Of all the business realities the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted this last year, the value of good leadership was among the most evident. Kristin Johnson, CHRO at financial services firm Edward Jones, says leaders who exhibit traits like humility and empathy have been better able to inspire confidence from and connect with their workforces.
Johnson will explore how the pandemic has altered leadership strategies during a spotlight session at next month’s Health & Benefits Leadership Conference, a free, virtual event running May 11-13. Register here.
Before the conference, Johnson shared with HRE what leadership looks like post-COVID.
HRE: What are the “soft” skills business leaders—particularly those in HR—should be honing for success in today’s new world of work?
Johnson: During COVID and beyond, we need to display qualities that aren’t always associated with leadership: empathy and vulnerability. What do I mean when I talk about vulnerability? Historically, we have valued perfection more than progress from our leaders. A vulnerable leader turns that around and puts greater emphasis on progress over perfection. Vulnerability is a trait that allows our leaders to be more anchored to a learning and growth mindset.
Good leaders are about others, not about themselves. A good leader focuses on helping others unlock their potential so they are empowered to pursue the careers they aspire to. A good leader is comfortable giving and receiving feedback. He or she can be vulnerable and empathetic and lead at the same time. During COVID, all of that was required to get the job done.
HRE: How has the pandemic impacted the employer-employee relationship in the long-term?
Johnson: I’m reminded of a quote from Edward Jones Managing Partner Penny Pennington: “We are built for times like these.”
Those seven words hold the story of our culture, built into our partnership structure. When crises arrive, as they have before in our nearly 100-year history, we pull together decisively, clear-eyed about our purpose and direction. We place the needs of our clients, our associates and our communities foremost in our decision-making and actions and come through the other side of challenging times stronger than before for all those we serve.
More than words, this is our direct experience. We can count on it.
Even before the pandemic, we were committed to the idea that we have to be a firm of lifelong learners. The world is changing, our industry is changing, the needs of our clients are changing, and we need to be able to keep up. The COVID experience taught us that, when we have to, we can pivot quickly and learn new skills quickly—not just at the top of the organization, but throughout our ranks. We are moving from a “know-it-all” mentality to a “learn-it-all” mindset.
We’ve seen some interesting dynamics evolve as a result of the sudden shift to remote work. Our associates have found new ways to connect and strengthen relationships with clients and one another through virtual means like coffee chats, networking sessions, etc. Home-based associates have shared that, in some ways, they’ve never felt more connected to their colleagues.
Johnson: On the benefits side, we added 10 extra COVID days off. We didn’t want any of our colleagues to have to make a choice between their careers and their families.
We waived deductibles for the testing and treatment of COVID and added more programs for mental and emotional health, which we made available to everyone in the firm, regardless of whether they participate in our benefits plan.
We expanded the number of free mental health visits we offer and again made sure everyone had access to them.
On the financial side, we activated our Disaster Relief Fund to help colleagues who suffered hardships as a result of the pandemic. At the same time, we committed $2.7 million to support national and community organizations serving the most immediate needs of their citizens and our associates. We have a strong history of volunteering at our firm, and during COVID the need for it was never greater.
For parents, we provided tips and resources to navigate virtual learning and homeschooling, including a robust list of educational websites for kids.
We started a program of virtual Coffee Chats where we invited people with expertise in a range of subjects, centered around the theme of wellness, to speak to our associates. We’ve had experts speak on mental and physical health. Maintaining connections and combatting isolation were critical during the pandemic. We were all too aware that people were stuck at home and that some were overwhelmed by all their responsibilities.
We started the Coffee Chats, in fact, because we heard from colleagues just how cut off they were feeling. It was vital that we stayed connected. That is something we won’t take for granted, even when we return to our offices. I think people understand that and appreciate it.
HRE: What is an unexpected wellness trend you have seen emerge that’s been driven by the pandemic?
Johnson: Perhaps not unexpected, but the pandemic has reinforced the idea that, when it comes to taking care of employees, the best approach is a holistic one. Our people have many needs and we need to address them all if we expect them to give their best. This includes their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.
We must support a positive work/life balance and encourage our teams to do the same. We’ve encouraged associates to reserve time for physical activity. We encourage associates to flex their schedules to support the wide variety of roles they have including family, school, errands and work. I’m encouraging everyone on our team to:
- Take care of themselves and their overall wellbeing
- Connect with others
- Listen with empathy
- Stay calm, collected and informed
HRE: Is there any HR advice you got early on in your career that has stuck with you?
Johnson: Ironically, I didn’t begin my career in human resources. I took the accounting path at the University of Illinois, passed my CPA and moved to Chicago after college with a job as an auditor, which eventually led me to Edward Jones in St. Louis.
I’ve held a variety of positions at Edward Jones in internal audit, operations, service, client reporting, to name a few, before raising my hand when the CHRO role was available. I was encouraged early on to work hard and perform well, making the best of each opportunity and to never stop learning.
HRE: Outside of work, what are you passionate about?
Johnson: Physical health is a personal passion of mine. When I was younger, I considered pursuing a career as a ballerina. Of course, I’ve chosen a different path—but dancing still gives me a sense of strength, structure and discipline. I am also a marathon runner—I’ve completed 28 marathons and I run about 30 to 40 miles a week. The miles are catching up with me lately, so I recently began practicing yoga.
I’m also passionate about working within my community. I’m active in several organizations and serve on the boards of the Center of Creative Arts (COCA), Webster University in St. Louis and the St. Louis Fashion Fund.