How this HR Honor Roll winner navigated employee trauma and growth

In early 2016, Heather Vogel read about a job opening at the Children’s Home Society of Florida. While she was immediately attracted to the mission of the nonprofit, the vice president of HR title seemed too “typical HR” for her transformation-focused career trajectory.

- Advertisement -

She remained senior director and acting vice president, retail HR at Ashley HomeStore until, just a few months later, another CHS position popped up on her radar: chief talent officer.

Vogel would later learn that the organization had come under the leadership of a new CEO who “completely wanted to transform HR.”

“He really wanted a talent strategist and organizational design specialist,” says Vogel. “I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, I can’t help but apply for this job.’ ”

Heather Vogel, VP for HR of the Children's Home Society of Florida
Heather Vogel, Chief Talent Officer of the Children’s Home Society of Florida

Seven years later, Vogel says, she has “loved every minute” of her work at CHS—which earned her the distinction of joining HRE’s HR Honor Roll this year.

During her tenure, Vogel has been able to fulfill her vision for transformation: strengthening how it tends to the wellbeing of its employees, streamlining HR operations, deepening its commitment to culture and, of course, leading the organization through the pandemic.

At the heart of this work, Vogel says, is a career-long commitment to being an innovative and strategic HR professional.

“I never wanted to create an environment where I would be perceived as an ‘HR hump’—somebody who just comes to work every day, follows the policies and practices and says ‘no’ all the time,” Vogel says. “I wanted to be a business partner. I wanted my team to be business partners. I wanted to understand and contribute to the development of the business strategy—but also execute that business strategy from a talent perspective.”

See more: Caterpillar’s transformative CHRO is the 2023 HR Executive of the Year

Leadership development, from the ground up

A talent-driven business strategy, Vogel says, must center on leadership development—and that was one of her first imperatives when she joined CHS.

She was largely starting from scratch. The organization did have a few one-off development courses, such as improving supervisory skills, but they weren’t tied to an overarching, robust strategy.

“I wanted to design a program that would allow us to target specific development based on where you were in the organization,” she says.

The need was clearly there: When Vogel joined, CHS had recently lost seven senior executives to retirement. “And there wasn’t any succession plan, there wasn’t any leadership development,” she says.

Vogel pursued and secured a $300,000 grant to get the program off the ground in 2021, which included hiring a consultant and an organizational change and leadership development leader, who is still with the organization today.

The team identified 22 core competencies for the CHS workforce, five of which were targeted at leadership, and then turned to the “leadership pipeline model”—defining the competencies needed to transition from individual contributor up through the corporate ladder.

CHS rolled out iNSIGHTS to Leadership, a four-step development program to guide employees through this journey. The first step, the online Supervisory Series, is open to anyone and focuses primarily on soft skills development, such as managing conflict. Importantly, she says, employees’ participation lets leadership know they’re interested in advancing their careers with the company.

Next, iLEAD Academy is a nine-month program for nominated high-potential leaders, called fellows.

“It’s a pretty intense program,” Vogel says. “We find that those who participate in that program and make it through are the ones that get promoted first.”

The third step, Leader of Leaders, is for senior manager/directors, with a sharp focus on strategy. Finally, the iNSIGHTS to Leadership Symposium brings together senior leaders and iLEAD graduates for a daylong, hands-on learning experience. Participants are given a real business problem impacting CHS and encouraged to use their skills to collaborate on a solution.

- Advertisement -

Apart from the new relationships built and skills honed during the event, the symposium has yielded real strategies for CHS. For instance, pre-COVID, a symposium focused on cost-effective employee engagement measures resulted in recommendations for flexible scheduling and 4/10 work schedules, which the organization has since implemented.

“And it’s been hugely successful,” Vogel says.

In the two years since iNSIGHTS to Leadership was implemented, CHS has seen its internal promotion rate jump from 55% to 80%, while employee surveys have shown an increase in employees’ trust in their supervisors by more than one-third and a 14% increase in team members’ belief that they can advance at CHS.

A trauma-informed approach to employee wellness

While Vogel’s leadership development work has helped the organization prepare for its future, she also keeps her finger on the pulse of the organization in the moment—and, in doing so, found a significant gap in how CHS was caring for the wellbeing of its clients and its employees.

The organization works with more than 80,000 children and family members every year. Its services include counseling, job training, early childhood programming, case management for families in the child welfare system, including foster care and adoption services, and more—all delivered with a trauma-informed approach. This approach is common in the human services field and, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, acknowledges how widespread trauma is and that it greatly influences the type of care from which someone could benefit.

More than 800 of CHS’ 1,200 employees are client-facing, working directly with children and families in crisis, which requires a tremendous amount of “emotional fortitude,” Vogel says. Such workers come to the job in an “elevated” emotional state—a 3 out of 5, she suggests—and when they face additional obstacles at work or in their personal lives, they can easily move to “DEFCON 5.”

For instance, last year, three CHS team members died unexpectedly, along with two infant clients and an employee’s young child; meanwhile, employees faced two lockdowns connected to workplace violence and a hurricane that displaced a number of workers.

“The feedback we received was that we’re a trauma-informed organization but [employees] don’t feel that way for [themselves],” Vogel says. “We said, ‘You’re right. We’ve got to do something to make sure we have policies and practices in place—beyond the EAP.’ ”

Vogel convened a 13-member employee coalition to explore how CHS could strengthen and leverage its culture to support employees through sensitive situations. From those conversations—along with employee surveys and independent research—emerged WECARE, which stands for “welcoming, empathetic, caring and responsive experience.” Under the program, which has been deployed twice so far, local WECARE Ambassadors deliver trauma-informed support to employees in need—from in-person visits to offering critical information.

The organization is in the process of finalizing a WECARE Supervisor Toolkit that will train managers on supporting employees through crisis—including appropriate language and resources. The toolkit includes guidance on “compassionate” practices—such as allowing employees to use bereavement leave when a pet dies, which hadn’t previously been an option.

WECARE is part of a larger strategy to support holistic employee health, Vogel says. For instance, CHS redesigned its benefits plan to reduce copays for mental health visits from $50 to $10 and to include coverage for fertility benefits. It also recently rolled out a Medicare counseling program that paid for itself within its first two weeks.

Like all nonprofits, CHS faces ubiquitous budget concerns but, Vogel says, by understanding the needs of its employees, the organization can maximize the ROI of its investment in the workforce.

“We have an expression here: ‘We can’t pay you in dollars but we can pay you in sunshine,’ ” she says. “We provide things within our environment that will support you personally, professionally, make you feel cared for and like you belong. WECARE has been part of that strategy … and is work that all of us feel really proud of. I think it does speak to who we are as a culture. We care for you here.”

And the evidence is in employee engagement: After WECARE rolled out, views on CHS’ employee wellbeing support jumped 11%, while employee perspectives on their value to the organization increased by 8%.

Streamlining for strategy

Employee engagement can be closely tied to business success, Vogel notes; however, employees at CHS had been very siloed, affecting culture, engagement and overarching business strategy.

Traditionally, each CHS regional office—located from Pensacola south to Key West—operated as its “own little business”—with its own finance, HR and executive directors; and different program implementation. The organization functioned as a “loose federation,” rather than a unified business, which Vogel says negatively impacted not only talent management but client services too.

Using the idea of “One CHS” as their “North Star,” Vogel and her team focused on building a culture of inclusion and belonging from day one—across the entire operation. A common onboarding program was created for all new hires, who can immediately join an affinity group for new CHS employees, where they have access to team-building activities and can meet employees from across the state.

“We’re moving away from these individual offices to one big, happy family, [focused] on that sense of belonging,” Vogel says.

While the rise in hybrid and remote working in the last few years made belonging a challenge for some employers, CHS has thrived. The organization was already considering a telecommuting model before COVID—which accelerated its implementation. As the pandemic slowed and some businesses instituted return-to-office mandates, CHS chose to buck the trend and keep a flexible, hybrid environment.

“Team members love the idea that they can work anywhere, any time and we’re giving them the tools to do that and the freedom to do that—just as long as they do their jobs and do it well, which they do,” Vogel says.

The shift allowed CHS to reduce its real estate footprint—to the tune of $22 million—money that it has since strategically invested in both employees and clients.

“It was a huge win-win all around,” Vogel says.

For instance, CHS has recently increased the percentage of employees whose salaries are at or above the market median by 55% and decreased the number of those making less than $15 by nearly two-thirds. The organization has also targeted another common driver of turnover—heavy workloads.

To boost staffing, the organization leveraged partnerships with more than a dozen colleges and universities, created targeted strategies for challenging hiring in rural communities and tapped technology to facilitate applications. Ultimately, CHS brought on nearly 750 employees, or more than 60% of its current workforce, in the last 18 months—decreasing time-to-fill by nearly one-third and time-to-hire by 14% and boosting positive employee views about their workloads by more than 5%.

Ultimately, in the last year, turnover at CHS dropped by one-quarter while Glassdoor and Indeed ratings jumped by 12% and 10%, respectively.

HR from the heart

Like many who are drawn to nonprofit work, the mission of CHS is personal for Vogel, who says that growing up around a family of educators ingrained in her a belief that every individual should have the opportunity to reach their potential.

It’s a philosophy that goes hand in hand with her work as the organization’s HR leader—as she aims to nurture a sense of belonging and emphasize the value of growth and education among the workforce.

It’s work that has allowed her own career to come full circle: She initially intended to go into family law until she happened into an organizational development position at AT&T—and realized her passion for helping organizations leverage talent strategy to solve business problems.

And now, Vogel says, she’s able to put that passion to work in a way that benefits not just the organization, but also its workforce and the wider community. CHS’ tagline—“We do good”—she notes, applies both to the communities it serves and its own employees.

“Our work is really hard work—but it’s also heart work,” she says. “If we can get to the heart, we can get to the head and the hands, and that’s been my personal philosophy as I’ve been in this wonderful profession for 30 years.”

Avatar photo
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 [email protected].