Lessons on Company Culture from a 120-Year-Old Organization

with Kristin Chapman, Managing Director of People and Culture at AAA

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Kristin Chapman

Episode 25

”To start traditions, you just have to try things out and see what sticks. These are things that really connect people to the past and make them proud to be part of the future.”

Kristin Chapman is Managing Director of People and Culture at AAA, the leader and advocate for safe mobility. Kristin brings to her role a background in cultural anthropology, which she is using to bring a unique perspective on how AAA has developed an internal brand as strong as its external legacy. On this episode, Kristin talks about developing new traditions, supporting employees through important transitions in their careers, and staying relevant over more than a century of business.

”When you can take those moments of time to reflect and honor and recognize someone’s service, that really has an important role to play in helping people feel proud, feel connected to the mission of AAA.”

Listen in to hear

  • How to know when to evolve employee processes or systems
  • Ideas for implementing artifacts and rites of passage at your own organization
  • The importance of supporting employees through transitions

”Culture has to evolve. There are good elements of every culture and there are important elements of every culture. There’s also elements that if you don’t evolve them and they stay status quo, that they can actually be your downfall.


Kristin Chapman

Kristin Chapman

Managing Director of People and Culture | AAA

Kristin Chapman is the Managing Director of People and Culture at AAA. She has been with AAA for over four years, having started as Director of Talent Development, Diversity and Inclusion. Prior to AAA, she served as Principal Consultant for employee feedback firm DecisionWise.

Episode Transcript

Narrator: Rites of passage, artifacts, rituals…these are terms that evoke old cultures. Ancient civilizations. They’re terms that can be used to describe elements of human culture since the dawn of man. But they’re as important today as they were then. Rites of passage could be getting your driver’s license or becoming a parent. And artifacts serve as symbols of those big moments. Maybe they’re dog tags from joining the military or a wedding ring. But rites of passage and artifacts can also apply to your organization. What rites of passage do your employees undergo as part of your business? And what artifacts do they carry with them? Today we’re taking lessons from a 120-year-old organization on developing depth in your company culture. 

Kristin Chapman: To start traditions, you just have to try things out and see what sticks, and then you’ll find that you iterate, um, you know, people will gravitate to things that they like to do. People will start to ask about, Oh, remember how fun that was? Let’s do that again. And really, nothing has to be perfect the first time. I mean, traditions and rituals, they really evolve over time. But you know, even stories, stories that you have a part of the folklore of an organization, but these are things that really connect people to the past and make them proud to be part of the future.

Narrator: That’s Kristin Chapman, Managing Director of People and Culture at AAA. And with Kristin’s background in cultural anthropology, she has a fascinating view of what makes a great place to work. She is giving us a unique perspective on how AAA – which was founded in 1902 – has developed an internal brand as strong as its external legacy. Today, we’re talking with Kristin about developing new traditions, supporting employees through important transitions in their careers, and staying relevant over more than a century of business. 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 Kristin Chapman. But first, let’s take a quick break to hear a word from our sponsor.

Kristin Chapman: At Triple A, the American Automobile Association, I lead the people and culture team. And our team supports probably 500 or so associates at our headquarters in Orlando, Florida. And Washington DC are public affairs and a 5 0 1 C 3 foundation for traffic safety teams. In addition, we have our AAA Diamond program, which we have travel inspectors in many states across the U.S. I think what’s kind of unique about the scope of my responsibilities is that at AAA Inc., our association, we govern at the consent of the governed. And what that really means is that our clubs back in 1902 came together and formed us. So each club operates independently from each other, but obviously has to follow certain brand and accreditation guidelines, um, in order to be part of the AAA brand. But one of my roles, which is again, is very perhaps unique is, uh, I lead regular calls with the Heads of HR from our clubs and it’s where we share ideas, we learn from each other, and at times, you know, maybe work on projects that can benefit all of us.

Narrator: Kristin is merging her business expertise with her studies in cultural anthropology.

Kristin Chapman: So I spent time in five different countries during my college years and, I started off thinking I would do broadcast communications. I thought, oh, that would be really fun. But I fell in love in my travels with culture anthropology. Which is the study of human societies and cultures. So a lot of times people think, Oh, anthropology is about looking at tells and digging up bones. But no, this is really the study of societies and cultures and really living cultures, uh, how they’ve evolved. So it paired very beautifully with an MBA. And I found, I guess in my experience, that each organization, even within organizations, departments and teams have their own culture. And so their norms, their stories, myths, artifacts, rituals, even rights of passage, those are all elements of culture. And you know, even in business, understanding culture can really help you know how to strengthen it and evolve it.

Narrator: So she’s had a complex path to human resources.

Kristin Chapman: You know, I didn’t come from traditional HR. Uh, I was a principal consultant, uh, with a portfolio of clients in a boutique consulting firm, uh, focused on leadership and organizational development. I actually fell in love with AAA working, uh, as a consultant for AAA. So my background is about client, uh, focus or client service using data from surveys and assessments and focus groups to identify patterns and themes that you can work towards a desired future state, either for an organization or for an individual. And so I guess I view our employees and our leaders at AAA as my clients. So traditional HR might say that you have back office folks who do heads down work, for example. Maybe you have a few business partners who support specific departments or kind of that primary point of contact. But about one year into my role, I just decided that every single person in HR should be a business partner. And that’s really what we’ve been working towards. While compliance is definitely important and ensuring that you’re following good practices and policies, uh, we’ve focused a lot over the last several years on automating, digitizing, uh, clarifying and simplifying processes with the goal to reduce our administrative tasks and actually increase interactions with our employees. I think business partners are connectors, are thought partners, advisors and solution finders, and really in today’s, um, world of an organization and the important role that employees play in the organization’s success and the business’ success, I think all, uh, HR folks should consider themselves business partners.

Narrator: Okay now that we know a bit more about Kristin’s background, let’s take a broader look at AAA as an organization in the Flight Plan.

Kristin Chapman: AAA, the American Automobile Association is obviously known for the automobile. And so that really is our flagship industry and service that we offer. Um, Emergency roadside services. So obviously automotive industry. We have automotive engineers as well, um, who do a lot of really cool testing of automobiles. The other parts of our business, which are just as strong and maybe not often as well known, would be travel and hospitality. Uh, we have a really robust travel offering, one of the largest, um, that exists in the market. But we also have financial services and insurance. Um, we have brand and member experience, and then one of the really I think most amazing parts of AAA is our public affairs and our foundation for traffic safety, who are advocates, um, and scientists and advocates. So scientists who actually study this and advocates for safe mobility. you know, distracted driving, Impaired driving. Those are all part of the, um, advocacy work that we do to help shape and support and form, advocate for safe mobility practices.

Kristin Chapman: What’s interesting is our employees come from all of those different industries. So you have experts in each of these fields. So you know, one of the parts of our people strategy that we really focused on early on is, uh, redefining leadership. And we talked about looking beyond this idea that leadership is only for people managers. You know, we have thought leaders, we have industry experts in all of these, uh, fields. And so, uh, those are the different kinds of employees that we have, at AAA. It’s actually pretty cool the work that is done by our public affairs team, and in fact, especially with the emergence of electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles and driving, we’ve really been at the forefront of helping to shape some of the new, um, legislation and approach to both electric and autonomous vehicles.

Narrator: But even though AAA spans several industries, Kristin says employees across those industries care a lot about the same things when it comes to their experience at work. Let’s talk about the ways AAA is supporting employees to reach new heights in First Class.

Kristin Chapman: You know, it’s interesting with different industries, I guess, within our organization, at the same time, there’s some real commonalities and I think the biggest or the greatest commonality is that everyone wants to feel like they are growing, right? That their employee experience, they are learning and growing and developing. And so we are focusing a lot on career paths and how do we, you know, do a better job at creating those kinds of progressions. I think at AAA we tend to hire, more mid to upper level career folks, and so creating paths that help our employees to learn and grow, to have a path forward, and it’s not just up anymore, right? It’s across, it’s up, it’s sometimes even down in order to move up again. And it’s really about, how do you create the kind of learning environment, to grow and still give people that opportunity to progress from a financial, uh, perspective as well. You see it in exit data, you see it in, uh, industry exit data. People move on because they want to grow, and often they feel like they are stifled and hitting a certain level. And sometimes that’s just what it is. You do have to move, uh, on, in order to grow up or to move up to that next level. However, I think we have to really think about growth and development in a broader way, and not only in terms of vertical movement.

Narrator: Because we’re going to be talking a lot about culture today, Kristin will define it for us.

Kristin Chapman: Culture is, I guess I would create my own definition of it. and I,describe it as the way that employees show up every day. As reflected in behaviors of interaction. So the key piece here is behaviors of interaction. And that’s with stakeholders within your organization or even outside, right, with other partners, other stakeholders outside of the organization, um, across departments, um, or across, uh, different industries. So to me, that’s what culture is.

Narrator: And when we talk about culture, we want to touch on both the physical and digital side of employee experience at AAA.

Kristin Chapman: I think that, it’s one thing to say an employee experience. It’s another thing to say a great digital employee experience, but truly that is the world we’re in now. Almost every element of the employee experience has some element of a digital component to it. So, you know, I would say that the three that I would, point to our number one, uh, team agreements. And when I say team agreements, this is really how a team chooses to operate. And for us, it’s in a hybrid world. Where you have some folks that are in person, maybe some that are working virtually at any given time. And a team agreement essentially documents the way that you work together as a team. And it’s a way to be intentional. And I think that what we’re seeing is that in the employee experience, intentionality is one of the key elements to creating a very positive employee experience. It’s things like, which technologies do you use? Right? So in this world of so many kinds of technologies, I know Zoom and Teams and other video tools. Is it Slack? Is it Microsoft Teams? What’s your chat tool? What’s your project management tool? Um, how do you share and store documents even how do you manage your digital files? Uh, how and when and what to communicate. We have, you know, synchronous and asynchronous, uh, communication. How about video expectations? What do you expect? Are people going to be on video during meetings or not on video? Uh, do you expect that when you’re together in office for certain events or people can kind of be virtual or where they want. So I think that intentionality in creating that team agreement is what, uh, we found to be, uh, extremely important. I would say you also need to use a consistent platform in whatever tools you use. So, um, whether that’s the Microsoft Suite or Teams, I think iterating is, is really important because you may think you’ve got it down. But things evolve. People evolve. Teams evolve. So you’ve gotta check in and adjust as needed. And you know, in my field of learning and organizational development, I’m a huge fan of maturity models. A maturity model is really like a readiness framework. And on anything from, um, a team development or evolution of communications or development of the capability to give and receive feedback. You can put together maturity frameworks or readiness frameworks that really help identify, here’s the current state, where we’re at, and then here’s the desired future state we wanna get to. And what are those sort of levels or phases, um, to get to that desired future state or to mature to that desired future state. So, I think readiness frameworks are important, how the team does, actually how our teams started out in January doing, uh, even our whole organization in this new world of hybrid work is, you know, has really evolved even in the last nine months, um, or 10 months as you say. You know, here we are in October and um, you know, you have to consider that you’ve gotta iterate and adjust and kind of check in and make sure that that employee experience, that digital employee experience is continuing to meet the needs as the organization or as your team members develop their skill or develop their capabilities.

Narrator: And they have their own tech stack that employees use on a daily basis. 

Kristin Chapman: For us at AAA, our digital experience is really focused on the Microsoft suite of tools. We use, of course, all of your traditional tools such as Outlook and the documents that we have. And traditionally SharePoint, but also now we’ve incorporated Teams more into our digital employee experience. Um, we also, of course, as every organization has a, lots of other tools and systems that kind of connect in to different aspects of the technologies that they have to deliver. For example, we have a HRIS that we use and, um, most everything we try to do is connect us through single sign on, as most organizations do now to kind of make that user experience, uh, better, and more simplistic, um, than it would be if you had, you know, multiple logins. So we have kind of our internal intranet, I guess is kind of your landing page, um, to get your basic communications. Uh, right now we’re in the process of, of actually, uh, changing that. So we’re going through an RFP process and I think our evolution is due to the fact that because we have people in all parts of the U.S. now, um, whereas maybe before we didn’t have that quite as much. Um, you know, people wanna be connected more. So that’s kind of a, next step evolution on our part. How do we connect, people through a collective tool that has some, uh, ability to share ideas and do more beyond the push information, but really be able to respond. And, you know, of course we have Teams and we have Teams channels within our Teams, but this is really taking it beyond our immediate departments and teams. What to me is one of the most interesting things about the last several years of the pandemic and the employee experience is with virtual work, and videos, uh, conferencing that became available, right, being able to see people, that really did, uh, help, I think strengthen a lot of the team relationships, especially if those relationships existed prior to everyone going virtually or remote. But what I also see, and I don’t know if we’ve seen the full impact of it yet, but I think we’re starting to, is that our weak ties, you know, those connections we have to people that maybe we wouldn’t normally see virtually, but we would if we were in a building in our offices bumping into each other in the cafe or in the restroom, or walking in the halls. Those are those weak ties that are, you know, really also extremely important. And they are highly connected to innovation and creativity. And yet, they have a probably a three to five year lag time. So that’s an area where we’ve said, Look, we’ve gotta have, you know, digital tools that allow us that place to be able to connect and build those weak ties, not just the immediate team connections that we’ve all, uh, I think gotten pretty good at doing.

Narrator: But of course tech can’t replace those good old fashioned face-to-face interactions with co-workers. And many of the rites of passage that we’ve mentioned before are better in person. 

Kristin Chapman: And while, um, I think it’s been wonderful on so many levels, if you haven’t kind of established a relationship with someone or haven’t worked with them on a regular basis, you know, there’s just nothing to be said for, you know, actually a 3D experience versus a 2D experience. So, you know, I think those in person interactions are extremely critical to building relationships. I think there’s even research that talks about, um, the energy you feel with each other, right? So, uh, right now we’re having a virtual conversation and, um, you know, even if we see each other over video, we can kind of notice those nonverbal cues and we can kind of pick up on that. But I’ll tell you we had people coming back into our office in January, many reluctant to do so, but we did hear and have continued to hear, Wow, I didn’t know how much I would enjoy seeing people in person. What defines a culture? As we talked about, it’s the way in which people interact. And, you know, rituals, rights of passage, artifacts, these are all elements of a culture which reinforce its values. What is most important to that culture? Um, so it can come in the form of stories, It can come in the form of myths, right? Which are basically stories that have been told over and over in a way that they’ve almost become somewhat legendary and maybe even not fully truthful, right, but almost greater than themselves. But they evolve over time based on the telling or the passing down of those stories. And, you know, a rite of passage is, well I can give you an example of a rite of passage at AAA. Maybe that’s the best way to describe it. AAA has a pin. It’s a little gold pin. That looks like a, kind of like a flag. And when you hit your one year mark, you get this little gold pin. And then every five years after that, you actually get a small diamond in that pin. And it’s just a little lapel pin that you wear on your suit jacket and what’s really fun is that you’ll go to an event, a, a board meeting, the AAA annual meeting, and you’ll see everyone wearing their pins, their lapel pins, and you’ll see some with multiple diamonds and some that are just gold. So you can kind of get a sense of how long people have been part of AAA. And, you know, what’s important about it, I think from a cultural perspective is that it reinforces, uh, really the knowledge, the commitment that some employees have made to AAA. You know, it’s interesting because when I first came here in 2018, our average tenure was about 17 years. Now it’s just over 11 or 12, I think about 11 and a half years of 10 average tenure, really 25% of our employees have been here 20 years or more. And so getting that pin, in fact, I sat in an on a, uh, celebration last Wednesday for someone on my team actually who hit their 20 year mark. So, you know, she was re presented her pin with the fourth diamond in it, um, for the four five year blocks of being part of AAA. It’s a moment in time to reflect as well, a rite of passages, right? It, it’s kind of a point in your evolution. Um, you know, and rites of passage, I think a lot of times in cultures, uh, broader cultures, not business cultures, they might be religious rights of passage, for example. Very common. Um, but, you know, rites of passage can exist in any, um, organization are actually important to, um, to create in organizations because again, they reinforce the values, they reinforce the culture, they reinforce what’s important, and they give people a sense of purpose. And I have to tell you one of my favorite artifacts, um, when I first came here, someone handed me a 10 page, uh, printed front and back, um, document with AAA acronyms. And so of course acronyms, AAA in of itself is an acronym, the American Automobile Association. So, you know, it’s really part of our DNA. But a company that’s 120 years old, of course, has probably, you know, developed a lot of acronyms. so sometimes we joke that, uh, you gotta look up what acronym someone’s referring to because there are so many after 120 years of history.

Narrator: Later, Kristin had a thought about how AAA supports its employees as they go through their own rites of passage.

While we have our own rights of passage inside of AAA, we also help our members during important rights of passage in their own lives. For example, many of you know of our Safety Patrol program. You know, elementary schools all over the U.S. Have safety patrollers. It really is a rite of passage for many young students who are selected to put on that safety vest and lead their classmates through safe traffic practices. You know, right outside of the classroom, in the school car lane or the bus pickup. Learning that importance, for example, of traffic safety rules and order. It really start at a young age. And a lot of people remember those days, and we still have these safety patrollers today. Another rite of passage was getting your driver’s license. So we’ve helped, you know, millions of 15 to 16 year olds go through real world hands on driver training  to become those lifelong safe drivers.   That driver’s license,  that actual license is such a symbol of kind of getting through that rite of passage, of going through that training, taking that test. And so  you really kind of earn that responsibility  to be a driver  on our roadways. 

Narrator: But what about young companies that want to start their own traditions, granting rites of passage and celebrating them with artifacts? Where would they even start?

Kristin Chapman: I think in some ways, rituals or rights of passage or even artifacts kind of choose the organization. Uh, So what I, would recommend is that you start to try new things, right? So you might try a new idea you have. Maybe it’s an event, maybe it’s, an activity of some sort. For example, we are starting one in our team this year. And I don’t know if it’s going to stick or not. So you kind of see what sticks. Um, we have historically had, uh, the head of our department, which is myself, uh, and then in previously the heads of, uh, HR before me would create this list of what were the accomplishments for the department, you know, for the year. And so it was kind of this leadership exercise of putting together this list. Well, I said, okay, that’s a great tradition. That’s good that we’re capturing that. And you can go back multiple years and see the progress that’s been made over time. But I wonder if maybe the way that we can get that information instead of it being an exercise just with myself and my two directors, let’s have, um, all of our experts within HR, our business partners within HR, share their year in review. What do they see as their greatest accomplishments? What are they excited about for the next year? So we’re actually gonna start in January of this next year, our state of the function address, so kind of a play on the state of the union address that happens every January, but this is the state of the function. So whether their, uh, function is learning and development or benefits. So I think to start traditions, you just have to try things out and see what sticks, and then you’ll find that you iterate, um, you know, people will gravitate to things that they like to do. People will start to ask about, Oh, remember how fun that was? Let’s do that again. And really, nothing has to be perfect the first time. I mean, traditions and rituals, they really evolve over time. But you know, even stories, stories that you have a part of the folklore of an organization, but these are things that really connect people to the past and make them proud to be part of the future. Besides stories, I think what’s really powerful are pictures, art, um, pictures of people. Uh, you think of an organization like AAA, 120 years. You know, it’s really cool to go back and see the, you know, the old black and whites, and what the automobiles look like back in 1902, and how AAA wore their certain uniforms back in the day, and how things have evolved since there. We have our safety patrol program. That’s another example of something that, you know, you can look at historically. These different traditions we have around who wins Safety Patrol Award every year. And we’ve been doing that for, you know, many, many years. So again, it’s, I think, uh, pictures and art can be another way in which you can reinforce culture. When you can take those moments of time to reflect, like kind of like I shared with the, uh, AAA pin, and you give that moment of reflection and honor and recognition to someone’s service, for example, that really has an important role to play in helping people feel proud, feel connected to the mission of AAA. And, you know, those moments of reflection, I think play a very important role.

Narrator: Kristin herself has an artifact from her own first day at AAA that really made an impression on her.

Kristin Chapman: What was so meaningful about, um, my first day coming to AAA, uh, is that I received a handwritten letter from the CEO. Um, and of course our department reported, you know, directly to him. And so perhaps that is something that, you know, every, uh, executive maybe does for their department. But, uh, it was just very memorable. It was just handwritten. He took the time. He just said, Welcome, you know, so glad to have you. And again, it’s not that it was necessarily the CEO, it wasn’t necessarily, that it was on my first day. But the point is, it was a symbol of someone taking the time, um, who was really glad that I was there. And so to me those kinds of memorable, I call ’em moments of truth, moments that matter, things that are not necessarily expected as part of the employee experience, but really create that, um, moment that you don’t forget. Um, the other thing I’ll mention is that I think that connection to people is something that, especially in our digital world, we probably just don’t get enough of. And so another thing that I really, uh, enjoy about our employee experience that we create at AAA is that our very involved, very high touch onboarding experience, um, including, you know, that individual personal, um, connection with the people and culture department in that first day, uh, connecting people with their immediate, um, supervisor, having a nice, uh, lunch and, and really making it a personable, um, individual experience. And then during orientation also, we bring people together and our CEO comes to each orientation and spends about an hour with each of our newest employees. And it’s really a storytelling opportunity, right? So you talk about culture, it’s connecting them to the bigger purpose or mission of what AAA’s all about. In fact, I sat in on one, um, last Wednesday and was reminded again how powerful stories are in helping people feel like they fit in an organization, fit in a culture.

Narrator: But how can a company culture age like fine wine, like it has at AAA, and last for more than a century?

Kristin Chapman: Culture has to evolve. Um, there are good elements of every culture and there are important elements of every culture. There’s also elements that if you don’t evolve them and they stay status quo, that they can actually be your downfall. And so an organization like AAA who is 120 years, in the making obviously has so many good elements that have created that success. At the same time, you don’t know that you need to change if your view is always standing inside your own building and looking out the window at others. And I think legacy organizations fall into that challenge. And so what you’ve gotta do is step out of the door. And walk into other people’s buildings and travel different roads and highways and talk to everyone you meet, even if it appears that you don’t have much in common. I think when you start talking and asking, you learn so much. I was reminded as I was thinking about this, that when our CEO Marshall Doney took his role in 2015, he had been with the organization actually in a club and then had come to lead our automotive department for many years. Um, but he knew he had an important legacy organization with a lot of great values and good work. Uh, but there was much to build upon that, to evolve and to grow. Um, and so he talked a lot about, developing what he called resident expertise. And that meant getting outside of yourself, getting outside of the building, kind of like figuratively, right? Knowing what the market’s doing, learning from others, collaborating on new ideas, and then bringing back what you learn in your networks, in your external networks. Um, bringing that back to benefit our AAA clubs and members. 

Narrator: AAA members also benefit from the amazing experts they employ. And these are people who are recognized for excellence in their own field.

We have experts who are leaders not only at AAA, but recognized in their respective industry. Automotive engineers who research and test new vehicle technology, for example, they evaluate the systems and benefits and limitations. What’s cool is we research, test, publish, and advocate for the best industry practices and legislation on behalf of our members and all drivers. Uh, we also have experts who are travel experts.  There are inspectors and travel editors that I’ve done this for  more than 80 years, um, who have gone into unscheduled  inspections in hotels and look at a property’s quality, cleanliness, condition through utilizing objective criteria. And you know,  these  diamond designations really hold to a standard so you get the service and  the experience that you expect at every diamond level.  When we think about experts these are the professionals in our traffic safety and advocacy work. We’ve got a couple of amazing campaigns that have really, um, helped to change and bring visibility to traffic safety. One is slow down, move over. And it really supports our essential workers who risk their lives every day on the side of the road to help stranded motorists. So slow down and move over gives space for tow truck drivers, for police, for ambulance and other emergency services while people are driving on the highway. Another one that you might be familiar with is don’t drive in-text-icated. It’s um, you know, really promoting the importance of not texting and driving. So accessing and then being actively involved in your external network is extremely important. And I think for a legacy organization such as AAA, you know, that’s how you really stay relevant.

Narrator: A major part of evolving is change management, which has become so much more important these days with the fast-changing business environment.

Kristin Chapman: In change management, um, which is a, a little bit more of a formal discipline now. Um, it probably become really popular in the last, uh, decade or so, my guess is probably somewhat correlated to the digital transformation because of the speed of change. Right. Um, but VUCA stands for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. VUCA. And really, uh, we live in a VUCA world now, so change is constant. And I think one of the things that thinking about, uh, change today, um, is that we can’t think about it as an event anymore. Change, it’s really a way of operating, of evolving. So it’s not something that, um, you just decide that you need to change. It really has to be a continuous and an iterative process. It’s like taking advantage of those moments to evolve, not just necessarily sitting down in a strategy meeting and saying, Okay, we’re going to do this on this date. I mean, even strategic planning, it used to be, what, three to five years you’d sit down and write a strategic plan. And while that still can be valuable, we all know that business priorities change so quickly now. Um, the employee experience changes so quickly now. I mean, who would’ve known that on the heels of Covid, we would then go into a talent shortage. and that kind of volatile talent market we’ve had. So, a couple of things that I think are good examples of this sort of VUCA adaptation that we have to adapt to or adjust to, um, Is during the pandemic, travel, as you know, slowed significantly, right? So everybody was on cruise ships and everybody was traveling, and all of a sudden it just stopped. And so the travel industry and being here in one of the travel and hospitality capitals of the world here in central Florida where you have Disney and Universal and all kinds of entertainment and travel. The launch for a lot of, um, cruises, one of the things that we focused on, our AAA travel focused on, was how do we support our members and enhance their digital or online experiences. So instead of laying people off because travel was at an all time low, we refocused our efforts and we put people on projects to really, um, enhance our digital experience for our members. And so our skilled travel agents, they, uh, really helped people with their vacations that were unknown. So they did all kinds of unique virtual, uh, travel experiences for people, uh, during a time when nobody could really travel. Um, and then we also created an interactive COVID map for the U.S. to help travelers get answers quickly. Um, and then we also interestingly rolled out an ATP surface testing as part of our diamond program. Our inspectors go to hotels and they rate them based on a diamond rating, uh, system. One to five diamonds based on the level of service and quality and experience that you’re going to have at the hotel. But they added this kind of COVID surface testing, which we never would’ve thought would be an important part, but has become really important for travelers to feel like they’re in a clean environment. Um, and then also I think the thing that I was most excited about is focused our efforts on what’s called trip canvas, and it’s a digital travel site to help people dream, uh, plan and book their entire vacation experiences, um, domestically or internationally online, or with a travel agent. So it’s like taking that opportunity in the moment of uncertainty and trying to anticipate what does that future look like? What can we do right now to kind of get ourselves ahead. And so our travel team really took advantage of doing a number of really cool things that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. I think that’s the key thing with change too, right? Because you don’t always know, It’s not always something you could predict, but when you have those moments of volatility or uncertainty or complexity, ambiguity, it’s like how do you create the vision? How do you, um, focus on, um, kind of bringing people together to do something, that you might not have thought about, uh, previous.

Narrator: There are so many ways that AAA shines when it comes to the employee experience. But Kristin has also seen some less-than-perfect experiences in her career. So she’s going to share some of the lessons she’s learned that have made her such a strong HR leader in Turbulence.

Kristin Chapman: To me, the worst employee experience is when you have someone who is extremely excited about something, right? Um, maybe it’s their first time getting a performance review. Maybe it’s their first time, um, first day coming to the organization. Maybe it’s something that they’re anticipating with a new project that they’ve just been assigned to. Maybe it’s being in their role, uh, as a people leader for the first time. Um, and to me, the worst employee experience is when you have to go, on that journey completely on your own. Meaning you don’t have the support, you don’t have the people to help you navigate those transition moments, uh, as an employee. You either don’t have a leader who’s paying attention. You don’t have, um, the right kinds of support in helping to train or guide you. Because to me, these are the moments that, again, as I talked about, the moments that matter, these are the moments that I think make the biggest impact to employees. When you’re expecting something and you have a completely opposite of experience of that. Um, I know that’s broad, but I was trying to think about, you know, what are the experiences that really can, I think, detract from the culture and the environment that you’re trying to create? And I think it’s the lack of, of what being aware. Uh, putting yourself in another person’s shoes and trying to anticipate how is their experience going to be in that moment? And if I have impact or influence over that individual, am I doing what I can to shoe shift and to, you know, make sure that I’m helping to support that person and that transition.

Narrator: Supporting employees through transitions big and small can help launch them into their new role. Especially when technology helps make that transition as smooth as possible.

Kristin Chapman: Employee transitions are really, I think, critical to the employee experience. And in fact, I think that the digital world that we live in can actually help us to really focus in more on those, um, key moments, those key transition points, uh, because it can automate time and energy that would be spent on, you know, administrative or transactional work, and really help us focus more on the things that are going to make the biggest impact and be, transformational. And I would say there’s formal and informal transitions. the formal transitions are part of the normal employee life cycle. It’s coming to your job for the first day, your onboarding experience, um, your first performance review, your progression into an advanced position, maybe a more professional position, becoming a supervisor for the first time, Right. Um, exiting or even retiring from an organization. Those are all moments in time that are kind of planned, um, where we can be intentional about the employee experience. Um, how do we help people ramp up as quickly as possible? How do we help to optimize them to get to, um, maybe in a new experience, to break even. Break even, meaning that we’re contributing more than we’re taking. Um, but cuz every new experience, every new learning has that, that time it takes to learn and get to that point where we’re feeling like we’re contributing. But, you know, there’s also the informal transitions. And again, I talk about moments that matter. Coming back to a hybrid work environment for us in January of this year, um, that was a really key, important inflection point for us. What was the experience going to be for associates? How do we make sure that we do our best to, uh, create that very positive, um, environment? What is it that we most value? We took time over COVID to bring people back to, um, a brand new designed, third floor office space. And, uh, with that we were able to actually, you know, do a lot of changes, uh, talk about, uh, being relevant. We got rid of old ways of doing things, uh, just even in our structures. Office spaces for those that are highest in the organization, our managing directors or our directors having the high wall cubicles closest to the windows. We said, let’s get rid of that and let’s open up the light. Um, let’s make it an experience that everybody can enjoy rather than just a few. Let’s get rid of our old hierarchical views of how important the role an executive or a senior leader is and say, Yes, it is important, but also it’s just as important that our frontline employees can enjoy the light and can experience the light. So, you know, taking on a new project or assignment, obtaining a new skill or certification, um, that first time you received feedback from someone. Um, you know, those are all moments that we can’t necessarily plan, but there are moments that we also need to consider the transition and how do we support each other and create a great employee experience in that moment. Um, so I think that that’s what I would say in conclusion. That those transitions and getting good at those transitions, I think is what can set you apart as providing a great employee experience versus just an average employee experience.

Narrator: And it’s striving for that great employee experience through celebrating rites of passage, supporting employees through transitions, and tuning into the modern world to stay relevant that we can learn from Kristin and the AAA legacy today.

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 firstup.io


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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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