Cultivating Humanity in HR

Sarah GuaySeason 1Episode 5


How do we bring back the humanness in human resources? In this new episode, we speak with Sarah Guay, Vice President of Human Resources at HEMIC (Hawaii Employers Mutual Insurance Company), as she talks about her passion around making a more human workplace as part of HR and her own feedback experience that shaped her career and commitment as a leader.


Sarah Guay

Sarah Guay

Vice President of Human Resources

Sarah Guay is the Vice President of Human Resources at HEMIC (Hawaii Employers Mutual Insurance Company). She comes from American Savings Bank (ASB), where she served as Senior Vice President of Organizational Development, including Talent Management, Culture, Organizational Effectiveness and Leadership Development. At ASB, Sarah led the change management and teammate readiness strategies related to the construction of ASB’s new downtown Honolulu campus.

Before joining ASB, Sarah led the internal HR function at ProService Hawaii where she implemented employee engagement-focused programs. Prior to ProService, she spent 6 years leading the academic portion of the Hawai`i Job Corps Program in Waimanalo, HI. Working together with a team of educators, Sarah designed curricula to help at-risk youth earn the math, reading and academic credentials needed for further education.

With over 20 years of experience in training and development, Sarah’s ultimate passion is to help organizations unleash their potential by leveraging their greatest differentiator – their people. When she isn’t in the office, she enjoys ocean sports, reading and spending time with her husband and three kids.


Troy Blaser (00:04):
Hello and welcome to another episode of Simply Feedback. This podcast is brought to you by LearningBridge, a worldwide leader in custom 360 degree surveys each month. In the Simply Feedback podcast, we bring you interest in conversations with professionals who are passionate about developing current and future leaders using the power of feedback. On today's episode, we have the pleasure of talking with Sarah Guay, who is currently the Vice President of Human Resources at HEMIC. That is Hawaii employers mutual insurance company. Prior to this role, she led the change management strategies at American savings bank as their Senior VP of organizational development and implemented employee engagement focused programs during her time at ProService Hawaii with over 20 years of experience in training and development. Sarah's ultimate passion is to help organizations unleash their potential by leveraging their greatest differentiator: they're people. When she isn't in the office, she enjoys ocean sports, reading and spending time with her husband and three kids. Sarah, it's fantastic to have you with us today. Thank you so much for spending some time with us on this podcast.
Sarah Guay (01:13):
Thanks so much for having me. It's great to be here.
Troy Blaser (01:15):
It's a pleasure for me too. Although LearningBridge has done work with you for a long time. You and I haven't had the chance to work together on a project before. So if you don't mind, would you just give us a little bit more of your background. How did you get started in the field that you're in and maybe just share some background with us.
Sarah Guay (01:32):
Sure. My career looking back on it has a lot of twists and turns. I'd certainly never set out to be an HR professional and still always kind of laugh when I hear people say that I am. I'm jokingly known as probably one of the least HR people maybe on the planet. So I started out, I've a master's degree in organizational communication and started my career working in corporate training. And then from there moved into a public relations role and then kind of took another turn into youth development. And then from there moved into leadership development and then started kind of on this trajectory of leadership development, talent development. And then in that particular role is where I really started working with human resources specifically. I had the opportunity to work as the human resources head at a company, it was a PEO professional employment organization and HR outsourcing firm.
Sarah Guay (02:29):
So my first step into HR was really HRing a bunch of HR professionals, which is like the best intro into the field you could imagine. So from that opportunity earned my professional in human resources certification and really learned the basics of building a strong culture and HR policy had a chance to move over to American Savings Bank where I had headed up their organizational effectiveness and organizational development departments and then moved into the opportunity where I am right now at HEMIC, which is really an exciting opportunity to lead the people function there. So it's been an exciting route. It definitely has had its twists and turns. And like I said, certainly unexpected that I'd be sitting in this seat today.
Troy Blaser (03:06):
Yeah. It sounds like a career that is full of twists and turns, but always something new to learn a new part of the overall broader field.
Sarah Guay (03:15):
Definitely. And I think if I look at kind of the common threads, I would say it's always been around people and leveraging people and finding the potential in people and I think whether it was in a banking industry, insurance, it really didn't matter. It's really just been about helping people leverage their talents and helping organizations.
Troy Blaser (03:33):
I like that. That's a great lens to see that through and I have to ask because I don't know very many people that work in Hawaii for their career. Did you start in Hawaii? You just move out there. What brought you there in the first place?
Sarah Guay (03:45):
That's a great story. So I was actually living in Northwestern Oregon, which is right where the Columbia river dumps into the Pacific Ocean. It was a small town called Astoria, Oregon, which if you're a movie buff, Goonies was filmed there. So that gives you a little bit of context. So I'm living in this small town where we had gone, I believe it was, it was over 90 days without seeing the sun and I just thought, I can't do this anymore. So picked up the phone and called my vice president at the time and said, what else is out there? I've got to find some sunshine. And she said, there's this thing in Hawaii. And honestly, I did not even listen to the rest of the sentence. I said, sign me up. And it was, it was, I think eight short weeks later I was packed up and on my way to Hawaii and that was 14 years ago and I have never looked back. It's an amazing place to be and I'm so grateful to be here and raise my family here.
Troy Blaser (04:36):
Oh, that's fantastic. That's really cool. And so now you are at HEMIC, Hawaii Employers Mutual Insurance Company, is that right?
Sarah Guay (04:45):
Yes, as the head of HR, I'm really charged with leading the people function in what has traditionally been a very stable insurance company where the state's largest workman's comp carrier. And we've really been thinking about how to evolve our company into kind of HEMIC 2.0 to really start innovating into new insurance products, to serve Hawaii businesses. And so our CEO realized we really needed someone waking up every day thinking about how we make sure that our people are helping us deliver on that pretty exciting vision. So I started at HEMIC about a year and a half ago and my role really is to provide the HR strategy to help develop this world-class insurance enterprise.
Troy Blaser (05:26):
Are there particular projects that you're working on right now that you can share with us?
Sarah Guay (05:30):
Sure, so one of the things that I'm really excited about has been shifting our mindset around performance management. It's been a project for about the last year and a half moving away from a onetime backwards facing annual review mentality to really an ongoing goal based monthly feedback discussions to really ensure that our employees know where they stand, know where their strengths are and know where they need to be focused developing throughout the year. I'm really excited about that project.
Troy Blaser (05:58):
That is fantastic. I was thinking in terms of feedback here in our, in our simply feedback podcast and right in that moment you're talking about going from once a year, some backwards facing kind of review and feedback. Moving to something that's much more frequent in terms of trying to give feedback on a, on a monthly basis, on a more frequent basis. That sounds like an exciting project and really something that could bring a lot of energy for all of the employees as they start to get some feedback on a more regular basis.
Sarah Guay (06:29):
It really is. And what we discovered, it wasn't enough to just say, we're going to do this. We had to build some structure around it. We had to provide training to our managers on how to provide constructive feedback. So we've invested a lot of time and resources into training. We've also created structures like one-on-ones and we've really given them the tools like here's the agenda of a quality one-on-one and here's what you want to accomplish in that. And then finally, we're also investing in some technology to help us remind managers to have those one-on-ones, capture the feedback, send them some gentle nudges. Have you provided Sarah with her updates? And really just help, not just sort of say we want to create a feedback culture, but really provide the tools and structures needed to implement on it.
Troy Blaser (07:12):
Have you seen changes happen in the company and the organization?
Sarah Guay (07:15):
Right now our data is pretty anecdotal, but employees are reporting much more connectedness with their manager. Understanding how company goals align a little bit more to their day to day work. And we know from research that that helps drive productivity. So we're still pretty early in it. So while we don't have the hard quantifiable data, we know that anecdotally it's helping drive results in the business for sure.
Troy Blaser (07:39):
That is fantastic. Are there other things that you're doing to provide your employees with feedback?
Sarah Guay (07:45):
Yeah. Another thing that we've launched that I'm really excited about is an in-house leadership development program. From a succession planning perspective, we identified some really high potential leaders and we're putting them through a pretty intense 18 month program and part of that program included a 360 survey to give them a really well rounded view of their strengths of where they needed to work on. That's been a great tool because some of these folks have been in their leadership roles for 10-15 years and have never received that kind of really well-rounded, honest, constructive feedback. So that's been a real kind of a game changer for our next line leaders as they start developing their plans for their own growth and development.
Troy Blaser (08:24):
That makes a lot of sense, especially for those folks like you've mentioned, been in their position for a very long time because that feedback will often be different at a later point in your career than it might have been early on. And so it is refreshing. I've had that experience just recently to get feedback from my teammates and to know that this is a look of how I'm doing right now as opposed to how I might have been, you know, five or 10 years ago. So I think that's fantastic that you're able to do that kind of 360 feedback for these high-potentials.
Sarah Guay (08:53):
Right. I think another interesting thing about 360 feedback at different points in your career because I think sometimes the different rater groups, you prioritize that feedback differently, right? Dependent potentially on where you are and what your goals are in your own leadership. So yeah, I couldn't agree with you more Troy. I think having that feedback at different points throughout your career, you may hear different things and certainly prioritize the feedback differently.
Troy Blaser (09:16):
Yeah. We talked a few minutes ago about the desirability of your particular location there in Hawaii and how appealing that was to you, but are there some challenges that you might see in, in acquiring talent for your company because it's in Hawaii?
Sarah Guay (09:32):
This is such an interesting and timely question as we deal with the fallout from Coronavirus. What has been a health crisis in most places has really become an economic crisis here in Hawaii. We've gone from record low unemployment under 2% we were considered fully employed to nearly 37% unemployment in less than a month. And so the current challenges in talent acquisition are literally unfolding daily. But traditionally, the challenges that we had were around a fairly limited labor pool. When you think about some of the more highly skilled jobs in data analytics and engineering, there's a lot of our talent that goes away to college and doesn't yet see the opportunity to come back to Hawaii. And so we've battled a lot of that brain drain. That's been a real challenge for us. So positioning ourselves as a place of opportunity that students can go away and come back to.
Sarah Guay (10:27):
We were just starting to get some really good traction on that. So it'll be interesting to see sort of the long-term impacts of that with what we're seeing with the unemployment market. One of the other challenges for us is that Hawaii has a really unique business culture and it can be challenging for folks who come here and start working what they think is going to be paradise also comes with a pretty high cost of living. Can come with some feelings of sort of, I mean you are, you're 3000 miles away from anybody, right? And so sometimes the stickiness of new employees can be challenging as well. So even when we do find great talent and bring it here, the transition isn't always as smooth as you might think. So that's a bit of a challenge that we face as well. But really I think our biggest thing is around diversifying our economy. Getting us back on track with employment in a variety of fields so that we can create opportunity to bring our youth back here and grow our economic base.
Troy Blaser (11:24):
Everything seems to be up in the air right now. Any particular advice you might have for other companies who might be in remote locations? Maybe not 3000 miles away, but in a remote location? Any advice for an HR professional who's there going, how can I bring talent to my remote company?
Sarah Guay (11:41):
Sure. I think one of the silver linings of this whole remote work experiment that's come out of the pandemic has been companies who have been slow to adopt remote work. Have had to open their minds a little bit to the potential of remote work. It's definitely something Hawaii has been challenged with. Again, I mentioned we kind of have, we have a pretty traditional view of the workforce, but this has really turbocharged the remote work discussion and I think for those of us in remote environments, we're just going to have to continue to push on what does it mean to be productive, what does it mean to be accountable in remote work and how can we make it work so that those of us in really remote places can tap into top level talent regardless of where it exists.
Troy Blaser (12:23):
I like that. We're all having to learn so much so quickly. My wife was one of those teachers who was told, okay, now figure out how to teach your students English remotely over a zoom call over whatever it might be. And it's been a very interesting experience because there are a lot of advantages to it and also disadvantages as well. And I think a lot of companies are going through a similar sort of growing pains around how do we help our people work well remotely. Returning to the theme of feedback, is there a specific experience or a time when you've seen feedback cause a point of inflection in someone's career or life when when that feedback has really been a turning point for them?
Sarah Guay (13:08):
Definitely. I think in my own experience, I can think of an example. I was working as a member of an executive team. I was by far the most junior member of that executive team and was still fairly early in my career. This particular team was a very high performing hard driving team and so when you're surrounded by folks like that, I think you tend to believe that that's the way you are working as well and in the absence of feedback, I just believed that that was the way I was performing as well and frankly didn't have much feedback to the contrary. So I was working on a project with my manager and we just were missing left and right. I would do my best work to come up with what I thought he wanted. We'd meet on it and it was one of those kinds of weird nebulous, this isn't quite right conversations.
Sarah Guay (13:54):
And I would walk away thinking, okay, I know I didn't hit the mark, but I don't know what the mark is. And this went on for probably two weeks. And finally I just kept getting more and more and more frustrated. And I think when that happens to employees, they just get discouraged and kind of give up a little bit. So I did that. And in my frustration I said to him very candidly, I said, I need feedback from you. I need to understand where I'm performing well and where I'm missing because clearly I'm missing. And so he said, okay, I understand and I appreciate your request. Let's meet tomorrow to talk about the feedback. So I went into the meeting with him, prepared to hear some pretty direct feedback. And in that conversation, the first red flag was he pulled open his notes and he had three pages.
Troy Blaser (14:35):
Oh, wow.
Sarah Guay (14:38):
Yes. That was my response. I thought, Oh my goodness, here we go. And he just proceeded to unload pages of feedback almost from day one of places that I had missed the mark. And just sort of the laundry list, right?
Troy Blaser (14:54):
Sarah Guay (14:54):
And in the moment I can remember so clearly thinking how painful it was. And I remember getting really defensive and really angry and probably not hearing a good portion of it because I was just in it, right? But in hindsight, not too long after that, I really was able to take that experience. And there were two things that I drew from it. One was some advice that a friend of mine gave to me afterwards and he said, at least now you have clear sight. And I thought, that is so true. The last two years of working in this role, we haven't been aligned, right? And so at least now I have clarity that's super helpful and a great place to start. And then the second thing that come out of that was a commitment, a fundamental commitment that I made in my own career that I will never have an employee experience that that feeling of pages of feedback given to them only because they asked for it when they're not going to be able to hear it. And so that really, really was a fundamental shift in my career and really my commitment to feedback and the importance of it for employees. There's a quote and I'll butcher it, but it's something about you shouldn't worry about when I'm giving you feedback, you should worry when I stop giving you feedback. In other words, if I stop giving you the feedback, that's when I've given up and and I've just made a commitment that I'm just not going to be that kind of leader.
Troy Blaser (16:22):
What a great story. Thank you for sharing that. So many lessons there. I really liked how you asked for the feedback. I mean it was clear there was a period of frustration things going on there, but you took the initiative to say, I need some feedback. Where am I missing the mark? For you and then boy, you know he was staying up late to write novels of feedback for you.
Sarah Guay (16:48):
No, looking back on it, honestly, there was a lot of really valuable pieces of feedback he provided in there. It's definitely true. I do think there's a missed opportunity. I probably wasn't able to hear all three pages of it, right? Which is the missed opportunity. If we'd been able to have those shorter bursts of it over the span of the two years, I think we probably had a more productive discussion, but nonetheless, I definitely heard a good portion of it.
Troy Blaser (17:14):
So say next time you fill a whole page, just give me that one page.
Sarah Guay (17:17):
One page limit. Once you hit the end of the page, time to meet and talk.
Troy Blaser (17:23):
We at LearningBridge, we talk a lot about generative feedback and I really could see a lot of ways that you took that feedback and let it be generative. A generative moment for you, a positive learning moment, a growth mindset kind of moment for you. But having gone through that experience, you probably have some good advice or some good ideas for someone to help someone else accept feedback that might be hard for them to hear.
Sarah Guay (17:48):
Absolutely. And it's interesting, Troy. I hadn't really put that together until you connected those dots, but one of the things I feel really strongly about with feedback is giving it quickly and not worrying too much, not building it up, not worrying about if it's going to hurt someone's feelings, what their reaction is going to be. Just getting straight on a positive intention and then sharing the feedback and trusting that that intention will come through. I think if you spend too much time worrying about if someone's going to cry or if they're going to get emotional and how uncomfortable that will be, then it's just too easy to put the feedback away and then you end up with three pages, right? And so getting right with your intention and coming from a place of positive intent and that I care enough that I believe enough in you that I know you're capable of this and I want to share with you some observations so that you can grow and become your best if that's really your intent, focus on that and not the short term response.
Troy Blaser (18:46):
Yeah, that idea of giving the feedback in smaller bursts is fantastic because I think often, and probably this happened to you when you were getting feedback from your manager, we almost can have a fight or flight response because we feel threatened. You see three pages and you feel threatened and your brain shuts down. You're no longer being a generative thinker. Instead you're ready to either fight your manager or flee from the situation. So if you're able to give it in shorter bursts, that maybe reduces that feeling of being attacked. Any other advice for someone if maybe if you're not the one giving the feedback, but just someone who's getting feedback, that's difficult to hear. What are some ways that if I were in that situation getting feedback from my boss, how would you help me be able to receive that feedback in a generative way?
Sarah Guay (19:36):
That's a great question. Again, I think it goes back to intent and I think recognizing the work that needs to be done to put into the relationship. If you've built a trusting relationship, which takes time and authenticity, then I think it's a whole lot easier to trust someone's intentions. But I think to just sort of flip the switch to read a book on feedback or to listen to a podcast and decide I'm now going to start delivering feedback regularly, but you haven't laid that foundation of the trusting relationship I think can be risky. So put in the time, build the relationship so that they can trust your intent. And then I think for the person receiving the feedback, really question your story, right? Really take the time to step back and think about what are you hearing, what's actually being said versus the story that you're hearing or you're telling yourself about what's being said.
Troy Blaser (20:26):
Often it doesn't matter what the actual facts are, it's how the, how it's perceived by others, right? Is what really matters. I think that's useful information for folks. Can I just ask, getting back to a slightly more personal question, we know that you're working there in Hawaii and I know that work probably keeps you pretty busy, but how do you balance work and life in a beautiful state, in a beautiful Island, how do you keep that balance?
Sarah Guay (20:55):
I would say a silver lining that has come out of this pandemic and the remote work situation is really this recognition of the blending of work and life. And I think it's helped re-prioritize for a lot of us that the two may not have to be such separate and distinct spheres. Blending those things together can be incredibly valuable. Maybe we don't need to think of them as so separate. And I think that probably is true with work life balance in general. Maybe thinking about how work and life it's not, how do I create a balance between these two separate worlds? It might be a little bit more of how do I blend those together so that I can win in both of those areas and we're just even more fortunate in Hawaii to have an incredible physical surrounding that allows us to do that probably better than a lot of other folks.
Troy Blaser (21:43):
I really liked that. I think that, you know, we talked a little bit earlier about something that you're very passionate about is this idea of making a more human workplace as part of HR, like putting the human into human resources. You might say it, and I think this time when we're all dealing with Coronavirus has sort of brought that out as a priority as we've sort of all been invited remotely into one another's homes as we're having video calls and things like that. What are your thoughts about that idea of making a more human workplace?
Sarah Guay (22:15):
It's something I'm really excited about. I think the opportunity, the biggest silver lining of all to come out of this is we have been forced to blend those things together and we've been forced to be more human. You know, I'm seeing my CEO's living room, I'm seeing my own employees hair up in a messy bun that I never would have seen in the office, right? And just those little things, I think it's critical that when we get back to a "new normal", we continue to bring those things, that humanness back. And our role as HR leaders is critical in this. So we are human resources and it's our role to make sure that we protect the humanness. So in that executive team, you have your sales person who's thinking about your revenue and your profits as they should be. You have your IT and technology CIO who's thinking about the technology as they should be. And those of us in HR seats, it's our responsibility around that table to be raising the voices of our employees and looking out for the humaness of them because that's our obligation around the table. And if we're not doing it, no one else is going to be doing it.
Troy Blaser (23:18):
I love that and I'm glad there are people like you. I'll stay focused on, on what I'm focused on, but I'm, I'm happy that there's somebody like you looking out for the human side, for the employees as people and not just resources.
Sarah Guay (23:31):
Well, and it's sometimes I have to check myself that I'm not getting too warm and fuzzy, but we know, you know, there's all kinds of research that you can go out and find. We know that when people are safe and cared for and can bring their best selves to work and we don't have this false division of work and life, when people can bring their best selves to work, they are more productive and that does impact the bottom line. So it's not an either or, it's really an and and leverage.
Troy Blaser (23:58):
That's awesome. Sarah, if people want to continue a conversation with you, would you be open to that?
Sarah Guay (24:03):
I would love to hear from folks and continue the conversation. Absolutely. You can email me. I'd love to hear from folks and connect with other like-minded leaders.
Troy Blaser (24:17):
That's fantastic. Sarah, thank you so much for your time. It's been a wonderful conversation. I've enjoyed it. I've enjoyed daydreaming about what it must be like for you in Hawaii a little bit, but also learning more and thinking more about the way that feedback plays an important part in your career and in what you do. We really appreciate your time today. Thank you.
Sarah Guay (24:37):
Thanks so much for having me here, Troy. It's really been a pleasure.