On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, looking back on some life and career lessons I’ll never forget

Originally published in the Globe & Mail September 11th, 2021

I will never forget the beauty of the morning. The sky was clear blue, and the temperature was warm for September. I was one year into my post-university adventure at a Big 5 firm in New York City. On a typical day, I would have put up with the sweltering commute, trudging with hundreds of thousands of others, exiting the subway tunnels through the World Trade Center to get to my desk before 9 a.m. – but something told me to pay the extra fare and treat myself to the luxury of the air-conditioned bus that day, a decision that perhaps saved my life.

At 8:46 a.m., the bus driver asked us to disembark, having not quite yet reached my destination at 1 World Financial Centre: It looked like there was a serious incident at the neighbouring World Trade Center. While I looked up at the smoke and flames, horrified by what I thought was a terrible accident, I was somewhat annoyed that I had to walk an extra couple of blocks to get to my office. The next few minutes changed my life forever – the second plane struck the World Trade Center at 9:03, and I, like so many others, ran. I didn’t know where we were running – I remember feeling intense heat and the sense that we were running away from a colossal fireball. Miraculously, I was able to hail a cab with two other bus passengers – and asked the taxi driver to take us as far away from the scene as possible.

In a world before social media and wifi, television and spotty phones were our only source of information and communication. As the news broadcasts began, my mother reached me on my newly purchased cellphone before the telecom grid went dark. I was fine.

The next few days were filled with angst – as we dialled daily into our company’s disaster recovery hotline, we were acutely aware of who wasn’t on the line. After a few seemingly endless days, all of my immediate colleagues were accounted for. As we know, thousands of others were not as fortunate. The following week would have marked the kickoff to the annual review my team and I usually conducted at Cantor Fitzgerald, one of the companies experiencing the most human loss at the World Trade Center.

After what seemed like months but was likely only a few days, the city rallied. People were kind and compassionate, having experienced collective hardship – and, for many, unthinkable loss. We cautiously started gathering at local establishments, toasting and commemorating first responders, supporting local businesses and celebrating our privilege of life.

On this twentieth anniversary of 9/11, I reflect on some lessons that have guided me through my career journey:

1. You only live once. After going through such a traumatic experience, many of us went through a time of reflection, realizing that life is too short to be in a job or career that does not fulfill us. One of my colleagues left a big corporate gig to become a pastry chef, another an ER doctor, and yet another a teacher out west. It was a time to pause and reflect on the impact we wanted to have and the legacy we wanted to leave, while charting a path that would get us there.

2. Great leadership emerges in times of crisis. As a young leader in a post-9/11 world, I felt incredibly ill-equipped to lead my team through such uncertain and volatile times. I was heavily influenced by my own leaders, who demonstrated a balance of confidence and vulnerability. Only recently did I discover that those individuals did not behave this way by chance – they were following the lead of the senior-most leaders in our firm, who operated with a sense of calm; and, through it all, perspective. Perspective was the key to unlocking swift and rational decision-making that was needed in this very emotional time.

3. True urgency bonds people together. Teams, no matter how well-formed prior to the crisis, emerged stronger post-9/11. We were forced to lean on one another, not only in getting back to business for our clients and firm, but also in support of one another as humans. The number-one priority quickly became the well-being of our teams. Therefore, it was critical to align the team to focus on driving impact, not on logging hours at all costs.

Finally, it was critically important not to lose sight of what mattered – and what needed to continue, not just in the weeks and months following the terrorist attacks, but indefinitely. Sure, in the weeks that followed, we put our most human leadership capabilities to the test – empathy, vulnerability and growth mindset were necessary for our collective survival. But those leaders who continued embracing and developing these skills set themselves apart and enabled healthier, more resilient organizations for the longer haul.

Personally, in retrospect, the experiences on and surrounding 9/11 were likely the most influential of my career: I developed a curiosity about and interest in the “people” side of the business, leading to a career shift from risk management to human capital. I learned the importance of perspective, of focusing on what is in our control (and letting go of what is not), and not to take for granted the people and opportunities that life affords us. Never forget.

Naomi Titleman Colla is founder of Collaborativity Inc., a Toronto-based consultancy focused on driving progressive talent strategy in this new world of work. She is also a co-founder of Future FoHRward, a Josh Bersin Academy partner.

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As the COVID-19 pandemic recedes, here’s how to prep for a hot talent market

Originally published in the Globe & Mail August 2nd, 2021

An impending resignation boom is on the horizon, with everything from “the great resignation” to “the big quit” to the “turnover tsunami” making headlines. Accordingly, companies are bracing for what could be a very active talent market in the coming months. According to a recent study conducted by Microsoft, 41 per cent of workers globally are considering leaving their jobs this year. This is not necessarily surprising given the pandemic-induced volatility over the past year (causing people to want to hold on to any sort of job “security” they have), the collective exhaustion caused by endless online meetings, and the inclination for humans to re-evaluate life goals after experiencing crisis.

Meanwhile, official Statistic Canada’s job figures still show plenty of volatility. Although the 230,700 jobs added last month beat economists’ expectations of 175,000 jobs, and reversed job cut figures from April and May, all the gains were in part-time employment. The number of full-time jobs remained down. With the supply and demand side of the employment equation restless and ready for change, now is a great time to re-evaluate your career aspirations. It might be time to consider entering the gig economy, raising your hand for a stretch assignment or even contemplate a career change.

Whether or not you are considering participating in this global game of career musical chairs, there are a few things you can do to prepare for it:

  1. Practice good resume hygiene: Regardless of whether or not you are pro-actively seeking alternative employment, now is a great time to refresh your resume and online professional profile. This will not only ensure you are ready if that opportunity you can’t resist falls on your lap, but also is a good way to showcase some of the skills and capabilities acquired over the last year – particularly digital literacy and “human” leadership capabilities like growth mindset and empathy.
  2. Reconnect with your network: Lost touch with important professional contacts over the past 18 months? It’s OK – many have been in a blur of “survive mode” and have de-prioritized networking. Given the recent and ongoing reopening across Canada, there is impetus to reconnect with mentors, sponsors and other professional contacts and to make them aware of your short and longer term aspirations.
  3. Anticipate and take advantage of the inevitable change: With the amount of talent movement anticipated, even if you are not planning to change jobs in the near future, there will no doubt be opportunities (e.g., backfills, secondments, stretch assignments, internal gigs / special projects) you can raise your hand for, within your current job or company. Don’t forget – many employers are now offering location flexibility so you can cast a wider net for opportunities both within and outside of your current job, department and geography.

As for organizations and leaders, it is important to note that the upcoming war for talent will likely not be won through money, titles or job security – it’s all about the employee experience. Most organizations are grappling with their approach to hybrid work and work flexibility, though that’s just one piece of the employee experience. Prioritizing the holistic employee experience (EX), which is coined as a term to capture all that employees encounter in their tenure at an organization, not only attracts and retains top talent, but also drives key business outcomes. According to a recent study conducted by Josh Bersin Academy, companies leveraging the right EX practices are 2.2 times more likely to exceed financial targets, 2.4 times more likely to delight customers and 4.3 times more likely to innovate effectively. The top three of fifteen such practices which have a disproportionate impact on business, people and innovation outcomes were found to be:

  1. Fostering a culture of integrity and helping others
  2. Embedding mission and purpose as part of every activity
  3. Inspiring trust in leaders to be ethical and operate with agility.

Ensuring that leaders, and the enterprise as a whole, focus on and internalize these practices helps to build trust in the organization, and thus higher engagement: This is the way to win the war for talent post-pandemic.

Naomi Titleman Colla is founder of Collaborativity Inc., a Toronto-based consultancy focused on driving progressive talent strategy in this new world of work. She is also a co-founder of Future FoHRward, a Josh Bersin Academy partner.

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As employees begin to head back to the office, workplaces can help ensure a thoughtful transition

Originally published in the Globe & Mail July 5th, 2021

As cities around the globe progress through reopening phases, many workers are preparing to transition back to the office after many months of remote work. While some companies are already reopening their offices at varying capacities, many are offering their employees options for how often and how long they might be required to be at the workplace.

In fact, many companies are contemplating a hybrid model (a combination of in-office and work-from-home time) or fully remote model indefinitely, as part of their long-term talent strategy. As leaders and colleagues, it is important that we acknowledge the wide range of emotions that people may experience through this transitional time – from elation to relief to anxiety. These emotions will be triggered for different colleagues at different times and for different reasons. Some may feel uncomfortable getting into an elevator in proximity with others. Some may be eager to socialize and interact with others. Others might be anxious about fitting into their old work clothes, or could be keen to get some space from the roommates they’ve been sharing close quarters with for over a year. Many might experience a combination of all of the above.

The more we can tap into our emotional intelligence – which is the capacity to be aware of, control and express one’s emotions and to manage interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically – the more adept we can be at supporting our colleagues through their own emotional journeys. A few practices to consider:

  1. Name our emotions: If we feel like we are being forced to do something against our will, emotions can quickly take over, impacting our engagement, productivity and overall well-being. Being honest with ourselves about (or even writing down) the emotions we are experiencing, and their real or perceived cause, can help identify what is holding us back and empower us to make decisions more deliberately, responding with our six mental faculties (reason, will, intuition, imagination, perception and memory) instead of reacting with emotion.
  2. Tame our emotions: Getting practical and organized keeps us focused on small steps that are within our control and can help keep our emotions from getting the best of us.

As leaders:

  1. Continue employee listening: A strategy to gather employee sentiment at regular intervals, and quickly take action based on that feedback, will be key to maintaining colleagues’ well-being and engagement, and minimizing business disruption through this transitional period and beyond.
  2. Show vulnerability: As an example, in an e-mail sent to all employees, one of the executives I work with shared some of the things that tripped her up on her first day back in the office (dusty shoulders on suit jackets, misplaced jewellery, “hard pants” and social anxiety). She equated the apprehension to the feeling you get before a high school reunion. Communicating in this honest, relatable way undoubtedly alleviated some of the pressure felt by colleagues contemplating their own re-entry.
  3. Help set priorities: Distractions abound, colleagues will be looking to leaders to help set priorities, including expectations regarding in-office versus remote work. At the onset, managers may need to be more prescriptive while new habits and norms are still forming.

As we have seen through the pandemic, tapping into leadership capabilities such as empathy, vulnerability, growth mindset and emotional intelligence will continue to be critical during this transitional period – and ongoing uncertain times. Continuing to develop and practice these principles under varying conditions will ingrain stronger human leadership in our organizations, better supporting colleagues to thrive.

Naomi Titleman Colla is founder of Collaborativity Inc., a Toronto-based consultancy focused on driving progressive talent strategy in this new world of work. She is also a co-founder of Future FoHRward, a Josh Bersin Academy partner.

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Find a ‘safe brave space’ that will help you flourish post-pandemic

Originally published in the Globe & Mail June 7th, 2021

As the pace of COVID-19 vaccination accelerates and the number of cases decline, many of us are seeing new glimmers of hope. The past 15 months have been a tough slog, personally and professionally – many have been laid off, furloughed, displaced or have opted out of the work force entirely to care for family or to recuperate from burnout.

Even for those whose jobs have not been directly affected, the burden of the pandemic has weighed heavily, In a piece in the New York Times in April, organizational psychologist Adam Grant referred to a collective feeling of “meh” or “languishing … a sense of stagnation and emptiness.”

While the pandemic is not over, as more companies and countries continue to reopen in various phases, it’s a great time to dust ourselves off and think about how we are going to get back in the saddle. As we’ve heard many times throughout the pandemic, the world of work we are returning to will not be what it was; so how can we return to something better – at both a company level, and an individual level? How can we move from languishing to flourishing, feeling more connected to who we are, gaining real clarity on what we want, and being deliberate about how our work will enable it?

The first step in the journey from languishing to flourishing may very well be getting to know ourselves better.

Greg Smith, a partner at management consultant Lighthouse Nine, explores self-discovery through the lens of searching for “safe brave spaces,” as his new book is titled. When we feel safe, we understand, trust and value ourselves; when we feel brave, we discover and activate our courage and voice. The combination of the two empowers us to maximize our own potential and help others to unlock theirs.

To discover our own safe brave spaces, Mr. Smith proposes the following phases:

  1. Knowing: Asking ourselves What are my strengths? What are my values and passions? What is my unique way of working? What are my unique contributions?
  2. Growing: Testing and learning from what we’ve discovered in phase 1 with a few people who will be honest and encouraging, to help move toward “brave” action planning.
  3. Letting go: Acknowledging and unshackling ourselves from the patterns and responses that get in our way (often our inner critic or ego). For example, to free ourselves from the negative narrative in our minds, Mr. Smith suggests tactics such as singing that narrative to the tune of Happy Birthday, to bring consciousness to how silly or unfounded the negative narrative is; another is saying out loud “Thank you, not now” to dismiss the inner critic and own the space.
  4. Showing up: Being true to who we are in order to confidently pursue what we want.

Mr. Smith suggests that starting from their own safe brave spaces, leaders of teams and organizations can begin to cultivate them for others, creating a psychologically safe environment where employees can thrive. He cautions that organizations that lean too safe (without enough “brave”) risk breeding “toxic positivity” where everything on the surface is great, but colleagues are not motivated to challenge the status quo. On the flip side, organizations that are too brave (without enough “safe”) risk becoming overbearing, overlooking the need for empathetic leadership, leaving colleagues feeling unheard and undernurtured. Great leaders recognize the need for both safe and brave and strive to bring them to life through their actions and in the environments they enable.

I encourage us all to think of this time as an opportunity for a reboot, individually and collectively. Self-reflection and being true to who we are can enable us to emerge from the hardships of the pandemic stronger, wiser, and ready to flourish.

Naomi Titleman Colla is founder of Collaborativity Inc., a Toronto-based consultancy focused on driving progressive talent strategy in this new world of work. She is also a co-founder of Future FoHRward, a Josh Bersin Academy partner.

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The hybrid workplace is here to stay – three ways to make the most of it

Originally published in the Globe & Mail May 10, 2021

As more countries and companies start to prepare for a post-pandemic future, there are many questions surrounding what the workplace will look like. With such variability regarding readiness for, and openness to, co-locating with colleagues, there’s no doubt we will need to employ a remote-first and hybrid approach for quite some time – and for many, indefinitely.

The big question is how to enable a hybrid way of working – where workers have the choice to be co-located or remote – that maintains or increases productivity and engagement. As we continue to revise and refine return-to-office plans, we must all keep in mind that flexibility will need to be our mantra. While eyes are on HR departments for a silver-bullet solution, no policies will catch all scenarios. A leadership mindset that embraces the unknown and relinquishes control will be a differentiator in making or breaking organizations.

The good news is that 79 per cent of C-suite executives plan to implement or sustain a hybrid working model post-pandemic, according to a study conducted by WeWork in partnership with independent research firm Workplace Intelligence.

Here are a few principles to consider when implementing a hybrid workplace.

Flexibility is purposely flexible: While it may provide comfort to have set days in the office and rules around working time, employees want control over their schedules and location. Telling people they are allowed to work from home on Fridays and can’t send e-mails after five o’clock simply provides new rules. Instead, consider norms that encourage true flexibility. This way, colleagues – including those who don’t have the luxury of working remotely – can adapt to ways that work for their particular situations. For example, one company I work with encouraged everyone to include the following text above their e-mail signature: While it suits me to send an e-mail now, a response or action is not expected outside of your own flex work hours.

Implement digital-first in a more sustainable way: Once we are able to co-locate safely and comfortably, we will need to make more deliberate decisions about use of space (for what purpose or occasions) and digital tools. This requires a change in mindset and behaviour toward trusting and empowering employees, while leveraging options to keep connected in various scenarios. For example, including Teams or Zoom links in meeting invites or, better yet, replacing low-value meetings with asynchronous collaboration through digital tools.

Design with individual human, not just institutional, concerns in mind: In this month’s Harvard Business Review, Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at London Business School and founder of the Hot Spots Movement consultancy, suggests managers approach hybrid work with the following in mind.

1) Job and task: Consider the corresponding level of energy, focus, co-ordination and co-operation required to drive productivity on both fronts. For example, demands for each can vary significantly between strategic planning (where the primary productivity driver is focus) and team management (whose primary productivity driver is co-ordination).

2) Employee preferences: Factors such as proximity to the office, tenure (and learning curve) in role and extraversion versus introversion contribute to overall productivity. As the article suggests, using a design-thinking approach based on personas, and interplay among them, is critical.

3) Projects and workflows: Consider how technology can be leveraged to better co-ordinate across teams and projects, in absence of co-location. Also take the opportunity to optimize processes that no longer work (or may never have) in a hybrid model.

4) Inclusion and fairness: Remote working has presented an opportunity to level the playing field. Everyone has the same amount of real estate on our Zoom screens, and no one is “in the room” or left out for being the only person to dial in (as opposed to video). However, as we move to a more hybrid model, all eyes will be on leadership buy-in and adoption. The moment it is perceived that flexibility leads to career and opportunity limitations, the model unravels and cultural ramifications ensue.

Each of these presents design considerations for hybrid work along “space” and “time” dimensions. Because organizations are comprised of individuals with diverse needs – who also manage many jobs and tasks concurrently – it’s clear that offering as much choice as possible, with leadership buy-in and adoption as a top priority, is key to optimizing productivity in a hybrid model.

Naomi Titleman Colla is founder of Collaborativity Inc., a Toronto-based consultancy focused on driving progressive talent strategy in this new world of work. She is also a co-founder of Future FoHRward, a Josh Bersin Academy partner.

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On-the-job learning more important than ever

Originally published in the Globe & Mail April 12, 2021

Learning-agile, continuous learning, lifelong learning – however you want to frame it, professional learning has evolved significantly over the past two decades. We’ve gone from organizations telling employees what training courses are required for their job, to encouraging employees to take accountability for their own learning journey and career. Long gone are the days when employees went offsite to participate in days-long training sessions, returning a week later and considered “trained.” Particularly over the past year, we have all been forced to be creative in our learning approach: both from an organizational and from an individual perspective. This is in part because skills and business needs continue to change so rapidly, and in part because an abruptly forced digital and remote work force has made some of our go-to learning methods obsolete (at least for now).

In a recent Future FoHRward workshop with Canadian senior human resources executives, it was found that some of the biggest obstacles to enabling a learning culture were the lack of agility and effectiveness of traditional programs, an overwhelming amount of content and the leadership mindset. In order to address these challenges, the following three aspects of learning should be considered – as individuals, as leaders and at an enterprise level:

BROADENED DEFINITION OF LEARNING Like Simon Brown, chief learning officer at Novartis was quoted as saying, continuous learning organizations are “blurring the boundaries between what is learning and what is work and creating the environment, whether that is cultural environment, technological environment, mindset, so that people are actually constantly learning and that the work becomes learning.” Progressive organizations are launching initiatives such as internal “gigs” (short-term projects) designed not just to cover capacity gaps, but also primarily for employee development – learning becomes the work and work becomes the learning. Other learning initiatives, including mentoring and digital skills adoption, are being taken to the next level, with the power of technology. For example, companies such as Together are helping organizations advance their mentoring programs through automation. Companies including Lemonade help make learning more engaging through gamification. Knowledge management and sharing is also an important component of learning – for example, many companies are encouraging sharing of user-generated videos and other content to bring colleagues up to speed more quickly and efficiently.

LEARNING IN THE FLOW In many organizations, there is no shortage of great learning content – the challenge is in deploying the content in ways in which employees want to consume it (that is, not by sifting through learning management system course catalogues). Learning in the flow requires that job-relevant content is served up at the time of user need. It seems impossible that until about a decade ago, we were able to get anything done without Google, YouTube and TikTok. And what would Netflix be without its automated recommendations (in addition to those suggested by our human trusted contacts)? Similarly, in a professional context, the power of technology enables an adaptive and curated learning journey, meeting employees where they are. The key word here is curated – self-directed learning has been a big trend over the past few years; however, drawing a parallel to the Netflix example, without leadership guidance and prioritization, ideally coupled with intelligent tools to create personalized experiences or “learner journeys,” we end up with an overwhelming amount of undoubtedly great content without context – leading to lower uptake.

LEADERSHIP MINDSET AND SUPPORT When times get busy, learning is the first thing to drop from our to-do lists – which is ironic since, according to an article in the MIT Sloan Management Review, it can be one of the most important ways to advance the chief executive officer’s agenda, by intervening in the places that matter most. In order to enable a learning agile organization, employees need to trust that learning is a priority. Leaders can enable this by:

  • Articulating a focused set of business priorities requiring skill development.
  • Protecting teams’ learning time, like they would other high-priority commitments.
  • Supporting to-learn lists, in addition to to-do lists.
  • Mandating time to learn, synchronously as a team (for example, lunch and learns) and asynchronously, based on how and when individuals learn best.
  • Having regular and open conversations about development plans, focused on current job, as well as career aspirations.
  • Encouraging on-the-job development, including “gigs” within other departments.
  • Treating all work activities as learning moments, and coaching employees to view them as such.

In this rapidly changing business landscape, learning is not a nice-to-have, but a critical part of business execution. Enabling the right mindset and ensuring employees are given, and take advantage of, the space to learn (not necessarily more, but better) is essential to build the agility we need for our organizations to survive.

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Fear not, young leaders – tumultuous times build skills for life

Originally published in the Globe & Mail March 15, 2021

No leadership case studies or textbooks could have prepared young leaders for 2020: They have been thrown into the deep end and have been asked to navigate uncharted waters, blindfolded and handcuffed, without a manual.

But these challenging times also provide an opportunity to find one’s authentic leadership voice. While doing so may feel painful in the moment, it is invaluable in these times and for the rest of your career.

On my first anniversary in the working world, I was in New York and leading my first team when terrorists flew two planes into my office’s neighboring buildings, changing the world forever. The devastation and emotional trauma caused by the acts of Sept. 11, 2001, were seemingly insurmountable. And as a young leader, I felt incredibly ill-equipped to lead my team through such uncertain and volatile times.

Thankfully, I was under the wings of some incredible role models who demonstrated a balance of confidence and vulnerability – and I knew they had my back. I took their cues and through the hardest of days knew it was my duty to lead, despite my lack of experience in doing so. By the time we finally returned to our offices nine months later, my fellow young leaders and I resurfaced with a renewed sense of gratitude and resilience, having navigated very troubled waters.

Drawing a parallel to the present day, as difficult as it may be to get your footing as a young leader in pandemic times, we have the choice to blame circumstance for stunting our growth as leaders, or we can focus on what is in our control and embrace the opportunity afforded by the tumult.

As Chuck Saia, a senior partner at Deloitte, explores in his new book You Got This, Kid, we have a lot to learn from the animal world when it comes to leadership. Here are a few simple tips as you embark on your leadership journey:

Be the mandarin duck: Protect what makes you special: In 2018, a beautiful mandarin duck, typically not found outside of Asia, appeared in New York’s Central Park. The duck became quite the celebrity for his uniqueness and was the subject of many blog posts and news stories. But then one year later, he disappeared – no one knows why. Perhaps he tired of the attention, realizing that what made him uncompromisingly different was not a fit for the urban oasis of Central Park. Don’t compromise what makes you special as a leader: Seek out environments that will best leverage and nurture your unique attributes, as opposed to those that force you to conform.

Be the butterfly: Embrace a growth mindset and evolve: Only 10 per cent of caterpillar eggs make it through metamorphosis to the butterfly stage – with the ultimate reward of flight. At certain points in your leadership journey, it may feel as though your growth is stunted – but be patient. Like the chrysalis stage of metamorphosis, there is a lot of development “on the inside,” not apparent to outsiders, and not measured by promotion and accolades. Be open to opportunities – even the ones that appear not to contribute to your longer-term plan. A lattice (versus ladder) career path broadens leadership capability and allows you to build skills and relationships that become invaluable in the long run.

Be the armadillo: Develop a thick skin and a soft heart: Armadillos are the only living mammals with a hard shell. An attack too early in a young armadillo’s life is perilous, as the animal’s armor is not yet thick enough to protect its soft underbelly. As you develop as a young leader, many people will offer (sometimes unsolicited) opinions. It is important to quickly decipher and triage helpful constructive feedback from unproductive attacks. Balancing vulnerability and confidence is critical so that you can learn and grow, while focusing on what matters most for your own development as a leader.

Most of all, be human. If nothing else, this pandemic has taught us to be empathetic leaders, something which should not be taken for granted. We have been humbled by the amount of uncertainty we have had to navigate over the past year – even the most senior leaders do not have all of the answers. While some leadership rites of passage have been victims of the pandemic, a generation of leaders is currently experiencing the leadership training of a lifetime. Not only are they learning to lead with with curiosity and empathy – they will also set the foundation for more human leaders that genuinely care about their teams’ well-being and success in the future.

Naomi Titleman Colla is founder of Collaborativity Inc., a Toronto-based consultancy focused on driving progressive talent strategy in this new world of work. She is also a co-founder of Future FoHRward, a Josh Bersin Academy partner.

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Optimizing the next-gen employee experience via smarter online tools is the future of the hybrid workplace

Originally published in the Globe & Mail February 18, 2021

Employee experience has been a hot topic for HR and executive teams for years, coined as a term to capture all that employees encounter in their tenure at an organization. Just as marketing teams focus on deepening relationships by creating excellent, seamless experiences for customers, so too have HR and executive teams for employees.

The result is the emergence of Employee Experience platforms (EXP) – the next-generation incarnation of “employee portals” designed to help employees manage all work-related and HR tasks. Looking back, we could never have anticipated how critical this piece of technology would be for what was to come in 2020, a year that was all about getting everyone online safely and quickly.

Now in 2021, these platforms can help break us out of the tendency to carry out our days online in the same way we used to in person. Instead of the same, often unproductive lengthy meetings, we should aim to create workdays that reduce burnout and enhance engagement, performance and productivity in a hybrid working world.

The challenge is in integrating a multitude of HR and workflow-related technologies in a frictionless way. Providers like ServiceNow and Workday have offered solutions for HR and IT to more seamlessly manage information and processes (Workday also recently announced that it would acquire Peakon, an employee survey platform). The launch of Microsoft’s Viva platform earlier this month is also notable, as it’s the first such platform to bring tools for collaboration, learning and well-being into one central place. As EXPs continue to evolve, employees will be able to take more ownership of their experience along three important dimensions:

Collaboration: In the shift from analog to digital, many of us have developed a love/hate relationship with virtual meeting tools. On one hand, they are our best option to simulate face-to-face meetings. But on the other, countless hours staring at screens is causing extreme fatigue. According to a recent study by McKinsey, 60 per cent of respondents indicated they are struggling with connectivity and belonging through the pandemic (with racialized employees struggling more). This number is shocking but not surprising, given the social interactions that cannot be replicated online. We need to find creative ways to collaborate outside of traditionally defined meetings: 2021 is the year to optimize features such as virtual whiteboarding, shared drives, microsites and more. The goal is to enable a more productive and inclusive working environment whereby we are not exclusively relying on meeting recordings and late-night calls to keep our global colleagues in the loop.

Learning: 2020 taught us that learning successfully is not measured by the number of hours spent in an instructor-led training session. “Learning in the flow” is increasingly important as employees have less time and patience to access seemingly endless content which is not immediately useful. They need access not just to training content, but to just-in-time practical knowledge. This happens formally through traditionally defined learning assets and also informally through person-to-person interactions. The next generation of employee experience more seamlessly enables user-generated content sharing (as we are already accustomed to via social-media platforms like YouTube and TikTok) to promote a culture of continuous learning. To activate this broader approach to learning, we need to reframe each activity, task, meeting or moment as a learning or teaching opportunity. Then, by leveraging tools like learning platforms and knowledge portals (ideally integrated into an EXP to reduce user friction), knowledge can be captured and shared at scale, in the flow of work.

Well-being: We’ve recognized for years that healthy employees are more engaged and more productive – and that an enterprise-wide focus on holistic well-being leads to lower absenteeism and presenteeism. However, as well-being is so deeply personal, how can organizations provide offerings that address all employees’ unique needs? One way is through data – in this dimension, companies are only just starting to explore the possibilities of integrating wellness data directly into productivity tools. For example, Microsoft’s Viva allows users to access personalized analytics such as how many “long and large” meetings they have (which have been shown to result in lower productivity) and how much “quiet time” they’ve had. Based on this data, employees can create “virtual commutes” to mentally bookend remote workdays. Another example is Toronto-based health care benefits app League, which provides real-time health data as part of their platform to enable better decision-making at an enterprise level.

As companies continue to refine the next-gen employee experience for a hybrid working world, a few things are becoming clear: Using data to create personalized experiences that prioritize well-being, collaboration and learning are more important than ever – a responsibility shared by enterprises, managers and employees alike.

Naomi Titleman Colla is the founder of Collaborativity Inc., a Toronto-based consultancy focused on driving progressive talent strategy in the new world of work. She is also a co-founder of Future FoHRward, a Josh Bersin Academy partner.

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How do we think about objectives and performance in 2021?

Originally published in the Globe & Mail January 18, 2021

Welcome to 2021, which is feeling a lot like 2020 so far. Many of us were hoping for a magic switch to make things better as the clock struck midnight on Jan. 1. However, while the beginning of COVID-19 vaccination programs provides a glimmer of light, we are still in the tunnel and we need to pace ourselves, proceeding with cautious optimism.

January is, for many organizations, a time for reflection on the previous year’s performance and a call to set objectives for the year ahead. As we continue to experience the trials and tribulations (and resulting uncertainty) of the pandemic, as well as the continuing global social unrest, how can we think about objectives and managing expectations for ourselves and for our organizations for 2021? Five suggestions:

Align to purpose

To keep ourselves and our teams focused on the right things, it is critical to have a well-articulated North Star – so that even if tactics, projects, metrics and measures change over the course of the year, everyone is still rowing in the same direction. Having a well-articulated purpose provides the guidance necessary to motivate colleagues to focus on what matters.

Rethink objective-setting

Personally and professionally, setting long-term (even year-long) objectives when there is so much uncertainty is very challenging. This January, different from last, one thing we know for certain is that this will not be a “normal” year (at least not a full one).

For example, as many of us were cautiously relieved in sending children back to class last September, school closings are now a reality again in many jurisdictions, causing further disruption to any “normal” work flow. Typical business planning cycles may need to be scrapped entirely, in favour of shorter-term, more agile goal-setting.

It is important to set SMART – specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based – goals (perhaps with a few tweaks to the traditional meaning, per career coach Michelle Cederberg) to keep colleagues motivated, while taking into consideration all of the uncertainty we are facing. Prioritization is a priority this year, so that there’s a maniacal focus on objectives that most significantly and positively affect the organization’s purpose.

Back to the concept of “tight-loose-tight” (tight on goals, loose on how to get things done, and tight on follow-up and accountability), allowing flexibility for how work gets done, while being clear on goals and accountabilities, provides the agility needed to set and revisit objectives under these ever-changing extenuating circumstances.

Restructure performance management, now

Many organizations still rely on an annual review cycle to drive and evaluate individual and organizational performance. In 2020, when we set goals and started managing performance against them, we did not know what was ahead of us. Therefore, organizations were required to improvise reconciling actual performance within a process and expectation framework that was largely irrelevant.

Some progressive companies decided to abandon traditional performance management processes altogether, in favour of regular check-ins and recalibration. In anticipation of another anomaly of a year, it is important for companies to redefine success, in order to reduce the burden and stress of factors completely outside of colleagues’ control.


Everything from staffing models to inventory and investment decisions should be carefully managed to ensure adequate protection from extreme fluctuations and downside scenarios. For example, staffing models are facing a lot of pressure and uncertainty: The capacity built into teams to handle workflow in a “normal” year may be excessive or insufficient this year.

Think about flexible ways to handle increased (or reduced) volumes so that teams are not scrambling to handle workload when individual circumstances change. Plan for scenarios such as full lockdowns, children at home, unexpected or sudden absences and so on – because these are all highly likely (if not already existing) in 2021.

Leverage technology

Individually and as organizations, there is no time like the present to automate tasks and leverage collaboration tools (including cloud storage and shared drives) wherever possible. This reduces risk when team members are unexpectedly unavailable because of unforeseen circumstances, improves efficiency, and frees up capacity to focus on higher-value activities.

While we proceed with cautious optimism into 2021, we need to constantly reframe and refresh how we work and our definitions of success, in order to combat fatigue and keep ourselves and our colleagues engaged. Challenging one another to “shake things up” (Zoom happy hours are so 2020) both in business and social activities inspires the creativity needed to weather the rest of this storm – however long it will be.

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Understanding our stress drivers: Name it to tame it

Originally published in the Globe & Mail December 21, 2020

Stress: Probably one of the top words used in 2020. While this time of year can conjure a wide range of emotions in a normal year, for many, this holiday season in particular will be riddled with feelings of isolation, loneliness and uncertainty, all on top of the stress we have already felt throughout 2020.

During a recent wellbeing-in-the-workplace event organized by HR community platform future foHRward, Bailey Parnell, founder of Toronto-based skills-training organizations SkillsCamp and SafeSocial, led a workshop to uncover and better understand our own stress drivers (e.g. unconscious internal pressures that make us do things quickly or emotionally). It became evident that once we could become more self-aware about the implications of our primary stress drivers, we could better tame them by communicating our needs and managing our actions accordingly.

Research cited by SkillsCamp identified five stress drivers, which can have both positive and negative impacts. In times of stress, most people tend to be driven primarily by one that, if not appropriately managed, can compromise work quality and team dynamics:

  1. Be perfect: Individuals driven to be perfect produce high-quality work, but sometimes at the expense of delivering on time.
  2. Please others: Individuals driven to please others tend to get along with everyone but can rely too heavily on consensus and avoid conflict in an effort to keep the peace. This can lead to suboptimal results if there is not enough healthy debate and divergent thinking among teams.
  3. Hurry up: Individuals driven to hurry up tend to be very efficient and productive, coming up with solutions quickly; however, they can risk not having enough buy-in and support for their ideas.
  4. Try hard: Individuals driven to try hard are enthusiastic and relied-upon volunteers – even for the tasks no one else wants to take on. However, they can overextend themselves and risk overpromising and underdelivering.
  5. Be strong: Individuals driven to be strong are able to stay calm under any circumstance; they give teams a sense that they can tackle anything, that everything is under control. However, especially in challenging times, they can come across as unapproachable or not empathetic.

Understanding our stress drivers, as well as those of our team members, can lead to a higher degree of empathy and an ability to better manage friction. For example, if a team is under a tight deadline, and one colleague’s primary stress driver is to hurry up, and another’s is to be perfect, you can see how they would be at odds. Without understanding one another’s stress drivers, there can be assumptions made about conflicting agendas or a lack of commitment to delivery.

Once we are aware of and understand the implications of our stress drivers, Ms. Parnell offers 12 tips for managing stress to improve our own resilience. Some of my favourites include:

  • Take care of the basics: Often when we are stressed, exercise, eating, sleep and hydration are the first things to take a back seat. Ironically, a five-minute walk or glass of water can be just what your pre-frontal cortex needs to shift from “survive” to “thrive” mode.
  • Breathe: Breathing changes our heartbeat and helps create the space we need to thoughtfully respond instead of emotionally react.
  • Define your coping strategies: Taking time to reflect on how you would like to react in times of stress helps create a blueprint for when things do go amiss. Thinking about coping strategies for when you’re alone and when you’re with others, both during the day and at night, is a great exercise to practise in moments of calm.

Finally, once we take care of our own mental health, we are better equipped to support others, which starts with empathy. As Ms. Parnell reminds us, “empathy does not mean that you’d feel the same thing if you were in the same situation – they might be feeling anger, but in the same situation, you would feel calm.” Rather, it is the “awareness and understanding of others’ needs, feelings and concerns from within their frame of reference.” Ms. Parnell shares five ways to support someone with mental health struggles, not requiring any special skills:

  1. Make your openness known to reduce stigma around mental-health challenges;
  2. Just ask – ask “how are you really doing?” before getting to business;
  3. Practise active listening – giving your full attention – so that people feel heard;
  4. Don’t make assumptions with regard to how someone with mental-health struggles can or can’t perform;
  5. Encourage seeking supports from the workplace through health benefits and other programs.