Sarah Strehl, CHRO, ECMC Group

This time for Fond of Work, we interviewed Sarah Strehl, Chief Human Resource Officer at ECMC Group, a nonprofit corporation with a mission to help students succeed. Sarah is a strategic, results-oriented HR leader with over 20 years of progressive HR leadership experience across a variety of industries, geographic locations and HR specializations.

How did you first get into the HR space?

After high school, I was sure I wanted to be an engineer like my dad, and I set my sights on industrial engineering. However, it didn’t take long for me to realize that my passion was not in math and science, but rather with the human aspects of how work gets done. I quickly moved to the business school and enrolled in classes in Management and Human Resources. I also participated in two internships where I gained broad exposure to ‘a day in the life’ of a human resource professional. The combination of my classwork and internship opportunities solidified my passion for the human capital side of business.  

How did you end up at your current position?

I spent 12 years at a large food production/agriculture company in a variety of HR roles, including generalist, specialist, and management. I then spent just over two years at a for-profit education company where I served as the Director of Organization Effectiveness, before moving into the top HR role. A few years ago, I was fortunate to find my current role as the Chief Human Resource Officer at ECMC Group, a nonprofit organization that focuses on helping students succeed. I am humbled to work for a mission-based organization that invests so much in its people, workplace and culture.

Are there any HR challenges you consider unique to your current industry?

ECMC Group operates in multiple industries and market segments, which creates a unique and complex set of challenges, including hiring individuals at all ends of the education and experience spectrum. Finding ways to attract and retain top talent across these diverse segments is a challenge that I love. Also, as a service provider, our employees are our ‘product’ and play a large role in the execution of our brand with a variety of constituencies. Their level of engagement with our clients is critical, which makes creating a work environment that motivates employees to come to work every day and be their very best a pivotal strategy for our organization.

Why are you fond of your work?

I love working for a non-profit organization with a mission to help students achieve their academic and professional goals. Each day I have the opportunity to develop solutions that align with my values as well as the mission of the organization. Recently, I took responsibility for our employee wellbeing initiative, which has been incredibly rewarding. As an organization, we made a commitment to address the physical, financial, emotional, and social aspects of our workforce. Part of the effort is to implement programs that address how a diverse, equitable and inclusive work environment affects the emotional and social wellbeing of employees. Through this work, we are collectively encouraged to challenge assumptions and think differently.

Why do you think HR is an important department for every business to have?

First, a business that prioritizes HR illustrates that their employees matter and that the company is investing time and resources to help them be their best. This message of commitment is an invaluable recruitment and retention tool for an organization. In addition, an HR department can provide insight on why people behave the way they do, and how to align organizational goals with the motivators of its employees. As such, HR departments find ways for businesses to streamline processes, improve productivity and improve retention. When building an HR team, I look for individuals with strong business skills like accountability, communication, and decision-making, as well as unique supporting attributes that include approachability, active listening, conflict management, empathy, and an ability to thrive in ambiguity. Successful HR professionals rely on this unique combination of skills to solve challenging human-capital-related problems.

What’s your management philosophy? How do you apply it at your company?

Surround yourself with amazing people and empower them to do great things. I prioritize forming diverse teams of individuals who have skill sets and strengths that are different than my own, and work to develop solutions based on those insights.  

How do you reward and recognize employees?

I take the time to get to know our employees and tailor recognition to their unique interests. I also have found that a simple, authentic thank you note can be incredibly meaningful.

Why do you think employee recognition matters?

Everyone wants to feel valued and appreciated. Recognition gives individuals a sense of pride and affirmation that the energy and effort they put forth matters.

What’s the best advice you’ve received in your career?

It’s the ‘80/20’ rule of development. To be your best and continue to develop and grow, you should be comfortable with about 80 percent of your role, and 20 percent of your role should be out of your comfort zone. If you are more than 80 percent comfortable, you are not challenging yourself enough; if you are outside your comfort zone more than 40 percent of the time, you may be in over your head and at risk of underperforming. I love this advice because it challenges me to consider where I am in my professional development, regardless of the role I hold.

Over the past 10 years, how has the HR space evolved?

As with most fields, technology has influenced HR significantly. A decade ago, HR professionals were forced to adapt to HRIS systems that were less than optimal. Thankfully, that technology has evolved to be more user-friendly and provide data to help us make informed business decisions. In addition to technology, employers today need to be much more in tune with the needs and wants of the workforce. A “one size fits all” approach to benefits, policies, perks, and incentives no longer works. Employees are willing to leave an employer to find a better fit, so finding ways to retain employees has become integral to building a consistent workforce.

What are some of the most pressing issues HR leaders face today?

We must create a work environment that meets the needs of the business and attracts a diverse, multi-generational workforce, while also focusing on retention and the future of the business. I find myself spending a lot of time talking to leaders about thinking differently and being open to new ways of getting the work done. Both issues lead back to the acceleration of change due to the significant amount of technological advancement over the past 10 years. Technology will only continue to evolve. HR plays a critical role in assessing the influence these changes will have on current and future workforces. HR must help to prepare leaders and employees for the future of work – what the landscape may look like and how to adapt. It’s an exciting time to be in the field of HR if you can embrace the ambiguity.

What’s one thing you’ve had to learn the hard way in your career?

I have learned that no matter how much work is on your plate or how “busy” you are, you should not let others dictate your priorities for you. I distinctly remember a time in my career when I took the lead on a very visible project. I wanted to do my very best, so I put my head down for three months and got to work. Everything in my life was second to the project and the consequences were not good; my team felt disconnected, I was sick quite frequently, and my personal and professional relationships suffered. Fortunately, I was able to recover — reestablishing healthy routines including networking, socializing, exercising, and reconnecting with team members — and get back on track. If relationships are important, make time for them. If retaining your top talent is key, do not cancel your one-on-one meetings with direct reports. If you are a lifelong learner, do not forego your own development. These things will have far greater benefits to you in the long run, and far greater consequences if not done regularly.

Any advice for future HR leaders?

Do not be afraid to take a role or development opportunity that doesn’t seem ‘perfect’ or part of your career plan. I found the opportunities that were not on my radar and a bit riskier were the best for me developmentally. For example, I was offered a position in an industry I did not have a specific interest in or passion for and required me to move my family to a part of the U.S. that I knew very little about. My first instinct was to pass on the opportunity, knowing that another would come along that was more closely tied to my “plan.” In hindsight, I am so glad I listened to my trusted mentor who gave me the push and confidence I needed to take the chance. This opportunity catapulted my career and was a great experience for my family.

Thanks so much to Sarah for taking the time to speak with us for Fond of Work. Stay tuned for the next interview in the Fond of Work series, coming soon! By the way, ECMC is hiring, so check out their website to view their open positions.

Fond is a global SaaS platform that seamlessly consolidates employee rewards and recognition processes into one easy-to-use solution. For more information on how Fond can help you, request a demo today!

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