Office Snacks: Sarah-Jayne Lehtinen Featured Image

Office Snacks: Sarah-Jayne Lehtinen

Our Office Snacks series is where we have an informal conversation with expert members of our community to delve into their varied buffets of experiences and come away with juicy insights and ideas. 

This time we chatted to Sarah-Jayne Lehtinen—former teacher, project manager and operations specialist. She currently heads up people operations at Prodigy Education, where she leads the development and execution of innovative programs to attract, develop, and retain talent.

Watch/Listen/read to get valuable insights into training and development, employee experience design, data gathering and analysis, remote working, and, of course, office snacks!

Becca Banyard

It’s great to have you here Sarah-Jane. I know you’ve had a diverse career, so could you tell us a little bit about how you got to where you are today? 

Sarah-Jayne Lehtinen

I started out my career in the classroom as an elementary teacher teaching grade five. That was a ton of fun and everything that you can imagine it would be. But, because I’ve been living in the US and Canada, all my credentials are American. So when my husband and I decided to move back to Ontario, which is my home, I had to get my credentials evaluated by OCT.

There was a gap and so I was like “Hmm. Okay. Not a problem. Let me just see what’s out there.” And there was an opportunity at an aerospace engineering company on a one-year mat leave contract and I was like “This is perfect. I can fulfill the contract and then next fall I can be ready and teaching again in the classroom.”

But I fell in love with business, and that contract and one of the things that I had never realized about myself is that I’m very process-oriented. I started identifying all these operational efficiencies even before I knew what Six Sigma and the whole concept of operational efficiencies was. And, eventually, I went to the president and said “We have all these silos, and what we really need to do to bring the team together is merge these areas of the business so that we can come together as a team and really work together well.”

He kind of took that away and thought about it and eventually ended up merging all those areas. And then I got to be the manager of that whole area reporting directly to him. And so I just kind of stepped into it, tried it, gave it a chance, and it was amazing. I got a lot of opportunities to learn.

After that most of my jobs were stepping into something that’s not very well-defined and an opportunity to try something new. I kept stepping into the open doors of like, let’s see where this takes me. When I came back to Ontario, it was the first time where I’m like “I would like to be intentional about my career. I want to find a really great culture. I want a really strong mission and I want something that I’m excited to do every day,” because the aerospace company was exciting, but it didn’t have a great culture.

And for me, Prodigy has been an incredible journey because there’s always a ton of work to do to anybody who’s willing to give it a try, but we have a really great culture.

Engagement is about understanding your people and really knowing what drives them and what gets them excited. That’s where you’re able to tailor the role to the individual. But, when you see something’s misaligned, that’s where you have to train your managers to be able to spot that and to ask the right questions to identify ‘What are the strengths of this individual? What do they do?’

Becca Banyard

That’s such a wonderful journey. What would you say to an HR manager or director who is part of an organization that has a great company culture, but doesn’t have that level of engagement like what you experienced when you were working in aerospace?

Sarah-Jayne Lehtinen

Yeah, it’s about understanding if you have people who are the right fit for the role and if they’re excited to do the work? For me back then it wasn’t that there wasn’t important work to do, it just wasn’t as interesting for me. 

Engagement is about understanding your people and really knowing what drives them and what gets them excited. That’s where you’re able to tailor the role to the individual. But, when you see something’s misaligned, that’s where you have to train your managers, to be able to spot that, to ask the right questions and to identify ‘What are the strengths of this individual? What do they do?’

I know my sweet spot is being thrown into a highly ambiguous, complex problem. Not everybody likes that, some people like structured repetitive tasks where they can focus on improving them. Find those individuals for those roles and that’s really important because there is somebody for everything. It’s just a matter of, do you have the right person?

We’re not scaling back our office space because we firmly believe that people are gonna want to come back in. Even if not at first, over time people are going to slowly find their way back as they feel comfortable doing so.

Becca Banyard

That’s awesome, thanks. So let’s talk just a little bit about a hot topic right now in HR  and that’s remote work. Do you think it’s here to stay? 

Sarah-Jayne Lehtinen

I think, in some form, yes. I think remote work provides such beautiful flexibility where you don’t have to commute and you have a better ability to integrate your personal life with your work life.

And so I think an element of it is absolutely here to stay. But do I think in its entirety or what it is today? No. We are community-oriented people. The challenge has been, how do you help keep that community of people together when you’re not actually together? 

Becca Banyard

Totally. I am definitely one of those people who needs community. I’ve adjusted to remote work but it definitely hasn’t been my preference. What has Prodigy decided in terms of remote work for the future of the county?

Sarah-Jayne Lehtinen

We’re continuing to embrace remote work and we are calling it ‘office optional.’ But we’re not scaling back our office space because we firmly believe that people are gonna want to come back in. Even if not at first, over time people are going to slowly find their way back as they feel comfortable doing so. 

So we’re going to have to work on those hybrid efficiencies of “How do we work together in a hybrid environment?” There’s definitely going to be some growing pains there. We don’t want to just ignore the remote individuals or treat them like second-class citizens. That’s what we do not want.

We’re going to have to do a lot of focus on the hybrid piece, but we are absolutely going to embrace it and keep the option forever.

Becca Banyard

That’s great. I think a lot of companies moving forward are probably going with a hybrid model. I’d love to know your approach to keeping your employees engaged and healthy without the usual community and office interactions during your fully remote period. 

Sarah-Jayne Lehtinen

Yeah, that’s been a fun exercise of really stretching your creativity and innovation. We started with some of the simple things like doing a daily remote challenge. We have a specific Slack channel that everyone can join and we throw it a theme every single day. 

It’s just a question like today it was “What’s your favorite biography?” Last Friday the 13th it was “What’s your favorite horror movie?” Everybody posts either pictures or they take images from the internet, or they just use words to answer the question. 

That’s been a really fun way to see and get to know people in a different way, and we’ve also been much more intentional about coffee time. We have a bot we’ve integrated into Slack and it pairs people up; because that’s what’s missing in the remote world, those water cooler and coffee impromptu conversations. 

And that’s where creativity and innovation can come from a business perspective, but also just building relationships with employees. And so that coffee time has been a great way to spark interactions outside of the people that you work with on a day-to-day basis and that’s been really fantastic. 

Also, at our Oakville office, we have a fitness center and we had an in-house person who did training and ran classes. So when we went remote, she went remote too and it also looked a little bit different. Sometimes it was classes but sometimes, in the afternoon—you’ll see it pop up in everybody’s calendar—it’s a guided stretch break or meditation. 15-30 minutes of just stop. Take a moment, breathe deep. 

It’s really fantastic, and there’s been a lot of ways of bringing people together on the subject of fitness and wellbeing too. 

Additionally, we also purchased memberships for games like Kahoot-type trivia and there are so many creative groups out there running really fantastic events. Last week, my team and I did something called Just Darn Fun event. It was really fast-paced random games like Would You Rather and Two Truths And A Lie, but you’d have to put your finger down if you’ve done this before.

So a lot of different events just to drive getting to know each other and connecting people and just stopping to have fun.

Managers have such a pressure on them, their role has changed so much through COVID and this working environment. So being able to hear what they are hearing, the concerns that are coming from the employees more broadly and across different levels, and then being able to translate that into action planning as an org, is something that we’ve found really helpful.

Becca Banyard

I love that, all sound like really great ideas. I especially love having the personal trainer booked into your calendar. I think that’s such a great idea just for everyone listening. What was the name of the Slack app that you use for coffee time? 

Sarah-Jayne Lehtinen

Donut App, it’s great ‘cause you can drop it into a channel. We dropped it into our manager’s channel so, right off the bat, you know that you have something in common because you’re a people manager. 

We dropped it into coffee time too so anybody can meet anybody from around the company, or you can drop it into your team and department because my department now is 35 people, so it’s hard to make that time.

Becca Banyard

Yeah. That’s a really awesome idea. So with working remotely and trying to balance personal life and work life, what’s something that you think companies should do to help employees not get burned out?

Sarah-Jayne Lehtinen

Well, I think we’re just in a unique situation because, you know, we’ve been in this for 17 months now and there’s a lot of research coming out now showing that morale is dropping, burnouts increasing, and it’s not just because of work it’s because we were thrown into a situation where you might have to deal with childcare, education, isolation, loneliness, there are so many factors. 

Everybody is plagued by something that we weren’t plagued with before, but now we have this on top of everything else. And there’s the global situation that we’re trying to deal with, which is affecting all of us.

So there’s not necessarily one particular solution, but what we’ve definitely been seeing is the importance in just gathering that feedback and leveraging that employee voice, not because we can do everything that they ask for, but we can at least start implementing different flexible solutions and it helps us with prioritization. 

We know how to equip our managers. Managers have such a pressure on them, their role has changed so much through COVID and this new working environment. So being able to hear what they are hearing, the concerns that are coming from the employees more broadly and across different levels, and then being able to translate that into action planning as an org, is something that we’ve found really helpful.

Becca Banyard

And how often do you gather feedback from your employees?

Sarah-Jayne Lehtinen

So we actually just did an experience survey, but it kind of depends on what’s going on. We leverage pulse surveys, we leverage other surveys. Right now is not a typical time as we’re also just about to launch an equity, diversity and inclusion survey, because we’re also working on building that strategy.

And so we’ve been segmenting it into more themes but just trying to find out what’s going on and then knowing where to dig in after that. 

Becca Banyard

That’s great and, still in the theme of burnout and employee happiness, how do you measure whether your employees are happy or not?

Sarah-Jayne Lehtinen

So we use Culture Amp and we use engagement scores and experience drivers. Engagement is made up of a few different key components, but then there’s also the next level of the experience drivers, what are the different factors that are affecting people’s experience?

We found Culture Amp to be a really great tool in helping us to do that in a safe and anonymous way, but then also making sure that we have the dashboards and the reporting so that we can follow up and drive actions because, at the end of the day, if we’re not doing something with this information, why are we even asking it? 

Becca Banyard

Yeah that’s a great point. I just want to kind of switch gears a little bit and talk about management again. You mentioned managers are important, how do you view their role in an organization? 

Sarah-Jayne Lehtinen

Managers have borne a lot of the burden of the change of situations. Before their role was very much strategic vision, providing clarity, aligning the team around a common goal, removing those blockers, providing that performance feedback to individuals, and coaching them on how to continue to improve.

Now there’s also the additional support of what’s going on in their life and trying to find out where an individual is at. It’s not just the struggles with the project but there are the personal struggles.

It might not be that I actually have an obstacle that’s keeping me from driving this project home, but maybe I have that child in the background who isn’t giving me more than 30 minutes of focused work and I can’t do this creative aspect because I need longer periods of deep work. 

And so that’s where managers have really evolved in their role and the role of managers is more critical.

If you can get to know your peers and understand what their strengths are, then you can know who to go to when you need additional support. And this is a program that we rolled out with our executive team first and now we’re rolling it down to our directors.

Becca Banyard

Do you have any manager or leadership training programs to help develop your managers?

Sarah-Jayne Lehtinen

Yes. So we do have a pretty straightforward new manager journey: what does it mean to be a manager at prodigy? What are our key company processes? But also what do we believe is the definition of a good manager? 

And so we have different resources and we walk through different case studies and about the coaching, the empathy, and how to apply it. We’ve also started to focus on what happens after the new manager training, so a leadership development program. 

Essentially this is a program where we cohort managers together and they then talk about how they are applying the materials in their day-to-day. It’s not to reteach the materials, because we understand everybody’s heard it before, but it’s more of like a reminder of the materials, a nudge on the concepts, and then going into what they might be struggling with as a leader in their day-to-day, or what’s coming up for them as we’re going through our key company processes.

For example, if we’re coming up to a performance or compensation review, we ask them what struggles they’re having and how can we use these principles and apply them? What’s worked well, what’s not worked well? We hired an external coaching company to come in and they actually run the sessions for us.

We have sessions twice a month. One is more of a workshop style, the other time is like a coach’s corner style—very much a facilitated session so that they’re also learning to rely on their peers and to leverage their peers, because everybody has different strengths.

If you can get to know your peers and understand what their strengths are, then you can know who to go to when you need additional support. And this is a program that we rolled out with our executive team first and now we’re rolling it down to our directors. 

The goal is that everybody is part of this program from the new manager training, to learn what Prodigy is all about, and then be part of the leadership development program of ongoing peer-developing others and coaching. 

Becca Banyard

That sounds like such an awesome program ‘cause I know a lot of companies don’t have something formal like that set in place. So you mentioned that Prodigy has an idea of what they think a good manager is. Would you mind sharing that with me? 

Sarah-Jayne Lehtinen

A lot of it comes from Google’s Project Oxygen. They came out with 10 different signs that were approved of what it means to be a good manager, and so we walk every manager through Google’s Project Oxygen. Fantastic resource.

Then we walk them through our culture values, and what we also did was identify five core competencies that help align and drive the culture values and how that looks at every level of the org. So what do these core competencies mean for a team member, for a manager, for a director, for a VP, for an executive.

We work through those core competencies because, at the end of the day, that’s a more objective measure for how you are doing and how you are approaching situations. Those competencies support our culture values to make sure they’re at the heart of everything that we do. 

One of the things that I always ask is “Do you need me to supervise, partner or coach?” And my team will come to me and say “I actually really need a supervisor right now, so can you just walk through with me just to make sure I have this?” And it’s like “Yes, absolutely.”

Becca Banyard

Amazing. And in terms of your personal management style, do you have anything that you draw from or anything that you base it on? 

Sarah-Jayne Lehtinen

So my personal style is very much influenced by my love for team sports. And it really is being that coach. A coach cannot step on the field and play on behalf of the player, they need to be able to equip that player so that the player can run and do it and ultimately be successful. And so there’s that focus on the individual and what they need, but then also taking a step back and seeing how the team works together.

I love using team sports analogies in life because it is really applicable to so much. You have to focus on the individual, you have to focus on a particular position or area on the field, and then you also have to look at the team as a whole to make sure that everybody’s performing at their top in every single position.

One of the things that I always ask is “Do you need me to supervise, partner or coach?” And my team will come to me and say “I actually really need a supervisor right now, so can you just walk through with me just to make sure I have this?” And it’s like “Yes, absolutely.” 

And I found that using those words in your regular conversation makes it okay to ask for more help on something and ask for less help on another thing. And that’s been really helpful for me. 

Becca Banyard

I love that. I think that sports analogy is such a great one. A manager not being able to actually play the field, they have to actually step back and coach is a great way of describing it.

Sarah-Jayne Lehtinen

It goes back to my time as an elementary teacher. Success is not me sitting down and doing the homework for the kid, success is me guiding the child until they get to a point where they get it and they can do it themselves. 

We want to teach people to fish, not fish for them. It’s that age-old analogy, but it’s so important and it’s so applicable. Failure is when I have to do it for them. And that’s failure on both sides—it doesn’t help anybody feel good.

You have to provide the right level of support for them, which is where those words “do you need me to supervise, partner or coach?” come into play, but they should be doing it. And then, at the end, we can celebrate together because of what a great job they did. 

Becca Banyard

That’s really great. And I think asking folks those three different questions is such a smart way of doing things because people don’t always need the same level of support in different tasks or different projects.

Sarah-Jayne Lehtinen

Exactly. As an HR person, maybe you’ve done a lot of employee relations so you’re like “I’ve got this,” but then perhaps you’ve never launched a company-wide program, so now it’s like “No, I would love a little bit of extra support.”

Becca Banyard

Definitely. So just switching gears again here, I know that you’re big on using data to inform your strategy. What sort of metrics do you look at? 

Sarah-Jayne Lehtinen

So I look at a lot of metrics. I love analytics and how that’s coming to the forefront now, especially within the field of HR.

So we’ve got individual KPIs and metrics, we’ve got sub-departments—there are multiple functions within my team and each function has its own set of metrics—then there are departmental metrics, and then also organizational health metrics. 

What I spend a lot of my time reporting to the executive team is our organizational health such as ‘how are we growing?’

And when you look at our headcount pacing, that of course leads us then to talk about our hiring. What does the hiring look like? Are we at a healthy rate of attrition? Also, with hiring, looking at the quality, not just the quantity, of the hires ‘cause we can hire everybody on time exactly when people want them but, if they’re not the right hires, they’re just going to turn over and it doesn’t help anybody in the end. 

We also look at tenure not just for the makeup of the current org, but the tenure of the people leaving. Are there indicators there? Do people leave at a certain point in their career at Prodigy and why or why not?

And then the experience survey. So the experience survey covers engagement but also experience drivers, and that’s where we’re able to really take a look at a lot of different pieces of our program, and the overall priorities of what we should be focusing on, based on what’s coming out of that survey.

For example, we can look at the onboarding piece. How was the onboarding? It ties into the experience survey, but it’s slightly different questions for when you’re new because you have a different perspective. So anywhere from a candidate experience, to onboarding experience, to your middle employee journey experience, and then you’ve got your exit experience.

And so our experience survey covers every single point on the employee journey. It has a quantitative and qualitative component and then we look at performance too. 

When we look at performance, we slice it a few different ways. We look at how many high-performers we have, how many are in the middle and what are we doing about that? How do we make sure everybody’s at their best?

But then we also pair that with business outcomes. So, if we look at the performance of a particular team, it doesn’t matter if everybody’s a high performer or not. How is the team doing? Are they getting the business results that we need? Maybe there’s a team dynamic that’s not right, so we need to take a look, and sometimes switching a single person can really drive more of those business outcomes because you have a better team dynamic.

And then, finally, total rewards. We take a look at how we’re positioned in the market and what the competitors are doing. And then we also look at, from a hiring perspective, what are the new asks? What are they making? And, when people are leaving, what are they leaving from? Are they going to make 10,000-20,000 more, or is there another piece of the total rewards that they’re going to after?

When you put all of that together, in addition to where we are in the market and our own structure, we can see our overall general health. 

I feel like introducing the employee journey and the employee experience has been really impactful to change how we look at the typical HR type projects. It’s looking at the employee journey and how a person moves through the life cycle of their journey here at the company, what are the certain experiences that they have along the way, and how can we help those experiences?

Becca Banyard

Sounds like a lot of different data sets. Do you have a preferred method of collecting data or a preferred tool to use to combine all the data?

Sarah-Jayne Lehtinen

So one day I would love to have a single tool, but we don’t because there’s so many good solutions out there. So we have Lever as an ATS, we use Bamboo HR for our HRS. We use Culture Amp for all of our surveys, and then we also use Paycor for all of our OKRs. All of those tools do have a certain level of reporting, some better than the others

But what we’ve also done is we’ve used a BI, a business insights tool, and we built a private warehouse for our data so that we can export that people data into a private warehouse, separate from the company data. Thank you, data engineers!

And then our people analytics person can build a number of custom dashboards based on all of that data. We use Periscope, which I think is now called Sisense, and that’s how we can visualize all of our really cool dashboards. 

Becca Banyard

Can you tell us a little bit more about your approach to making sure employees get the training that they need to help themselves grow professionally and better help the business?

Sarah-Jayne Lehtinen

Yeah, so we have a few different mechanisms. One, we offer a learning fund and that’s a hundred dollars a month for every single employee. No questions asked, spend it on whatever you want that will drive your personal learning goals. 

Those personal learning goals come out of one-on-one conversations with managers, based on current performance, to work out what are your next steps and then how can we support that learning. We have a few different tools internally that we’ve built to help decide what that looks like. Maybe it’s a tech competency, maybe it’s role descriptions. 

We also have a few different growth frameworks internally to help employees understand where they are, where they want to be, and what are the next steps there.

So we have that first, but then we also do training proposals. So there might be something that’s either individualized or maybe for a team, where you can submit a request and we have a special pool of a budget allocated for providing the training.

We’ve brought in specialists to help train our sales department in selling in a new way, and also training our agile team to reinforce our approach on agile. Then we also have the leadership development program where we bring in external consultants and do more just-in-time today-type coaching.

We try to support individuals in a variety of different ways because everybody learns differently.

Becca Banyard

And is there any initiative or change that you’ve ever introduced as an HR professional that you’re super proud about?

Sarah-Jayne Lehtinen

I’ve had the privilege of building the program, I’ve watched multiple iterations, and it’s been fun from the first iteration and then watching my team come in and make it better.

It’s been fantastic, but I feel like introducing the employee journey and the employee experience has been really impactful to change how we look at the typical HR type projects. It’s not just about, as an HR person, you should be doing performance reviews. It’s looking at the employee journey, how a person moves through the life cycle of their journey here at the company, and what are the certain experiences that they have along the way and how can we help those experiences?

There’s a whole process in the design, and with sales and customers, that’s been around for a long time where you map a customer journey. We apply that to mapping how our employees walk through their journey and translate that into an experience program which puts an emphasis on the analytics so that we are making data-influenced decisions on what programs we’re going to drive and why. 

How do we prioritize the work that we want to do? Because, of course, when it comes to serving people, everybody has a different opinion and everybody has an opinion. 

So it’s really hard to make sure that we’re driving the right programs that reinforce the business goals, the culture, and ultimately make it a great place to work. That program has been the one that I’m most proud of ‘cause it has a really big impact and we’re still developing it today. 

Becca Banyard

Amazing. So, Sarah-Jane, we are just coming to the time that we have for today. So I just wanted to ask you one last question that I ask everyone. What is your favorite office snack?

Sarah-Jayne Lehtinen

Oh, Jelly Beans or any sweet treat! We have these dispensers and so the office team will load them up with really fun, sugary candy. And so whether it’s Jelly Beans or jujubes or gummies, grabbing a coffee in the middle of the afternoon with a little sugary sweet treat is by far my favorite.

Becca Banyard

Totally! Well, that is it for today. Thank you so much for spending this last hour chatting with me, it’s been such a joy and I feel like I’ve learned so much. So thank you for giving me a bit of your time today. 

Sarah-Jayne Lehtinen

Thank you for having me, Becca. I had a great time.

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