Breathing Life into the Employee Experience

with Marija Zivanovic-Smith, EVP of Marketing, Communications and Public Affairs at NCR Corporation

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Marija Zivanovic-Smith

Episode 10

“I don’t think experience is something that can be worked on. I think it’s a fluid living, breathing entity. And I like to ask a question from our core team in HR and marketing, ‘What will bring more life to the employee experience?’”

Marija Zivanovic-Smith is the Executive Vice President of Marketing, Communications and Public Affairs at NCR Corporation. Among Marija’s many responsibilities are the global brand strategy and execution, sales enablement, digital marketing, public affairs and communicating with NCR’s 38,000 employees. In this episode, she talks about celebrating employee stories, engaging them with the NCR intranet, “Bridge,” and understanding employees’ emotional responses through machine learning and neuroscience.

“How do we get the engagement of 38,000 people so they feel connected? Engagement that is ongoing? Engagement that makes them an active participant in our brand, in our vision, in our story, in our strategy? This is about being human. Yes, tools and technology. They play a role. But this is about connection, communication, empathy. It’s about understanding each other.”

Listen in to hear

  • How to foster brand loyalty among employees
  • What to build into your company’s intranet to encourage engagement
  • The importance of including an element of social impact in your EX

“The beauty of our employee experience is in our global nature. We operate in over 100 countries, so that global nature creates cultural richness. But at the same time, we’re constantly trying to figure out how to create a customized experience that is locally relevant. And that might be different from someone in a smaller town in Asia versus someone who’s operating in one of our larger campuses in Belgrade or in Atlanta. It is a real challenge because you have to think about how to preserve brand consistency and brand experience that is fair and engaging for all.”


Marija Zivanovic Smith

Marija Zivanovic-Smith

EVP of Marketing, Communications and Public Affairs | NCR Corporation

Marija Zivanovic-Smith is a Technology C-Suite Operations, Marketing, Public Affairs & Shared Services executive with over 2 decades of strong national and international experience, most recently serving as the U.S. Business Representative to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Business Advisory Council. She is a member of the NCR Corporation, a Fortune 500 technology company, Executive Leadership Team, oversees NCR Foundation and currently leads the NCR COVID-19 Response Task Force.

Episode Transcript

Narrator: When you think about digital employee experience, you might think about technology first. The apps, the data, the metrics around engagement. When what we should be thinking of first is the people. The relationships, the conversations, the interactions and collaborations. The friendships and colleague-ships that companies rely on for success. But every employee is different, so every employee experience will be unique. Technology is secondary to the people when we talk about crafting a meaningful and productive digital employee experience. But it can be harnessed to personalize the employee experience, especially at a big company. That’s what we’re talking about today with Marija Zivanovic-Smith. She’s the Executive Vice President of Marketing Communications and Public Affairs at NCR Corporation, a leading software and services provider in the financial, retail, and hospitality industries.

Marija Zivanovic-Smith: I try not to think in terms of working on the employee experience and I encourage my team to think that way. I don’t think experience is something that can be worked on. I think it’s a fluid living, breathing entity. And I like to ask a question from our core team in HR and marketing, ‘What will bring more life to the employee experience?’

Narrator: Among Marija’s many responsibilities at NCR is communicating with and shaping the experience of their 38,000 employees. That said, stash your bag in the overhead and take the window seat, because Marija is sharing on bringing more life to the employee experience. Welcome to Cruising Altitude.

On Cruising Altitude, we talk about employee experience lessons from leaders at companies with over 30k employees. A lot like reaching Cruising Altitude at 30k feet, things look a little different when you’re managing 30,000 people. On this podcast, we bring you insights from the leaders who inhabit that rarefied air. Today’s episode features an interview with Marija Zivanovic-Smith.  But first, a word from our sponsor.

Marija Zivanovic-Smith: I’ve been at the NCR corporation for over 13 years now. And I’m so lucky that I had the opportunity to hold a variety of roles ranging from global government relations, public affairs, corporate communications, marketing teams, including real estate as well. And, uh, launching NCR global external affairs and market access practices over time. Um, I also served at one point in time as the chief of staff to the chairman and CEO for almost three years, from 2015 to 2018. And currently, uh, I’m a member of the leadership team and the executive vice president for marketing communications and public affairs. Um, and in that role, I’m responsible for the global brand, global brand strategy, um, brand execution, sales enablement, digital marketing, public affairs, and, um, relationships with our key stakeholders. And obviously, uh, corporate communications. Um, My most important role Meredith however, is, uh, being a wife and a mom and a daughter. Um, it sounds like a lot, probably. I love every aspect of it and more than the titles and or roles that are specified, I really love what I do. And, uh, simply put, I think that’s all about building, um, and creating and helping brands and people and communities connect and succeed. So that’s kinda what I do.

Narrator: Now that we’ve gotten settled in our seats and learned a bit about Marija’s work at NCR, let’s take a look at her overall industry in The Flight Plan.

Marija Zivanovic-Smith: NCR is a high-tech fortune 500 software and services enterprise provider. Uh, we have. 38,000 employees around the world. Um, simply put, We are a software platform company that runs commerce and banking. Uh, we’ve been a leader in financial services, in retail and hospitality and in payments industries for, for years and years. Um, and NCR is a, as a brand has been in existence for over 137 years. Um, we have not only a incredible track record of innovation in, in commerce and banking, but probably one of the most diverse set of employee personas out there, which really makes us unique and special, and beautiful, in my opinion. Um, we have an average tenure probably between seven and eight years. Um, That’s pretty good for a 38,000 people globally. And what’s really, really cool is the range of these personas from the new university hires that might be in the high tech, uh, field. Um, and they only know NCR as it is today, as a software company, but we also have employees who have been with us for 50 plus years, believe it or not. Um, uh, I’ve met more than one of those. And they have the deep and storied history of our innovation in their mind. Um, so we are that company that has kept innovating behind commerce in banking since the 1800s. At the same time, we are a large startup, a large platform company that operates like a startup and is rather cool. Um, so it’s a place where people grow careers. Um, it’s a place where people are obsessing over customer centricity. Um, and it’s a place where it’s great to have been responsible for the brand for over five years, because keeping up with the transformation, um, that’s happening inside the company and then keeping up with the disruption that’s happening in the market is, is a never ending challenge. So it’s never boring. Um, and what we really look for as a company and our employees, uh, are people who care, people who want to make a difference for the customer, for their colleagues and for the community. So that’s kind of NCR in a nutshell.

Narrator: It’s amazing that NCR has had employees stay with them for more than 50 years. It’s a testament to their employee experience. What about new employees? Where are they coming from, and how does NCR draw in employees right from the start?

Marija Zivanovic-Smith:There are quite a few new hires. There is the persona of the university new hire. We’ve had our, our colleagues in, in the human resources and across the company have been partnering for years now to build very successful university relations programs. And we’ve successfully hired thousands of students into our campuses and in Europe and the United States and around the world, uh, and the program has become, you know, it sort of originated and, and, um, and incubated in U.S. And then it became global over four years. Um, and that’s a really, really, I think, important persona because the relevance of the brand to the future, uh, employee is key. Um, and so, um, the expectation there, uh, is very different. Um, um, they expect to the, the digital employee experience to be very modern, uh, that persona expects, uh, engagement, uh, to be not just to salary and bonus, but also social mission. Uh, and I can keep going on and on about that particular persona. Um, I think in addition to that, we have, like I mentioned before, employees who have been loyal to our brand for a long time .And it’s really interesting when you, when you sort of dig into that persona why the brand loyalty has been there. It’s been there, number one, it’s partially because of that NCR is never boring thing I mentioned. We’ve been transforming to stay relevant always. And so we operate in many ways like a very dynamic startup environment. Uh, of course, like every large company we have systems and infrastructure and, uh, a bit of bureaucracy that you can expect. But I think that the loyal employees, the ones that have been with us for 10, 20, 30 years, sometimes even 40, stay because they really love what the brand stands for. And also that social impact and community impact that we have and how deeply rooted we are in the, in the communities that we operate. So I think those are the two sort of very important personas that, um, uh, that I wanted to share with you.

Narrator: When Marija says they’re hiring around the world, she truly means all over the world. NCR operates in more than 100 countries, which creates its own challenges. 

Marija Zivanovic-Smith: That global nature creates cultural, uh, richness, but at the same time, we’re constantly trying to figure out how to create a customized experience that is locally relevant. And, um, that might be different from someone in a smaller town, uh, in Asia versus someone who’s operating in one of our larger campuses in Belgrade or in Atlanta. And so for instance, it’s a challenge. It is a real challenge because you have to think about how do you remain brand consistency and brand experience that is fair and, um, and engaging for all. Uh, one example for instance is we have this a really, really great, um, activation of, of fun and engaged. Let’s call it fun at work that we’ve started at our global headquarters in Atlanta. We call it Fun Thursdays. And Fun Thursdays is all about the leadership team, uh, serving employees on Thursdays for two hours. And being extremely approachable. So all of us, every Thursday, our calendars are blocked from four to six. We are, um, going into our Marché. That’s our cafeteria. And we’re meeting all of our employees and serving them a beverage or two and some food and talking to them and engaging them. And that’s become a cultural thing. Now, the challenge in that was how do you scale that? How do you take something like that and now make it available to all of our employees so that they don’t feel excluded. And I can tell you that we’ve successfully, we struggled a bit with scaling it, but we started to, to really crack the code on solving that. We expanded that experience or packaged the, the approach and started working with our vice-president for employee experience and sharing it with all of the site leaders around the world. And we gave the site leaders options to either engage their employees. Maybe it’s not every Thursday, maybe it’s a once a month, but they have the option to invite their employees and create some sense of community. And obviously given the, the global pandemic and some locations not having the option to gather in person we’ve given them a toolkit to, to basically activate that in a virtual setting. So the size and global diversity is wonderful. But at the same time, it presented a challenge in terms of creating consistency. So you have to work hard to really figure it out, and how to create that consistency and that authentic experience for all employees. Perhaps to add to that our current challenge is not unique. It’s probably very relevant to all employers, um, because you know, while unique for our times, it’s very similar to what others are experiencing. We’re still one foot in the door and one foot out the door, uh, this pandemic. And so many employees worked from home for 18 months plus, and they experienced the many benefits that came from that experience. At the same time, they also experienced professional and personal gaps, uh, like being in person with your colleague that’s also your friend, um, that you might’ve missed for 18 months. So like all the other employers, we’re now figuring out actively, how do we roll out that hybrid workplace? And where is the right balance that is maximizing both engagement and collaboration, but also giving people the, the flexibility, uh, while, while being authentic and consistent with brand experiences? Uh, and I’m not telling you, we figured it out. I think it’s an active, active work stream for our company.

Narrator: Marija isn’t the only one working to find that balance between remote and in-person work in the employee experience.

Marija Zivanovic-Smith: I would tell you that we all own employee experience at NCR. Um, if you’re a leader in the company, you’re expected to own employee experience. Uh, functionally, the, the employee experience program sits with my colleague, the CHRO and her team. And, um, I think that the closest partnership in the company is with marketing and communications. Uh, we’re the huge partner in strategy and in execution of the, of the program. I personally believe that every person in your organization, uh, owns the employee experience. Whether you’re a manager or an employee, you have something to say about your experience. Um, you should be an active participant in creating that experience just as much as someone on the leadership team. So, so for me, I try not to think in terms of working on the employee experience and I encourage my team to think that way. I don’t think experience is something that can be worked on. I think it’s a fluid living, breathing entity. And I like to ask a question from our core team in HR and marketing, ‘What will bring more life to the employee experience? Right. Um, and that, that answer is always kind of falling into the engagement category. And how do we engage more people? How do we get to engagement of 38,000 people so they feel connected? And engagement that doesn’t stop, right? Engagement that is ongoing. And engagement that makes them an active participant in our brand, in our vision, in our story, in our strategy and, and connected. This is about being human. Yes, tools and technology. And they play a role, but this is about connection, communication, empathy, truly. It’s about understanding each other. And so for that reason, um, it belongs to everyone.

Narrator: Employee experience is so dependent on the people you’re serving. And because every employee is different, that experience will always be in flux. It will always be a work in progress. Like Marija says, it’s a fluid, living, breathing entity. But she has some advice for how to still strive for a top notch experience. Speaking of, the flight attendant just came over with a new ticket. You’re being upgraded to First Class, where we’ll talk about some best practices in employee experience.

Marija Zivanovic-Smith: Being active, making an employee an active part of the digital employee experience versus a passive observer is key. And one of the best practices by far that, I’ve seen. And I’ve seen it work, is if you can successfully engage employees to become the storytellers on behalf of the brand. When employees are actively involved, and when they are creating that experience, they become the heartbeat of your organization. They become the heartbeat of your marketing and communications organization and organization overall, uh, because they voluntarily choose to become the main characters of your story. For instance, we decided, and this was, uh, actually one of our brilliant interns, um, working with my, uh, brand and communications team came up with an idea that we should launch a green room. We’re calling it a green room because NCR brand is green. So it’s a green room. Um, and it has obviously a dual meaning green room is something where you stage, right? You get ready for main stage, green room because it’s NCR green. And it’s a space on our website where we celebrate our employee stories. So it’s not held internally. It’s actually purposefully externalized. It’s obviously shared across all of our channels and these, these are short form stories, very structured interviews. We celebrate their personal narrative and why they’re at NCR and the employees just absolutely love this. Uh, we’ve launched it last year. It’s been a great success. Uh, we see it also as a great, um, continuum of, of storytelling because those stories don’t just last on, on the page on Our employees are proactively sharing them on social channels, sharing them with their families, sharing them with their friends. Um, and we’re actively thinking about evolving that idea and other ideas into a series of podcasts with our employees. So I think when you are successfully, uh, understanding and activating your hardworking, innovative customer obsessed people, that’s where that, that, that great best practice of activation of the employee story comes to life. the second, I think thing that we’ve done really well would be understanding that our employees are consumers. So, I’m a user of pretty much all of the digital first experiences that exist out there. You name the app, I probably have it downloaded. You name the e-commerce website. I’m probably using it. I’ve been trained by digital first consumer experience. And so as an employee, I expect that. And so we, in our marketing team, we were really thinking hard about that and we landed, uh, in an agreement that every connection will count. Every connection that we create a for as the brand for our employees, it will count. And so we realized that in order to do that, we first had to change and transform our internal communications infrastructure. That meant that we started from scratch and we created a brand new intranet. We’re calling it Bridge. And it’s a platform where all 38,000 of our employees can connect and get the information that they want and they need, and it’s at the touch of their fingertips. What was really wonderful about The bridge creation is that we didn’t do it in a silo. Um, we didn’t go into a room and lock ourselves as experts in marketing communications. We actually decided to survey all of our employees and ask them for input. What did they want? What did they expect? We allowed them to define the feature functions of their intranet. And obviously, I don’t think you’d be surprised, that the ideas that we received and the input was overwhelming. And we, based on that input, created a plan to launch version one of our Bridge, version two of the Bridge, and continued to improve the experiences. So from everything from personalization to incredible search capability, to our ability to post content and images, to ability to find pre-stage social content already ready for them, with videos and images and custom gifs they can share, all is there. And we built all that based on their input. So I think today, we’re in a place where the Bridge is the hub for all of our content and our features, um, including our emojis, um, and, uh, employees can use it just like any social media platform. Uh, and the, the investment is actually paying off big time. We see regularly around 2 million page viewers per month. And the average session length is around two and a half minutes. And we have an average of, I would say, maybe 760 sessions and hundred comments per month. So it’s just, really wonderful to see in two years how, you know, a dedicated effort and a thinking about the digital experience of the employee can pay out big dividends in terms of their engagement. So once you activate their story, you give them an incredible platform that they had a say in building. Then you have to do the final part, which is empowering your employees on social media. And if done well, it can create endless, endless benefits. And so. Um, most of us know that in many ways, the social media is, is the modern campfire. People gather there, they share stories. And so what did we do? Uh, we leveraged our, our Bridge, our intranet. We created really great content. So anything that we release from the press releases to internal stories, to the greenroom stories, to, um, community stories, to our foundation stories, we activate that content. We create beautiful images around it, and we make it available on Bridge for our employees to share with one click. Um, all we ask them to do is to add a “#NCRLife” and to share on their favorite platform. And I can tell you year over year, if you look at these three sort of methodologies, our followership has grown. 80% on LinkedIn. So it’s been, just wonderful to see the engagement. And I would highly recommend to anyone who’s thinking about their employer brand to start with the employee story, get them to be an active participant in both the story and the platform creation, and then give them the space to communicate internally and externally.

Narrator: This is all great advice. And in practice, Marija knows her initiatives are producing positive results because she’s looking at some key metrics.

Marija Zivanovic-Smith: We believe in measuring things because it actually tells us what we should continue to do, right? So if you measure something, you understand its impact. And we also believe in listening. I often tell our communications team that communication starts with listening. It doesn’t start with talking. And so in addition to really paying attention to these engagement metrics, so how many visitors we have? We have sentiment metrics on, on all of our channels. Um, we’ve added our emojis, uh, and our reaction buttons, these custom reaction buttons to our Bridge. Uh, one of the examples of a custom reaction button is “ka-ching”. So when somebody posts something or we have a feature story and the employee clicks “ka-ching,” they mean that that’s so cool. That’s so NCR, that’s making money, that’s driving growth. It’s a way to celebrate in a very unique way. And so these reaction buttons we also measure now. And shout out, huge shout out to a member of my team. Her name is Olivia. She’s done a tremendous job spearheading this and creating these custom emojis. And the employees are really, really engaging. And they’re using them thousands of times in the early months, uh, just with a soft launch strategy. Uh, so we are now measuring sentiment, uh, through that. We’re also measuring, uh, themes and content. So we have content metrics, uh, what’s being shared, what’s being posted, which feature articles and stories are performing the best. And obviously we coupled that with our all hands. So we have a regular all hands with our employees, where we have active participation through Teams and our studio technology. Um, and we look at all of the questions that are asked, and if we can’t answer them all in real time, we make sure that we answer them and post them on Bridge. Um, so every single question that the employee poses is answered, um, because we, again believe in listening. In addition to that, all those metrics, we obviously look at the, uh, traditional metrics that come from our HR colleagues, whether those are pulse surveys or EMPS surveys, all that is combined into a, uh, really great insight that informs where we should go next. In terms of what we say to our employees and what we need to do based on their feedback. So we do give that a lot of thought.

Marija Zivanovic-Smith: We’re actively thinking through a variety of tools and assessing them. Um, there, there are a couple that we are actively assessing for internal understanding. So there are tools out there that give you deep understanding of employees’ emotional response to your words. And those are you know, combination of machine learning and neuroscience. Um, we’re actively thinking, how do we leverage that in our surveys so that our employees can tell us which, you know, when we are launching the next campaign in the community or when we’re launching, um, you know, a next benefit or program, they can react, not just to the idea, but they can even react emotionally to the words that we’re using. Um, in addition to that, there, there are. Um, wonderful tools that enable them to actually engage in our campuses. So they’re, custom-made apps that our IT teams have built, uh, that give our employees an ability to engage with a variety of services that are offered on campus, for those campuses that are open and were employees are attending in person. And, or even use our own technology to pre-stage an order in one of our restaurants on campus. So we, we try really hard to integrate all of our capabilities, tech capabilities that we have in house to give our employees a really great experience. So those are two examples, for instance, of how technologies used and being considered to continue to enhance the experience.

Narrator: Speaking of enhancing the experience, we talk a lot about personalizing the employee experience. It’s a big part of what makes employees feel valued and important within the company, especially one as big as 38,000 employees. But NCR’s intranet, Bridge, has that all built in. 

Marija Zivanovic-Smith: We realized as we were structuring the platform strategy, um, that all of our employees were trained by social media platforms. And, uh, one successful methodology that the social media platforms deployed was to personalize content, for me as a user. Right? So what we did is we structured our intranet in such a way that each employee has a very personalized page. So my homepage and bridge might be different from your homepage and bridge. Mine is based on the fact that I’m a member of the marketing communications and public affairs team, that I’ve selected certain industries as industries of my interest, and that I’ve definitely selected to follow certain communities and business resource groups. And based on those selections and based on personalization, Bridge creates a very unique homepage that’s customized for Marija. There are certain things that are fundamental. And they will be basically same for you and me. So any communication from the CEO or the COO, any corporate communication, any all-employee news and things that everyone needs to receive, benefits, information and so on and so forth would be available to all of us. And will be populating all of our pages, but the rest of our Bridge page is truly personalized based on where we sit in the organization, what our interests are and what we’re doing.The other example of personalization that I really, really love and where we’ve launched it this year is how we started thinking about our global fitness. Every year we had this very successful global fitness challenge that started with the employees in our IT department. It was, it was an employee led initiative, and then it took off and took off, and year over year, it became bigger and bigger. This year in partnership with, uh, HR and, and our team and marketing, it became a global wellness challenge. So we decided that we needed to add a lot more activities and opportunities for our employees to participate. And for those who want to compete, to compete. Because just measuring steps was not as inclusive or as personalized as it could be. So we added yoga, we added pilates, we added, um, meditation, we added you name it. Now you have an ability to participate and, and really personalize your participation in a global wellness challenge. And I thought that was phenomenal. Um, I’m very excited about it. And, um, I’m committed to crushing it this year, probably on, yoga or Pilates.

Narrator: That sounds like a lot of fun. But Marija admits that it’s not just the fun Thursdays or the wellness challenges that keep employees loyal for 50 years. It’s much more than that.

Marija Zivanovic-Smith: An employee experience is a, comprehensive strategy of, uh, a lot of things, whether they believe in your vision and your mission, whether they believe in your execution, whether they trust the company and the leadership, whether the employee is actually satisfied with their work, whether they feel that there’s a career path. And then most importantly, uh, do you actually know how to have fun as a group of people? Which which really matters. And in fun, you know, fun can be many different things for many different people. But the simplest form of fun is just gathering, right? Whether you’re gathering virtually or gathering in person and giving yourself the freedom to not work, but be together and get to know each other. It’s that simple. And I think that brands who figure out how to do that well, it’s not imposed, um, manage to actually drive more engagement. In addition to that, a couple of other examples of having fun, um, that may not relate to getting together than may relate to people, really wanting to be part of something bigger or be part of the community. So in our campuses, we have built two campuses, one in Atlanta and one in Belgrade in the last decade. These two campuses are state-of-the-art beautiful buildings but what I’m really proud of is that we added an element of creativity in these campuses that, that really connected us to our community, um, because employees expect the brand to create and live value beyond the product and offering, right? And that is possible through something that we did. We commissioned local artists in these communities, and we brought the local artists in Belgrade and the local artists in Atlanta, and we gave them walls. Our walls. And we allow them a chance to create art and to capture the creation of that art on social media and or video with our help, and then to celebrate their art, um, together on our channels and over time with our visitors and with our employees. At our campus in Belgrade, we recently invited a local artist. His name is Artez, he’s a phenomenal graffiti artist. And, um, we gave him our are not just walls. We also gave him this cement, these huge cement columns to create beautiful art. And one of them is a with a beautiful, beautiful portrayal of Nicola Tesla, um, who who’s a Serbian. So we’re celebrating local culture, local art, and all we did is added a 2d barcode to that piece of art and all of our visitors can scan that barcode and share it on social and connect to #NCRLife. So in many ways, fun, you know, fun can be a gathering at fun Thursday or fun Tuesday or fun Wednesday, whichever day you choose. Fun can also be connecting art and craft and technology. So connecting your tech campus to your local art community and celebrating creativity together. So. I think those are some pretty cool examples. And I’m personally proud of the, art example because my team worked really hard to deliver that.

Narrator: It’s been an exceptionally smooth flight so far, but not for much longer.  Buckle up and we’ll talk about the rougher parts of employee experience in our next segment: Turbulence.

Marija Zivanovic-Smith: I think any time a person, an employee, witnesses lack of trust, whether that’s peer to peer, leader to leader, leader to team, team to leader, any of the above, I think that that explicit or implicit lack of trust the loyalty to the brand dips. And it impacts the employee experience so much negatively that you have to work extra hard to recover from that. I’ve been working for over 20 years, so I’ve seen many instances, um, where people have probably experienced the lack of trust or breaking of trust. And so I have a high level of personal sensitivity to that. And a lack of trust is created when, when you don’t have that say-do ratio aligned or when you say one thing, but the systems you put in place don’t hold up. I’ll give you a very unusual example. There’s a very well-respected colleague of mine who was part of the team, a core team. And they had calls every day. She’s a female. And they were all assigned to a fast, very fast paced project. She wasn’t being taken seriously by another female. And consistently, on every call. I mean, nearly every idea or suggestion she offered was immediately rejected. So it became a game. I found out about it. It took a while, right. And people told me, and, um, because when I was on the calls, that wouldn’t happen. But when I wasn’t on the calls, that would happen. And so, because they had to move fast and she was resourceful, in order to get her ideas across, she would text or chat one of the gentlemen on the team and they would present the idea and they would be immediately accepted. There would be no reaction from the other female colleague. So that, of course, negatively impacted not only my, uh, well-respected colleague, but also the other gentlemen who had to participate in the handing off the ideas so that we could get them across in the context of the team. I personally have no tolerance for something like that, because it’s very negative, uh, behavior. Uh, but I thought that my responsibility as a leader was not to ostracize the other person, but to actually have a conversation and give them the benefit of the doubt and even then build trust right. And say, ‘Are you aware that you’re doing this?’ So starting point is always, ‘Are you aware that you are causing this?’ And then the second point is, ‘Why are you doing this?’ And when you ask those two very powerful questions, somebody just may trust you enough to answer you. Because you’re really curious instead of accusatory. So to me, any behavior that is building lack of trust is a negative employee experience.

Narrator: Marija has also experienced some challenges herself as a woman in a position of power in the corporate world. So she’s working to make it a better experience for other women leaders as well.

Marija Zivanovic-Smith: I think many of us female leaders sometimes, I mean, often not sometimes, we don’t feel like we can make a mistake. Like we have to be perfect, right? Um, truth is, and I wish I realized this when I was younger, it took me a while, but, um, we are all human. We all make mistakes. And the reality of it is that we make them daily. Um, I’ll share a funny story. Uh, this is, these are the mistakes that I actually celebrate and they’re awesome. Um, my team actually publishes books about my mistakes. And my mistakes are related to certain colloquialisms. Um, given that English is my second language, third language, whatever it is. And so I take local expressions and I make them my own and they make sense to me. And the irony is that they are either funny or inspirational. Um, and I decided to own them instead of trying to feel uncomfortable with the fact that I can’t get colloquialisms because English is my second language. And it could have been a big thing, right. Could have been a huge thing for me because I’m the Head of Comms and Marketing. People could have really judged me based on that. But I decided to own them. So I give you an example so that you can share in the laughter. You know, how, you say, something stuck between a rock and a hard place? The way I adapt that or adapted it in real time, and then it became a living thing is, when stuck between a rock and a hard place, you take a hammer and you bust it. And kidding aside, I think solving that, perfectionism goes back to having fun. You can’t take yourself that seriously. And we as females, especially in corporate, have really worked hard to be in the positions where we are. And because of that, I think we lose sight of the fact that we can’t take ourselves too seriously. We actually are allowed to have fun. Uh, our employees also need to see us making these mistakes, and see us even fail sometimes. There’s nothing wrong with that, because if they see how we lead through that, they will lead through their mistakes. And that’s where growth happens. 

Narrator: Marija draws strength as a leader from her past growing up in Serbia.

Marija Zivanovic-Smith: I think a really, really big thing to focus on during time of difficulty, and this is something I’ve learned more than once in my life, is that you should focus on what you know, and you can control. I learned this as a teenager, in Serbia when we had, uh, economic breakdown and war. And I was, you know, I was a good student and everything around me was, you know, destruction, social, economic destruction. But I, I couldn’t focus on that. If I focused on that, that would lead to nothing. So I focused on what I know. I focused on school and being best at school and delivering great results. So that’s a very big, important mindset. When hard times hit, when, when the hard times happen, and pandemic is an unprecedented thing in most of our lives, you have to focus on what you can control and what you know. Second is, change is going to be part of the plan. So at times of difficulty, change is natural. It’s hard, but it’s part of the plan. It’s a must when such big, big, big environmental things are taking place all over the world. Right. And it has to be explained. So, um, biggest, biggest lesson there is that when you are managing an employee experience during something like a global pandemic, you’re not just managing crisis. You’re actually doing huge change management. So you’re doing crisis and change management at once, and engagement because you have to keep people engaged. They have to feel safe. You have to build trust and you have to explain the ‘why’ behind everything more than ever in order to build that trust and, and get acceptance. So that was the one really, really big thing that we focused on during the pandemic in our communications. We were really, really fortunate to have the benefit of our studio. We have a really awesome studio, uh, as part of our team. And we leveraged that studio and other technologies. To have weekly all hands, and continuous communications for our employees and our customers on Bridge and on .com and our social channels. And that was more important than ever because the world realized in the last 24 months is that employer is now expected to be a source of truth. Uh, if you read the Edelman Trust Barometer or any other publications, you’ve seen a shift away from other institutions. So people are now looking to the employer. And they’re expecting the employer to have a role in building trust. And we saw that firsthand. We saw that when we were having weekly all hands and constant communications and how we were maniacally focused on giving our people insight and data into what was happening, and it was resonating because they were listening and giving us feedback. And we were maniacally focused equally on answering every single question. We had not only our all hands live Q and A and posted Q and A, we built a help desk dedicated to pandemic questions, inquiries, and case management. So building trust during time of crisis, managing what you know, and focusing what you know, and of course managing both crisis and change at the same time is what my big takeaways were. And let me not forget this one, which is huge. Just because it’s crisis, just because it’s challenge, just because it’s bad time doesn’t mean you are not allowed to have fun. So in 2020, throughout the pandemic, I was responsible for leading our pandemic task force. And we had a core team that was working on this 24/7, pretty much, especially in the first six months we had very long days. And I realized that we were getting very stressed as a team. And, all that we were working on was managing crisis, managing crisis, managing cases, managing crisis. And, and I had to give them an outlet. So I called one of my colleagues and asked him, would you like to be the Chief Fun Officer of the Pandemic Task Force? He volunteered. He, he was the perfect person for that. So his task was to kick off every task force meeting with something fun, whether that was really silly jokes on Wednesday or some kind of puzzle Thursday, gratitude Tuesday, whatever it was, it had to be not related to the pandemic. And it had to break the, the difficulty and the challenge of the subject that we were working on.

Narrator: Marija has shared a lot with us today, and has some parting advice for other leaders, especially for those at large companies.

Marija Zivanovic-Smith: Be focused, stay focused, establish a mission, your big rocks stay true to it. Hire amazing people, delegate and trust them and recognize that not everything is your problem to solve. Have a thick skin. Not everyone will agree with your decisions and it’s okay. They may even help you think about something better, or something that benefits the future. Um, and then I would say have fun. Don’t forget to have fun. Final one would be,take a vacation, make sure you take a vacation when you need it. 

Narrator: So what are you doing to bring more life to the employee experience? Just like any other living, breathing entity, it needs to be nourished and cared for. And when it is, your new hires will want to stay for a lifetime. 

Thank you for listening to this episode of Cruising Altitude. This episode is brought to you by Firstup, the company that is redefining the digital employee experience to put people first and lift companies up by connecting every worker, everywhere with the information that helps them do their best work. Firstup has helped over 40% of the Fortune 100 companies like Amazon, AB InBev, Ford and Pfizer stay agile and keep transforming. Learn more at

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Cruising Altitude

Lessons from companies over 30,000 employees

Conversations with leaders who are designing the best digital employee experiences in the world – from the front lines to the back office. Life is different over 30,000. Welcome to Cruising Altitude.

Hosted by Firstup Founder and CEO, Nicole Alvino.

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