How Anne Erni has brought a culture of listening to Audible

The Amazon subsidiary follows five People Principles to keep its workforce and its business strategy aligned.
By: | June 10, 2020 • 8 min read

The writing is on the wall for Audible—literally.

In the lobby of the headquarters of the Amazon-owned Newark, N.J.-based audio-entertainment and education company are life-sized depictions of its People Principles—the five guiding tenets that shape what it means to be a member of the Audible community. The graphic illustrations are represented throughout the entire workspace, embedded in wallpapers and installations, suggesting how ubiquitous the People Principles are in Audible culture.

That’s a culture that is anchored in a belief that the ideas and input of all employees are worth listening to, says Chief People Officer Anne Erni.

Erni joined the company in 2016, after heading up HR at Bloomberg L.P., where she managed a rapidly growing workforce—which doubled globally during her six years with the organization—and is credited, among many other initiatives, with helping to create the company’s Global Leadership Forum. At Lehman Brothers, she wore multiple hats as managing director and chief diversity officer, with a specific focus on building the company’s workforce with underrepresented populations.

Erni’s career journey has been centered on the idea that businesses can thrive if they truly amplify the voices of their workers—a message that has taken root at Audible.

HRE: How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed your work as a CHRO?

Erni: I oversee everything that touches on our people and the places we work, so the virus has impacted every aspect of my role. Our people had to adapt quickly to the new professional reality of working from home, while managing personal anxieties and supporting their families and loved ones. I am focused on supporting new ways of working as our teams figure out this new normal, where home and work are blended, while also looking ahead and planning how to safely welcome employees back into the office.

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When COVID-19 struck, our team was already reimagining the future of our workplace and culture. We’ve been asking ourselves how we can innovate a more flexible and resilient way of working to foster connection and collaboration across our global network. The pandemic has pushed fast-forward on our plans and stressed the need to move quickly to make decisions that have no precedents. We’ve always paid close attention to employee feedback, but now, more than ever, it’s key for us to listen to what employees are saying, test new ways of working and then follow up with our people to find out how we can be even better. Since this began, a method we’ve used to engage with employees is through surveys that appraise how our people are doing and help inform our work.

HRE: What are you finding to be the biggest concern or stressor among your workforce, and how have you responded?

Erni: First, I have to say that I’m so proud of Audible and our people for facing this challenge head-on. No one could have predicted where we’d be now, but our teams have shown unbelievable resilience and spirit. Our No. 1 consideration is the collective health and safety of our people, and throughout this situation, we have shown employees that their wellbeing comes first. Continued communication and updates about the actions Audible leadership is making are key to helping our employees feel supported right now and reassured about the future to come.

You only need to look at the daily headlines to find causes of stress. All of our people are experiencing unique stresses right now, and what’s significant is that we’re all performing without a script. Whatever personal or family challenge someone was dealing with before the pandemic is now doubly hard. As an employer, it’s crucial that we recognize what our employees are going through and support them as much as we can, including practicalities like a stipend for home-office equipment as well as mental wellbeing resources.

It’s important to realize that dynamics between people don’t change just because we’re working remotely, even though the speed at which we interact has gotten much faster. I tell my team that work velocity has soared! How we think about time has changed now that people are accessible earlier and later than usual. Hunger for information is huge right now, so it’s necessary to keep channels open to listen to our people and to over-communicate back to them. For instance, we’re adapting our culture to meet the increased speed and intensity that employees are facing through changes like limiting meetings to 25 and 45 minutes, no meetings during lunch hour every day, and Thursday afternoons are meeting-free.

Repetition and reassurance are always important, but now more than ever, as our day-to-day reality changes so quickly, we want to establish continuity for people. A big part of that is planning for a return to the workplace and considering how we adapt the office environment to maintain social distance. Longer-term, it also means addressing our flexible and work-from-home policies, as we believe we are going to be affected by this longer than the fall. Lastly, I thank my lucky stars to manage both people and places. I’ve been saying for a long time that who we are and where we work are inextricably linked. Today’s COVID-19 crisis underlines this fact.

Read all of HRE‘s coronavirus coverage here

HRE: When did you first feel the spark for pursuing a career in HR?

Erni: I spent the first 15 years of my career working on the trading floor on Wall Street. Five years into my tenure at Lehman Brothers, the president at the time tapped me on the shoulder and said: “Men run in packs; women don’t. Go find your pack.” Those were my marching orders to start the first diversity initiative at Lehman. After a year of putting the women’s initiative in place, I was asked to step off the trading floor to become the company’s first chief diversity officer. My career has been in HR ever since.

HRE: Do you have a personal mantra that keeps you motivated, either in work or in your personal life?

Erni: Earlier in my career, I had a wonderful female mentor. Her advice to me was that the harder I worked, the luckier I’d get. That was my mantra for many years, and I put in long hours knowing that it would pay off. But after having a bit more experience under my belt and listening to the perspectives of colleagues from different backgrounds than myself who have worked just as hard, I’ve realized that many workplaces have institutional structures that create obstacles for people. Yes, hard work is a key component of success, but without people in power stepping up to make workplaces more fair, many people won’t achieve what they deserve. I believe that the mantra of leaders should be to recognize and remove obstacles to success so that hard work pays off.

HRE: What are one or two of the biggest evolutions that the HR function in general has undergone since you’ve entered the field?

Erni: The advancement to automation and ultimately to cloud technology has been a significant game-changer. With today’s technology, we can access and leverage data, insights and predictive analytics to inform better decision-making. Also, when I joined HR, it was uncommon to focus on diversity and inclusion, but what was once a small focus area has evolved into a standard way of doing business.

HRE: Why has Audible shifted from using terms like “diversity and inclusion” to “belonging”?

Erni: Audible seeks to connect millions of listeners with a wide variety of voices and perspectives, and it is important that our internal culture reflects our external purpose. Creating a culture of belonging is about embracing and amplifying the voices and perspectives of the many dimensions across the human spectrum. It’s about including all aspects of diversity that extend far beyond the traditional EEO definitions and creating a culture each employee can identify with in some way and feel as though they are seen, valued, heard and connected.

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HRE: Audible is actively engaged in the local community in Newark—how has that work impacted employees?

Erni: At Audible, five People Principles guide everything we do. One of our principles revolves around how we engage with each other as colleagues and the community around us; we call it Activate Caring. Whether it’s rebuilding a historic landmark into our tech-coding Innovation Cathedral, providing opportunities for our employees to help develop the future generation of Newark through our involvement with neighborhood schools or partnering with community artists to create and install a local park installation, our involvement connects our employees to Newark. I recently came across an article that ranked Newark as one of the top 10 places for new programmers to live and work, and I look forward to continuing our efforts to make Newark a vibrant and growing community for technologists, entrepreneurs and more.

HRE: Do you have a signature program or policy that you’ve instituted since joining Audible that you’ve found has had the most widespread impact on employees?

Erni: There are many programs that I’m proud of, but our Community Hiring program is one that lies at the heart of Audible’s mission. As part of the program, we collaborate with local organizations to identify and develop job seekers (including those who are currently experiencing homelessness) for customer-service roles at Audible and at other organizations.

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To prepare the job seekers, we learn about each person’s interests, review resumes, conduct mock interviews and provide one-on-one coaching on a wide range of professional skills, from résumé-building and interviewing to role-playing and communication skills. Candidates who join Audible are invited to participate in instructor-led trainings and are offered a buddy to support them throughout their onboarding. Quite a few of the employees who joined through the program have transitioned to other departments, and we expect to see an even greater increase of internal mobility across the organization.

HRE: Related to your work at Audible … what are you currently reading (or listening to)?

Erni: I am currently listening to Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman and thinking a lot about Audible’s commitment to be a company that “means more than it does.” In the book, Bregman shares research that busts many myths about how to solve various social issues, and it’s a very enlightening listen.

To nominate yourself or another HR leader to be interview in Insights from a CHRO, email hreletters@lrp.com.

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.