Leadership Tips

Curating company culture in a complex talent market

About the author: Pamela Stroko is an HCM Market Leader with a track record of success producing great results for organizations. She is an author, keynote speaker, thought leader, and transformation enthusiast.



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There is a constant flow of research and information on what the HR agenda should be in organizations in 2023. Topics range from AI and the search for talent, to where, how and when people work, to becoming a skills-first organization.  

Attracting and retaining top talent has become more challenging in our post-pandemic reality. People want more from work—they want connection, belonging, alignment on values, flexibility, career development, learning, customization, and they want to have great work experiences—not just every now and then, but every day. People want work to be fulfilling and engaging. They want to be passionate about what they are doing and where they are working.  

It sounds like a very tall order, doesn’t it? And to top it all off, all of this is happening in a period of ongoing, complicated economic uncertainty and demographic reality.

How do you address all of this, at the same time, in your organization today? What is the role of the HR Leadership team? And what kind of culture should you create to attract and retain top performers?  

This is where the Chief Human Resources Officer can step in as a curator of culture and organization practices—partnering with other executive leaders to bring their knowledge and creativity to bear on how to align people, strategy, and experience in a way that moves the employee experience, the practice of people management, and the business forward.

What does it mean for HR leaders to be the curators of company culture given the economic and talent market realities today?

I love the image of an HR leader as a curator of culture. When I lived in Europe, I would spend my free time on weekends visiting museums, galleries, old book shops, and very out-of-the-way shops where time stopped. You could see history unfolding in every item on the shelf—a well-curated selection telling a story of the passage of time.

Corporate culture is built from many artifacts; to curate culture in a way that will tell the right story for your organization, it’s important to understand the broader context we’re in right now.

Let’s look at three of the main external realities of the talent market that companies are contending with to better grasp why the role of the CHRO as a growth leader, and curator of organizational culture, matter so much now:

1. We have a talent shortage that has been dubbed the “forever talent shortage.”

This is a function of math.  We have more jobs than people to fill them—both now and for the foreseeable future.  At the end of May 2023, we had 10.1 million open jobs (a number that has remained constant in the range of 9.9 million to 10.2 million for the last two plus years). We have the lowest unemployment rate in 50 years.  

Even with the layoffs in the tech sector, tech unemployment remains at historic lows at roughly 2.3%.

2. The talent shortage has been exacerbated by the ripple effects of the pandemic.

The COVID pandemic was a catalyst for major demographic disruptions in the labor pool—and for a serious reevaluation of the role work plays in our lives. Depending on personal circumstances, many were forced to leave their jobs to care for loved ones and family members, or decided to make significant changes to where and how they worked and lived. There are still 2.5 million women that have yet to come back to work. Others took early retirement, or decided that they wanted to move to contract, gig, project, or part-time work, thus changing the landscape of available talent.

Over 2 million people need to actively come back to work to get the economy moving again. In the US, we are hearing things like, “we have to un-retire retirement.” In January, at a speech in the UK, Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, stated that the over 50 population needs to come back to work.

As a result, if your talent strategy has been to go to the external market to fill jobs, your results are likely to be disappointing.

3. To complicate matters further, we still see anywhere from 3.9 to 4.3 million people leave their jobs every month.  

Job seekers are looking for better situations—a better, more fulfilling work environment, career development opportunities, mental health support, flexibility, and cultures where leaders build great teams and relationships. Yahoo Finance recently reported that “almost 70% of US workers plan to leave their jobs in 2023.” Being a freelancer is the new thing, and people would prefer to control the assignments they select, and when/how/where they work.  

One of my favorite Disney characters these days is Chicken Little. The anxious mentality of Chicken Little has been making a regular appearance on the nightly news for months now. Every time business leaders blame the coming recession for why they have to cut jobs—the infamous warning from Chicken Little comes to mind: ”the sky is falling.”  

The pressures feel very real, but the reality is that we have been waiting for a recession for 18 months now, and it has not come—and let’s not mistake high inflation for a recession. Unsound fiscal policy can still cause one, and leaders acting like a recession is inevitable very well may hasten its arrival, but we are not in a recession today.

Goldman Sachs recently lowered the chance of a recession over the next 12 months to 25%.  Inflation is decelerating and monthly job reports are robust. In May, the economy created 339,000 jobs, and both March and April job numbers were revised upward. The job market is driving growth in the economy even with inflation, which is coming down.

That’s the broad landscape—so what does this mean for you? For company leaders trying to improve the employee experience and attract and retain top talent?

How CHRO’s can approach curating a high-performing organizational culture.

In a recently released Gallup report, State of the Global Workplace 2023, we learn that over 50% of employees globally express some level of intent to leave their job. 61% of workers who are disengaged are looking to leave and 43% of those that are engaged are looking to leave.  

Organizational leaders used to think that if people were engaged, we wouldn’t have to worry about those employees leaving. That has turned out not to be the case–engaged employees are still looking for a better culture, leadership, and connection. All employees want those things.  Additionally, they want better pay and benefits, as well as support for their wellbeing.

Enter the CHRO as curator of culture within this context. An approach to this external set of circumstances would include:

  1. Building a robust talent strategy that relies heavily on growing internal talent.
  2. Hiring for skills and tearing the paper ceiling (tearing the paper ceiling refers to hiring for skills rather than requiring a college degree for every open job). This includes breaking down jobs into what is the work that needs to be done and what skills are needed to accomplish that work.
  3. Implementing HCM technology that supports the development and implementation of an Internal Talent Marketplace. There are several players in this space who have great solutions to help you move this forward.  
  4. Putting practices in place that support talent mobility. This includes transparency for opportunities, so the work is visible to everyone.
  5. Supporting individualized career development for employees.
  6. Making your career and learning opportunities be the reason people stay, not the reason they leave. In a Deloitte report titled Workplace 2020, 86% of employees said they would leave their organizations if there was a lack of opportunity for personal and career development. It is so fundamental to help people learn new things and grow both as individuals and as a part of a winning team.  
  7. Having clearly articulated strategies and practices for DEI & Belonging—and actually creating the experience of belonging.
  8. Developing leaders that can help people grow their careers in non-traditional ways such as: growing careers through short-term assignments, having/managing a contract workforce as well as a full-time workforce, and developing coaching skills to address a range of development opportunities for team members.
  9. Ultimately, strive for authenticity—people can spot the real deal—so when you make promises around personal growth, opportunity, wellbeing, flexibility, and values—keep them.

Nurturing employee passion to build a winning organization.

To build winning workplaces, we can’t stop with having engaged employees—a leading organization needs its employees to be passionate about its brand and to care about doing great work.

What is the key to helping employees bring more passion to their work and the organization? I am a big fan of Keith Ayers who wrote “Engagement is not Enough.” The premise of Keith’s work is that what we need to aim for in organizations is passion. I couldn’t agree more. Have you ever met someone who was passionate about their work in such a way that it impacted you as a customer? I have met some of these people on occasion. They want to do everything they can to help you. They always ask at the end of the call if there is something else they can do for you.  

When I was shopping at a local warehouse store, the cashier shared with me how much she loved working for this particular brand. She told me what she LOVED about the company, and how she was treated and valued. They offered her opportunities for career growth, and they paid her a living wage. She said that the benefits really helped her family and the fact that she had good healthcare for her, and her family was huge and it allowed her to keep her family safe. This all happened at a transaction when I was paying for the goods in my cart—imagine the energy this person brings to her work and what a great ambassador she is for her organization—that’s passion at work.

The lesson from this story: Passion doesn’t happen by accident. It happens because the environment supports it, and leaders live it. What I love about Keith’s work is that he starts with describing the Passion Pyramid. I think the elements in the Passion Pyramid are the recipe for leadership success that anyone can follow and that can support every organization.  

Getting to passion starts with respect. It is difficult to do your best work in an environment where you don’t feel cared for or where you feel a lack of respect—people can try to power through, but it is difficult.

So, at the most basic level, mutual respect is a requirement for great work and building a great team. Along with respect, people want to learn and grow and have opportunities for development. With the talent market we are facing today, providing opportunities for growth will play a huge role in retaining high performers.

If we learned anything at all from the pandemic, it’s that meaning at work matters.

Aaron Hurst, founder of Imperative, has done great research on what it means to be fulfilled at work. Imperative has found that fulfilled employees have higher performance, they stay longer, and they are net promoters. Fulfillment isn’t just a nice to have—it is a business imperative (pardon the pun).  

At a time when over 70% of people are thinking about leaving their jobs, focusing on fulfillment can have a significant impact. According to Imperative, fulfilled employees are more likely to report outperforming 80% of the people in their field. Conversely, the cost of an unfulfilled employee can be devastating: 82% of unfulfilled employees are actively undermining the culture and the brand.

When surveys were done about what was most important to people, they said things like:

  • I want people to appreciate me not just for what I can do, but for who I am. I want to be recognized for what I contribute to the business holistically.
  • I want to connect with the organization’s purpose.
  • I want to make a difference.
  • I want to contribute to our success.
  • I want to be part of a winning team.

To me, these are the fundamental responsibilities of leadership—the basic building blocks of what matters and what inspires the human spirit.

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To help people get to passion, the C-suite can curate development in 3 key ways:

1. Prioritize trust and work to build it throughout the organization, specifically focusing on helping leaders develop trust with their direct reports and teams.

2. Build leadership capability to coach and mentor. Fundamental to great performance is a great relationship with team members, particularly the manager-employee relationship.  After all, performance management is not an event, it is a relationship—it is a conversation over time.

3. Build an employee-first culture. It is often said that if you want happy customers, focus on creating happy employees. Employee-first cultures have ways to connect people—whether it is through peer coaching or team development—people need connection, and they need to feel valued.

We are in a challenging time. We have dealt with what seems like “quiet everything”: Quiet quitting, quiet hiring, no stress Mondays, take it easy Tuesday, back to office mandates, uncertainty about how we will work in the future—hybrid, remote, and back to the office.  

Curating a winning culture starts with understanding what your people and your business need and putting together the best combination of tools, actions, practices, and ways of being that lift each individual and honor the human spirit.

It is about creating what is essential for human growth and business development; at a time when technology is rapidly changing what the HR function can be, the secret to CHRO success is distinctly more human. Those elements that can’t be replicated by technology. It is a tribute to the person that shows up, every day wanting to contribute and be part of something great.

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