As the Chief People Officer at WW (formerly Weight Watchers), Kim Seymour says a regular work day was never something she had the luxury of looking forward to.
Now, in the midst of a global pandemic and the shift to remote work, she said each day is even more unpredictable than ever before. However, after 20 years working in Human Resources, her focus has stayed the same.
“My view of HR is that the core of all of it is talent — how do you find it, how do you recruit it, develop it, keep it, deploy it,” Seymour said. “It’s always about talent. So, everything that I do at WW is about how we make sure that our talent strategy is in line and in step with what our business strategy is in order to help us succeed.”
Seymour said working for a company that is so focused on wellness made the decision to send workers home in March 2020 an easy one. Her priority has been and always will be the well being of her employees.
Despite the transition this past year brought for many, Seymour said WW has made necessary adjustments along the way and is continuing to learn and thrive during these unpredictable times.
This should come as no surprise. With three degrees and 20 years of Human Resources experience, Seymour has an almost unshakable confidence and the resilience it takes to lead her team through whatever life throws at them. Read more to learn about how Seymour got to where she is now and what she’s looking for from potential hires.
What got you into HR and ultimately led you to where you are now?
I’ve been with [WW] for almost two years, after more than 20 years working in HR. I went to school way back in the day thinking I was going to be a senator. After law school, I ended up going to business school and sliding right into HR at General Electric.
I think that’s important, because, at the time, General Electric was definitely an academy company for human resources. It was just so vast, it was easier to get access and experience in so many different areas of HR without ever leaving the company. I credit that experience a lot to being where I am right now.
So, I got to do that and such a broad range of experiences, including Six Sigma, which you never would think would be helpful in HR, but it was. I think that that framing and grounding led me to everything that I did after that and the way that I’ve done it. So, I credit that experience a lot to being where I am right now.
How has work life shifted at WW since the pandemic?
In March, we immediately told everyone to work from home. When the science led us in that direction we didn’t have to try and decide who we were as a company to make the decision that the wellness of our employees had to be top of mind. So, we went virtual very quickly and we have been virtual this entire time, with some more flexibility later in 2020. We will be working primarily virtually until at least June 2021.
That [shift] has meant that we have had to take a look at every part of the employee life cycle: How do you onboard someone in this environment? How do you pay attention to performance management? How do you, more than anything else, promote employee wellness mentally, physically, and financially? That’s what we have been focused on. That means an increased focus on the resources that we have through Employee Assistance Programs [EAP], through how people think about their finances, through how people think about the mental health of themselves and their family members and making it ok to prioritize that. Those have been things that we’ve had to dial up.
Even in the day to day [we’ve focused on] how do you normalize regular distractions and your home life intersecting with your work life? How do you make that ok so people are not stressed about all of the different factors of their lives coming together and colliding? How do you teach people how to lead in this environment? How do you teach people how to be led in this environment and normalize it all so that the stresses of this time do not impact productivity and well-being? We have focused a lot on that in the past year.
What changes have you made to accommodate employees?
We have certainly dialed up EAP availability, but even more impactful is thinking about how and when we pay bonuses. We have some flexibility there. We are looking at everything through the lens of, “Is this the best thing for our employees right now?” We saw increased evidence of overload and burnout and thought, “How do we make space for people that did not involve Zooms?” We came up with what we call GSDs: get stuff done time (or whatever s word you prefer). We’ll say things like, no group zooms on Friday, so you have some dedicated time where you know you can get other stuff done that doesn’t involve sitting on a Zoom call.
For years, we’ve practiced having summer Fridays. We extended that throughout the year and now we just call them flex Fridays. We will continue that throughout 2021. So, halfway through Friday afternoon it’s over. You can either use that time to catch up or go for a walk or connect with your family. It just offers some flexibility to remove yourself from the grind of always being on Zoom time. We are really paying attention to that.
What does a typical work day look like for you right now?
I will tell you I’ve had to give up the idea of a typical workday. If I ever had it, I certainly do not have it anymore. There is no typical workday. Being flexible and being agile has been more important now than ever before. The ability to keep several plates spinning in the air has proven to be a key leadership skill of mine and of many other people.
At one point, I will be focusing very strategically on workforce planning, then pivoting to how we think about keeping our employees’ children occupied by coming up with some activities that they can all globally participate in over Zoom. I might be doing that back to back and both of those things are equally important.
My primary challenge is one that I pay attention to for myself as well as the rest of the employees: How to not define your day by your Zoom schedule or by your meeting schedule. Typically, the day before or the weekend before, I’m scanning my next day and how good or bad a day is depends on how many Zooms I’m on. So, that led to some conversations about giving people the autonomy not to schedule themselves back to back on Zoom calls. Saying, “You have the autonomy not to have 60 minute zoom calls or even 30 minute zoom calls. They can all be 45 minutes or 25 minutes so that you give yourself a little space to get ready for the next thing, reflect on the last thing, or take a breath.” It’s so critically important right now. So as I look at my day and the rest of my team’s day, I really try to think about the variety of what I have to get done and prioritize so that, not only is everyone getting the attention they deserve in a quality way, but so that me and my team can get it done in a way that does not feel overwhelming.
Summarize what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve overcome this year as a company?
For us it’s always going to be having a focus on employee well being. We need leaders to understand that in this particular time and maybe forever more, some leadership behaviors that have risen to the top may not be ones that they’ve focused on too much in the past. These are things like empathy, vulnerability, transparency, overcommunication, and levity. All of these, what people might have called “softer” skills in the past, are imperative right now. The people who have risen to the top in this time have double clicked on those aspects of leadership behavior just as much as things like plotting a strategic direction. Really we’re paying attention to who you are bringing along with you, how your team is feeling, and how engaged they are.
We are seeing and our employees are telling us that leaders are doing a good job of that at WW. Our engagement scores are the highest they’ve ever been and we’re paying attention to the things that we know this environment makes more challenging — things like career development, navigation of career, employee and leadership development, visibility, connection — these are the things that employees are worried about. If we’re going to stay in this type of mode, how are we going to replicate some of the things that have been so important to our success in the past, like our sense of community? Those are the things that will inform what our people strategy will be for this year.
How are you practicing these “softer” skills virtually? How are you checking on your employees?
What I’m trying to practice and what I’m advocating other people practice is, get clarity on what you need to be involved in and what you don’t need to be involved in. This feeling of overwhelming workload is exacerbated by this feeling of FOMO (fear of missing out) that people tend to have. I embrace JOMO: the joy of missing out. I am really really specific about what needs my attention, what can my team take care of, and what autonomy I need to give them in order for them to feel like they can make decisions without a task of thousands being involved.
Right now, people are overloaded, not because there’s so much more work to do, but because there’s just more meetings. What meetings do you really need to be in and why? Feel free to say, “I don’t think I need to show up there but I’d love an update,” or, “The decision making parameters are XYZ, feel free to operate within that and let me know the outcome.” That empowers people, it gives them the autonomy they need to do their job, and it frees up the people who don’t need to be there, but also allows them to feel informed and be included when necessary. When I think about what we need to emphasize to employees, it’s that the effectiveness of your work does not equal the time you spend in zoom meetings.
Another thing I think we have to do is stop waiting for the other shoe to drop. I think we all have been holding our breath for almost a year now. There’s no way that’s sustainable. We’ve got to start thinking about our interactions with the idea that remote is the way that we’re going to be engaging each other. So, when I think about what we can do as leaders, it’s things like replicating the office. It might feel hokey and gimmicky, but have an open Zoom call where you’re just on there and people can drop in. There’s no agenda or presentation or getting ready before the meeting, it’s just the background noise and feeling like you’re not isolated. There could be conversation or no conversation. It sounds crazy but it really does make you feel less alone.
How has your hiring process changed in the last year?
The truth of the matter is we were already on a journey of using more digital platforms and using more partners who had a focus on diversity. That is really important to us right now and has always been and will continue to be. But I think like everyone else, we have been able to be more location agnostic, which opens up a talent pool that previously might not have been top of mind for us. Now the question is, “Well why can’t they do it from there?” rather than, “Why can’t you move to New York?” I think that we as an organization will benefit from a functional expertise perspective and we will benefit from a diversity perspective by being able to go broader than a few locations as we are sourcing and placing talent. We’re not the only ones that are realizing that the benefit of this time is that it has accelerated this idea of remote work, which has expanded what our talent pool would normally be. I think that is 100 percent a positive.
Are there any qualities you are looking for in WW applicants right now that are standing out?
It’s not that what we’re looking for is so different than before. It’s more about how we lean in on the interview process in order to pull out those things. It’s not as easy in this environment as it is face to face, to be honest. It’s a skill that people have to learn.
We’ve always been looking for people who share our wellness mission — our passion for what we do. A tendency towards collaboration, a tendency towards understanding that we kind of win as a team — those are still things that we look for. But, as you can imagine, it’s a little harder to figure out. Whether it’s because everyone is a little unbalanced, given this platform that we are having to use, or because the process might take a little bit longer — you ask more questions, you do more references — things of that nature.
Something that has come to the top, given the things we talked about before, are things like empathy and this kind of enterprise thinking. Those are things that we’re double clicking on right now. People talk about culture fit a lot. I’m less concerned about that than I am about culture enhancers. Do you think big thoughts and bring people along with you? Do you know how to do that? Do you have a history of doing that? Those are the things that we are focusing on right now.
When it comes to innovation and thinking outside the box, it’s even beyond that. Can you see around corners? Are you experienced with thinking big ideas and then flipping to what the execution of those ideas would look like? What is the next big idea? How do we think like the people trying to put us out of business?
It’s not just about having the idea, it’s about knowing how to operationalize that idea. That involves collaboration, it involves strategic thinking, it involves having a high level of business acumen and leadership. Do you understand how to craft a message that resonates with people? Do you understand how to have clarity of vision? Do you understand how to bring people along with you? All of these things are even more important now than ever before.
How do you look out for these attributes virtually? What questions are you asking?
One isn’t so much a question as it is just a vibe. If you can engage with me over Zoom, that’s a skill. If you can create a connection with people in this environment, then you’re much more likely to be able to do it face to face. This is how we’re living — you being able to engage and show interest in other people and pull people in, given this platform, is a skill.
But, it’s not just a personality contest, so here is one technique I use. When people are interviewing, they prepare. They have a couple of stories that they want to get across that shows them in their best light. But, when you ask someone to tell you about either the most impactful effective project they’ve ever worked on or conversely, the worst one they’ve ever worked on and then you keep that project as the theme of the entire interview and you keep going back, it’s hard to keep up a “story.” When you are going back to that project and asking them, “Tell me about the people who were on that project with you. Tell me what they’re impact was. Tell me what they’re contribution was on that project,” you learn a lot when someone tries to start answering those questions. If they don’t have an answer, that tells you something. And if they do have an answer, then how they position everyone else’s contributions versus theirs, that tells you something about them.
You can use that one project to ferret out their strategic thinking, to ferret out their leadership skills, their collaboration skills, and their resilience. One thing I’m always going to ask is, “What went wrong?” If they tell you nothing went wrong: red flag. If they tell you something went wrong and they were the only one to fix it: red flag.
There are ways, even in this environment or in normal times, to take a project they were involved with and stick with that the whole time and ask every single question around leadership, strategy, communication, and followership just using that one scenario. Even if they have their story that they came in wanting to tell, when you start asking them things that they didn’t think you were going to ask about that same scenario, you can learn a lot.
What is the best career advice you ever received?
I’ll give you two. The first one sounds so simple, but I think particularly women have to hear it more than once and that is: don’t count yourself out. That sounds simple, but what it presents us with is an opportunity. A lot of times you’ll think of all the reasons why not instead of thinking of all the reasons why — why you’re not the one instead of why you’re the perfect one.
Early on in my career I was presented with a particular opportunity and I just really didn’t feel like I had done enough or seen enough. I remember this one person telling me, “You’re going to have enough to contend with, for a variety of reasons — you are female, you’re a lawyer, you’re black. You’ll have enough reasons why people will be trying to count you out, but don’t count yourself out, especially over stupid stuff.” I have remembered that ever since then.
The second thing is, the job of a leader is to define reality and give hope. I think about that alot. I think about that as I’m leading my own team and I think about it as I’m assessing other leaders. Define reality and give hope. The best leaders that I have worked with all do that, all in their own different ways, but essentially they are able to be transparent about where we are while also being hopeful about the path forward.
What do you think is the biggest thing holding people back from getting the job that they want?
The first thing is get clear on your own why. What is the most important thing to you? How are you defining success? The big thing I’m noticing with a lot of people is that they are not crystal clear about why they’re going after whatever it is that they think they’re going after. They’re too busy defining success by someone else’s yardstick, which I think is a fool’s errand. If this year has taught us nothing else, it is that time is precious and you shouldn’t spend one second doing something that does not fulfill you or bring you joy or make you happy. What’s not going to make you happy is living in someone else’s idea of success. The first thing people need to get clear on is what does success, happiness, or greatness mean to you. Once you do that, don’t count yourself out.
Why not go for exactly what you want, especially with the lessons you’ve learned in the last year? Now, there are some strategic things you have to do to line yourself up for that. What does your network look like? What is your narrative? What story are you crafting for yourself around what you want to do and how do you get that story in front of the right people? Now, I know there’s a lot of unemployment, but there are also a lot of jobs being posted. There is a lot of hiring being done.
At its core it’s about figuring out what you want and who do you know that can get you out of that pile of thousands of people. And then, once you get out of that pile, what story are you crafting? How does your passion for what you’re talking about come through? How do you connect with whoever the hiring person is? More and more people are looking for leaders who can craft a strategy, communicate, have a big followership with people and then, some of the other stuff can be taught. How do you put yourself in a position to tell that story and sell that story?
What excites you about the work you are doing at WW?
I think I’m lucky to work at a place that focuses on wellness. It makes my job easy, because when I come with programs or initiatives or ideas that have to do with the wellness of employees, I know that the team around me is on board with that and it shows up when we craft products for our members.
Wellness being at the heart of what we do, we have some great products coming out with Digital 360. It is so clear the impact that HR and a company’s People Team can have on the crafting and delivering of a product. Especially of one that is so innovative and will really advance the mission that we have, which is providing wellness for all.
That Digital 360 program is really exciting, it has the right coaches involved, it’s the right platform, and it’s definitely the right time to help people on their wellness journey. Now, more than ever, people need that. And HR, I think, is just happy to have a part in helping that come to fruition.