When you’re an essential business with traditional brick and mortar locations, COVID delivers next-level challenges. I spoke with Kelly Ritchey-Davoren, CPO of Xceed Financial Credit Union about her experience and the solutions she pivoted to keep her employees safe and her culture engaged and intact. Check out our 27-minute video interview and full Q+A of my conversation with Kelly.

Tell us about your background.

I’m less traditional in the HR route. I grew up as an operations leader, but I’m very honored and privileged to have been in companies where people were at the core both times. In the first 30 years of my career, my title didn’t have HR, I was as an operation’s executive.

In the first company I was with, my passion for business came alive. I loved the gratification of setting out a plan, operationalizing it, and working with great team members to get things done. After being in the theater business [AMC and Decurion Corporation], I wanted to shift. I’ve always appreciated training, development, and human resources as core competencies in my role as an operations leader.

The worldview was that you invest in people and doing so will get business results. It was what we called a dual return. And the group(s) I had been part of prototyping was the operationalization of achieving a dual return, consisting of people developing and [tied to] financial results. You had to get people results and financial results in everything you did.

I left Decurion and wanted to prove to myself that the things I learned were universal – wholeness and people being their best selves and fully present at work was transferrable. I left to go into healthcare, then a technology company, and now banking at Xceed.

How do you do that [love] and balance it out with what’s appropriate and what’s not and still exude that thing that makes people feel connected?

Every company I joined; we were always at a new starting point. [Xceed] were where they were in their journey, and their culture was what it was. The tactics of how to deploy that are part of what I loved because that’s what I was learning, and how to apply and help shape while certainly honoring the history and why things ended up the way they were.

There’s no cookie-cutter approach or methodology. It’s very subjective, and you make lots of judgments and discernments about, ‘what’s this culture ready for.’ Banking, in general, is hierarchical. There’s a lot of command and control present because you’re dealing with people’s money. Yet, there’s a desire and need to innovate. And the way you create innovation has a lot of safe places for it to practice.

But you’ve got to build the trust first.

What was the biggest challenge you were hired to overcome with Xceed? Was it that hierarchical sort of culture?

The macro plan was there’s a disconnect between our purpose.

Our core purpose here at Xceed is to meet our members’ financial needs and help them realize their dreams. And at the credit union that is based on people helping people. It’s a nonprofit. It’s a cooperative banking approach. There’s a lot of things you can pull into that and pull from it when you’re thinking about a specific firm within the credit union industry.

When I arrived at Xceed, the biggest challenge was aligning people that the daily things you do in life and your workspace here either enable ‘our why’ to be more real, more authentic, more genuine, and realized by our members. Our associates are members. Members are shareholders.

There was a lot of good, fertile field to begin building that with.

‘Purpose and values and our strategic intent’ were just words on a wall or a plaque or in an orientation seminar that employees heard once and forgot. We had to build that into our values, our calls for action, not something that we just theorize or think, “Yeah, sure, why not?”

We chose ours to be a ‘will do’ attitude. Not a ‘can-do’ attitude. ‘Can do’ sounds optional. ‘Will do’ has commitment and we wanted to ensure that’s what we were calling ourselves to. Conscious leadership. And that is filled with components of servant leadership, that people lead when they’re in service of others, becoming more empowered, bigger than themselves, and more autonomous in their work environments.

On collaboration, we needed to deconstruct this hierarchical, things go up, and then they go over, and then they come back down. We needed to build more matrices and more agility. That needs more collaboration, versus hierarchy being present.

And that’s where a lot of our trust-building work had to be established and was the biggest cultural challenge. Saying, “the thing I do today at my desk is either making that purpose come through by being filtered through our values and our strategic intent, or it’s not.” If it’s not, then you’ve got to call it into question, wondering if you should be spending your time doing it. It helps in prioritization.

That’s been the start of our journey and we’re continuing to get our flywheel going. To be more realized, tried, and true and where people continue to take risks when they’re proposing an idea or challenging their supervisor in a different way.

Where we differentiate ourselves at Xceed is what we call our strategic anchors. That’s knowing and caring about our members and each other. Our strategic anchors, those four components – our purpose, our values, what we do in business, and how we behave – haven’t changed since we established them when I first arrived. But our annual plans, they change all the time. Who knew the Fed was going to cut rates by a point and a half in March?

You’ve got to be agile.

It’s exciting to see that you’re in that evolutionary pattern, that you’re creating that architecture for an amazing cultural experience at Xceed – because employees and customers are both owners. That makes engagement a very different animal.

It’s different than commercial banking. [Customers] are not just a number, they’re an owner. In this COVID environment, we had loans that were interest-free. We suspended many of our fees in different parts of what we’ve experienced since March, including helping our business members, or members that own businesses, through the payroll protection work and getting them the loans through the Care Act. That wasn’t even a primary business Xceed was in when that legislation was enacted, but we very quickly enabled our members to have access and to be their financial partner through these very difficult times.

Read: What HR and People Teams Need Right Now to Keep Cultures Thriving

As far as the biggest culture challenge, as a chief people officer, it really is trying to get to the heart of a person and your people environment and bottoming up your culture so that it’s not hierarchical.

We had a very academic approach to [our] culture transformation because it was something we were prototyping and working to innovate. We’re a community that holds the business results, as opposed to it only being a group objective. There’s hardly anything in an annual operating plan that is truly just the accounting or the HR group’s accountability.

In our recent pulse survey regarding how [people] are feeling supported during COVID, isolation, and the connection points that are lacking – because we are used to working centrally. For a lot of work environments, this was no big change. It was a very big change for us.

Now we have social unrest that’s occurring and for all people involved, from different points of view. That’s where our conscious leadership focus enables us to put some language to that, to talk with each other, and the trust that we’ve been building to have safer conversations has more of a chance, an increased probability that we can come together and stay connected and not feel ‘other’ within that environment.

That’s how Espresa has played a part with us and the timing of the deployment of our Espresa platform within our company. I believe deeply in synchronicity. Some things just show up when they need to and we were really grateful with that partnership with Espresa because it allowed us, during this time, to have levels of connection that we wouldn’t have been able to do in a remote workforce environment when we were so used to being centralized.

Why did you choose Espresa – was the connective piece?

[My] first year was getting fundamental alignments in place. The undergirding is that whole connection between the why of a purpose, your values, the things you’re after for strategy, the things you’ve got to do within an annual plan to get done. They must be held together by a system – people, process, and technology. The technology component of Espresa I knew would be needed at some point. First, I needed to establish the core values and practices and how to enable and bring them to life through the work we do. We needed a container for what we feel is some of our more spiritual, our fun components of wellbeing.

And when I met Luis [Doffo, VP of Strategy + Sales] in a PEER 150 event, in August of 2018, we weren’t quite there. By that second year, I was like okay, now I think we’re ready to start growing through technology, to enable some of the fundamentals, foundational work we were laying and leverage technology to be a part of that. It happened to come at a time when we needed to increase net income and less manual processes done by people.

Watch Kelly speak at a recent Peer 150 event – Engage Your People Where They Are: Rebooting Culture Benefits in the New Normal

Talk about your rewards the rewards and recognition program. Because that tokens program you built, I want that for us. That is so cool. Is that an idea that you came up with?

Let me step away really quickly because it speaks to the manual-ness of the good stuff that was [already] here. Our tokens, they’re literally coins because we’re a bank. And we have a piggy bank. These tokens were manually handed out as part of what we call ‘everyday excellence.’ You would save these up, so 50 of these tokens, for instance, means a day off. And you can only get one of those a year because those are pricey. But 20 of them mean two tickets to the movies or lunch or some things in our catalog that can be converted to logo wear, that type of thing. But our biggest crowd-pleasers are obviously the one day off a year that 50 of those tokens will get you, and then the lunches and the movies.

We wanted to make sure what we continued to reinforce through our recognition programs, that these weren’t just fun things. We wanted to tie it to our strategic anchors and the behavior you observe that you then attributed to one of our three strategic anchors or one of our three values.

When we made the conversion to Espresa for rewards and recognition, that became so much easier, let alone the administration of the tokens. Everybody kept their [piggy] banks and their tokens. They decorated those and are still on their desks. We did the conversion, the virtual conversion. We did an audit of the tokens out there. We converted them into the virtual system, but we’ve kept those out there because they’ve now become a part of our fabric and desktop… kind of an active wallpaper.

In our Espresa system, they’ve replicated the virtual look of these tokens. So in some very real way, we haven’t lost a beat on the fun-ness of those, and now we’ve been able to more easily tie them to deepening our culture by having them be specifically connected to the values and our strategic anchors.

The feed on Espresa, the culture of gratitude we continue to work to cultivate through this technology has just caught fire because when someone would do the everyday excellence, I would get the email because I’m on team Xceed. But they wouldn’t be seen by everyone. Now that we have that feed. Everyone can see the great work everyone’s doing. They can give a clap, they can give a thumbs up, they can do the heart. It’s just wonderful. It’s great to see that also building momentum, giving a shout out to each other, and then getting it. It’s certainly a pick me up when you receive them. Everybody can receive them. They don’t always get tokens, but everyday excellence can be seen by everyone.

You have peer-to-peer. There’s also top-down, and then there is empowering employees.

Yes. I think as we continue to mature, as our culture continues to mature, I know Espresa can continue to live into this. We want peers to be able to recognize each other, even with token rewards. I didn’t feel we were ready year one because it was already such a leap. We kept some of that the same with the hierarchical supervisory recognition, being able to give the gift. But we can allocate 20 tokens, 25 tokens to every associate, and then they can parse them out to their peers as they see great work in future iterations.

And that’s also part of what I’ve loved with working with Luis, Daniel [Rodriguez, Client Success Manager], and Raghavan [Menon, Chief Technology Officer + Co-Founder], is we put those thoughts out there, and they’re imagining it with us, and/or saying, “Hey, we’ve already got it, so when you are ready, we’re already ready.” And it’s very gratifying, just rewarding to be in partnership with a talented group that you feel is invested in enabling your benefits, then your culture of benefits to becoming more realized. And again, more participative. Because we don’t want that to just be supervisory or hierarchical. We’ve got a good start and I think that that might be a future culture benefit component that we add in our group here at Xceed.

We really appreciate that, especially when we’re looking to become involved with a new client. We think of them as a development partner because ultimately, it’s sort of like a crowdsourced platform for all the great minds that are in HR and on those people teams that are telling us exactly what they need, and we find that that also works for many other clients.

I mentioned when I spoke earlier that the framework and the phrase that Luis introduced to us was that “rolling thunder.” While we have started out with rewards and recognition and challenges and achievements and meetings and events – I know there is this rolling part of it that’s still there and it’s just going to grow and strengthen. But we want to ensure we keep getting followership and connection through it, and I think that I’m usually a person who wants to get way out there, let’s move faster, but it’s great to get the benefit of what you’ve done with other clients through the team that we are working with, through Espresa.

Talk to me about COVID challenges that you’ve faced. We can wrap this into what you want to do on a return to workplace strategy, and how this is affecting you in your locations and people wanting to get back to work, people absolutely not wanting to get back to work because they’re fearful or their health is compromised. Can you talk about that and what you’re experiencing there?

Espresa, the platform, having it… we were going to deploy the week that we then had to be sending everybody to work safe from home. We paused our deployment, but we had everything teed up. After the first few weeks of, “does everybody have a laptop?” We didn’t have laptops for everyone because we had desktops. We were working through all the technology, making sure people had the tools to work from home as quickly as possible. Then when we settled into that, that was me thinking of this journey and thinking through this journey with our executive team saying, we need to ensure people are at home, able to work from home, and have the tools and technology.

Read: Return to Workplace? Yes, No, Let’s Reboot This

Now we need to immediately start attending to this weird feeling of not seeing my workmates and not having the more contemporaneous and spontaneous engagement that happens when I walk to the restroom or I see you in the break room or what have you. And that’s what Espresa enabled us, because we were able to deploy it within a two-week period. We did a soft deployment with our leadership to make sure we had that knowledge and ability and familiarity. Then we went very quickly to the rest of our workforce.

And I call that attending to the spirit, the fun, in a different way because it wasn’t going to be done with people in front of you, it needed to be done through technology. That was very new for us because 90% of our workforce works on site. We had very few, maybe even 95%. When I think of COVID and that isolation component of work from home, tied with just our platform of GoToMeeting and Zoom and those types of platforms that brought people into each other’s lives virtually, again, Espresa allowed us to do that.

As we now think about our return to work, and as you mentioned – the spectrum of “I won’t feel safe until there’s a vaccine, so I don’t want to even have you think about me returning to work until that’s true,” to “I’m not even sure if I think I need to wear a mask at work, but if you’re going to make me,” and everything in between in that spectrum.

When we had our recent call with Espresa, they were talking about how we can when we’re ready to bring our headquarters back. While we’re doing some in service with members, we’re doing a soft reopening of our branches. We will be a lot smarter going through the processes there, then we’ll be able to apply those to headquarters. But headquarters is a much tighter footprint than the openness of our branches are for the workforces there.

We need to have the scheduling platform in Espresa to leverage to enable us to know who’s in the building, do we have the right spacing for social distancing. In our places like our call center or our central operations group, we have openwork plans and open workspaces, and those are some of the feedback that we’re hearing like I wouldn’t feel comfortable returning to work unless you put Plexi on top of the cubicles or put Plexi in the quads that we have. And we’re considering all those options, but I think we can do it through better space planning. I think it’s through the calendaring functionality that we’ll be prototyping how to do that well for our workforce, as we return to work.

That contact list, being able to check in with the QR code, is really cool. Then as the people team has the opportunity to see when people are coming in and when they’re leaving the building, there can be whatever that next plan is for cleaning the space before other workers need to arrive.

What we’re starting to see is that our people operations team is serving as the internal contact tracers in some very real ways. Because banking is an essential business, we’ve never closed. We sent people to work from home. But some teams’ have to do things here, whether it’s wire transfers, et cetera, it’s got to be done from headquarters.

We’ve not had anyone directly infected or test positive, but we have had them say, “I was in contact with a person over the weekend, who now told me [they] tested positive.” Okay, where were you, who did you encounter while you were here,” realizing that we already had protocols in place.

Again, this technology – now we’re doing it very remedially. To have Espresa play a role in that with us will be fundamental to our success, to be able to know who’s here and then when and if we do have those exposures and direct tested positive associates – then we will, with a high level of confidence, know who we have to reach out to and ask them to quarantine or get tested or what the protocols are in the various circumstances.

Read: Leaning into Positivity

It sounds like your company and you have been extremely proactive in this process.

In our pulse survey, we have over a 95% agree, strongly agree that we really hit the mark on our associates feeling they had the tools to be successful, the support to be successful during this time, the training.

Because it’s different to be productive, working from your home and your kids and/or your husband or spouse or household members are all there, your dog. And all of that was in our programming, to try and help, along with our training and support. We scored really well. In the spirit and fun category that I mentioned, there is so much the Espresa platform played in that for us. Again, 97% agree, strongly agree that we really hit the mark on that. And it’s in the open-ended question. I’m glad we had data to support our anticipation of what might be true for our workforce, it’s been helpful.

Even a silly integration part that with Grubhub that Espresa enabled us to do better because we have what we call Monday Fun days, and that’s our free lunch benefit, where we get to get together as a community and break bread when we’re all physically together. And we struggled with how to enable that without it becoming some administrative nightmare through reimbursement receipts.

Being able to have the interface with Grubhub and Espresa and have that go out and people order their lunch, and then we still have a lunch gathering through our GoTo platform. We’re still doing our best to keep all of that going. But it would have been a heck of a harder job if we didn’t have it all teed up and ready to go. We wouldn’t have been able to be as responsive and sensible about it.

Do you feel like the activities that you’re doing right now and through the platform, and then additional activities outside of that for keeping your culture intact?

We already had structures in place, because we are bi-coastal, as far as the presence of our credit union. Those structures of our monthly, our weekly, and daily type huddles were already in place to keep information flowing. Maintaining the connection virtually through GoTo and Espresa, I’m just so grateful we had them.

I know we’ve maintained and I do believe we continue to grow, but in different ways than I’d planned because I didn’t plan for us to have a remote workforce all of a sudden come in and have to be enacted within a two week period. You try and work with and optimize anything that’s thrown your way. And I believe we’ve done that. I don’t feel like we’ve backslid in any way, and we’ve found different ways to continue to move forward and deepen our culture through, again, technology and process.

In this entire process with COVID and everything else that’s going on in the world, are there any things you have learned about your culture and some additional benefit programs you feel need to be layered in to help strengthen it? Is there more that you want to do as a leader, a CPO, to realize an even greater future for your workforce?

On the lighthearted side, people don’t like to be on camera. We’re definitely doing some tokens to get that behavior going. But in a deeper way, I know we’re positioned to enact employee resource groups. And that’s something, as a culture benefit, even though we’re only a group of 200, there’s just more intimate connections that we want to help foster and cultivate through, again technology and process.

And Espresa played a big part of that for us. There’re still ways to connect. Whether it’s a reading group, whether it’s a cultural, ethnic – also some of the things that are serving organizations really well now that have [already] had strong employee resource groups active in their companies.

To hold people together and to not forget that you’ve got friends, you’ve got community, you’ve got places of practice that don’t let us lose sight. While we have a lot of things that entertain us differently or emotionally connect us differently, it is still about connection and knowing more about your workmates.

That’s what I know we’re ready and really looking forward to continuing to deepen through the platform, as well as keep our connection culturally. I think of it as parts to whole and whole to parts. We’ve got Xceed’s culture, but I know we’ve got lots of subsets in that, and we want that to not be a competing commitment so much as one that is mutually reinforcing. And I think employee resource groups, for us, will be a good next step.

Finally, tell me the visionary pieces that you see. What is the future of HR and people teams, what does that look like?

Things like payroll will always need to be done by HR – core competency or compliance training will always need to have a hub. But for me, there’s a blurring and a wholeness that we all hold in our culture.

I’m no more or less accountable for that becoming more real and authentic in our environment than a person who starts tomorrow. And yet, I’m accountable for creating the conditions for that to emerge. This idea that we’re all as people in the workforce means to an end – but we’re also ends unto ourselves, and that needs to continue to be enabled.

Whether that’s training and development, we have the real need of pursuing our business outcomes so that a healthy bottom line or the dual return I’ve been talking about, is also pursuing all we need to keep those developmental edges growing and developing.

For me, that’s where meaningful work is realized. That I’m developing myself, contributing to others, creating something that’s excellent, enduring. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning, and I want that to continue to be realized with that level of enthusiasm and heart that’s genuine. It’s not one of those rah-rah experiences that we all can have. I love them too, but it’s something that is a felt sense that can continue to be unleashed in the work we do.

Given the time we all spend at work, getting that means to an end and to pay our mortgage or our car or whatever in the world, child tuition for school, or what have you. Those are real, but there’s just something deeper I want to continue to tap into because I think that’s very universal.


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