The Future of Workplace Learning

Illustrations by Tonya Harris

A number of factors ailing the traditional higher education industry have some calling into question what its role will be in preparing students for the future workforce.

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Where Higher Education in Workforce Development Is Headed

By Lauren Dixon


he popular notion that traditional higher education — namely four-year colleges and universities — is the primary vehicle for preparing the future workforce is fading.

Against a backdrop of record-low unemployment and a seemingly healthy economy is a higher education ecosystem under heavy scrutiny. Even though the share of high school graduates heading to college has increased in recent years, a skills gap has left more than 6 million jobs unfilled as of the end of 2017, according to the United States Labor Department. This has many calling into question the value of a traditional college degree, the cost of which is increasingly unattainable for most Americans.

Meanwhile, a plethora of alternative, technology-enabled online learning platforms are beginning to find mainstream appeal. Some are even partnering with companies to help fill the skills gap, while universities race to establish platforms and partnerships of their own to compete.

Adding fuel to this fire are efforts to reform higher education. For instance, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives are pushing a bill that proposes sweeping changes to higher education that they say would help fill the skills gap by providing students shorter and faster pathways to the work with skills actually needed in the workforce. The bill’s main target is reforming the government’s $1.34 trillion federal student-loan program, a mechanism that proponents say has enabled much of what ails traditional higher education.

A Changing Landscape

Faster and more accessible learning experiences might just be what’s needed to fix higher education, considering most Americans often need to work while in school. According to the United States Census Bureau, 72 percent of undergraduate students worked at least part-time in 2011, the most recent year for which figures are available. Among graduate students, 82 percent of them worked, with nearly half working full-time throughout the year.

“I think there’s actually a social and societal narrative that has totally outlasted the reality of what most Americans are experiencing,” said Rachel Carlson, CEO and co-founder of Guild Education, a workforce development company based in Denver. Instead, these phases overlap and occur in conjunction to each other more and more, with people working while attending college and vice versa.

Instead of perpetuating the notion of people attending college full-time and then working, Guild Education partnered in August 2016 with fast-casual dining chain Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. to offer education as a benefit to its frontline employees. The program contains a platform that manages tuition reimbursement and scholarships, while also pairing students with coaches to help encourage them through the process of balancing work, school and life.

To be sure, traditional universities remain vital institutions of higher learning, and are likely to remain central in teaching and preparing the future workforce — if they can adapt. However, Carlson said the economy continues to change faster than previous decades, forcing more people into the need to retool many times over throughout their careers, as opposed to being set with the education they received with their college degree before starting a career. “We’re entering a lifelong learning economy,” Carlson said, adding that the need is creating what many colleges and universities might consider nontraditional students.

Transforming Traditional Teaching

Indeed, nontraditional students continue to enroll in universities at an increasing rate. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, enrollment in universities by people at least 35 years old increased 32 percent from 1996 to 2010, and projections show continued increases are on the horizon.

Changes to the demographics of traditional universities are pushing schools to rethink how they teach students. Older students can still attend college courses in person, but they’re more likely to be working and caring for families at the same time. Especially in the context of workers attending college, traditional brick-and-mortar universities realize they need to adapt to what employers, employees and current students need, said Michelle Prince, senior vice president and global head of learning and development at Randstad North America Inc., a staffing and technology provider based in Atlanta. “It all comes down to flexibility of how people learn, when people learn, what the cost of learning will be,” Prince said.

In-person education is limiting in terms of both time and location. Online learning platforms, meanwhile, are becoming something higher education administrators need to be increasingly fearful of because they’re more accessible and affordable, Prince said. Nevertheless, catering to an online classroom environment is more complicated than building a platform for it, because higher education institutions have to teach their own faculty on how to deliver learning differently in online environment, Prince said.

Offering education as a benefit directly influences workers more than other forms of compensation.

When working to create an online economics course at Texas A&M University, professor Jonathan Meer, who is also a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that planning the videos for the online class was the most challenging part. If he says something confusing in an in-person lecture, for instance, he can see furrowed brows and raised hands. An online environment doesn’t allow for that feedback, so he works to ensure absolute accuracy and perfection by using a teleprompter and notes while recording his lectures for the digital class, which funnels about 3,000 students through each year.

“My hope is that this is a higher-quality, lower-variant education,” Meer said.

Online courses can also expand access. Institutions can increase enrollment without having to spend on real estate costs and other aspects of expanding physical campuses. “I think that the traditional, four-year residential campus model is going to fade away over the course of the next few decades for most students,” Meer said. He hopes to see disruptions to higher education that provide easier, cheaper and higher quality for students to access, particularly nontraditional students and underserved populations.

Today’s online learning environment is more than just clicking through a slideshow and taking a test, however. It can be more interactive than in-person lectures, Guild Education’s Carlson said. “Online doesn’t mean no community,” she said. Students in Guild’s programs, for example, attend class in a video “hangout,” where they see all of their classmates and can interact instantly, no matter their location. The elimination of having to travel to a physical campus means working students can more easily gain the skills they need for success at their current and future employers.

Classrooms to Corporate

As higher education and online learning providers grapple with adapting to this new environment, companies realize they have a role to play as well.

Companies are finding that supporting the education of their workers isn’t just the right thing to do but it also produces a valuable return on investment. “It simply has to be more affordable to invest in your employees’ education than to watch them walk out the door and hire and retrain their replacement,” Carlson said.

Offering education as a benefit directly influences workers more than other forms of compensation. Workers expect to receive health care, retirement and vacation benefits, but these lack a direct link to their job performance. “If there’s anything that’s as intrinsically related as what you do at work, it’s how you learn,” Carlson said.

Aside from funding continuing education for workers, companies can also gain skilled talent by partnering with higher education, whether directly or through a third-party like Revature, a technology talent development company that hires college graduates, trains them and deploys them as consultants. Especially in the technology sector, the demand for trained talent isn’t matching the supply so there needs to be an intermediary, said Joe Vacca, the Reston, Virginia-based company’s chief marketing officer and executive vice president of strategy and innovation.

“Higher ed is in the process of evolving to partner with business on workforce development,” Vacca said. “They have to.”

Corporate partnership with universities can also be more direct. MIT Professional Education, a division of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, partners with individual corporations to create custom programming, but the company also offers programs for the public.

Teachers of these courses are MIT professors or senior research scientists, said Bhaskar Pant, the company’s executive director. Faculty selected for the program often have their own companies or advisory practices, so they have real-life workforce knowledge that the business-oriented students will find valuable.

Courses for students in the workforce, such as those within MIT Professional Education, are popular due to the need for lifelong learning, the concept that people need to keep their skills current as in-demand skills evolve.

“There is this need to constantly update yourself even at a personal level rather than just at what your employer may demand,” Pant said. “You better be aware of a lot of things going on simultaneously and try to keep up with it as much as possible, and the role of higher education becomes that much more important in that respect,” Pant said.

Is Employee Development Still Worth It?

Some companies in today’s workforce are looking at employee development differently. But most top companies still find reason to invest in it.

By Ave Rio


t wasn’t too long ago that companies made substantial investments in employee development without question. But with today’s employee tenures shrinking and skills constantly in flux, is the investment still worth it?
The latest report from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics from January 2016 found that the median employee tenure was 4.2 years. Moreover, Deloitte’s 2016 “Millennial Survey” found that millennials ages 20 to 24 have an average job tenure of 1.3 years.

Even so, the most recent Association for Talent Development “State of the Industry” report found that most employers still think investment in employee development is worthwhile. According to the report, spending on employee development within organizations has increased every year since 2010. On average, companies spent $1,252 per employee on training and development initiatives in 2015, the most recent year for which figures are available, a $23 increase from 2014.

Michael Beer, professor at Harvard Business School and co-founder and chairman at the Center for Higher Ambition Leadership, said the amount of employee investment depends on each organization’s goals. Given the rapid changes in technology and shorter employee tenures, it might seem that companies would want to invest less in employee and leadership development.

But Beer said this only makes sense if the company’s sole purpose is to maximize profits and shareholder value. “This is indeed what happens to most average firms,” Beer said. However, he said if building a company that has the capacity to sustain performance and commitment of all stakeholders over time, that logic doesn’t hold. “There’s overwhelming evidence that building trust- and commitment-based relationships with stakeholders, particularly employees, leads to high performance over a long period of time, though it may not yield the highest performance in the short run,” Beer said.

That’s proved true for many large companies that are still investing in employee development. Telecommunications giant AT&T Inc., for instance, has a university focused on leadership and management development. It also has a partnership with Georgia Institute of Technology and online learning provider Udacity that created an online computer science master’s degree and several self-paced “nanodegrees” for emerging technology skills.

When the company produces talent, hopefully it stays in the organization — but maybe it doesn’t.

Moreover, Inc. offers a month-long training and leadership onboarding program where it pays for 95 percent of tuition for employees at fulfillment centers to take courses in highly sought after fields. In 2014, Starbucks Corp. created the Starbucks College Achievement Plan, which offers full tuition reimbursement to employees completing a bachelor’s degree.

Planning for Change

While not all companies have the resources to invest so fully in employee development, most companies seem to be investing in employees in some way even in the wake of shorter employee tenures. In fact, some organizations are even preparing for shorter tenures. For instance, social media management firm Hootsuite Inc. plans for at least 20 percent of its workforce to switch jobs annually, whether that be within the company or outside of it.

Heidi Rolston, the company’s vice president of learning, diversity and inclusion, said there’s been a fair amount of turnover in the technology industry and that people have seemed to embrace it. “Maybe that’s a factor of the way tech operates, but we definitely need to always be considering how do we create an environment where we’re constantly challenging people and they feel like they’re in a steep learning curve all the time because that’s going to reduce the likelihood that they are going to leave.”

Rolston said the company sees learning as a big part of why those who do stay want to. “We come at it from the perspective that people join an organization because they want to be challenged and to learn, and often that’s the same reason they leave an organization,” Rolston said. “It’s based on the recognition that if everybody isn’t constantly increasing their capability, we’re going to get left behind — either as an organization or in our specific roles.”

Rolston also said Hootsuite isn’t trying to sell people on the idea of “Come here because you need to progress your career.” Instead, she said career progression is a result of the learning that people are experiencing. “As they get better at what they do, as they broaden their talents, they become more marketable internally and externally — and that drives that people movement in the organization.”

Finally, Rolston said Hootsuite differentiates itself in that it wants to be producers of talent, not consumers of talent. When the company produces talent, hopefully it stays in the organization — but maybe it doesn’t. “Maybe in some cases it’s better for them to go to a new place, but hopefully they are going with more marketability,” Rolston said.

“I personally don’t think I’d want to work for an organization that is approaching it from the perspective of ‘in two years we’ll just find new ones,’ ” Rolston added. “I also don’t think there’s enough talent in the market to sustain that kind of approach.”

Retention: Goal or Outcome?

While Rolston looks at retention as being an outcome of learning and development versus the thing that the company focuses on, Mike Echols, vice president of strategic initiatives at Human Capital Lab at Bellevue University, says the opposite.

Echols said there is too much focus on the cost of losing employees and not enough on the value of retaining employees. Although Rolston and Echols may label it differently, they both agree that employees will likely stay at a company longer when given the opportunity to develop and grow.

“If retention is the focus, as opposed to turnover, then the learning part of it not only becomes the skills-as-knowledge part, but it becomes a retention strategy,” Echols said. “When you look at high-performance companies that have extremely high value, one of the things you see is a high retention rate.”

In fact, Echols said a major downfall for companies is that they don’t have a retention strategy. He said one of the reasons employee tenure is dropping is because with millions of open positions in the economy people are moving to better opportunities if the company doesn’t have a strategy.

In regards to Hootsuite’s plan for 20 percent of its workforce changing jobs, Echols questions if those leaving are high performers or low performers. “If it’s higher-performing people, that’s a disastrous outcome,” he said.

Amanda Beers, vice president of learning and development at educational child care franchise The Learning Experience, helped build its department from scratch while transforming the company’s culture. Beers’ outlook is aligned with Rolston’s in that she views retention as a result of learning — rather than learning as a retention strategy. “Are we developing them to grow in the company? Are we developing their leadership skills? Or are we just simply saying we don’t want this employee to leave — so what should we focus on to retain them?” she asked while advocating the former.

“Your employees are your greatest asset and your biggest advocate,” Beers said. “Even if we develop them and they leave us they are taking their skills and knowledge on to somewhere else and they are out there talking about you, helping you build your pipeline.”

Managing the New Individual Professional Development Plan

Individuals need to take more of a hands-on role in their workforce development.

by Andie Burjek


reparing for the future workplace can be difficult for a business, which must predict and prepare for upcoming trends and make big-picture decisions. But it’s also difficult for individual employees, as they assess their skills, experience and job and realize that as more changes occur in the modern economy, their career security is increasingly at risk.

The individual professional development plan of today’s workers must take into account many modern realities. It’s no longer as simple as get a job and remain there for an entire career, while receiving all of the necessary training to acquire new skills and stay relevant on behalf of an employer.

Although college and graduate education remain viable options, they alone won’t give workers the continuous learning they’ll need to develop throughout their career. As employees navigate this new learning ecosystem, they must find the correct tools and resources that will teach them the necessary skills to move forward.

“Each employee is the owner and architect of their own careers, and their career development is directly related to the knowledge, skills and learning they acquire along the way,” said Mark Allen, practitioner faculty of organization and management at the Pepperdine University Graziadio School of Business and Management. Although Allen said he strongly values traditional education outlets like college and graduate school, he also acknowledges the need for continuous learning long after graduation and through unconventional outlets.

Employees can learn through many resources, Allen said, including online classes or degree programs, unlimited video resources, corporate universities and more. “How you learn becomes easy. What you learn is the harder question,” he said.

With so much variety in tools and skills, the signature skill people can hone to appeal to employers is agility. Employers want employees who have the self-awareness to know what they need and how to get it. “The ability to learn separates people, no matter how good of a degree you have from how fine of an institution,” Allen said.

The onus to build individual skills lies with the company as well as the employee, said James Stanger, chief technology evangelist at the Computing Technology Industry Association, a nonprofit based in Downers Grove, Illinois. “Individuals need to take responsibility for continuing to learn relevant skills,” Stanger said. Meanwhile, companies need to “come up with realistic expectations of who they want to hire and what they want to hire. Too often they’re setting a bar that is not particularly realistic,” he said.

With so much variety in tools and skills, the signature skill people can hone to appeal to employers is agility.

Stanger’s point of view stems from the technology sector specifically. Although many in-demand skills like data science and computer programming are rooted in technology, even workers in the field have trouble keeping their skill sets updated. And in technology jobs like cybersecurity, understanding the technology isn’t enough, Stanger said. People also have to understand how the technology applies to the business and fits into the business process, which often is lacking in training.

IT professions in particular want more employer support for doing their job more efficiently, especially in the areas of resources for professional development and career guidance, according to the CompTIA 2017 “IT Career Insights” study. Roughly 53 percent of respondents said more resources for training would improve their jobs.

Stanger suggests apprenticeships are an effective mechanism for improving the skills of not just technology employees but jobs in most industries. Companies often want a certain skill set without being willing to pay people or train people for it. “There’s an attitude like, ‘If you don’t have 20 years of experience, we can’t hire you,’ ” he said. “That’s an unrealistic expectation. There needs to be a little give both ways.”

Competing With Change

Eighty-seven percent of employees believe that for them to keep up with ongoing changes in the workplace, it will be necessary for them to develop new skills throughout their career, according to “The State of American Jobs,” a 2016 Pew Research Center survey.

“Individuals have to be self-motivated and have that curiosity to consume every piece of learning out there,” said Carolyn Slaski, Americas vice chair of talent at professional services firm EY. Continuing to develop these skills is important, whether it’s in their immediate domain or not.

EY launched “EY Badges” in November 2017 to help people gain these skills. Employees can learn in-demand skills like data analytics, digital architecture and artificial intelligence, and they earn digital badges to put on their résumé.

Meanwhile, there are many ways for employers to help employees feel more comfortable with the pace of change in the workplace, according to Michelle Prince, senior vice president and global head of learning and development at human resourcing consulting firm Randstad North America Inc..

For starters, managers have a responsibility to communicate to employees what’s going on big-picture, Prince said. They must address questions like: What changes are happening? How is it going to impact people in the workplace? “There’s a need for organizations to look ahead to the future and for HR or L&D to work with the businesses to create a learning strategy around whatever change is happening in the business,” Prince said.

EY is an example of a company that tailors its development trend to a workforce trend: the rise of the gig economy. Not only does the company offer EY Badges to full-time employees but to its contractors as well. “We want to upskill our entire workforce, leaving no one behind. Everyone will have access to it,” Slaski said.

Retaining Through Training

Although ultimately the individual is responsible for their learning and development, another reason employers should be involved is for recruitment and retention. That’s what Amy Kardel discovered as the president and co-founder of Clever Ducks, an IT company based in San Luis Obispo, California.

Clever Ducks is a small company, with 20 employees in a competitive industry, and having a professional development program has been valuable. The company hires IT technicians and engineers. “We’ve had to learn how to grow our own and start with somebody who maybe has [gone to] community college or [has] experience in retail and bring them into the IT service and support role,” she said.

For employees at the company, the program has become a great way to differentiate their skills. “What I’m hearing from my peers and my employees is that they’re not seeing this in big companies anymore as much, and certainly small companies aren’t doing it either.” She’s found that the company’s development program is a good way for leadership to attract and retain talent.

Clever Duck’s program resembles a college, with a course catalogue and different degree paths employees can follow. Employees decide their major with their manager based on their interests and career goals. They also have access to the steps they’ll need to take and the skills they’ll need to learn to rise to the next job role. They can also see how that promotion would impact their pay.

“It’s something that forces the company to step back and say this is where we see the industry going, this is our need, and this is what we need to calculate,” Kardel said.

Professional Development in Nonprofessional Settings

Professional development doesn’t need to happen in the office or a classroom. There are many nontraditional ways employees can pick up new skills.

Joining a local meet-up or networking group can help people develop skills, said RaShea Drake, a communications specialist with internet service provider Frontier Business. Generally, groups like this will meet up once a month and bring in local or outside speakers to educate people.

“The benefits are three-fold,” she said. “You keep learning, it shows prospective employers your dedication to learning and there are usually networking and job opportunities that arise from these events.”

Another way in which employees can hone their own skills and stay relevant in areas they’re passionate about is through volunteering, said Heather Cherry, communications specialist at Alliance for Nonprofit Resources. This allows a person to both promote a worthy cause and work with experiences innovators who have accomplished something with limited resources.

Employers can allow employees to explore new subjects that excite them, whether that’s through volunteering or something similar, like joining a club, Cherry said in an interview. “When people are allowed to dig into their passion, that passion will radiate in their work,” she said.

Finally, Cherry suggested that in any field the best way to gain new skills is to be open to new tasks even if they make you uncomfortable.

“Every skill I’ve obtained in my 10-plus years of communications is because I’ve said yes even when I really didn’t want to. I’ve volunteered and taken internships long after my degree, simply because I wanted to develop an area or break into a new arena,” she said.

How Do We Teach Soft Skills?

Is it better to find people whose soft skills are strong, or hire for hard skills and train for the rest?

BY Michelle V. Rafter


oft skills are the new STEM. Demand for people with science, technology, engineering or mathematics backgrounds hasn’t faded — far from it. But as technical skills required for software developers, financial analysts and other jobs evolve at an ever-faster pace, and as technology takes over repetitive, low-level tasks, organizations are seeing greater value in people learning skills such as trainability, self-awareness and working well with others, characteristics that are considered soft skills.

The new emphasis on soft skills is spurred in part by the constantly evolving digital economy, which is nudging companies to work faster, in turn creating a need for people to become better collaborators. But it also poses a dilemma for organizations accustomed to hiring primarily for technical expertise.

Should companies switch to hiring people whose superior soft skills are evident in interviews? Or should they continue hiring for easier-to-discern hard skills and train for soft skills later?

Based on companies’ varied experiences, there’s no one right answer. Soft skills are so crucial to some jobs that employers say they won’t hire candidates without them. In other situations, companies are willing to make trade-offs to get jobs filled. It’s tough enough, they say, to hire for technically oriented positions without adding further requirements.

Ongoing allegations of sexual harassment and toxic workplace behaviors are also a factor in making employers more cognizant of the need to create supportive, inclusive corporate cultures — in other words, no more “brilliant jerks.” Hiring for people-centric soft skills is one way to encourage that change.

Soft skills are just as important, if not more so, for new managers and midlevel executives who are being considered for promotions into top leadership roles, and organizations are building soft skills training into leadership development programs as a result. Leaders define the culture, and whatever the culture is, soft skills need to support it.

“Once you understand that, you can develop training around it,” said Marina Konchak, director of human resources at The Learning Experience, a child development and early education company based in Deerfield Beach, Florida.

Soft Skills Defined

Talent management professionals don’t have a uniform definition of soft skills. Depending on the job, it could be as simple as showing up on time for an interview and making eye contact. Organizational behavior experts and long-time HR executives describe them as interpersonal skills, like knowing how to communicate, listen and be a good team player, among others.

“It boils down to attributes people use in every-day conversations and interactions with people they work with to build trusting relationships and bring out the best in other people,” said Diane Bock, a senior leadership consultant at Development Dimensions International, an HR and leadership advisor.

For Brad McGinity, vice president of sales for 15Five, a San Francisco-based startup marketing and employee feedback platform, soft skills are the difference between knowing something and being able to communicate it to someone else — or as he puts it, “skills that fall outside of intellectual knowledge you can memorize.” For a sales representative, a hard skill might involve knowing everything there is to know about the features of a product. “But to stand up and present it in a way that’s compelling and engaging and thoughtful — that wows the audience — that’s totally different than intellectually knowing the information,” McGinity said.

To keep up with accelerated timelines for introducing products and services brought on by digitization, companies are adopting more agile ways of working. An important element of agile workplaces are project, or “scrum,” teams comprised of staff that cross departments or functions and who work quickly to create prototypes or pilot projects. Such work depends a great deal on workers’ ability to communicate.

Just as there’s a hard skills gap, not everybody has desired soft skills. Only 40 percent of frontline leaders were proficient or strong in empathy, according to a 2016 DDI report. Of the eight leadership interaction skills DDI measured, listening and responding with empathy was one of the weakest, according to the report.

It’s not just managers who lack soft skills. A 2012 University of Michigan study found that college students are 40 percent less likely to be empathetic compared to two or three decades ago. Likewise, when CareerBuilder asked employers what skills recent college graduates lacked in a 2015 poll, 52 percent put interpersonal and people skills at the top of the list, followed by problem solving (45 percent), oral communications (41 percent) and leadership (40 percent). Far fewer employers felt new graduates lacked skills in research and analysis (16 percent), math (15 percent) and computer and technical abilities (13 percent).

In job interviews, assessments and behavior-based questions can help uncover soft skills. Take a candidate responding to a question about a time they had to learn something new.

Answers such as “I was pissed off,” “I quit” or “I took the manual home and got a friend to help me,” might be better indicators of a person’s soft skills than what’s on their résumé, Bock said.

A Pragmatic Approach

Konchak, The Learning Experience HR director, takes a more pragmatic approach to hiring for soft skills. She joined the company in January 2016 as part of an expansion that’s seen the privately-held child development center chain grow to 200 owner-operated and franchise locations in 26 states.

Since then, Konchak has added more than 35 people to bring the company’s headquarters staff to about 100 employees. For some jobs, soft skills have to be there from day one. “If you’re hiring for a receptionist, they have to have those soft skills, be outgoing, a people pleaser, not sit behind a screen” and ignore someone who walks up, Konchak said. “For that position, I can’t train that; it has to be innate.”

On the other hand, Konchak just hired a video production specialist who she describes as an introvert but with the basic skills needed for the position. “Because the rest of the team understands the cultural fit, they could bring that out in him,” she said.

To fill entry-level jobs and other information-technology positions, Konchak is willing to hire new college graduates without much polish because of the salary those jobs pay. In those instances, she’ll train people to improve their soft skills. To do that, The Learning Experience offers an in-depth immersion program that includes one-on-one, weekly coaching sessions.

Coaching extends to managers as well. To improve in that area, in late 2017 the company created a position for a learning and development director and hired someone with a doctorate in organizational development to fill it.

As important as soft skills are for rank-and-file employees, they’re even more so for managers because they set the tone and teams mimic their leaders, Konchak said.

“If I come in and don’t say, ‘Good morning,’ to everyone and just go into my office and shut the door, everyone under me will think that’s the accepted behavior and culture,” she said. But if leaders create an environment where people feel welcomed and connected to the organization’s vision and mission so they’re fully engaged, “if you have that, you don’t have to micromanage, [you] just guide them through. It becomes so much easier,” she said.