Debra Corey is a good friend of ours and an employee engagement evangelist. In this episode we dive into what it means to be a rebel in the HR space and how to cultivate a winning culture. You’ll get to feel of her energy and enthusiasm as we build a bridge based on proven principles to make a difference at work and give employees the flexibility they need in order to feel happy and fulfilled at work.



Speaker_Josh: Ladies and gentlemen, Welcome to the Podcast! This is Forging Employee Engagements and we have a wonderful guest with us today. This is Debra Corey, and we’ve had the privilege of meeting each other in person, haven’t we Debra?

Debra Corey: We have, you’ve come to a couple of workshops and been really active and engaging participant in all of them.

Speaker_Josh: I also recall that we were going to have a sleepover at Reward Gateway here in Boston, correct?

Debra Corey: We were, unfortunately, it hasn’t happened yet but you know what Josh, never give up. We could do that, I’m sure your working on which onesie to wear. Don’t give up the dream.

Speaker_Josh: We’ll keep the dream alive. I’m joined here with Alexander Noren and I just want to tell you a little bit about Debra. Debra is an author, a speaker and an employee engagement rebel. She is a Global Head of Engagement at Reward Gateway. She is an expert in understanding, applying effective and practical engagement practices. Her most recent book, Build It, is Amazon #1 Best Seller in Human Resources. She received praised from Dan Pink, Margaret Heffernan, and Patty McCord. Debra, what else do we need to know about you?

Debra Corey: I’m an HR person through and through. Although I’m a rebel now, I haven’t always been a rebel and so I think there’s hope for everyone. I’ve been a traditional HR person for 30 years, working lots of different environments and doing things in different ways. I tried to bring this breadth of experience but also this new rebellious attitude to everything I do.

Speaker_Josh: Tell us a little bit about that rebellious attitude. Because you know the game, you’ve been playing it for a long time and seems that there is a need for rebellion. Tell us a little about that.

Debra Corey: Yes, the great thing is it’s not just us. We’ve written a book on being rebellious but there’s a lot of people out there doing it which I think is fantastic. It’s all about taking a step back and making this realization that we need to start fundamentally treating our people differently. Just tweaking things, people like myself have been doing this for the past 10, 15, 20 years isn’t really enough or it’s not a big fundamental enough change to actually change engagement and I’m sure all your listeners have heard all the statistics on engagement and their only changing 1% a year. I don’t really think you need numbers to validate it. It’s about trying to make a significant change in what’s happening in the world.

Speaker_Josh: Great! Tell us a little bit on how you feel you are participating in that change.

Debra Corey: I’m doing it two ways. First of all, I’m doing it in my organization. Being an HR person, I’m trying to push and challenge myself and having a co-author like Glen, who is a much bigger rebel than I am, having him always challenge me. It’s making me a better HR person and I’m trying to use that to get out there. Everyone’s laughing with this world tour of mine getting out and speaking to people all over the world. Trying to get people thinking differently. So I’m doing it again in two ways both internally and externally and I’m loving it. Absolutely loving it.

Speaker_Josh: You’re also doing that with a purple construction hat as I understand.

Debra Corey: No, I did wear a pink one at a conference in the US. I try to make sure that people remember me no matter where I go. In the US, I wore a construction hat. The other day, I was in Iceland, I did something –  it didn’t really work very well –  but I did something with LED candles. Again, just trying to make an impact because you want people to remember your messages and you want people to remember you. I’m glad you remember the construction hat, you can borrow it whenever you want, Josh.

Alexander Noren: Well, I’m glad that’s what Josh was pulling out the presentation because I was blinded by that hat that whole time. I love this tour that you’re on. What are some of the main themes and messages that you’re trying to get across as you go across the world literally to shed this message?

Debra Corey: Again, it’s taking a step back and having a discussion and the bridge has 10 elements. It’s opening a conversation and a debate about each of the individual topics. For example, communications. It seems so fundamental to communicate with your employees but its taking that step back and think about, “Okay, are we really communicating to our employees in the right way. How can we be more open, more honest, more engaging?” Little by little, it’s just chipping away all the things we’ve been doing. Year on year and understanding what’s holding us back and what will take us forward. Doing that in each area of the bridge.

Speaker_Josh: Yes, give us a little bit more about on the bridge. That’s an amazing concept and we’ve been through the training with you. We definitely agree that these are important elements to an effective engagement strategy but what does it take to build this proverbial bridge in organizations?

Debra Corey: It’s not rocket science. We’ve been working with clients around the world, I’ve been doing HR for a long time, my co-author Glen Elliott has been an entrepreneur and CEO, it’s thinking about what are the different tools that we have to engage our workforce and that’s what the 10 elements are. To be honest, it doesn’t matter what you call it. As the matter of fact, when I do workshops around the world, I don’t even show the bridge. I start with, “What are your tools that you used?” and they all used different words but at the end of the day, we are all doing the same thing. Things like communications, recognition, leadership, management and so on and so on. All of the things we have that are going to help us build that bridge to engagement.

Speaker_Josh: That’s wonderful. Most companies that we’ve worked with have not initial started or have a very loose employee engagement strategy. What advice could you give for companies who are just getting started in this space?

Debra Corey: It’s a really good question. First, you need to understand what engagement looks like in your organisation. We were talking about this before everybody has their own definition and there is no right or wrong definition. It’s really thinking about what is engagement looks like. What does it look like in your workforce? What does it look like for you to meet your business objectives? We’ve been trying to do in our workshops is looking at each of the 10 elements and think about, “Okay, great. What does it mean in your company?”. Communication in my company is not going to be the same as another company. What do you need to do in your particular company? That’s the biggest change that we can make is personalizing it. Not doing the same things that your competitors doing, your neighbours because we’re all different.

Alexander Noren: As you gone ahead and spoken with people on this, what have you found that is the biggest or the most resisted that organizations faced when trying to start implementing these new strategies?

Debra Corey: Part of it is just the unknown. I can say this myself as an HR person you can be so busy in the day to day operational aspects. The great thing is leading this workshops, leading this speaking tour and seeing light bulbs going off on people’s heads. The first step is just to have that realization and understanding that you know what, we do fundamentally need to change and opening up that dialogue. How do I actually do that? Again, lightbulb after lightbulb after lightbulb which is why I try do that trick with the LED candles which didn’t work.

Speaker_Josh: That’s a good effort.

Debra Corey: It was a good idea but it didn’t completely work.

Speaker_Josh: That is a great lesson to be learned when we’re talking about employee engagement because like you said, there is no one perfect way to do it and that means there are moments of failure when we implement new strategies and they don’t work. Something that works for another company might not work for yours. It sounds like a journey that most companies have to undertake to build their culture and make a place where people want to work.

Debra Corey: I think you’re right. That’s one of the things in HR, I can say this from myself, I tried to get things right each time I do it and it’s one of the things we can be better in HR is to take a bit more risk. Try new things, yes my LED candles didn’t work but that’s because I realized that I wasn’t standing close enough to turn them on so next time, I’ve learned to stand next to the candles. Every time we do an engagement program that’s exactly what we need to do. We need to give it a try, doesn’t work, learn from it, try something else. As long as our employees know that we’re doing our best to find ways and we’re working with them in this journey and their going to be fine with it. They’ll be fine when things go well and even when we stumble, they’ll support us.

Speaker_Josh: Debra, do you have en experience where you’ve helped an organization or even an individual whose in a leadership position to implement a new strategy?

Debra Corey: I’m not a consultant, I’m an HR person. I’ve heard stories funny enough, I just went to an award ceremony yesterday for my company. We were doing awards for our clients. I had people come up to me and they were talking about how they use the bridge and how they use the theory. To be the foundation of their HR strategy and they were using that to build all of the individual building blocks with their CEO and the rest of the C suit. To me, that is the most exciting thing about this rebellious movement. Not just using the bridge as a philosophical model but using it build engagement. Starting wherever it make sense because one of the things we talked about with the bridge you need to build it on your own way. For me, at my company when I joined 3 years ago. I started with benefits then I moved on to recognition and now we are doing a lot with leadership and management.

Alexander Noren: I hear you talk about this process and it sounds frankly, a lot of work. I’m converted to the cause of engagement but for those less converted or more skeptical, what would you say to them to sell this idea that engagement matters, how you employees matter beyond getting the results that employees are paid to get?

Debra Corey: It is a good point. Some people look at it and think, “My gosh is it so much work.” It’s a lot more work to pick up the pieces when people are not engaged. If you don’t communicate in an open and honest way than what you need to do is to deal with all the rumour mill and deal with the people leaving because they don’t have the information. It might seem like its work to build engagement and bridge but if you off set that against the negative impacts of not doing it. There’s tons of statistics, we all know the statistics on the impact on engagement then its work that makes the difference. That’s the biggest thing is people need to realize that and the great news is more and more, not just HR but business leaders are seeing the true impact and wanting to jump on board and start in this movement.

Speaker_Josh: Yes, that’s huge. Holy cow! Back in the day, I feel like you are hired for this organisation to do a job, do you job well, and we will rip the benefits of that. In today’s world, with so many opportunities and so many different jobs available to individuals that we have to build our people up. I imagine it’s frustrating for companies to put all this effort to do employee engagement efforts and then they fall flat or they find the retention numbers stay the same. Could you give us one or two of the pillars themselves, maybe one or two of your favorites and give us a knowledge bomb for our listeners on what they can do in a practical way to start with the employee engagement experience.

Debra Corey: Sure. The first thing is just to start what you are trying to achieve to your point. For tension is your biggest problem. Understanding why, there are so much data out these days why are people leaving and talking to your people. So many people in HR, we don’t spend the time talking to our employees and they have so many nuggets of information in the book we have something about the Iceberg of Ignorance. Talking about as you go up in the organisation, less information is known at the more senior level and we could just tap into our employees and give them what they need. I’ll give you an example of something that I’ve done recently. Recognition, I’m a huge fan of recognition and some of the stats say that about 80% of people do not feel recognized. I challenged anybody listening, how bad is it not to feel recognized and how great do you feel when someone appreciates the work that your doing. A lot of people don’t do it, because they say they don’t have enough time. Again, I would challenge that you need to make time for this because it’s going to make people more engaged, more productive. We looked at recognition at our company. First thing I did, I spoke to my employees. We did an exercise, we did a say direct exercise. So what do you want to say to your colleagues about appreciation and then what you want to do. By listening to my employees, I got a better understanding of what would actually make them feel appreciated and give them the tools to be able to appreciate others and if I haven’t spoken to my employees I would designed it completely different way because for them, it wasn’t about financial recognition. They said, “We want to be able to give people a bottle of wine or go out to a meal”, it was more about sending those meaningful messages out to employees and it made a huge difference at my company. I’ve seen it make a massive difference in other organisations as well.

Speaker_Josh: Yes, I do believe that it is huge. I believe that is Reward Gateway’s purpose, one of their focuses is to help develop a strategy to help employees feel recognised.

Debra Corey: It is. It’s part of the overall mission which is making the world a better place to work which is such a lovely mission. When I speak at organisations, I’m like, “You know what guys, you can use this mission statement.” It’s not just ours somethings I have 500 people in Iceland say it with me. I want people to hear that message and I want them to do it because we alone in our company or not going to make the world a better place to work. Together we all need to do that. That is why we need to share stories and that’s why half of the book are actually stories of what we call plays. Because we want to inspire people not just through the strategic part of the book but the practical part of the book. And say, “Look, this is what other people are doing, now you figure how to make it work in your company and by the way, let me tell your story too.”

Speaker_Josh: Yes, that is amazing. It brings up a good point, I think most companies right now, their engagement strategy or their reward strategy is to understand what their employees going through, they have an open door policy. “Come to my office, talk to me. I’m a good person and I’d love to chat with you.” What were finding is that the data their receiving does create that Iceberg effect where you get kind of the cream of the crop. You have your favorites to come in to your office to talk to you what’s going on and the people who have the real problems aren’t coming into the office or they don’t feel that they can approach you and talk to you about it. And those people who are coming to talk to you about it are skimming some of the information now because they feel like they don’t want you to know the dark and dirt of what’s happening at the organisation and that is the cracks of the problem when you take a look at the whole Iceberg. There a lot more going on underneath the surface that we need to get into. I understand that Reward Gateway has added a new survey component to your presentation to kind of get a pulse on company cultures, is that correct?

Debra Corey: It is. I think it’s really important when I think about we were all excited when we started doing annual surveys. I can remember when we first started doing those and I think they stepped in the right direction. What we are realizing is that we need to do more pulse surveys you can do at any point in time because the world is moving quickly. If there is a specific questions that you want to ask people, just send that out. To me, it’s partly asking about the questions but is also what you’re doing with that information. That’s one of the things that in HR we really need to do a better job asking the questions to begin with and then going out very quickly. Doing something with that, not waiting. Three months to design a strategy and then another three months because our employees are going to give up on us and they are not going to continue giving us this really really valuable information.

Alexander Noren: Yes. That makes a ton of sense. When I hear things like that excites me about the future of what employee engagement looks like, what companies can be doing to help better understand their employees and adjust accordingly. For you, when you look into the future 10,15 years, what do you see as the field of engagement, who do you see companies in the marketplace as a whole incorporating or embracing this idea. What do you think looking forward this will look like?

Debra Corey: It’s more strategic, it was very much an operational approach. We go in and fix one part of the bridge and then fix another part of the bridge and what I hope what is happening is people are like Lego joining the pieces together and seeing how they touch each other. Right now, HR departments are two independent or individual and they need to start joining forces in working together within HR but also in other areas of the business. Our employees see them as connected and we need to start connecting them a bit more. Also, understanding which levers are going to work better and being more flexible and more adaptable to how we deal with engagement with less black and white in what we do.

Speaker_Josh: Debra, that is fantastic. We are about to be wrapping our show here but I just wanted to ask you one more time, with your 30 years of experience, if you we to meet with an HR director one on one today and share a piece of advice with them, what is the most important thing you would share to them?

Debra Corey: I always end my presentation talking about rebel acts and one of the three things that I talk about is being brave and I can really relate to this one because it’s difficult to be a rebel and it’s difficult to challenge the status quo especially when you’re going up against our leadership teams and our boards. I think we really need to understand why we are doing it. We are doing it to drive the business and to drive engagement. We really have to be brave and need to keep focused, keep strategic and drive the change. We are what our organisations need to do this and if we don’t what I call my rebel cape, if we don’t put our rebel cape on and be brave it’s never going to happen. We just have to keep fighting through the challenges that we are going to get and keep focused on the end game.

Alexander Noren: That’s fantastic. Honestly, that resonates whenever we as individuals are trying to pursue something that’s worth pursuing, it’s always difficult. I love that concept of being brave and being committed.

Debra Corey: As I said, I know what it’s like. I have a lot of uphill battles myself and if I had this mindset before I might not have given up so easily. I would have understood what I was doing and I would also get strength from others around me which is again why we are sharing stories. So that we can all build this strength, keep that cape on, and make a difference. 1% a year is not a difference. We need to do things differently together.

Speaker_Josh: We need to do things differently together. Listeners we’ve been here with Debra Corey. Build It – definitely a book I would recommend please go check it out. Debra, how can our listeners keep in touch with you?

Debra Corey: Well, the great thing is that we have a website for the book, its because the world doesn’t slow down. We decided instead of writing another book right away, we would just continue free information out there. You can download the first two chapters of the book for free. You can read lots and lots of plays which are the stories, we also have done lots of video interviews. Hopefully, lots of free content to inspire people and get people involved with it.

Speaker_Josh: I personally and still grateful for the book. The mission of Reward Gateway, can you just say that one more time as we close.

Debra Corey: Let’s make the world a better place to work. Actually, I need the two of you to say it with me on the count of three, shall we do it together?

Alexander Noren: Let’s do it.

Speaker_Josh: Let’s do it.

Debra Corey: One, two, three.

Alexander Noren/Speaker_Josh/Debra Corey: Let’s make the world a better place to work.

Alexander Noren: I love it.

Speaker_Josh: All right, Debra. We are going to end the show with that but thank you so much.

Debra Corey: All right. Thank you guys, have a good day!

Alexander Noren/Speaker_Josh: Thanks, Debra. Take care.

Debra Corey: Bye.