YOUR Approach to Engagement Can Make Your Team and Leadership Better Stewards

J. Marty Nowlin

Senior Vice President, Human Resources at KAR Global

Learning Objectives

Please join the Senior Vice President of Human Resources from KAR Global, J. Marty Nowlin in this Executive Interview where he will discuss how your approach to engagement can make your team and leadership better administrators.

Key Takeaways:

  • Have your priorities changed, given the 2020 challenges, as it relates to Employee Engagement in KAR Global?

  • Relating to engagement priorities, what is one approach you are taking now that you wouldn’t have imagined you’d be taking a year ago?

  • What would you regard as a best practice on the talent acquisition side to provide insight to candidates of the engagement philosophy of KAR Global?

  • Engagement is not a one person show, as we know, how do you “train” your team to be the stewards of engagement? How important is this for their development? Speaking of development, over the course of the year, if you had to talk about one characteristic of a successful HR leader, what would it be?

"A lot of engagement is just about listening, depending on where you are in your maturity curve. "

J. Marty Nowlin

Senior Vice President, Human Resources at KAR Global


Hello, everyone, and welcome to the Connect HR leadership virtual summit hosted on quartz network. My name is Britt Erler QN Executive correspondent, thank you so much for joining us, I would like to welcome our guest speaker, Marty Nowlin. SVP of human resources at KAR-Global. Welcome. 

Thank you. Very glad to be here. 

And I want to just take off right off the bat that we’re going to be discussing employee engagement, and how crucial it is in an organization, and also strategies to increase it as well. But before we do so, Marty, if you wouldn’t mind giving us some background about your current role at KAR-Global? 

Sure, as you mentioned, Senior Vice President of human resources for KAR-Global, we’re a little smaller than we were a couple years ago, but still very focused, I have about 90 or so HR business partners that I work with and have the pleasure of being with every single day to help drive our business objectives in KAR-Global.

Fantastic. And, you know, it’s no secret that we’ve seen a lot of challenges last year, and also this year going into 2021. You know, I want to talk about the impacts on your company, and also the priority shifts that you’ve seen with employee engagement at your company. 

Sure, yeah, I’ll give you a quick snippet on the company perspective. You know, we do auctions, and not a lot of people know us, Brit, because we’re a business to business. But we’re the number two player out there. And we’ve been very successful. But a lot of our auctions have cars that go through the lanes and people have to drive those cars need to clean those cars, repair those cars. And they’re very popular. If you go on a sale day, to Southern California, or to Florida, hundreds and hundreds, sometimes 1000s of people or their dealers COVID wouldn’t allow us to do that safely. We had always planned on transforming digitally. And this just forestar digital transformation. We had a plan to go digital over two or three years. We did it in two or three weeks. It was a miraculous thing. We had bumps. We weren’t perfect, obviously. But you know, that also had quite a bit of impact on the people that were making this happen as well. And I remember to answer your question about priority. It’s sitting down about a year ago with my team and saying, Okay, well, we have 2020 What are we gonna focus on this year, right. And we had kind of those consistent important priorities development, employee engagement, obviously learning and development, and then COVID hit. And all of a sudden, we found ourselves having this set of amplified priorities, working from home, diversity, equity and inclusion, the safety of our employees, obviously, and security of our employees. And that’s a conflict. And we knew that if we tried to do all of it, clarity would suffer, the impact would suffer. Certainly the team would get burnout. So we stop and just say, what are we going to push to the side? What are we gonna continue to focus on. And with those amplified priorities around work, play safety around working from home around DDI, we kept employee engagement, that was the one that we kept. And we made a very deliberate decision to say everything else is just gonna have to wait. Because we won’t do a good job if we do it all. But we have to focus on employee engagement. And that really became a cornerstone for us in 2020.

And I think that’s rare. You know, I don’t think that was a lot of company’s primary focus was their employee engagement, they were so worried about making the business survive, you know, that that kind of went on a little bit of the wayside. So it’s phenomenal that you guys have been able to do that. But obviously, it’s not something that you necessarily prepared for. So talking a little bit deeper about those priorities. You know, what’s one approach that you all of a sudden had to do that you weren’t planning on doing a year ago?

Yeah, you know, well, so we kind of have two sets within carb level you’ve got you’ve got the people like me, right? I’m sitting in this beautiful office, I don’t make a penny bread for the company, right? I’m not on the front line, I’m not selling our product, I’m not repairing our product. And then we have the frontline. The people that generate the revenue for us every day, and through COVID. Most of those people continue to work. You know, we had our times where we closed everything down because we were really worried about the safety we need to get our protocols in place. And we sent everybody from home. This office I’m in today holds 1200 people I would tell you, there’s maybe 30 or so here. I like to come in.

So One approach was virtual, how do we engage our people virtually and we had no idea. We were talking in the middle of March thinking, how are we going to do this for the next couple of weeks? Are we going to do this? Oh, this could go through the summer. And here we are today. And it’s, you know, worse than it has been. So we talked a lot about employee engagement. When we’re virtual, we didn’t know that we’d have zoom fatigue. We didn’t know that after a period of time, people were very pleased to be working from home, but after a period of time, they’re like, Hey, can I come back in the office? You know, learning virtually dogs, everything else. There’s advantages. And there’s disadvantages. So we came up with, with a process for our management team saying, you know, how do you engage your folks when they’re virtual? Right? It’s, we can’t go around the corner anymore and say, Hi, hey, I want to get your advice on something. Can I run this by you? How can you do that on teams? How can you do that on zoom? So we started everything from fun games, you know, you know, tell me about your weekend in three words, right? The 19 to COVID-19, 19 Day Challenge, you know, whether it’s for your health and your well being or it’s to your your to do list, you know, sure, AIDS and just a lot of fun, we found that the content and the objective of the meeting didn’t even get triggered until probably 15 minutes into these zooms because we were just talking as if we were in the office. And that went a long way. And the secondary piece of that, again, for these office type folks that we have was we checked in, you know, again, not going into it knowing anything we checked in after two months after four months. And we had roundtables and said, Hey, what’s working? though, this is great. I don’t have to get out of my PJs, sometimes I’m saving money on gas, you know, these great things. What’s not so great, I miss my people. You know, I don’t know if I should slack somebody or text somebody or call somebody or instant message somebody or email somebody. And, you know, we took that feedback from them. I mean, I know that the audience knows. And I know that you certainly know, Brett, that a lot of engagements just about listening. Yeah, depending on where you are in your maturity curve. I can talk a little bit about that later. But we had to make it fun. Let’s I have three kids and two dogs at home and a wonderful wife. I’m not lonely. Sometimes I, you know, would like to be alone for a little bit. But we have a lot of employees that went into their apartment and you couldn’t come out and they’re in there. They’re there alone. And you know, so we focus on mental well being as well. So engagement activities, for sure. Sounds kind of cheesy things. I talked about three word weekend, COVID-19, 90 Day Challenge. But just talking to your folks and making sure you know your folks and checking in what do you need. We had a we had a roundtable zoom, just getting that feedback. And a young lady was six years old, our headphone the entire time. Finally, one of my colleagues said, What are you doing, she’s like, oh, what broke, and we sent her the nicest set of headphones that we could finally on the market, right? Because you need to have that just quickly, you know, to be more concise on the front line, those people had to continue to work. So it went from almost hierarchal or this management down structure, to we don’t care if you’re a supervisor, a manager or a director, this auction was 200 people right now we have to operate it with 30. And you know, for the time being until we can call some people back. We’re all together. What do you need to feel safe? Yep, you know, cleaning services, obviously, things like face masks, social distancing, what do we think we just can’t do comfortably. And, you know, though, all those ideas and directives could have come from the very top, you know, the quote, unquote, ivory tower. But the fact that it came from the people that do that work every day, the people who make the money for the company, there was immediate ownership. And they were engaged. Not always happy. Not always happy. I think, you know, for the benefit of the audience. I actually am not a believer that engaged employees are happy employees. They’re certainly productive. But we have a lot of happy people here that are not engaged. Right? I see them all the time. Like the water cooler, right. Very happy people, but not necessarily get. But those are the two big approaches that we took, depending on what type of team member we have.

Yeah, and I think those are such great ideas. And I think your point is just sitting down and listening, you know, getting to really understand what the employee needs are is number one, because everyone’s in a different spot. Like you mentioned, you know, you’ve got kids and two dogs. I’m at home. Thankfully, I live with my little brother. So I have someone there with me and I have my cat but a lot of people didn’t. So I think like you said sitting down taking the time to listen and just making them know that they have that Support is so crucial. And we actually are doing a walking challenge right now something fun, kind of like that you mentioned with the whole entire company, and we broke into teams to see how many steps we could make day we fight up zombies through an application, but it works, it makes you engage, it makes you excited, you stay talking with your colleagues, and so you don’t feel so alone every day. And so I love that your company does that as well. Now, I do want to take a shift to the talent acquisition side. Because like many companies, even though we had to furlough some, we also acquired some brand new ones as well, especially on my content team. Surely you instill the important philosophy of engagement to these new hires that are coming on board?

Yeah, it’s, it’s difficult, a lot of the areas that we’ve been able to leverage in the past, we can’t be because of COVID. I don’t want to make this all about COVID. But it has given us the opportunity to think a lot differently. Britt, I’m in a beautiful building, it is a year and a half old state of the art, I have a cafe, I have a fitness center, I have a clinic on site, I mean, it’s just Marnie, I am coming over. There is the problem, right? Because we can’t bring visitors in right now. You’re kind of like, oh, if you want that one more, because the environments engaging, if you walk through it, you can see that this isn’t a whole bunch of, I have an office only because of my role. And my office is not on the windows, I mean, like the conference room is, but it’s an it you can see, you can see as you walk through that it’s very collaborative. And that’s engaging, you know, oh, and but you have to envision what this would look like, you know, la acts on Monday morning, pretty COVID, right? Crazy people everywhere you wait in a long line for a cup of coffee, and so on and so forth. This is a buzzing, building, pre COVID. So to answer your question, if they’re coming to this building, we start showing them videos, you know, and showing them pictures. And, and we’ve had so many celebrations over the last couple of years that we’ve been in this building pictures of the celebrations, you know, here are some of the things that we do, you know, in that helps, doesn’t always sell out. But we can say what you’re seeing here is what we call a, a collision area. So it’s a collaborative area, nice, comfortable chairs and tables. Let me tell you what happens in these types of areas. Your ideas are sight, you know, and we have a culture where, look, if you have 10 ideas, nine of maybe bad, but at least you had 10 ideas, and nobody, nobody’s gonna give you any criticism for the bad ideas. They’re just gonna say, I don’t think that’s gonna work. And here’s why. You know, so we do a lot of that. The other thing that we’ve done is we’ve said, Who else would you like to talk to? If, as you kind of think about a realistic job preview? You know, if I’m hiring somebody, I just hired a senior director, she talked at 10 different people before we made a decision, and she made a decision. And we’ve had people say, I think I understand what the environments like, you know, maybe at an auction to be a detailer, do you mind if I talked to one of your detailers? And now, it’s like, if we’re redoing our house, right? Hey, tell me the last three projects that you did, I’d like to give them a call. So we’ve been doing a lot of that. And then the other thing is brand swag. bag, we just, and I should have worn some I don’t work for Under Armour. We load them up, you know, here’s a vest, here’s a, a water bottle. You know, those types of things, even if we’ve not made them an offer yet, right? Because we want them to have a good experience with us. And if they choose not to work with us, or ultimately we choose not to hire them. We still ask them what their experience was like as a candidate, almost like a net promoter score, right? You know, hey, I didn’t get the job. But what a wonderful interviewing experience, everybody I talked to was nice. They’re professional, they sent me some things they were on time. You know, those types of things. It’s, it’s really, it’s really difficult right now. Especially when you hire folks that have to do a specific job that requires a specific skill. I want to take him back to our shops and say, You know what, that would be your spot over there. And this is what you would be doing for 678, maybe nine hours a day. So we try to give as much information as possible, virtually. And then we asked him again, going back to listening. What else do you think you’d need? Can I come to your building? Okay, listen, fine. All right. Meet me there at noon. All right. You’re my sister. Not just kidding. We wouldn’t did. We, we would just take a sneak peek in, you know, we’re here. We’re not gonna do it because of your safety and our employees who do have to work in this office every day for their safety. But run the commute. See how long it takes you to get here, you know? So it’s been a challenge, but we’re getting there. We’re getting there.

Yeah. But I think that’s so important, getting them excited, you know, starting that momentum so that they feel like they’re part of the team, I think that’s so crucial for these new hires that come on right now, you know, not just hire them and throw them right into the pool and start working right away, I think you really have to make them feel like, Okay, I’m a part of this company, and I’m going to make a difference. And I think swag is a great way to do it as well getting packages during a pandemic. I mean, that’s, it’s like a little gift. So I think that’s really cool. And, you know, once they’ve been with the company for a while, I want to talk about how you instill this in your team as well, because obviously, there’s so many challenges day to day, everyone’s high stress roles, you know, have changed, they’re getting things added onto their plates. How do you make sure that, you know, once the hires are on and even your current team members, how do you how do you keep them engaged? How do you instill that philosophy into them? 

Yeah, I, you know, first of all, they’re, they’ve got to understand why we’re here and what we’re complex and what the purpose. Again, if you ask the right questions up front, you know, what their, what their buttons are, if you will, what’s important to them, if it’s community service, if it’s, you know, having autonomy, those types of things. Again, I can’t talk enough about having empathy, having emotional fortitude, and intelligence and really getting to know your people, even if they’re candidates in the process. It just goes a really long way. But not all managers are good at that. I wasn’t good at and I shouldn’t be here, right? I’m actually paid to be good at it. And sometimes I question whether I’m good at it or not, but the managers, you know, they really have to understand, you know, the evolution or the maturity of, of engagement in an organization, right? If we just do some roundtables, every now and then and listen, you know, that’s not we don’t have an employee engagement program. From that perspective, right. That’s just the beginning. I mean, it has to get, you know, all the way up through piloting different things and developing it. And then, you know, having a partnership, we have resources, who are dedicated, you know, absolutely dedicated to employee engagement. And the way that we train our managers is, we’re looking for outcomes from our people, right? We want them to be engaged, we want them to feel safe in our workplace, we want them to feel like they have an opportunity to grow. So we have levers, obviously, around culture, and the purpose of the things that I just talked about. But you, as a manager probably want to see some be behavioral outcomes. And we certainly want to see some business outcomes, because that’s the only reason that we’re here. So behavior outcomes, we want to see we want to stay that lean retention to behavioral outcome, discretionary effort, is that behavior outcome? You know, you know, being a citizen of the company, being an advocate of the company, you know, hey, if you ever are going to recruit people, can I be involved? Oh, my gosh, that’s, I’d love to hear that, right. And then that’ll lead to our business outcomes, which is, you know, what, we’re here, we’re here to be productive. We’re here to be profitable, we’re here to be efficient. We want low turnover, we want our customers to be satisfied. So by by explaining to the managers that there’s a maturity curve for engagement in an organization, and here’s why engagements important, because then people will get overly enamored with the triteness of it engaged employees or productive employees. Okay, well, I, I’m not gonna disagree with that. But let’s specifically talk about the outcomes that we’re looking at. Those are the behavior roles, those are the business. So let’s back up and talk about, you know, someone just satisfied working here? Or are they committed? Which is a bit better than satisfied? Are they involved, which is better than satisfied and committed? And are they just motivated? Are they proud to be here? So we have a framework, and Jeez, I think I just, if I, if I could talk about it like that with our managers, they’d be pleased, you know, three minutes of engagement training, but we really want them to understand that there’s a framework that we have to follow this framework, because there’s their sequence in here. And then we want their, there, we don’t want them just to be trained. So now help us help us with with these drivers of engagement. You know, where is the growth that you see what i’d love it? If we could have this? You know, what’s the purpose of your particular department or function? Alright, well, let’s get that out. You know, let’s make that a big deal. You know, you got to be a good leader.

Absolutely. And how do you see engagement being a driver also for the development of these employees that you’re bringing on board?

Yeah, you know, if they’re not engaged, and they certainly aren’t going to care to be developed here. You know, they really are in development, a tough thing. You know, it really is it’s very easy to talk about in and, you know, developing people always comes with the presumption that they need to be developed and they want to be developed. You know, one of the worst words that we talk about right when it comes HR is discrimination. It’s actually one of the places that you can discriminate is an on development. Because and I mean that, I hope the recording doesn’t stop here because I have to explain, please, I need to know. You know, I haven’t I have a staff of directors and vice presidents and I know some are their high performers. They don’t want to do more, they want to retire soon, they’re very happy, they don’t want the extra responsibility. You know, they don’t want Marty’s job, oh my gosh, I can’t deal with them already deals with, you know, my investment in them is gonna be different than the folks over here that are just eager, ready to like, involve me in this, I want to know more about this. I want to have your job someday and that type of stuff. So really, again, knowing your people knowing what they want to do understanding their capabilities, then we develop them. Here’s the key, though, Brett, a lot of the development seems to happen on the early stages without the employees knowing it looks like you’re saying, you know what, Britt’s high potential? She’s really strong. She’s a great performer, you know, we should probably get her a project to lead or acquisition to integrate or a technology to implement. And it’d be like, you know, it’s a good idea. I think Brett’s got a long, long, long runway, I think she’ll do great here. Yeah. Okay. So we’ll start working on the next project that comes up, we’re going to get that, you know, over to Brett, so she can lead it. Anybody got to tell Brett, because that might be engaging for her to hear, you know, like, Hey, we have a plan for you, we actually think that you can be at the VP level. But you got to do a few things. And we’re going to make sure it happens for you. So the communication of it. There’s, there’s a fear there, though, right? The reason that it only get communicated at the beginning, read is because once you communicate it, there’s this social pressure that you have to follow through with it. Right. It’s like you’ve tricked yourself into a commitment. And that worries a lot of leaders. They’ve got to be brave and courageous in those compensations.

Yeah, and I can definitely see that being a fear for a lot of leaders, they say it up front, and what if it doesn’t work out in the long run? You know, or maybe what if someone better comes along that they believe could be better for the physician. So I definitely see that being a fear. But I think I agree with you, you know, being open, honest, upfront, and communicating it is just as important. Because if you have an employee that knows you’re supporting them, and you’re pushing them to succeed, well, they’re going to want to work just as hard and be just as engaged to get where you see them going. So I think I think that’s a fantastic point to make. And I want to kind of close it out with a final statement from you on, just in your experience, what you’ve seen this past year, what trends you foresee going into 2021? What are some key takeaways that you really believe leadership focus on and what makes them a good leader?

Yeah, I, I will reiterate on the development piece, and just a very 22nd cheesy story for the audience here. And for you, Brett is, you know, a couple years ago, my neighbor came home and over purchased small tomato plants and said, Marty, do you or your wife, you guys want these extra tomato plants? Now he might, my response was, I guess, you know, but I’m sure my wife would like them. So but she wasn’t around. So I took them and I planted them and they die. And in my cheesy own kind of way, I started thinking Well, probably put them in the wrong place. clearly one of my dogs got one of the plants. I don’t know if this is the right sunlight or the right shade? I don’t ever. I don’t think that irrigation it didn’t get they didn’t get water. The point is this. There was nothing wrong with the plant. Right? We got a great plan. But we didn’t protect it. We didn’t grow it. We didn’t give it the right environment. And if people are the same way. And I think if we want the people to stick with us, and we really do, you know, we’ve got to continue to focus on that. Now a better and maybe a more specific answer to your question that doesn’t have a story with it is last year, I think has really highlighted the criticality of emotional intelligence, emotional, emotional and social intelligence. I think it’s just become it’s been such a hard year for people. You know, a lot of people can go home and leave their stresses at work or they may take some of their stresses home but now people are going home and their stress their COVID got people stress job security’s got people stress kids learning from home, have people stressed. And, you know, I want the HR community to lead the company’s effort, and not just acknowledging that, okay, mental health is a big deal. It has been for a long time, it’s getting more of a spotlight than it ever has. So have your people I’m not saying hire therapists and psychologists and psychiatrists, I’m not saying that at all, but understand the importance of emotional intelligence. Understand empathy, you know, understand yourself how you’re aware and how you manage yourself. But have that social have that social awareness and really understand relationship? management, if you will, you know, that’s hard to train, right? Because if you think some of these assessments, you know, and you’re, you’re deemed a blue or you’re deemed that he NTP or your high dominance, you know, whatever it might be, it’s like, well, that’s just who I am. I can’t change. People with low empathy can be fine leaders, right? There’s a great book out there called quiet, which shows how introverts lead the world. And I actually agree with it. Clearly, I’m not an introvert. So you can you can manage it. But I think that’s really been highlighted is, you know, we’ve got to be tough. And we’ve got to take care of each other. And having that emotional fortitude, to have some of these tough conversations is really important. Because I can guarantee you, you know, not all your managers have this inspirational leadership, not all of your managers have good conflict, management skills, they don’t know how to influence or coach or mentor that’s all about relation management. That’s all about social and emotional intelligence. I’ll be I’ll be honest with you, as I sit here and answer your questions, I have not yet cracked the code on the best way to really hone in on that for people. And it’s something that I think about quite often. But I think that’s a difference maker, you know, change management would be the secondary one, because everybody’s going through so much change right now. But I really think you have to have a high level of emotional fortitude to be a good change.

Absolutely, absolutely. I couldn’t agree with you more. And you know, empathy. And like you said, really focusing on people’s emotions has become probably one of the number one aspects, key themes that I’ve seen in the HR world itself, but also through other departments, too, you know, and people are what drive this business. And if you don’t take care of your people, you know, they’re, they’re not going to take care of you in turn. So, you know, I think sometimes when the ship is sinking, people tend to get a little bit selfish and want to survive on their own. But I think we really have to come out of our shells here. And like you said, kind of take care of each other. And really make sure that we’re all moving forward instead of leaving people behind. So fantastic advice. I think it’s fantastic when leaders all across the board, not just in the HR function. So thank you so much, Marty, for being here and providing us with those insights. And thank you to everyone who joined us as well. If you do have any other questions for Marty, any other questions about his framework or what he’s been through in his company? There is a discussion forum below so please be sure to comment and ask any questions. I hope that everyone enjoys the rest of the summit. Please be safe and be healthy. Thank you so much. Thank you.

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