Q&A with #SHRM19 Speaker Chris Mullen, SHRM-SCP – Work Inspired: How to Build an Organization Where Everyone Loves to Work


I had the distinct pleasure of talking with Chris Mullen, SHRM-SCP about the amazing approach to building an organization where everyone loves to work. I loved his thoughtful methodology on how important workplace culture is to employee retention and employee engagement. I’m excited to see Chris speak at the 2019 SHRM Annual Conference and Exposition this month in Las Vegas. I decided to interview Chris because he has a motivating attitude that gets you pumped about workplace culture!

As you finalize your #SHRM19 schedule, add Chris’ Mega Session to your list for Monday, June 24, 2019 at 7:15 a.m.

Christopher Mullen, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, a thought leader on performance, development, and talent strategies, Chris is director of strategic advisory at Kronos, a global leader in workforce cloud solutions. With fifteen years of experience as an HR practitioner focused on maximizing engagement, Mullen helps organizations inspire their own workforces by optimizing technology and refreshing outdated processes with people-centric solutions to enhance the employee experience and drive better business outcomes. Mullen holds a Ph.D. from the University of Northern Colorado, where he focused on the impact of mobile technology on work-life balance, as well as a master’s degree from West Chester University of Pennsylvania.

Chris, your session, “Work Inspired: How to Build an Organization Where Everyone Loves to Work,” is a topic that is being discussed at many board meetings across the world. With there being a direct connection between an inspired culture and business success, how do you help new managers and employees understand the culture of your organization?

It’s easier said than done, but it’s not impossible. One of the most important things that an organization can do is first define its culture. Far too often, at those same board meetings, the idea that the organization offers good benefits, some degree of corporate social responsibility, and a pleasant atmosphere in the workplace is mistaken with having a clearly defined culture that sets the tone for how the business is expected to behave. Even if HR has defined the culture, it’s paramount that executive leadership models that culture. Trust, communication, accountability, innovation, safety and well-being, empowerment: if the C-Suite isn’t bought in, everything else is just window dressings that employees will see right through.

Inspiring new employees and managers really starts at the very beginning, especially in today’s competitive environment. If they’ve taken a job with you, that means you’ve done a good job with your employer branding and selling them on the promise that working at your organization is an opportunity to make important contributions to a meaningful mission. This makes the onboarding experience absolutely paramount.

Onboarding should be a specific, intentional process that introduces the new employee to the organization, helping them understand their role and how they can make an immediate impact. Let’s get one thing clear right away, too: orientation is not the same thing as onboarding. Filling out paperwork, watching a video about the company, and going on a tour to see the break room and restrooms are all important first day tasks, but it does nothing to integrate the new employee into the team. We talk about onboarding a lot at Kronos, and in a recent study of HR professionals we did in partnership with Human Capital Institute, we found integrating an employee into the culture is the most important piece of onboarding, yet it only makes up 30 percent of onboarding programs.

Little moments are often just as important as the big strategic initiatives. Can you give me an example of how you’ve handled each during your career?

As exciting as someone may be to accept a new job, it’s also an extremely nerve-wracking decision. I once asked an employee, years after she joined the organization, “why did you come to work with us?”  

She said, “Chris, what sealed the deal for me was when I got an influx of emails from people who worked there - before my first day - wishing me a happy birthday!” She said it reinforced her belief that she was joining an organization where people cared for each other, which was so important to her and set the tone for her first day and week.

I know there are plenty of HR teams out there who are tasked with making big changes with limited budget. In this instance, it didn’t cost us a cent but made such a huge different. Now not everyone has a birthday right before they start a new job, but part of my process when I was a practitioner was looking for meaningful moments that showed how much we appreciated someone’s decision to come work with us.

For those big initiatives, I’ll use my own experience as a new employee at Kronos. Aron Ain, Kronos CEO, is passionate that every employee deserves a great manager. We all know that people join an organization because of the company reputation but leave because of their manager. I joined Kronos with almost 20 years of experience managing people. In fact, my job as director of the Kronos HCM strategic advisory program is to provide guidance to other organizations about how to best use technology to improve their culture and employee engagement. Yet I still had to take a course Kronos created called “Courage to Lead.”

Courage to Lead is a two-day, intensive classroom course for every individual who becomes a people manager at Kronos, whether it’s their first time with one direct report or someone like me with two decades of experience. And I’m so glad I had that opportunity because no matter how much experience someone has, you can always be learning. During those two days, it clearly laid out the expectations for me as a people manager at Kronos, taught me of the expectations Kronos has empowered employees to have for their manager, and helped me sharpen my skills.

Creating Better Workplaces is the theme for #SHRM19, can you name a person who has inspired you as a leader? Why and how did this person influence you in your career?

Inspired is such a big word. I’ve had many bosses. Some of them were great. Some of them tried really hard. One of the great things about technology is that you don’t even need to meet someone for them to inspire you.

One person who has had a really profound impact on my career is Michael Hyatt, CEO of Michael Hyatt & Company and the former CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishing. He helps high-achievers become successful in all areas of their lives. Some of his topics are around leadership, productivity, and how to focus. His work has really inspired me over the last decade to understand how I can unburden myself from tasks associated with the daily grind so I can bring real value to my role, my team, my family, and my organization. It challenges me to rethink how I think about work, and that in turn has helped me create the margin in my day necessary to focus on deep work, which is the concept Cal Newport talks about in his book. This helps me be at work when I’m at work, and at home when I’m at home.

I went to one of Michael’s speaking programs and met a woman who talked about the importance of being your authentic self. It just happened to be Mary Hyatt, Michael’s daughter. Over the years, we’ve become great friends and spend time talking about authentic leadership, an being an authentic person, and helping others to do the same. Her work is wonderful, especially around women in leadership, body image, and authenticity. 

I keep referring back to my time at Kronos – I’m sorry but I can’t help it! But Aron Ain is such an authentic leader. I met Aron when I was a Kronos customer. I was interviewing for this job and popped my head into his office. First off, how many CEOs let a job candidate just drop in to say hi unannounced? Next, he offered the chair at the head of the table for me! As we chatted, he asked if he could share some advice. Aron knew I loved my career in academia, but I was really intrigued by this opportunity.

As if he was reading my mind, he said “Chris, if you don’t think this job is the right fit, if you don’t think it’s right for you, don’t feel pressured to take it. There may be something here in the future, and even if there isn’t, that’s OK too because you’re going to big things no matter where you go.”

A few weeks later, Aron published his book WorkInspired: How to Build an Organization Where Everyone Loves to Work. Perceptive readers might be thinking, “hey, isn’t that the title of your presentation?” It’s the inspiration for everything I’ll be talking about during #SHRM19.

I think what Michael, Mary, and Aron all have in common is they are authentic and intentional. They do their own thing in a way that works for them, but they all care for others. That’s how I want to live my life and journey through my career. I hope others do, too!

As a thought leader on performance, development, and talent strategies; what advice would you give to HR professionals on creating better workplaces “where everyone loves to work?"

I would encourage everyone, whether they work in HR, are a people manager, or an executive, to always be thinking about how you interact with others, and how you can improve those interactions. We’re all so diverse, especially today. For those familiar with Crucial Conversations, the ideas of shared pool of meaning, my truth versus yours, and others are conceptually straightforward, but they often go haywire when put into practice because of a lack of coaching and readiness.

Trust is so important. How can someone love where they work if they don’t trust their employer? Earlier in my career, I was on my break one day and someone asked me “did you see the job that was just posted?” I worked in HR, I see lots of jobs that are posted! Tell me more? They explained what they read in the requisition about the responsibilities and were instantly worried about consolidation. Then, more people started asking the same questions. What an indictment on the state of trust at the time. If it were truly a place of trust, they would have been relieved the help they were asking for was on the way.

Trust is the foundation of everything today. You have to trust your employers again and again. It takes along time to build up that equity and it can be wiped out with one wrong decision. How many times have we hired a candidate only to find out a manager hesitated to give them an important project early in their tenure because they didn’t trust the new employee to deliver? It makes no sense! I go the opposite direction. I encourage managers to give all employees unusual amounts of latitude and freedom to get things done. 

One of the most important ways to build trust is communication. When you think you’ve communicated enough, do it two or three more times! People need to hear it; they need affirmation. In addition to saying it, you need to model it. Think about time off. How many times have we, as leaders, taken time off only to be answering emails and taking phone calls? No matter how many times we then tell an employee we truly want them to enjoy their day off, they’re going to be answering emails and maybe even taking calls too because that’s what they see the boss doing.

Once you have trust, it creates such a tight knit employee community. People are encouraged. They’re empowered. They go above and beyond for each other and the business. When that happens, we all win.

Finally, what do want HR professionals to learn about in your session that will help them be more inspired to create better workplaces for everyone?

First and foremost, my hope is that they will understand that people are their greatest assets. If employees feel inspired, they will do what is right by the customer, and in turn, the organization will achieve great things.

I’m a big fan of asking “what’s your action step?” I don’t want to give the ending of my session away, but for anyone who comes, I’m going to ask members of the audience at the end of the session for one thing they can do when they return from #SHRM19 at their organization to better inspire their workforce. 

That might seem like a big question right now. “But Chris, there is SO MUCH I want to do.” You can’t do everything overnight, but my hope is that by the end of our time together, everyone will be able to identify one key action item that will help them create a more inspired workforce.


Connect with Chris Mullen on: Twitter.



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