Knowledge Center: Podcast

Organizational Culture

Navigating crises with integrity: Insights from Waste Management’s chief people officer

8/31/2020 Heidrick & Struggles

In this podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Rose Gailey speaks with Tamla Oates-Forney, senior vice president and chief people officer for Waste Management, a comprehensive North American waste and environmental services company. Oates-Forney shares her experiences and insights gained from leading her workforce through the COVID-19 crisis: the importance of putting people first, maintaining a sense of calm, and openness and transparency while working on a sustainable tomorrow. She also stresses the necessity of diversity and inclusion as a systemic approach, rather than simply an initiative, for a winning company strategy.

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Some questions answered in this episode include the following:

  • (1:18) With businesses and leaders navigating new ways of managing workforces and driving performance, what have been the challenges you have faced as an HR leader?
  • (3:32) How has the Waste Management culture impacted the way you’ve navigated through the crisis?
  • (7:20) Thriving cultures are those that are purpose-driven and characterized by both group mindset and vitality. How is Waste Management purpose-driven?
  • (16:47) A key concept in cultural transformation is what we call the “shadow of the leader,” the idea that leaders’ mindsets and actions influence their organizations. How would you describe your own leadership shadow?
  • (19:38) What advice do you have for other leaders as they think about how diversity and inclusion efforts add value to their business?

Below is a full transcript of the episode, which has been edited for clarity.


Welcome to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast, the premier provider of leadership consulting, culture shaping, and senior-level executive search services. Every day, we’re privileged to talk with fascinating people who are shaping the future through their leadership and vision. In each episode, you’ll hear a different perspective from thought leaders and innovators. Thanks for listening to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast.

Rose Gailey: Hi, I’m Rose Gailey, partner at Heidrick & Struggles and global leader of the culture-shaping practice of Heidrick Consulting. In today’s podcast, I’m speaking to Tamla Oates-Forney, senior vice president and chief people officer for Waste Management, a comprehensive North American waste and environmental services company. Tamla spent most of her career at GE, holding several HR leadership positions. Most recently, Tamla was named Savoy Magazine’s Most Influential Black Executive of 2020 in corporate America. Tamla, welcome and thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today.

Tamla Oates-Forney: Thank you so much for having me. I’m looking forward to the conversation.

Rose Gailey: Tamla, in these unprecedented times, with businesses and leaders navigating new ways of managing workforces and driving performance, what have been the challenges you have faced as an HR leader?

Tamla Oates-Forney: 2020 has definitely been a challenging time for all of us. As a human resources leader, it’s been exponentially [more challenging] because of the impact on our people. So, between COVID-19, social unrest, and just trying to manage our day-to-day operations, my focus, as well as the focus of our leaders at Waste Management, has remained on putting our people first. In all cases, the safety and security of our workforce has been a top priority for us.

I’ve made it a point during all of this to try to remain calm in the midst of so much uncertainty, and I’ve also been very, very intentional about communication. Communication has been both frequent and transparent. Although we have policies and procedures and practices to help guide our efforts day to day, there isn’t a playbook for anything that we’re going through right now—we’re writing it as we go.

At Waste Management, we have approximately 45,000 employees. We have been deemed an essential service, but we also have a bifurcation of our workforce; we have our frontline employees who have not missed a beat in terms of servicing and providing a service to our customers throughout this pandemic. We also have our back office—a professional workforce that [works] in the offices—that we had to move very quickly from being in an office to working remotely. We’ve done that throughout the United States and Canada, as well as in India.

[We have been] trying to manage two different types of workforces and remain committed to keeping them safe, while at the same time providing a service to our customers. It’s been quite challenging, because [we were prepared for] none of this and, as I said before, there’s no playbook.

Rose Gailey: How has the Waste Management culture impacted the way you’ve navigated through the crisis?

Tamla Oates-Forney: This crisis has really highlighted the best of who we are as a company. First, we are family, so we take care of each other, and that’s one of our strongest suits as a company. It’s a very familial culture at Waste Management.

Second, our commitment to excellence [has also] served us well. When it comes to being a family and taking care of each other, we have really taken care of our people. Not only did we [clearly articulate] our commitment to their safety, security, and well-being, but we were also committed to their financial well-being as well.

When this crisis first took hold and became a crisis, one of the first things we did as a company, led by our president and CEO, was to commit to providing a 40-hour-per-week backstop of pay guarantee for employees during the initial crisis so that they would not have to worry about their physical safety and well-being or their financial safety and well-being. We showed that we wanted to take care of both. We also expanded several of our benefit offerings, including the provision for on-site and more intentional Employee Assistance Program (EAP) support for our employees and their dependents. Again, this was unprecedented, and a lot of people didn’t know how to manage their way through. Everything was coming at once. We also increased our dependent care benefits, providing two times the backup childcare services through Bright Horizons that we had normally provided because schools were closing. Employees didn’t know how they were going to care for their children at the same time they were working.

We also set up an employee hotline so that employees could call in to have their questions answered immediately, versus having to wait to get a response. What ended up happening was, not only were employees calling in, but their families were calling in as well. That really underscored our commitment to taking care of the family, and it helped to minimize some of the initial anxieties that we and our employees were facing.

The last thing I would say is that this crisis helped underscore the art of what’s really possible. Coming out of it, it’s hard for people to think that something can’t be done, because we’ve proven that when we’re all focused on the same goal and working collaboratively together, there’s not a lot we can’t do, as evidenced by the things that we’ve done during this crisis.

Rose Gailey: In what ways do you think that Waste Management’s culture serves as a driver of the company’s performance?

Tamla Oates-Forney: Our commitments include putting our people first and success with integrity, and the things that we value include the diversity and inclusion of our workforce, providing exceptional service to our customers, keeping our employees safe, and, of course, the reason why we exist is to protect the environment. Every single one of those values were exhibited and exercised during this crisis. It’s one thing to have values written on paper; it’s another when those values ring true. Every value had been tested, and they were truly underscored during this time.

Rose Gailey: Thriving cultures are those that are purpose-driven and characterized by both group mindset and vitality. How is Waste Management purpose-driven?

Tamla Oates-Forney: We pride ourselves on always working for a sustainable tomorrow, and so that is something that we keep at the forefront in terms of everything that we do. As stewards of the environment, we’re on a path to leave this planet better than we found it, which is underscored in terms of how we work and how we get the job done.

For example, as an environmental services provider throughout North America, we operate the largest fleet of natural-gas vehicles in our industry, and we’re committed to reducing the environmental impacts every step of the way. Additionally, we fuel over 45% of our natural-gas fleet with renewable natural gas produced directly from our landfill. So, we’re leveraging waste to fuel our vehicles—recycling that. We continue to make long-term and ongoing investments into these innovations, and we’re really committed to reducing emissions in terms of, for example, the fleet that we drive.

It’s not only about what we say; it’s about where we put our investments and what people see when they look at our equipment and our fleet. We are always working for a sustainable tomorrow, and we will use that to govern our investments, technology, and our practices in terms of how we run our business.

Rose Gailey: How do you promote a growth mindset in the organization?

Tamla Oates-Forney: Great question. We have a strategic business framework that has been put together by the senior leadership team with input from the organization. We drive this strategic business framework top-down and throughout the organization, and we communicate so that our employees know what it is and how what they do every day helps contribute to our overall strategic business framework, which is driven by sustainable growth.

There are a couple different pillars that make up our strategic business framework. Obviously, it’s our people, it’s our technology. We also have a very strong asset network that we use, and we also are focused on driving best-in-class customer experience.

Starting with people, our goal is to make Waste Management an employer of choice and a great place to work and build a career, because we know that people are our most important asset. If we have the right people taking care of our customers, our customers will be retained, and they will want to stay with us for a long time. And if our customers are retained, that helps us drive growth. So, our focus on our people is second to none.

Obviously, our customers are a huge pillar in terms of our ability to have sustainable growth both today and in the future, and we focus on delighting our customers through a differentiated experience that gives us a competitive advantage. We want customers to know that when they do business with Waste Management, they’re going to be delighted and taken care of. That’s a huge pillar for us.

The other thing that is a part of our strategic business framework is our focus on community. We want to make sure that, wherever we are doing business, in the communities in which we live and work, that the communities also view Waste Management as a great place to work and as a good corporate citizen. All those things work hand in hand—the people, the customer, the community—to help us drive long-term and sustainable growth.

Rose Gailey: What does vitality look like at Waste Management?

Tamla Oates-Forney: We think about our overall vitality, and I always tell people, imagine a world without us. Sometimes people take an environmental services company for granted, just like they take electricity, turning on the lights, [for granted]. As long as the lights come on, you’re fine and you really don’t care about how it gets done. But as soon as you flick the switch and a light doesn’t come on, you start to panic. I think that the same holds true with a company like Waste Management. Imagine a world without us. Can you imagine a pandemic happening right now and there being no environmental services? Or your waste is not being collected? Vitality for myself and for Waste Management [means that] we are a necessary and essential service to the world, and the vitality of Waste Management is critical to the vitality of the world because, without it, the environment and ultimately society would be negatively impacted.

As a company, we are constantly looking for ways to evolve and to do what we do better than we’ve done it in the past. We are looking at going from being best in our class in terms of environmental services to being world class in terms of how we do things—the technology and the innovation.

When you think about an environmental services company, you typically don’t think about technology, innovation, data, artificial intelligence, and other such things. We look at all of that, embedding it into how we work, how we serve our customers, and so on, because we continue to want to get better. That is another vital part of our long-term vitality.

From a talent perspective, I also think about the organizational vitality, and because I am responsible for the company’s human capital strategy, the vitality of the workforce and the talent is critically important. We have this talent management strategy that we call the “right six,” [and through it] we look at making sure that we have the right people in the right roles with the right skills [and that they are] being provided with the right tools and the right incentives at the right times. We see people as being very critical to our vitality and our success, and that’s what we look at. We look at our tools, we look at our people, we look at our technology, we look at our innovation—all of which are very critical elements to our vitality at Waste Management.

Rose Gailey: Thinking about post-crisis scenarios, what are the next steps for Waste Management to keep thriving?

Tamla Oates-Forney: The first thing we did [was] some due diligence on, “What did we learn coming out of this crisis, and how do we leverage these things to make us better going forward?”

As a company, this pandemic has truly tested our agility and our ability to evolve. We’ve learned a lot. We were—and we are—constantly prepared for national disasters because all those things happen all at once, and we’re typically on the front line of all of those things. What we were not ready for—and I don’t think the world was ready for—was a pandemic of this size, magnitude, and duration.

We want to look at things as a glass half full. While it was tough, [we ask ourselves,] “What did we learn from it and how does it make us better as a company?” We learned, as I said before, the art of the possible: when we are focused and we are committed to a common goal, there’s nothing we can’t do. We were able to get people from working in offices to working in their homes in a matter of days, which, prior to the crisis, probably would have [taken] months. It really showed the power of what we could accomplish when we are focused on the same goal and committed to getting stuff done, and we’re going to leverage that going forward. We look at it as an opportunity to get better, because it really has represented the art of the possible and the power of we versus me. None of the stuff we did could happen by one function alone, and it really showed the power of we and, again, working together to solve a common goal. It hasn’t been fun, quite frankly, going through it, but it shows that you have to constantly evolve, be agile; things are not within your control, but you still have to maintain a sense of calm, openness, and transparency for your workforce, and all those things have been huge leadership lessons learned that I think we’re going to take with us as we continue to evolve through this crisis.

Rose Gailey: A key concept in cultural transformation is what we call the “shadow of the leader,” the idea that leaders’ mindsets and actions influence their organizations. How would you describe your own leadership shadow?

Tamla Oates-Forney: When people ask me, “How would you describe your leadership?” or, “Who are you as a leader?” I always describe myself as “hot”: H-O-T. I’m humble and honest, open, and transparent. All of those attributes showed up during this time. Even prior to this crisis, but really during COVID-19 [and] social injustice and so on, they’ve really, really shown up. I’m honest enough to talk to my team and tell them that I didn’t have all the answers, and humble enough to admit when I was wrong.

During this civil unrest and social injustice, and the things that were going on and happening with George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, I actually cried in front of my team. I know that they care about me. And to see that level of vulnerability, it just added a different level and a different depth of “HOT-ness” to my leadership.

Every Friday, and I started this prior to 2020, I have “Tea with Tamla,” and it’s a time for all 400-plus employees in the organization to have time with me, to talk about anything that they want to talk about, ask any questions they want to ask, and really just share. Those teas have become so popular, even before this crisis but especially during this crisis, because it’s been an opportunity for all the people to engage with me personally. We’ve talked about everything from COVID-19 and how the company [is dealing with it], how they personally are dealing with [the pandemic] in their personal lives, and how we are responding to it as a family, to thinking about and talking about our commitment to diversity and inclusion and our stance on social injustice. I’ve created an environment in which they feel comfortable talking to me, despite the fact that I am the senior vice president and chief people officer. But, at the end of the day, I’m also human, and being that type of “HOT” leader—humble, honest, open, and transparent—has really served me well as a leader and [also served] my team well and the company well during this crisis.

Rose Gailey: What advice do you have for other leaders as they think about how diversity and inclusion efforts add value to their business?

Tamla Oates-Forney: I’m an African American female and so the value of diversity and inclusion is very near and dear and personal to me. The other thing I would say is, it can’t be an initiative. It has to be embedded in the fiber of how the company is designed. We all know of, and we should believe in, the power of diversity—not just diversity of thought but diversity in terms of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, and so on. The power of diversity creates and produces high-performing teams because everybody comes with a different perspective, and when those different perspectives are valued and listened to and operationalized, it really strengthens a company.

I often say there’s a difference between being diverse and being inclusive. Diversity is about inviting different people into your home or into your place of business or into your circle. Inclusion is about making them feel welcome when they arrive. It’s not just about having a diverse team but about, how are you engaging them and how are you making them feel valued and appreciated in terms of how you work? This is not something that has been started or [should be] valued just because of this [current] social injustice—it should be something that we are committed to and have been all along.

I talked earlier about diversity and inclusion being one of our core values. We realize as a company that diversity and inclusion strengthens who we are. I would encourage companies not to view this as an initiative but to take it on as something that is systemic, and [something] that’s going to drive a higher-performing company, and [to hold] everybody accountable for building that inclusivity among your workforce. It can’t be just what you say; it must be what employees see and what they feel when they are part of your organization. Those that do it correctly are going to be those companies that win. It is a strategic advantage, and when companies start to view diversity and inclusion that way, those companies are going to be the companies that win.

Rose Gailey: Tamla, thank you so much for making the time speak with us today.

Thanks for listening to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. To make sure you don’t miss more future-shaping ideas and conversations, please subscribe to our channel on the podcast app. And if you’re listening via LinkedIn, Twitter, or YouTube, why not share this with your connections? Until next time.

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