Welcome to our Culture Leader Spotlight Series, where we talk to innovative leaders in HR and People about their work in culture, inclusion and employee experience at large.

We spoke with Jessica Adams, VP of HR at Brad’s Deals, who saw the company go from nine employees to over 90 throughout her time there. Her work has helped the online deals company be recognized as a top workplace for diversity, and achieve 50% women representation across multiple levels of the company. Her experience spearheading people practices at the fast-growing organization gave us invaluable insights on building a scalable culture and still keeping a family feel through impactful strategic initiatives.

Can you tell me a little bit about your role at Brad’s Deals?

So I am lucky enough to be the head of People & HR, which encompasses all the culture, recruiting and performance management, as well as all the other fun activities that go along with Human Resources. We have a small team here.  In addition to my role we have an HR specialist and we currently have an HR intern as well.

Awesome. So part of your role is heavily involved in employee engagement and culture-building?

It is. That is definitely a huge component of it. I think these days with unemployment being so low and everybody looking for the right talent to join your team, you have to have the right culture to, first of all, attract, and second of all, retain the right folks. You need strategies or tactics around employee engagement to make sure that you’re checking in with them too. It sounds obvious, but you have to refine your culture with the team you have already in your office and base priorities of their needs and not just because it’s a best practice. Due to this, it is so important to listen so you can find out what’s going on, good or bad, and address it early or stop it before it happens, whatever it may be.  But you have to be prepared to address or adapt to the feedback. The worst data is data that is not shared.

Right. One thing that we’re always curious about is how do you define company culture?

Yeah. Culture is a funny one. You know I think it really comes from the people that are on your team. You can do a lot of different HR initiatives that can help influence what the culture looks like. How it ultimately will be though, really is a testament to the people that you have on the team and how they live their lives. It’s also important to recognize the vision that they all have for the organization, as well as their core values and the company’s core values, and how closely those are aligned.

And I think the other key piece is making sure that you have strong managers involved to help promote the culture further. A manager is the main reason, if not the number one reason, why somebody stays or leaves with the organization. So having the right leaders and giving them the tools to not only develop leadership skills, but to know themselves, their direct reports and how they work together is key to building that relationship.  Through that trust and transparency, they can really grow their relationship. It so super important to make sure that they step out on the right foot with that reporting relationship and establish open lines of communication from the start.

I’m hesitant to say that you hire for culture because I think it’s all of our differences that make your culture and your product even better, but you want to make sure that you hire people that embody the same values of the company.

Right. I think many times we talk about “hiring for culture” and it’s sort of this blanket statement, without considering the implications of that. But I like how you highlight our differences in establishing a shared vision. How would you say the culture is at Brad’s Deals?

It’s funny, I just had a similar conversation with somebody else on the team on this very topic. When I asked them how they would describe the company, And their answer is similar to how I and others before him have described it, and it’s one of family. So if you had to describe this company in one word I would say, family. That means that we have fun together. That means that we all enjoy coming to work together. That means that we fight but we can have the type of relationship where you can go to battle, if you will, you can then leave the room and still sit next to each other and enjoy lunch or coffee. You can agree to disagree.

I think that also parlays into people’s personal lives – we’re really big on making sure that you have that work-life integration – I don’t like the term work-life balance. It’s not one or the other. You do personal stuff during work and you do work during personal time. It’s how you integrate those two and be successful that counts, and we want to make sure that all of our employees feel like they can get done what they need to in their personal lives as well as in their professional lives because we found that it just makes for a happier employee. This also allows our team members to find time to pursue their passions whether it is playing the guitar, running, knitting or just hanging with their family.  Our team members are more well-rounded and they have different experiences that might help positively impact our product or our culture. And also they just have a great story to tell while we’re all having coffee or a beer.

I really like the fact that you can communicate a similar culture of the company to your peer. I think that speaks volumes to how that vision is communicated across the team. What have you found to be some of the challenges in your role, especially as it relates to employee engagement and culture?

So my answer to this one is communication. I don’t think that it’s necessarily something that we do badly, but I think that you can never communicate enough. So just always remembering that communication can be better and having communication be that challenge is one of those things that’s going to, again, help you be better in that area. Now communication is such a tricky one because people like it in different forms – long, short, in email, face to face, Slack, text message – there’s just so many different ways to communicate and it almost has gotten to the point where it’s, at times, too many channels to check.

To that point, constantly remembering that communication can never be good enough and even if you feel like you have said something ten times, remember that the tenth time you share something, may be the first time that someone is actually hearing it.  There also has to be an element of holding people accountable to find information themselves if they miss a meeting or to ask the question if they don’t understand.

Also as an HR practitioner, it’s that whole issue of asking for feedback anonymously vs. with a name.  It’s important to figure out where you’re going to get the most valuable feedback, as well as be able to make the most relevant action steps as a result of the feedback that you’re getting.  I would just say that’s the trick in trying to figure out what that right balance is for your organization because there are pros and cons to each.

Right. Do you find that the main issue is getting people to provide feedback when it’s not anonymous?

It depends. I think we’re very fortunate in this organization where people have strong relationships with their managers so they’re able to address things that way and if they’re not they’re able to put it out there in the different ways that we collect feedback like through a weekly pulse checks, annual all employee survey or their quarterly reviews. We’ve tested it with names, we’ve tested it confidentially without names, and the feedback is more or less the same in terms of the amount and the content, but it’s hard to compare apples to apples because is it the same people that are there answering or not?

That’s definitely difficult. So what are some of the ways in which you and your team track or measure success within employee engagement? I know you mentioned feedback collection as a way. Is there an engagement survey component of that as well?

Yes. So we do a weekly pulse check that basically just says “how are you feeling about work today”  with five different emojis, frown to smiley face. There’s an opportunity to leave a comment if they would like but it’s not required. We do track and share triumphs with managers of each department so they know how their team is feeling and if they’re seeing people’s feelings about the company go down or go up. It also lets us attribute it to an event. Maybe there was huge deadline, maybe a beloved team member decided to move on and take a different role. Maybe the scores really went up on a week that a  new hires started. Its important to understand how events in your organization can impact these scores to ensure you have the right perspective.

We also do 360-degree feedback for every employee in the company. So we think it’s important that you not only get that top down but that bottom-up, often side to side feedback, so that you can truly develop further in your career. We are now piloting monthly reviews, shorter quick hits that are meant to be part of your one on one. was giving people better more real-time feedback versus things like what we previously had which was a semi-annual review. We also have a relationship with Predictive Index, where we understand behavioral drivers of candidates and then employees once they are hired. We’re then able to get information to help our managers with how they can best coach, mentor and develop these team members. There’s also a learning component around how as a manager, maybe some of your strong suits might become a weakness in this relationship and how you can adapt that to ensure you have a strong relationship with that direct report.

We also do an all-employee survey review annually and have a place throughout the year were you can anonymously provide feedback or ask questions.   If you have any question about Brad’s Deals – any question at all – throw it in there and somebody will address it at the weekly all-team meeting.

Those are all very important initiatives. Shifting gears a bit, I know Brad’s Deals recently won an award for diversity in the workplace. I’m curious to see how some of your diversity and inclusion initiatives that maybe might have contributed to that success.

A big component of that, to me, was recognition through our women tech accelerator. We started that program to really try and help find a direct channel for our employees to be able to give back to the community. So we saw a lot of that happening naturally with some of the dev boot camps that were around the city and we wanted to open that up to people that were in other departments that might want to get those same opportunities to help coach and mentor.

What we found was that not only were we able to provide this experience to help support women entrepreneurs, who need all the support that they can get because they’re few and far between, especially in the city of Chicago, but we also found that we were also able to provide a program that can give real-time and face to face experiences to anyone in the company that was interested in getting opportunities to be coaches, subject matter experts and mentors. It provides leadership exposure and ‘practice’ for anyone that wants more or may not yet have it formally in their current role. It also has been helpful when talking with clients or those that use our service that we really care about giving back. We are actually accepting applications for our fourth cohort this summer, starting in June! So we’re super excited about continuing that initiative and being able to give back with that program.

We are also very flexible about people setting their own schedules or working from home so they can be successful in their personal lives as well as in their professional lives. We’ve got that flexibility about when you start your and when you finish your day, or if you need to take a break during the day. You’ve got to treat people like adults and also make sure that everyone is clear on their goals.  Our big initiative in 2019 is continuing to focus on diversity and inclusion practices and figuring out what that looks like beyond just recruiting. Its more than just having a slate that includes diverse candidates, and posting jobs on platforms that reach diverse candidates. But really making sure that we continue to find ways to help educate and celebrate our differences, as well as provide opportunities to talk about what makes us unique in a safe environment. I’m very very excited about it.

That’s so great. It seems like you had a lot of initiatives in place.

We’re 50 percent women! Which I think is a great is a great statistic, and not only that but our leadership team is 50 percent women. Our management team is 50 percent women. You can never say it’s perfect, but I think we’ve done some great work there. Now we want to continue working on those diversity and inclusion initiatives to continue to help support other people that have diverse backgrounds.

Yeah I think I think that’s absolutely very important. And you were one of the very first employees at Brad’s Deals, right?

Yes, I was lucky enough to be.  Wow. What a journey.

So you’ve really seen the company grow tremendously and I’m sure there are a lot of challenges in managing that growth. Can you talk a little bit about that and your experience?

Yes, I think you hit the nail on the head! You definitely grow and things change and because of that one of guiding principles at Brad’s Deals is to question contrarian thinking. This is most glaringly obvious with every new hire, a fresh pair of eyes that can give feedback and challenge our assumptions, so you need to make sure they feel like they can share those observations. So there certainly have been challenges with growth in terms of people perhaps wanting ‘it’ to go back to the way it was or having trouble delegating because more people came to help with their role. Also, with growth, it takes even more time and energy to make sure that new people feel included and acclimated in the organization, but it is time well spent.

Having a plan for the whole life cycle of an employee has been important for us to ensure that we have strategies to help people throughout their experiences with Brad’s Deals, even with a larger team.  For us, that includes the candidate experience and making sure that it is top notch by being transparent and communicative to candidates. It’s also not skipping the pre-boarding experience and connecting with new hires from their acceptance until they walk in on their first day. This involves reaching out as soon as they accept and before they start. We do this no less than three times before their first day.  We want to try to make you feel as excited and comfortable as possible.

Our onboarding process is pretty robust. Basically the first month you spend in different meetings with different team members where you can get that holistic overview of how the company works and operates. And then after you’ve met with everyone, some of the teams that you work most closely with, you meet with again because the questions you have during week one are going to be very different the second time around now that you’ve been us longer and have additional context from others that you have met with on the team or from their own first hand experience.

New Hires also get check-ins at one week, two weeks, one month, and three months and then again at one year just to say what worked, what didn’t, what questions do you still have, what can we answer for you. We share those results with the hiring manager and use them to help shape our recruiting and career growth process.

We’re also focused on our alumni experience and making sure that the people that have left Brad’s Deals are still celebrated. We just had our first two Brad’s Deals employees get engaged! Neither of them are still with Brad’s Deals but they reached out and sent an engagement picture to the team and with all the alumni. They would never have met if they hadn’t joined Brad’s Deals and they reached out to ensure that this work family could be a part of their celebrations.

That’s one thing we are always reviewing, making sure that we’ve got the right life-cycle experience for the employees.  And if something isn’t working, adapt or change it or move on.

That’s so exciting – I think that really reinforces the idea of family My last question for you is do you have a story or memory that captures the culture at Brad’s Deals?

This is a great question.  Again, I think our culture is really unique and I love that we value being real with each other.  After seeing one of our weekly pulse checks come back not as positive as I would like, I reached out to an employee to check-in.  She confided in me that after a promotion, she really missed the creative aspects of her old role. The timing was perfect! I had been looking to expand our wellness initiatives, and I saw art as a fantastic method to destress.  So, we came up with a plan and tried something new, which entailed purchasing canvases, paints and supplies and held painting workshops in the office. Our creative led the charge, she tried classes at different times & days, with and without wine and beer and in different spots around the office so as to not exclude anyone.  Each meeting had a theme that would evoke different emotions – what would our customers think if they couldn’t find what they wanted on our site? Or what would our customers think if they found a great deal? To even how did you feel on your first day at Brad’s Deals? We saw employees from different departments participating, sharing stories and forming new relationships.  These folks would often stay quite a bit after the painting class ended to hang out with each other and bond over their common experience. Our employees that participated disclosed that they felt less stressed after a session and would often spend time after work continuing to work on and refine their art projects. We allowed our employees to take home their art, but asked for donations to help decorate our office walls.  We were gifted a couple dozen painting and hung them up in themes throughout our offices. Our employees felt immense pride upon seeing their work hung up in the office, so much so that we often find that some employees prefer meetings in certain conference rooms so they can visit their art. And these works of art are individual and unique to the experience at Brad’s Deals. I am very proud to work at a company and with team members that are open to trying something so out of the box.

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