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Walgreens CEO Roz Brewer to Leaders: Put Your Phones Away and Listen to Employees

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Rosalind Brewer, CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance and one of only two Black female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, says bringing her whole self to work has been the key to her success.

HBR editor in chief Adi Ignatius sat down with Brewer in this episode of our video series “The New World of Work” to talk about:

  • How inclusion and equity—making employees feel seen and heard—are just as important as diversity metrics
  • How to ensure that employees feel empowered and love where they work
  • The importance of learning a business thoroughly, even if it means a sideways career move.

When Brewer accepted a lower-level position at Walmart when she left Kimberly-Clark as group president, some people questioned the move — but she says she needed to start there to learn about retail. “I was in a learning mode, but I took a step back to get ahead,” she says. “That’s when my career began to really explode.”

“The New World of Work” explores how top-tier executives see the future and how their companies are trying to set themselves up for success. Each week, Ignatius interviews a top leader on LinkedIn Live — previous interviews included Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooryi. He also shares an inside look at these conversations —and solicits questions for future discussions — in a newsletter just for HBR subscribers. If you’re a subscriber, you can sign up here.


ADI IGNATIUS: Roz, welcome to the show and thank you very much for being with us.

ROZ BREWER: Thank you. I’m glad to be here.

ADI IGNATIUS: Let’s start with your career. You have had a series of top jobs at Sam’s Club, at Starbucks, now at Walgreens Boots Alliance. Talk about the challenges of walking into a new company, a new industry in some cases, and projecting the kind of confidence that you need to be able to do your job from day one.

ROZ BREWER: Great. That’s a very good question, especially now having walked into a healthcare company in the middle of a pandemic, and I think that was a pretty gutsy move and every day it’s proven to be true. But I will tell you that I have been fortunate to really accumulate so many different learnings over my career, and I’m pretty adamant about making sure that I am clear about my role, what my intent is, and how do I bring together my toolbox.

I think the one thread that I can pull through all of my roles and opportunities is my personal leadership, and that’s the way I show up first and foremost. Because most of these business problems that I face in these leadership roles, it takes character, it takes guts, it takes problem solving, and when I bring that basic toolkit to bear in these different roles it has been proven effective for me every time.

The other thing I will tell you is that whenever I take on a new role, I become a real student of the business. I remember when I joined Walmart after being with Kimberly-Clark for such a long time, and being in consumer products, and going into retail. My job was based in Atlanta, Georgia, but I decided to move myself to Bentonville, Arkansas, and go on a learning journey for 90 days. And I stayed in a little small hotel and came into the home office there and really studied them during what I call the honeymoon period, and it was the best thing I could’ve ever done. I meet people. I learned more about retail. And I really put myself in a learning position and not in a position initially of leadership, and I chose to learn and be an advocate and open-minded about what the opportunities were ahead of me.

ADI IGNATIUS: As a Fortune 500 CEO you are in a very elite group. As a black female CEO in that group you are truly in rarefied territory, so how do you balance the pressure, the scrutiny, the expectations being practically the only person like yourself in these fields?

ROZ BREWER: I will tell you sometimes it’s a lonely position because you don’t see yourself in different environments that you’re in, and then I look at myself personally and say, what can I do to change this because it could be difficult at certain times? I think that the environment is opening up more to people recognizing the differences and appreciating the differences.

Many times I am called upon and asked to give my opinion on diversity issues, and I will be honest with you: I am as frank as I possibly can be, because I do think I hold a unique position. When I get in these settings I take advantage of an opportunity to learn and educate those around me, because I can feel it when they’re unfamiliar with me or my culture. I don’t hide my culture. I talk about it very openly. I feel like that is almost my second reason for being. Everybody has their purpose in how you get into a situation or an environment, but I take advantage of it and do everything I can to teach and expose people to my culture and who I am.

I learned early in my career, I’d say maybe five to seven years out of college, that I really wanted to bring my whole self to work so I don’t cover up my culture at all, and I think that that’s helpful for me because they know how to count on me and what the expectations are in terms of interacting with me.

ADI IGNATIUS: I’m guessing throughout your career you’ve often been the only woman, maybe the only person of color, in a room full of executives. You talked about bringing yourself, but can you talk a little bit more about how you manage that situation and how you make it work?

ROZ BREWER: Yes. I really do look forward to the day where I’m not really ‘the only’ in these rooms and environments, and I’m doing a lot personally to try and make that happen. The way I deal with this is really I’m no different than other individuals in the room, and I try and share that as well. My accomplishments come from hard work, come from exposure. One of the things I find myself doing, fortunately or unfortunately, is I have to run a few people through my resume because I think they look at my titles and say, does she really do the work, how did she get there? But I have some absolute real lived experiences.

When I was at Starbucks I worked the drive-thru window. When I was at Walmart I had three trucks at night so I could learn distribution logistics, warehousing, at those companies. So, I’ve done the worst and the best of the jobs. Sometimes I have to remind people of that. And it gives me credibility that I’ve not been a token. I’ve not been granted these jobs. I’ve absolutely had to work very hard to get where I am.

And so I find myself doing that. It doesn’t bother me. I’m hoping, I’m an optimist, and I hope that is not what the next person has to do, but for now I find myself having to really go on a deep dive in terms of my experience and do a lot of storytelling about why I believe in what I believe.

I’m on the Business Roundtable, and we’re getting into some really courageous conversations around the new infrastructure bill. I happen to have a lot of experience in the space of what it takes to move goods across the United States, and I’ve been fortunate enough to maybe share a little bit of that, and maybe people didn’t realize that I had a background in that as well, because you can’t be in retail and not understand supply chain and logistics.

ADI IGNATIUS: Let’s talk more broadly about workplace diversity. As you know, in the corporate world we’re all trying to move the needle on diversity, equity, and inclusion, and that has been imperative since the murder of George Floyd. I wish it didn’t have to be because of that, but that’s where we are. What’s your view on how companies can pursue a DEI strategy that truly has meaning?

ROZ BREWER: So, it’s interesting. When the George Floyd incident happened I actually thought I knew it all and I had been doing a good job in DE&I. And I quickly realized that even myself, who’s been a huge proponent of it, myself who is a double minority, myself a mother of a young black male, I thought I understood this. But I realize that I didn’t. I realize that I had not been asking all the right questions. I had not been focusing on the parts of our environment and our social environment that are very much broken.

I think, myself included, we have been focusing on the D of DE&I and not equity and not inclusion. And I say that because what really happened with the George Floyd incident is that I don’t think people understood the race issues that are happening in our country. Those that are left out and those who don’t see a way out of their current situation. But we do see putting numbers in place and hiring numbers. But have we asked the questions, how can someone survive off of minimum wage? And where is our country on great education and access to healthcare?

And also, it made me think back. I took it personally, when all of that was happening. As you can imagine, I didn’t know George Floyd and not many of us did. But I tried to put myself in the shoes of him and of his family. And I think about the work that I was doing at Walmart. I was just so adamant about clearing the way and thinking about, “How can I close in on food deserts.” Right? If people have proper food and access to the best price, the best cost in food. So, I did everything I could do to put Walmart stores in the right zip codes. That was my focus. But was I listening to, “Take it one level lower, Roz.”, is what I said to myself. And say, “So if you put the food right near them, and there’s still not proper nutrition and proper healthcare in those places, what’s causing them to not be able to thrive and rise above the minimum wage job, and go to the next level, and the next level?”

Because, that’s the history that we know in the United States: give someone their start and then they take it to the next level. And that’s because we haven’t done enough work to study and think about, what happens in someone’s life, when you’re single parenting more than one child, and you’ve got to care for that child? And it’s more than cost, it’s about their self-esteem. And so we began to look at things like, how do you feel about yourself and are we developing that in people?

And so I came back. At that time when George Floyd’s situation was happening, I was with Starbucks. And we began to do work on providing mental health access for communities, for all of our employees, and making that accessible. We began to think about what it means to really teach and train someone. Are you giving them training materials? Are you teaching them how to learn? And recognizing that people learn differently?

For me, that whole situation said that we’ve been putting numbers on the board from a diversity standpoint, but we’re not creating equity. And then there’s a piece around inclusion. And I would tell you from an inclusive standpoint, we have not created environments where people feel like they can bring their whole self to their opportunities in front of them. We don’t recognize from where they’ve come from, and give them the same, fair chance. And give them an environment where they feel listened, seen. Listened to and seen. And we don’t do that. We hadn’t been doing that well.

And so at Starbucks, a group of us, the leadership team, we made it our business to make sure that, when we are in stores, we are talking to people and not talking at people. And we’re doing more listening than talking. And I had already had the practice of never walk into a retail unit as leader and have your mobile device out. I never do that. I either leave it in my automobile or put it in my pocket, because I need to be present, I need to listen.

But that wasn’t enough. I was listening and I wasn’t acting. And I wasn’t drilling down enough. And I think that’s the next level of leadership, is that we’re going to have to get pretty gritty about listening and acting and making people feel included in the environments that we create, as leaders.

ADI IGNATIUS: So the first takeaway is, leaders, leave your phones in your pockets. Let me follow up on that. It seems that even when there is diverse representation, corporate cultures can produce a kind of group-think and group-speak. How do you create teams, including top-level executive teams, that are not only diverse on paper, but truly reflect the kind of diversity of viewpoints that trace varied experiences and backgrounds?

ROZ BREWER: One of the things that I think about when I’m thinking about diversity is diversity of thought. Because we can also realize that there are individuals who may not be of diverse culture, race, or gender themselves, but where is their mindset? How do they think about different cultures and different environments?

One of the things that I began to do in my career is to put agile teams together. And what I mean by that is, a lot of times, you have your finance team working in their silo. You’ll have the tech team working in their silo. But what I really think works is when we create these agile teams and put them against the biggest problems to solve.

That’s one of the things I’m doing right now at Walgreens Boots Alliance: make sure that this organization understands, what are the biggest problems that we’re going to solve? It’s not, do we have enough technology? But is the technology fulfilling the need for efficiencies in the organization? Is it creating the right tools for our team members at stores and for our customers?

So to give you an example, you can have the best strategy in the world. But if your team operates in a silo-driven environment, you’re not going to get the results that you expect. For instance, right now we’re trying to create a tech-enabled healthcare company. I have the same message for the entire group. And the biggest problem to solve is, how do we become the best performing stock in the Dow?

And so, when you put that team together, you are forcing finance and technology and operations and manufacturing all to be in the same room, in the same discussion, against the biggest problem to solve. And it’s not finance solving a finance problem. What that actually does: it gets the diversity of thought to happen. And then you have different people sitting around the table. And in some cases, one of the outcomes that I’ve seen is that in certain functions, we have heavier opportunity for diversity than we do in others.

I would love to see more diversity in technology. It’s coming. But right now I have a lot of diversity in finance. So I get the opportunity to put a diverse financial team to a growing diverse tech team in the room. Diversity of thought is happening around the problem to solve, and then the cultures are coming together. And hopefully, we’ll move all of those opportunities up. But it’s about creating these agile teams and putting them against the unique problems to solve. And forcing them to relate to each other and think about how to solve it.

Now, you may say, “Well, where does race and gender come into that?” It absolutely happens, because if you don’t have people who have the innate ability to be forced to think different about a problem to solve, they absolutely are not going to get there on a discussion with race and gender. So, you have to start where people are. People operate in their functions. Start where they are and move them to where you want the organization to go to. It proved successful for me at Starbucks. I’m replicating it again at WBA.

ADI IGNATIUS: That’s a really interesting approach. You mentioned culture. I read the transcript of your recent earnings call, and you talked about the importance of culture in driving corporate results. I’m interested in your thoughts on how institutions can create and sustain culture effectively, when we’re now so distributed and where employees want to be even more distributed than we’ve tolerated in the past. It seems to be one of the biggest challenges right now, for every institution.

ROZ BREWER: It is super complicated. And I’ve done all the right things. How many Zoom calls can I have? How many times can I have dinner on a Zoom call, happy hour, playing games, all of those things that I hope would keep us bonded together as a team and focused? I will tell you, it’s complicated.

But I think what is happening now, when I think about this hybrid position, is that we’re taking a position that, yes, we can be hybrid. We don’t want anyone in our organization to be 100% remote. And there’s a couple of reasons for that. One, they get too detached from the culture of the company. And the second reason is, we’re seeing that there is loneliness, anxiety, and depression in those who do not interact. There is very little substitute for human connection, very little substitute.

And this is something I’ll stand behind. I’m no scientist. I’m not a psychologist, but I will tell you, I’ve seen time and time again, isolation absolutely never works. I stand behind that. We’re asking our teams to create opportunities to interact with their organizations twice a week. Come in for lunch or hit the team meeting in person, once a week. The second thing we’re doing is thinking about: where are our hubs? Could we have hubs across the United States so that you come in and you feel the culture and you breathe the culture and you live the culture? Because you can’t sit on a piece of paper like a strategy can. You can’t pull it all off and then go create an action. It’s the way you make someone feel, it’s the way the environment looks.

And then the last thing I would say about driving culture is to be very, very consistent in aligning your decisions with your culture, mission, and values. There’s some great examples of that. For instance, we right now are really stressing the point around the importance of healthcare in this country. We’ve taken a very, very hard stand on why vaccine mandates work. We have delivered 50 million shots in arms across the United States to date, 50 million, and we are adamant about vaccinations. We are a healthcare company. So my organization at the corporate level has to be 100% vaccinated. I can’t have people in the stores, promoting vaccinations, and then we’re not vaccinated. That doesn’t work. So you have to live your culture, your mission and values, and be very, very clear about it.

Now, can I tell you how much pushback I’ve gotten about that? Because people are being told, and people don’t like to be told. They think it’s a partisan issue. It’s not a partisan issue. I take them right back to the definition of a healthcare company and what we’re going to stand for in this organization. And so if I didn’t do that, they would say, “Well, Roz, you’re not kind of forcing us or allowing us to live our mission and values.” And I’ve been adamant about it. And there’s several examples of that, of making sure that your decisions are aligned with what your culture states.

Sometimes it’s hard because you can say, “Wow, financially, this is going to kill me.” Because we’ve got a due date coming of when these vaccinations have to be done. I could have a fallout. There may be some people say, “Okay, I’m done, I’m leaving the company.” And you know what? I have to be prepared for that because I have to stand behind–we have to stand behind it, as leaders of this organization–what we really mean about providing localized healthcare when it matters and where it matters. And vaccines absolutely are curtailing the spread of this pandemic that we’re in.

ADI IGNATIUS: I love that clarity. I think if I have it right, you have something like 400,000 employees worldwide?

ROZ BREWER: Yes.

ADI IGNATIUS: Before we get to the sort of the vaccination requirement and what that’s going to do the workforce, how are you dealing now with how managing talent got harder? We’re in in the Great Resignation. There’s a question from Alexis in Dayton, Ohio, asking, “How are you dealing with the shortage of employees within the Walgreens Boots Alliance?” So talent is all stirred up. How are you thinking about talent these days?

ROZ BREWER: That is a really big conundrum for us right now. We are seeing it more at our store level, and you may be seeing that in our stores. What we have been doing is to make sure that we do everything we possibly can to retain the current talent that we have. A couple of examples of that, our pharmacists have worked to deliver those 50 million vaccines, those shots in arms, they’ve been working like mad. And so we wanted to recognize them. So we have adjusted the bonus structure and become close to a best-in-class bonus structure in the pharmacy area. We’ve looked at minimum wage. So to make sure that we are absolutely offering best-in-class pay that we can.

But then the other part is making sure that people love where they work. I think the next level that we need to do is to make sure that they have the right jobs. Some of the jobs now have become very, very, very complicated. Only imagine working in a Walgreens store where you were the cashier and all you had to do was check people out every day. And that’s the job you signed up for. But now you have long lines in the store from vaccines, and you have people asking questions, they’ll ask the cashier about, “You think I should get a third dose?” And the cashier’s like, “How do I direct this question?” So we also recognize that they have complicated jobs now. So we said to them, we see that your job is complicated because we’re out here in the stores watching, looking and trying to help. So we’re seeing them, we’re hearing them, and then we’re trying to simplify their jobs.

We’re putting in new practices, new policies. So that these individuals love coming to work every day. And sometimes, believe it or not, it is not about pay. It’s about, do I love the environment? So we’re doing quite a bit of work to say, you’re going to have the job that you love. We’re going to give you the experience as an employee that makes you want to engage with this as a company. And we realize some are going to step away, right. But then we hope that we can recruit. And we’re doing a lot of work right now in terms of recruiting.

And I do think that there’s going to be a day that people are going to return to the workplace because this is causing most U.S. companies, and even multinationals, to rethink who they are as a company. This is a great time for a lot of these companies to look at themselves and say, “Why don’t I have a company where people say, ‘Okay, it’s a tough time, but I want to come to work every day’?” This is forcing a better workplace in many of these companies. I just had a chance to talk to a lot of fellow CEOs and we’re all focusing on how do we create the best place to work? So people say, “Yes, pay me for the work that I do, but make me love my job. Help me love my job.”

ADI IGNATIUS: As you said, we’re in a transitional moment. More broadly, strategically, the social health disruptions have caused a sort of strategic rethink. And you’ve talked about healthcare and the importance for Walgreens Boots Alliance. But I think you’re really undergoing a strategic rethink and healthcare is the forefront of that. Could you talk about what you’re doing and what that says about healthcare administration, particularly in the US?

ROZ BREWER: What’s really happening at WBA is we are looking at the consumerization of healthcare. And it’s not unlike the work that I’ve done when retail went digital and e-commerce came in. This is an opportunity for us to really think about localized healthcare. Healthcare is absolutely local. And if we want to bring access and cost-effective healthcare to local zip codes, Walgreens is prone and primed to do that. We have 9,000 stores across the US, and this company has not avoided any zip code in this country. So we are dispersed in the most effective way to localize healthcare.

We learned a lot during this vaccine administration when, first of all, the education of why vaccines matter. We were in the forefront of that to make sure we were educating. But while we were doing that, it helped us realize that people don’t understand their own personal health. And they had been using our pharmacist all along when they’re diagnosed from the physician’s office, they grab that prescription, sometimes they’re in a daze, but by the time they get to the pharmacy and the pharmacy says, “You have three scripts, and this is how this needs to be done.” The consultation happens with the pharmacist more so than with the physician and we’ve been in that position. It was really just forefront for us, as we were administering the vaccines.

So this work that we’re doing now is to help us really be a part of the solution of reducing the cost of healthcare, which means how do we look at absolute costs? And that’s about transparency, because a lot of people don’t understand what it costs to get treated, so they avoid healthcare, getting care for themselves.

And then the second piece is to really get improved outcomes in healthcare. And what’s so important is to keep people out of the healthcare system. Once you’ve been diagnosed and you’ve got a care plan from your physician, all the monitoring, all the day-to-day upkeep, all the consultations that you need with a pharmacist or another practitioner, that keep people from returning to the emergency room, because that’s when the chronically ill–the biggest burden on the cost of healthcare is the chronically ill– and their return back and forth through the system because lack of compliance to their meds or whatever the situation may be. So we’re creating 1,000 physician-led clinics in our stores through VillageMD, the acquisition that we made. And then we’re adding 3,000 care centers called Health Corners, where there’s a practitioner, either a pharmacist or a registered nurse. Registered nurses in some states now can write scripts.

And so this is a way for you to say, “Okay, I can’t get back to my doctor feeling poorly today, but here’s what I’m dealing with. I’m diabetic, hypertensive. What’s happening here?” The beauty of WBA is that we are within five miles of 75% of the homes across the US. And so if you think that you can go within five miles of your home and get some intermediary care, we believe that we can begin to bring the cost of healthcare down.

ADI IGNATIUS: So here’s a question from Fatima from Iran. Her question is, “What would be your advice for women who are struggling to work their way up in a male dominated environment?”

ROZ BREWER: One thing about right now, trying to understand the workplace, is that we are learning one very important thing is the cost of daycare on young families. That may not be the case here, but in many cases that is keeping women out of the workplace. And I think there are some solutions coming forward around affordable daycare. That’s one thing. Let’s say you’re in the corporate environment, which I assume you are. I think that first of all, make sure you’re clear about who you are and what you stand for and what excites you, what are your passions? And really, really spend some time thinking about that, doing a personal inventory, because for women, what I see is that, because sometimes they’re held back, they take the next promotion, but it’s not what they really want to do. And then they get to the point where they say, you know what? I really don’t want to be in a staff position, I want to be in a P&L position. But you’ve probably taken promotions in one area and you can’t get out of it. You get pigeonholed.

I encourage women to really do a personal self-evaluation on what you’re passionate about and stick to it. Be willing to say no to a promotion. I took three sideway positions, where I came home and told my husband that I got a new job, and either I took a pay cut or my salary stayed flat and he wasn’t happy about that. But the learning experience was tremendous and those were the three most impactful positions I could have ever taken. I left Kimberly-Clark as group president, and I took a job as vice president at Walmart, but I wanted to learn retail. And I can’t come in as a senior VP of retail, I would’ve been fired the next week because I didn’t know what I was doing. But I was willing to take a step down to go much further, and then that’s when my career began to really explode. I was in a learning mode, but I took a step back to get ahead.

ADI IGNATIUS: Here’s a question from Octavia in Los Angeles. This is a very personal question. As a first generation student in your family, how did your time at Spelman impact your career trajectory?

ROZ BREWER: So everybody who knows me knows that’s my deepest love outside of my family, is Spelman College because that experience, that four years, had an impact on me. Being in an environment where people were studying and learning, that looked like me and had similar experiences, was very reassuring and re-enforcing to me that I could make this happen, because I had 400 other women just like me, next to me, doing the same thing. So it was very, very fulfilling.

But I would also tell you that there’s something about a liberal arts college, too. I’m a big supporter of liberal arts institutions, I think that they teach you critical thinking. I was able to do that at Spelman College, so that’s what happens being at an HBCU. The professors and staff and faculty at an institution like Spelman, it’s a deliberate choice to teach there. They’re absolutely capable to be at the PWI or the Ivy League schools, but they choose to educate a different kind of student, so the investment was amazing.

My senior year, six weeks before graduation, going into finals and studying for the GMAT, my dad passed away. And the chemistry department rallied around me and said, “Go take care of family, go home.” I left for 10 days, came back, they had laid out my plan for me. I had to take my exams, they made me be accountable, which was really interesting. Because believe you me, I was saying, “Well, can I not take these and graduate anyway, I’ve given you four years.” They were like, “No, you’ve got to take your exams, but we’re going to lay out a plan to help you do that.” And that was a good example of accountability. They were making me stand up for myself, but then they were giving me the opportunity and they laid out a plan. I felt so cared for. I left Spelman on the tip of my toes, thinking that I could solve all the world’s problems. It wasn’t true, but at least they made me feel that way.

ADI IGNATIUS: That’s great. You’ve been great in really sharing very personal stories and I want to ask one more personal question, and that’s whether you could share a turning point moment in your professional career that really made you the leader you are today.

ROZ BREWER: Yes. Probably when I had my first child and I was a young mom trying to stay in the corporate setting, and it was a time where I was being tested. I was working for a gentleman who had already said to me he didn’t think that I was smart enough to do the job that I was in, and now you’re becoming a mom. And so that was his thing: let’s think about you doing something else. And that was a turning point for me, because I set out to really prove him wrong that yes, I am going to be a mom, I’d held off long enough being a mom because of the corporate thing, and I was going to be a mom and I was going to prove him wrong. And I absolutely did, eventually.

He retired early and I actually assumed his role. And it took me probably 18, 24 months to do that, but I think my leadership showed up, my determination, my steadfastness, but also the appreciation that I was a mom, I didn’t hide that I was a mom. I did all the things, I went to daycare and all of those things, but I did what I had to do. And it was a turning point for me, because I could have easily at that very point stayed home, be a stay-at-home mom and believe what he said to me. And that was a turning point to believe in yourself. Don’t believe the hype of someone else that’s looking down on you. And it charged me, and it still charges me today, and it makes me think about the young women in my organization, and when they tell me they’re expecting and I’m like, “Okay, let’s get after it.” That’s fun. That’s what you want. You want people to come work for you that have a fulfilled life.

And we’re built around a family structure, so I want people to have a great family life. I don’t want anyone ever to be told what they can’t do because of what looks like might be an obstacle or a little break in time to stop them from being effective. I’ve seen people become actually more deliberate about the work they do because they have to parse out time. So I got better on my schedule because I knew I had to get to daycare to pick up a child, so I had to do 10 things before that, so it was disciplined for me. But that changed my life when he said that to me. And I wasn’t intentionally pursuing his job, I didn’t say to myself, “I’m going to put him out of a job.” It just happened. And, I don’t know where he is today, but I would enjoy shaking his hand. I don’t know where he is though.

ADI IGNATIUS: So Roz, I want to thank you for being with us today. That was a great conversation. I would love to find a way to do this again or get you back in HBR. So, thank you.

ROZ BREWER: That’d be great. Thank you everyone. I enjoyed it.

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Distributed work is here to stay — how your business can adapt

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Close the gap

It’s no secret that the business world and working environments have changed drastically since 2020. With fierce competition in recruiting for skilled labor becoming a critical issue for businesses, having employees in varied locations around the U.S. or even internationally has become an increasingly common solution. It looks like this distributed work model is here for the long haul, so it’s time to get your business on board.

What is distributed work?

Distributed work is defined as a business that has one or more employees who work in different physical locations. This can range from having different in-person office locations, remote work or a blend of the two — often termed “hybrid work.” Large companies having a distributed workforce is nothing new, as having multiple locations allows companies to meet more of their customers’ needs.

The difference now, though, is the massive increase in remote work triggered in large part by the COVID-19 pandemic, ramped-up competition for skilled workers, and how those factors have combined to impact smaller businesses.

If you’re struggling to keep up with today’s workforce demands, take heart. Distributed work can provide some solutions.

Millennial and Gen Z workers strongly prefer flexible working environments and a distributed work policy fits into that preference nicely. Additionally, distributed work structures have the benefits of increased access to international talent, more productive employees and higher job satisfaction.

How to adapt your small business for distributed work

Making the leap to a distributed workforce can feel daunting, but it doesn’t need to be. Software solutions tailored specifically for supporting a distributed work environment can help ease the transition and make your business run efficiently.

In this guide, we’re going to take a look at important adaptations needed to bring your small business up to speed for distributed work and how to accomplish them.

  • Get your business security up to date.
  • Tap into global talent pools.
  • Maintain quality communication between employees.

Let’s take a closer look at each point below.

Get your business security up to date

When remote work exploded in early 2020 due to COVID-19 office closures, it quickly became obvious that improvements to business security protocols were necessary. Now with many businesses planning how their company will operate going forward, security continues to be a crucial consideration.

What are some security considerations important for businesses with distributed work environments? Here are a handful of important security features you’ll want to think about:

1. Avoid losing business documents with automatic saves

The stress from losing hard work or entire documents altogether is something most people have dealt with at some point. Having to backtrack and redo lost work is tedious and unproductive.

The best way to avoid that ordeal? Automated saves.

With Microsoft 365, your Office documents are automatically saved for you. Whether it’s a document in the company Sharepoint or in your own OneDrive account, your hard work won’t go to waste.

Additionally, Sharepoint allows your company to collaborate on documentation without having to worry about whether the current document is the correct version. An average of 83% of the current workforce loses time daily due to document versioning issues. Microsoft 365 makes it easy to avoid lost time and frustration, with the added benefit of simplifying collaboration.

2. Maintain business security across all user devices

In the United States, 68% of organizations reported being hit by a public cloud security incident when polled in 2020. Attacks like these can cripple your business’ productivity and lower public perception of your company as a whole.

Both Sharepoint and OneDrive offer multiple layers of security to keep your business documentation safe on the cloud servers themselves, including:

  • Virus scanning for documents
  • Suspicious activity monitoring
  • Password protected sharing links
  • Real-time security monitoring with dedicated intrusion specialists
  • Ransomware detection and recovery

With these built-in protections, you can keep your company safe no matter where your company’s distributed work happens.

3. Adopt company-wide security policies

Effective company security policies protect your organization’s data by clearly outlining employee responsibilities with regard to what information needs to be safeguarded and why.

Having clear guidelines set ensures that both your company information and your employees are safe from security threats.

Items to include in your security policy might include:

  • Remote work policies
  • Password update policies
  • Data retention policies
  • Employee training guidelines
  • Disaster recovery policies

This list obviously isn’t exhaustive, so we’d recommend using a security risk assessment tool to pinpoint specific areas your business should address.

Note: Social engineering and phishing are major security threats for businesses of all sizes. To avoid becoming a target, your company must implement strong security practices for your users. For example, using a secure two-factor authentication setup can help prevent unauthorized users from accessing company documents.

4. Ensure communications are secured

Having a distributed work environment tends to mean that most (if not all) communications occur digitally. As such, keeping digital communications secure should be a top consideration.

Using Microsoft 365, you can ensure that your communication remains encrypted.

If video calls are a major part of your business needs, Microsoft Teams offers robust encryption for your calls. Additionally, email through Microsoft 365 offers top-tier anti-phishing protection for your business.

To learn more about available tools for secure business communication, refer to the Microsoft documentation here.

Tap into global talent pools

world map on a computer

The pandemic triggered a drastic reshuffling of how workers view their jobs, leading to what has been dubbed the Great Resignation. In the United States, more than 11 million jobs were sitting unfilled as of January 2022. With jobless claims on the decline, the domestic labor pool is small and competitive.

It can be easy to feel overwhelmed as a small company attempting to attract talent in the current labor market. You’ll want to ensure that you’re offering competitive wages and benefits, but it can be difficult to go toe-to-toe with large corporations.

However, this is another instance where distributed work can help. One solution? International talent.

The distributed work model makes employing remote workers worldwide more seamless than ever before.

A few considerations here to keep in mind, though.

  • You’ll need to apply for certification from the U.S. Department of Labor to hire outside the country.
  • Be aware of additional taxes that might result.

For more information, review the official documentation for this process.

Note: The same standards do not apply to international contractors, but there are special considerations for contractors as well. Read this guide for more details.

Maintain quality communication between employees

Successful businesses rely on open communication for everything from keeping employees up to date on company information to maintaining morale. Let’s go over a few ways to implement quality communication in a distributed work environment.

1. Cultivate a healthy work environment

Company culture can feel like an afterthought when your teams work separately from each other. However, cultivating a strong company culture is vital, especially for distributed work environments.

The first step here is to clearly define the company culture that you want. By setting the company standards early, your employees will be able to benefit from a solid starting point.

Second, reinforce the culture that you’d like to create. Setting goals, establishing performance metrics, fostering accountability, building trust with employees, and being open to feedback from workers all help reinforce a healthy company culture.

And third, it’s important to prioritize the mental and physical health of your employees. Encourage vacation time, allow for flexible working arrangements, and make mental health support a priority.

2. Foster open communication

Digital communication is key for distributed work environments, so keeping open and transparent channels for communication is imperative.

Email and chat tools are communication fundamentals, but fostering communication itself can feel a bit daunting.

Here are a few suggestions on building healthy communication for your distributed work teams:

  • Make empathy a priority.
  • Greet employees every day.
  • Create a virtual water cooler to encourage socialization.
  • Announce company updates directly.
  • Give recognition and feedback regularly.

By encouraging clear, focused — but also fun — communication, your teams will grow to trust each other and interteam collaboration can flourish.

Distributed work is the ‘new normal’

Building your business toward a distributed work model is a solid investment in growing your company in the future. Tools like Microsoft 365 offer an all-in-one solution to take the pain out of transitioning your business, so take charge of your business’ future today.



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Leadership

To Get Results, the Best Leaders Both Push and Pull Their Teams

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Over the past year, there has been a call for leaders to be less demanding and more empathetic toward individual employees. To get results, managers needed to rely on “pull” — giving employees a say in how they carry a task out and using inspiration and motivation to get them going. But an analysis of thousands of 360-degree assessments showed that the most effective leaders also know how to “push” — drive for results by telling people what to do and holding them accountable. The takeaway? Your efforts to increase empathy shouldn’t diminish your ability to, on occasion, push when needed. The data shows that it can be a strong force that builds confidence among employees. The key is to know when to use which approach, depending on the task, the timing, and the people.

When you see a task that needs to be accomplished by your team, do you “push” them to get it done or do you “pull” them in, giving them a say in how they carry it out and using inspiration and motivation to get them going? These are two very different approaches to reach a goal, and the latter is often the best one, but knowing how to combine these two paths is an important skill for managers and leaders.

Take this example from a client of ours. There had been an ongoing discussion about the company’s policies around the environment and sustainability. The CEO had allowed debate and encouraged everyone to weigh in. The CEO strongly supported the need for change but allowed time for ample discussion (using the pull approach). However, two members of the executive team were naysayers and dragged their feet on enacting any of the proposed initiatives. After two months of inaction, the CEO announced to the team that the company was going to implement two initiatives and stated that everyone needed to get on board (moving to the push approach). One of the executives balked at this and made clear he wouldn’t support the initiatives. The CEO terminated him by the end of the week (using the ultimate push approach).

Leaders who are willing to try hard with pulling but ultimately resort to a strong push provide a good example of the power of the combination of these two approaches. Pushing too hard can erode satisfaction but, at times, is needed, especially when pulling just doesn’t work.

In our research, my colleague Jack Zenger and I identified two leadership behaviors directed at the same end goal but utilizing opposite approaches. We call one behavior “driving for results” (push), and the other “inspiring and motivating others” (pull). Let me define what I mean.

Defining Pushing and Pulling

When a leader identifies a goal that they want to accomplish, there are two distinct paths to get there.

Pushing involves giving direction, telling people what to do, establishing a deadline, and generally holding others accountable. It is on the “authoritarian” end of the leadership style spectrum.

Pulling, on the other hand, involves describing to a direct report a needed task, explaining the underlying reason for it, seeing what ideas they might have on how to best accomplish it, and asking if they are willing to take it on. The leader can further enhance the pull by describing what this project might do for the employee’s development. Ideally, the leader’s energy and enthusiasm for the goal are contagious.

Gathering data from over 100,000 leaders through our 360-degree assessments, we measured both push and pull and found that 76% of the leaders were rated by their peers as more competent at pushing than pulling. Only 22% of the leaders were rated as better at pulling, and a mere 2% were rated as equal on both skills.

We also asked the people rating those leaders (over 1.6 million people) which skill was more important for a leader to do well to be successful in their current job. Pulling (inspiring others) was rated as the most important, while pushing (driving for results) was rated as fifth most important.

Understanding What People Want and Need

While our data is clear that most leaders could benefit from improving their ability to pull or inspire others, our research revealed that leaders who were effective at both pushing and pulling were ultimately the most effective.

We gathered 360-degree assessment data on 3,875 leaders in the pandemic. In this analysis, we did the following:

  • The direct reports rated the leader’s effectiveness on both pushing (driving for results) and pulling (inspiring and motivating others).
  • The direct reports were also asked to rate their confidence that the organization would achieve its strategic goals and their satisfaction with their organization as a place to work.
  • We ranked leaders’ data on pushing and pulling into quartiles and identified those who were low (bottom quartile) and high (top quartile).

The results are captured in the chart below. When both push and pull are in the bottom quartile, both confidence and satisfaction of direct reports are low. When push is high and pull is low, both confidence and satisfaction increase. When pull is high, satisfaction increases to a level substantially above confidence. When both are high, then you see the most significant increase. (Note: High confidence and satisfaction were measured by the percentage of people who marked 5 on a 5-point scale. This is a very high bar for satisfaction.)

Bringing Push and Pull Together

As many leaders across the globe grapple with retention and how to prevent their employees from joining the Great Resignation, they’re asking themselves hard questions. How do you motivate people to stay? How do you encourage them to increase their efforts? What is it they really want and need from their work environments?

Over the past few years, there has been a call for leaders to be less demanding and more empathetic toward individual employees. More pull, less push seemed to be what’s needed to retain talented employees. While I agree with this sentiment, this data also offers a clear warning. Your efforts to increase empathy shouldn’t diminish your ability to, on occasion, push when needed. As our data shows that it can be a strong force that builds confidence.

In fact, your influence as a leader comes from your ability to know when to use which approach, depending on the task, the timing, and the people. So next time you’re trying to accomplish a significant goal, consider whether your team really needs a good push, a big pull, or perhaps both.

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Leadership

How to Respond When an Employee Quits

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Someone giving notice doesn’t have to be the end of the world or the end of a relationship. In this article, the author offers advice for how to respond in a constructive and professional way when someone says they’re quitting. First, take a moment to digest the news. It’s okay to show you’re surprised or to say something like, “Wow, I wasn’t expecting that.” The last thing you want to do is react impulsively and say something you might regret that would leave the individual with a negative impression of you and the organization. Notice and manage any in-the-moment reactions and depersonalize the news. It’s also important to show your support and genuine interest in why they’re leaving and what they’re going to do next. And make sure to get alignment on what they need and what you need from them before they leave to ensure a smooth transition. It may involve some give and take and could include finishing a specific project or set of tasks, training others to take over these responsibilities to minimize disruption, or even hiring their replacement. Using these strategies can help all parties move on in a positive way.

With over four million people quitting their jobs each month during the first quarter of 2022 and 44% of workers currently looking for new jobs, it’s entirely possible that someone on your team could leave in the near term. And it may not be the person you thought it would be — or hoped it would be. It could come as a total surprise to you and be a key contributor on your team, someone with whom you really enjoy working and who has great potential in your organization. So, how do you respond when this person gives their notice?

While there are several things you should not do — like take it personally, belittle their new opportunity, or give them a guilt trip (among others) — there are six key elements to ensuring that you respond in a constructive and professional manner while processing the surprising news.

Take a beat

First, take a moment to digest the news. It’s okay to show you’re surprised or to say something like, “Wow, I wasn’t expecting that.” The last thing you want to do is react impulsively and say something you might regret that would leave the individual with a negative impression of you and the organization.

Notice and manage any in-the-moment reactions

During this momentary pause, take a breath and try to discern precisely what it is that you’re feeling. Susan David, author of Emotional Agility, shares that naming our emotions is the first step in dealing with them. Try to be as specific as possible. In addition to being surprised, you may feel frustrated, discouraged, hurt, deflated, betrayed, angry, miffed, irked, or deeply disappointed or just plain sad. There are many subtle flavors of negative emotions, and parsing out the specific emotion you’re feeling will help you create greater self-awareness and enable you to process your feelings more effectively and respond more constructively.

It’s when we’re not conscious of these negative emotions that they can unexpectedly emerge from below the surface, triggering unconstructive, reflexive comments or behaviors that you may later regret, such as lashing out or making a sarcastic jab or snide remark. It’s ill advised to share that you feel betrayed or angry, even if that’s the case — here, discretion is the better part of valor. However, if you’re sad or disappointed, it’s okay to say, “I’m so sad you’re leaving, but it sounds like a great opportunity. We’re going to miss you.”

Depersonalize the news

When we feel hurt or betrayed by such departures, it’s because we take the news personally. Even if you could stand to improve as a manager (let’s face it, we can all find ways in which we can do better), their departure is not a statement about your personal worth or how good you are as a person, so it’s best to put your ego to the side and rise above any strong or harsh feelings you may have. The individual might be leaving for a better opportunity, better compensation, personal reasons, or all of the above. The best career development path for them may be to leave the organization and get experience elsewhere. It is their career, so respect that they made the best choice for themselves, their career, and/or their family, which is the same anyone would expect you to do for yourself. They are showing loyalty to themselves — not disloyalty to you.

Be curious and show a growth mindset

Show genuine interest and curiosity to learn why they’re leaving and what they’re going to do next. What can you learn that would benefit you, the organization, and other employees for the future? You might ask, “What could we do to entice you to stay?” At that point in time, the answer may be nothing since they’ve likely accepted another position. But one client of mine let her boss know, when giving her notice, that a competitor was willing to bring her on at a more senior level with much higher compensation — something her organization had been dragging their feet on and had been noncommittal about for quite some time. Unexpectedly, within a few days, they came back with an even better offer that ultimately did convince her to stay.

While this scenario might be the exception, it’s still important to ask the question above, which might also be phrased as, “What else could we have done to keep you?” or “What appeals to you or excites you most about this new job?” Their response may be related to better work/life balance, the ability to work remotely, a more inclusive culture, a new and exciting challenge with more responsibility, or being more empowered to make decisions. This is all useful feedback for you and the organization so that these areas can be addressed for remaining and future employees, even if it’s too late to do anything about it for this individual.

Show your support

Maintaining positive working relationships with departing employees is important, well beyond the time that you actually work together, so show your support for their decision and enable them to leave on a good note. After all, you may need a positive reference from them one day.

Further, as a former employee, they are still a brand ambassador for the company and may be a future customer, client, or referral source for business and other employees. And by showing support and enthusiasm for their new opportunity, as disappointed as you may be, you are more likely to keep the door open for them to potentially return to the organization one day. So, celebrate their contributions and next endeavor, and ask them how you can be helpful to them as they start their new role.

Ask for what you need

When an individual gives notice, they likely have a desired end date in mind. After all, they will want to take a break before diving into a new job. Get alignment on what they need and what you need from them before they leave to ensure a smooth transition. It may involve some give and take and could include finishing a specific project or set of tasks, training others to take over these responsibilities to minimize disruption, or even hiring their replacement.

. . .

Someone giving notice doesn’t have to be the end of the world or the end of a relationship. As surprised as you may be, using the six strategies above can help you respond in a constructive way that builds the relationship and helps all parties move on in a positive way.

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