Does Your Talent Strategy Match Your Business Strategy?
Can you list “what is wrong with your team?” If so, have you also asked “what am I doing to create that?”
Jen has developed her expertise in Talent Strategy & Leadership Professional Development over her exciting 20+ year career as an HR Professional. She has led international teams across Greater China, Mexico, the U.K., and the U.S. expanding into new markets, managing franchise retailers, and developing key strategic partnerships – all while exceeding business objectives and financial results. The rapid growth of her consulting firm 304 Coaching has been largely due to Jennifer’s unconventional approach to building innovative workforce development solutions for companies who are facing breakthrough growth and accelerated hiring patterns.
LinkedIn: Jen Thornton
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Read Along as Karla and Jen discuss Talent Strategy
Karla Nelson: And welcome to the People Catalyst Podcast, Jen Thornton.
Jen Thornton: Thanks for having me. I know it’s going to be a fun time with you today.
Karla Nelson: Yes, ma’am. Well, thanks for being on the show. And you’ve got such a really interesting background. I love the organizational development meets HR and then leadership just squashed in the middle. So, Jen, can you share a little bit about your entrepreneurial journey? I know you’ve worked in many different aspects of corporate America and now are working with your own consulting and coaching business.
Jen Thornton: So, I had an interesting journey, at least I think everyone’s journey is interesting, and I actually wanted to work in the mall when I was a kid. I wanted to work in the mall. I love to shop. I love fashion. And by gosh, dreams come true, and I actually started my career running stores at a very young age in retail at the mall. Obviously, I won’t date myself, but that was a few years ago when malls were much better and much cooler back then. But what was interesting as I was making hiring decisions and leadership decisions at a really, really young age, and I also was recognizing that I did not get my results like my peers.
Most of my peers were highly competitive. It’s an industry where you wake up every morning to your scorecard. What were your KPIs? What were your payroll percentages? All this high pressure number environment, but I wasn’t competitive. I’m just not. But I was still always in the top. And what I slowly started to recognize it’s because I love to build strong teams. And when my team did amazing, I was so happy, and it was really about making sure that the teams were doing well. And of course, over years, I did many different things on the operation side of the business, and then I moved over to HR because, again, that’s the talent strategy was where I got my success, and I leaned into that. And it was something that I had a passionate about and I love to do.
So, often, the HR side of the business I went, but because I grew up in operations at a very different approach, that it was about talent strategies and how does that match up to our business strategy, and how do we make the business actually come to life and meet our objectives? And then, went all through different parts of that. And when I ended my corporate career, I was the head of international HR for a large global retailer, and that is really where I found my entrepreneur spirit. You get dropped off in a foreign country and someone… Yeah. And someone says, “We’re going to open stores and a corporate office and a distribution center in China. Go figure that out.” You’re like, “Okay.”
Karla Nelson: Here’s a plane ticket.
Jen Thornton: Yeah, sure. I’ll go figure that out. But it really, I guess, gave me that confidence that if I can be dropped off in a foreign country and figure out how build a business, surely I could do it on my own here in the US. And it was just an incredible time in my life. I did that for five years. I traveled all over the world and had incredible teams all over the world. And I will never forget, I think we all have that moment, where you remember the sounds and the smells and everything around you, and you’re like… We had a new executive, he walked in the room, and I was actually in Hong Kong in the boardroom, and he walked in and I was like, “Oh, I’m done.” Every bit of me said, “This is time to start your own business and do what you love every day, and that’s help organizations with talent strategy.”
So, I flew home and started figuring it out. And that was several years ago. And today, at 304, that’s what we do. We do talent strategies with organizations. And our goal is to make sure that whatever your business strategy is, your talent matches that.
Karla Nelson: I love that. And Jen, in the work we do, at least our assessment and a part of the infrastructure, is based off the law of diffusion of innovations. Right? 110 years of marketing research about how people adopt new ideas. And I’m sure in marketing, you always hear about this, but we look at it from the aspect of the customer or consumer and you think about it, it’s like, “Wait a second. How are you expecting… Your team is the extension to that customer and consumer.” And so, with that, you have to get those ideas adopted within the team, as well, and get them working together. And I think that’s really interesting how in corporate America you see that so frequently, where they’re so quick to jump over the team, so, “Okay, you guys just deal with it,” and yet with the consumer, they’re doing everything to have them adopt their product, to purchase their product. They’re forgetting their team has got to adopt the strategy. You talked about having the business plan come to life. The only way you can do that is through the extension of yourself, because you’re only one person.
So, what are some of the strategies that you use to get those ideas adopted and then moving them out to the customer? Because there’s only really… I would say there’s probably three main parts of business. You need money, you need marketing, and you need innovation. Right? And if you don’t have any one of those three legs of the stool where you’re, especially now with innovation, and you have to be able to sell something… Right? And so, what do you do when you’re working with a team to get them really focused and working together so that you can get them to adopt those ideas and then make that business plan come to life?
Jen Thornton: So, one of the concepts that we use here at 304 Coaching is called conversation intelligence, and it’s really about understanding the neuroscience of the mind and how does it take in language in the workplace. And what are those chemical reactions? And so, when we are in fear, that means our primitive brain takes over, and as soon as that happens… And believe me, our way we’ve been taught to lead is actually very fear-inducing, and when we-
Karla Nelson: Well, you talked about it with retail. What is your last scorecard, so you’re just like freaking out. It’s not about strategy. It’s just about survival at that point.
Jen Thornton: Yeah. And if you were one hour over in payroll, the whole world crashed down, let alone that you were up 10% to your last year numbers. And so, when you bring fear into the mind of your team, how the brain works is the permanent brain kicks in and wants to keep you safe. It’s like, “Don’t go out of the cave. Don’t get judged. Stay really quiet. Sit at your desk. Don’t ask questions. Don’t tell the truth.” And your prefrontal cortex closes down. It’s your primitive brain. It’s there to keep you alive, so it closes everything down. Which that’s the problem because your prefrontal cortex is where you learn. It’s where new ideas come from. It’s where innovation starts to happen and collaboration.
And so, really understanding how we lead in a way that creates trust and, I think a lot of people call it psychological safety, but conversation intelligence is around before that buzz word showed up. But it really is that psychological safety and understanding how our language and actions create the output and the results of our team. And one of my favorite things to ask a leader is like, “Tell me what’s wrong with your team?” And they go crazy, right? They want to tell me a million things. And then I always say, “Great. Tell me what your doing to create that.” And then they’re like, “What? What? Me?” Because whatever-
Karla Nelson: That’s awesome.
Jen Thornton: Yeah. Whatever our team is doing, it’s the environment that we created as a leader that made that come to reality.
Karla Nelson: And so, what are some of the examples that, because I could tell you a million that I see in a leadership position where it really is driven by fear, but what are some of the things that you can… like words that you can… Because a lot about leading with fear is that’s just the way we’ve always done it. I mean, if you hit rewind, when I first started in corporate America, it was like, you do exactly what you’re told to do when you’re told to do it, and that that’s why I’m an entrepreneur, because I was like, “I’m not going to listen to these yahoos telling me exactly what I need to do when I know my space and I know that I can affect really great change.”
So, what are some of the things that you can either use as either tools, or even just our word so many times? It’s like, you can just put a sentence in a different way of communicating it or consistently asking questions versus telling. Like, what are some of the things that you work with leaders so that they can be empowered to be better leaders? Because oftentimes, they’re just not given the tools. They’re just not given the training. Right? And a lot of people think, “Oh, just great leaders are born.” No, they have to practice. You have to really own your and care about other individuals and have your tools in your toolbox that you pull out. So, what are some of the things that you teach in that space?
Jen Thornton: There’s so many interesting, different things that we do teach. One of the things that I think is really important is we first start to think about how often we’re willing to hear the truth. So, when I’m working with, if we go back to the example of the person who tells me everything that’s wrong with our team, and then I say, “What are you doing to create it?” they usually say, “Nothing.” And I’m like, “Absolutely right. Sure.’ And so, we do some little experiments.
Karla Nelson: Do you really say that?
Jen Thornton: Well, a lot of times people will say, no, they just don’t… People these days. Or they blame it on Millennials. I’m like, “Why? Because they’re brilliant. Don’t blame it on them.” They always have a reason why it’s not their fault that their team isn’t executing. I’m always like, “Well, you hired them, you onboard them, you lead them, so somewhere along the way, you made a decision that wasn’t right.”
Karla Nelson: There was some piece in there. You got to own something. Right?
Jen Thornton: That’s right. But we really start to figure out how willing are you to hear the truth? And that’s incredibly important when it comes to creating safety and also driving your business. And what happens is a lot of leaders are not willing to hear the truth, and they’re only willing to hear what they want to hear. And there are some research that shows we actually get addicted to our own thoughts and addicted to being right, and that happens a lot with leaders. Because when we’re right, we get a dopamine hit, and that’s how addiction start. Right? You just need more and more that hit, that dopamine hit, to get that same level of high. And so, as leaders, if we’re not willing to hear the truth and accept that as that person’s reality or experience, than we’re not willing to move our business forward.
And so, one of the first experiments we do is we’re like, what’s a really difficult question you could ask the team? And so, whatever that is, like maybe why have we lost business in this area? Why are sells struggling? I’m like, “Okay, let’s pull them together. Let’s ask that question. And once you ask it, I want you to just sit back and observe.” And so, a couple of things always happen. One is someone will either blame it on what else? Outside things you can’t control because then they’re not in trouble.
Karla Nelson: Oh, it’s always the market or the pricing. There’s about 10 of them that pop out that-
Jen Thornton: Absolutely. The weather. Any of those things. And then, oftentimes, what you’ll see is the room goes quiet and everyone looks at each other and then looks at the leader, and it’s because they’re waiting to be told how to answer that question. And so, you start to really see how your language has created either honesty in the environment or the lack of honesty, and it’s such an important piece. So, that’s one of the first things we do, is we get really honest about truth telling, because conversation intelligence is about psychological safety and respect and creating collaboration and trust. And it’s also about being incredibly honest, and I don’t think we’re honest enough in the workplace these days.
Karla Nelson: Or given the freedom to be honest. One of the things is, in what we teach, there’s four core natures of work, and there’s one 25% of the population, later adopters and they’re thinkers, and we always call these people Eeyore, Debbie Downer. Why do you have to always be a pessimist? Even though they’re so amazing at poking all the holes before you ever do anything. And then all of a sudden, you start looking at something else, like an assessment like DiSC. Right? Think about somebody who is a C that ends up being in that percentage of the population that’s a later adopter and a thinker, yet their entire brilliance is poking all the holes and telling you everything that’s going to go wrong that you’re not thinking of and not embracing that simply because you haven’t embraced that space where they can do what they do best where they’re not looked negatively for… And that’s part of their magnificence, on top of it.
So, understanding who everybody is on your team and that people are different. And I think that that’s a big part of truth telling. It’s one of the reasons why we call them movers, shakers, provers, and makers, because everybody looks at the “movers and shakers” of the world. Guess what? If you don’t have the later adopters that are going to take that, poke all the holes in, and repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, you can’t get anywhere. Because all you’re going to do is continually come up with new ideas and new plans that aren’t going to get executed. And so, I think everybody leads, they just lead in different ways.
And so, when you’re working with a team, how do you identify… So many times leadership is a title instead of a… There are so many different ways to lead. I actually think we were teaching the Air Command and Staff College, and I learned that the military teaches like seven different ways. Because you’re in a position of power, you’ve got influence, you’ve got… So, all these different layers of the type of leadership that people take on. What do you utilize so that they can become, not only with truth telling be aware of, but just the style that they’re adopting of leadership? Because I think leadership turns into a word like marketing. Like marketing, that’s a bad word because I could probably write down 150 ways that you could market. Right? So, we shove it all into one bucket. I think that happens with leadership a lot. So, how do you divvy through a group and identify maybe somebody that would be a great leader but that has not been put in a leadership position, and then somebody who has been given the title, but is the last person that really should be in that position?
Jen Thornton: So, we use an assessment, OAD. It’s organization, analysts, and design, and it allows us to find our natural work traits. It also helps define how people make decisions, and that’s really where the gold is, because if you are a person who leans towards analytical decisions versus emotional decisions, that shows up in the workplace. It also measures creativity, not like if you’re going to decorate a room, but creativity in, do you like to do it pragmatic the way it’s been or do you like to break what works just to see if you can build a better will? And so, with part of this assessment is it also shows us how you’re adapting. And the goal is, is to get people to a place where they’re being themselves, but the best version of themselves, and that they are situationally managing those things that aren’t necessarily always positive in the workplace. So, I recently-
Karla Nelson: No, Jen, it’s not always positive?
Jen Thornton: Not always. I know.
Karla Nelson: Maybe that’s why Gallup, the last 30 years, has done a survey and 70% of people in the United States hate their job. And that’s capital age. That’s not don’t like it. That’s like they feel like they’re trading their soul for a paycheck. You go internationally, it’s 89% of people wake up every day selling their soul. How sad is that? Because it doesn’t have to be that way. If we would just change the way… We need our team members to be effective and efficient, it’s just that we fall so short on giving them the ability to be successful. And then we try to, we always say, everyone knows you don’t put a square peg in a round hole, but yet instead of making the work for the people, we make the people fit the work.
And so, we beat whatever it is out of them because that’s what the title said, that’s what the job description said. And there’s no innovation around taking that… Not no, but it’s very common that they don’t have the out of the box thinking, and I really don’t like that way. I just mean innovative ways of solving and making that business plan come to life, because it’s not one size fits all. You have to make the work for the people. You have to look at it and go, “Okay, these are all the pieces that I have. How can I put them in the appropriate place so that we can get to the end result?” Instead of just saying, “Okay, pick you, pick you, pick you.”
It’s almost like how they always said the United States have always done so well in the Olympics simply because in Russia, you will be born and they will say, “You are going to be a gymnast.” And that’s what you do because you were told, and you were born, and that’s what you’re supposed to do. But in the States, it was very different. Whereas, if that’s what you wanted to do, that’s what you did. And I’m not sure if it’s the same way, but I remember learning it in school and identifying that the reason why we were always dominating the Olympics is not because we have the best athletes, it was because whoever wanted to do it, did it, and then the best were picked from that particular sport. Corporate America could learn a bit from that.
Jen Thornton: Yeah. And here’s one of my other favorite actions is we love someone because of who they are, and then we promote them and then we’re like, “Oh yeah, everything you used to do is wrong. We don’t want that anymore.” And I’m like, “What? You promoted them because they were so good at all of this, and now you don’t want them to do it anymore.” And I think especially when directors go to vice president level, I always say, “Managers managers, directors direct, what in the world do vice presidents do?” No one knows. And so, I was working with a client recently, and she was fantastic because she had a high sense of detail, very process-oriented, delivered day in and day out. I mean a total rockstar. They promoted her to vice president and then said, “Everything you’re great at, we don’t really do that as vice president, so don’t do that anymore.” And now she’s in trouble.
Karla Nelson: She’s the worst person to promote to that position.
Jen Thornton: Yeah. But what we found, because she’s in the IT environment, and so what we’re doing is she had been told she was so wrong that she was… It was emotional. Right? You’re failing. But then we turned it around, and we said, “No, no, no, you’re all 100% right, but how do you use what you’re great at in the way that’s appropriate for your role? And how do you use your detail in a way that situational?” And because they need her, they need someone, like you said, that person who will poke holes in it, who will dig down and ask the questions. They need that on this team. But now you have to think about how does she do it, but then package it and verbalize it in a way that’s still acceptable at the vice president level, because they need her to do that.
Karla Nelson: How interesting though. She’s a rock star, gets promoted, and then everything you got promoted for being a rock star, “No, we don’t want you to do that exactly.” I mean, can you imagine the feeling like what you feel when you’re a rock star, everybody wants to be a winner, everybody wants to be a part of a winning team, and then being put in a position that then you’re seen as not being good at. I’ve seen this several times in sales where you’ve got the top sales professional, and then they make that person the sales manager. I’m like, “You guys realize, you might have wanted to make him a trainer or something, but you basically took everything that they’re good at and asked them pretty much to be exactly the opposite.”
Jen Thornton: Yeah. And I see that so often, and I know you do in your work, and that’s why your work and the work we all do is so important around what’s the actual work? And getting really clear and having a ton of clarity on what does it take to do this job, and then finding the person who has those natural skills. But again, we oftentimes create positions around people. Like, “Well, we’ve got this great person and we really don’t need this job, but we’re just going to make it up,” or, “This is a really nice person, and they’ve been here a long time. We should promote them.” And so, people just don’t stay true to what the work is and what the is and matching the right person. And every time we take someone and we put them in the wrong job, we are changing the course of their life and not in a good way. They go to work and they’re upset. They go home, and that carries home to their families.
Karla Nelson: Absolutely. Jen, think about it. We spend more time working than any other thing we do. How does that affect our health, our financial life, our relationships? I mean, we literally bleed… Can you imagine 70% of the people hate their jobs? What is that doing to our economy? When you actually think of it, what is it doing to our health? What is it doing to our children?
Jen Thornton: You have a bad day at work and you go home and you have dinner with your kids, your kids know that. They feel that. And you may think you’re dialing it in or you’re faking it, but your kids know. And I always tell leaders, “Yes, at the end of the day that person goes home, but your leadership carries into them and it carries into their families.” When you’ve had a great day and you’re competent and you go home and everyone’s celebrating, that feels really different to children. And I just think it’s leaders who have to appreciate that.
Karla Nelson: Yeah. You make a good point there. One, you could look and feel down and lose energy, but one of the most powerful things in making a business plan or a strategic plan, whatever it is that you’re focusing on getting accomplished, is momentum. And the biggest part of momentum is to build and build and build, and when you’re constantly pulling the carpet out from underneath your team, it’s… Everybody knows the highest cost to any business is turnover. Right? And so we know that’s the truth, but yet what are we doing to ensure that turnover doesn’t happen? Now, that’s hitting the bottom line.
So, it is hitting your bottom line, but what is it doing to your momentum, to all those intangible things? We call it culture, but culture is truly doesn’t just happen, it’s what we do. It’s what our feet do everyday. It’s what our mouths do every day. And so, thinking about the intangible items that get affected, it’s way more than, I think Sherm says, “33% of whatever somebody’s salary is, that’s what turnover costs you.” But that’s just to the bottom line. There’s just all these other intangibles that really get affected if you’re not managing this.
Jen Thornton: It is. And there’s a lot that plays in. I did a 360 survey recently at an organization, and with the vice presidents, I interviewed each of them confidentially so I could really dig in and ask a lot of questions. And one of the things that we found that was impacting turnover was the accounting department was overwhelmed and invoices were not getting paid on time. And so, there was a fear that the company had money issues, and that wasn’t the, but the actions that were provided made that story.
Karla Nelson: Think about how that one thing then bleeds that through the whole company. Number one, if you’re not asking them what’s going on, because also, in that same study, 78% of turnover is preventable.
Jen Thornton: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely.
Karla Nelson: 78%. It’s because we’re not asking the question. We’re not given the environment that they feel safe. How interesting. What a great story of this little thing that was just a department that was overwhelmed that created this entire facade of what wasn’t going on, but because nobody was raising their hand saying, “Hey, what’s going on here? Do we got money problems or what?” they ended up dealing with turnover consistently.
Jen Thornton: Yeah. And that was one of the things people were saying, because they were getting calls from their vendors or they’re…
Karla Nelson: Well, nobody likes to get that call. They think it’s their fault. I mean, we did a podcast one time. It was people leave bosses, not companies. And the truth of the matter is, if you don’t have the ability to go to your boss and go, “Hey, what’s up with this?” and there’s not that comfort level, and even though it can affect the company as a whole, not giving them the leadership tools and the freedom and, as you call it… what did you call it? I love the name you used. Conversational intelligence. Right? And creating that safe area instead of managing from a point of fear. well, gosh, Jen, this is awesome. I’m sure we could go on forever and ever and ever in this space. I love this space. And it’s not a one size fits all, so it is really a complex dynamic challenge. But it’s definitely one that is absolutely critical in any business, and I would venture to say even all the solopreneurs think it doesn’t have to deal with them. I’m like, “Yeah.”
We were working with a really large multinational real estate firm, and of course, everybody’s independent contractor, I was like, “Okay, so who does your escrow? Who’s doing your financing? Who do you have on your insurance?” I mean, I listed… I’m like, “List everybody that you have in your network that you talk with consistently,” and on average, it was 20 different other professionals. I said, “There’s your team. It doesn’t matter that you’re… You’re actually paying their paycheck, too, if you think about it. You’re referring them business, they’re taking care of your customers, and back and forth. So, you have a collaborative vested interest in each other’s business.” I said, “That’s your team.” You ought to do the same thing with them. Right? So, would you manage, if you were a real estate professional, to your finance person from a point of fear? And they do it all the time. And you wonder why you’re not getting the longterm effect of making your business plan come to life, just like you said. It’s like, it doesn’t matter if you’re by yourself or if you’re in a 150,000 person corporation. It’s necessary.
Jen Thornton: Yeah, absolutely. It’s so interesting when you just sit back and watch. I could sit in a meeting and just watch people interact and watch their conversation, and you just see all of the history of those relationships play out in real life. Because if our brain has had five bad experiences and then that person walks up to you, guess what? Your brain’s going to be like, “You know what? We haven’t ever had a good one, so I’m going to not like this conversation either.” And those neuro pathways that we’re creating with people through every conversation, it’s fascinating. I could sit and watch leaders all the time.
Karla Nelson: I always say it’s like digging a ditch. It’s a lot easier than digging a ditch. It’s harder to fill that ditch back in. But normally, we get called in when it’s time to fill in ditches.
Jen Thornton: I know.
Karla Nelson: I’m like, “Why don’t you call us in before you start digging the ditch?” That makes so much more sense.
Jen Thornton: No one calls when they’re like, “You know what? We’re doing fantastic. You should come in and make us more fantastic.”
Karla Nelson: Even though that’s the best time to call. Right? Proactively.
Jen Thornton: I know.
Karla Nelson: Well, Jen, this has been awesome. Where can our listeners and viewers get ahold of you?
Jen Thornton: So, you can go to 304coaching.com, and you can connect with me through there. We have a lot of free resources you can download around conversation intelligence. Or you can connect with me on LinkedIn at Jen Thornton, and we can continue the conversation in the messages.
Karla Nelson: Fantastic. And we will make sure those links are in the show notes. Jen, thank you so much for being with us here today.
Jen Thornton: Oh, thank you so much. I knew I would have a great time, and I certainly did.
Karla Nelson: Fantastic.