Cerius Business Today: Meet Lauren Fisher

Cerius Business Today: Meet Lauren Fisher

Lauren Fisher, HR Business Partner

Interview by Kristen McAlister, President of Cerius Executives

Kristen McAlister:

Welcome to Cerius Business Today. where we bring you thought leadership and resources for small to mid-size businesses. This is Kristen McAlister. Today, I am joined by Lauren Fisher who works with Tru HR Solutions and I love, Lauren, that when you talk about what you do and you talk about yourself – and you’ve been in the world of HR and helping companies with their talent for years – you describe yourself as an HR business partner.

Absolutely thrilled to have you with us today. Not everyone thinks of HR as being the business partner to the CEO.

Lauren Fisher:

Right. It’s unique.

Kristen McAlister:

But you go about it in a way where you really are the business partner. Where have you seen that evolve over the past 5 to 10 years?

Lauren Fisher:

First of all, we’re a consulting firm. We’re a consultant. That’s probably what most people would initially think of us when working in a business, which “consultant” itself is a spectrum of things. So, for us, we’re really unique and in my role, and what I’ve seen evolve in HR, is really being that partner with the organization. So, each organization has a super unique set of needs. Whether it’s their industry or their business goals, whether it’s growth or pivoting to another type of service or product, it’s really unique.

And so, it’s never a one size fits all. It’s not this cookie cutter. “Compliance is compliance” in a lot of ways, depending on the state, but there’s so much more than that, their people, their culture. And so, in order for us to be effective with the client, we really need to understand their business, understand what makes them tick, where they’re going. And that creates a partnership that allows us to be effective. It’s such a high trust relationship and you don’t get a partnership without trust. So, it’s kind of evolved into that way, where we can speak compliance, we can advise, but also on a strategic level and be really proactive to work with the client.

So, it’s a lot more fun to be a business partner than a consultant.

Kristen McAlister:

We’ve been hearing the word “strategic” a lot the last couple of years in reference to HR, and understanding where does the business want to go?

I know recently you were working with a client where understanding where that client wanted to be one or two or three years from now, you started to pull in resources to help the client get there. And it’s not just in the area of HR.

Lauren Fisher:

HR is really just the tipping point of so many things. A business exists to make money or create jobs or a mission or whatever it is. And so, it’s kind of finding out why, what makes them tick, what they’re looking to do.

So many times, when I’m coming into a new client, one of the first questions is “where are you going?” Sometimes we find out in the initial conversation, they are looking to double in size, right? Employee count. Well, that’s crucial information to know when we’re putting either systems or processes in place or programs, or sometimes we find out that somebody wants to sell their business in the next five years, which again, is really important to know, because if that business is heavily dependent on them, we need to really start to work towards some kind of exit strategy, which means putting strong leaders underneath them so that business isn’t a hundred percent dependent on them because nobody wants to buy a job at the end of the day.

It’s really important to kind of ask, what Franklin Covey says, “Start with the end in mind.” So, we really do start at that point. Where do you want to go and where you want to be, and let’s help you get there from an HR perspective and then pull in other business partners as it makes sense.

Kristen McAlister:

We hear that a lot, “start with the end in mind,” which is not intuitive when you’re starting up your business and you’re excited about it and your business is growing. To think about exiting your business. What do you want? Do you want to pass it on to the next generation or do you want to exit it?

Who, what is the type of buyer? Because then that’s going to determine, when you’re bringing on talent, especially if you’re looking to exit and you want that talent to stay, how are you incentivizing them? Imagine over the past year, how those incentive conversations have changed.

Lauren Fisher:

Yeah, they definitely shifted. To the point where people are confused. That used to just be “give them more money, give them more money, compensation, commission bonuses.” When that’s really shifted a lot of the workforce now, that only goes so far, right?

It’s all about the benefits or being creative or tuition reimbursement. There are all these creative ways like profit sharing. So, it’s really kind of figuring out, again, the uniqueness of who you’re bringing on, what they value. A lot of it is just meaningful work, right?

So if you can show what your business is doing and what their role is, contributes to a bigger picture that will really retain some good talent and the right talent and have them aligned with your core values. So, it’s been a big shift and I have to try to pump the brakes on some CEOs or owners that just want to throw money at one way and I realized you’re really not getting your ROI from that right now.

Kristen McAlister:

I don’t think any CEO has ever had an issue with being told, “No, don’t pay them more. No, don’t spend more money. We’ve got some other ways to do it.” I can already see everyone writing this down and wanting to talk to you more about that.

And I know last summer I had a number of clients who we had worked with before came to me and said, “I’m looking at bringing on this role. I’m sure it’s a great market with all these people laid off. Is this pay reasonable?” And it was probably $25,000 to $55,000 below, even at the executive level, below market rate. That mentality we’ve heard, there’s a lot of layoffs going on, there’s pandemic, economy is or isn’t going to do well, we think we can get a great deal on salaries.

Lauren Fisher:

As I said, businesses are there to make money, right? So lowest costs and best we can get for that. But I’d have to say that the diamonds in the roughs and the ones that you want, you are going to get what you pay for, regardless of what the market is doing workforce-wise.

It’s one of those things where you want to pay a competitive market value, right? You don’t want to go too chintzy with it, but at the same time, you don’t want to overpay. So, you’re going to ask those critical questions, but again, you get what you pay for on that. The good people, regardless of whether there’s a shortage of work or not are always going to be taken. And so, there’s always going to be competition for them.

And then there’s other times where it doesn’t always make sense to have a full-time person and that’s where you and I have been able to work beautifully together, where I have a client who really thinks that this is a full-time position but it’s not a full-time position.

So, they’re trying to get two positions in one position and that’s just not going to work. And so sometimes that fractional person coming in makes a whole lot more sense for the business so they get that expertise. At the same time, they’re not paying a full-time salary for it. So, there’s creative ways to do that to get your bang for your buck.

Kristen McAlister:

Check is in the mail. Thank you very much for bringing that up. Appreciate when it goes both ways.

Kind of going back to that, when you look at what you do, and you mentioned consulting. I remember being in a $5 million business, professional services, and our head of HR was someone that we hired into customer service. She was promoted to office manager, didn’t make the best office manager, but started to bone up on the laws. And I-9s and knew quite a bit of that. So, she became the head of HR. We grew to $10 million, $15 million. She was still the head of HR. When you walk into those circumstances, how do you work with that person and maybe bolt on and compliment or supplement?

Lauren Fisher:  

So that is super common. So common for small businesses to start with someone just inheriting it, an office manager or somebody’s wife or brother or whoever is just going to take that piece on without any background in it. And they’re just trying to keep up on top of everything else they’re doing.

So that’s really common. So, we come alongside those businesses and we want to be careful making sure we’re not threatening that individual. They’re still very valuable. They’re boots on the ground. It’s important. But what we find more often than not is they’re really starving for support.

They’re all too grateful to have someone come in with more expertise to kind of lighten that load. We do a lot of development with HR managers and HR generalists. So, if that’s what that company has, and that’s what makes sense for them right now, we will come in, because they do still need that high level HR, and mentor them and let them know and take that high level stuff. They can give us a gut check, right? Or we can steer them in the right direction. But absolutely.

I think those businesses that start out that way, again, it’s survival mode when you’re in startup mode, survival mode HR is not a revenue producing area of the company. So, a lot of times it gets it last attention with everything else.

But I think those clients that we work with and those companies that realize very quickly, it’s a smart place to invest in the beginning and you will get your ROI out of it, they’re able to kind of invest those resources, whether by hiring internally or again, outsourcing to a degree to support their internal partners.

Kristen McAlister:

I know you’ve done a number of consultations and stepped into companies over the past year for a lot of blocking and tackling. You’ve done a lot of COVID mitigation. You’ve done educating, all that, especially in the state of California. So I almost just want to chalk up the last year and blocking and tackling. That was a defensive year, especially in HR.

As we start to look forward to this year, what are some of the strategies that you’re talking through with clients to either help with business, whether it be a pivot, going into a new marketplace, what are you seeing as some of those strategies that HR is really going to be helping with?

Lauren Fisher:

So obviously this last year was a whirlwind. It was nonstop. I would have to say, myself, as well as the rest of our team, we’ve probably laid off and furloughed more individuals and the second quarter of 2020 than we had in our whole careers combined. Right. There was one time we had 200 people to lay off within three days.

It was all-hands-on-deck and it was a lot. As traumatizing as that can be for anyone, for businesses, that’s going to sit with them for a long time. I think there’s a lot of businesses who realize that they’re just not prepared. I mean, who would be? Who would have known about a global pandemic? But just prepared in general for a crisis or a possible recession or whatever that might be.

What I’m seeing now is a shift toward that proactive, preparedness. So everyone kinda got caught with their pants down last year when it comes to technology. So I’ve seen companies have to and be forced to embrace technology on so many levels because they’ve been forced to have their employees be remote and shut down their brick and mortars. And technology is something that a lot of even small businesses have not been willing to invest in. It’s now something they’ve had to learn how to invest in.

And on the HR side, what that looks like, these employees that are no longer able to pop in each other’s offices or chat at the water cooler, the break room, any of that anymore, the team building activities that were on site, it’s really not an option. So getting creative with technology and employee engagement, using technology to manage your employees performance, check in with them, they’re utilizing things like Teams or whatever it is to go ahead and try to stay connected with one another and manage each other’s performance. Zoom, obviously, is a big one, try to just stay connected.

Another thing I’ve seen shift this year is just even larger push to outsource. So again, some of these positions whether they had a director of HR or an HR manager, they’re realizing that maybe that person in that position wasn’t up to par or speed and they do need that next high level.

So, versus again, paying a full-time salary for an individual who really wasn’t able to get them through a crisis. They’re now realizing it’s a better use of resources to outsource that expertise piece, someone who is full-time staying up on legislation and not really on the day-to-day of managing that business and running that payroll but can really add that insight working with different industries.

And so we’ve seen a lot more of an ask and request to come in and go ahead and replace an HR manager and kind of work with either a generalist or their boots on the ground office manager in that way. Or even just take payroll and benefits administration off their plate and process that externally because it’s a better use of their resources.

It’s just really offloading that burden. So if they have to run skinny again, there’s less business disruption.

Kristen McAlister:

You mentioned, Lauren, and I have had this conversation countless times over the past couple of months about the leadership team, where there are individuals in their organization that they’ve seen over the past six to nine months are just not what they need.

They didn’t see it over a year’s period of time, but we experienced a year’s period of business in a matter of three months and it became apparent and we’re seeing a lot of turnover at the leadership level.

Lauren Fisher:

It’s one of those things. When you go through any type of crisis, it really highlights your gaps and your inefficiencies and leadership is no exception. It all starts at the top. That’s what we talk about when we’re coaching. You can’t successfully roll out any initiatives or get employee engagement or adoption if you don’t have your strong leaders, you really can’t take it to that next level.

So it’s actually been almost a cleansing, in a sense, with a lot of organizations who have maybe been holding onto some people a little longer than they should have, and now realizing that they can’t afford to continue to do that.

So yes, shedding some leaders that maybe aren’t a good fit, not able to keep up. A lot of businesses had to evolve and not all the leaders are on the same page with that evolution and their new strategy and that’s okay. And so parting ways, it’s kind of that shedding of the old skin and rebirth. It’s okay. It’s uncomfortable. But, you don’t grow without that uncomfortableness.

So we are seeing that as well, a lot of leaders shifting in that way, and it’s an opportunity to upgrade, in a sense, and kind of right-size in some ways,

Kristen McAlister:

And to look at what does my business need. We always say you don’t hire for today, you hire for the future. Where are we going to be over the next year? Where do we want to be over the next year? And let’s get someone who’s already been there and can show us the way. In fact, we’ve seen this interesting phenomenon where two years ago, the concept of bringing in an advisor like yourself or in finance or operations or sales, anything, “no one knows my business better than I do. No, one’s going to be able to tell me something. I don’t know already.”

Versus the last year it’s been, “I don’t know anymore,” Cerius included. We’ve absolutely been saying, “everything’s changed. The world’s changed. Let’s get a fresh set of eyes, let’s get someone else.”

I know, as you walk into organizations, you interview all the employees, you get to know everyone and getting that feedback and what is their perception and what is their perspective as well, because everyone’s perspective and perception has changed.

Lauren Fisher:

It’s a whole new world.

And so, wanting to get folks with experience is great, but we’re in such unprecedented times. Which I’m sure we’re all sick of hearing, but it couldn’t be truer. So going in with this mindset that we know what to do. We’ve done it – it’s just not doable. So you really do have to kind of resurvey and re-listen to what your employees wants and needs are.

And coming up with maybe unique strategies from that point of view and advisors are the best way to go with that. I’m a big proponent of that. When I work with a client, I want to know who their benefits broker is, who their commercial broker is, who their 401k broker is, who their business attorney is, their employment attorney, all of that, right?

We all are experts in our field for a reason. And we complement each other. And so, it’s important to be able to lean on your experts in order to take educated risks. We’re advising CEOs, entrepreneurs; they’re risk takers and that’s a beautiful thing. But they know there’s things they don’t know. And they’re okay with taking a certain number of risks.

So what I feel like my job is, as well as other advisors, is to educate them on what those risks are. The good, the bad, the ugly, here’s the least risky to most risky option, shades of gray in between, choose your own adventure, right? No judgment.

But you need to know what the possible consequences are and if you can live with that and move on, go for it. We’re here to be practical, give practical solutions. So, I think as an advisor, it is all about education and again, understanding their tolerance for risk and helping them move forward.

Kristen McAlister:

And with that advice, being able to advise CEOs – we’ve talked about a number of things, in a short period of time. When you look at a business, there’s a lot to digest, even in our conversation from compensation to employee health and wellness and their mental shift with all of the ups and downs and changes, whether they were furloughed or laid off or are working from home and every system, everything that they use is different than they had used the week prior, the technology, things being outsourced…

There’s a lot for the CEO to be thinking of going into 2021. Where do you think are the top three most important areas? If I have to pick and narrow it down, I’ve got my talent. Where am I focusing on in order to make sure I’m going to be successful and that I’m going to be prepared no matter what.

Lauren Fisher:

Well, one thing I try to do, and this takes time, but when working with a client, is really try to change the mindset and perspective to view their employees from a liability to an asset.

That’s kind of a game changer. It’s going to drive a lot of business decisions. You’re looking at a PNL. Payroll is a liability, right? It’s not an asset, and if you live in a litigious state like California, there’s even more liability, right? Employer liability.

There’s a lot of things to step in. So, a lot of these CEOs and businesses are conditioned to think of their employees as a liability. And when you do that, you kind of operate from a fear mentality, which is not going to be the best decision making. But if you realize that your employees actually are your company, are your assets, are your brand ambassadors? They’re the ones interacting with your customers and your clients. So if you can change that mindset, it’s really going to kind of elevate your decision-making to more long-term, some more trickle down on the creating policies and procedures and just communication.

That’s a big miss is being able to communicate the vision to the rest of the organization. So that’s one of the mindsets I really try to remind CEOs of is that it’s easy when you could be more removed from the workforce to forget that.  And this next year more than ever is a good one to remind folks of.

Another one that I definitely would advise CEOs to keep top of mind, and we touched on it a little bit: get strong leaders underneath you. It’s so important. Unless you want to be the CEO, the COO, the CFO, the manager, or the HR man, unless you want to do it all, you need strong people underneath you. And then you need to empower them to do what they do best.

And sometimes that is so difficult. It’s really about hiring really selectively, be picky, be super picky, protect your team, protect your culture. Make sure they align with your core values and then let them fly. That’s how businesses go from A to B. That’s next level. And that’s a big one.

Lastly, again, we touched on it earlier: stay educated. And the only way to do that, because you already have a full-time job, is to surround yourself with experts in their field, and then really listen to what they’re letting you know so you can take your educated risks and guesses.

We’re coming in on 2021 with a lot of legislative changes at the end of last year. There’s a lot that they don’t know that they don’t know and a lot of game changers. You just gotta be hungry to educate yourself, figure out what’s going on. You’re working so hard to create the revenue for your business, right?

It’s a detriment to, in one fell swoop, get a gnarly employment liability claim to just wipe that out. So, educate yourself.

Those are the things I see for 2021. Going in, being open to change in a lot of areas, it’s going to have to be non-negotiable.

Kristen McAlister:

It’s interesting because those are probably the top three things that as businesses grow and they go from that $5 million to $10 million or $10 million to $20 million, those are almost the same three things of making that shift in your mind of your employees are there as your asset, use them as the asset to grow the business versus you doing it, you’re wearing all those hats and the sooner you can get those hats off of your head, the more you can focus on your highest and best use of time.

And everyone who listens to this podcast knows I have learned from personal experience that I was never meant to be a CFO. I’ve never meant to be a CMO. There’s a lot of things I’ve learned that I’m not meant to do. And I didn’t realize that until I replaced that as we grew and watched a professional do it. And first thing I thought I was, “Wow. We were really being underserved with me doing it.”

And I thought I was at Cracker Jack CFO. Seeing what a classically trained, true professional can do with that in getting that off and then that staying educated. I don’t have to be the one reading up every night and, on the weekends, keeping updated anymore. I just need to ask. Ask those questions, ask the right people. And you know, almost sometimes we see CEOs form an informal advisory board with individuals like yourself, where they can call you once a month, once a quarter and say, “what do you think?”

Your experience can lend so much. And you’ll get a few in 50 different companies.

Lauren Fisher:

Oh, yeah, I love it. Keeps it real fresh.

Kristen McAlister:

Not just one. I can imagine when you are talking to CEOs and you hear great things that others are doing, how often are you sharing that saying, “You know what I’ve seen this work great in five other clients?”

Lauren Fisher:

Constantly. I feel like I’m doing a disservice to my clients if I’m not, that’s what I believe. That’s kind of the value that we add as being HR business partners to multiple businesses in multiple industries of multiple sizes. I know my clients value that a lot, that I can bring unique perspectives in our tried and true methods.

Again, my job is not to be a decision maker for any business, but to educate them with what I’ve seen and experienced, what the research shows, what the law says. So I do bring that in quite a lot. A lot of CEOs want the tried-and-true method. They want to know it’s tested and it works.

And so it holds a lot of weight as well to have seen it and see the challenges. So I bring that in a lot. Cause the sooner we can get to some educated decisions, the sooner we can move forward.

The CEO’s job is to be a visionary for the company. That’s their job. And in order to do that and stay elevated, they got to get out of the weeds, gotta be able to empower the people under them, make decisions.

And so, I bring a lot of that insight in, and it’s valued by a lot of my clients.

Kristen McAlister:

I think that we have any tagline for you, Lauren, you help CPOs fly and be the visionary. Go stay elevated, stop short of saying you’re the wind beneath their wings. And we’ll think I dated myself there.

Well, thank you, Lauren, so much for your advice and you know, you and I can sit here and talk for hours of war stories, case studies and all that. We may save that for another time. But we’ll leave our audience with that key advice of viewing our teams as assets and whether they’re internal teams or external teams bringing in strong leaders.

And to your point, making it clear that they own it, you no longer own it. They now own it. And they can run with it and surrounding themselves with great advisors like yourself, Lauren Fisher, with true HR leaders. Really appreciate you joining us today.

Lauren Fisher:

Thanks for having me. It’s been a blast.

Kristen McAlister:

Fantastic. And until next time, have a wonderful day and let’s get Cerius about our business.

Lauren Fisher:

Thank you, Kristen.

To learn more about Cerius Executives or to get connected with Lauren Fisher, you can contact us at [email protected]. Thank you for joining.

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