Workplace Culture Change with Shari Chernack | Interview | Bonfyre

Around the Bonfyre: Talking Workplace Culture Change with Shari Chernack

7 min

When significant organizational and workplace culture change presented the opportunity for a revitalized brand and cultural identity, Neovia Logistics brought Shari Chernack in to execute it.

When she accepted her role as vice president of change, communications, culture and engagement for the third-party logistics organization, Chernack started fresh building infrastructure and capability around HR, people strategy, and communications functions. In the 18 months that have passed, Chernack, a leader with extensive experience across each area of specialization in her title, has orchestrated several foundational culture and communications initiatives with a degree of freedom, oversight, and creativity that many professionals would envy. For this edition of Around the Bonfyre, we sat down with Chernack to discuss what starting global workplace culture change from square one entails.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You’re in a unique position where you’re getting to build a framework for communications, culture, and engagement on your own terms. What do you enjoy most about this process? What do you find challenging about this process?

This company has 8,000 employees in a hundred locations across the globe. We have employees who speak about 20 different languages. We have a large non-wired distributed workforce, in addition to having a traditional corporate support structure as well. So this position has combined the excitement and blue sky of a startup with the challenges and complexities of an organization that is responsible for a lot of business with customers who are well-known in the industries we serve. What I like about that is there’s a sense of urgency and opportunity to it. Employees are really wanting to see more from the areas that I work in. People want more communications and information. They want the company to manage change smoothly and successfully. They want a culture they’re proud of, and can talk about with others. The most challenging aspect is same thing: the urgency. Coming in, there was a lot of work to be done and not a lot of time to get up to speed. I had a number of large projects at the start, before I even built my team. Assimilation came through the process of working.

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How did you stay grounded in that period of time?

I reminded myself that I was essentially getting to do visioning and execution around a dream slate of projects. As a consultant, if I had gotten these projects assigned to me, or if I sold them, I would have been ecstatic. We’re talking about developing our core values using a collaborative process inclusive of our employees around the globe. It involved bringing our leaders together to align them around our vision, strategy, and values. It involved putting our first ever global engagement survey together. It involved crafting a narrative about our vision and mission that employees could use as their true north to talk about the organization, internally and externally. It’s a fantastic opportunity to have such significant and high impact projects that allow you to be creative.

Can you discuss more about how you scaled your core value development to be inclusive of your global workforce?

We wanted employees to feel invested in their core values. It was important that the values not be something that I wrote up at my desk or something that came out of a boardroom. Instead, we used a card sort process to have employees talk about their experience with the company, to share the areas where we’ve done well and those where we need to aspire to do better. We had about 300 employees from around the globe participate in the process. We engaged HR business partners across all of our regions to lead these participative discussions. At the end of the day, some clear themes came out of the process. In choosing our core values, we didn’t just choose five things that we’re good at. We said, these are the values we already exhibit well and these are the ones we want to have. Based on that, we developed a set of values we could focus on in the here and now, as well as what we want to focus on for the future.

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How did employees respond to that core value rollout knowing they contributed to their creation?

They responded really well. We had our CEO introduce our core values in the winter. In the spring we had a launch week. We sent materials to our locations around the globe. We developed a storytelling series around each value where we solicited stories from employees and discussed the values in action. We put together a core values video guerilla-style where employees, in their own language, talked about what each of the values meant to them. The video had a lot of subtitles, which made it feel truly global and inclusive, not headquarters-driven in that regard. We also gave leaders conversation starters and guidelines on how to integrate core values into the conversations they have as a regular part of doing business. We also developed the start of a capability to give recognition around our core values. Finally we’ve had the opportunity to ask about our values in our engagement survey to get a baseline on how we’re doing with each of them. The feedback has been very positive. When we pulsed the organization on some engagement topics about two months after rollout, we had over 90% recognition of our core values among the respondents. Over 90% of our people also agreed that our values aligned with their personal values. Obviously there’s still work to do.

“For values to be more than the paper they’re written on, they need to be integrated in the dialogue that takes place at work every day, and they need integration in the talent lifecycle, both of which are works-in-progress.”

You achieved an 88% participation rate for Neovia’s first global engagement survey, in spite of a large non-wired workforce. Could you put into context for our audience what “non-wired” means, because it wasn’t too long ago that everyone was “non-wired” in a sense. What’s different about this “non-wired” population you’re referring to?

Non-wired employees are employees who do not have access to a computer, phone, or any kind of internet-enabled communication in the workplace. It means all the communication capabilities that people in our offices and leadership roles have—emails, intranet, live town hall feeds, newsletters—are not available to the employees doing the money-making work for our organization. These employees are beholden to managers for their information. Managers might communicate face-to-face, they might print out information and post it somewhere, or they might do nothing at all. When I was a consultant, I always used to say to companies with a similar workforce profile that your communications are only as good as your least effective manager. That is something true here as well. It puts a lot of pressure on our leaders and managers to communicate and coach the middle management layer on how to better communicate, share information, and solicit feedback. Those are skills that not every manager instinctively has.

How did you overcome those challenges to drive such a high participation rate?

We worked with our HR business partners and facility managers to make sure a couple of things are happening. First, that they know in advance when the survey period is going to take place so they can schedule employees to take the survey. We also make sure they have the necessary technology to complete the survey. Then we work with them to deploy it. Momentarily we considered letting employees take the survey on paper, but we ultimately decided to give everyone a unique computer password, delivered in stuffed, sealed envelopes so that they could trust the confidentiality of the survey.

“There’s a lot of planning and coordination, and obviously a lot of troubleshooting. It’s all about rolling up your sleeves, working together, and having great partnership with your facilities.”

What are you seeing as the things that non-wired employees need to feel valued and engaged?

They need to feel like their ideas are being listened to. Whether those ideas are implemented or not, you need to follow through. We have a continuous improvement culture in light of the work we do. Employees submit new ideas all the time. We need to implement their great ideas and make sure that if an idea isn’t being implemented to follow up with a feedback loop so that employees know their contributions are valued. We need to thank them on a regular basis, and make sure there’s a strong recognition culture in place. That means formal programs, like service anniversary recognition, which we implemented for our long-tenured employees who have been with the company through thick and thin. But we also need to have the capabilities where managers and peers can recognize employees. Above all, we need to be a culture of gratitude. To teach managers and supervisors to take the time and say, “Thank you.”

For all of the things you just listed, and even before with your core value rollout, you’re working with a population you said that speaks 20 different languages. How do you deliver effective communications while accommodating those language needs?

It’s a matter of picking our target. Identifying those times when it’s important to communicate in every language, like with our engagement survey or our core value rollout, and when to rely on the people in our facilities to do the translation. As a company that is growing, with such a large, multi-lingual population, we have to make choices about what to translate and when. We’re looking to come up with a core set of languages where the bulk of our employees tend to fit in and translate for those. Then there are additional languages where it’s more of a secondary opportunity for us, but we try to make sure the big things are translated.

Do you have any parting thoughts for our readers?

I report to the head of HR at Neovia, but I’d like to leave your leaders with the strong conviction that this is not an HR-only activity. This is the work of leadership. When I first came in, I was fortunate to have an interim CEO who vocally supported the work I did, and our CEO who joined Neovia after I started is very supportive as well. It’s important to have leaders who understand this is not a ‘nice-to-have’ and that’s it’s not just an HR thing, this is how leaders lead. The best managers and supervisors coax the best work out of people by building cultures that employees are excited about. 

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