Why sometimes outside the box is just ‘returning to things that work’

Like many HR professionals in early 2020, Jeff Ostermann had lofty visions of what the short-term future looked like.

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He had been with Sweetwater, the musical instrument company, since 2012, working in a variety of business development roles. But he took over as the company’s chief people officer in 2020, excited about moving into the HR space and all that it entailed: culture, connection and wellbeing, to name a few.

But with the COVID-19 pandemic, things of course didn’t go as planned.

“I jumped into that role two months before COVID broke with lots of plans and designs on what the strategy would look like,” he says. “Then it all blew up and we all learned to figure out how to move through a pandemic. But in a lot of interesting ways, in a situation that we wished wouldn’t have had to come about—it actually created a lot of opportunities.”

Culture that isn’t bound to the confines of an office? Wellbeing during one of the most uncertain and stressful periods in history? Check and check.

“We’ve been able to make a lot of progress, and now we have a stronger culture than we even had two years ago,” he says.

HRE recently caught up with Ostermann to learn more about his strategy for Sweetwater, the importance of wellbeing and why he thinks empathy and employee care are the keys to success.

HRE: You said you wanted to focus on culture. Tell me about the culture at Sweetwater and what you wanted to build on.

Jeff Ostermann, Sweetwater
Jeff Ostermann

Ostermann: A lot of musicians work for us; they come to be a part of Sweetwater because it’s not just a job and a paycheck, but it really is a passion and a cause for them. We’ve long had a lot of synergy and alignment around that, which is a great asset to build from. But one of the things we noticed is that as we got bigger in scale, the wellbeing part—where it used to be everybody knew everybody, and you walked down the hallway and you knew what was going on in people’s lives—the wellbeing aspect of it and the sense of connectedness was beginning to get lost a little bit. And we knew we had to think differently about that.

HRE: So how did you work on that—especially when most workers went remote as a result of the pandemic?

Ostermann: When it was everybody working in small spaces together, you’re rubbing shoulders with the founders of the company, and you kind of learned it all by osmosis. Then we felt quickly that you couldn’t learn it by osmosis anymore.

We developed a framework around the culture itself. For a long time, we’ve had a mantra within Sweetwater that the culture is built around: Do the right thing, hire good people, empower them to do the right thing, and trust that they’re operating from a pretty good moral standpoint and treating people the way they wanted to be treated.

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We began to filter this into how we do onboarding, how we do interviewing, performance reviews, if we have to do performance improvement plans. And the imperatives are the customer is number one, so that’s the overarching big one for us. Then we also talk about obsessing over details; getting things done—which is moving fast and operating with speed; continuous improvement, so small, incremental changes every day that make things better—and then developing the future, which is really about personal development, people development, team development.

We also put a framework around our wellbeing, so one of the things we did is we hired a vice president of employee wellbeing.

Related: The rise of the chief wellness officer: Is the trend growing?

HRE: A person in charge of wellbeing—that’s a growing trend right now.

Ostermann: We really wanted to centralize ownership and leadership of that. It’s obviously something that everybody in the organization has a piece of, but we wanted to put a very visible leadership to it—investing in employee financial wellbeing, mental wellbeing, physical wellbeing, social wellbeing, and professional wellbeing. So our roadmap—basically our wellbeing roadmap that we follow throughout the year—has a very intentional effort to be hitting those things in multiple ways throughout the year. And we figured that if we’re hitting all of those factors really well, people are doing well.

HRE: Speaking of wellbeing, I know you do an interesting initiative that ties into that a bit: having leadership meetings outside of that typical office environment. Can you tell me about that?

Ostermann: We’ve done quarterly off-sites with some of our key leadership teams for a while now. And now we’re doing it with our HR team. It loops back into the idea that we talked a lot about in our leadership development efforts, which is: You really should have a willingness and openness to learn from anybody, anytime, anywhere. There are a lot of great leadership principles, business principles, life principles, opportunities to capture innovative thoughts once you step outside of your normal comfort zone.

We live a lot of our lives in the e-commerce circles, retail circles and music industry circles. We began to think: ‘What if we took some people out of that setting, and sometimes put them into maybe even borderline uncomfortable situations, and had meetings out in some of these places, and encourage them to ask questions and learn from what others are doing?’ For example, one of our meetings was at the Boys & Girls Clubs. We were in a nice conference room there, but we had kids that were there all day long running around the conference room. And we brought in the CEO of the organization, and we had a person from a social services agency speak to us about how he’s approached leadership and how they’ve innovated within their sector.

We did a similar thing with our local rescue mission and listened to some of their leadership educate us about how they’ve defined their problems and looked at opportunities. And how are they designing solutions to deal with some very complex issues but no easy answers? And allowed that to kind of stimulate the thinking of some of our executive team.

HRE: How do you think that’s impacted your employees?

Ostermann: I think one of the things we knew going into it, and that was a really wonderful outcome, is by specifically connecting with nonprofits, a lot of our folks really saw a new benefit of just staying close to the problems and ramping up the benefits of empathy.

HRE: And how does empathy factor into how you—and other employers—view their own employees?

Ostermann: For all the headlines that you read out there about the Great Resignation or quiet quitting, I think, in the vast majority of situations if you boil it down, it’s because people just want to be seen and known. They want people, and their employer, to see them and care about them. If somebody feels like they’re not getting that in their work environment, why wouldn’t they look elsewhere?

HRE: This is outside-the-box thinking, but at the same time, kind of going back to basics in certain ways, as well. Why is that important to have old and new ways of thinking in HR leadership? What does that accomplish?

Ostermann: You’re exactly right. Sometimes outside of the box is just returning to things that work, right? I think we can get lost sometimes in what’s the coolest, newest innovative idea. But at the end of the day, we’re all human beings. Everybody’s got uniqueness, and everybody may have a little bit different view of what expectations they have in a work environment. And that’s good and that’s healthy. But I do believe there are some core things about people just wanting to know others and be known.

Learn more about wellbeing and empathy at HRE’s upcoming Health & Benefits Leadership Conference, taking place in Las Vegas from May 3-5. Learn more and register here.

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Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s former benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver.