Of all the lessons to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic so far, the most surprising is not that HR leaders have had to rapidly deploy their change-management skills to help workers navigate the new normal. Instead, it’s how those skills have come in handy outside the workplace.
“As HR professionals, we have helped a lot of businesses adapt to change and I think the pandemic has really put that skill to good use in keeping my family protected as well,” says Erin King, who became BRP Partners’ first chief colleague officer in July, in the middle of the pandemic. “We’ve had to practice our change management [skills] within our family unit to be sure we are communicating openly, and that we are explaining the new norm and the new rules with clarity and detail so that everybody’s on the same page. We listen with feeling if people are struggling with change, and we try to be open to adjusting along the way. It’s been a very interesting microcosm of applying the skills you normally apply at work.”
At both home and work, King’s strong change-management skills will be critical in building a strong employer brand for BRP and leading the fast-growing insurance group’s strategic HR development.
“At the highest level, my focus is going to be to ensure that all of our HR programs and systems support BRP, with the goal of being big enough to matter and small enough to care, which is one of our taglines for our clients as well,” she says. “They really do mean that in terms of their focus on relationships and people. That’s what our business is built on. From an HR perspective, we want to be able to do that same thing.”
HRE: Why does BRP prefer the term colleagues instead of employees?
King: We view every single employee as a key owner within our organization. We don’t view them as just a worker helping us to get to an end result. When we hire a colleague to be part of the BRP family or when somebody joins us through a partnership with the BRP family, we think of it as becoming a family member, so the word employee just doesn’t feel culturally aligned.
HRE: What has it been like to take on a new job and a CHRO position in the middle of a pandemic?
King: Before COVID-19, most of us in HR were focused on trying to remain competitive in the overall global war for talent. We’ve all experienced a historically long-term low unemployment rate and a very stable economy and employees could be choosy about where they work. And when you’re competing for talent and people have a lot of options, then HR departments have the challenge of appealing to multiple generations within the workforce and dealing with the fact that the largest portion of those entering the workforce today are interested in gig work or in changing employers frequently. [With those challenges,] how do we help our organizations not only entice great talent to choose us upfront but also get them to stay long-term? There’s been a lot of things like enhancing benefit packages or customizing benefit options and enhancing work/life balance, but COVID-19 came and now the employment landscape has completely changed.
Now, a lot of the most pressing are things like assessing paid leave programs and accessing paid leave policies. It’s answering that hard question about how we help workers who are unable to work because daycares are closed or schools are closed, so they’re not able to physically get there and work. [Remote work is a] whole new arena that employers have had to deal with. It’s re-looking at your existing telecommuting work guidelines and figuring out how to evolve them. It’s also balancing privacy considerations for workers who are impacted by COVID with the employer’s responsibility to mitigate the impact of COVID in the workplace and keep everybody safe. So, the question is, should we be forcing temperature checks or not forcing temperature checks? That’s what a lot of HR has become in the middle of the pandemic.
HRE: How have you been managing the new HR goals for BRP in conjunction with the challenges of the pandemic?
King: I am a firm believer that relationships are the key to getting things done. There’s no handshake or that kind of thing in the new world of working in a pandemic environment. That’s challenging but we have great technology. We adopt a new way of doing things. If anybody had told me six or seven months ago that I’d become a Teams expert and Zoom expert … I’m not really a big technology [person but] now I have fully embraced it.
HRE: How did you get into an HR career?
King: I first started working at Publix when I was going to the University of Central Florida and realized I was interested in the concept of HR. I was a political science major and interested in organizational development and potentially law—a whole variety of different areas. While I was working part-time at Publix, their HR department had several openings and, since I was sort of interested in it from a global perspective, on a whim I applied for that job saying, “I have no idea if I’ll get this or I’m not qualified.” I got the job as an entry-level HR generalist. It was a lot of legal focus, learning about equal-employment-opportunity [regulations] and giving advice to stores on that topic. I found I absolutely loved it. It was clearly going to be my niche because I felt perfectly at home there. It was very exciting and engaging work and I ended up going into many other different areas of HR as well. I transitioned into learning and development and leadership, [talent acquisition and then becoming] director of compensation and paid time off benefits. It’s evolved over all the years.
HRE: Can you tell us a little about your personal life?
King: My husband and I have been married for almost 20 years now. We actually met while working at Publix together. We have two children: a sixth-grade boy and a second-grade girl. As a family, we try to get outside as much as we can. With two younger children, there are a lot of baseball games and soccer games. We like to take vacations in outdoor places like the mountains. When I have the time, I love to do yoga, both for exercise and for maintaining my wellness.