Rachel Cooke | Lead Above Noise | Modern Mentor Podcast


Katty: Today, I have the pleasure of welcoming Rachel Cooke to our session here today and talking about the employee experience and why it is so impactful for both engagement as well as retention in our companies. Welcome, Rachel. So happy to have you here. I’m excited to talk to you about this incredibly impactful journey that our employees go through and that we go through as business owners and as managers of our teams.

Katty: I had the pleasure of hearing and meeting Rachel at the Association of Talent Development Conference in San Diego. We’ve been talking about having her on here so that we can talk about the WHY of this amazing initiative, as well as the road trip that Rachel refers to when she talks about the employee experience. Why don’t we start there? Let’s talk about this journey, this road trip that we’re on.

Rachel: That’s awesome. You have such a good memory, Katty. I do love a good metaphor when I talk about these things. I use the road trip metaphor, you could pick many, but I think sometimes, something like the employee experience can feel kind of cloudy and ethereal and nobody quite knows how to wrap their hands around it. And so, I like to say that the employee experience is a journey and I think about it as a road trip and it has these three core elements.

To take a successful road trip, you need a destination; you need to understand where you are going, you need a road map; you need some turn-by-turn directions, and then hopefully you’ve got some fuel in the tank, and if you’re lucky, some snacks and a playlist, but something to sort of fuel you or give momentum to your journey. That’s how I like to think about it.

Katty: I love that. Can we start at the beginning of that employee experience? We’re in the recruitment space here at Artisan Creative and I sometimes get the impression that the employee experience for some companies starts after the onboarding. But we see the employee experience, the candidate experience if you will, even before being hired. You know how the interviews are conducted, how they’re being responded to during that whole application process. So maybe it’s the pre-journey of the journey, right, the conversation, and that state. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Rachel: Yeah, I see your pre-candidate experience and I would say it goes back even further than that which is the experience that your existing employees are having within your organization, such that they are going to be ambassadors of and successful recruiters of that talent to whom you want to deliver that amazing candidate experience. I do think it is always ongoing and continuous.

I think fundamentally for me, what stands out about the employee experience and where a lot of well-intentioned companies are getting it wrong, is that I think companies tend to think about the work that we’re doing and then the employee experience,  that we think about later when we have free time. Which spoiler, we never have free time. I believe that a real powerful employee experience fuels rather than follows the work.

I think employee experience is not about free food, foosball tables, and sort of fancy cocktail parties. It begins with how we enable our employees to deliver the work that we have hired them to do.

I think that resonates even in the interview process. Even in the recruitment process, I see organizations posting roles and then running these potential candidates through the wringer with really complex application processes. You’ve got applicant tracking systems, you’ve got recruiters that have this as #17 on the priority list and people are interviewing with 27 different people and then waiting months and months and frankly, in a buyers’ market, which we may not be in right now but we will be in again it’s an off-putting experience for somebody to have.

For me, the fundamental first question is what can we be doing as organizations to streamline and simplify how we are finding, attracting, and recruiting top talent? Where can we strip out some of the noise I can guarantee, there is plenty in there.

Katty: Absolutely. I 100% agree with you. I recorded a mini session on the whole interviewing journey and that’s what I talked about. Sometimes, our intent as a company is to make sure all stakeholders are involved, make sure everybody has a voice, and everybody has had the chance to meet the new candidate, the new prospect if you will. But the implication of that is very different and how it lands on someone could be very different. Sometimes we don’t look at that side of it as to how it is my six-step interview process and assessment reflecting on us as a company.

Rachel: I could not agree more. You might recall that in the presentation I gave at ATD, I talked about these four pillars of the employee experience which are very much about asking the question, what are we as an organization doing to enable our teams to effectively deliver, develop, connect, and thrive?

To me, when we get those things right, we are both fueling work results and outcomes and we are effectively engaging our employees. In that parlance, going back to this recruitment experience, in recruitment engagement, our goal is to find top talent and bring them into the organization, right? What we should be asking in the organization is if we want our existing talent to do our internal recruiters or hiring leaders,  what we need them to deliver in this context is top talent to our organization. We need to be asking questions about what we can do to help them deliver that result more effectively and often it is stripping out extra voices, extra process steps, and extra approvals. It is streamlining the process. It is getting to the heart of the matter. It’s not having 17 different people ask this person the same 25 questions. So on when we’re thinking about it  all of our work, all of the pieces of the employee life cycle through this lens of how to help people deliver, develop, connect, and thrive. That first question is to deliver and so I think in so many recruiting processes we have all of these extra steps and overwrought decision-making processes and approvals, and, you know we have 17 different systems that need to talk to each other.

We have made it so much harder for our internal recruiters to deliver, which means finding the candidate and bringing them in. How do we simplify it? How do we streamline it? How do we empower the right people to get it done quickly and effectively?

Katty: I love that. Can you dive a little bit more into each of those steps and what could a company do as they’re trying to enhance their employee experience, what can they do in the delivery stage, the development stage, the connect stage, and the thrive stage that really would deliver that?

Rachel: When we were at the ATD conference, and we had the good fortune of watching a keynote delivered by Adam Grant, who is a tremendously renowned Organizational Psychologist, Leadership Researcher, and Speaker, something he said that resonated with me was that in the current environment that we’re in, the number one most critical leadership capability he said it’s not a lot of intelligence, it’s not charisma, it’s not vision, it’s not all these things. The number one most critical leadership capability that any leader needs today is agility; the ability to quickly pivot and to see what’s happening at the moment and be able to flex.

That resonated with me because that very much aligns with the way that I think about the employee experience. I think that what’s happening is that organizations are looking for those best practices out there. What are the experts saying we should do around development? What are the experts saying we should be doing to drive connection?

The way that I think about it is the best way to enable your employees to deliver their best results, and their best impact, the best way to get them to develop new skills and to feel invested in and grow and be coached. The best way to help them connect, whether you are hybrid or remote, you know the best way to help them connect, with customer with purposes, and finally, the best ways to help them thrive, which to me is about feeling well and balanced and whole is you’ve got to understand where they are today and where they need to be.

I think where so many people are seeking those external best practices, what they need to be doing is seeking the expertise of their internal experts, which are their teams, and their employees.

When I run an employee experience audit with a company, what I don’t do is come in and tell them what to do. What I do is I come in and help them understand this framework. Why are these the four pillars? And we talk about some data around why delivering, developing, connecting, and thriving are so important. But the expertise that I bring is in the asking and the facilitating and the synthesizing.

So my expertise is not in the ideas or the tactics. My expertise is in framing and asking and soliciting ideas from employees so that I can come back to a leadership team and say, here’s how well your employees are currently able to deliver, develop, connect, and thrive.

Here are some of your blind spots, your opportunity areas. We’re going to assume positive intent, you mean to do well, but here is a place where people are struggling to deliver because they’re struggling to access this system. These types of decisions take too long to make.

Or in the develop bucket, you’ve got a million courses in your learning management system, but nobody can find time to do the learning, or there’s not a culture of coaching. What about upskilling your leaders?

My expertise and the value I bring to an organization is tapping into the wisdom that they are sitting on and they didn’t even realize it. When an organization can open its ears and be agile and say, OK, whatever employees need at the moment, that’s what we’re going to do. That’s where we’re going to leverage that Adam Grant wisdom that’s where I see the employee experience start to shift quickly and meaningfully.

Katty: Love that. And I should have known that because agility is one of our core values. But the word was just out of my mind.

Rachel: You’re doing it so organically, you don’t even think about it.

Katty: There you go. That must be it. But thank you for saying that because you are right. We forget that sometimes those little things may seem little and I will get to it later, but impact what that experience is. Not being able to have your different technology pieces talk to each other and having to do ten steps to do something that would only take two steps in reality and so forth. So I love this notion of every organization has its potential and its opportunity bucket. You go in there and you can find out what that is.

I would imagine part of that whole component of that employee experience also is how much they feel heard and seen and belonging and that whole component of that teamwork plays profoundly around that.

Rachel: Absolutely. I so often go into organizations that have these robust employee engagement surveys that they run once a year and then they get all the data and they spend months crunching and analyzing and slicing and dicing, and from the employee perspective, they’re like we took the survey three months ago, I haven’t heard squat. My voice doesn’t matter and I’m not going to waste my time doing next year’s survey. Whereas with these employee experience pulse checks, I call them, it is fast.

I go in, I run these focus groups and we turn around results within a week and we deliver a set of actions. Recommended, small actions. They don’t need lots of dollars and lots of approvals. Tweaks. It’s a series of experiments. Let’s try making all of our 60-minute meeting default is now 45 minutes versus 60. Or we don’t do meetings on Fridays. Or let’s experiment with instead of me, the leader always running our team meetings, we’re going to take turns running them because people want an opportunity to have that leadership experience.

We look for these small, quick-to-implement experiments that we can run and we run them through the language of employee experience. So we invite employees into these focus groups, we capture their ideas, and we reported out quickly. Then as we start implementing ideas, we say we’re doing this,  “we’re changing our meeting times, we’re changing how we run meetings because of your voice, because of your input, it matters”. Employees feel heard and they feel valued.

One of the conversations I love having is when I run these pulse checks and I sit down with the clients and I report out the results and the client says, “Well, where do we start”? I love to be able to say you already have started.

Just through the action of asking these questions, not in a survey where people are filling out boxes,  it’s very static to solicit action-oriented intelligence. You want to invite people into a dialogue and by inviting them into a dialogue and just letting them ventilate, letting them get their voices heard, letting them say, “Oh my God, thank you for asking. I have spent 27 hours over the past year wrangling this process when it could be so much cleaner, but nobody’s asked.” Just by asking and listening and playing it back to them, you’ve already started the journey. You’ve already given them that space, you’ve invited them in and you’ve heard them. You’re already past the finish line. I find that clients kind of get excited about that. We’re already at step two. That’s fabulous. Let’s keep going.

Katty: Beautiful. There’s so much wisdom in what you’re saying because sometimes just because we’ve done things a certain way all along doesn’t mean there’s not an opportunity to make a change. Hearing that coming from somebody else’s voice is so impactful. Some people see things differently, so why not listen to them?

Rachel: Absolutely. And these are the people executing the processes. These are the people who are engaging with your customers or engaging with your candidates. They’re the ones who see and feel the pain points. So their inputs matter more than anyone’s.

Katty: Exactly. This brings me to the development component of your 4 pillars. You talk often about career development and just that internal mobility and just having this opportunity to have your voice heard and showcase what you’re capable of is a great opportunity to hopefully advance within your team, advance within your company. When it comes to the recruitment phase, bringing it back to that, I often ask our clients, “Have you looked within? Is there anyone on your team that can do this or you can train or is there an opportunity for that before we start looking outside?” That’s the last thing I want is to be looking outside it, then somebody internally not being recognized or at the 11th hour the client said, oh, we found somebody internal. Let’s have that conversation ahead of the game.

Rachel: Absolutely. I’m not a recruitment expert, but I did use to work as an HR business partner and so I partnered with recruitment one of the things that I always found with my business partners is what they would put together, you know a job description or job rack and there would be like 17 required. Do you really like the person who’s going to do this job? If you want to prioritize these 17 required skills and rank them one through 17, can you do that? And they would do that. And I would say, let’s look at numbers 13 through 17, what if somebody didn’t have those? Could they still be successful at that job? And the answer was almost always yes. And then I would say, well, what about numbers 9 through 13?

I think as leaders we tend to write these job descriptions, and like the fantasy person would be amazing at absolutely everything. When the reality is, we need to be more discerning at hiring leaders around what fundamentally does this person need to be able to do on day one? Where can we leverage somebody who may have less, let’s say technical capability, but they’ve been within our organization for three years and they know how things work and they got our culture and they have relationships with our clients. How do we think about weighing the value of those things relative to expertise in the XYZ system? Right, because that stuff is trainable. But this three years’ worth of interior knowledge and understanding of how to get things done, that just takes three years. You can’t quickly onboard somebody to that.

I do love to challenge organizations to think a little bit more differently and openly about what is really required and what is maybe the value of some of your internal candidates that you are taking for granted and where can we start to weigh the value of what somebody internally brings versus somebody external.

Katty: I love that we are so aligned on that. I often talk about what are the must-have skills and what are the nice-to-haves. Nice-to-haves are great to have, but are they a deal breaker? If they’re not, let’s somehow distinguish them on that job description and also the hard skills versus the soft skills; the EQ piece of it is so important. What if somebody had all the technical skills but didn’t have any of the soft skills that you’re looking for? They didn’t have the communication skills, didn’t have the leadership skills, didn’t have a teamwork mindset, like all of those things, are almost even more important because you can teach the technical component if needed.

Rachel: Absolutely and not to mention, and I don’t want to take us too far on a tangent, but there’s a ton of data out there and I’m sure you’ve seen it that shows statistically a woman is much less likely to apply for a job unless she possesses 100% of the skills listed, whereas a man statistically pretty much he just needs three and he’s going to go for it, right? So we are unwittingly limiting our talent pool and frankly limiting our ability to build pipelines of women leaders, which I think a lot of organizations are focusing on right now. The more skills we require, the more heavily we’re going to wait for our applicant pool towards men. This is women, and I think that’s something we just need to be aware of.

Katty: Very valid point. Thank you for bringing that up. Can we talk about “Filtering Out the Ins”? Can you talk a little bit about that and what that was in greater detail?

Rachel: I think that part of what confuses people about the employee experience, like I was saying earlier, I think we can feel kind of like everything, right? What isn’t the employee experience? For me the question to be asking isn’t what is and what isn’t the employee experience.

A better question to ask is where can we have an impact on the employee experience? I talk about filtering out the four Ins and I’ll tell you what they are in just a second. But for me, the four In’s are areas that do touch the employee experience, but they are not where we get the bang for our buck. I’d like to filter them out so that we can focus on where we do get impact. The first one is what I call the intangible and that is your organizational culture. I think of organizational culture like the weather, it’s like the climate, it touches us, it impacts the choices that we make, but it takes many, many actions. Over long stretches of time to shift the weather, shift the climate, shift organizational culture. So it matters, but it’s not where we get impact, so I filter it out.

The second “in” that I filter out is what I call the inaccessible. These are things like your compensation philosophy, the location, or the layout of your physical building. They are things that again impact our employee experience, but they are only informed by decisions made at the very top of your organization, right? Leaders in most organizations are not able to influence your comp philosophy or your physical location. So again, not a lot of bang for your buck when only C-level executives can touch it. So we filter it out, we filter out the intangible and we filter out the inaccessible.

The third that I filter out is what I call the indelible or the unerasable. And these are things that I consider table stakes. Things like having fair market rate compensation, having basic policies that keep people feeling safe, and having an equitable approach to leading your workforce. These are the things that if you get them right, they’re invisible. They’re not winning you in any contest, but if you get them wrong, they’re going to destroy your employee experience. So just get them to baseline and then. Nobody wins the employee experience contest by having fair, inequitable policies. So that’s the third one, the indelible.

Then the 4th one I adorably call incase you have money to burn. And these are what I think of as sexy extras. These are the free food, the foosball tables, and the fancy holiday parties. I call these the sizzle and fizzle. So they’re like a sugar rush to your employee experience. They’re exciting, they’re fun, and then we acclimate. They’re not the things that drive our experience. So when you can filter out the intangible, which is culture, and the inaccessible, which are those things only decided by the top. The indelible, are your hygiene factors or your table stakes, and then in case you have money to burn or your sexy extras, you filter those out, where you’re left is focusing on creating the conditions that allow us to deliver, develop, connect, and thrive. And that’s how I get there. We’ve taken the road trip backward. But I still love it.

Katty: Well you know sometimes when you’re on a road trip you have to make sure that you’re not taking a turn in the wrong direction.

Rachel: We’re checking the rearview.

Katty: We’re making sure that our Google Maps is connected to the satellite still. How’s that for just taking that analogy and just running with it?

Rachel: I love it. I love what you did there. How would you encourage a management team to start looking at this puzzle piece? For some companies, it is a puzzle piece. They may not even know where to start. I would say there’s a macro and a micro. There’s the employee experience from an organizational standpoint. But, also really looking at each team and how that team leads is leading that experience within that. So how would you say for someone who’s never done this before, maybe they don’t even have an onboarding program. This is another conversation for another day, but how would they even begin this process?

Rachel: I believe that the process genuinely begins with education and alignment. I go into several organizations and I’ll talk to a handful of senior leaders, and each one has a completely different definition of what the employee experience is or what matters. So I think if it begins with just bringing a leadership team together, having a conversation, providing an education on why these four pillars, right, What’s the data behind why these are the four that matter and what do they mean, right? What are the things,  when we think about what helps organizations deliver, we think about things like. Do we have the right number of priorities? Do we have alignment? Do we have tools and resources? Do we have obstacles being stripped out? When we think about what helps teams develop, do we have a culture of coaching? Do we know how to give feedback? Do we have on-the-job experience? Do we have peer mentors? So bringing a leadership team together, giving them the language of delivering, developing, connecting, and thriving, and just helping them understand what are some of.

Those bullets are underneath each of these pillars. I think it starts there because you cannot move an employee experience until you begin by just understanding what constitutes it.

 So I always begin there. A lot of my engagements will begin with a keynote or an interactive workshop with the leadership team just to start building that language. From there, I love to encourage a leadership team or senior leaders to just start using that language within the organization because again, you’ve got employees walking around saying well I think the employee experience at Google is better because they do free food. What I think is important is that leadership teams start to talk about the employee experience through the lens of we want to fuel and not follow the real work. So it begins with conversations, from there, I think the next step is just a little bit of observation. Once we start thinking about the employee experience through the lens of deliver, develop, connect, and thrive, it helps us to put on a filter that suddenly now we can start to spot. Oh, you know what? I recognize as a senior leader, I’ve been sitting on this decision for three weeks and I’m now realizing seventeen people in this organization who have not been able to get anything done because I’m sitting with this thing on my desk. It helps us just to start to notice some of these opportunities. I think that that’s really where it begins.

From a macro perspective, I think the executive leader’s job is to have this language, have this awareness, start to talk about it, start to cascade it down to their leaders, and start to infuse it into the organization. I think you’re right, Katty, that there are things that need to happen at the team level as well because a lot of times what’s keeping the marketing team able to deliver is very different from what’s holding back the HR team, the recruiting team, the finance team, and so on. Giving leaders at the function or team level some tools and some skills around what are some questions you can ask your team to solicit their ideas? How can you facilitate candid dialogues such that your employees will not just have the ideas but feel safe? Been offering them speaking up, How can you as a leader at that level start to implement experiments and have a sense to know if it’s working or if it’s not working, what’s working well and how do we continue this?

I also love to talk about starting to infuse practice sharing conversation. So over time bringing leaders of different functions or teams together to share strategies. Oh, I tried this with my team and it worked incredibly well. Maybe you want to try this with your team. So I think it’s a very organic process and this is why I call it a road trip. It’s not a project it doesn’t have you know it’s not a one-month thing. It is a journey, right? It is always kind of ongoing, but you have to have clarity of that North Star and then invite your team to help you inform the road map or build the steps.

Katty: Sometimes it’s not a straight line. There are bumps in the road and there are some curves and so forth.

So a final question. And it’s a big one it has to do with the hybrid workforce and this, you know, that we have to admit, work has changed. My company’s been remote for 12 years, so having a remote workforce is a normal thing. We came together and we built culture, probably in a more focused and intentional culture building because we are remote. But now we’re in the space of people wanting people back in the office and or trying to navigate the whole hybrid space, can we talk about the employee experience as it relates to the remote and or the hybrid workforce?

Rachel: Yeah, absolutely. I mean there is no doubt that things have changed significantly, and I don’t believe anybody has cracked the nut on this yet. I think we’ve learned a lot. I think we still have a lot more to learn. I love to tell people one of the things I like to do in my free time is go hiking, very gently. I like a gentle hike. Sometimes you go to a public park and you will see a sign that says something like a “$500 fine for littering, be warned.” Other times you’ll see a sign that says “Please help keep our parks clean, take your trash out with you”, and at the end of the day those both drive the same behavior in me. Either way, I am going to throw out my trash and not litter, but in that first example, that sort of threat-based example it makes, you know, this makes me wanna revolt. It’s almost like, well, can I sneak a piece of trash in there? Don’t talk to me that way. I’m a grown-up. But when you invite me to be a part of something bigger, you invite me to be one of the many who are keeping this beautiful public space clean. That inspires me and that excites me and I think about that.

The principle is, the way that we are bringing our teams together I think too many organizations in my opinion and my experience are going with the must be in the office three days a week or everyone’s in on Tuesdays and Thursdays, which to me is sort of like that don’t litter or will fine you sign because people resent it, right. When you are threatened and when you are forced, what you are compelled to do, the human reaction, the human gut reaction is “No, no, don’t tell me what to do.” I think companies are without purpose, forcing people to do a thing that is backfiring. I’m not focused on keeping the park clean. I am focused on how angry I am at that sign.

What organizations want to be doing is driving engagement and driving in connection and by forcing people into an office, I think it’s having the opposite effect.

What I’m encouraging leadership teams to do is to be thoughtful about it. Rather than Tuesdays and Thursdays, infuse purpose into those days. How about people come in when we’re bringing customers in? Or people come in when there’s a big brainstorming day. Or people come in when we’re doing a leadership offsite or a learning event, when we infuse a sense of purpose and we’re all together into bringing people physically into an office. I think that that can be so much more powerful. I think forcing people’s hands is not the way to do it.

I just ran a meeting  a couple of weeks ago. It was a 25-person leadership team. 50% of those people were physically together, including me. 50% were remote and I was not granted, I am a facilitator, so this is what I do for a living and I understand not every leader can be so thoughtful, but I was really thoughtful in how I designed that experience such that we made it feel, as much as possible, like everybody had an equivalent experience of that day.

I think the more thoughtful we can be when we’re operating in a hybrid way to make sure that we’re not doing exercises where half the people see things on the wall and half the people don’t. To make sure that we are leveraging that virtual technology, I had people buddy up. So everybody who was participating remotely had a buddy in the room, and that was just their point of contact. And so if somebody participating remotely had an idea but couldn’t raise their hand or couldn’t hear something, they would ping their buddy, and their buddy would ping me. That’s just one tactic but I think about being thoughtful about how we equalize the experience when we are operating remotely and not make people feel like first and second-class citizens based on where they’re participating. These are just some of the things I have started to pick up along the way.

Katty: I appreciate that. I appreciate the buddy system quite a bit because sometimes, you may forget the person who’s on the screen or not, you know. Sometimes they don’t realize they’re on mute and they’re trying to say something and it’s just not working. So we appreciate that buddy system.

So Rachel, as we wrap up, we talked a little bit about your expertise and what you bring to the table, but can you talk about Lead Above Noise, how it came to be, and where you see yourself growing in your practice?

Rachel: I started to Lead Above Noise in 2015, and I named the organization because I had worked for many years as an HR practitioner in big corporate America, and I found that as organizations, we just keep throwing more and more stuff at leaders and it feels like the leader’s job is to somehow juggle more and more. Whereas, I believe that is the crux of being an effective leader and being a successful organization is really about understanding how to filter out all the noise and understand what to focus on and it’s so hard to say no to the things that aren’t going to fuel you forward and yet I think it’s one of the most important things that we can do as leaders.

I really, truly believe that the most successful organizations in the world, I don’t care how good your product or service is, your organization will only ever be as strong as the talent you’ve hired to deliver your products and services. So investing in your talent, understanding their experiences, and developing your leaders, I think is truly the secret to success. That is what we specialize in in Lead Above the Noise, we focus on employee experience. We do keynotes and we run these audits within organizations to help them build these action plans. And then I also run a group coaching program for leaders which is called SIMPLE, which is an acronym that focuses on building what I believe is kind of the six core skills, the six foundational skills. You used the phrase earlier, the must-have and the nice-to-have. I think especially when people are stepping into new leadership roles, they’re trying to boil the ocean, they’re trying to learn everything and I think I run this cohort-based program that helps leaders understand what they need most critically, start by building those skills and get really comfortable, confident, and then they can add other skills over time. So that’s really where I spend my time.


Katty: I love it. There’s a through line in everything that you’ve said, wrapping it up with SIMPLE, pretty much everything you’ve said from when we were talking about the job description. Taking things out of the job descriptions that aren’t necessary, the four INs, you know, the Ins that you were talking about, taking those out of the, filtering them out, and then with the leadership that you just spoke about is, you know, just let’s focus and simplify it. Let’s just really get to the core of what it is that we need to do.

Anyways, there is so much noise around us and so much noise. Hard. But yeah, we’ve got to keep filtering. Yeah. Well, I appreciate your time. Thank you for being here, and thank you for sharing your wisdom with our audience. I loved this conversation.