I once overheard a volunteer at a nonprofit organization say that replacing a key staffer would be easy. Not only did this employee have impressive credentials, she also was making significant contributions to the group. However, in this board member’s view, there were plenty of eager young professionals who could step into that important spot.

Such a casual attitude was unwise then and is even more wrong-headed today. Employees across the country are rethinking how, where, and for whom they want to work. They are deliberate about following a path that will fulfill personal and professional goals along with, what can be, an extensive list of criteria.

Recruiting and retaining top talent is on everyone’s mind. I’ve long been a believer that a great culture can enhance the process. On the other hand, an atmosphere where employees are viewed as expendable will significantly undermine it.

During a recent podcast, I discussed strategies for hiring the best and brightest with Bridget Walsh. Bridget is chief operating officer at the Emergency Nurses Association, an organization that takes culture seriously.

ENA’s mission is to advance excellence in emergency nursing and to be the premier organization for that community worldwide. The association has 50,000 members and over 100 employees with offices in suburban Chicago and Washington, D.C.

Bring Culture Forward

When CEO Nancy MacRae came on board, she made the deliberate choice to put culture front and center. As part of that process, in 2018 ENA moved into a reimagined office space that was carefully designed to physically represent the association’s values.

There’s even a treadmill workstation.

A spacious, open concept floorplan invites innovation and teamwork. Throughout the office, graphic design brings ENA’s heritage and mission alive.

One of the goals was to accommodate diverse work styles and needs. There are 26 meeting rooms and open areas that can be used in a variety of ways. Whiteboards invite brainstorming and innovation. Private spaces are juxtaposed with seating areas that look more like a hotel lobby than an office. There’s even a treadmill workstation in case you’re too busy to make it to the gym. It’s a light-filled, welcoming environment with universal appeal.

Bridget’s background in human resources paired with her organization’s forward-thinking attitudes made me especially interested to hear her thoughts on finding and keeping the best talent.

“I’m happy to have this conversation. My heart will always be in HR,” Bridget notes. “Understanding people is a critical part of good leadership and running a successful organization. My HR experience helps me stay grounded in what needs to be important in our culture.”

Listen and Adapt

When I asked Bridget about the biggest challenges in the current employment market, she said this. “Competition is the word that resonates with me. Although job seekers have a broader scope of offers and benefits than ever, it’s not just about money. We will never go back to the world before 2020. Now we are competing with the changes in people’s lives and their needs are extremely varied. To understand, we must listen carefully and be adaptable.”

ENA’s emphasis on culture makes identifying applicants who fit that profile a priority. “We conduct culture-based interviews that involve teams,” Bridget advises. “That process can extend a search, but we don’t want to lose a great candidate; so, we make our case in a timely manner.”

The tension between allowing space to evaluate a good match and the need for speed can be a balancing act. Bridget observed that every staffer from the receptionist to recruiting managers should be an ambassador for the organization’s culture and promote engagement on a personal level.

“We used to do initial phone screenings,” Bridget recalls. “Now we use Zoom, which improves the process. The opportunity to see faces and body language provides a new layer of authenticity during that initial encounter.”

Live Your Values

Given ENA’s focus on values, I wondered what qualities Bridget and her team look for in new hires. I was also curious about how ENA incorporates diversity, equity, and inclusion into the recruiting process.

“We seek applicants who will positively contribute to our culture. We look for a strong sense of accountability to the team and to our members. Great collaborators who can adapt to change and be flexible with their work processes and outlook will be comfortable at ENA,” Bridget says.

DEI is an organizational goal, a core value, and part of the strategic plan.

“DEI is an organizational goal, a core value, and part of our strategic plan. Our staff and board are strongly committed to promoting those principles,” Bridget observes. “The focus extends beyond recruitment into operations. It includes our approach to volunteers, to award applications, and to every area where equity might be an issue. We want our community to be aware of the implicit bias that can occur in organizations. That’s where you make meaningful change. Giving each employee a voice and providing a supportive environment are areas where we strive to continue learning and improving.”

Be Sticky

Employee well-being is at the heart of  DEI initiatives. Genuine care and respect are the glue that makes organizations sticky. It keeps the talent you worked so hard to recruit from being lured away by a flashy offer. Bridget shared strategies that ENA uses to make onboarding the beginning of a long and productive relationship.

“In an environment where staff isn’t together every day, a strong onboarding process is critical. Building authentic connections with your team sets you up for success,” Bridget advises. “You learn how people engage and discover the unwritten norms of the culture.

“ENA has a structured onboarding schedule. In addition to the basics like meeting with representatives from IT, HR, and other departments, every new hire gets a buddy. It’s typically someone outside of their immediate team who can show them the ropes.”

Get Up Close and Personal

“Our CEO and I both make it a point to meet with every new employee,” Bridget says. “It’s important to build personal connections and ensure that new hires have what they need for success. During that conversation, I tell employees it takes a year to really learn an organization. I encourage staffers not to pressure themselves to become immediate experts. You need to experience the full annual cycle of activity.”

To reinforce a sense of belonging, ENA also Introduces the newbies in the office to each other. And, at the quarterly staff meeting, new employees share fun facts about themselves like favorite food, best vacation destination, and a personal superpower. “We want our most recent hires to use their voices, get to know us and each other, and share perspectives,” Bridget notes.

Stoke the Enthusiasm

To ensure that enthusiasm doesn’t fade, ENA has created a well-rounded staff development program. “Over the last year, we’ve adopted a purposeful approach to the way we appreciate, celebrate, and invest in our team,” Bridget explains.

“We want people to participate in creating this environment. To get the staff’s feedback, we organize town halls. Recently we conducted a survey on training opportunities to learn what skills are most important for our team this year. We’re also launching employee special interest groups.

To gather staff feedback, ENA organized town halls.

“Investing in individuals and supporting their goals sends the message that we value our staff’s success. We want them to learn and grow throughout their careers at ENA. We revised our performance evaluation process to support that idea. Now we’re building out a paired professional development plan that is designed to help people achieve the objectives they set.

“Last week, we celebrated Staff Appreciation Day. This year, our president’s theme is about recharging, and we incorporated that idea. The day was filled with camaraderie, treats, and special spa services. We focused on appreciating each other and being together.”

Grow Through Change

The pandemic forced organizations to learn to abruptly shift perspective. ENA is no exception. “We’ve become more flexible about providing options for better work/life balance,” Bridget advises. “Previously, there was an approval process for working from home and the time allowed was limited to one day a week. Today, everyone can work remotely or be in the office. We ask that employees be present two days per week. But there is accommodation for unexpected circumstances. That is an important part of how we retain people. Everyone appreciates the opportunity to control their schedules and their lives.”

Along with the ability to grow through change, COVID-19 also revealed the power of a positive culture to meet challenges. The dismissive attitude of the board member I described at the beginning of this post, came with a price. Yes, she was just one person. But culture is the product of many small acts and experiences.

ENA has carefully designed a framework that values employees’ individual goals and circumstances. Paired with an exceptional mission that culture becomes a powerful magnet for attracting the best talent in our industry.

Read my profile of ENA CEO Nancy MacRae in our book, “Association 4.0: Positioning for Success in an Era of Disruption.”