Quantifying Company Culture Elisha Gray on data-driven decisions in HR
Customer Stories

Elisha Gray is the Director of People and Culture at Street Contxt, a global communication platform for investment professionals. Combining business savvy, street smarts, and a military upbringing, Elisha brings a truly analytical mindset to modern HR.

We spoke with her to learn how she thinks product development can inform people and culture and why HR metrics truly matter.

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One of the most talked-about topics in HR today is the need for metrics and quantification. HR must ‘speak the language of the CEO’, collect and analyze meaningful data, and consistently align programs with business goals and strategies.

But how does one quantify people and culture? It’s no easy task for an industry that’s often seen as ‘too soft’ for a seat at the table, or too task-oriented to strategize with the big guys.

That’s not how Elisha Gray sees her role. “Finding ways to quantify and measure people problems allows us to be more proactive with the health of our organization,” she told us. “The more data points we collect, the greater the opportunity to shift and improve.”

“Finding ways to quantify and measure people problems allows us to be more proactive with the health of our organization.”

In four years at Street Contxt, Elisha’s data-driven approach has helped her build a team of healthy, engaged employees—and she’s got the numbers to prove it.

In our conversation, Elisha shared her in-depth process for tracking and analyzing HR metrics, a recent case study, and her greatest HR goals and challenges.

Here is our interview, edited for space and clarity.

Q: How did you get your start in HR?

To start, I went to school for business, not HR. I think not having an HR-specific background has made me more successful in my role, as odd as that might sound.

My first job out of school was working at a tax office, then I spent four years doing admin and finance at a long-term care facility.  This is where I got a lot of my HR experience, but it was all within an organization that was extremely standardized and regimented.

“I think not having an HR-specific background has made me more successful in my role.”

After that, I took a role as office manager at a tech startup. I think I spent my first couple of weeks in tears. There were no rules, no structure, no framework! It was so hard for me to understand how to be flexible and adapt—but it did force me to learn.

Over the past four years, your title at Street Contxt has evolved from Chief of Staff to Director of People and Culture. What has that meant for you?

I started as Chief of Staff when we were just seven employees [they are now 36!]. The first two years were entirely tactical and task-oriented. My days were spent recruiting, interviewing, onboarding, administering benefits and payroll, tracking vacation in spreadsheets…I guess you’d say the ‘old-school’ definition of HR.

The similarities between the two roles are: there are a million things to do in a day. But with the People and Culture role, I’m more focused on strategy, long-term planning, and finding ways to tie HR programs to business outcomes.

Modern HR often feels trapped between these two categories: it’s either ‘tactical’ or ‘strategic.’  Why is that, and how did you make the shift?

I think it’s a matter of company size and maturity. At young organizations, tactical HR is often the only option. People strategy isn’t a focus. It’s building the product or getting sales—whatever it takes to keep the business running.

But looking back, I’m grateful that Blair [Blair Livingston, Street Contxt’s CEO] saw the value in the very early days of a strategic, people-facing role like mine. It meant the HR function could evolve with the company.

So, while I was doing all the necessary tactical stuff, I was also building the foundations for interviewing, onboarding, feedback, all of that.

By the time the company grew and I moved into People and Culture, the foundations were there. My time isn’t consumed by spreadsheets, chasing employees and duplicating work. Now, it’s about continuous improvement and forward-looking strategies.

How do you determine which strategies or metrics are most important?

All of our strategies are driven by data, and that data comes from our employees. But the real question is: why would any one company measure what they measure?

“The real question is: why would any one company measure what they measure?”

There are the standard HR reports every company looks at, like retention and attrition. But on their own, those metrics don’t mean anything. You have to constantly ask the why behind what you’re tracking.

What does the ‘why’ look like at Street Contxt?

We believe the purpose of metrics is to determine if we, as a company, are being the company that we set out to be. When we talk about ‘performance’, we’re reviewing how we have performed in the eyes of our employees. Not the other way around.

To put that into practice, we built a system that gathers insights from every employee on a monthly basis. It’s a short, roughly 5-minute survey that tracks data across eight different categories.

“When we talk about ‘performance’, we’re reviewing how we have performed in the eyes of our employees. Not the other way around.”

Each of those categories is tied back to one of our core values: ownership, transparency, mastery, and purpose. So instead of asking employees if they are happy or engaged, we’re asking: are we living up to our values? Are we giving you what you need to succeed?

We’re also able to track overall engagement, participation, onboarding velocity, and ENPS. The answers are binary (agree/disagree) and everything is anonymous.

We’ve been doing this since January 2016, so we’re coming up on two years of employee feedback to pull from. It allows us to identify trends month over month or event against event. Ultimately, it means we can spend time understanding the problem and taking action instead of coming up with ‘strategies’ that don’t apply to our specific organization.

That’s quite a process. Can you give us any examples of a strategy or value that’s been improved through measurement?

Yes – one recent example is professional development. PD is a very important value to our organization at every level: every employee gets an annual professional development budget that they can spend on conferences, courses, or anything related to developing their skills.

What we realized early in our tracking was that employees weren’t using their budget. For me, that’s a ‘check engine’ light that something is wrong. When we asked about it in our survey, we learned that many employees weren’t using the budget because they didn’t know about the program. Others knew about it but didn’t understand how to use it, or which skills they should be improving in the first place.

That was it! We identified the gap in our organization: we weren’t communicating the benefit, which meant employees weren’t using it, which meant we weren’t satisfying our commitment to our employees.

With this information, I designed a process and guideline for how to use the budget. The program now helps each employee look at their skillset, uncover themes from the feedback they receive, identify what they want to achieve, and then use the budget to get there. And the more our employees’ skills improve, the stronger we become as a company.

Other examples are job satisfaction and 360-degree feedback. In both cases, we noticed a dip in the metrics, used our survey to dive deeper and understand the reason, then create an action plan. The data drives our actions every time.

How do you balance this very data-driven approach with your people-focused role?

When I entered the People and Culture role, I was challenged by our executive team to attach metrics and quantitative data to my work. At first, I thought: ‘I can’t.’

We’re working with personalities, egos, identities…everything that goes on for a person at home and outside. I can’t measure that. I operate from my gut—isn’t that what made me a good HR person to begin with?

“When I entered the People and Culture role, I was asked to attach metrics and quantitative data to my work. At first, I thought: ‘I can’t.’”

It was a confusing time for me, and I imagine many people in this role face the same thing. But this is why I say my background in business has helped make me a better HR person today: I turned to product management methodologies for help.

In the world of product, everything is tracking toward ‘what is the solution we’re trying to find for the customer?’ They can’t track everything, so they constantly have to ask what metrics and methodologies are going to drive them forward. It’s the same in HR: the ‘why’ of what you are tracking is more important than the number itself.

In terms of your day-to-day, do you see tracking and analyzing this HR data as your primary role?

No—conducting the survey and measuring the results is only part of the work. Since my time isn’t focused on tasks and paperwork anymore, I can have a very close relationship with everybody that comes into Street Contxt. I participate in every interview, set expectations with every new hire, and build relationships through regular one-on-one conversations with every Contxtonian.

It’s through those relationships that the data becomes valuable. No piece of data on it’s own is worth that much. Any number on its own fails if it doesn’t tell a story.

“No piece of data on it’s own is worth that much. Any number on its own fails if it doesn’t tell a story.”

 

How would you define your HR philosophy?

I believe that employer contributions to an individual creates a strong link between the employee and the business’ success.

One of my main beliefs is that the best thing I can do for anyone in the company is to help them identify the actions they can take to solve their own problems. I’ll actively say: ‘I’ve got your back, I’ll give you all the tools, I’ll coach you along the way…but you’re going to do the work, not me.’

“I’ll actively say: ‘I’ve got your back, I’ll give you all the tools, I’ll coach you…but you’re going to do the work, not me.’”

People don’t usually come to me with complaints and problems. Instead, they’ll say ‘I think I’m off track and am looking for some coaching and guidance.’ That request makes my heart glow and I believe it’s exactly the type of resource employees should be able to call upon.

Finally, can you share any upcoming HR strategies or goals?

In 2017, my goal was to introduce two big company-wide initiatives:

  1. Improving feedback, including 360-degree feedback
  2. Developing and implementing our professional development program

In 2018, I aim to continue improving and introducing new initiatives as we scale: touching on compensation, performance evaluations, and career progress within the company. These are all big projects for us, and we’ll continue to use the data to guide our actions.

Another challenge that we’ve yet to solve is helping our team members connect personally to the purpose of Street Contxt. Our company culture is strong; that’s evident as soon as you join. But how do we keep that fire burning and build empathy for our customers? It’s an interesting challenge and one I’m excited to take on.

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Thank you to Elisha and the Street Contxt Team! Want to learn more about them (or become the next Contxtonian?) Check out their careers page.

Photos of Elisha by Matthew Demelo.