After a year like no other, where our working lives drastically changed – maybe forever – our people are still what makes our culture so unique. So, on the heels of our firm choosing to celebrate Staff Appreciation Week (April 19-23, including Administrative Professionals Day on April 21), we are truly grateful for all of the remarkable contributions that our team members make in support of our clients; fostering Fennemore’s legendary work ethic – and positively impacting the communities where we live and serve.
As you can imagine, this has also been an incredibly busy time for Cheryl Cecil, our Chief People Officer and a member of the firm’s C-Suite, our senior administration team. We recently had the pleasure of sharing a few brief moments with Cheryl on this celebratory occasion.
As Fennemore’s Chief People Officer and a member of the firm’s C-Suite senior administration team, you’re playing a big role in our Staff Appreciation Day celebration. Talk about the current state of the firm, especially after a year like no other in history.
Throughout my 25-year career at Fennemore, I have frequently said how easy it is to tell people where I work proudly. This is true more than ever. Crises bring out the best and worst of people. I saw firsthand the better parts of our human nature in the attorneys and staff at our firm over the past year, whether caring for each other during the pandemic to taking a stand against injustice to bravely undertaking a merger amid uncertainty. With clear eyes focused on the future, we are positioned well for success.
One key to this is understanding the importance of human capital and ensuring our most valuable assets are engaged and empowered regardless of position. That is no small task. I'm fortunate to work with an extraordinary CEO, management committee, c-team, and human resources superstars. These are some of the most exceptionally bright and creative people I know. We don't pretend to have all of the answers in this constantly changing world but are collectively ready to take on the challenge!
Hybrid work environments – a combination of remote working opportunities and traditional on-site workplaces appear to be here to stay. How do businesses retain their company culture – and what role does human resources play in this important work?
Fennemore learned a lot about remote working over the past year. When done well, it positively impacts employee productivity and wellbeing, and benefits the firm's bottom line. Trends underway in the business world when the pandemic hit have accelerated and intensified, and law firms are wise to see this is not limited to the industries in which our clients operate. It includes our own industry. The competition for attorneys and legal support talent will be fierce in coming years, and we already see that in our markets. Further, clients expect we will be looking at operational efficiencies and costs savings -- just as they are doing -- to keep rates in check. The post-COVID hybrid work environment contemplated by many organizations, including ours, generally hits the sweet spot of providing more flexibility for the employee and cost savings for the employer.
Culture is a key component to Fennemore, something that draws people to our firm and makes them want to stay. It is crucial to maintain. That said, retaining company culture goes way beyond the physical location of employees. We should be careful in our assumptions. An organization can have every single person come onsite post-COVID and still have a terrible culture. Other companies can structure workplaces differently and still rock it.
The whole point is intentionality and effort. We should ask ourselves -- What is our "why"? What are the mission, vision, and values of the firm? How do we imbue those throughout the organization? What is needed to develop connections that retain the fantastic talent on our team? How do we help people feel seen, heard, trusted, and valued? Once we answer those and similar questions, we can fine-tune culture-building mechanisms to take into account a hybrid workforce. In some ways, we need to do an Etch A Sketch shake to the "way it's always been done." Human resources can play a vital role in this by understanding organizational behavior and human dynamics and creatively helping to make the magic happen.
What drew you to this multifaceted field – and what are the biggest misconceptions about HR professionals?
Speaking of hybrid, I often refer to myself as a "weird hybrid" of highly analytical and highly people-oriented. A similar diversity of perspectives within the human resources field was a huge draw. The need to see the forest and the trees. The opportunity to help the organization and individual employees succeed. Contributing to both strategy and execution. Solving problems through analysis and creativity.
My entire professional career has been in some facet of human resources, and I've reflected often on the myriad of misconceptions that still sometimes plague the profession. It took a long time before businesses began to see the role as a key strategic partner. The human resources function was often viewed as a risk-averse transactional bureaucracy, too touchy-feely and disconnected from business realities. Part of this was built on a long-held belief that most employees were dispensable commodities who were naturally unmotivated, disliked work, and had to be micromanaged. That adversarial mindset also impacted employees' perception of human resources as the "enforcement" arm of the organization.
As managerial theory evolved, a new perspective developed recognizing most employees take pride in their work, enjoy the challenge, and thrive in a trust-based participative management style. A bright-line connection between employee engagement and organizational financial success began to emerge. Human resources professionals were specially equipped to be expert thought leaders to develop a robust people strategy. I've often said that when an organization is fiscally prudent (a business essential) and treats its people right, the dollars follow. We are now seeing a further evolution of best practices in leadership, with authors like Simon Sinek, Brené Brown, Seth Godin, and others expanding our understanding.
Do you have a favorite interview question that you always ask of potential candidates?
Mark Murphy is one of my favorite business writers, and his book, Hiring for Attitude, really influenced my interviewing style. He explains research showing 46% of new hires fail and, of those, 89% are related to attitude. Most standard interview questions contribute to that. Behavioral interview questions, a great concept, are easily destroyed by certain words. The goal is to select people with both technical skills and an excellent attitude that leads to a strong cultural fit. Some of the best interview questions begin with "Could you tell me about a time when . . ." -- without leading the applicant – followed by silence. Then, listen for the problem-solvers versus the problem-bringers.
You are one of the kindest, most-caring and happy individuals at Fennemore! What’s your secret?
What a generous compliment, and I'm honored by your question. A guiding principle both personally and professionally is to treat each person with dignity, value, and respect. I don't do this perfectly, but I genuinely like people and consider it a privilege to help them be successful at the firm.
A good day is when I've contributed in some small way to the firm's overall success and wellbeing, both as a business entity and as a group of diverse individuals. "Cup-half-full" thinking is hardwired almost comically in my brain and, despite being on this planet for more than half a century, I catch myself still surprised at the effort people sometimes put into being negative. I see potential everywhere, even in the face of adversity. Gratitude plays a key role in my life, as does my faith. I'm thankful to be doing a job I love with amazing people for an extraordinary organization.
Talk about your biggest career failure. How did you bounce back, and what did you learn?
As a high school student, I worked two jobs to save for college – one in the trust employee benefits department at the old Valley National Bank and one at a fast-food chain called Whataburger. Both taught me different, indispensable things that I took into my career. I was very fortunate to land an entry-level position in human resources out of college and have grown from there. Before that, however, I worked briefly in a job that involved cold calling sales and was 100% commission-based. Lesson learned: I am terrible at cold calling sales. There is no better way to say that. Not one to easily give up, I put in an incredible effort but ultimately concluded that weeks without a paycheck would make the rest of my life difficult.
What I didn't know then, but learned as a result of the experience was insight into talent management – help people play to their strengths. Marcus Buckingham, Tom Rath, and Gallup have done extensive research and writing on this topic. Most of us can easily rattle off our weaknesses, but have trouble identifying and capitalizing on our strengths.
When we assess and lead our individual teams, we should help them recognize and understand their strengths and then look for ways to let them shine in those areas.
What are you currently reading – and watching (streaming?).
Those who know me well will tell you I'm a learning junkie, adding random items to my "knowledge basket" in the hope they will be useful at some point. I lean towards nonfiction that helps me better understand business, people, leadership, neuroscience, and personal development. Audible is one of my best friends because I can multitask while walking, driving, or exercising. The book I'm currently listening to is Atomic Habits by James Clear.
My guilty viewing pleasure is documentaries. Most of the time, my husband and kids control the TV, but when I get the remote, it is almost always a documentary. The last one I watched was a recommendation by our own James Goodnow called All Things Must Pass about Tower Records. Two thumbs up!
Who is your hero, or the person that has impacted your life and career the most?
That's a tough question to answer. I have learned from so many. My kids and grandkids teach me every day. My husband is a terrific example. My team members consistently awe me. I work with a faith-based nonprofit that supports abuse and trauma survivors, and their resiliency and tenacity are amazing.
I'm perhaps most inspired by individuals who selflessly and sacrificially commit to others for their betterment and the common good. It is more a composite perspective than an individual because there have been many. This influences both my personal and professional life.
We proudly salute Cheryl – and all of our team members for their outstanding contributions to our success!
Are you perhaps looking for your next career adventure – at a place where you’ll be highly valued and regarded?
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