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Chief People Officer and Best-Selling Author Steve Browne on the All About HR Podcast

chief people officer steve browne

On this special, 20th episode of the All About HR podcast, Tom is joined by Chief People Officer and best-selling author, Steve Browne. Steve is known far and wide in the HR space as a respected thought leader, an accomplished author of two books, and for having a strong affinity for all things people. In this episode, they talk about where Steve’s people-oriented nature comes from and how he was able to channel that into a career in HR. Later, Steve shares one of his favorite stories he likes to tell on stage and the origin of the HR llama. They round out the show with Tom and Steve exchanging some fun stories about their days in hospitality, discussing why Shaquille O’Neal is the best customer, and what Steve believes is the biggest untruth in HR today.    

Special Guest Steve Browne

Steve Browne has devoted more than 30 years of his career to people and HR. Steve is the Chief People Officer of LaRosa’s Pizza, a popular regional pizzeria chain with 65 locations and more than 1,400 team members. He is a best-selling author of two books, HR on Purpose!! and HR Rising!! 

On top of this, Steve is an avid speaker and thought leader in the HR space, frequently speaking at regional and national conferences and events. He is the creator of the HR Net, a popular online HR community forum, and founder and contributor of a nationally recognized HR blog titled Everyday People. Last but not least, Steve is extremely popular in online communities, oftentimes ranking among the 100 most influential HR voices on social media and boasting more than 40,000 followers on Twitter. 

LinkedIn: Steve Brown   

Twitter: @SteveBrownHR   

Episode Summary

How A People-Oriented Nature Turned Into A Career 

Steve truly cares about others and has created a great career in HR because of his genuine passion for people. Tom starts the episode by trying to understand where Steve developed this consistent love for all things people. He asks Steve to think back to being a kid in grade school, and asks him if he was a people-person back then, or was it something that developed over time? Steve affectionately credits his parents and growing up in the small, tight-knit community of Ada, Ohio for his people-centric nature. He explains that in Ada, being such a small town, it was the norm to walk down the street and greet each person by name and always say “Hello” because everyone knew each other. He mentions that he believes some of it is just his nature, and some is driven by wanting to always make sure that people are acknowledged, valued, and heard.  

Steve then tells us a story about how he initially went to college to become a chemical engineer because he had always done well in math and science. After the first couple of quarters, he quickly realized that wasn’t the path for him, but he didn’t know what to do instead. It was his mom who pushed him into pursuing a career that involved his passion—people. He remembers coming home to visit one day and his mom telling him, “Don’t you see what you do? You work in the dorms, you’re active at your church. All you do is people. Find a job that does that!” So, he took his mom’s advice and enrolled in an interviewing class at Ohio University and that is where he made his first introduction to the world of HR. That path has ultimately led him to become the Chief People Officer in his role today. 

Steve’s Favorite Story 

Steve is known for being a great storyteller. During the episode, Tom asks him to share one of his favorite stories to tell when he is speaking at conferences, and one immediately comes to mind. He begins to tell the story of when he and his wife stayed at an Embassy Suites, and they met a wonderful woman named Yolanda working the front desk. He recounts how she greeted them by saying, “Hello! Welcome to my hotel!” and gave exceptional service throughout their entire stay. Before they checked out, Steve had a chance to chat with Yolanda and she told him, “You know, I’ve been doing this for 20 years. I love what I do. I love my job and I love taking care of the people that come here.” He was very inspired by her, and started using this experience to raise the question, “Why isn’t our job like Yolanda’s?”  

After opening one of his presentations in New Orleans with this story, a woman from the audience pulled him aside and asked if the Embassy Suites he referenced was in Houston. Sure enough, it was. He asked her how she knew, and it turns out she worked with Yolanda from his story! She reported back to Yolanda that Steve was sharing her story as an inspiration to thousands of people at these events and she was very touched. Steve mentioned that just last week, Jen from the audience sent him a photo of her and Yolanda. He finished the story by saying, “That right there, is why I speak.” 

Why Llamas Go Hand-in-Hand with HR 

When you think of HR, llamas probably aren’t the first thing that comes to mind. Well, you might re-think that after this episode. Tom and Steve chat about their shared love of llamas which gets Tom curious about where that originated. If you follow Steve on social media, you may have noticed that llamas are featured often, with people even sending him stuffed llamas in the mail. Steve shares with us that the llamas stem from a conversation he had with his friend Trish McFarlane years ago where they jokingly told stories about HR and llamas. Since then, he noticed that there were some similarities between the two.  

"Trish and I just start talking randomly and she says, “You like llamas?” and it just stuck. I said, “You know, it really fits.” For me, the reason llamas are so critical to HR is that they’re friendly enough that you want to pet them but if you tick them off, they’ll spit on you. So, I just like it."

Steve also mentions that Brent, the son of a colleague, approached him after speaking at a SHRM event and presented him with a small llama. He was very touched by this kind gesture and now carries that llama with him to shows.  

"It's going to go with me this week to Sandusky for Ohio SHRM. I took it to Austin. I took it to New York. If somebody is that caring to do something that meaningful, my goodness. Packing it and having it be another accompaniment in my show, that's easy."

Why Shaquille O’Neal is The Best Customer 

Shaq seems like a great guy, right? Right! Tom shares some stories from his days working in hospitality in Los Angeles where he had the privilege to meet the basketball star on many occasions. He describes how Shaq was always everyone’s favorite customer because he would treat all the employees with genuine kindness. When he would enter the building, he would always greet and acknowledge everyone, and call them by their name. Tom notes that this always went such a long way with his fellow staff, and they loved to give him exceptional service in return.  

Throughout the episode, both Tom and Steve emphasize the importance of treating people with kindness, taking the time to make people feel appreciated, and calling them by their name.

"Value the people for who they are and value them for what they do...too often we're focusing on what they do versus who they are...focusing on who they are, that's what differentiates any company. "

The Biggest Untruth in HR Today 

We finish the episode with Tom asking Steve what he believes is the biggest untruth in HR today. Steve’s answer is twofold. First, he wants to crush the misconception that HR is not people-oriented and that soft skills don’t matter. 

"It just it blows my mind that we have to tell each other, “Hey, be a people person.” HR people have a heart like no other. We keep treating everything like soft skills when they’re business skills. Empathy is a business skill. Listening is a business skill. Confrontation is a business skill. Creativity. All of these things. When we say hard skills matter, soft skills don't. You can't do one damn hard skill without all of the damn soft skills."

The second biggest untruth he identifies is that HR people can’t lead.  

"I have a job that can prove it wrong every day. And it's not because I'm a Chief People Officer. It’s because I chose to lead from where I'm at. I happen to be a CPO now, but I did this before I got the title, so I think HR people can, and should lead."

Full Transcript

Tom Horne: 

Welcome to All About HR. 

I’m your host Tom Horn and I’m on a journey to learn about all things HR. I’m documenting my conversations with thought leaders, HR professionals and real employees. Everything from recruiting, workplace of the future, benefits, you name it. We’re all about HR.  

Welcome back to All About HR, this is actually a special episode for me. It’s episode #20, so a mini milestone. I was just on the HR Social Hour Half Hour Podcast and I think there are 340 episodes but I’m super excited to be at episode 20. That’s a big one for me at just over a year. 

I couldn’t be more excited for our guest today; Steve Browne is joining us. He’s the Chief People Officer of LaRosa’s Pizza, author of HR on Purpose!! and HR Rising!!, speaker, creator of the HR Net, Llama Master of HR, and the best, most caring networker I have ever met. Steve, welcome to All About HR. 

Steve Browne: 

Hi Tom, this is great. I’m so glad to be with you. 

Tom: 

Yeah, it’s a pleasure. It’s the community that you help build and that you’re so active in is the exact reason I’m here doing this podcast. There were so many amazing people and I just wanted to learn. I just kept learning from these conversations and so I said, “Let’s put this on the air and see if maybe the audience can learn along with me.” So genuinely thank you, I wouldn’t be here without you. 

Steve: 

That’s very kind of you, thanks. I’m just excited to finally see you. Although I know we’re only on audio, I can see you and hear you, that’s very cool. 

Tom: 

Yeah, this is awesome. I can see the lava lamp over your right shoulder. I went to a boarding school in New Jersey. I was the financial aid kid at boarding school for the record, but I had a pretty extensive lava lamp collection. I just got my son one last year. My daughter is about to get her first for Christmas this year, so I’m a huge lava lamp guy as well. I don’t know if I’ve shared that with you. 

Steve: 

No, I think that’s wonderful. I think everyone should have one. They keep you calm; they keep you mellow. It’s just a good thing to have around. 

Tom: 

So, the first question for all of our guests: What are you listening to right now? Is it podcasts? Is it music? What are you listening to most often these days? 

Steve: 

Music. I have music on constantly. I’ll listen to some podcasts and some talk radio just to kind of break up my commute. But a lot of my commute when I’m driving is calling friends. I’ll call you and say “hey.” So, I’m listening to people first and foremost, but then music. Music is just kind of a fabric with me all the time. 

Tom: 

Yeah, you do a really great job of sharing your music collection, and I think in the Hot Sauce we’ll find out what some of the hot tracks are for you.  

My biggest question is, you’ve written books, you’re Chief People Officer, you’re a speaker, you show up to all these different podcasts. I see you on all the different Twitter chats, whether it’s from the UK, the Netherlands, or the US. How do you do it all?  

And I mean that broadly, but also you have to have some best practices for time management because I’m starting to add and I’m already underwater and I’m not even a third of the way to where you’re at. 

Steve: 

Yeah, I’ve never been a believer in time management. I think you have to allocate your time. How you choose to use your time, you own it. It’s your time to have, use, and be with. And things matter to me. So, making time for conversations like these matters. Making time for conversations at work matters. Calling people on their way home on my commute just to check in and see how people are doing matters. I’ve never been good with people who just want you to exist.  

There’s life going on. I’d love to say, “How are the kids? How do they like their lava lamps? How’d that go?” Knowing that about you matters and not enough people check in to do that. So, doing my job is about people. Doing my speaking is about people. Writing about our profession is about people. I know it sounds redundant and a lot of people go, “Ugh someone can’t be that people-oriented.”  

I was just starting Ted Lasso. Everyone had been telling me “Watch Ted Lasso. You’re just like him. This is crazy.” 

So, in one of the episodes, not to be a killer of the show, his marriage falls apart because he says, “My wife thinks I’m too optimistic.” And I go, “Oh yes!”  and my wife looks over at me and goes “Yes!” and I say, “Wait are we getting divorced now?”  

Yeah, but you know, genuine optimism just isn’t there in a lot of people. People want us to think that’s wrong. They think that it’s a show, that it’s fake. I am a genuine people person. One of the few I know because most people aren’t. They say they are, but when I see their behavior or see how they act, or see how they interact with others, it’s not consistent. I try to be there for other people. 

Tom: 

Yeah, and the consistency shows. So, where does this come from? If I go back to first grade Steve Browne, learning to read and write in the class with the kids, was it that way or is it something you grew into? Is it just who you are? Is it something you’ve learned about the world? 

Steve: 

I learned it primarily from my mom and dad. I grew up in a very small town in Northwest Ohio. Ada, Ohio, home of the NFL football. 

Tom: 

Oh wow. 

Steve: 

In Ada, it’s honestly like Mayberry, it just stuck. You know everybody. You know everybody walking up to town. You know everybody in school and everybody that was in church. It didn’t matter where you were at, you knew everybody. Then that carried on when I went to college. My friends hated walking to class with me because I would walk to class and say “hi” to almost every single person on the way, by name just because. I think it’s important that people get to know each other by name.  

So, some of it is natural. Some of it’s a yearning to really know that people are seen and heard. I did this long before the “I need to be seen. I need to be heard and I need to be valued.” No kidding, this is not new. It’s just now we’re awake and oh my gosh, it’s so different. It’s been missing. And so, I just really enjoy doing it. 

Tom: 

Yeah, that’s beautiful. I mean that’s the way it should be. So, as you were going through college—I didn’t realize I was going to get into the Steve Browne history here—but you know, it’s just kind of leading me here. As you’re going through college, you’ve got this predisposition and you care about people. Did you decide HR or how did you get to HR from that story? 

Steve: 

Yeah, I went to school as a chemical engineer because it’s supposed to make the most money. And I was very good at science and math. Very, very good. And then that lasted one quarter. This was before semesters. In the second quarter, I took chemistry and I took that for two quarters. And then, you know, after being the valedictorian in my high school, I was one grade away from failing college. I went home and my mom said, “Why in the world aren’t you in a field that deals with people?” and so I said, “Why?” And she said, “Don’t you see what you do? You work in the dorms, you’re active at your church. All you do is people. Find a job that does that!” 

So, I said, “Oh, okay.” She wasn’t that harsh, she’s very nice. 

But then I took an interviewing class at OU. In the interviewing class, at the end of the class, you were supposed to vote who was the interviewer and who was the interviewee, and I was chosen to interview myself. I was like, “There’s a sign right there, that’s a good one.” So, I went into recruiting. You know, I didn’t know. It wasn’t HR. I am so old, Tom I was in the personnel days, but it was people oriented. I tried recruiting and then grew from there. 

Tom: 

Yeah, it always goes back to mom, right? It always comes back. That’s how my career was. I was in college I was like, “Mom, I have no clue what I want to do.” I went to Business School and almost failed out the first year and I went, “Oh my god this is hard. Economics and accounting, like I can’t do this.” She’s like, “Yes, you can do this. Yes, you can focus.” But I was like, “I don’t want to be an accountant.” And she says, “There’s a hospitality school. You need to go into hospitality. All you try to do is make people’s day better. Make a career out of that.” So that’s what I did. Very, very similar story. 

Steve: 

That’s cool and it is nice. It’s funny, when we hear athletes give credit to their mothers it’s like, “Oh, isn’t that nice?” Tons of us wouldn’t be where we are without our mothers. 

Tom: 

Yeah, she was by far the most influential person in my life. Number two is my older sister. I’m blessed to have been surrounded by these two incredibly phenomenal women.  

I’ve got to give a shout-out to my little sister because she is also awesome. And I’m probably closer with her right now, than anybody at all anyways. So, I’ve got to give a shout-out to the whole crew now and make sure everyone is feeling love from Tommy here. I’m Tommy at home by the way. 

You know we’re family now so feel free to Tommy me. 

Steve: 

It’s on now. 

Tom: 

So, it’s show season and we’re talking about all these awesome things you’re doing. I would imagine one of your favorite things in the world is going out to shows because you get to see people and connect with people that you may know from Twitter or may know from 10 years ago. We’re going to dig into some of the details of being out at the show. What’s your favorite thing about going to shows other than just connecting with the people? 

Steve: 

Helping people think differently. I was just at New York SHRM—great conference. My goodness, I really enjoyed it. They’ve been asking for years, and I was finally able to get it on my schedule and on their schedule.  

What was telling though Tom, is in the sessions I’ve listened to prior to being able to give a session myself, is how stuck people still are. How traditional people still want to be in HR when it’s moving light years ahead of them. And I’m concerned that my peers are holding onto these old things that haven’t been valid in decades. And they’re not trained to press the envelope, so my favorite thing is getting people to think differently. I am not a prescriptive speaker. I’m a storyteller, so I’ll tell you stories and give you ideas and give you examples, but it’s really up to you as the attendee to say, “How can I apply that and what I do?” If I’m in hospitality, it’s different than if I’m in manufacturing or if I’m in professional services, or pick an industry. So, I get a little angst when I hear people go, “Here are the four things…” because here’s what’s funny is, if there was one model why do we keep having models?  

Tom:  

Ah, yes. We’ve discovered the only four things in 2022 after centuries of business.  

Steve:  

Right. Then the other thing I love doing is destroying catchphrases. It just drives me crazy. This whole Great Resignation, and Quiet Quitting. It’s like let’s find the most alarmist term ever and slap it into HR and now we have value. It’s sad to me, I want to see us thrive. I want to see us lead. I want us to have people understand there’s someone that believes in what they do and who they are. So, when I get a chance to be on stage, that’s where I try and focus.  

Tom: 

That’s fantastic. So, when you’re out speaking this year, you’re focusing in that area, but let’s go a layer deeper. What are some of the things you’re trying to do? Or actually, give me one of your favorite stories that you tell on stage. You’re a storyteller. I want to ask some nuts-and-bolts questions, but would you mind sharing one of your favorite stories?  

Steve: 

Oh, not at all. This is the presentation I did at national, and I’m doing it now. My wife and I went to Houston and spoke at Perry Homes. Got to speak to their HR team. It was fantastic. What we’ve learned is when I travel to these places, I love going with my wife because she’s been so patient with me for years. When we’re there we say, “What should we do now that we’re in Houston?” Well, ask the people that live there and you will hear stories that you’ve never heard. “Go to this BBQ joint. Go to this store. Go to this museum.” And they’ll tell you all these things that sometimes affirm what’s online, but a lot of times they just tell you things you never would have seen. So, we’re having a great time and ready to go. 

We come around the corner of where I was speaking, and here’s the Embassy Suites Hotel. As my wife and I are pulling our luggage through the lobby, this person behind the desk says “Hello! Welcome to my hotel!” and I’m like “Ah, who’s this?” 

My wife is like, “Oh no.” 

So she goes, “Well my name is Yolanda. Are you here to check in?” Well of course we were. But we were but we’re like, “Well, yes we are.” And we were just astonished. She says, “I’m so glad. Let me tell you a little bit about the hotel and we’ll get your room all set up.” She was phenomenal. At the end of taking care of us, she said, “I will be here all week if there’s anything you need, you come see me. And I thought, okay we’ll let’s see if that’s true.  

The rest of the week, whenever Debbie and I walked through the lobby, Yolanda would say, “Hello Mr. and Mrs. Browne. How are you doing? How’s your stay so far in my hotel?” And I’m just like, “Can I just talk to you a bunch?” At the end of our trip, I needed to print out a boarding pass because somehow it wasn’t getting on my phone and it was just weird. So, I went down to the business area. At the business area, the computers didn’t work, and the printer didn’t work. So, I walked over and I said, “Yolanda,” and she said, “Hi Mr. Browne!” I tell her what’s happening and she goes, “Come use my printer.” I said, “Am I allowed to use your printer?” She says, “I will just make an exception, come along and break the rules.” I said “Alright, we all break the rules… Can I check people in?” She says, “No, you can’t check people in.” But you know I thought I’d try.  

So, I printed my stuff, she took care of us. She says, “You know, I’ve been doing this for 20 years. I love what I do. I love my job and I love taking care of the people that come here.” The whole point of the story is why isn’t our job like Yolanda’s? Why aren’t we the people who go, “Welcome to my…” because it’s mine and I see myself in it.  

I told the story, and it was a great opening. In the audience in New Orleans, somebody gets up afterward, and pulls me aside—I’m very fortunate, a lot of times when I speak, people stand up later and we talk and I hear their stories. So, she says, “Hey, did you stay at the Embassy Suites in Houston?” And I said, “Yeah, why?” and she goes, “I work with Yolanda.” I go, “What?” 

She says, “So while you’re talking, we were tweeting her and texting her and telling her how amazing this is. Here’s this guy telling thousands of people about you!” 

Last week she sent me a picture. Jen sent me a picture of her and Yolanda.  

Tom: 

Wow, that is fantastic.  

Steve: 

That is why I speak, right there.  

Tom: 

I’m really glad I asked that question. I mean especially being a hotel guy myself too. You’re right, that absolutely is applicable to human resources, people, and workplaces. Any job. Any role. Anything you do is applicable, so that’s fantastic.  

That leads me to why aren’t we further along with that piece? I get the systems and I get that it’s a business and we need to have money and everything has to flow through budgets. I get the world. But it seems like just welcoming people—like Chick-fil-A, they’re killing it in a lot of ways of hospitality because they say, “Thank you”, “Please”, and “How are you today?” How is that not permeated more? I think Human Resources is a perfect gateway for that to come into the workplace and spread. Why do you think that hasn’t happened more often?  

Steve: 

We keep looking at the human component separate from the business component. It never has been, but we treat it that way. All of the human component things in business—and I know this is a generalization—are problem oriented. “Hey Tom, I need to talk to you about Dave.” You just hear the tone go down, the anger go up, and the flames start burning. So, the vast majority of people interactions are focused on problems instead of expecting performance through their people.  

Yolanda is a great example. The Chick-fil-A people are great examples of, “This is what we do in order for you to be a part of our business.” It’s not separate. Too many companies say, “Well, HR is over here.” My rule I always say is if you hear the term “I have to go to HR” you’re not part of the company.  

Tom:  

I love that. 

Steve: 

You’re not inside the company. You exist if I need you, when I need you, or if things are on fire instead of saying, “I work with HR all the time.” HR has also allowed itself to be on the outside saying things like, “Oh gosh darn it. I don’t want to be on the outside.” instead of saying, “I’m done with this and I’m getting inside and integrating what we do.” 

Tom:  

Yeah, that’s true. As I came up in hospitality I was never in HR. I was always around HR, and I always loved HR. I’d always say, “Oh, I have to do this documentation. I need this. I’m going to go to HR and check” and they’d be like, “No, no, you’re fine. You don’t need to.” I was like, “No, I like them, I want to. I value them, they’re great, they help me.” 

That’s part of the reason why I’m here today, I was able to see that. As a manager, I tried to bring them in. When I worked in the fitness industry, I spent 10 years with a director of HR who was fantastic, but she had no ability to do anything in the company. I built this relationship with her and pulled her out of the HR office and corporate. I would tell her, “Get down here to my club, right now. Let’s do a walkthrough. Let’s go to lunch. Let’s have people see you.” And I did it because I wanted to see her, and I saw the benefit. Sure enough, she started going out and around to a lot more clubs.  

I’m not going to take credit for it, but I think she realized, “Oh wait a minute. There are things I can and can’t do in my role in the culture of this company. There are a lot of things I can do, despite some of the lapses in getting HR a seat at the table.” She’s still there and I’ll talk to people and say, “Hey do you ever see Terry in the clubs?” and they’re like, “Oh yeah!” 

So, I love your story and it’s just so humanizing. It seems so easy, right?   

Steve: 

I think we try and make things, programs, initiatives, and systems instead of saying, “I’m going to give you the opportunity and the latitude to do it.” That’s all you did for her. You said, “Hey, you know what? It matters. I’m going to open this door for you because I want you here and watch what happens.” Then we’re like, “Well, what’s that initiative? What are we going to call it? Let’s have a tchotchke that matches it.” 

No! Just open doors for them. 

Tom: 

Right, it’s always, “What should we name that?” 

Steve: 

Yeah, let’s get another acronym. That’ll be awesome. 

Tom: 

They would say, “We can call them Lobby Lizards.” and I would say, “No! No, we’re not calling people Lobby Lizards. Just stand out in the dang lobby and talk to people because you want to talk to people.” Like why would we call them Lobby Lizards? It’s a total hotel club term. It’s just it’s the worst. 

Steve: 

That’s a whole different HR issue. Uh oh, the Lobby Lizards, I better write that one down. 

Tom: 

I don’t want to be called a lizard either! A llama is acceptable. 

Steve: 

Llamas are good. 

Tom: 

I literally saw some llamas driving from my sister’s farm in Parker about 30 minutes from me, and my daughter goes “Llama!” and I immediately thought of you. Not to come back to the llama—actually yes, to come back to the llama. We’re going to kind of ease out of the topic.  

You have a llama that comes to every show with you. Is that correct? I saw somebody’s…child gave it to you? What was that story? I remember seeing it and I loved it. 

Steve: 

Tina Marie Wellfield came to see me when I spoke at the Toledo SHRM Chapter. Her son came and afterward he’s just a sweet little kid and he says, “Here” like this (presenting a stuffed llama in his hands). And I said, “I will take this Brent, to everywhere I go.” And I do. It’s going to go with me this week to Sandusky for Ohio SHRM. I took it to Austin. I took it to New York. If somebody is that caring to do something that meaningful, my goodness. Packing it and having it be another accompaniment in my show, that’s easy. 

Tom: 

So, is that where the llama started? 

Steve: 

Oh, no. Haha, no.  

Tom: 

Okay, I thought it was there beforehand. Are we allowed to talk about it? 

Steve: 

Sure! Years ago, Trish McFarlane, who does the HR Happy Hour— 

Tom: 

Yeah, I love Trish. 

Steve: 

Trish and I just start talking randomly and she says, “You like llamas?” and it just stuck. I said, “You know, it really fits.” For me, the reason llamas are so critical to HR is that they’re friendly enough that you want to pet them but if you tick them off, they’ll spit on you. So, I just like it. That’s good HR, you know. 

Being a little prickly is okay as an HR person. We tend to be way too nice. Yeah, like I’m going to lure you in with my fur and then get ya! So, it’s just a fun thing to rally around. There are so many things Tom, that people are just looking for that connection. So, if a llama is going to do it, or lava lamps or toys, or you name it, just so people enjoy who they are and what they do. It’s great. So, now people send me llamas. My wife is like, “What are you doing? I have llamas all over my house.”  

So, if it connects you and makes you feel a part of what we do is meaningful, I’m in. 

Tom: 

I’m glad I asked. So far, I’m having the best time on this. I’m going to take a quick pause. We’re going to jump in and then we’ll be right back.  

All right, it is time for the HR Hot Sauce. Steve, are you ready? 

Steve: 

I am! 

Tom: 

What is the best job you have ever had? 

Steve: 

The job I have now. I can’t say that enough. I have the executive job and the HR job that people dream of. So, it’s the role I’ve been in. 

Tom: 

That’s my favorite answer.  

What’s one phrase at work that drives you nuts? 

Steve: 

‘On the same page.’ Oh god, I just can’t handle it. Because it’s not. It’s whoever has the most authority in the room. That’s their page. 

Tom: 

Do you like working on rainy or sunny days? 

Steve: 

Rainy days. Because sunny days are awesome, but rainy days you can be contemplative and reflective. People kind of mellow out a little more on rainy days. 

Tom: 

How can someone make your day at work, Steve? 

Steve: 

Not do a shotgun, drive-by, hot ‘Hello’. Say hello and stop and see how I’m doing or allow me to do that as well. I hate people that just go by you. It just drives me nuts. 

Tom: 

What’s your favorite song to bring you out of a funk? 

Steve: 

Vertigo by U2 and Thunderstruck by ACDC. 

Tom: 

What’s your best useless skill? 

Steve: 

Haha, that’s great! My best useless skill, oh boy, I think I have to ask my wife that. Ah, my best useless skill is when I write a song parody every week for the HR Net. People go, “How do you do that?” I just hear music and go, “Ah!” and I’ve got to write a rhyme, so I just do it. 

Tom: 

Yeah, they’re solid.  

Finally, medium, mild, hot, or nuclear? 

Steve: 

Medium.  

Tom: 
Medium, I love it.  

Okay, you’re off the HR Hot Sauce hot seat. Let’s get back to the show. 

Alright, we’re back. That was a fantastic llama discussion. We talked a lot about hospitality. We are both in the hospitality area. I ran restaurants. I ended up closing a chain that I was a CEO and co-owner of right before COVID hit, which put me right back into HR technology, which is where I’m at today. At the time it was the worst experience of my life. I laid off 110 people in person. It was horrible. 

Steve: 

Oh wow. 

Tom: 

In hindsight, it was the best thing we could have done because I was able to give them a paycheck and give them notice and do it on our terms. And if we had waited, COVID would not have allowed us to do that. It would have caught up to us. It was extremely hard, but it led me here. So, every door closes, and another one opens.  

You’re in hospitality. You have a team of deskless workers for the most part. When I was running a restaurant, I remember my office as a general manager was in a single stall bathroom with the toilet removed and my desk put in. Like that was it. Flickering lights until 2:00 in the morning doing schedules. I have the utmost respect for the hospitality worker, and you were lucky enough to be the Chief People Officer for an organization that has all these people serving communities. How do you connect to that team? How do you lead that group of people in your role? 

Steve: 

It was interesting when I joined here, and I’ve been here 15 years, which is the longest I’ve been at any job. When I joined many of my HR peers go, “Oh…hospitality, restaurants. Agh, you know that’s rough!” 

I’m like, “Why is it rough?” 

And they say, “Oh the people! And the schedules! And no one is reliable.” And it’s just not true. 

The people we have are the salt of the Earth. It’s funny, at the beginning of the pandemic we were quote “essential” because we fed you. Now that we’ve been into it for several years, it’s back to normal and they’re invisible and not as essential, which is just an absolute mistake. I’ve been able to do HR in the restaurant industry because I have a great team. Julie, Shawna and Rebecca. They’re amazing, without them I wouldn’t be able to do what I do. I wouldn’t be able to be on here with you.  

At the same time, we take care of our people one person at a time. I’ve never believed in collective HR. Everything fits everybody. It’s funny, we want to say everything fits everybody—but let’s be diverse and let’s be inclusive, and let’s do belonging. 

But then you go, “Wait what? Huh?” 

So, my thing is, Tom for Tom, Julie for Julie, Shawna for Shawna, Dave for Dave. Pick a name. If I take care of you as a person, the whole at work—the company was kind enough to let me try this out. And now we’ve been at it for 15 years. So, it works. Value the people for who they are and value them for what they do.  

Similar to your fitness story, I go to stores all the time. I go at different shifts, I meet people where they’re at and what they’re doing. I go and buy their food so that they can show the artists that they are. I mean, just really giving people merit, because if they take care of me as a fellow team member, then I know they’re going to take care of our guests. If they take care of our guests, I get to keep a job. 

Tom: 

Yeah, absolutely. One of the other things that I always look at with hospitality is if you want to test what Steve is talking about, call anybody at any restaurant or counter by the name on their name tag. Just say their name, say “Hey John, how you doing today?” You will see them light up. You will see them open up and talk to you. You will see the service—even if they give great service to everyone, there’s just that extra little bit of sparkle. And to me it never proves wrong. It just shows how they’re all just individuals. It’s not just this person taking my order, or this person is going to clean my tray, no matter what the role is. Try it out, use people’s names when you’re checking out the grocery store. Use people’s names. Treat them like people and you will see 

I’ve never worked with better groups of teams than when I worked in restaurants. A lot of them were all these teams labeled as too hard to deal with. You just come in and talk to them like people and then you treat them like people. I’ve never been able to form teams more easily than with them, because the hospitality people, they’re there for some reason, to create an experience. 

Steve: 

Yeah, I think it’s great advice Tom. Because too often we’re focusing on what they do versus who they are. If we focus on what they do, they’ll do what they do easily. They know that already. But focusing on who they are, that’s what differentiates any company. I would do that if you’re in engineering. I’d go, “Hey Tom, how’s it going? How’s that drawing going today? Man, way to kill it!” because they’re not hearing that. It’s a shame. It’s not hard to do, it’s hard to be willing to do it. The action is easy, the willingness is what’s missing. 

Tom: 

I love that differentiation, it’s huge. I say the difference between being good and being great is a millimeter that’s a mile wide. That’s exactly what you just described. I love it. Incidentally, from hospitality, you know who does that better than any celebrity I’ve ever met—I’ve met this gentleman probably 100 times—but Shaquille O’Neal. 

Steve: 

Oh, yeah! 

Tom: 

He’s come to three of the hotels I’ve worked at, three of the restaurants, and he was a member of one of my clubs in LA. At one point he’s like, “Are you stalking me?” and I was like, “No, no we just have good taste in places to be, I guess.” Every single time he would go in he knew everyone’s name, called them by name, and was just the kindest, nicest guy. And guess who got the best service of anybody on the entire planet? Shaquille O’Neal. Red carpet, freebie everything even when it didn’t have to be, just because everybody appreciated it. And it was consistent. It wasn’t just a good mood check or a bad mood check. High end, low end, everywhere. Same person and it all just came down to using people’s names. It was incredible. 

Steve: 

That’s wonderful. 

Tom: 

Alright, I want to kind of land this. We’re getting close. I would prefer to talk to you all day, but my guess is you’d prefer to go back to your wife and family or talk to some folks in your office. (Laughter) 

I feel like you’re the best person to ask this question. What is the biggest untruth of HR today? 

Steve: 

The biggest untruth is that HR isn’t people oriented. It just it blows my mind that we have to tell each other, “Hey, be a people person.” HR people have a heart like no other. We keep treating everything like soft skills when they’re business skills. Empathy is a business skill. Listening is a business skill. Confrontation is a business skill. Creativity. All of these things. When we say hard skills matter, soft skills don’t. You can’t do one damn hard skill without all of the damn soft skills. 

Tom: 

Haha, can we get that on a t-shirt, please? 

Steve: 

So, it’s just amazing. We go, “Hey, be nice to people” and they’ll go, “Well no, that’s a soft skill.” I mean come on. 

The second biggest untruth is HR people can’t lead. I have a job that can prove it wrong every day. And it’s not because I’m a Chief People Officer. It’s because I chose to lead from where I’m at. I happen to be a CPO now, but I did this before I got the title, so I think HR people can and should lead. 

Tom: 

Lead in the role you’re in, not for the title you want. 

Steve: 

Right. 

Tom: 

I don’t think we can do better than that. Steve, it’s been an absolute pleasure. This is so much fun. I will come and see you at a show. I will show up one time and tell you one of my other stories and I can’t wait to hear more of your other stories. 

Steve: 

That’s great, Tom. Hospitality people have the best stories, period. We cannot be beat, so I’d love to hear them. 

Tom: 

We could probably just have a podcast on hospitality stories. Now you got my gears turning. We’ll save that for next time. Steve, thank you very much. Everyone out there listening, I really appreciate you tuning in. I learned all about HR today. Hope you got something out of it as well. We’ll see you next time, thanks again, Steve. 

Understand, engage, inspire and retain your people like never before. People Element’s, employee experience and engagement solution delivers powerful intelligence, giving you the confidence to act. To learn how you can gain a better understanding of your employees, please visit us at peopleelement.com 

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