Why Advance Auto Parts is putting employees in the driver’s seat

Even though the calendar has flipped to a new year, the problems plaguing HR leaders haven’t changed much: Worker stress is soaring, financial fears persist as inflation remains high, and employees and their employers alike continue to struggle to adjust to a hybrid working world. As we ease into 2023, these are all issues auto retailer Advance Auto Parts will continue to look at through the lens of employee experience.

The worlds inside and outside of work are blending like never before and greatly influencing how employees view that work, says Advance’s Natalie Rothman, executive vice president and CHRO of the auto retailer. That’s why the company is doubling-down on—and broadening—its EX strategy. From a greater investment in ESG initiatives to programs that target holistic health, the organization is working to create an experience that shows employees that their voices are heard.

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A prime example is its Innovation Garage, through which employees—everyone from retail workers to warehouse team members—offer solutions to business problems and get the chance to vote for the best ideas. Top contenders present to company leaders, and winners are awarded Advance stock. It’s all part of the organization’s “Be an owner” culture, in which all employees are encouraged to take the lead and think like business leaders.

Keeping a sharp focus on business strategy is an approach Rothman herself has long taken to HR, she says. She started with Advance in 2016 after holding HR leadership positions at such organizations as PepsiCo and the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc. Rothman shared with HRE how having a strong business acumen has helped her find HR success.

HRE: How has Advance evolved its approach to EX in recent years?

Natalie Rothman Advanced Auto Parts CHRO
Natalie Rothman

Rothman: We’ve always been a people-first culture. If we don’t have team members, we don’t have people to serve our customers and we don’t have a business. So, we’ve always been thoughtful about [EX]. The last couple of years, we’ve gone back to the basics. We have macro issues going on like inflation—people are worried about buying groceries, buying gas; prices are really, really challenging. Our team members are looking to us for how to help them—everything from flexibility of when and how they work to their health needs, maximizing wellness, access to EAPs, financial wellness. We’re focusing on the total person, inside and outside of work. We’ve partnered with a number of companies to provide tools, such as access to their pay sooner, and we provide financial counseling.

HRE: How is the organization experiencing the “Great Resignation” trend?

Rothman: We’re seeing it more with our frontline workers. The feedback we get is that people want flexibility on when they work, so we’re tackling that with more flexibility, with improved health and wellness benefits, with training, recognition, making sure we’re looking internally for talent to promote. We want to show our team members that they can start in an hourly role and find a great career path here.

Another thing we’re working on is our frontline staff program, Fuel the Frontline, which has granted 24,000 stock awards to frontline workers. Some of these team members have never owned stock before but they feel proud to be given this stock, and it’s valued at over $70 million in aggregate. It’s really important to invest in because it helps with retention and gives people a source of pride. They’re excelling at what they do so they’re getting stock for that.

HRE: What role is technology playing in Advance’s people strategy? And in what area do you think there is the most potential for the heightened use of tech in the future?

Rothman: Technology is a huge part of our people strategy. We have used tech to automate work and processes. We launched Workday in 2018 and have been able to use it to make our recruitment process more simplified and hire people faster. We also have a labor management system that’s allowed us to better manage labor hours with our U.S. part-time and hourly team members to make sure our stores are staffed appropriately. We launched with Udemy [last] year, which is a learning platform that has an online catalogue of hundreds of thousands of courses in all different languages; our team members have completed close to 4,500 training hours [in 2022], and we’re getting great feedback on it. It’s something we’re looking to leverage with our hourly team members to give them opportunities to better develop themselves; if they want to become a business leader, they can develop their financial acumen, get interview preparation and help for bigger roles. We’ve also addressed some labor challenges by using a tool from ModernHire, which has taken out almost eight days in our hiring process because applicants can use the tool to apply, do online assessments, get a realistic job preview and then go ahead with getting hired.

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We’re trying to leverage technology as much as we can to improve the team member experience, streamline work and make things easier for managers, so they can spend less time on administrative things and more on leading teams and driving results.

HRE: What are some of the culture challenges at a company with such a deep history like Advance?

Rothman: We are a 90-year-old company, which is awesome. When I joined in 2016, we were just beginning our business transformation. Culture is one of those things you can’t force on people; you can’t force change there. What we did was get the top 100 leaders in the company together and say, “We want to recognize the great things we’ve done in the past, but how are we now going to think and act going forward?’ We developed six cultural beliefs—champion inclusion, grow talent, speak up, take action, be accountable and move forward—and we had team members define those. Then, they have become something that we live by; we embedded them in our performance management processes, our communication, our recognition programs. We’re not ignoring our past—we want to embrace our past—but we also are inviting people to participate in our future.

We’re also challenging the status quo. We started to ask a lot of questions around why we do things a certain way. And sometimes people didn’t know, so it was an opportunity to discuss if there are better ways to do things—to improve the team member experience or performance management. And feedback has become more prevalent. Our culture is built on what we have—we haven’t forgotten where we came from—but we’re also evolving where we need to be.

See also: Redesigning EX for 2023? Put purpose at the center of your plan

HRE: The HR space has certainly evolved during your time in the profession; how have you personally shifted your own approach to HR throughout your career?

Rothman: What I’ve done—and it’s served me well—is to be a business person first. I understand the business objectives and the strategy, and I understand how HR contributes to that. I want to know the ROI for the activities we’re doing. We don’t just do HR for the sake of HR; we really look at how we’re spending our time and want to make sure we’re solving business problems with everything we do—and we have ROIs we track against for that.

Since I got here, we’ve started using more data and technology to inform that decision-making. For example, we’ve been looking at the training for our frontline teams to see how it’s impacting sales, how it’s impacting turnover. We try to see the correlation between the time we’re investing and where we’re spending our dollars and then the results we have. Going forward, I think HR leaders need to continue to do that. We’re expected to be business people first and then in our hip pocket have those skills in HR that we can use for different levers to contribute to business results.

HRE: What are you passionate about outside of work?

Rothman: I really like spending time with my family; I have a 14-year-old son and a 3-year-old puppy and a husband. We love spending time together outside; we’re big believers in being active and moving. We’re fortunate we live in North Carolina so there’s so many great trails here and we’re near both the beach and mountains. We take advantage of that. We’re also foodies and like to cook, bake and try new recipes. I just baked dog biscuits with my son for my dog’s birthday. I also love to learn. I will read the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times every day, and I love reading books—both about business and just for fun. I watch YouTube and TikTok; I try to get content from lots of different places. That can give you ideas about work but also makes you a more well-rounded person in general.

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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.

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