Jenifer Lambert, Chief Strategy Officer at Terra Staffing, delivers some reality-based optimism to take us into 2021. We talk about the transformative power of curiosity, the value of cold calling and going to the office, getting obsessed with data, and Winston Churchill.

Delohery: Hi, and welcome to The Staffing Show. We’re here today with Jenifer Lambert, the Chief Strategy Officer at TERRA Staffing. Thanks so much for joining us today, Jenifer.

Lambert: Thanks for having me, Caitlin.

Delohery:. So first I know you have a rich background in staffing, so I wonder if you could talk a little about that background and the various roles that you’ve held?

Lambert: A rich background, I like that description. I sometimes look at the number of years I’ve been in this industry and think that it just makes me sound like I’m old, but I got into this industry right out of college, I did not intend to go into the business. My mother had started a very small staffing firm and I helped out occasionally while I was in high school and sometimes throughout college, never intended to go into the family business. In fact, I don’t know that calling it a family business is even accurate. It was very small, it was about seven people at the time.

And coming out of college, pretty typical I think, trying to figure out what my next move is, I planned to go into journalism and had not found yet that first dream job. And she had an employee going out on maternity leave for the summer and so I agreed to come in and help for just the three months that person was going to be gone. Three months. I’m in, I’m out and at the end of the three months that person called and said she wasn’t coming back from maternity leave, that she was going to stay home with her baby and I was thrilled.

I had not expected to be thrilled, I expected to be ready to hit the door in 90 days and go onto something “bigger and better.” But what had happened in those 90 days is that I’d absolutely fallen in love with the job. I was enamored with this idea that I was paid and paid well, to connect people and jobs, and I got to learn a lot about companies and industries and how things worked that satisfied my journalist curiosity. I got to meet really interesting people and find out what their hopes and dreams were and connect them to employment and it just felt very, very fulfilling and I never left and that was a great surprise to me.

So I just started in this business right out of college. I’ve been doing this about 30 years. My mother has since retired, I purchased the firm from her more than a decade ago and the company has grown from that one small seven-person operation to now we’re 14 branches across four states and growing. And so it’s just been a lot of fun.

So I’ve done everything along the way from managing branches, opening branches, running sales to what I’m doing today and absolutely love the business. Not every day makes the highlight reel, but there’s never a day that I don’t feel pretty lucky that I “fell into” this job.

Delohery: Never dull, never a dull moment.

Lambert: Never dull, never dull. That’s for sure.

Delohery: Well, congratulations because that’s a huge achievement to create such a big family business as you’ve done and it sounds like you’ve seen lots of changes and seen the industry through a lot of different lenses. But I think none of us have seen anything like what we’ve seen in the past year. So can you talk a little about how you’ve changed the way you do business, or how TERRA has been responding to the pandemic?

Lambert: Yeah, absolutely. No, you’re 100% right about that. I’ve seen a tremendous amount of change, but 2020 brought a whole heaping pile of change upon us all at once. In reflection, I think of COVID as being like an accelerant or an amplifier or maybe a magnifying glass. It took what already was and accelerated it all. And so changes that probably needed to be happening, had to happen overnight. So for example, one of our corporate priorities had been to create a more online application process.

We do primarily industrial staffing, so I guess just by way of context about 75% of our business is industrial staffing, from entry level to a more technical role. We also have a professional technical team that does most of their work remote and across distance anyway but about 70% of what we do is industrial. And so we had a very analog, if you will, apply experience and we knew that we needed to digitize it and we needed to bring it current to technology capabilities, but we dragged our feet until COVID happened and then it had to happen overnight.

So there are things that accelerated in terms of changes that needed to happen, changes that needed to be addressed in the workplace, in society, all those things got brought to a head really suddenly so the effect was really more of an accelerant. I think our best practices really shined bright for us in 2020 and our areas of opportunity became much more obvious as well. But I think one of the things that really helped us during 2020 is that we’ve always had a very high value for both the client and talent. We’ve won Best of Staffing Talent multiple years running. It’s something that we’re proud of, something we care a lot about. And really saw how important that relationship was in 2020 where it went so far beyond just the employment relationship of just transactionally putting people into jobs, but then how do you take care of them while they’re on the job?

How do you handle that phone call that you get in the morning that they have a fever, and they’re scared and they don’t know what to do? And if I can’t work am I going to get paid? All those anxieties, health concerns, worries, fears, all those things are things that we had to suddenly become very involved in for that individual. I’ve been really, really proud of our team and how they’ve rallied. We just were notified that we won Best of Staffing Talent again.

Delohery: Congratulations.

Lambert: Thank you. And account benefaction scores are higher. They’re higher than they’ve ever been because I do believe that they felt so supported by us. I think the harder part has been we put our recruiters in the position now of being counselors, healthcare advisors, and all kinds of things that they probably didn’t sign on to be and so we’ve had to really support them through that. But yeah, that’s been a very, very big change.

Delohery: Yeah, and I like what you say about the pandemic being the catalyst for spotlighting what needs to be changed and really showing all our strengths. Everyone’s been thinking a lot about the shift to remote and what it means for the staffing industry, so how have you maintained this high level of service and obviously productivity in a new remote environment?

Lambert: Yeah, so our offices went remote back in March, was when the first state that we operate in went to stay-at-home orders and so we went remote. And interestingly again, I think Winston Churchill said this, “Nothing clarifies a person’s thinking as much a gun to the head,” which is quite a violent image but COVID was like that, right? Where it’s like we had always said. “We can’t work remotely, we’re not a remote business. We’re very much your hands-on, face to face kind of operation.”

And so we started asking the question as the pandemic started to materialize and said, “What if we had to?” Instead of saying, “We can’t,” let’s ask a different question and say, “What if we have to?” And so we figured it out. I mean we figured out how to work remotely and so our entire company went remote in March of 2020 and we were remote for, I don’t remember, I think it was three months and then we started to bring people back as the stay-at-home order was lifted we made the decision to bring people back.

We’ve stayed very productive at work from home, much more productive than I probably would’ve imagined that we could’ve been. But what we’ve found is that a lot of our staff said that they missed being with their team. They missed the collaboration that happens when they’re in the same physical space and so we’ve given people the option and the opportunity to work from home, very few have taken it. So our offices are open in terms of our staff coming in again with the option to work from home. Our offices are closed to the general public where we don’t have people walking in, we do have people come in as a piece of their employment process.

So if it’s an I9 verification that needs to happen, some piece of that process that needs to happen in person, we will invite them in on a very limited basis. But we have stayed very safe throughout this entire pandemic. We have had no case of COVID, knock on wood, that’s been attributable to the office. We have had some folks who have tested positive for COVID but they were exposed outside of work, so we’ve been very, very safe. Sanitizing, masking, doing all the things.

The other thing that we felt was really important is that because again, 70% of the work that we do is industrial staffing, that work has to be done in person. And we felt as a company that it was hypocritical for us to assert that work can be done safely but yet we can’t find a way to do it. And so we made the decision that insofar as we could do it safely we were going to be in the office because we wanted to show our clients who are essential businesses, that we were with them. We actually still do onsite meetings with clients, we have onsite supervisors who are managing employees who are working onsite and again, it’s all being done safely.

And I feel very good about how they’ve been able to do it and I think we’ve been able to really differentiate with our clients. Every company has to make their own decision. Many of our competitors have chosen to go completely remote and work from home and that’s 100% their prerogative obviously, but we have heard feedback from our clients especially in these essential businesses who are taking note that we are still visible, present, and showing up and setting an example of how to work safely.

Delohery: I love that clarity of vision and how you really show with your action that you’re with your clients, you’re with your employees by not having a different internal policy than you have for your talent. And with this decision you guys have made, you have a pretty unique perspective I think on the work-from-home question. I know a lot of executives I have talked to really are foreseeing a move towards an increasingly remote recruiting culture. What are your thoughts on the future of remote work for the industry?

Lambert: I think COVID has forced the question, can it be done? And the answer is, yes. Yes it can be done, when things have to be done, things can be done. The question we have to ask ourselves as business leaders is, should it? Just because you can, does that mean you should? And the answer is going to be different for different people and for different businesses. For our business, we’ve made the decision that it’s not the right fit for us and we also understand that we’re making a conscious choice and there’s trade-offs to every decision.

And so it’s been interesting as we have hired in the midst of COVID for internal staff positions, that there have been people who as soon as they hear it’s in the office position are no longer interested. And so it raises the question, are we making the right decision? Are we losing out on prospective talent because we are in office? But I will tell you that we have had a hard time filling positions internally. We’ve actually made some fantastic additions to our team and there are people who on the flip side said, “I don’t want to work from home, I like coming to an office. It’s how I choose to work.”

And so I think you’re going to see more of that. You’re going to see much more differentiation where there are some people who never want to return to an in-office experience and they’re going to find employers that will accommodate that, and that’s great and we’re going to help facilitate that. We have clients who are work-from-home. We do work outside of manufacturing, obviously, and we do have many clients who have gone to remote work and we have a workforce that we’re supporting who are working remotely. And we’re finding ways to make that happen and that’s great but there is going to be a differentiator, I don’t think everybody is going to be work-from-home forever.

What’s going to be interesting I think, is to see some of these higher grade work situations that are emerging, you’re seeing more companies talking about that, that they will never be fully in office but they’re not going to remain fully work-from-home either. I think it’s going to be interesting as the year progresses to see how those qualities shift and change as far as the apply process.

Delohery: Yeah, I agree.

Lambert: I mean, I’m excited about what this means for the applicant as a customer. I think the biggest win for us in all of this, well, yes we are in office. We’ve enabled an apply process that is remote and virtual and the applicant doesn’t have to leave their house, put gas in their car, get dressed up and come into an office to maybe or maybe not get a job. So it has allowed us to create a much better experience for the applicant and it’s forced us to think differently, which I also think is great, about the applicant, not as an applicant but as a shopper.

It is now the same as putting items in your cart to go to an eCommerce site, they’re doing the same thing with jobs, they’re online, they’re looking at what options are, they’re figuring out what the best options are for them. Maybe we hire them the first time they engage with us, maybe we don’t. But we’re going to start building that relationship with them as a prospective hire just like we would a prospective customer who visits our website or who we meet with as a prospect. And we’re going to nurture that relationship through time. We’re just viewing it completely differently. We no longer see that person as an applicant. They’re account consumers.

How do we need to engage with them differently? How do we need to talk to them differently to show respect for the fact that they do have options and that we’re just one of many options that they can consider?

Delohery: And I think you’ve given us a sense of this already, but through all of these changes, often on the fly, how would you describe your leadership style or how your leadership style has changed over the past year?

Lambert: My leadership style, I don’t know that it’s changed dramatically as much as it’s been sharpened by COVID. You sharpen a knife by rubbing it up against something harder than the knife blade and I think that’s what happened for a lot of leaders in 2020, is that we got pressed up against something that was super challenging and so it really sharpened everything.

So the leadership style that I have, you’ll see it throughout our company but there’s a couple of things. One is we have a high value for people first, for just the humanity of the work that we do. It’s always at the forefront of what we do. Yes, we’re a for-profit business but we make money by serving people and so we keep that very forefront so the people part of this has been huge for us in 2020.

We’re also very reality-based and reality-based meaning that yes, things have been difficult and they’ve been challenging and we face the reality of that and look it right in the face but continue to press forward with positive expectation that we can find our way through the situation but not in a way that denies the reality of the situation. So our communication has increased, we’ve made it okay for people to not be okay, for people to talk openly about the challenges and struggles that they’re having. We address those head-on and find solutions so that we can work our way through them.

And then very much iterative, we are a company that is iterating constantly, so we like to try new things. If that works, then we go deeper with it, and if it doesn’t work, then we readjust. So we’re constantly adjusting and iterating to what is happening in real time in the marketplace and listening to feedback from customers, listening to feedback from talent, and making those course corrections and that serves us very well.

Delohery: I love this idea of a reality-based culture because it seems so fundamental but it’s obviously not adopted real large at all. It seems like such a valuable concept to me and this relates to having an iterative process too. What is a failure or an apparent failure that you think really set you up for success later?

Lambert: I love that question. I find it hard to answer for two reasons. One, because there’s so many of them. We’re constantly trying things and they don’t always work out, so it’s hard for me to pick just one. It’s also hard for me because I don’t necessarily think of them as failures, and not because I haven’t failed, trust me, not everything works out but the word failure I find to be so heavy and people are so afraid of it. It’s like the big F-word and they’re so afraid of failure that they won’t try things. What’s the worst that can happen if it doesn’t work out?

If I were pressed to think about a failure, I would think about a division that we launched a couple of years ago we ended up closing it down about nine months into it because there were some market forces there that we hadn’t foreseen and we could’ve, I think, done a better job of doing a little bit more research, little more thought put into it before we launched into it. I think we were a little overly optimistic and I think that we stepped away from our reality-based approach and we just said just super optimism, “We’ll make it work.” And if I were to do that again, I would’ve gone back for a more iterative process and tried it in a more limited way to test the market to see before we went more full blown with it.

It wasn’t a huge failure. It just was a distraction for a temporary period of time, but again back to my point, I don’t fear failure. I think I’m more afraid of not trying things, I’m more afraid of what I might miss out on than what might not work out. So finding ways to try things, experiment with new processes in ways that you’re not betting the entire farm on it but if it does work on a small scale looking at scaling it across the business.

I don’t know, I heard this phrase, “We should wear our failure like a bruise, not a tattoo,” right? It’s just temporary, you can recover, it doesn’t define you.

Delohery: I like that and then also in terms of learning from failure it just seems like the risk of it is part of your philosophy, as it has to be with an iterative process.

Lambert: Yeah, and if you learn something you didn’t really fail. The real failure would be to not learn. I think the bigger failure is when people don’t reflect on what the learning opportunity is. If they just blame it on the market, the economy, a virus, somebody else, that stupid customer, that unreliable person, that bad employee, you hear these scapegoats for lack of success and it just shows a complete lack of self-reflection. A complete lack of accountability at a personal level to say, “What was my contribution? What could we have done differently in that circumstance, given that, yes this customer is demanding or we have these set of circumstances, how can we have set ourselves up for success better or differently?”

I think we give our power away when we try to shift the blame. We do it for all the wrong reasons, we do it to protect our ego and we end up really just taking away our own power.

Delohery: I think that’s so true. And I think you’ve actually touched on a lot already in the vein of this question, but what is some conventional wisdom in staffing that you disagree with?

Lambert: Conventional wisdom in staffing? I think to carry on the point I was just making is this blame game that we play with, “people are unreliable,” “people are the problem.” One of my colleagues here I love what she said. She said, “Yes, we have people who will disappoint us but it happens with some regularity that we should be able to predict it. Why are we wasting time being surprised by things that are fairly predictable?” For example, if you know that this particular job turns over at this rate for this client, then why would you not just be prepared to refill that job at that interval?

Like maybe you need to take an intervention to figure out how you can reduce the turnover if that’s possible and oftentimes there are interventions you can take, but insofar as you’ve taken the interventions that you can and you’ve had now a reliable rate of turnover, then just be prepared to replace that job and have a conversation with your client about the reality of that situation so that you’re not disappointed. Like this is just the way it is. I live in Seattle. It rains a certain percentage of the time, so instead of me bemoaning how often it rains here, it’s pretty predictable actually. So why would I waste energy and time worrying about things that happen with some regularity.

So I think there’s a little bit of this sort of bemoaning that you can’t win with people and I just think that’s not true at all. I used to believe that, I remember when we first participated in Best of Staffing Talent, we did win the year out of the gate with the client side, but not with talent. And I chalked it up to, “Well, we’re working with the industrial staffing segment, a little bit more turnover, maybe a little harder to keep these folks happy,” and when I heard myself say that out loud, I realized what a loser’s limp. If I can’t find a way to be successful in this segment, why am I doing it?

And so we really challenged ourselves to [think] how can we better engage and maybe what this workforce segment needs is different than what we ourselves need. Right? We’re not blue collar workers, we’re white collar knowledge workers behind a laptop. They need something different than we do, it would behoove us to understand them better and figure out how to serve and delight people who maybe need different things than we do out of this relationship. So we’re really proud of the engagement that we have, we measure it on a monthly basis, on an ongoing basis for serving our talent and we have a very highly engaged workforce. I’m really, really proud of that.

So one would be there’s this idea that you just can’t win with people or that people make this business difficult. When I think about work from home, there’s my idea right now that work from home is forever and for everyone, I don’t think that’s true. The other thing that I hear generally, I’m hearing this in sales, is that there’s this whole concept that cold calling is dead, and I don’t believe that at all. We onboarded more new clients last year in the middle of a pandemic than we have in any year and we are cold calling.

Unapologetically, we are calling companies with a value proposition, we are introducing ourselves and telling them that we have a solution for their problems and we’re onboarding clients at a really rapid clip. It’s a big part of our success. So I don’t believe cold calling is dead either.

Delohery: It sounds like for a lot of these things that you’re sort of turning on their head, you guys are going in with a sense of curiosity rather than a sense of knowing already what’s going to happen or making assumptions about anyone from the talent to potential clients. And that seems like such a powerful philosophy, especially right now when there’s so much uncertainty everywhere. It just doesn’t seem to make sense to assume that we know anything at all.

Lambert: No, you’ve really nailed something Caitlin, and that is the power of curiosity. It is what I would say one of my favorite tools as a leader, as a human being, but definitely as a leader, it’s the power of the question. Instead of thinking that you have the answer, it would behoove you to find out if you actually do. I’m not saying that I don’t have strong ideas and strong opinions but at the same time that I have that strongly held idea, I need to ask myself, based on what? And what if I’m wrong, what if the opposite is true?

And I think that curiosity has served me very, very well because if I’m wrong, I would like to find out faster than later and I would like to be the one to figure it out before somebody else proves me wrong.

Delohery: Absolutely. And I think that’s really the power of curiosity is that it keeps the question moving. It keeps work evolving so that you have that opportunity even if you’ve made a misstep or a “failure” to correct it or to catch it or to be the one who gets to say, “No, this is the wrong path.”

Yeah, I think maybe this is related, so when you’re at that place where you don’t know what to do, or you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, what do you do maybe more practically to get down to the bones of it? What do you do in that state where you’re like, “I’m not sure where to go next?”

Lambert: It depends on what the circumstance is. If I’m wrestling with a bigger issue, big fan in the collective wisdom of others. We have a great executive team here that’s highly collaborative and we bounce things off each other regularly. We have a big standing weekly meeting and then in addition obviously we’re communicating very regularly and so I rely on the wisdom of other people to the point of that curiosity of like, “What would you do? Here’s the thing I’m wrestling with, what have I not considered? What are some things that you’re seeing maybe I’ve missed?” So inviting people into your process, internally as well as externally.

So I have industry colleagues I feel very fortunate to participate in at their Mastermind group of other people in the business across the country and so hearing what they’re doing. I also have a strong network of business colleagues here locally as well as clients. I will bounce ideas off of clients who will become friends, and become advisors. We’re advisors to one another. There’s a lot to be gained by leaning on other people. Even if sometimes what you get is not pertinent, well I know what I don’t want to do. Right?

It’s not always that they have the answer but they can sometimes show you maybe what you don’t want to do or something that this isn’t the right path for you. So definitely collaborating and being curious and inviting other people into my process.

But as far as overwhelm, that’s a regular occurrence. There’s a lot that can feel overwhelming. In that regard, I’m very tried and true with making lists, and yes I’ve got technology tools galore that I use to help organize me and so forth, but there is nothing for me that beats just sometimes sitting down, pen to paper, and just hammering out some thoughts and getting a prioritized list going, if that’s the source of overwhelm.

Delohery: I couldn’t agree more, there’s something about physically writing that changes the way you look at a situation, too. And some people might say keeping a physical list or a physical planner is an unusual habit, but do you have an unusual habit or a bizarre thing that you just love?

Lambert: I am a metrics fanatic. I love keeping track of all kinds of things. I love data. We track a lot of different data in our business and we try to restrain ourselves to being a bit meaningful, right, because you can really go overboard with, just because you can measure it, doesn’t mean you need to and so forth, so we’re more cautious of that.

But I do love the sense that numbers make to me. So I don’t track them just in business, I track them on a personal level. Part of that is I have a real commitment to health and fitness and so I track all sorts of health and fitness metrics. I’m an avid crossfitter and so I’ve got all sorts of data on my average time to do a whole variety of activities. I also love to row, as in rowing, like rowing the boat, so I keep track of my different times, my personal bests and all those things. I’m a little bit competitive, yes but more so competing with myself and so it’s, am I getting better? Am I getting faster? Am I getting fitter? I enjoy that tremendously. there’s something very, very soothing about that.

I don’t journal with words, which is interesting because I actually love words. I journal with metrics, metrics give a sense of meaning to my world.

Delohery: Yeah, it’s so interesting, you can tell that you love words but there is a certain order and peace in just seeing how numbers accumulate, especially when you’re tracking progress that both personally and professionally means that you’re going somewhere, that you’re achieving something in that incremental way.

Lambert: And it’s about slope, right? Am I going in the right direction, but not always about am I at the pinnacle but it’s like is the slope angling in the right direction? I saw a really interesting question recently posed in an article about, “What trajectory are you on following categories of your life?” And what an interesting assessment to be again reality-based and to say, “Am I going in the direction that I want to go?” It’s about the direction that you’re moving over time.

Delohery: I love that. And this might be hard in the first seven days, but what do you see is the trajectory of 2021 so far?

Lambert: Oh the first seven days, I saw a meme yesterday that really encapsulated my thinking so far in 2021 that said, “Dear 2021, I have tried the free seven-day trial and I would like to cancel my subscription.” That was brilliant, I just wish I had thought of that myself. 

And I think we all knew that there was nothing magic about the turning of a calendar page, but 2020 was so intense that you couldn’t help but just hope maybe by just changing the number, that by turning the calendar page it would get a little bit better. But I should tell you in the first seven days of the year, I mean obviously on the national stage we know what happened in our nation’s capitol yesterday, it is unprecedented. So on a national scale but even on a personal level in our business we’ve had some interesting things come our way in the past several days as well. I don’t know, I don’t know what 2021 holds, I know what it holds for me in terms of my mindset and that is that we are just going to look it straight in the face and keep marching forward.

If there’s anything good and there is a lot good that came out of 2020, it is that sort of battle-hardening. Not in a scar-tissue way, although maybe there is a little bit of that but more so I think we’ve chosen to not take it as trauma but as teaching. Right? We paid a steep tuition in 2020, so we’d better take the learning. Learning is optional but it will be a mistake I think, to not take the learning and the growth opportunities out of it.

So I have a lot of optimism going into 2021 not because I think circumstances themselves are going to necessarily change radically but because we have the fortitude and the battle-testing to know that we can look hard things in the eyes and we can keep marching forward.

So we’re going to continue to grow in 2021, that is the plan. We’ll see what the general economy has for us but again, I don’t pin a lot of my hopes on external things like the economy. We have systems and processes that we’ve created internally to outperform the market and we have, we have a track record of doing that. I’m not betting on the economy, I’m not betting on circumstances, I’m betting on the machine that we’ve built and that we’re continuing to iterate on. I feel very optimistic about that and our people. Our people are a big part of that and I am convinced that we have some of the very best people in the business inside this company.

Delohery: And anything you want to share about what’s on the horizon for TERRA?

Lambert: Yeah, on the horizon for TERRA, we have new office openings for 2021. So continuing to grow in terms of expanding our geographic territory. We do have acquisitions aspirations as well, so we are opportunistically looking for those opportunities where maybe there are some smaller regional firms or some smaller firms who have decided they had enough fun in 2020 and would maybe like to make a transition. So we’re opportunistically looking at those opportunities. And yeah just continuing to stay really close to our customers, they have been through it too. The feedback that we just received from our year-end client satisfaction survey was some of the most heartwarming feedback that I’ve received in a long time, some of it actually brought tears to my eyes.

People thanking us for being there for them and talking about how professionally and personally it had been a challenging time for them and that we were a partner they could count on. And that means a lot to me, and I know it means a lot to our team as well and so just continuing to press hard into what I think makes us really great and that is being that partner for our clients and creating great outcomes for them.

Delohery: Well that sense of partnership and collaboration comes through in everything that you’ve said today, so thank you so much for joining us. This was I feel like a really wonderful way to start off the year with some reality-based optimism. So thank you very much for that.

Lambert: Thank you for having me Caitlin, I appreciate it.