Jennifer Robin, Ph.D. is a professor in the Foster College of Business at Bradley University and research fellow and adjunct consultant at Great Place to Work® Institute. Her research interests involve the leadership behaviors necessary to creating strong organizational cultures. She has co-authored two books, The Great Workplace: How to Build It, How to Keep It and Why It Matters and A Life in Balance: Finding Meaning in a Chaotic World.
Briefly describe your background and career path.
I grew up in Davenport, Iowa, and went to the University of Northern Iowa for my undergraduate education. At that point, I knew I wanted to be a psychologist, but business also appealed to me. I double-majored in psychology and human resource management, and then went on to get my PhD in industrial/organizational psychology from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Right after graduation, I was hired at Bradley, where I spent three years as an assistant professor…but then my career took a bit of a left turn! I moved to California for awhile, backpacked and studied yoga, moved back to Peoria and opened my own consulting practice.
About a year after I launched my own company, I met another consultant from Great Place to Work (GPTW) Institute at a conference and knew it was the perfect job. I moved to San Francisco in May 2006 and stayed until 2009, when I came back to Bradley to teach leadership in the Foster College of Business. Call it a boomerang career, or full-circle, or the long way around!
How did your specific interest in the contemporary workplace develop?
I’ve always been somewhat interested in new ways to conceptualize the workplace, both as an employee and as a leader. My dissertation research was on the concept of “psychological self-employment,” which seemed to characterize the job-hopping 1990s and early 2000s. But, my work at GPTW deepened my interest to the level of book writing and blogging. Being inside a variety of companies—from startups to those 125 years old, manufacturing to professional services to retail, some recognized as great workplaces to those hoping to be—helped me to understand workplace culture in a different way. I can spend hours reading about and gathering information about a company’s culture; my inner geek is happy when I do so.
Describe the work and mission of Great Place to Work Institute. When and how did you first become involved?
Directly from the book’s website: Great Place to Work Institute has been listening to employees and evaluating employers since 1980 in order to understand what makes a workplace great.
In 1980, Robert Levering, co-founder of Great Place to Work Institute and author of the original 100 Best Companies to Work For, set out to interview thousands of employees at companies who had reputations for being good employers. These interviews revealed that more than salary and benefits, what really set great workplaces apart was the quality of the interactions employees had with management, with each other, and with their jobs and communities. Levering defined a great workplace as one where employees trust the people they work for, have pride in what they do, and enjoy the people with whom they work.
From these employee interviews, the Great Place to Work Model was born, and later, the Trust Index survey was developed in partnership with Amy Lyman, PhD, co-founder of the Institute. The Institute’s employee-centric model and survey is used around the world to identify Best Companies to Work For and to provide guidance to companies seeking to build better workplaces.
What services does the Institute provide? For whom?
The Institute is involved in a variety of areas, all designed to help leaders build and sustain great workplaces. Companies can apply to be a member of either the 100 Best Companies to Work For annual list or Entrepreneur.com’s 50 Best Small and Medium Companies list; use the Institute’s surveys and culture assessment tools to benchmark against the best; learn from Institute consultants and thought leaders at the GPTW annual conference or through training and workshop offerings, or read about great workplaces in books and whitepapers.
The Institute’s philosophy (and one that I believe as well) is that any organization can be a great place to work, so they provide services to companies recognized to be one of the best and those hoping to improve their workplace cultures.
Describe the methodology used by the Institute in its rankings of the best places to work. Has the criteria changed over the years?
The tools used at the Institute were based upon interviews with thousands of employees, so aside from minor changes to better reflect how people talk about their work and the natural evaluation process changes that have occurred over the years, they haven’t changed much. However, the best companies are setting a higher bar; the benchmarks on all of the Trust Index survey statements have gone up over time, and the practices at great companies become more and more innovative all the time.
What is the biggest thing you learned when you led the advisory practice at the Institute?
I learned so much…but I attribute this lesson solely to my work at the Institute. And that is that the quality of my work is based entirely on the quality of the conversations I start. I learned not to be afraid to be wrong in my assessment of the culture when talking to an executive, because it starts conversation. If I say, “I imagine your culture has become very paternalistic,” she either says, “Yes, because…” or “No, that’s really not right; I see it this way.” These are questions people inside the organization don’t often ask, so if I can get a leader to conceptualize their culture, it gives us a starting point.
When it comes to developing a great workplace, how much of the equation is science, and how much is art?
I believe it’s always a little of both. The science part of it is looking at data from employee surveys and the hypothesis testing that goes on when trying a new practice. But it also takes intuition, creativity and big-picture thinking. When I’m working with companies, I try to speak a language that works for them…sometimes it’s more science, sometimes it’s more art, and sometimes it depends on who I am speaking to or what I am speaking about!
Are specific kinds of businesses/industries more or less prone to being great workplaces?
I think every company has its own challenges, or else every workplace would be a great one. It’s the willingness and ability to overcome those challenges and push them that make them great. Call centers are notorious for their rigid schedules and their strict performance standards, but Zappos.com has built a great workplace in that very environment. Many hospitals and law firms have legacy status issues to overcome, where there is a divide between the haves and the have-nots. But, hospitals such as Scripps Healthcare in San Diego and law practices such as Perkins Coie in Seattle embrace fairness and egalitarian environments.
What is the first step that should be taken by a company aspiring to be a great place to work?
The very first step is an “attitude adjustment!” It involves seeing every decision as an opportunity to build and break trust with employees, and then taking personal actions and creating policies that are meant to build trust. Two-way communication is often the starting place, as communication underlies most of the model of a great workplace.
As far as the list, the first step is to visit greatplacetowork.com/best-companies/about-applying-to-best-companies-lists.
What is the biggest stumbling block for a workplace aspiring toward greatness?
A quote from John Wooden, the former UCLA basketball coach, sums up what I think is the biggest stumbling block: “Don’t let what you can’t do stop you from doing what you can do.” Leaders often fixate on obstacles or on what is going wrong in the workplace rather than opportunities and what is going well. In my work as a consultant, I have never seen a situation where no one is having a great experience at work. The work is to find out what is going well and replicate it—get that experience to more people, more of the time, in more situations.
What is the most surprising thing that you have learned in your research on the contemporary workplace?
I’m still amazed when people think the best places to work are that way because of luck, magic or some combination of both. Leaders at the best companies work hard to create and sustain that environment, but they don’t lose sight of the business they need to run. They don’t change what they do as much as they change how they do the things they do. Any leader can make their workplace better; the “luck” they see is really just attention and sustained commitment to making things better.
Anything else you’d like to add?
There are no Peoria-area organizations recognized on Great Place to Work Institute’s lists…yet. I hope to see one on the list soon, because I know there are leaders in our area who are building trust, pride and camaraderie in their workplaces! iBi