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Culture Shock

Companies must reevaluate their corporate culture to put people first, says 2015 NAA Student Housing Conference & Exposition speaker Ann Rhoades.

By Lauren Boston

Ann RhoadesAnn Rhoades is a people person.

The former Executive Vice President of People for JetBlue Airways, Rhoades is now President of People Ink—a consulting company that helps organizations create unique workplace cultures based on values and performance.

In February she’ll bring her distinctive perspective on the importance of a people-centric company culture to Las Vegas as a 2015 NAA Student Housing Conference & Exposition keynote speaker.

I recently spoke to Rhoades to get a preview of her session.

units: How can companies create people-centric values?

Rhoades: There’s a systematic way to building a values-based culture. It starts with defining who you want to be. You literally sit a group of your top players in a room, define your ultimate values and decide if these will get you to your desired state. It can be done in a day and a half. In addition, define the behaviors that describe each value, and then consistently behave in a manner that reflects these values so that residents and employees know what to expect.

Students often have an expectation of service levels that are not always delivered in student housing. Operators should hire employees who are customer-service oriented and will behave in a way that is consistent with your company culture. Then hold people accountable, reinforce that these are the behaviors you want to see for your brand and reward employees by recognizing the correct behaviors. 

The same amount of focus should be placed on culture as it is on marketing, finance and operations.

Creating a strong company culture—or changing your current culture—is feasible, but it takes real attention and time. Look at your customer and employee data, see what isn’t working and also solicit input from your line players. Develop a strategy to realign your culture, and do so with a specific plan.

units: You’ve made it a goal to bring humanity and fun back to air travel. How does a leader begin to make similar strides in his or her company?

Rhoades: Fun doesn’t mean slapstick. It means you celebrate and use a sense of humor, when appropriate. Students want that culture, as do the young people who are employed in student housing. The Next Generation and Millennial employees want to work at a place they enjoy going to every day—not the old-school command and control model. A sense of humor goes a long way with young people. What’s exciting is that these young people will one day run this country, and hopefully will do it better than anyone else ever has. 

units: In your own experience, what strategies work best to empower employees and build loyalty?

Rhoades: Employees should be a part of everything your company is engaged in. They need to have a mentor as soon as they come in to the organization. Zappos is a great example of this. They don’t really give monetary rewards, yet they offer a ton of employee recognition. 

I love their MOM (Mentor of the Month) award. The recipient gets an apple pie and an apron. People love that. It’s fun peer recognition, but again, not slapstick. It’s for a reason: Zappos knows what turns on their people.

Unlike previous generations, Millennials aren’t as concerned about salary when they interview. They’re asking about the level of input they’ll have, the company’s culture and values. They want to know their responsibilities. This isn’t to say that salary and benefits aren’t important—but Millennials aren’t necessarily concerned with only salary. 

units: What are some of the most common HR mistakes you see?

Rhoades: Getting to “No” instead of “Yes.” If you have an employee who is an ‘A’ player and they’re unhappy, they’ll go elsewhere. They’re not going to stay. Millennials are not concerned about moving. I overheard two Millennials talking recently and the one man essentially said, “Until I find the right company, I’m moving every two years.”

When hiring, don’t build a team of HR players with a lot of initials behind their names. I like to put operators in HR. 

They’re used to getting things done. It’s important to have all incoming HR employees first spend 30 days in operations.

When I’m interviewing to hire an HR position, one question I ask is, “Give me an example of a time you broke a rule for an employee that didn’t impact safety.” For example, they better tell me they let an employee go home early to pick up a sick child, etc. You need to have a caring culture in place because that generates loyalty and engagement.

units: How have customer service expectations evolved over your career?

Rhoades: Today’s customer is winning and it’s because of social media. If you have a bad experience, you can tell millions of people about it immediately. Student housing operators need to pay attention to the customer. Take the Nordstrom, whose employees have it in their DNA. They’re told to do whatever it takes. At Zappos, before each employee leaves work after their shift, they produce a handwritten note to the person they helped that day who had a problem.

Millennials love to do a good job, but you have to build a strong customer service model that is systematic so they have the tools to deliver on that promise. In student housing, you have to build in the ability for your employees to recover when they screw up. And everyone will screw up at some time. It’s the small things; often that are critical. 

Lauren Boston is NAA’s Staff Writer and Manager of Public Relations. She can be reached by email or 703-797-0678.