Jane Altobelli, Executive Vice President and Chief People Officer at market research firm IRI, believes that corporate values and company strategy go hand-in-hand. She shares how coaching – and yoga – help her get IRI’s vision into action.
As a one-time college psychology major, Jane Altobelli enjoys observing people’s behaviors in the workplace. But, as an executive vice president, chief people officer and certified life coach who also holds a master’s degree in industrial relations, what she really relishes is helping shape those behaviors to match corporate missions.
“I have a belief that work and, specifically, work results, come from behaviors of people. It sounds pretty general, but that’s the truth,” said Altobelli, executive vice president at IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm. “So, while things like technology, product and strategy are extremely important, ultimately it comes down to the behavior of every person at a company that leads to a successful strategy or a successful implementation of a system.”
But desired behaviors don’t happen by accident. After observing the current culture, leaders who want to change or refine that culture need to implement concrete policies that prove to employees a lofty company vision is more than just words on a pretty poster in the office conference room. Policies around accountability, team behavior, hiring, promotions, incentives and more need to support those words with actions. In one example, IRI launched 360-degree reviews of its top leaders after Andrew Appel joined the company as president and chief executive officer in 2012. In another, the CEO regularly consults with a variety of focus groups within the company to help translate complex business strategies into everyday language that’s accessible to everyone in the organization’s global staff. Those and other changes have led to a more client-focused culture that benefits IRI’s business partners and employees alike.
“We know that because we have had a number of people coming back to the organization to interview with us,” Altobelli said.
These former employees sometimes leave to work for IRI clients including retail powerhouses such as Target and CVS. They return with valuable insights on clients’ perspectives and the cultural and strategic shifts at IRI, Altobelli said.
“We call them boomerangers.”
Growth Delivered, Both Inside and Out
Simply articulated, IRI’s primary strategy is “Growth Delivered.” The company achieves that by providing its clients with research on consumer behavior and other tools to boost sales and profit. Within its own walls, it strives to deliver growth by offering training and incentives that encourage employees to reach their fullest potential.
“So, when you think of growth, yes, predominately, it’s growth for our clients and, in the end, growth for our company as a result,” she said. “But it’s also our people’s growth.”
Altobelli facilitates growth by balancing her personal responsibility as a leader with the ability to trust her employees to do their jobs right.
“At the end of the day, the buck does stop with me, so I do have to understand and review the details because I am accountable,” she said. “But I can’t do their job. I’m not paid to do their job.”
What she is paid to do, in her job at IRI and as an executive and life coach to clients both inside and outside the company, is help people learn from their mistakes and find their own ways around roadblocks to success.
“You know people hate to fail and, clearly, too much failure is self-defeating,” Altobelli said. “But having a few failures as a result of taking risks and going it alone I think is valuable.”
Coaching, Not Telling
Rather than micromanaging, supervisors should clearly define expectations at the beginning of a project and step in when it’s time for detailed post mortems. Although it is sometimes necessary to tell employees exactly what do to and how to do it – which is the traditional approach of some HR professionals who are focused on solving problems fast — helping the staff member come to their own conclusions whenever possible always leads to higher employee engagement and better performance in the long run. And coaching doesn’t always have to take a lot of time.
“Having an open relationship with your boss is key so you can ask what went wrong and why and how it went wrong,” she said. “And having the leader ask the employee their thoughts on that as opposed to telling them. Instead of telling, you’re asking and, so, it’s interactive. You would be surprised at how deep a conversation you can have with an employee in five minutes.”
Altobelli also conserves limited time and resources by helping her staff prioritize projects that need “A plus, plus” effort over those that may only require a passing grade. It’s a difficult message to convey to a group of perfectionists who often want to rework everything until it’s flawless.
“But it’s up to the leader to determine when good is good enough,” she said. “At the end of the day, you are going to drop some balls, so maybe we figure out how to juggle those balls and not throw them a high because the number of balls probably is not going to go away.”
Candid and Compromising
She takes that same balanced approach when it comes to keeping executives, employees, board members, clients and other stakeholders satisfied. It’s important to realize you are never going to make everyone happy all the time. On one hand, individual employees may be more concerned with salary, working conditions and job security than the company’s annual profits. On the other, the CEO always has to have the bottom line in mind. So human resources professionals should choose their battles and aim for realistic solutions that work for as many parties as possible.
“So you have these competing priorities. Who are you advocating for and why?” she said. “I think, at the end of the day, you are always negotiating.”
That approach can be difficult for younger professionals who want to win every battle outright. And, while Altobelli still finds times in her career that call for being outspoken and assertive, she’s also learned that it pays to know when to make some concessions and compromises.
“When you are younger, every single thing becomes a banner for change. That’s just too tiring and it’s not helpful,” she said. “But I would like to say there should never be a time when you are not honest. But candid is different than honest.”
Altobelli’s advice to young HR professionals is to find an environment with strong business strategies where honesty is appreciated and employees are viewed as assets to be carefully cultivated. After eight years, it’s safe to say she’s found that for herself at IRI.
“The CEO has to have an intrinsic belief that people really are the company’s greatest asset and they have to authentically care about developing, growing and retaining their talent,” she said. “But values without strategy are kind of hollow and strategy without values isn’t going to get implemented, so the two go hand in hand. I really think we have the right balance.” ♦
Finding Balance in Your Personal and Professional Life
In her role as a life coach, Jane Altobelli helps clients both inside and outside her company find balance in their personal and professional lives. As a yoga instructor who offers free weekly classes at IRI’s Chicago-area office, she leads coworkers toward balance in the literal sense.
“I love the change that I’m seeing in them. I have people who started with me 18 months ago who had never done yoga before and to see their progress is amazing,” she said.
By being open to new experiences, Altobelli believes her students are increasing their flexibility mentally as well as physically.
“What’s been most heartening and rewarding more than anything is there willingness to show up and be kind of vulnerable in front of the head of HR,” she said.
Altobelli attributes that openness to the fact they don’t see her as an executive vice president and chief people officer once the clock strikes 4:30 on Monday afternoon. Then, she’s Jane the yoga instructor, leading the class and sometimes even physically adjusting people’s bodies into the correct posture.
“I think they are comfortable with it because I’m comfortable with it,” she said.
And, as posters in the office elevator indicate, they are likely more focused and productive thanks to their regular yoga practice.
“It’s a lot of fun and I love it,” Altobelli said of her pro bono role as IRI’s in-house yoga guru. “It’s just been an absolutely wonderful process.”
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