine these two. So if we can use robotic process automation to take out some of the dreary discovery work or the dreary, you know, spreadsheet analytics that you might need to do and use AI to help bring forward insight that that professional can use to advise their clients, then that's enhancing their experience, because we're taking away some of the tedious work that they probably don't enjoy that much, and where we're adding value to  the client. And so that's where we see probably the people function hasn't in many organizations been in that game enough but H.R. and people elements, people in culture understand work and they understand the content of the work. And so they really should be able to help. And we have some we have a new piece of technology called Work View that is designed to do that. What is what is the tasks within the work and how might those be augmented through automation and technology? That is a question that the people and culture team, the HR team should be engaged with the rest of the firm. So that they can help drive that forward. And not just have this as a as something that comes from the Chief Technology Officer, who some tech company has come with a cool piece of technology and is trying to sell it to you and you are trying to find some way for it to fit, but actually to come from the other way lens and say 'how do we create the most value for our clients and our firm in reinventing the way we do work and how do we use technology to best do that?'

Ray: [00:51:14] For HR directors, this crisis might be that once in a moment, opportunity to really do some of the very difficult things where there have been barriers in the past. Suddenly things have opened up, decision making processes have sped up, and the opportunities is right there.

Adam: [00:51:32] Absolutely. We chatted to one when H.R. director in a local organization, not a not a professional services firm, but they have a call centre. And they had been thinking about some automation technology in their call centre. And COVID came and within two weeks they were able to implement a new piece of technology that allowed them to have their calls centre operate completely remotely. So everyone went home. Everyone was able to then suddenly operate in that call centre in in a completely remote environment, and they had had, you know, a nine month kind of implementation plan and they did in two weeks.

Ray: [00:52:10] Adam, thank you for joining us today.

Adam: [00:52:13] Pleasure Ray

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