June 24, 2021

Keeping Employees Front and Center

Why should B2B organizations make employee engagement a high priority? According to Forbes, highly engaged teams are 21% more profitable. Employees that feel supported by their companies stay longer, perform better, and are less likely to get burnt out. They become cheerleaders for your brand, attracting other great talent and generating buzz that is nearly impossible to replicate any other way.

In this episode, CMO Caroline Tien-Spalding of Aptology, CMO Jeff Perkins of ParkMobile, and Tanika Vital-Pringle, the founder of Brand Rebirth, discuss just how to develop employee-first cultures that will be able to withstand tough times, drive empathy, and enable employee loyalty. This profound and practical conversation is undoubtedly a lesson in the power of empathy—don’t miss it!

What You’ll Learn in This Episode

  • The lasting value of an employee-first culture
  • How CMOs can engender brand love
  • How to create inclusive spaces for employees to thrive

Renegade Thinkers Unite, Episode 246 on YouTube

Resources Mentioned

Time-Stamped Highlights

  • [0:00] Cold Open: This is Renegade Thinkers Live!
  • [1:38] How Recruiting and Hiring Practices Are Changing
  • [8:17] How to Establish and Encourage Brand Love Internally
  • [13:52] How ParkMobile Helped Employees Adapt Post-Pandemic
  • [20:14] The Value of a Strong Employee Brand in Tough Times
  • [27:08] On CMO Huddles
  • [28:41] How to Facilitate Mental Health as Leaders
  • [38:11] How CMOs Can Enable DE&I
  • [45:53] Tips for Enabling an Employee-First Culture

Transcript Highlights: Drew Neisser in conversation with Caroline Tien-Spalding, Tanika Vital Pringle, and Jeff Perkins

[0:00] Cold Open: This is Renegade Thinkers Live!

Drew Neisser: Hello, Renegade Thinkers! Welcome to the 246th episode of Renegade Thinkers Unite, where we cover something critical and crucial to the success of any company—B2B or otherwise—and that’s your employees. If you’ve listened to the podcast a few times recently, then you’ll know that this episode was originally recorded live, so the format is a bit different from the usual one-on-one interviews.

Here on this livestreaming show I was joined by CMOs Caroline Tien-Spalding of Aptology and Jeff Perkins of ParkMobile as well as Tanika Vital-Pringle, the founder of Brand Rebirth. The following conversation is filled with both profound insights and real-world examples for business leaders looking to bring the best out of their employees. From how to grow brand evangelists to how to ensure employees feel supported during difficult times, this episode is not to be missed. And as we enter a “sansdemic,” where employees and retention are so important, I know you’ll find this tremendously valuable. I hope you enjoy it!

[1:38] How Recruiting and Hiring Practices Are Changing

“When you have the right employee in the right seat, in 90 plus percent of the cases, your revenue goes up.” —Caroline Tien-Spalding @APTOLOGY1 Share on X

Drew Neisser: I’m your host Drew Neisser, here in my temporary studio in Jupiter, Florida. And as I like to say my podcast, hello Renegade Thinkers! If you’re a fan of my show, you know I preach a lot about the need for CMOs to recognize employees as a primary target audience. In my next book, Chapter 7 is titled “Engage Employees First” and offers numerous examples of how companies like AppsFlyer and ParkMobile are creating an army of advocates who eagerly speak about their employer to just about anyone who will listen. This advocacy not only helps with new customer acquisition but also makes recruiting new employees that much easier.

In a recent interview with Ran Avrahamy, CMO of AppsFlyer, a company that has grown to over 1,000 employees from 12 in 7 years, Ran mentioned that the company has two guiding principles: Does the action generate pride among employees? And is it good for our customers? Interestingly, Ran mentioned that both of these principles helped AppsFlyer navigate through the challenges of the pandemic.

On this show, we’re going to explore three big challenges: How do you recruit the right employees? How do you build a strong employee-first culture? And how do you continue to develop and train your employees?

To address the first question, please welcome Caroline Tien-Spalding, the CMO of Aptology and star of Episode 214 of Renegade Thinkers Unite. Hello, Caroline!

Caroline Tien-Spalding: Hi Drew! Hi, everyone!

Drew Neisser: How are you doing?

Caroline Tien-Spalding: Doing well and about to do better with our two lovely—you know, we call it gin tasting, but I don’t know if you guys have seen the size of tasting we’ve been sent here. This is one. Here’s another. [Shows bottles]

Drew Neisser: I tried to explain to Jeff, you know, you don’t have to drink it all. It’s just a tasting. Somehow or other, this feels appropriate to the topic and I don’t know exactly how, but I know you spend a lot of time at the intersection of technology and HR. So let’s talk about recruitment and how companies are overcoming the challenges of hiring employees right now virtually.

Caroline Tien-Spalding: The vast majority of recruiting right now has at least one if not multiple remote elements to it. And that means technology is now helping with quite a bit of the recruiting process. We see it across the enterprise, but in revenue-generating centers, whether that’s sales and marketing, we see it a lot more. What’s interesting is the tech stack has changed quite a bit on that side, so now you have a vested interest in the business units, the business side of things, to really come together with HR. I think a lot of the silos are breaking down. That’s what’s really interesting about what’s happening right now.

Drew Neisser: As we think about this balance, how do we make sure right now—what role, in fact, do you see the CMO playing in all of this in this bridge between tech and HR and recruiting the right people?

Caroline Tien-Spalding: Yeah, I think there’s definitely an intersection. You have HR that’s really looking at the entire employee population. But a rising concern is even the employee branding. You refer to that in Chapter 7 of your book and the role that marketing plays in conjunction with HR there, but what’s really interesting when you’re looking at the CMOs role is that we, like salespeople, know more about our prospects than we do sometimes our own employees. And that, I think, is fundamentally going to change across the business.

Wanting to really understand your employees and doing so remotely is really rising in importance and that’s because when you have the right employee in the right seat, in 90 plus percent of the cases, your revenue goes up. So there’s a very high incentive to make sure that that happens. People are starting to understand better how, and you have multiple pieces that come into it. HR has done an extremely heavy lift in trying to identify, source the right talent from a very wide pool of talent, and then making sure that they move through and have a good experience all the way past onboarding.

But what you’re getting now is people really paying attention to the people side of things and tying it to objective behaviors. CMOs are primed for that because we understand people, we understand prospects, we want to understand our own, and a lot of us are really revenue-driven. Being able to tie that to objective metrics, I think that’s really what’s happening right now in the space.

Drew Neisser: That’s so interesting. There’s a lot to break down in that. A couple of things I think of. One of the things that you mentioned is CMOs know more about their prospects than they do their employees. I totally agree, it’s one of the reasons why I love when CMOs drive employee surveys as part of it. But I think you also hit on an important reason why a lot of CMOs don’t—they’re getting paid based on driving revenue. If that’s your focus and you don’t think about the role that employees play in driving revenue, you’re not going to spend any time on employee communications.

Anyway, I’m not here to preach. I am here to ask questions. So how do we use technology—maybe I’m here to preach—to get the right people in the right seats? Because that’s part of this, right? It’s not just hiring the right people, but it’s making sure that they’re in the right place. What’s the state of the art with that right now?

Caroline Tien-Spalding: Well, I think it’s going to sound counterintuitive, but you have to start inside. Understanding the people side of things and how it relates to objective metrics, really understanding those two pieces, is the foundation of everything.

Historically, you’ve either known about candidates and their background or people have had their own empirical experience. If you’re an early manager, it’s maybe a handful of people that you know. If you are more seasoned, maybe dozens of people. Later on in your career, it could be maybe up to a few hundred people that you know in your network.

But then trying to understand what about this is really driving revenue is the first piece of the equation. So you’re having more and more companies understand that they have to start looking inside and getting those two pieces to match, and after that, use that as a building block to be able to understand which people fit in what seats from the outside and from the inside.

[8:17] How to Establish and Encourage Brand Love Internally

“What's more important is helping your employees embrace and embody these behaviors and motivate the organization to achieve its goals.” —Tanika Vital-Pringle @Brand_Rebirth Share on X

Drew Neisser: Let’s bring on our next guest, Tanika Vital-Pringle. Tanika and I met when you were at Shell running the Polymer division. I remember we were about ready to have a conversation about that and then you decided to go and pursue your own entrepreneurial dream, founding Brand Rebirth. So, first of all, welcome to the show.

Tanika Vital-Pringle: Thank you. Thank you.

Drew Neisser: Congratulations on getting Brand Rebirth off the ground.

Tanika Vital-Pringle: Thank you. Thank you.

Drew Neisser: And how are things in Houston? I know Texas is really feeling it right now.

Tanika Vital-Pringle: Things are very different right now, but we’re safe. I’m safe. My family’s safe. We have some loss of power issues and things of that nature, but it’s on the mend. It’s on the mend. Thanks for asking.

Drew Neisser: Well, I was talking to a CMO who is based in Austin and they’re saying that they have to pool resources just to get to the grocery store.

Tanika Vital-Pringle: Oh, yes. It’s everywhere.

Drew Neisser: Yeah, I didn’t mean this show to become The Weather Channel, but the fact is, Texas is experiencing something that you really never had,

Tanika Vital-Pringle: And we’re not prepared to have. 15-degree weather, snow. It’s very, very different. I lived on the East Coast, so I’m accustomed to it, but I’m not accustomed to how we are having to respond to it from an infrastructure standpoint.

Drew Neisser: Yeah. It’s so interesting. All right. Well, back to the topic at hand. So congratulations on the launch of Rebirth U, your virtual learning university for brand and professional development. How’s it going?

Tanika Vital-Pringle: It’s going really great. It’s a really exciting time for Rebirth U, because Rebirth U is focused on helping organizations level up their brand know-how and impact through virtual learning options.

I’ve been doing some reading and I was happy to hear this confirmation type of quote from The Stanford Institute International that basically says that 75 percent of long-term job success actually depends on soft skills mastery and not necessarily on the technical skills which represent the 25 percent.

This is why learning programs like Rebirth U, which is a part of Brand Rebirth, is great for marketing teams. It’s a great fit for CMOs when thinking about their teams, D&I programs, corporate training programs, and more.

But what I’d like to say is that when I was in my role as the head of Brand for Shell Polymers, which is a Royal Dutch Shell Company, I had the opportunity of attending Columbia University’s executive education program on brand leadership.

It was great. We covered great topics like employer branding, customer experience, and more. But quite honestly, it was just not priced for everyone. I was fortunate to be able to go and to attend, but not everyone is able to physically do that. So when you can provide options for your employees to level up their branding at a lower cost, it can serve as a win-win for everyone.

Drew Neisser: I totally agree. Any time you can help your employees just expand as humans. I know you know this from how important employees are to the rollout of, say, a new brand or a new positioning—if employees don’t believe in the promise or the articulation of the brand purpose, there’s no way it’s really going to stick.

I’m curious, when you instruct companies on “rebirthing” their brands, how do you make sure they are engaging employees first?

Tanika Vital-Pringle: Well, I definitely am very strong on encouraging companies, large or small, to create brand evangelists and to build the brand from the inside out. Caroline touched on this as well. We tend to focus externally and then think about our employees afterward. But it’s very important to instill principles like brand love—helping individuals to love the brand and helping companies establish things that I call brand roots.

When I refer to brand roots, I’m referring to developing an awareness and strong core values and other things like your purpose statement, your pre-vision statement, or your vision statement. It’s important. And what’s more important is helping your employees embrace and embody these behaviors and motivate the organization to achieve its goals. Rebirth U has a module called Brand Roots where I coach on all of these topics, so that’s what’s really great.

Another thing is that employees need to be empowered with brand education so that they can better assist CMOs, VPs, leaders across different functions. Masterclasses like Brand Authenticity help employees become more authentic. But also what’s most important is that they can take that personal authenticity and imbue it into the organization because authentic brands are more profitable brands.

Drew Neisser: Yeah, I think that’s really interesting. When you’ve done it right, employees not only embrace the brand, but they make it their own and there’s a way for them to do it. I think that’s particularly true for B2B brands.

[13:52] How ParkMobile Helped Employees Adapt Post-Pandemic

“It requires a lot more effort and a lot more consistent communication to really keep the culture where you want it to be.” —@jeffperkins8 @ParkMobile Share on X

Drew Neisser: It’s time to bring on Jeff Perkins, who is a CMO ParkMobile. Jeff joined me Episode 171 of Renegade Thinkers Unite and we spent a lot of time talking about employee engagement. Now, that was pre-pandemic. Jeff and I spoke, and it was called “Unlocking Employee Optimism.”

So, Jeff, the last time we spoke, there was a lockdown pretty much across the country that was creating all sorts of challenges for your business overall and, of course, for your employees. How are things now?

Jeff Perkins: Yeah, we had some dark days early on. In our business, we make money when people park, and if everything’s shut down and no one’s parking, we don’t make any money. It was a very challenging time overall and you’ll have to excuse my dogs in the background—I’m still working from home, obviously, so you’ll hear them from time to time.

It really forced us as a company to get a lot smarter with how we did virtually everything when it came to employee engagement. If everyone’s working from home, everything was shifting online, how do you still keep a vibrant culture? We were all used to being together all the time and doing these team lunches and big events and everything. It was amazing.

In January—right before everything kind of fell apart—we were at State Farm Arena here in Atlanta where the Hawks play for our company kickoff meeting. We did it at State Farm Arena, we had almost 200 employees there, and it was amazing. We did the meeting for a full day and then we went to watch the game at night.

We just did our company kickoff meeting last week on Zoom. It was a very different kind of company kickoff meeting, but what you have to do as a leader is say, “What are the things that we have to take from what was a physical world and then transfer them into the virtual world?

For the company kickoff meeting, for example, we knew we couldn’t get people on Zoom for an entire day. So we said, “Let’s chunk it up into about four hours over two days.” So two hours on Wednesday and two hours on Thursday. We shortened it. We streamlined the content.

How do we make it fun and engaging if we’re not in person? Well, we did things like bringing in—you know Cameo, where you can get the videos made? We had a bunch of Cameos made with all these random celebrities like Bob Saget and Carole Baskin and Tony Hawk wishing well to the ParkMobile team.

If you were sitting there watching the meeting, you’d be like, “Wow, this is really like a cool virtual event.” We had a theme and we didn’t half-ass it. We really treated it like we would have treated the in-person event. We took it very seriously and we really came out of the two days with what we felt was a very successful event overall.

We’ve done other things beyond just the big meeting. We can’t do bring your kids to work day in person anymore, so we do it virtually and we have all the parents bring their kids on to Zoom. We did an arts and crafts contest, and we picked a winner, and the winning arts and crafts participant actually got their design on a ParkMobile shirt.

We’ve just kept the cadence of events going. We now do all-hands meetings every other week. That used to be a once-a-month thing. Now it’s every other week. Our learning was that it just requires a lot more effort and a lot more consistent communication to really keep the culture where you want it to be. You can’t just pretend when you’re in the virtual world that you’re in the real world. You have to really adjust the way you do everything to make it appropriate for a virtual environment.

Drew Neisser: Yeah, and what I love about all of those examples—on our podcast, you were rattling off so many different cool things that you were doing. I loved it. One of the things that I borrowed a lot is your Innovation Days, where you had these teams come together to cook up big ideas in a competitive arena. Were you able to extend those to virtual?

Jeff Perkins: We actually did it last year, but it was right before COVID. Now we have it actually coming up next month. Towards the end of March, we’re going to do our Virtual Innovation Week. It’s five full business days where we give our employees off, so this is going to be an interesting one. But I actually think our team has gotten very good at working remotely. One of the amazing things that happened last year, which we didn’t expect, was that our developers in many ways got just a lot more productive.

What we found is that, actually, engineers always complained about being in the office and as the executive team it was like, “Oh, they’re just how they are. Of course, they want to work in a dark room in their apartment or in their home. But when we actually had to work at home, the engineers proved that they were really good at working from home. They were really good at working remotely.

The things we did as a company last year—we did a data warehouse migration. We did a data center migration from on-premise to the cloud with AWS. Huge, transformative projects that, you know, in a normal time would have been really hard. Now we’re doing them all virtually, but our team just performed at such a high level.

Plus, we pumped out tons of innovation. Our team really proved to us that they’re in many ways probably more productive working from home. And that’s going to influence probably how we restructure when eventually we do open the office back up and we get back to some semblance of normalcy. We’re probably never going to go back to a pure five days a week in the office anymore.

Drew Neisser: It’s fascinating. Part of it, to me, it totally makes sense. You had such a strong employee-first culture to begin with.

[20:14] The Value of a Strong Employee Brand in Tough Times

“You're seeing employees come together in an unprecedented way. The reason that's happened is everything to do with setting a strong foundation of core values that everyone believes and everyone buys into.” —@jeffperkins8 @ParkMobile Share on X 

Drew Neisser: Let’s bring everyone back now. I’m going to ask one other person—hey, Alexa, what is employee marketing?

Alexa: Here’s something I found on the Web. According to CleverReach.com, employee marketing is also always about appreciation, motivation, and employee retention.

Drew Neisser: Well, what do we think of that?

Jeff Perkins: Alexa is always right.

Caroline Tien-Spalding: Limiting. Limiting. There’s so much more to it!

Drew Neisser: Well, then, let’s go there. What did she miss?

Caroline Tien-Spalding: Well, Tanika, I think, really highlighted well that it’s one thing to have mission and vision, but you want to understand behavior, how people are going to carry it out every day. And then Jeff talked about advocacy, so your employee is also becoming an extension of your marketing team. I didn’t hear that in Alexa’s definition.

Tanika Vital-Pringle: The evangelism component.

Caroline Tien-Spalding: Evangelism. Yes.

Tanika Vital-Pringle: The brand evangelism component.

Drew Neisser: Yeah. I’m so with you there. What’s interesting—and if we have any CEOs or senior executives listening in one way or another, one of the questions they’re going to sort of start to think about: “How does this all add up?”

Jeff, you went through a very difficult period of time. I’m curious—I mean, you obviously had productivity. You’ve already spoken to that. But how do you think the strong employee culture and all the nurturing that you had done helped to pay out during a crisis? We don’t ever anticipate having one, but it feels like it must have made a huge difference.

Jeff Perkins: I go back to a lot of what Tanika said in regards to the vision and the core values of your company and making those not just things that you put on a wall, but making them actually part of the culture. We have six core values at ParkMobile. People are hired based on those core values, fired based on those core values, promoted based on those core values. Actually, we just finished up our annual performance reviews and the core values are an important part of how we evaluate employees.

When you have a strong foundation like that and your employees clearly understand what your core values are, essentially what you stand for as a business, it sets you up to succeed even in tough times.

One of our core values is “Support our people, support our community,” and we take that very seriously in our philanthropic work. We take it very seriously if employees are having hard times and we rally around them. We take it seriously as far as we’re an Atlanta-based company, we want to be part of the community here.

When things kind of happened during the summer with George Floyd, you know, the natural tendency of the company was not to not talk about it, but it actually was to come together around it and to look at what are we doing to promote diversity and what are we doing to celebrate our differences.

It wasn’t executives telling people what to do or what to believe. It was employees standing up and saying, “Hey, we need to do something about this. We need to really be the change we want to see in the world.”

That’s been a really high-impact part of our business during COVID where we’ve seen employee activism that has really been incredible. In fact, a lot of our employees right now—for Black History Month, we have activities almost on a weekly basis.

I think they’re doing a watch party right now for Black Panther. Every day there’s a post in the channel about someone from the black community who means something to one of our employees.

I think a lot of what’s happened during COVID is you’re seeing employees come together in an unprecedented way. The reason that’s happened is everything to do with setting a strong foundation of core values that everyone believes and everyone buys into, and we live them in our culture on a daily basis.

Drew Neisser: A lot to unpack there. I want to bring in a question, we have someone from the audience who calls herself a Black Women in Artificial Intelligence and it says, “Do you love your company’s brand? And how do you advocate/evangelize for your brand during difficult times?” Caroline or Tanika, do you want to tackle that one?

Tanika Vital-Pringle: Sure.

Caroline Tien-Spalding: I think Tanika would be great. Yes, I want to hear from you.

Tanika Vital-Pringle: So, do you love your company’s brand during difficult times? Well, you will love your company’s brand if your company’s brand is doing the things that Jeff just mentioned. They are building up that emotional capital and they are living their values. If you’ve joined the company and you’ve embraced their values, that means you bought into the brand and you’re not buying the brand even as an employee. You live that brand, and you are one with that brand.

So, during difficult times, you support the brand because you’re one with the mission, which is what the company does; you support the vision, which is a futuristic view of what the company wants to achieve; and you embrace the guiding principles of the core values. If the company is smart enough to have a purpose and if you’ve embraced the purpose—you know you’re why, your reason for existence, and you’ve bought into that—that is weaved into your work and into your elevator speech. If anyone asks you why you work for that company beyond just needing the paycheck, you have a strong response.

It’s easy to advocate for the brand during difficult times, particularly when there’s political unrest or different things going on in the social, political, and economic landscape. If you work for a company that you support and if you are living and working on purpose, it obviously makes it a lot easier. And if you are just a simple brand advocate, that’s great. But if you become a brand evangelist as an employee, it means you’re telling everyone about the company you work for.

Just like, let’s say, Zappos is a great example. Everyone was excited to work for Zappos. They had a really strong employee culture, and I hope that they still do, despite the death of their CEO. Those are some ways that your brand can survive during difficult times.

[27:08] On CMO Huddles

“There's great value in the CMO Huddle. You become wiser.” —Caroline Tien-Spalding @APTOLOGY1 Share on X

Drew Neisser: What she said! But I want to add a little bit to that. A brand that I love and I’m passionate about, I’m going to tell you a little bit about it—this is a plug for CMO Huddles. It was launched in 2020. CMO Huddles is an invitation-only subscription service that brings together an elite group of CMO to share, care, and dare each other to greatness. One CMO described a huddle as a cross between an expert workshop and a therapy session. Caroline, you are in there, does that sound about right? Is that the experience?

Caroline Tien-Spalding: That’s been my experience as an advisor on CMO Huddles. I think one of the difficulties of the C-Suite is the amount of responsibility that you have towards your employees. There are children out there that know your name that you’ve never met.

With that responsibility, you want to be able to understand where I am steering the ship next and why. So having a group of peers where you can have these discussions, both in terms of the strategy, the implications, and the latest.

We all are trying different things. I think somebody said—and I don’t know who it is—a smart person learns from their mistakes. A wise person learns from other people’s mistakes. There’s great value in the CMO Huddle. You become wiser.

Drew Neisser: I love it. Well, thank you. So anyway, if you’re a B2B CMO that can share, care, and dare with the best of them, visit CMOHuddles.com.

[28:41] How to Facilitate Mental Health as Leaders

“Really understanding how people are different is where it starts.” —Caroline Tien-Spalding @APTOLOGY1 Share on X

Drew Neisser: Let’s get back to the show. We are almost 12 months into the pandemic and a lot of employees are kind of burned out on Zoom calls in general. I know that depression rates are up. They’re skyrocketing. And just the challenges that we have living and working in this thing, I’m wondering what kinds of things do you see companies doing?

Jeff, you’ve already talked a lot about this, but this is a hard mental health time that can’t be really denied. I’m curious—you can’t be “rah-rah!” all the time. What do you guys think of that? How do you balance that need to be sympathetic and keep people off Zoom and still try to build culture or keep culture alive?

Caroline Tien-Spalding: I think you need multiple elements. For one thing, what we’ve seen is we provide companies with help understanding behavior even remotely. So trying to understand your employees individually, I think that was one big lesson from last year as opposed to a more generic, peanut buttered approach.

Are some people more collaborative? How do they approach goals? How do they react to stress? Once you understand these things and how they’re different for each person, then I think a lot of people—I mean, I’ve seen incredible and very creative ways of solving some of these problems. Some people I read were sending DoorDash to the families where at least one person was going to the office to help lighten the load.

At HubSpot, I believe, the CPO had organized a reading hour for children. If you’re a parent, you can have your kid in front of the computer, but they’re entertained for a little bit and you’re not necessarily the entertainment. I thought that was really creative on the parenting side, for example. It’s not ideal. It’s not daycare. But it’s a relief for an hour or entertainers coming through. I think at the core, really understanding how people are different is where it starts. That’s why I really love some of the examples, both from Tanika and Jeff on that.

Drew Neisser: Yeah, I mean, one of the things that I was really impressed when I interviewed Stephanie Buscemi who recently left Salesforce by how much they invested in employee health. And once they were doing that, they realized, “Wait, it’s everybody’s health. Let’s do that.” How does that fit into your world, Tanika?

Tanika Vital-Pringle: Well, I just wanted to add, I think now as a result of the pandemic here in the United States, at least we’ll start transitioning from becoming known as a nation that’s focused on living to work and transitioning to working to live. Because we are workaholics, we’re very productive and successful. But I think because of the pandemic, we all have to stop and think about self-care, mental health, mental survival as well.

As a result of that, I think employer branding should speak to that and maybe partner more so with these employee assistance programs. But definitely a focus on self-care and relating that to helping employees become more authentic, being able to show up as their selves, and not having to code-switch so much when they get to work depending on their ethnicities, their cultures, or just who they are. I think this year is the time to think about that. It is my hope that employers will be able to do that and create the space for their employees to show up as their true, authentic selves.

Jeff Perkins: I’ll add one thing to that. Early on during COVID, one thing we noticed is that nobody was taking a day off which is really hard because everyone’s like, “Well, I’m working from home. I have a lot of flexibility and I can’t go anywhere, so I’m not going to take vacation.” We had to really push employees to take mental health days. Even if they can’t do a vacation just to take some time. Go clean your closets, go read a book. Do something other than work.

Employees kind of were getting into this mindset, “Well, I need to be on all the time.” As a culture, as a company, it’s hard because we have Slack and we have Zoom and you could be in a meeting or Slacking or emailing all day. We really had to force employees to take breaks and tell them, “Hey, there’s nothing punitive. There are no punitive things that are going to happen if you take a couple of days off here or there, take a Friday off, take a Wednesday off.”

We also instituted—and we haven’t been great about it, but I think it’s helped—no meeting days. Every Wednesday should be a no meeting day for my team where we think, we try to get emails answered. It clears out the calendar and we actually block off that day as out of office, so people can’t schedule meetings on that day.

It’s those kinds of things that you wouldn’t have thought about doing probably in the pre-COVID world, but now you really have to be aware that you’re going to burn your employees out if they’re on Zoom calls eight hours a day, ten hours a day, every day, and just answering Slack messages all day. We really try to enforce—it’s not enforcing being in the office, it’s actually enforcing not being in the office and not working.

Drew Neisser: That’s such a good point. By the way, Melissa, our producer, would you know that Renegade needs to do that? We need to have a no meeting day. But there’s also this dynamic that, because we’re home and because we have our home life, we’re working really weird hours, too. Sometimes we’re working all hours.

I think your point, Tanika, is really well taken, but it’s a challenge and part of the challenge is, because we’re not physically together, I suspect that there’s a lot more paranoia that, “Gee, what’s my boss really think?” If you’re communicating via email and Slack, which are very cold mediums, you could very easily misinterpret an email and you could be worried about, “My boss hates me!” kind of thing.

That was part one. And then part two of this thing is CMOs leading by example. So, Jeff or Caroline, how much time have you taken off lately?

Caroline Tien-Spalding: Oh, man, that’s a trick question to be asking me. I actually did take quite a bit of time off last year. My dad was on a ventilator for a while and so my company was very supportive very early on in the pandemic and gave me a lot of time to deal with that and with school closures. As a result, lately, maybe I’m over-indexing a little bit, but I was really given the flexibility when it mattered. I think that’s part of the approach—really catering to each individual need.

Drew Neisser: That’s an amazing story. Is he okay?

Caroline Tien-Spalding: Yeah, so after a week, he got out of the coma and he was one of nine people who made it out of that room. It took him about three months to relearn how to breathe and talk and walk, but I’m very happy that we got to celebrate his birthday the day before Christmas. That was my Christmas present for the year. I’m just super, super lucky that he’s made it out without any consequences after that.

Tanika Vital-Pringle: Wonderful.

Drew Neisser: That’s amazing.

Caroline Tien-Spalding: It’s a focus, right? To your point, we do need to lead by example. And Tanika, I’m sure, launching a new company in the middle of all of this, you’ve probably gone into a little bit of overdrive. But focusing on what matters in terms of behaviors, right? What are the ones that move the needle? I think we need to know that for ourselves and for our employees.

That’s what I really loved about both of your comments earlier on. Focus on the few behaviors that move the needle and catering to what matters to individuals. Maybe more leeway is better for one person and maybe clearer communication, more frequent communication is better for another. I think our relationship to each other is going to change after this. I love that you’re enabling that, Tanika. We really need so much more of that.

Tanika Vital-Pringle: Thank you. Yes.

Drew Neisser: This is the point in the show which seems completely random unless you know me and my obsession with Ben Franklin. But it is the moment when we ask, what would Ben Franklin say?

Here’s what I think you would say: “A right heart exceeds all.” I feel like we’ve been talking about that a lot here. As much as we want to be professionals who need to drive our business forward, we can only do that with the people and we can only get there if our heart is in the right place. So thank you, Ben, for joining us today with that little pearl of wisdom.

[38:11] How CMOs Can Enable DE&I

“Individuals don't feel like they have to code-switch if that person is really open and really inclusive and allows the person to show up.” —Tanika Vital-Pringle @Brand_Rebirth Share on X

Drew Neisser: Now we’re going to take a really extreme pivot from there. I don’t think you can talk about work cultures today without talking about diversity, equity, inclusion, and the changes that companies need to make. Jeff, you spoke about what you needed, what was going on ParkMobile. Tanika, you mentioned code-switching. Let’s talk about what you’re seeing in this area and the leadership that marketers are taking or CMOs are taking in this area.

Tanika Vital-Pringle: Well, it is my hope that CMOs and those in positions of authority will be able to look at contracting and hiring diverse firms. Women-owned firms, firms that have physical disabilities, ethnic diversity. Not necessarily just only focusing on employees. You need to focus on both.

When I was in that position and I had to hire 11 agencies to employ about 50 different individuals to help with the launch of a major brand, I really felt horrible that it was just not set up in the system for me to hire from as many diverse firms I’d like to. Let’s just say that. For various reasons, it takes time.

If you’re in a position to do so, it can definitely help your company show up in a better way, a different way. It can also be encouraging for your internal employees as well. My point is—diversity, yes, internally with your employees—all types of diversity, but definitely when you think about contracting and thinking about different suppliers as well.

Drew Neisser: I’m going to put Caroline and Jeff on the spot. When you think about your employees, is there code-switching going on or can they really be that their real selves?

Caroline Tien-Spalding: I mean, our company is all about that. I don’t know if I would notice, if I would know right away if somebody was code-switching. I mean, people are so good at it, at catering. And especially in marketing, you’re so good at catering to your audience. Or in sales, you’re so good at catering to your audience that it’s not always visible.

Our core mission is really to drive through and really catering to the behaviors in the one that matters to move the needle. When you do that, you open up the talent pool. So it’s really core to what we do to try to align. First, identify what is it that you’re looking for so that you can go look for it based on that and not on everything else that’s used to de-risk.

In large companies, you have agency lists because it’s a way of de-risking the choice that you will make. People go into their networks, not because they were really just only intent on, like, hiring their friends necessarily. I mean, I’m sure a small number of people are, but a lot of people do it unintentionally and it’s because they’re trying to de-risk.

That’s core to what we do and we dog food. It’s about the behaviors that really move the needle, and then you can really open up the world of talent to that contractor or full-time. I love that you highlighted that, Tanika. I think there’s a large shadow of organizations of contractors that probably feel a little bit left behind. A more consistent approach to what works and helping managers who are well-intended but are not executing on the vision and mission of getting the best talent possible right now—I think helping them through that more systematically is going to really move the needle.

Tanika Vital-Pringle: Could I just interject? Because Caroline made a good point. In terms of code-switching—I want to make sure I really answer your question, Drew—when companies, regardless of size, have individuals in positions of leadership that don’t look like the mainstream, that really helps.

For me, for example, I don’t feel like I have to code-switch. I feel like I don’t have to speak in a certain way or act in a certain way because I know that the individual fully accepts me even if the person does not look like me in the position of power. Individuals don’t feel like they have to code-switch if that person is really open and really inclusive and allows the person to show up. That’s why authenticity is so important and that’s why it’s such an issue in most organizations. People generally don’t feel comfortable showing up as themselves if they are in the minority.

Jeff Perkins: I think for us, and we’re a smaller company, so we don’t have some of the challenges large enterprises have with this, but we put a lot of focus on people being their true selves at work and celebrating that. We do a lot of activities around people at lunch-and-learns sharing their hobbies, sharing stories, doing happy hours where people are exposing who they are more than maybe in other organizations. Some are comfortable with it. Some aren’t totally comfortable with it.

But I think, all in all, it’s been a good thing because when we hire people, we want to hire the person and we want real people. We don’t want just nine to fivers who are there to build code and go home at the end of the day. We want people that are part of our tribe. We want people who wear the gear and are proudly wearing our swag. That kind of creates a culture. We’re also in Atlanta, which is a highly diverse city, and we’re very aware of that as a team.

I would even say, we’re not nearly as diverse at the executive level as we should be or we would want to be, but we are very diverse as a company, so it’s all about how do we celebrate that diversity? How do we support our employee base and make sure that everyone feels like ParkMobile is a home for them no matter what race, religion, gender they are.

If that’s how you operate, people see that and they like that and appreciate it. And then they feel they can actually bring their true selves to work because they will be supported.

It’s interesting, we do this thing called a playlist for life. Every month, like ten employees basically build a playlist in Spotify and then we have a lunch and learn and each employee explains why that song is important to them.

It’s probably one of the most emotional things I’ve ever done in an office environment where you get everything from stories about people being bullied growing up to losing a loved one to just like, “This was my wedding song and it’s important to me.”

It really is amazing when you have a culture where people will share things like that and be vulnerable and know that vulnerability won’t be judged, but will be celebrated and will well bring them closer to the community that they’re in.

Drew Neisser: Yeah, what a great share, what a great tip. So glad you shared that story.

[45:53] Tips for Enabling an Employee-First Culture

“Probably the thing that most leaders need to make sure they're doing is empowering their people to really create that culture and stand back and let that culture grow.” —@jeffperkins8 @ParkMobile Share on X

Drew Neisser: As we start to think about the future post-pandemic future, one of the things that’s so interesting to me is, you know, we used to all have backgrounds. Now we don’t. It doesn’t even, whatever, because we don’t want a fake thing. We want people to see where we are. If there’s a kid in the picture, great. “Bring them in. What’s her name?” That, to me, is a wonderful change that has happened. The days of the all-business business leader are over.

I’m wondering, as we start to wrap up the show, what changes that happened during the pandemic that were forced upon us do you see as going to be living with us beyond the pandemic? And what’s going to go back to the way it was, if anything? Nice, easy question— what’s the future, what’s the future? C’mon!

Tanika Vital-Pringle: From an employer branding standpoint, employers will hinge on empathy and actions. I think that’s been the theme that we’re talking about, showing up and see yourself, being authentic, self-care. I don’t think that will die away. And obviously, like Jeff and Caroline, we all know the transition to remote work will continue. There might be a hybrid solution, but definitely, that’s not going away.

Drew Neisser: Yeah. every CMO that I talked to, it’s interesting. They’re having different approaches because, again, it depends on your workforce and your mix. Like developers, they might be happy never coming back to the office. Marketing people, salespeople, they can’t wait to get back. Under 30, they can’t wait to get back. Whereas a lot of CMOs I talk to, they’re fine, not commuting to the office.

Oh, interesting. “I hope that trust increases.” Yeah, I think that’s an interesting point. We just got a comment on the show. I do think you’re right. I hope that trust increases. I think companies have to earn trust and they have to earn trust with employees. That’s really what we’re talking about with all of this, at least on my show, that you earn trust through your actions.

If we focus on employees and we build an employee-first culture, those actions are going to resonate and build trust. You’re right, you have to trust that your employees will do their job. Great, write my script for me! She’s doing amazing.

Last tips. I want each of you to come up with a tip for not just marketers, but leaders out there in terms of building in 2021, post-pandemic, let’s talk about an employee-first culture. Give one tip that you would recommend leaders acknowledge, live by. Go ahead, Jeff, we’ll start with you.

Jeff Perkins: Yeah, I think probably the thing that most leaders need to make sure they’re doing is empowering their people to really create that culture and stand back and let that culture grow.

I think what I’ve seen when leaders try to impose the culture they want on an organization, it usually doesn’t work. But really to have the organization and the employees build the culture from the ground up and to embrace that culture I think is what leaders really need to do going forward.

Drew Neisser: Perfect. And Tanika, your tip.

Tanika Vital-Pringle: I would say having a strong employee brand program. I did this at Shell and I’m helping companies. This can be in a myriad of things.

Jeff, you mentioned a number of things like I love the playlist idea, but the program can consists of fireside chats, it can consists of panel discussions, fun things.

But keeping it going, employee branding is something that is a daily thing, so finding ways for employees to stay authentic and become authentic through having an employer branding program is the way to go.

Drew Neisser: Awesome. Caroline.

Caroline Tien-Spalding: I’ll piggyback on what Tanika said earlier. I think connecting the dots between your mission and vision and the behaviors that are driving business is going to be really critical.

Do you have the tools to be able to identify that and carry it through all throughout? If not, take a look at how you can do that. How can you identify what matters and what moves the needle. And consistently, right? Not just people’s impressions of it. I would say focus on the behaviors that drive really your business, your vision, your mission.

Drew Neisser: I love that. You have to have those things. A lot of companies have pandemic built their digital infrastructure. They took care of some projects. Jeff mentioned those. I think other companies could have used—and there’s still a little bit of time—used that time to rebuild your brand purpose and really take a chance because when you come back, there is an opportunity.

There are so many hugs to be given and they want to hug your brand. If you don’t make it easy to hug your brand, you’re missing a huge opportunity. And hugging your brand is about being about creating a brand that’s empathetic. I’m going to use that word. So, thank you Tanika, Caroline, Jeff, you’re all good sports. And thank you audience for staying with us.

Show Credits

Renegade Thinkers Live is produced by Melissa Caffrey. Our interns are Abby and Charlotte. For show notes and past episodes, please visit renegade.com, home of quite possibly the savviest B2B marketing agency in New York City. I’m your host Drew Neisser and until next time, keep those Renegade Thinking Caps on and strong.