Strategies For Attracting Top Talent With Toptal CPO Michelle Labbe

by | Jan 16, 2024

Michelle Labbe, the Chief People Officer at TopTal, shares her expert insights into the rapidly evolving world of HR and talent acquisition. In this episode of Culture Leaders Podcast, Labbe discusses the significant transformations in workplace dynamics, with a particular focus on remote work and its implications on company culture and employee engagement.

Labbe delves into the critical aspects of diversity and inclusion, emphasizing their importance in modern talent strategies. She explores the challenges and opportunities presented by remote work environments and offers her perspective on maintaining a strong organizational culture in a virtual setting.

Join us on Culture Leaders Podcast as Michelle Labbe navigates through these changing tides, sharing her thoughts on the future of HR, the impact of technology, and how to balance work and personal life in a remote landscape.


“I love being a mom, but I also love my job. I love that I was a single mom for a while and showed my son that I love working and it’s, you know, it’s fulfilling. I love the people I work with. It’s why I get up every day. I finally found the right company I feel like, what’s the right match. And I’m excited to start every day.” – Michelle Labbe

“Workaholic, I don’t think is a bad word if you love what you do. I think you have to set boundaries. But if you love your job and you’re fulfilled, and that’s my why, why I get up every day and why I love my role, then to me workaholic’s not a bad thing” – Michelle Labbe

“Our why is to help clients find the best talent and match them.” – Michelle Labbe

“I’m an early riser and I don’t dread going to work. I’m like, Let me check my Slack. Let me check what’s going on today. Let me jump in. And so very fulfilling for me. Work has always been very fulfilling” – Michelle Labbe

“The higher up you get, you’re always on call. But if you don’t love what you do, then it takes a backseat.” – Michelle Labbe


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Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Well, thank you for being here, Michelle. So let’s start with our favorite first question. What is your why?

Michelle: My why, my why for being at TopTel, my why for life. You know, I am someone that is very fulfilled by work. And I used to say to everybody that my why was when I died, I wanted my tombstone to say great mom. And I didn’t care if it was anything about my work, even though I’m a complete workaholic. And so my why is…

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Your wife or life, what drives you? What makes you?

Michelle: Really, you know, I love being a mom, but I also love my job. I love that I was a single mom for a while and showed my son that I love working and it’s, you know, it’s fulfilling. I love the people I work with. It’s why I get up every day. I finally found the right company I feel like, what’s the right match. And I’m excited to start every day. I’m not one of those people, I’m an early riser and I don’t dread going to work. I’m like,

Let me check my Slack. Let me check what’s going on today. Let me jump in. And so very fulfilling for me. Work has always been very fulfilling.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: of listeners of this podcast in particular can relate to the label of workaholic that you just self-described as what makes a workaholic.

Michelle: I think, you know, it’s interesting because I have been at TopTel for just over five years right now. And when I first got here and we’re still in that like tech startup, hyper growth, move, fast, fast. And I think you just, there’s always something to do. You’ll never get done. If you have a task list, it doesn’t matter. Like, you know, so at some point you kind of have to say, I’m going to stop.

I’m going to focus on myself or I’m going to go to the gym or I’m going to go to dinner with my friends or whatever it is. But I’m so fulfilled by work and we’re a global organization. So I have people in Romania and then Seattle and I’m on the East Coast. So I’m always working and I could always talk to one more person or do one more thing or help one other coworker. And so workaholic, I don’t think is a bad word if you love what you do. I think you have to set boundaries.

But if you love your job and you’re fulfilled, and that’s my why, why I get up every day and why I love my role, then to me workaholics, not a bad thing.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: So it’s interesting though, because when I asked the question, what makes a work aaholic, I wasn’t framing it as a bad thing. I was saying, really, another way of asking that question is, what makes someone love their job so much that they’re excited to check Slack in the morning? But you answered about the bad part of it. I mean, there is a stigma, I guess, about the aaholic.

Michelle: Because I think so often people are like, they’re like, oh, they’re never home, they’re a workaholic or they’re always distracted or they’re at dinner and someone’s always checking their phone because they always have to be connected. So I’ve been in this arena for HR world for 25 years almost. And I think the higher up you get, you’re always on call. But if you don’t love what you do, then it takes a backseat.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Yeah.

Michelle: But workaholic to me is just like, look, I’m excited. I have stuff to do. I want to be accomplished. I need to get shit done every day and like, I’m jumping on it, so.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Yeah.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Yeah. So what is TopTiles Why?

Michelle: TopTel’s why, well, that’s a good question. TopTel is a company, well, I can tell you what we do and then maybe a little bit of the why. I mean, our why is to help clients find the best talent and match them. And so everything we do is getting these, you know, we’re a global organization, we’re in 75 plus countries, we have no office, we’re fully remote and have been for the 13 years that we’ve been in business.

And RY is making sure we’re the greatest talent company in the world. And we have the best talent, we vet them, we put them through tests and a bunch of rigor moral to get to the top talent in the world to match with our clients. And to us, it’s all about customer service, which, you know, make our clients happy. And make our talent have roles where they can live anywhere in the world and work remote and get a paycheck.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Hmm. So.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: So the company has been remote, exclusively remote, since its inception. What percentage of the roles that you are placing are remote roles versus in-office roles or hybrid?

Michelle: Yes.

Michelle: 100%. So we’ve never had an office. So we have, for our talent, they’re also remote. There are times when some of our talent might have to go in for a meeting, but everything we have done, which was really groundbreaking for TopTel because 13 years ago, there wasn’t this remote culture, no office mentality.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: No, but the placements that you’re doing. Yeah. I’ll see you.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Yeah. And so are you seeing resistance or are the clients and the talent that you’re working with all embracing this 100%? Are you finding the people who are 100% on board or are you having to do some coaching? Are you having to make the case?

Michelle: So I think interestingly enough, I would say, yeah, before COVID, there was maybe this hesitancy to think like, if I can’t see somebody, I don’t know that they’re working. And you kind of have to coach around like, well, depending on where your office is or where you’re located, you could be asleep and look at all this work that’s getting done and you wake up the next day and you have all this stuff to do or the stuff to review. And so I think it’s a trust building exercise, right? Even for the folks that I hire that are remote.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Mm-hmm.

Michelle: We have high metrics and high accountability because I can’t see you, but I’m assuming that you’re doing their job because I know what you’re assigned to do and when you have to do it by.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: You also host a podcast called the Talent Economy. What is the talent economy right now? And for 2024, what are your predictions?

Michelle: Yeah. So I think it’s so strange, right? It’s just this roller coaster. You know, I mean, COVID hits, everyone goes remote. Then everyone, it’s a great resignation. Then the economy starts to tank and big companies are laying off. And then it’s like this ping pong match, right? I do think there seems to be some stability on the horizon. We’re not seeing as many layoffs anymore. We are a US-based company, you know, going into election year. There’s always this what’s going to happen in the US, which then affects a lot that we do. I have high hopes. I don’t think everyone’s going to go back into this crazy growth, plan ahead, hard charge through Q1, hire, get ready for the year. I think people are going to be much more conservative around their hiring, but still try to slowly build instead of go on this fast trajectory to win the race.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: And things are slowing down, right? Because at the beginning of the year, we had 1.5 job openings for every worker looking for employment, and now it’s 1.4. Do you see it getting to one-to-one ratio by the end of 2024?

Michelle: I mean, look, this time of year, you know, nothing happens, right? No one’s hiring. We’re dark, mid-November to mid-December. I do think that I’m optimistic that things will start to settle and maybe trend upward a little instead of the slowdown that we’ve seen and the mass layoffs in some of these large companies that’s really affected. I mean, the market is hot for talent right now if you want it.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Mm-hmm.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Yeah. So TopTel says that you have the top 1%, 3% of talent, right? I mean, you go for it and you have the screening process that allows you to ensure that is the case. How do you ensure what is the screening process? I mean, everyone wants to know how do I get the top 1% of talent?

Michelle: Yeah. Well, I think it’s very different. So for our talent, you know, it’s our talent that we match to clients is the top 3% where I would tell you it’s really lower than 3%. But we really put people, I mean, we have other companies that do what we do, but you just sign up for their service and you can say, I’m the best designer in the world, but no one’s kind of vetting and gut checking to make sure you really are the best designer in the world. So for us, we have our talent go through tests like…

communication tests, written tests, depending on what the role is. If it’s a technical role, they go through a coding test. They have to pass background checks. They have to pass interviews. They’re coached once they get here, their resume, their headshot. We really help them become marketable to our clients. And our clients are saying, I need AI experts, of course, because right now everyone’s talking about AI. And so we’re really making sure that we find the top AI folks. 

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Hmm.

Michelle: And then for my side of the house where internal top-tail employees, our core team members is what we call them versus our talent, we really put them through a pretty strict vetted recruiting process. They do an assessment for every job that we have. They go through a culture interview. We really want to make sure that we are making the right hiring decisions and that the candidates are just as excited to come here as we are excited to have them.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: So it’s funny, you know, my very first job when I graduated from college, well, my very first job was an internship over that summer doing in a casting director’s office in New York City, and I hated it. So I moved to London and I became, we called it a headhunter back then. I was a recruiter and it was so much more sales than I expected. I mean, I was kind of thinking it was going to be all about, you know, let me find the perfect match, but really it’s calling cold calling businesses and trying to get in.

Michelle: Oh yes!

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: To figure out what they need. And then at the time it was when Sarbanes-Oxley was happening. And so everyone needed a SOX accountant, right? And we were, you know, no one, it had just been enacted and people were saying, I’ve got five years experience. Like five years ago, Sarbanes-Oxley wasn’t even a thing. I mean, it was, there was so much BS to have to navigate. And so AI maybe feels like the Sarbanes-Oxley of 2023, right? I mean,

Michelle: Yep. SOX compliance.

Michelle: Yes.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: How often do you see people overplaying their skills on, you know, AI or anything else? Yeah, I mean, how do you filter through that BS?

Michelle: All the time.

Well, it’s interesting. So for instance, for us, when you’re interviewing, you have to do an assessment, right? So if you’re coming in to be a product manager, let’s say, you go through an interview process and then you’re assigned an assessment. So we have assessments for every role that we do. And so you have to either write it or you do a Google whatever presentation and then give it either orally or you send it in and we look at it. And a lot of what we were seeing is people using…

chat GBT and all these other things to come up with the answers. So now we’re running it through that ourselves to see if they took the easy way out or if they really took the challenge on. And it’s funny because I’ve had some interns in engineering that are like, oh, I did this with chat GBT. I’m like, okay, well, at least you admitted that you did it and that you’re being creative.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Because there’s an ethical argument to be made that they’re leveraging a resource that is helpful in getting to the best outcome. So what’s your perspective on that? Is it cheating?

Michelle: Exactly.

Michelle: Well, I think yes, in a way it is, because if you’re doing an assessment for how you’re going to come and work in a role for us every day and we’re looking at how you would approach it and your skill set, you’re not going to come and do a job and be a product manager and throw everything that comes at you through chat, GBT. You’re not going to find answers online all day long. So I have to know that.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: I mean, I use ChatGPT for so much of what I do. I mean, I’m trying to come up with a great headline for a social media post. It’s, let me, I tell ChatGPT to give me five ideas. I mean, if it is a tool, then isn’t it important that we use the tools that we have? Maybe the problem is you’re saying it’s that we’re not being forthcoming about how we came up with our answers.

Michelle: Yes. I mean, it’s a mix, right? Because you want to know that what somebody put on their resume or what they’re selling, they’ve actually done, right? Because then otherwise anybody could be like, sure, I’ve been coding for 10 years, but you haven’t really been because you’ve been coding for six months, but you’re finding all your answers on Chad GBT. So when you get into the hard questions that might be specific to a role, you might not really know how to at least find the answers because you’re using this as a crutch to just…

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Right.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Yeah.

Michelle: Solve it for you.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Yeah. So I’m curious in the talent acquisition world, if you saw, I’m doing major pivot right now in questions, so go with me here. The affirmative action ruling of 2023, I saw in our clients a change in their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and in particular in their hiring efforts as a result, maybe not as a result, but shortly thereafter.

I saw a change in many of our clients. Did you see that change? And if so, what change did you see?

Michelle: I saw a lot, so during my Talent Economy podcast, I interview a lot of HR and talent acquisition leaders. And so I have seen a lot more hiring of, you know, DE&I leaders, right? So I feel like that was the thing to do is to make sure you actually had someone with that title at your company that could focus on it. It’s interesting because we approach things a little bit differently at TopTel because we are fully remote.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Mm-hmm.

Michelle: I post a job everywhere in the world. I can open a business operations manager, and I don’t care if they’re in the US, Canada, Mexico, South America, Europe. We are so diverse because I’m not targeting a specific location, so we’re very culturally diverse and then it also leads into all of these other areas. It’s just very, you know, we do.

It’s just very like, we’ll go to conferences and we were just at Afro Tech last week or two weeks ago in Austin. And we focus a lot on women in tech just because we’re a tech company. But I do feel like as long as you have boundaries around it, I just know that I’ve seen something so backfire when someone’s like, oh, I’ve hired a DE&I consultant. I’m like, that’s just not going to solve the problem overnight. That’s not going to make you more diverse by just saying, oh, we have a figurehead with that title.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Yeah.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Yeah, we feel that when belonging, equity, inclusion, and diversity, and I’m intentionally saying those not in the right order because I want to be intentional about what each of those words mean, they are critical to culture and they’re critical to business success.

Michelle: Yeah.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: But DE&I initiatives are short-lived, just like every other initiative that any company puts together. It’s a short-term program that has a shelf life and loses energy and ultimately doesn’t make long-term sustained impact on behavioral change. So I think those things are critical if they become ingrained in the culture, not as a program that it’s really performative. What I saw…

Michelle: Absolutely.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: was that when the affirmative action ruling came down, affirmative action didn’t affect our clients directly from a regulatory perspective, right? But what they saw was an opportunity to stop paying lip service to something they never really believed in anyway. And so they didn’t have to invest in those initiatives anymore because it was more socially acceptable not to. And the people who did care about those elements of culture as being critical to business success and were not just being performative, they kept going because they knew that it’s not about whether it’s the right thing to do and they weren’t doing it for performative reasons, they were doing it because they think it’s gonna help them win. And so it separated the walkers from the talkers from what we saw. So.

Michelle: Absolutely. And I think what we saw also was more clients saying, hey, if you’re sending talent over for me to look at, I want a diverse pool. Right? So it was more along the lines of like, you know, I’d like a mix before I decide on who the people are. And same with us, before I decide on who the people I am that I’m going to hire, I want to see a variety of different people from a variety of different backgrounds.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Yeah. Right.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Yeah, so how do you maintain, this is one of the most common questions I get is, how do you maintain culture in a virtual environment? What do you do intentionally to create a cohesive culture? Or do you care about cohesive culture? Because that’s, I’m making an assumption there that cohesion is important. But what do you do to intentionally focus on culture in a virtual environment?

Michelle: Yeah, so I think every single thing I do is focused on culture. It’s just part of our DNA. And when we hire to it, if you go on our website, it has our cultural attributes, for instance. And when you interview with us, you go through a culture interview. And those are things for us. It’s not just, and I’ve worked at companies, bless you. No, that’s okay. Not at all. I’ve worked at companies where like they put something on the wall and they’re like, here’s our values.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Sorry, I just sneezed through your question. Can you go back? Ha ha ha.

Michelle: And no one even can recite them. But for me and Top Tell, I stopped coming. I stopped talking. That’s okay. For me, culture is just part of everyday life, and it’s making sure that everybody feels connected to the company and then has a group that they feel connected to. It just runs. So for instance, we recognize people through our cultural attributes. We hire to them.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Sorry. Yeah. I mean, go ahead.

Michelle: We review people to them and it’s making sure people have their group. I feel connected to the company. I feel proud that I work here. They offer, you know, everything we do is in Slack. We don’t do email at my company unless we’re speaking to somebody outside. So everything is in Slack or Zoom, our whole entire world. And we spend a lot of time, no email.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Hmm.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: That’s fascinating. You don’t send internal emails.

Michelle: Nope. And literally if I send an email like, Hey, it’s open enrollment. You have to register. I have to tell people in a Slack channel to check their email. Cause people will go weeks without checking their email. If they’re not a recruiter or in sales who’s talking to an outside client or vendor or candidate, people aren’t on their emails.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: How does that change the nature of work? I mean, you must’ve worked at a company before where they did do emails. So what’s different?

Michelle: Oh yeah. It’s so much more, first of all, you get things done a lot faster, right? It’s not like you’re sending an email and waiting for someone to reply. Like I’m on Slack, I can see, oh, you’re out walking your dog. You’re at a dentist appointment. Okay. They’re not going to reply right now or they’re on vacation or they’re going to be gone for a couple hours. Like if someone’s slacking me right now, they see I’m podcasting and I’m not looking at my messages. So it’s very intentional and very like…

respectful, right? So you know where somebody is. And it’s not like big brothers watching, because I don’t care if you’re at the dentist or walking your dog or taking a lunch break or taking your kid to school. You know, we have that element of trust here. But for us, it’s like, okay, I can get a quick answer here. I’m on a phone call or a conference, a Zoom meeting, and I need one answer from one person, and I can quickly just send in message and say, hey, the answer of this is X, Y, or Z, and then just get back. So it’s not.

It makes things run much more quickly, efficiently, collaboratively. And it’s just very refreshing that I’m not hitting refresh and waiting for emails to come in. I can see when someone’s typing, I can see if they’re in a meeting and might not answer me for an hour. I can see if they’re away from their desk.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: How many employees work at TopTel?

Michelle: Over 1200.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: So over 1200 people don’t use email.

Michelle: Correct. Not regularly. We all have email. We’re not checking our email. Yes.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: What are, right, of course, for external, yeah. So how do you explain that to people when they’re interviewing? What is their reaction? I mean, I’m blown away right now. I’ve never heard of that.

Michelle: Well, I think there’s a few things. One, we’re fully remote, right? So you are not walking down the hall, seeing somebody, being like able to walk up instead of emailing them being like, hey, I need an answer, right? So our culture is just very, I mean, one of our attributes is helpful and collaborative, direct, revealing, challenging. Those are our attributes. And for us, it’s how we function. Like we move quickly, we ask questions. If we need somebody, we’ll send it.

Quick Slack message, hey, Jessica, can you spare five minutes and you jump on a Zoom call with them and your problem or your issue or your question is resolved in five minutes instead of a back and forth email conversation.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Yeah, I mean, I love that. I wrote an article about the meeting apocalypse a couple months ago because the insanity of the amount of time it takes to get on a call with someone these days has just blown me away. I got an email yesterday from someone who said, hi Jessica, I’d like to talk to you about X. Are you available to chat? And then the norm of corporate culture generally, not just at this company, but generally is for me to respond with.

Yeah, absolutely, when are you free? Or go ahead and find a time on my calendar and then they respond with, I don’t see any availability. Is there anything that you can open up? Or they’ll say, how about between this and this time on this or that day? And now we’ve exchanged seven emails about something that would have taken less than three minutes if he had just called me. It’s like we’re a.

Michelle: Yep.

Michelle: Yeah. And I’ll get a Slack message that says, hey, I need you for five minutes. Your schedule looks really booked today. Can you spare? Is there any time that you can spare? I’m like, yep, three o’clock, book it.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Yeah, so tell me what that does for, how often do you get impromptu phone calls? Or do you just call each other’s numbers frequently? Or do you still need to have the slack communication about the call first?

Michelle: We usually say, hey, good to connect. Are you free right now? It’s not a like, we don’t zoom call you because that’s not, I mean, that’s kind of rude because you could be busy. So we do have the etiquette of, hey, are you busy? I am, but I’ll be off in 10 minutes. Let me know when you’re free. But it’s just, you know, it just is so much more efficient and keep, no, it just, it’s like, because then someone is like…

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Yeah, okay, so you don’t just, it’s.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Yeah, okay.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Does it feel less organized?

Michelle: Oh, I scheduled a meeting for Thursday at three o’clock for an half hour to discuss. Yes. And that’s also we… and half the time we can solve it in Slack. We don’t even need a meeting. Like I could say, I’m booked back to back. Send me a quick Slack update and I’ll answer your question in Slack if it’s possible.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: to talk about the thing that would have taken three minutes, two days ago. Yeah, that’s what I’m trying to overcome.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Right, okay, but how do you get new people to get on board? Because I mean, if I joined your company right now, I would have to stop myself from emailing because it’s so normal. Do people join and then act weird?

Michelle: Yeah, it’s a learning curve. And we do an immense amount of onboarding training about all of our technology. Like, here’s where you are, make sure you update your Slack status. This is what we do. We don’t email. So, we take people who’ve never used Slack before kind of through a intro to Slack if they’ve never used it. And there are some people who are like, oh my God, I’m so thrilled. Like, I know that you’re…

not you’re at the dentist. You didn’t put an out of office because you’re at the dentist, but I’m waiting for three hours and I don’t know if you’re going to get back to me today and I’m stressed out, but I can see you’ll be back at three o’clock. So it’s just more of like getting people, I think there is an adjustment for a lot of people, just like there’s an adjustment for like etiquette for, you know, I need an answer for somebody. I don’t want to bother them because, you know, I can’t walk over or turn to my co-worker sitting next to me and ask a question because we’re remote.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Hmm.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Is there risk of burnout? Does it make you feel on all the time or?

Michelle: You know, what’s interesting is I think in the very beginning I did, I felt like I had to answer, but if you were very clear about making sure that you update your status on Slack, right? And you can tie it. So like if you’re in a meeting, the meeting icon comes up so that someone might be like, oh, they’re not replying right now because they’re in a meeting. Yeah, you can do that, right? Or if it’s a vacation day, it comes up that you’re on vacation, right?

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: That’s automatic.

Michelle: I set that I’m on a podcast for the next two hours so people know that I’m, no one’s going to reply. I’m not going to reply to them for the next two hours. So it sets the expectation upfront if you really need something. So you’re not nervous, like just waiting for someone to reply to your email.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Yeah, right.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: So how many emails do you get in a day?

Michelle: I probably, 90% of them are junk email.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Right, but how many real emails do you get in a day?

Michelle: Very few. I mean, if you send me a meeting invite, I probably get five to 10 important emails because if you send me a meeting invite, it does go to my email. I can just go to my Google calendar and accept there, but that does go into my email. So more often than not, it’s like somebody who wants to connect with me on LinkedIn, somebody who’s trying to sell me something, or an invitation to a meeting.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Like less than 10?

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Right.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: The emails that you have to respond to, don’t count meeting invites, don’t count LinkedIn requests. Like emails that you have to respond to, do you get? A day.

Michelle: I think I responded to Noah today. I think that’s probably the only email and I’m like, great, sounds good. Yeah, that’s probably the only email I’ve replied to today.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Noah’s our producer. Noah’s our producer for those of you listening. Noah, how dare you email Michelle? I mean, that’s outrageous.

Michelle: And he was like, just a reminder, we’re good for tomorrow. And he sent it last night. I replied this morning saying, all set. But I don’t think I’ve replied to any other email today.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Does that create more time in your day or do you fill that extra time with more slacks?

Michelle: I don’t think it creates more efficient time. I don’t feel like my time is wasted.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Yeah, your productivity goes up.

Michelle: Absolutely. I’m more organized and it also prevents me not having to get on a meeting. That’s not necessarily… So like in our Slack channel, we’ll be like, hey, all, we have a meeting. There’s nothing on the agenda. Should we just cancel? Yep. Okay, great. Canceled. So we’re not emailing. Hey, do you have anything? And like the six people that are attending the meeting, I don’t. Do you? No, I do. I don’t. Like, it’s just so much more efficient.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Yeah. Yeah.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: How many meetings are you on in a day? I mean, are you meeting heavy? Like…

Michelle: I’m pretty meeting heavy. Well, as the chief people officer, I like to meet with my… I’m open to anybody. I’m a pretty transparent. If someone has an issue, they can go to anybody on my team, but I do a lot of skip levels. I’m a mentor to about 15 people. So we have regular status meetings on projects.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: In a typical eight hour days, how many of those hours are in the meeting? A Zoom call.

Michelle: All of them are Zoom calls, right? Because every single meeting I have is a Zoom call.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Well, yeah, as I’m trying to distinguish between a Zoom meeting and a casual pop on a Zoom for three minutes.

Michelle: I would say probably 80% of them are scheduled. So I could have 8 to 10 meetings a day, like half hours here or there. Like Friday afternoons, yeah, Friday afternoons I clear my schedule. Yeah. But it’s also when you’re on a call, when you’re done with your meeting agenda, you can hang up too. Like it’s not like you’re like, okay, good. I’ll give you some time back. We’re done. It’s not lingering in a room and like talking, you know, we talk in the beginning.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: So kind of typical. Yeah, it feels like a typical meeting schedule. Do you?

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Was this a conscious decision to be a no email company when it was started or did you move to no emails at some point?

Michelle: Um, it’s a, I wasn’t here 13 years ago. I’ve only been here for over five, but it started, it’s heavy engineering and engineers used tools like Slack a lot, right? So they were the ones that were, um, you know, our biggest team is our engineers. And our CEO is an engineer by trait. So I think it was a conscious decision, you know, back then to just really make it really efficient.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Mm-hmm.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Yeah, right.

Michelle: And we’re in all these different time zones too. So it’s much harder to schedule meetings when it’s, we can solve a lot of things on Slack versus email because, you know, we have people in so many different time zones.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Hmm, interesting. Okay, here’s my last question on the Slack issue. One of the things I see companies doing that I don’t like is using Slack for document management. It’s not a great document management tool. How do you manage documents?

Michelle: So we have two things that we use. We have confluence, which is where I would say maybe this is not the best thing to say. It’s the boring version of documentation, right? So we have an intranet where we have a lot of, that’s homegrown, where we have org charts and descriptions of people and pictures and jobs and all that. We have water cooler channels, which are something we do to keep people engaged and motivated, which I can talk about.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Yeah. Yeah.

Michelle: But confluence is where like, here’s our policies, here’s how to do this, here’s a process, just documentation to make sure, you know, if somebody leaves, we’re not recreating the wheel. Like everything is stored in confluence for us.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Hmm. Okay, so you don’t use Slack for document management. It really is just the chatting.

Michelle: No. It’s just chatting quick answers, prepping for meetings, asking for help.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: I mean, I haven’t heard of this. I’ve heard of teams like this, but I haven’t heard of a culture that just says, “‘Welcome to the team. “‘Don’t email us. “‘Thank you.'” And right now I have, I went to Zombecation. Yeah, I mean.

Michelle: We say if you want a quick answer, use Slack. And some people will email and I’ll be like, you know, some people have to ease their way into it.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Yeah, so do you coach them out of it? Do you have to give them feedback like, hey, Suzy, we are so excited you’re on this team about the email you sent me, please don’t. Basically, I mean.

Michelle: We’ll be like, we don’t really usually email. No, what we say is if you want your thing answered quickly, you really wanna slack it because you might be waiting a few days if you send an email.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Right. I mean, I just went on vacation and I come back to hundreds of emails. I mean, I think I have 500 unread emails. I have to figure out which ones of those are junk. There’s a bunch I have to respond to. And it’s just the, that is the bane of my existence. That’s the thing that I hate the most about my job is having to deal with email. If I didn’t have email, I mean, have you coached any of your clients to move towards a no email culture?

Michelle: We have clients that we talk to on Slack now too.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Yeah, right. I mean, have any of them noticed the way you do it and say, how do we get to be a no email culture?

Michelle: You know what is interesting? Um, when COVID hit, we became, and I became by default, very popular. Ooh, tell us about a remote culture. How do you do it when no one’s in an office? What tools do you use? What do you find more efficient? How do you know people are really working when they’re not in an office? And a lot of what I spoke about was Slack. You know, and I think it’s, that’s like when you’re on vacation, there’s an icon that says you’re on vacation, call somebody else.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Yeah. Yeah.

Michelle: So that person’s not waiting for me to respond. So there’s not a response sitting anywhere for me when I get back. It was handled by somebody else while I was gone.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Yeah.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Yeah, it prevents the email from getting sent while you’re on vacation because I may have an automatic reply, but the email has still been sent and I still need to follow up with it. Right, now I gotta figure out, did you reach out to Suzy while I was out or do you still need that answer, which is a whole other stupid email. I mean, it’s a ridiculous email to send. Hi, you sent me an email a week ago. Did you still need a response to that email?

Michelle: Yes. And then you get it and you don’t even know if they got an answer because you’re not on the next thing.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: And then now they’ve got to respond. Yeah, I do need a response. And now I’m finally responding. Wow.

Michelle: I love it. Honestly, I mean, I never used Slack. My husband’s an engineer. He used Slack before I started at Top Dell and, you know, that was his thing. And now I totally get it.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: I wonder if we could do it.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Yeah, man, I love this. I just, it’s like, that is one of the big answers for how to have a remote culture. There is, let’s be frank, there is more accountability for how you’re spending your day when that is your culture. Cause people, if you’re not available all day, if you have, if you’re not updating your status, people are like, where are you? What’s going on? Right? I have the invisibility.

Michelle: Mm-hmm.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: of no one really knowing what I’m doing, which sometimes I like, sometimes I don’t like, right? I mean, the days when I’m doing a keynote and I’m on site and I’m meeting with clients and then I’m getting all these emails, I’m like, ah, I should have put my out of office, even though I’m working today, I’m not able to respond to anything. On other days, I’m like, let people think I’m working, I’m going to the park, right? And that kind of invisibility is nice sometimes, but you have less of that, right? I mean, does that feel true or am I making that up?

Michelle: I think that’s true, but we also, part of us and the remote culture is hiring people that are self-sufficient, hard workers, don’t need somebody standing over them or telling them what to do all day long. And we rely on metrics, we rely on OKRs, and people know what they have to do and when they have to do them. And if your kid’s homesick all day long and you’re taking care of them, but you have a deadline,

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Yeah.

Michelle: That’s fine. You put them to bed and you do that work at night. That’s okay too, right? So we’re not in the culture of babysitting. We’re a very trusting, transparent culture. But if you’re missing, someone’s going to be like, where have you been? It took you four hours to answer.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Right. Yeah. Which I mean, CEOs probably love, but let’s circle back to the beginning of this conversation. You’re a self-described workaholic, so maybe it doesn’t bother you to have tabs on you all the time. Are there people that this doesn’t work for?

Michelle: I think it’s interesting. I more see, because we do such a thorough job explaining our culture and how we work in the recruiting process, it’s very rare that it doesn’t work out from that end. I think the thing that probably doesn’t work out for us is somebody who’s like, oh, I want to work remote. I’m tired of being in an office. I want to work remote. And then they’re working from home.

 and they don’t have a network outside of their apartment house or whatever. So then they’re like, oh my God, it’s just me all day long. And I don’t have a gym or I don’t have friends, or I just moved to a new city. And then they’re like, feel very isolated. That’s the negative part of the remote culture. For some people, there are people that it’s not for everybody.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Mm-hmm.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Yeah, the loneliness epidemic. Are you?

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Well, and you’re starting to touch upon an area that I’m getting more and more interested in, which is mental health and the work places responsibility or the leaders responsibility, if any, in mental health of their employees. What do you see that as being beyond benefits? I’m not asking, what do you think you should get eight free therapy sessions as a work benefit? Like, let’s call that a given, right?

What is the role of identifying mental health issues or supporting people through those issues as a leader or as an HR employee at a company?

Michelle: Yeah, well, I think there’s two things. I think you have to educate your managers because a lot of the time the managers don’t know the signs or are nervous to ask questions when they see something that might be a little off. You know, so they’ll come to me or my team. Yes, of course we have benefits. We have a Calm app or we have, you know, we use Frankie Health where people can see a therapist or a coach or all these things. So we have all those tools. We know to recommend them. We are very public about it and I think that’s also a difference.

We talk about them on our all hands calls. We do a health fair, a mental health month. So we at least make it part of the conversation so that it’s not a stigma of like, oh, I can’t tell anybody that I’m stressing, I’m burnt out, I’m worried. We do interviews when people will see taking certain sick days or their behavior changes. The managers will speak to my team if they don’t feel comfortable. We’ll do kind of a check-in.

You’ve missed a lot of days of work or you seem to be distracted or your performance just seems like, is there something going on? How can we help you? And that’s really making sure people know that we have the resources and then the support. We have a generous leave policy if someone’s like, I just need to take a month off unpaid or a month off paid or this combination. We let them.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Yeah.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: You just said, we have a call map. And I nodded as if I had any idea what that is. What is a call map? Yeah, you said, we have a call map. Maybe I misunderstood it. I’m glad I asked the question. You said, it was when you were talking about, we use Frankie something. And right before that, you said.

Michelle: Okay.

Michelle: We use Frankie Health for coaching and therapists and other help. They also boost… Calm. Oh, calm app. Yeah.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: And right before that you said we have a calm map. Oh, the calm app. I’m like, wait, calm app sounds like a great idea. Like an emergency, who do we call in the case of emergency map? Which I, maybe that should be something.

Michelle: We do have emergency contacts in case I don’t hear from people and I kind of need to check in on somebody. But we, yeah.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Yeah, I was imagining it was some kind of buddy system for mental health.

Michelle: Well, we kind of have those things too. I mean, we do have top pals. We have that actually when people start and they’re like, I don’t know how to navigate this or it’s overwhelming to some people. But we really, I think part of it, especially in the remote culture, is making it known that we’re very supportive of mental health and we have these benefits and talk about them. So people will post, like we have a channel that’s called Frankie Health. And somebody will be like, you know, and there’s…

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Yeah.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Yeah.

Michelle: our company. You can opt out if you don’t want to be in that channel, like of any Slack channel. But someone will be like, I’m having a problem getting into the app. Well, that person is now saying publicly that they’re having an issue and trying to get into the app for a certain reason. Or we post, we do topics, we do speakers on overwhelming, feeling imposter syndrome, feeling overwhelmed, how to manage through crisis.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Yeah.

Michelle: So we do a lot of trainings to try to make it seem like part of a conversation instead of like a random thing that comes up and people are embarrassed to talk about. And I have found that a lot more people are open to be like, I’m in therapy, I have a good therapist, I’m on something, you know, and so I think it’s also knowing that we have those things that we can provide so people feel comfortable.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Yeah. OK, last question.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Yeah, normalizing it. So this is my last question before we go to a caller. Interesting Slack channels, unique Slack channel ideas that our listeners can steal. Like everyone knows about the pets Slack channel where you put pictures of your pets or, you know, we have a recognition Slack channel where we recognize each other’s efforts and things. You have anything in there that, you know, people probably haven’t heard of before, cool Slack channel ideas?

Michelle: funny that you say the pets because that is probably our most popular. We just had a Halloween contest for pets. Yeah. So we have, let’s see, we do a game night one. We have game nights. We have dads in the trenches. We have working moms. We have, I mean, we have book clubs, green thumb, recipes. We, yeah, we do a top community. So like if you…

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Hahaha

Michelle: We actually have a pretty, even though we’re remote, we have a pretty robust intranet and people will go in and say like, oh, I’m visiting my mom for Thanksgiving in Boston. Let’s see who coworkers are around there. And they’ll send messages like, hey, I’m in town. You guys want to meet for coffee? And then they’ll all share pictures of meetings with their coworkers. So we encourage those type of things.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: That’s very cool. I think that is unique.

Michelle: And then we have a 30 by 30, so we do fitness every day that’s 30 days in the month for 30 minutes you have to work out. So and then we have like a, what’s going on now? We have a what the meme contest this month.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: That’s great. Okay, fabulous. Well, let’s go to a caller that has a question for you.

Michelle: Yeah.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Mm.

Michelle: They’re limiting beliefs around what? Okay.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: I think they’re going to start it over.

Michelle: Ooh, that’s a good question. So there’s a couple of things that I would say. One is definitely have a lot of those at TopTel. We have a high potential program that we work with and a lot of the folks that are in there are like, I’m an individual contributor, this is all I want to be. Um, I do think it’s healthy that there are some co- we need some of those people. Right? There are so many people that we hire that are wanting to know like, when am I getting promoted? I want to get promoted. And it’s like, if everybody wanted to get promoted, we’d lose people because they’d max out and we don’t have enough manager roles. So at some point, I think it’s okay. I had someone that ran my learning and development team. She’s been with me for five, almost five years. Never wanted to be an individual, always individual contributor. I don’t want to manage. She had a boss that she didn’t like. She’s like, I think I can do better. I’m like, let’s try it.

We’ll give you one person or we’ll give you some managerial responsibilities without the management aspect. So more of an influence versus being a manager. I also think a good way to do it is in engineering, we do this a lot. We have a huge engineering team and someone will need to create a new team. We’ll make a title called an interim engineering manager. We do this a lot.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Mm.

Michelle: 75% of the time, people in that role are like, oh, I like this. We provide them with training. We homegrown a lot of our manager training, how to deal with difficult situations, how to go from being a peer to a manager, do all that stuff. 70% is success rate. There’s 30% that get in that job and they’re like, tried it, don’t want it. And that’s okay too. So at least giving an opportunity to say, you can have this interim role, but it’s okay if you don’t want it.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Yeah.

Michelle: because they don’t want it to look like a career limiting move if they’re like, I don’t want it. We make it okay to say, just try it. We think you have the skills, we’ll train you, give it six months. If you’re not comfortable, you can go back to your other role.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: There’s also an evolution in people’s growth and their priorities. I was a person who desperately, desperately wanted to be a manager early in my career. And I was just fighting for it. I wanted nothing more than to manage people. And the reason was because I wanted to feel more important.

I mean, it wasn’t like, I want to be of service and help people grow. No, I was just young, hungry, and I wanted to be more important and a manager title was gonna get me there. I then finally became a manager and then I grew up in those ranks and eventually became a CHRO at a tech company. And I really liked it. I actually, I liked it. I didn’t realize how hard it was going to be.

because it has nothing to do with you. Being a great leader and manager is all about service. And I didn’t get that when I was wanting to be a manager. When I sold my business and came to Culture Partners, Joe Terry, our CEO, asked me if managing people was something that I wanted to do and if it was important to me. And I thought, you know, I’m glad that I’ve done it. I’m glad that I’ve had the psychological shift and understanding that.

In fact, if it’s an ego thing, you’re probably really bad at it. And I think my first management position, I was probably really bad at it. And it wasn’t until I finally realized it had nothing to do with me and was really about giving that then I was able to say, okay, for this next evolution, I don’t really wanna manage because it’s a lot of work. When you do it right, it should be the overwhelming element of what you do. And right now I wanna be…

thinking deeply about trends and topics and helping our clients. And I don’t wanna spend as much time one-on-one with people who I wanna help get to the next level. So you also have to check in. Right, exactly.

Michelle: It also depends on where people are in their life, right? If you’re someone who’s got like three young children at home, which some people do, they’re like, not the time, you know?

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Yeah, true. That’s a good point. Like I’m in recovery now and I have four sponsors and I mentor them. I mean, one of them is coming over in a few hours and we do some step work. And those are like, I manage them, you know, and by manage them, it’s being of service to them. I just, I give them all my time. I don’t really wanna also do it with employees at the same time. So that’s a good point. Okay, well, I wanna, yeah.

Michelle: it’s a time commitment. So you have to be ready and realize that it’s not, you might not want the drama that comes with managing, but you also might have the mental capacity because of stuff going on in your personal life. So. Mm-hmm.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: And the emotional capacity, I mean, it takes a lot of empathy to do it right. And I was feeling so much, you know, when I was leading people. Okay, so the last question I’m gonna ask you is the question I ask everyone. It’s my favorite question, which is, what is something that people haven’t asked you that you wish you got asked more often?

Michelle: a lot.

Michelle: That’s hard because you don’t know what you don’t know. But I think maybe, I was thinking maybe something around like what would you do if you were not in your role or the HR field or what would be your other career?

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Yeah.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Yeah, the question that they ask celebrities, like if you weren’t famous, right, what would you be doing as a job? So go ahead, what would you be doing?

Michelle: Well, it’s very funny because I would not be working with people. I would be working with animals. I would be, I would love to have like a farm somewhere where it’s warm and have just dogs and dogs and dogs, like a dog rescue farm. Like I only have one because she’s 15 and a half and she’s very needy and likes to be an only dog at the moment. I have two and now I have one. But I…

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Oh, how many dogs do you have?

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Ha ha ha!

Michelle: It’s funny, I spend all my days talking to people. So like by Friday, I’m exhausted. I used to think I’m an extrovert, but I don’t think I am anymore. And so some days it’s like, you know what? I just want to be around animals. I’ve started going to goat yoga. I’ve been to an elephant sanctuary. I’m spending more time around animals lately. So…

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: I’m sorry, what is goat yoga? No!

Michelle: Oh, you’ve never seen that? There’s a farm here that you go out and you do yoga and the goats jump on your back or you’re trying to do poses and they walk. It’s like a calming experience to be just with animals.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: I’m sorry, it’s calming to have a goat jump on your back.

Michelle: Yes, they’re not huge ugly goats. They’re like small, cute. Some of them are. Yep, absolutely.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: Little tiny baby goats? Oh my goodness, that’s so random, I love it. Yeah.

Michelle: Yeah, just being around animals instead of dealing with people drama, animals just want love.

Dr. Jessica Kriegel: That’s true. They are so pure, aren’t they? Well, thank you so much for spending time with us and sharing all of your insights. I loved our conversation today. I learned a lot and we’re just so grateful that you took the time.

Michelle: Mm-hmm.

Michelle: Thank you. I loved being here.

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