The Secret to Employee Engagement, Connective Leadership & Making it To the Top

From left to right: Jacqui Chew, TEDxAtlanta; Kelly Mayhall, President, Southern Division, The Home Depot; Carla Chaney, CHRO, Equifax; Michele Parks, EVP & CPO, Cox Automotive Inc.; Cynthia Good, CEO, PINK; DeRetta Rhodes, EVP & CCO Atlanta Braves

Some of America’s top women business leaders cracked the code when it comes to employee engagement, life balance and the power of vulnerability — at PINK’s recent Signature Spring Women’s Empowerment Event in Atlanta and live-streamed globally. “Focus on what you want to be, not what you want to do,” said Carla Chaney, Chief Human Resources Officer, Equifax.

Leaders featured along with Carla included Kelly Mayhall, President, Southern Division, The Home Depot; Michele Parks, EVP & Chief People Officer, Cox Automotive Inc.; and DeRetta Rhodes, EVP & Chief Culture Officer, Atlanta Braves. Each is aggressively implementing innovative programs to boost employee morale amid the current exodus of top talent with as many as 70 percent of workers planning to leave their jobs this year. “Turnover rates are off the charts,” said Carla. DeRetta says there’s a new focus on mindfulness that didn’t exist pre-pandemic. “We brought in healthcare partners. We did a health and wellness room. It has record attendance.” Over at Cox Enterprises meantime, there are Q&A sessions with key executives, Michele says. “We have deep listening sessions with employees.” Musicians who work there play instruments at the café during breakfast. Sometimes employees bring in puppies. “That was a hit,” says Michele. What the leaders agreed on is, it all comes down to is “listening” and hearing where employees are. Says Carla, “Our world is lacking optimism, so what can you do? Ask ‘How can I help you?’” CHECK OUT THE PHOTO GALLERY

Kelly, who started at The Home Depot as a part-time cashier more than 25 years ago, shared how she finally figured out the secret sauce, “We care about where people come from and how they are, their stories, what happened on their weekend.” She says the turning point for her was due to a guy at the office named George who was always “wandering” about talking to people. When Kelly asked what he was up to he said, “Every time I stop to talk to someone, I make a connection.” She says, “he told me something about every single person. The next day…I made it an intentional purpose to talk to every associate and write down something about them.” She says George taught her to “slow down, listen” and make that meaningful connection. “That changed the course of my career—because people matter.”

It’s a commitment, especially with so little free time due to work and responsibilities at home. In fact, according to PEW research, while more women are now breadwinners, the division or labor at home has hardly budged. The speakers have been there. DeRetta’s sons were 8 and 10 when she divorced. “I was afraid to tell anyone I was a divorced mom. Mom guilt is a real thing. [But] I had an amazing tribe of people who supported me.” Kelly too “had to figure out how to do it all. I was mom and dad for many years.” She says, “Many days there was no one to turn to, to say, ‘It’s your turn.’” She adds, “I had to say ‘No’ sometimes at work and that’s hard when you’re trying to climb the corporate ladder, or I had to miss things with my son.” These leaders learned another crucial lesson: You don’t need to do it alone. “Being a single parent taught me. I can’t teach you math. I need help,” said Kelly. 

The world and the workplace have changed radically in the last few years. “The world is off its access now,” said Carla. People have lost faith in work.” The solution? DeRetta says it’s about making employees feel part of the Braves family. “When someone has a baby, they get a baby jersey. And they get their name on the back of it.” She admits, “We’re also trying to make Braves fans!” But the bigger goal is to “make sure to create a welcoming environment.” The speakers talked about prioritizing themselves. Michele Parks missed the group speaker briefing due to an off-the-grid backpacking trip across Catalina Island and took a week off from work. “Now to challenge myself, I do these crazy hard things. When I was done, I felt accomplished. You have to go after what you want with everything you have.” Jacqui Chew, the panel moderator, and licensee of TEDxAtlanta which has garnered more than 33 million views added, “Having it all—is having it all as defined by you!”

The panel identified vulnerability as an essential leadership trait. “I learned the true power of vulnerability. Some think of it as a weakness,” said Kelly. “It’s not like you’re going to work every day and crying.” DeRetta says, “If people think all the sudden you became an EVP… no no no, all the things I failed at.” What does being vulnerable mean? Says DeRetta, “Just being real.” Michele says “It means sharing things you usually would not share. I have an extreme hearing disability. I’m not perfect. It opens the door to this relatable, meaningful conversation. I try not to have any shame.” Jacqui shared, “I tell people I’ve been managing bipolar disease.” Kelly admitted, “I struggle with self-confidence. I always talk about ‘I am enough.’ I look in the mirror and say, ‘just don’t forget.’” 

On a personal level, the leaders each shared a mantra that keeps her on track. Carla said, “Patience and tolerance,” is her motto. “I have it tattooed on my forehead. It’s whatever the thing is you need to work on most.” “Mine is hashtag believe,” said DeRetta. “At one point in my journey I had to remind myself. I got it on my license plate. I had to put a 7 in there because someone else had it.” The speakers high-fived each other. Michele weighed in, “I’m big on talking to myself. [I say] ‘you can do this.’”

With Southern Company, Cox Enterprises, The Coca-Cola Company and Atlanta Homes & Lifestyles as event sponsors, the theme was 2023 is the Year for Me. This was a nod to the record 10.6 percent of Fortune 500 companies now led by women. Before wrapping up the conversation, the women watching the PINK event, a couple hundred in the room and nearly 200 via livestream, were encouraged by the speakers, to do these things now: “Make a difference in bite-sized chunks,” said Carla. “[If you] can’t see a path forward, [see] what can you do. You can change that person in that moment.” DeRetta said to surround yourself with people who tell you what you need to know while providing encouragement. Keep a “blessings list” to recognize those who’ve helped you along the way. Kelly told the crowd to “Jot down the thing that impacted you most [at the conference]. Write it down. Put it in a drawer. Take it out next month. [Ask,] did I make progress? Put it back in the drawer. Take it out again later.” Carla says, “Think of one person. Who is the person you are going to pull up in the next 30 days?” Finally, DeRetta urged every woman to “Use your voice. Every opportunity you have—use your voice.”


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