In Cognition: Engage your talent by working with them, not through them

The pandemic has created an opportunity for companies to rethink how they should attract and engage their increasingly disperse and diverse workforce.…

In Cognition

The pandemic has created an opportunity for companies to rethink how they should attract and engage their increasingly disperse and diverse workforce.

In this conversation, Renee Kida, Global Head of HR at GoTo Financial, speaks about how she sees the role of an HR manager, how the pandemic has surfaced individuals’ desire to find purposes and meanings within a company, why effectiveness is more important than efficiency when it comes to engaging your workforce, and what’s the role of middle managers.


How would you describe your role as an HR professional?

Obviously, I’m a people manager because I have an HR team, so I run all parts of HR within the GoTo Financial organization and I’m building and growing that. But HR itself, I don’t think of it as managing people directly. HR is an enablement function. We are the advisors to leaders on ethical, effective people processes and people problems to support business goals. It’s looking at what are the business opportunities and priorities, what are the challenges that they’re facing, and how can they think about that in a complex environment from a people perspective, to make better decisions.


How has the pandemic changed the way you approach these processes and problems?

People are not motivated by money alone at the end of the day. They’re motivated by things like meaning, purpose, and impact quite often. I have had to increasingly work with leaders to think about how they communicate the business goals and needs into a larger vision that is powerful. And it’s not just the numbers and the stock and those sorts of metrics, because not all people are driven by that. In fact, more often than not people are not. Once you cover your basic needs to support yourself and/or your family, you start to look beyond that, as they want to spend their lives and their time on something greater.

So once they get their pay and once they have their benefits and such, people really want more and more value in their daily work and experience. And where you’re going to get your top talent is through your ability to articulate your purpose and meaning as a leader and as a company. The vision is critical and how all the pieces fit together — in a very tactile way so that they can feel it in their work experience.

Things like the pandemic have only heightened that desire. When people are thinking about work-life balance, I actually would boil it down to: people are thinking about meaning. If I’m spending all my time here, what does this mean to me? What does it mean for my family and my health? What does it mean for my choices of how I spend my career? 

I think some companies are thinking of work-life balance as flexible working like we can’t give them too much. We have to think about bandwidth. We have to think about mental health. Those are of course true. But at the same time, is “just giving people less work” necessarily the answer? Some people don’t want less, they just want something different, they want more meaning, they want more purpose. They want to feel involved and feel seen and feel heard and feel like their time matters. 

If you’re not careful, you can oversimplify some of these concepts to be very transactional topics that lose the strategic value you really need to be thinking about. It’s this strategic value that HR leaders should hopefully be provoking and supporting the business to be thinking about. 


Any advice to business leaders on attracting and retaining talent?

There are often questions around, what should they do about people that they don’t trust or are low performers? I actually think that’s a very easy conversation. The harder one for most people or the one that they miss is about the high performers. How do you keep them engaged? How do you connect with them? How do you make sure that you’re keeping your top talent? It’s the same approach, which is connecting with them, carving out time to understand not just what they’re doing, but how they are feeling? Do they need anything? Do they need a coach or a mentor? Is there a class? Are they having things going on in their personal life that they need to carve out time for? What is their challenge? Are they craving for a stretch opportunity? When people talk about communication, in some ways it’s less about talking and more about asking questions and listening, and then figuring out how you, for lack of a better word, operationalize that and create space for it.

I would say it’s not taking care of people. When you think about “taking care of people”, it sounds like it’s volunteerism vs. core business or an overly nice kind of dichotomy, which I don’t think is true.

It’s about engaging your peers. It’s about connecting with your people. It’s about actually growing value. And if you want to have a high-performing culture, it’s critical. You’re not going to get that on autopilot, and you’re not going to get that out of focusing on tasks and operations. You are going to get whatever that person is willing to give. A lot of the knowledge workers have a fair amount of discretionary effort. So it’s up to the leader to figure out how to tap into that and unlock it. If you don’t know the person very well and you haven’t figured out how to engage them and motivate them, you’re only going to get what they, by default, are willing to give, because they are either highly motivated because they’re just that kind of person or they’re moderately motivated. Not to mention there are also different levels of motivation at different stages of their life or situation or context. 

You can have a highly motivated person that actually gets really turned off because they don’t feel like they matter or that they’re not being very engaged by the company. Leaders who want to have the most value for their business actually spend the biggest chunk of their time on their people because they know this to be true.

It’s really the challenge of the middle manager that is swamped with tasks and is trying to get things done. And rightly so, because they’re usually the ones who have to work and get things as an individual contributor while also managing a team. They think of it more in a paradigm of “through” people than “with” people. They get trapped into that sort of thinking of “let’s separate business and get things done, we can have a little chit chat later on.”


How do you scale this high-touch approach towards leadership?

I have a little bit of an aversion to the word efficiency. This is a little bit of a personal pet peeve really. 

I don’t necessarily think efficiency is effective. I’m a much bigger advocate for the word
“Effectiveness.” And so, the question to me is what is the scale that drives effectiveness?. If efficiency is just for efficiency’s sake, just to make it fast, just to get it done, I think we are focusing on the wrong goal. There are times to go fast and quick. But there are times and scenarios when high touch is really the only way to be effective. And we need to create the strategy that makes those calls of when to go fast and when to invest. 

So in terms of how I scale myself, I do one-on-ones for all my directs. Time with my direct team is critical to scale myself, not the other way around. For those leaders that say they don’t have the time, I think there are two ways to think about it. 

First, do they have too many directs? That is an organizational structure issue which might need to be addressed. 

Second, if the number of directs is reasonable, then how are you activating them? Switch the paradigm. Rather than I don’t have time to spend with my team because I am too busy, how do I activate my team to free up time and make us all more effective.


We would like to thank Renee Kida, Global Head of HR at GoTo Financial for her time and insights.

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