2020 HR’s Rising Stars: Merging policies and priorities at MERGE

Leslie Mikus describes herself somewhat jokingly as a “policy nerd.” The descriptor was put to the test when Mikus, the director of HR at ad agency MERGE, was tasked with analyzing the benefits policies and employee handbooks for five distinctive agencies that were unifying under MERGE.

The five companies were located in three different cities and all had unique policies and procedures, which Mikus had to explore for commonalities and differences–and design a new employee handbook with a redesigned set of standards. That process curved toward offering the more innovative benefits: unlimited paid time off, fully paid parental leave and even grandparent leave.

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“There was a lot of collaboration between senior leadership and our team to find the middle ground and make sure we had a common set of policies,” she says. “Some of these things carried a significant cost, but it was the right decision for the employees and for the future of MERGE.”

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It is that environment that initially attracted Mikus to MERGE.

“Things move so fast in the advertising industry and the people are so smart and dynamic,” she says. “I feel like because of that, I’ve been able to be more creative in my problem-solving.”

While Mikus says she has “found a home” in the HR side of the advertising world, she initially considered some other careers. She studied psychology at Boston University and also had an interest in law, ultimately recognizing she had a passion for the business side of psych more so than the clinical side. As a junior, she studied abroad in Sydney and interned for a recruitment firm.

“That was my first venture into the HR world,” she says. “I loved interviewing candidates, helping to provide guidance on resumes and just being able to help employees.”

Mikus pursued that interest with another internship at an investment firm that allowed her to explore a range of HR functions: onboarding, benefits administration, performance management. “And that’s when I realized I had found my passion,” she says.

Now, Mikus’ work at MERGE allows her to touch all aspects of HR, but she says she is most energized by the learning and organizational development areas.

“On the learning side, we’re able to create growth paths for employees and elevate talent, giving them the tools they need to be successful,” she says. “And on the organizational development side, to me, that’s compliance and making sure our policies are up to date and set up so that folks can hold each other accountable in how they’re all showing up to work every day.”

In keeping with those focuses, Mikus headed up the effort to introduce a performance-management platform, which MERGE previously lacked. She identified the vendor, helped build the tool and trained employees, some of whom were resistant, on using it.

“At the end of the day, people are typically pretty change-averse. I heard things like, ‘Why can’t I keep using paper forms?’–everything was in Word before this–and ‘I just don’t have time for this.’ Not only were we moving onto a platform, but we were also going from annual reviews to more ongoing feedback and quarterly check-ins.”

Mikus was instrumental in garnering senior leadership buy-in to help encourage managers and employees to embrace the transition.

“We also took feedback and listened to manager questions along the way so that helped people to know we were hearing them and helped us explain to them why this was important and give them the training and tools they needed to make this work,” she says.

That work paid off, as the organization is now seeing the benefits of ongoing feedback and adoption is soaring–compliance with the annual appraisal, for instance, jumped from just 10% to 90%.

Mikus also built the agency’s training program from the ground-up. Without a specific learning and development structure in place, individual teams were left to find webinars or workshops when they identified a need.

“Nothing had existed before, so I think senior leadership and department heads saw HR as a conduit for this,” Mikus says. She pressed leaders for a budget for training and undertook research into common pain points, ultimately identifying the need for standardized training for new managers, as well as sessions to improve presentation skills and thinking on your feet. For the latter two, she brought in a public speaking coach and then an improve troupe.

“It was an opportunity to get a little creative,” she says.

The strategy was also an opportunity to align the workforce with strategic needs: The training helped the agency win more pitches–due to better presentations–and managers gained valuable team-building insight.

Mikus says the initiative embodies why she finds her work so rewarding.

“It’s about helping people,” she says. “If I’m able to coach a manager through a tough situation or work to create a program that brings positive change to MERGE, those are my best days.”

Like most, her days look a little different now, with her dining room table now serving as her office.

When the coronavirus pandemic spread to the U.S. earlier this year, the HR team shifted gears immediately to around-the-clock COVID-19 strategizing. Mikus stayed close to CDC recommendations and local news, conducted research to inform recommendations about issues like moving to fully remote work and helped manage communications to staff. Over the past few months, the internal marketing team has taken on more of the daily communications responsibilities, freeing Mikus up to conceive of some innovative ways to foster engagement and inclusion despite the distance.

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“It’s a nice treat for us to see when the packages arrive,” she says.

Looking forward, the pandemic may continue to shed light on the strategic value that HR has to business success, Mikus says.

“I love that I’m seeing the shift where HR is getting a seat at the table; we’re trusted advisers and partners, as opposed to a hurdle that needs to be defeated or a last resort,” she says. “With that in mind, I see myself continuing to grow at MERGE within the MERGE talent team and overseeing the development of new and exciting programs for our employees.”

Read more about each of the 2020 HR’s Rising Stars:

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.