Talking People-First HR with Tracie Sponenberg

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Talking People-First HR with Tracie Sponenberg

Welcome to another exciting episode of All About HR! This is the series for HR Professionals and business leaders who want to future-proof their organization and learn about the latest trends & insights from industry experts, CHROs, and thought leaders. 

Is paper-first HR still the way to go?  In this episode of All About HR season 2, we sit down with Tracie Sponenberg — CPO @ The Granite Group — to discuss how to move from paper-first to people-first HR.

As an HR leader, speaker & founding member of HackingHR, DisruptHR & HRRebooted, Tracie’s mission is to help organizations align business strategies with people strategies. 

In this episode, we discuss: 

  • From paper-first to people-first: what can spark the shift
  • Common issues HR runs into when ‘going digital’
  • What People Teams focus on with fewer paper-based tasks

Watch the full episode to discover how you can help your HR team and your organization adopt a people-first approach to HR!


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Tracie Sponenberg: We still have a lot of people who are using an HRIS system as an Excel spreadsheet. And that may work for them. And it may not. So I think you start with taking a look at where you are, and then where you want to go and why and not just throwing a bunch of technology. And because it looks pretty and shiny, it really has to serve a purpose and the technology now, there’s so much and it’s so good, you can really solve just about any problem you have with that technology. And I think the trick is finding the right one that’s going to work for you. 

Neelie Verlinden: Hi everyone and welcome to a brand new episode of All About HR. My name is Neelie. I’m your host and on today’s episode, I speak with Tracie Sponenberg. Tracie is the Chief People Officer at The Granite Group group. But she’s also a founding member of Hacking HR, a co-founder of Disrupt HR, and co-founder of HR Rebooted, and I could continue like this for a little while longer. I believe that Tracie and I, we are going to talk about moving from paper-based or paper-first HR to people-first HR. I’m super excited to hear a lot more about that. But before we start, as always, don’t forget to subscribe to our channel, hit the notification bell and share this episode. 

Neelie Verlinden: Welcome to another episode of all about HR.

Neelie Verlinden: Now, let me welcome Tracie to the show. Hi, there, Tracie, how are you?

Tracie Sponenberg: I’m really good. How are you? Thanks for having me.

Neelie Verlinden: I’m very good. Thank you very much. And I’m also super happy that we get to have you here on an episode of All About HR. Even more so since I know that you just came back from a well-deserved, and also I believe, long-awaited holiday to Iceland, how was that?

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Tracie Sponenberg: It was incredible. It was our whole family trip. We did a quick weekend last year with the whole family. We have three kids and varying ages with the whole family. And I think it’s been probably five years because our son was in college and all of that. So a wonderful place that the whole family just absolutely loved. And we can’t wait to go back.

Neelie Verlinden: Very nice to hear Tracie. And you know, I always take a look at the LinkedIn profiles of the guests that I get to speak with here on the show. And when I look at yours, something that definitely stands out is the pictures of coffee from all over the world I can probably see. So maybe what’s up with the coffee photos?

Tracie Sponenberg: So just a quick backstory. My husband and I don’t drink alcohol. So where I live in the Northeast of the United States, a lot of people drive around, particularly, you know, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and visit breweries. And instead of that we drive around and find local independent coffee shops. And so we might take off for a day and hit three different places that we’ve never been to. And it’s really fun. And I think I feel like the first time I posted one was in relation to kind of self-care, sort of my self-care to do something fun for myself and do something with my husband. And I got so much feedback like that’s great, do more of that. On the weekends, I just sort of doing that no matter where I am, whether I’m checking out a new place or whether I’m at home, I try to do that and also share some new places with folks and I get a lot of great recommendations too.

Neelie Verlinden: Nice. Yeah, I sometimes do that as well during the weekend. And I just go by myself to have a coffee somewhere. And now especially since it’s spring over here, it’s very nice when the sun’s out, to just have that moment, enjoy a good cup of coffee and just enjoy and relax a little bit. Nice one. I like it. Yeah. Tracie, before we really start talking about today’s topic, perhaps you’d like to tell us a little bit more also about the work that you do at The Granite Group and maybe also one of the other associations that you’re in. 

Tracie Sponenberg: Yeah, I’m the Chief People Officer for The Granite Group. So that’s my day job. And I’m lucky to do some side things. But we’re a plumbing, heating, cooling, water, and energy supply distributor based in the Northeast, We’ve got over 700 people in over 50 locations. And so I’m responsible for what we now call our people team in our company and we morphed over the last few years from an HR team. And several years ago, probably six years ago, almost now five years ago, I had the opportunity to speak at an event on a topic that had been going on something I had been doing at work and I’m an introvert so that’s difficult. This is even a little difficult and that was sort of the springboard to me getting involved in all kinds of things. I learned that I had something to share, I learned that I had something to say. And I met a lot of wonderful people. So I started saying yes to opportunities that came my way. I sought out some opportunities, my huge passion is advancing the profession. So I was very much an old-school HR professional, who had a job and not a career and really transitioned and I’m so passionate about aligning myself with folks that are doing the same. And really bringing this amazing profession forward. Like the work AIHR is doing is really terrific.

Neelie Verlinden: Beautiful, beautiful. I do wonder where you’ll find the time though, to be honest with you, Tracie, because you have Yeah, you have like a full-time day job in a big company. At the same time, I guess once something is your passion, it gives you a lot of energy, doesn’t it?

Tracie Sponenberg: It does. And you find the time and nothing takes very much time, it might be an hour a month here, it might be, you know, a few minutes here. And the way I describe it is these things fit in the nooks and the crannies of the day. And you might have a couple of minutes while you’re waiting on hold and you check in on something and like you said, if you’re passionate about something, you find a way to do it. 

Neelie Verlinden: Yes, and I also think that this is a very nice bridge to our topic of today. Because you just mentioned you’re passionate about, you know, helping to bring the HR profession forward and help it advance a little bit. Now, when we talk about moving from paper first to people first that’s obviously also helping to to to advance the profession. So yes, I know that you recently gave a webinar about this topic. I think it was for Sherm. Perhaps we can start by giving a bit of an idea of how you would describe paper first versus people first.

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Tracie Sponenberg: So it was a webinar I did with Goco, which is actually part of a three-part series. And I had done something with offboarding. And I think maybe Sherm ran it but I had done something for them before. And we created something together that would really help hopefully advance or change some thinking and advance the profession a little bit. So the way I look at that is paper-first versus people-first is kind of a different way of saying traditional HR versus modern people ops, right. So when you think of traditional HR, you think of the enforcers of the policies, people who are reactive, who are just executors, and who very much work behind the scenes, and I’m very critical of companies, I’m somewhat critical of people who are still practicing that way. In a lot of cases, there isn’t a choice, but I am critical out of love. And I’m critical because I lived that for a long, long, long, long, long time, far longer than I should have. And then we move into people ops, where the real goal is to improve the employee experience, you know. You’re there for the people, not for the company, you work for the company, but you’re there for the people, you’re proactive, you’re a coach or guide, you really ideally take a public stand on things and or at least have some sort of public persona and champion your people in your company. And you align your people strategy with your business strategy,

Neelie Verlinden: So Tracie, as there like one specific point in time for you when, let’s say that, you know that something clicked? Or like it was like, Okay, no, it’s time to start doing things differently? Or was it over a bit of a longer period of time that you realised okay, we really need you to start doing HR in a different way.

Tracie Sponenberg: Yeah, I think there were a few different things that happened to me in my life, about 10 years ago, to start to get healthy. And I looked around and I was sort of unhappy and depressed and didn’t like who I was and how I was approaching anything, including work. So I made a real conscious effort to improve my outlook on life. I was very much someone who would look at other people and go, Why does she get to do that? Why did they get to do that? And instead of why not me and taking action, I just kind of sat back and let life happen. So I made a real conscious effort to shift my mindset and really move from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset, even though at the time I didn’t really put it in those words. And then maybe about around the same time, I had somebody on my team who just wasn’t really approaching her job with enthusiasm. And I noticed but I assumed it was something personal. And then one day, she came to me and said, you know, can I talk to you about that? Of course. And she said, I have a problem. And it’s you. And I went out. I had just not experienced that. And I wasn’t giving her the kind of feedback. I wasn’t giving her any feedback, really, I wasn’t leading her in a way that she needed to be led. And as much as I would talk about things, you know, I wasn’t practicing what I was coaching my managers on and that was a huge shift in my working life and my life in general. And she gave me a giant gift, as tough as it was for her to say, and that really helped me reflect inward a lot.

Neelie Verlinden: I mean, I can’t imagine that at the time. It was tough of course, but I still think it’s a beautiful story, to be honest. So thank you. Thank you for sharing that with us. Now when we go to that one second, too. Yes. So this webinar that you were giving of, this three-part webinar, actually, could you tell us a little bit about the context? So what were the main reasons actually, for choosing this topic? What can you tell us about that?

Tracie Sponenberg: So I think that it was just kind of open, and we could kind of craft it in any way. But there are a few things that I get to speak about the most. Technology being one and another one being this evolution of the HR professional. And in all the times of talking, I’ve talked or given webinars, the most feedback I get, and the thing that resonates most with people is that shift from paper-first to people-first or that journey, and it’s very much a personal one for me, and it’s very, very challenging to share. But it’s also really great to share. And I think we both really felt like, Goco and I really felt like it could really help people think differently about the work that they do. 

Neelie Verlinden: I’m just wondering, Tracie, so because when you shared your story as well, it was very much also about a change within yourself. Do you think that these kinds of shifts, are they even possible if there’s not something shifting as well inside of the people involved?

Tracie Sponenberg: Usually not, you know, maybe in a case where a company is solely responsible for holding someone back from making the shift. And that certainly happens. That could be the case, but it is very difficult to change yourself. But it’s easier to change yourself than to change a CEO.

Neelie Verlinden: Good point. Yes. Since you talk about this quite a lot. What are some of the main issues that you see HR departments run into when they decide to start working on that shift from paper-first to people-first? Maybe you can give us a few examples.

Tracie Sponenberg: Yeah, I think there are many different things. But there are two main areas that I see, I think most often number one would be the CEO or the company roadblock. HR departments are historically underfunded. They’re underutilized. They’re not tapped into for the incredible people in business resources that they are. So that shift within that C suite, that shift within the company is often responsible for the lack of shifting. And then I think it’s the HR departments themselves. And I’ve talked to a lot of folks who don’t want to change, who are just happy the way they are, and if they’re happy the way they are, and that’s the way the company is practicing HR, then nothing’s going to shift there. So it is certainly not everyone. And there are certainly a lot of wonderful people out there doing incredible work. And there are a lot of people who are roadblocked by their company, but sometimes we are the barrier. And I know I was the barrier for a long time.

Neelie Verlinden: Well, so then there are a lot of challenges. Now we’ve sort of touched the two biggest ones. And then I think what’s interesting is to see how we can then actually make that move. I imagine there are various steps, I imagine they might also differ a little bit from one organization to another. But what can you tell us about that? Can you perhaps guide us a little bit through what that could look like in practice – that shift from paper-first to people-first?

Tracie Sponenberg: I think it involves a lot of self reflection first, and I think there’s a lot that goes into it. A lot that goes into that that self reflection, certainly so, and it also depends if you’re shifting yourself and your own mindset or if you’re shifting the company. So let’s just, for illustrative purposes, let’s just say you’re shifting the company, and you’re a very paper-based company, and you want to move to a more people-focused company, right. And so it involves tapping into every skill you’ve ever learned as an HR professional, from your great wealth of knowledge and a business hopefully, of technology of HR acumen, a little bit of everything – your influence, your community – and bringing those skills together. And then starting with identifying the problem. So for us, when we made that transition as a business, we were looking at managers, because we had, at that time, not quite 30 locations, with managers spending hours and hours and hours on manual paperwork, and our team entering that paperwork into 16 different places, literally. And so we could prove out the ROI of the cost and the time savings, what that would look like. So we were starting with the problem, you know, we needed to make this transition, obviously, there was an investment, monetary investment that needed to happen. So that’s where we started. We looked at the problem we were trying to solve. And then we looked at potential solutions. And this was a multi-year process involving multiple parts of technology. And there were a lot of other things that went in but it’s easiest to explain the technology but I can’t stress enough how important it is to get people involved and people across your organization. For example, I did a listening tour when I first started. I heard what was going right and heard what wasn’t going right and we acted on the feedback from our people and we had them involved in the selection and the testing process and we did the same thing again. We brought in a new performance system recently, you know, testing and verifying and then ultimately selecting the technology. So that’s focused around technology because that technology for moving from paper-first to people-first is really critical because you’ve got to automate those things that you can automate. So you can focus on the things that really matter.

Neelie Verlinden: Yeah, absolutely. I think these are two things that go hand in hand, right? If you move from paper first to people first, that goes hand in hand with the introduction of certain EHR technology, correct? Yeah, exactly. Now that we’re talking about that perhaps you can share also a little bit more about the introduction of HR technology, maybe a few of the most important things to think about in that regard? 

Tracie Sponenberg: Yeah. And I think it like we just talked about, it starts with, you know, what’s the problem. And I think it’s before that though, you want to take a step back and really take an assessment of where you’re at and what you have. And I’ve talked to people, you know, if I go to a conference, like HR transform, and I sat on a panel there, that was all about technology, and almost everyone who attended that conference was very advanced with their technological knowledge. And their companies were investing in technology and a lot of startups etc. But then if I go to a local SHRM chapter, it’s a very, very, very different story. So we still have a lot of people who are using an HRIS system as an Excel spreadsheet. And that may work for them. And it may not. So I think you start with taking a look at where you are, and then where you want to go and why and not just throwing a bunch of technology. And because it looks pretty and shiny, it really has to serve a purpose and the technology now, there’s so much and it’s so good, you can really solve just about any problem you have with that technology. And I think the trick is finding the right one that’s going to work for you, your people, and your company.

Neelie Verlinden: Yeah, absolutely. Now, Tracie, I can imagine that, you know, some people that might be listening to this, and they might think, okay, yes, I think in our organization, there’s definitely more that we could also move forward and places where we could move away from being paper-first. But at the same time, I can imagine that that might seem a bit daunting to them as well, like, Okay, well, am I even equipped for this? Do I have the right knowledge? Or do I have the right skills? What skills would be important in your opinion for HR professionals in that regard?

Tracie Sponenberg: So I think it is daunting when, if you’re, say, totally paper-based, and you look at, you know, I want to go from here to here. So I think taking that up into kind of bite sized chunks and looking at what you might need first, and what’s the most critical thing for your people, and what’s the thing that’s going to save the most time, and what’s an easy win, but those skills, and I touched on a couple of them earlier that really helped in that process, your skills of influence of resourcefulness. I talked about this a lot that you don’t have to know everything you have to know a lot in this profession. But you have to know where to find it or where to go and tap into your community. There are so many HR professionals that really could benefit from having a wide community beyond their geography, beyond their gender, beyond – you name it. So it’s really, really, really, really helpful to expand your community and to give back, and to get what you are looking for in return. And then Lars Schmidt, who I’m a big fan of and I’ve been fortunate to chat with him on many occasions about different things, talks about the new skills of the modern CPO, we talked about this recently, and this is Chief People officers, but I think it applies to anybody in HR. And this is a list that I think is really, really important. He talks about the skills of compassion. And so that’s kind of like empathy in action. We’ve talked a lot about empathy, especially over the past few years. And this is actually doing something with that empathy, make an impact. And you know, obviously, having the HR and the business acumen that you need, and most of us have at least some, hopefully, resilience and grit, which if we didn’t have it before, we probably have gained over the past few years and adaptability and learning agility. And that last piece, so important. I learned something every hour of every day. And I think if you’re not learning in your career, your career is dying.

Neelie Verlinden: Yeah. As funny actually to hear you mentioned Lars. Yeah, Lars. So we’ve also been lucky enough to speak to Lars for the podcast. It was during season one. And he also spoke about some of these important skills as well for CPOs for the next generation, as he calls it, I believe it. So it was very nice to hear that you mentioned those and we totally agree here, by the way, at the Academy to Innovate HR, because we see the same things. So that’s always nice. Tracie, I am still curious, though, and maybe for those people who are listening now and they’re thinking, okay, yeah, that’s all good. And well, definitely, you know, from an organizational perspective, we now have heard you talk about how we can make that shift. But what for those people that would perhaps take things a step further and also maybe work on themselves a little bit. To make some changes, could you give them some advice as well?

Tracie Sponenberg: You know, for me, it was, like we talked about, it was sort of a gradual shift, there are a few things that happened. And another thing that happened is I took an assessment, we used a predictive index. So I took that in and learned about myself and learned about what my introversion meant and gained much more self-awareness, I don’t think I was really self-aware before. So I think I was taking your own medicine, so to speak, so taking the things that you help others with and applying them to yourself, like maybe get a coach and have somebody help you see yourself the way others see you, help you identify areas where you should focus on, help you lean into your strengths. I think that’s really, really, really, really helpful. And I’ve done that through coaching also, but also through community too. And then surrounding yourself with people who fill in your gaps. So that’s not just on your team, if you have a team, you can certainly do this. If you’re a solo practitioner, I was for almost half my career, and you know, you have people in your network that make up your personal board of directors or whatever you want to call that, who helped you in areas where you need some strength.

Neelie Verlinden: Thank you for that. Now, if we continue our road towards a more people-first HR, then I think that the last phase that we’ll touch on in today’s conversation anyway, is I can imagine people listening to this thinking cool, you know, we have now digitalized certain parts of what we were doing. Fantastic. Now, that means we have a little bit more time on our hands to focus more on the people in our organisation. Where have you seen people teams focus on once they reduced the time that they spend on paper-based tasks? I think that would be my first question. And then as a follow-up, how did they go about that?

Tracie Sponenberg: I think that’s a really good question because you can run the risk of going oh, great. We did this, now what, right? And I think, first of all, getting there is enormously difficult, because I see this time and time again, you have you want to automate the things that you can automate. So you can get to these things that are really important. But that takes time and effort and education and learning. And you know, sometimes you just don’t have that 30 minutes to learn about that thing that you need to help you out. So it’s a never-ending, vicious cycle that I think trips up a lot, a lot, a lot of people but what do you do that? So what do you do once you automate it and you have the time? I think that’s a luxury that that few can afford. But anytime that you have – live and breathe the employee experience, that looks like different things to different people. To us at The Granite Group, it looks like creating an individual and personalized people experience for every single one of our team members. And that involves performance management, that involves learning and development, that involves coaching, that involves wellness, that involves different things that somebody can take and create their own experience with the programs that we’re creating alongside them. And that co-designing aspect is really, really, really important. So for me, I think that’s where the time is best spent. One of the things that I’m doing is spending time in all of our locations. I’m spending time with all of our regional directors and all of our leadership team and really trying to figure out kinda like we’re doing stay interviews with our people, we’re asking two questions, you know, what do they like best about The Granite Group? And what’s one thing they would change? I’m doing the same thing with our directors and our leadership team. And you know, what is our team doing really well? And what can we do differently? And how can we support you better and then act on that feedback? You get some really, really critical information when you take the time to talk to people, to listen to people. And, you know, that’s why we do what we do. We don’t do it to enter data into a spreadsheet, you know, we do this to really improve lives.

Neelie Verlinden: Yeah, beautiful. I also really love how you do stay interviews, that is obviously another topic entirely. But I think there’s so much more benefit that could be could be gained for so many companies if they would conduct those more. So it’s nice to hear that you’re doing that. And that’s where your time goes, literally to the people, which is I think how it should be. So that is fantastic. Tracie, this is not the most fun, perhaps. But this is definitely I think, a fun part of the podcast where we get to now. And it’s the part where I asked my guest first about what they believe is the biggest cliche about HR out there. So I’m gonna throw that one in first.

Tracie Sponenberg: So I think it’s not necessarily a cliche that we have in HR, but I think it’s the conception of others. You know, if you look at HR teams, you can just kind of see like a catbird Doberman. I use it a lot in presentations, but that we’re all like running around sunshine and rainbows and spreading joy and happiness and throwing parties and handing out popsicles and things like that, that HR is sort of the party place. And I really do not think and know that that is the conception of HR in a lot of places. And it may be part of that. But hopefully, there’s some joy, there’s a lot of joy in what we do. But there’s so much more that goes into what we do.

Neelie Verlinden: Absolutely. That’s a good one, though. And the second one is about sharing an epic win, and then epic fail with us. Now, these can be anything. So we had personal ones, we also had professional ones, and we had combinations of epic wins and fail. So really, whatever you feel like sharing.

Tracie Sponenberg: Yeah, so I’ll give you a couple epic wins. There’s literally surviving the past couple of years with COVID. And running response for my team, we were in the in person business, and we never shut down and just surviving that and surviving burnout and going through that and coming out the other side is an epic win. Personally, last year, I did a hike, which isn’t difficult for a lot of people. It’s difficult for me. I hiked the mountain 25 years ago, and I was meeting my husband at the top, who is finishing a three-day solo hike. And he got stuck in a storm on the other side of the mountain. So I had to hike up, you know, two hours to the top of my own and then hike back two hours when I didn’t want to do it in the first place. And I felt such a huge, huge sense of accomplishment. And that was just epic when you know. Epic fail. There’s lots and lots, certainly, you don’t learn if you don’t fail. And I think the one that comes to mind, and I haven’t talked about this often, but I taught a certification course in person for years, HR certification course. And then so I figured, well, I can teach that. I can teach a master’s level course on organizational development. And it was an online course. And I kind of breezed through the training. And then there wasn’t a course available for a few months. So I started the course and I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it. I tried hard, and I just wasn’t suited to it. I just absolutely hated it. And I was completely overwhelmed. And the students, you know, weren’t getting what they needed from me. So I had to have the course rescued by another instructor. And I felt so terrible over that. But I was taking on too much. And that just really wasn’t for me. And it was I did fail epically. And I failed publicly, but it happens and it happens to all of us. 

Neelie Verlinden: Oh, absolutely. And I think it happens to all of us a lot. And indeed, the beauty of that is that we can learn from it. And I think what I find very beautiful in your story, actually is that you ask somebody else to help you out. Because I think that definitely requires courage as well, because not everybody would ask for help. So that’s a definitely beautiful notes to that story. And really Tracie I don’t know where our time went. But that brings us to the end already of our conversation. So I want to thank you very much for being here today. And I really enjoyed our conversation.

Tracie Sponenberg: Me too. Thanks for having me.

Neelie Verlinden: And thank you everybody for tuning in to today’s episode. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. And don’t forget, if you haven’t done so yet, subscribe to the channel. Hit that notification bell and share this episode. Thank you very much and I see you soon again for a new episode of All About HR. Bye!

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