As any HR leader can tell you, crises are an inevitable part of the job. Tough situations pop up, and often they’re out of our control. How can companies weather a crisis and turn it into an advantage in the long run?
As Chief People Officer of The NSLS, Asia Wellington combines her background in cognitive behavioral therapy and her passion for human-centered business strategy to achieve positive results.
She worked as a social worker before transitioning into human resources in the healthcare and education industries where her talent development initiatives have impacted thousands of employees.
Born and raised in London, England she brings a global perspective to human resources, leadership development, and organizational success.
Hi Asia! Welcome to the series. Can you tell us your “backstory”, what brought you to this specific career path?
I've always been interested in helping people. That's why I started my career in social work. Incidentally, social work taught me how to use cognitive behavioral therapy to create change.
As I worked with clients, I kept seeing patterns and themes around performance struggles and success at work—people trying to make the world better in whatever role they were in.
I wanted to help them, which inspired me to move to human resources, first in the healthcare sector, and now in education at The National Society of Leadership and Success (The NSLS).
But even in my current role as chief people officer, I still approach my job precisely as I did as a social worker. I'm here to help people thrive.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
So my number one goal for 2023 is setting up employees at The NSLS for success. During COVID, our organization led the way in building a supportive and effective remote-first culture.
Internally, we call this The Great Clarification, where we realize the full breadth of what the organization could become.
In 2022, we focused on retention, closing the hiring gap, and building a team aligned with the organization's new goals.
This year, we're implementing a performance management program focused on taking these efforts to the next level: optimizing work processes, keeping people engaged, and ensuring they have everything they need to accomplish professional priorities and business goals. We are ambitious, but we are prioritizing taking care of our people.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I'm lucky to have a great support system around me. My husband is truly my life partner in every way and has been an excellent sounding board for the daily challenges I encounter. He was the one who inspired me to make the career pivot to HR in the first place.
As well as my husband, most of my female friends are executives in their own right; we spend a lot of time informally mentoring each other. Just hearing about the challenges at their organizations inspires me to come up with better ways to handle challenges in my role.
It was my friends who encouraged me to pursue a C-suite position. They encouraged me to dream bigger and helped me figure out how to balance my career with my responsibilities as a daughter, a mom, and a wife. I don't have it all figured out; far from it. However, I have a support network that keeps me pointed in the right direction most of the time.
Fantastic. Thank you for that. Let’s shift to the main focus of our interview about HR strategies for turning a crisis into an opportunity. Can you share your story of when an organization you’ve worked at entered into a crisis? What happened? What did you do?
During COVID and The Great Clarification, we experienced both growth and increasing turnover. This indicated that we needed to dig deeper to discover and rethink who we are as an organization.
We also needed to question our employer value proposition and shape it to address what matters to prospective hires and our people. We've recruited top talent and want to ensure we hold on to that talent to help them continue to be part of our journey.
To do this, we're investing in two key related efforts:
First, we’re prioritizing performance management initiatives.
Second, we're strengthening engagement and retention through ongoing leadership development. This looks like moving from traditional bi-annual reviews to a format with more intentional, informal touchpoints and standardizing our onboarding process.
These interactions enable management and employees to build close rapport and establish a culture of continuous feedback.
By having managers coach and support through a lens of situational leadership, we're creating an environment where there’s a meaningful ability to stay agile and adapt in proactive and responsive ways.
What was your mindset during such a challenging time? Where did you get the drive to keep going when things were so hard?
They say "pressure is a privilege" and "pressure makes diamonds." So, first, I acknowledge the privilege I have as part of the team developing solutions. I then remind myself and my team to view such events as an opportunity to build better. We ground ourselves by remembering who we are serving, what's at stake, and what a true privilege it is to be of service.
Can you please tell us how you were able to overcome such adversity and how the company ultimately turned the crisis into an opportunity or advantage? What did the next chapter look like?
We overcame this adversity by bringing the right people together, being honest about our current situation, and collaboratively ideating on plausible solutions.
We then moved fast in deploying the agreed solutions incrementally. Lastly, we established means of tracking results and positioned the team to be ready to course-correct when needed.
Even though The NSLS has seen tremendous growth during the pandemic, we've had to think strategically due to much change in the higher education industry. However, being able to react in such an agile way has meant that we've had to deviate from and redefine our standard operating processes.
The next chapter is about integrating change management in all our projects and ensuring we use the correct methodology and processes. All too often, projects fail to meet desired goals because we underestimate the importance or significance of the people dimension of that change.
So, any time a significant change or new project is underway, we ensure we've invested the time to think through the people impacts and implications and have adequate remedial strategies in place to ensure success.
All the changes that have occurred in the past few years have helped make our standard operating procedures more agile and flexible, thus enabling our teams to respond to future crises with less friction.
Here is the main question of our interview: Based on your experience, can you share five actionable pieces of advice for HR leaders about how companies can turn a crisis into an opportunity or advantage? (please share a story or example for each.)
Organizational crises typically fall within one or a number of these risk categories: security, reputational, financial, brand, compliance, or health and safety (whether to our people, customers, or the communities in which we operate).
Regardless of the appropriate category, it has a people impact. Therefore, I believe we as HR leaders can and should play a pivotal role in averting the adverse effect of the risk to our organization. My five actionable pieces of advice to my colleagues are the following:
1. Be prepared, step up, and lead
The presence of a crisis often implies operating outside the business-as-usual mode.
This state of uncertainty, when the general question around the leaders' table is "what should we do?" is the perfect opportunity for us as HR leaders to step up, lean in, and take the reins.
Notwithstanding the severity or criticality of the crisis, stepping up and offering leadership builds your confidence as a practitioner and your brand within your leadership team.
2. Don't bury your head in the sand
Most crises invariably have a people impact. In the age of social media, news and views travel fast. It is vital to get out in front of the crisis and control the narrative of events, particularly on how the organization is addressing the situation. Burying heads in the sand and hoping for calmer seas is often a recipe for failure.
3. Assemble the right team
Assembling the right people to huddle and address any organizational crisis is crucial.
As the HR leader, you have first-hand knowledge of the skills, competencies, behavioral traits, and social styles of the leaders and managers in your organization.
You've played the role of a trusted sounding board or even a coach for most of these leaders. You are, therefore, uniquely positioned to pick the right team. Capitalize on this.
4. Find the lemons and make lemonade
As they say, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. In the eye of every storming crisis lies the opportunity to make an impactful change for good. Challenge yourself and your team to find these potential opportunities.
For example, COVID-19 forced many organizations to reimagine how they collaborated as teams. For us, the search for answers has resulted in an improved working environment, which has improved employee morale and loyalty to their employers
5. Communicate with authenticity and empathy
Be intentional, purposeful, and thorough, no matter the size of the crisis. Define the universe of impacted stakeholders, understand what matters to each group, and keep them informed with the right level of detail utilizing the proper channels or modes of communication.
For example, during a product recall crisis, product users will be interested in information that addresses their fears or how the organization plans to make them whole.
Equally, prospective users will indirectly monitor how the organization deals with the situation to determine if they want to do business with the company in the future. At the same time, employees will have concerns about how the crisis impacts their jobs. Current and prospective investors will also be paying attention.
What are a few of the most common mistakes you see leaders make when their company hits a crisis? What should be done to avoid them?
The biggest mistake I've seen is putting significant decisions in the hands of too few people. Suppose you only involve leaders like the CEO and COO.
In that case, details will inevitably get overlooked, both in terms of obstacles you might encounter in a plan of action and other opportunities for growth and success. Bring other stakeholders into the discussions to broaden the view and address every angle.
Another mistake I see organizations make is pretending that what is happening is not happening and believing the situation will dissipate if ignored. Accepting reality is the first step to resolving the crisis. Acknowledge the problem and formulate a response.
What advice would you give to HR leaders and organizations who have yet to hit their first real crisis?
Crises are inevitable. Every organization will have to deal with them at some point. HR leaders can assess their preparedness by simulating scenarios and testing their responses.
For example, a disgruntled employee posts disparaging views about the organization on Twitter and the story goes viral. An inaccurate narrative about the production practices of one of your organization's top products appears to be gaining traction and views on social media.
Proactively work to address the gaps identified as an outcome of the simulation. Another great approach is evaluating your organization's response to situations in the news. Ask your team, "What would we do if this happened to us"?
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
If I could inspire a movement, it would be for everyone to understand the positive impact they can have on the people around them. We each can be mentors or leaders to some degree.
Whether it's someone at a place of worship, a neighbor, or a coworker, it will have an exponential impact if we all reach out and touch someone. Don't miss out on any opportunity to do that.