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Ellis Griffith | Global Chief People Officer at ERM

Driving Diversity, Health and Impact: Dr Ellis Griffith and the Human-Centric Approach

Ellis Laura Griffith, PhD Global Chief People Officer at ERM, began her CHRO journey with a memorable moment on the first day of her inaugural CHRO role, she was met with an unanticipated Q&A session. Given her background in consulting, Ellis was used to having the answers. However, when asked about her vision and strategy for the HR department, she responded with an authentic vulnerability, admitting, “I honestly don’t know yet.”

Let’s explore Ellis’ authentic leadership journey as she shapes the human experience at ERM!

How do you align your personal values with ERM’s organizational values, especially in the realm of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB)?

At ERM, we help businesses meet today’s sustainability imperatives. We are the world’s largest pure-play sustainability consultancy and have been doing ESG work for over 50 years. Globally, we do this by holding true to three core beliefs: that Together we Challenge, that Expertise is our Superpower and that Impact Ignites us.

Beginning with our mission, I feel closely aligned with ERM, not because I am a decarbonization expert, but because I believe that the People Function sustains the workplace and helps people to make their lives and worlds truly better. I believe that what we do in the world of People impacts individual lives, be it through well-being programs, cutting-edge rewards, safe workplaces, promoting engagement, building community…

Leveraging expertise to create impact for our people, to challenge the status quo and to make the workplace a better place is part of not only my job, but truly who I am at my core. DEIB is a part of all of this picture. If you could take a marker and draw a circle around ERM’s whole organizational mission and all of its beliefs, we would radiate DEIB from every cell. That means that DEIB is more than a set of programs. It means that together we serve as the guardians of ERM’s corporate culture–we are a group of people who resonate together around a common mission and common set of beliefs, which is belonging at its best.

Welcoming people from across geographic or ethnic boundaries, across different knowledge and skill sets, from diverse religions and areas of expertise, from one end of the rainbow to the other is how Diversity shines in an organization. I think we’ll talk more about this later too but fundamentally, DEIB is a part of the tapestry of, not just the way that I live and lead, but also, ERM’s core mission and beliefs.

Given your background in Inclusivity, could you describe how you foster an inclusive culture and what strategies have proven most effective?

Fostering an inclusive environment begins with fundamentally ensuring that the people who are part of that environment are themselves engaged and inclusive people, on a micro level and a macro level.

Let me explain. Smiling at everyone in the hallway, offering help to someone wrangling a pile of papers and a coffee, taking a moment of your time to make a cup of tea for a colleague who you know is struggling today—these are micro-inclusion moments. Within teams, you have both inclusion moments and opportunities for inclusion that you may not have noticed as well. For instance, perhaps some people work best in quiet environments and others work best when they can have open and frequent discussions.

How can a team be inclusive of a wide range of needs? By being open to different possibilities, having open discussions. When we have sponsorship relationships along with respectful peer relationships, we create an inclusive team culture. When it comes to a whole company, inclusion starts to look more macro with things, like flexible working and office space, like benefits that are inclusive of neurodivergence and multiple family types, like offering supportive communities that are inclusive of multiple perspectives and people.

This is all easy to say, but in reality, from the micro to the macro level, what is hard about inclusion is its authenticity; inclusion is about truth at every level. And that isn’t easy to teach or change in a human being.

Embedding learning and discussion on the topic at every available opportunity from onboarding to managerial and leadership learning, using video channels to share lived experiences, even offering virtual reality to build empathy and understanding of micro-aggression and bias can be powerful tools. But I do believe that leadership by example is the most powerful tool in our inclusion toolbox.

How do you see the intersection of personal purpose and professional roles influencing the overall success of individuals in your team?

ERM is a purpose-driven organization and I believe that contributing to something larger than yourself makes a difference in the employee experience, not just for the People team, but for every person who is a part of the ERM ecosystem. Knowing that our work benefits a greater purpose and has the potential to impact life on our planet for generations to come is incredibly motivational and, of course, that makes it engaging and exciting to come to work every day.

The equation for the individual is simple: the more exciting and impactful the work, the more motivated one feels, the better one’s work is, the more successful the individual is. And the equation for the People functions and even for the broader organization is just the same.

As a Consulting Firm, our only asset is our people. Ensuring that they are engaged and feeling both the impact that they are having and the career success that comes from that is ultimately what drives our People function.

As someone engaged in individual coaching, what core principles do you emphasize and how do you tailor your approach to each person’s unique needs?

Checking myself at the door, I set all of my own interests aside. I believe in coaching individuals to identify their own principles, priorities and practices. By principles, I mean what do you believe in? What lives at the core of who you are? What drives you? For so many people who think it is a specific success benchmark or career-ladder climbing or money, the answer actually turns out to be more about family or time or a hobby like pet rescue. Helping people to find their true north while being able to engage in and love the work that they do is an incredible honor. Of course, there is much more but a focus on priorities and how to rethink time and boundaries is essential.

What takes the most time versus what is most important? Even small shifts in priorities like reading evening emails in the morning can make a huge difference. Prioritizing the most interesting and engaging projects may be fun, but if the priority is advancement and those aren’t the priorities of the organization, then shifting time a bit toward the organizational priorities could be important.

Lastly, practices. No two people walk their days in the exact same way, I’d wager. Not even married couples or even twins. Moving through a day or a week or even a year with intentionality is something that so few of us do. Helping coaches to practice the intentionality needed to achieve their priorities and live their principles is the glue that sticks the whole coaching experience together. Authenticity and uniqueness guide my approach, not just in individual coaching but overall in life and leadership.

Balancing a high-profile role and personal life can be challenging. How do you maintain work-life balance, especially given your dynamic role as Global Chief People Officer and your family commitments in Amsterdam?

This is such an important question. I’m not even sure that I believe in work-life balance if I’m honest. I have four amazing kids, a fantastic wife and a bunch of pets. We have been living an adventurous expat life for many years now. Everyone has a different way of managing balance, and for me, there are times when I put every work device away and focus on time with my family and there are times when I am with my family and checking my work emails at the same time. There are also times when I am purely working. I don’t balance at all—I juggle. I backflip. I love the challenge of keeping up with everything and letting no balls drop.

I pursued a PhD while I was working and studied on the weekends and at night. I love forward motion and I truly believe that what excites as well as engages and balances people is different depending on who they are. There is no formula for work and life. I am a juggler and a lover of family, work, study, and travel. Sometimes, I fail miserably at doing everything, but I forgive myself for that because every once in a while, the juggler just drops a ball here or there.

Working globally, how do you leverage diverse perspectives to drive innovation and address unique challenges in different regions?

With over 150 locations in 40 countries, ERM is a truly global company. At the same time, ERM is united as a single company by a set of professionals who have deep technical capabilities, strategic consulting skills and career paths that very much mirror each other. Because sustainability is our business, the sub-specialties of sustainability offer growth opportunities for people around the world.

At the same time, work cultures, even working hours, still differ vastly. Our client expectations and buying habits are different around the world. Employee legislation and the right to work are different and in our post-covid world. Mobility has taken on new and sometimes overwhelming challenges. And just as our workforce has adapted from a very hands-on profession to one that was forced to be hybrid or even remote for a period of time, so too has our people function evolved and helped to innovate to diffuse learning across the globe. Keeping our fingers on the pulse of our employees frequently is critical, and understanding what is important to our colleagues, even as it differs greatly one to the next, helps us to attract new talent and retain existing people.

Every learning does not apply to every geography, especially in the people space with so many legal challenges, but many can resonate across borders. We have learned that people prefer bite-sized, interactive learning opportunities provided to them when they can take them. We have learned that bringing external speakers and providing modalities like Virtual Reality can reach new audiences in various ways. We have learned that building diverse communities across the globe is exciting and impactful. We have learned that, while mental health means many different things around the world, it is essential to address in the workplace. Having a variety of programs and ideas, just as we have a variety of humanity, helps us to feel like a single community united across the globe.

Can you share a professional challenge you faced and the valuable lesson it taught you, shaping your approach to leadership and HR?

I once worked in a role that, for all intents and purposes, should have been perfect. Everything lined up with my aspirations and my career plans, I was on the right road. The first six months were sort of floating through a dream, learning the new people, the new processes, the way that things worked. I found my way through the corridors and to my unique value add. I made relationships and built connections across the globe.

The next six months dragged by like I was lugging extra baggage along with me. I remember each day pulling into the parking lot and just sitting, immobilized.

Motivating myself to get up and go inside was so difficult. Nothing had changed, everyone was lovely and I was still making a good impact reflecting I was still on the “right” career path. I even had some new team members and we were traveling the globe doing great work–great work that just felt flat to me. I tried and tried and couldn’t be inspired. Not by the friends, the community or the impact. Something was just not the right fit. And what could be worse really? I stuck with it because surely something was wrong with me. I stuck with it perhaps because I didn’t want to let my colleagues down. I stuck with it because, relatively young in my career, maybe a part of me thought that misery was just part of the job.

But you can probably guess the ending, I ended up finding a new role and discovering all of my blind spots in the process. I needed more autonomy, I needed more creativity, I needed more excitement, energy and authenticity.

Everyone needs something different to feel fantastic in their role. The People function isn’t a place where we come to listen to other people’s problems and take them on as our own, leaving each day 27 problems heavier. It’s a place where we can get creative, form diverse communities, innovate, build inclusive spaces, care for other’s wellbeing, help develop careers and contribute to the bottom line of our businesses. And I do encourage everyone to do that because it’s part of all of the questions that we’ve talked about. It’s how you find joy, balance, impact and meaning.

What advice would you give to aspiring women leaders in HR who aspire to reach leadership positions and make a meaningful impact in their organizations?

I truly believe in all that I have said. Find your true north. Every day will not be full of joy and delight, but you might just learn more from the days that you leave frustrated and feeling like you missed an opportunity for impact than any of the others.

Be on the lookout–opportunities for learning and engagement are everywhere. People to learn from are everywhere, not always dressed in the exact mentor clothes that you are expecting. The People function adds incredible business value in dozens of ways and if you lead or are part of a People function, let creativity and innovation be your guide. Be true to who you really are—it sounds like a big cheesy sandwich but it’s true. Find your own, unique, authentic North Star and follow it through all its twists, turns and juggling acts—what an adventure!

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