This week’s Talent Experience Podcast guest takes a much different approach to HR than most organizations or individuals, and this is why he is a well-respected board member of SHRM (The Society for Human Resource Management). Episode 35 features Steve Browne, the Chief People Officer at the LaRosa’s organization – a multi-unit regional pizzeria.
Steve is committed to the HR experience and is a people person through and through. In this conversation, he sat down with host John Hollon to chat about the specifics behind HR best practices, company culture, SHRM, employee relations, and overcoming the pandemic from the perspective of an in-person essential workforce. When he speaks you can hear the passion he has for his work and why he advocates for company culture based on what he calls, a people-first lens – tune in to this episode to learn why you should do the same!
Steve has also written two books, “HR on Purpose” and “HR Rising ", and publishes a wonderfully informative blog titled "Everday People". Connect with Steve on LinkedIn, Twitter @sbrownehr or at the Everyday People Blog.
For more insightful conversations, visit www.talentexperiencepodcast.com. We hope you enjoy this episode of the Talent Experience podcast!
John Hollon 00:25
Hello, I'm John Hollon and welcome to the Talent Experience Podcast. Today's guest is Steve Browne. Steve has devoted over 35 years to human resources. He currently serves as the Chief People Officer for LaRosa's, Inc. original pizzeria restaurant chain in southwest Ohio, with 12 locations and more than 1100 team members. Prior to LaRosa's, Steve held various HR management positions in the manufacturing consumer products and professional services industries. Steve has also been an active and engaged member of SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management at the local state and regional level for more than 20 years, and for the past five years Steve has been a member of SHRM's National Board of Directors. That's a high honour and a really great thing to have someone of Steve's character and dedication as a board member of the largest HR organization in the world. In addition, Steve facilitates a monthly HR roundtable in Cincinnati, has a nationally recognized HR blog "Everyday People" and often ranks among the 100 most influential HR voices on social media. He's the author of two books, "HR on Purpose" and "HR Rising", and runs a global HR network called the HR Net, which reaches over 12,000 HR and business professionals each week. And, he is a graduate of Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. Steve, did I pretty much get it all? Or did I get something wrong there?
Steve Browne 01:55
No, you're dead on John. That's far too much information.
John Hollon 01:58
I know, it's a lot. But you know what, it's hard. It's hard to cut out things because you've done some great stuff and I thought people should know. So I know you're a busy guy. And it makes me wonder how do you find the time to do all this?
Steve Browne 02:14
Oh, honestly, I have the time to do it, and I make the time because being involved outside of just doing what I do at LaRosa's is important. I've always felt that I wanted him to be somebody who affected the profession, not just in my own role at my company, but actually, hopefully, somebody who changes the profession for the better.
John Hollon 02:34
Well, and you've done that with great gusto, so it has been great. Tell me a little bit about how LaRosa's where you're Chief People Officer, and how it got through the pandemic and the lockdown. Because for all we hear about the move to remote work and hybrid work for so many, there are a lot of businesses like yours that still have to work the old-fashioned way.
Steve Browne 02:59
Absolutely, yeah, we have not missed a beat. It was interesting at the beginning of the pandemic, we were deemed essential because we provide food, and food is something that everybody needs. Since it dragged on for so long and we're still in some form of it right now, now it's kind of overlooked. That's very hard because our team members have worked every single day, throughout the entire time. Both in the pizzerias, in our call center, and in our manufacturing facility that makes our dough. We didn't have the option to be remote. Our office did do a remote, we have a few people who are doing hybrid work, but many of us came back to work in person because we want to be supportive of our team members who always be the person. So how did we get through? A couple of really good things. One, we were far ahead of the safety requirements, before the safety requirements came out. We're a food facility. You know, you have to be clean all the time, you have to be mindful of things so that wasn't anything new. The challenge of the mental stress, the pace of work, our sales went up during the time that it was very heavy because people still wanted food, but we also became more agile as a company. We had talked about doing curbside pickup for three years and everything in the world stopped us from doing it and really it's because organizations move very methodically. So now that we had it in front of us, we said, "Hey, we need to move ahead and do this," and we changed to then have curbside pickup in a day, and it saved us. So we've always been somebody who had dine-in and carry-out, stuff like that. But when dining rooms closed, we had to adapt, and curbside was a huge jump for us. Our team members jumped right in and they've been stalwart through this entire time.
John Hollon 05:02
I'm sure you can appreciate this the most, being the Chief People Officer and sort of the lead HR person, but boy, this is a management challenge deluxe that you had to face. Because as much as you have to manage a lot in a normal workplace, add in a pandemic and a lockdown, and boy, you've just accelerated it times 1000 I would think.
Steve Browne 05:29
Absolutely. The one thing that I thought was very interesting is we tell everybody to bring their entire selves to work, except their emotions. We don't say that out loud, but that's what we really mean like, "Hey bring everything to work, but don't tell me about anything that's really happening." Well, the pandemic brought it to life and emotions were on edge, and still are, that has not changed. So we spent more time coaching our managers, coaching our leaders on how to have better interpersonal skills. So it was a good groundwork for that. The other thing is it gave us a good challenge. I talked to a CEO I'm very close to, and I said, "Hey isn't it great that we responded during the crisis," and he said "Yes, it is." I said, "Wouldn't it be great if we acted this way, all the time and focused this heavily to perform." And he said, "Man, I agree, that is good thinking." So we don't want to be a company that's only ready for crisis, we want to be a company that performs all the time.
John Hollon 06:27
Great words of advice, I think, and something to think about moving ahead. But you also hear a lot about the challenge, particularly right now as we sort of slowly come out of the pandemic. The challenge they have is finding and keeping workers, that seems to be on the minds of a lot of folks, how has LaRosa's fared on that front?
Steve Browne 06:52
It's the classic answer for HR John, it depends. Some of our locations are doing very well and have never had a challenge with staffing, others are struggling. I think one of the things that's been very good for our franchise community, together with us, we're talking more holistically about how can we be great places to work. Not the "I answered the survey and got a banner," but how can we be great cultures all the time. So some of the things that we've done, are this, at the end of 2020 my boss, unfortunately, passed away three days before Christmas. A heart attack, unexpected, but our CEO and his brother who's the president, chose to reset our company instead of return. So we said we're gonna move forward, so how can we move forward. So the number one thing we have is, we are a people-first company all the time and we have a people-first lens. When you have a people-first lens, you look at staffing differently, you look at retention differently, because you're trying to keep people there and have them do a great job while they work for you. We know we're kind of a pass-through employer. A very small percentage of our group; we rely on a lot of tenured people; but a very small percentage of our group stay in restaurants. So while they're here, we want them to excel, do well, and grow, and develop, and perform, but you need to be people first to do that. So it's an ongoing thing, this is not new. I don't think that the labour shortage is going to change at all. I don't think it's a matter of those who are unemployed who aren't working. I think the labour shortage John, that we saw that was gonna be predicted in 2010 is now here. The financial crisis in 08 really pinched everybody economically, but the people didn't increase. So now it's finally here. You have to be the employer where people want to work, and if you do that, you can do better. My thing is, if we can do better, we're ahead. I don't think it's something that's solvable. I think it's something you have to work with on an ongoing basis.
John Hollon 09:03
Great guidance, Steve. That is really, really good. One of the things I really love about having you as a guest is that you wear two very different hats, one as Chief People Officer at a regional pizza chain, and another as a member of SHRM's board of directors. Can you talk a little bit about some of the things SHRM has been doing during the pandemic, and now moving ahead to help HR professionals and their organizations get through what's been a really terribly difficult period?
Steve Browne 09:33
Absolutely. I think they stepped up in a big way on the front end of resources, supplies knowledge, reactions, on an ongoing basis. In fact, we took the SHRM poster and that was the first poster we put up, on here's what people should do in regards to behaviour, washing your hands, social distancing, and stuff like that. I think they've, on the tactical side, they've been very good. From their publications, from their blogs, and their ongoing work and research, they're trying to stay ahead of things. It's an ever-moving target, that's the problem. The biggest challenge is the regulation side of things, which is true for all of us. Because none of the regulations are consistent, both at the local level, the state level, and the federal level. So it's very hard for a national or global organization like SHRM to stay on top of it, because things are different in California than they are in Ohio, and they're different in Kansas than they are in Mississippi. But SHRM is an organization that has members all over the world. So they're trying to be at least a guide to resources, they've had some webinars with the head of the CDC to meet members, it's really been very helpful, and they've been very connected in that way. I think they've done a good job.
John Hollon 10:54
Plus, I would think, you know, it's just a challenge that not only do you have 50 states, and then all the local stuff that you have to deal with, but they're constantly changing. I mean, they've been changing, it's like, they move this way, then they move back. You know just today here we heard the Centers for Disease Control is changing the guidance on masks, and my guess is that ripples through organizations and hits one like yours, like a wave, you know, you got to suddenly deal with this.
Steve Browne 11:25
Absolutely, and I think it affects employers of all types. One of the things that's been challenging and why I think SHRM's done a very good job is, a lot of the language out there is still very white-collar based. As you mentioned earlier, our people are in person.
John Hollon 11:42
Steve Browne 11:43
So you say, it's a hybrid schedule. No, it's not. It's an in-person schedule. But a lot of the language in the workplace, in social media, from a lot of places, is white-collar focused. When white-collar is a small percentage of the overall workforce globally, you know, blue-collar employment is the largest sector of employment. So it's just tough, and when you have a ripple like this, it changes. When I heard that announcement. I'm like, Well, here we go. You've just got to jump in again.
John Hollon 12:18
Well, in any you know, you're absolutely right about the fact that so much of the focus has been on remote work or hybrid work, and I get that. There's a lot of large organizations where that's like a big deal. For an organization like yours, I know that your corporate staff can do that somewhat, but for the most part, you guys, you're just out there having to serve people face to face and up close and personal every day. You don't see that much written about that or hear people talking about that much.
Steve Browne 12:53
No, and I'm concerned that they're making decisions, organizations are making decisions on a small set of data. When it comes to that, I think you should absolutely take care of that. If there are opportunities for remote or hybrid or telecommuting, whatever that is, it should work. It was really funny. Somebody said, so what's your work from home policy? And I said, I said, my work from home policy is this: wherever you are working, work. That's it. Just do that. We've made it so cumbersome, instead of saying we have an expectation of what people aren't doing, instead of what people are doing. I would much rather say, wherever you are, perform. We want to make sure we're going to give you all the tools you need and rely on your knowledge and your skills. We don't do that. We tend to say "Well, I know that Steve's not working because he's at home, he's doing laundry." We've got a long way to go to improve the workforce and the culture.
John Hollon 13:52
Steve, what's the biggest challenge you've had to face over the last 18 months or so?
Steve Browne 13:57
The biggest challenge has been mental wellbeing of my people. There's just no doubt about it. Life in all its facets has come to the surface. We've had a lot of loss, nothing really related to the pandemic and the virus thankfully, but people have had, you know, family members who are unemployed, they've lost family members. There's just stress of kids at home, and how do I take care of that and work, because I'm an in-person worker, but my kids aren't allowed to go to school. Just having the juggling and the flexibility to take care of our team members to the best of our ability has by far been the biggest challenge.
John Hollon 14:45
You know, you get the impression at least I do, that notion about wellbeing which you're absolutely right that's become such a huge deal. I know we talked about it, pre-pandemic some, but it really hit home and became a much greater challenge during it when all these things and more how happened. Do you have faith that it's going to continue to be front and center, and that people are going to really focus on it more now as we head out of the pandemic and move ahead?
Steve Browne 15:16
No. And this is why. I think employers are so concerned with visibility and getting people back to work, because the assumption, again, is that you're not working. Instead of saying how can I take care of you best in order for you to work? We need to change our mindset as employers, if we do that, and that goes back to that people-first lens, if we have that people-first lens, then we can move ahead and say, yes, wellbeing matters. Yes, this matters. I'll give you a quick example, we have no set work schedule for anybody in the office, and in the pizzeria. In the pizzeria, you can choose your shifts. If you say, hey, because of my situation, I can only work this much. We say "Great, we'll take you for that much." In the office, my team has all different schedules the four of us, no one works the same, and we get all our work done. But we're a people-first company, so we try to do things a little differently.
John Hollon 16:13
Well, I wish there were a lot of other companies who sort of looked at what you're doing and looked at it closely and said, you know, maybe we could do more of this too. Because, you know, I keep hearing around various places that oh, we can't do this. We can't, we can't do that, and I'm sure there are a lot of things that are harder to do now. But it sounds to me like you've had a pretty good track record, working on through it and I know it's been just, you know, a lot of work and probably stressed you and your team out to you know, because of that.
Steve Browne 16:49
Oh absolutely. My team has been amazing, and agile. We take care of each other. So when I feel the pressure going up, it's like, "Hey, you need to take a break, come on, and off they go." Or "why don't you take a day and let's do it;" again, not formal. We are just very aware of who we are as people, and we try and meet their needs as we can.
John Hollon 17:09
One more brief question on SHRM, how does it look for the national conference coming up? Because everybody's kind of on pins and needles everywhere about conferences in general? When will they come back?
Steve Browne 17:22
I think it's good. The attendance is going up. Now, do I think it would be like the days before the pandemic? I don't. There's some restrictions. Again, the regulations could change tomorrow and what are you going to do then. I think there's also companies who are hesitant to send their people out. I think if you ask the attendees, people want to see each other in person. They understand the technology side, and they are going to have a great virtual platform as well. So that people could do a virtual conference. But to expect somebody to sit at a monitor for three straight days. That's, that's hard. They know when they have work in front of them or when they have other things they could be doing. So I'm not sure how the virtual side will do, but I know that it's a great platform being set up. I'd love to see it be successful. We'll see.
John Hollon 18:15
Well knock on wood. I hope it is because I think things like that being successful are one of the steps for us getting back to normal here. So finally, there's a question we ask everybody who comes on the Talent Experience Podcast, because we wholeheartedly believe everyone should have a job that they are really passionate about, which I know you're passionate about everything. So Steve, what do you love about your job and what you do?
Steve Browne 18:45
This sounds cliché, and I know a lot of people in HR to say this, but I am a people person through and through. I bleed it. I mean, I am with my people, I went to a pizzeria today just to have lunch, just to hang out with the staff. We have a team member who's a dishwasher who has been with us 10 plus years who's going through cancer treatment, I wanted to see just how she was doing and just say hi, and let her know that someone was there who cared for her. I get the chance to really take care of people and HR is the only thing I've ever done, John. So you know, I am the actual people person when I say that, when somebody says they are a people person, I say ahhhh, I'll challenge that.
John Hollon 19:27
Steve, you are a throwback to the HR Directors and Vice Presidents I knew and love from the distant past. Which I thought were gone, but clearly they're not because you're here. So that's all great. Steve, thanks so much for spending time with us today. It's been great to have you with us and to get your perspective on all of these things. We really appreciate you, you being here.
Steve Browne 19:53
Thanks John, I really appreciate the opportunity. It's great to see you again.
John Hollon 19:57
Great to see you too. So for the Talent Experience Podcast, this is John Hollon. Thanks again for listening.