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Ep. 63: Sustaining a People-First Culture

Deb White | Former L&D Executive at Peloton, Nike, and Williams Sonoma

Starting something is easy; sustaining it is hard. Building team habits and consistent follow-up are crucial yet challenging. How do we create a work environment where companies thrive because of their leadership, not despite it?

Deb White has excelled in creating behavior change in organizations on a global scale. She joins Raising the Bar on Leadership to discusses her journey from retail to leading talent development and L&D initiatives in various industries while emphasizing the importance of understanding different audiences and meeting people where they are. She offers practical and tactical methods for succeeding in these environments, underscoring the significance of personal connections, consistency, and psychological safety in building and leading dispersed teams. 


Answered on this Episode

  • How can people leaders effectively use remote meetings to build teams and create measurable results? 

  • What are the elements of effective check-ins?

  • How can people leaders make sure new initiatives are actually implemented?

  • Why are team agreements important, and how can teams create agreements that stick?

Advice from Deb

Understand Your Audience

Tailor your learning and development programs to the unique needs of each team. Meet people where they are to boost engagement and effectiveness.

Consistent and Personal Remote Leadership

Schedule regular, personal check-ins and consistent team meetings to build connections and trust in remote teams. Be available and foster psychological safety.

Co-Creation and Long-Term Planning

Involve diverse team representatives in developing programs to create invested advocates. Focus on long-term planning and regularly measure progress to maintain engagement and success.

Connect with Deb: LinkedIn


Find This Conversation


Full Transcript

Raising the Bar on Leadership | Deb White

[00:00:00] Aaron Levy: Joining us today is Deb White, the former people executive at Peloton, Nike, and Williams Sonoma. Starting from the sales floor and rising through the ranks to spearhead L& D initiatives, Deb was formerly the mastermind behind Peloton's global learning and development strategies. 

She's got a unique expertise in large scale facilitation leadership more importantly, in behavior change. The one thing I noticed was she's acutely brilliant at figuring out how to create behavior change in organization, at global scale. And so, I think you're really gonna love this conversation because there's so many golden nuggets on what it takes to create sustainable change across countries, across regions, remotely, and in person with thousands of people involved.

Take a listen and enjoy.

Deb, welcome on the podcast. I'm glad to finally have you on, and I'm really excited to hear your story and your journey. 

[00:00:52] Deb White: Hey Aaron, I'm so excited to be here. 

[00:00:55] Aaron Levy: So, you've had this like really interesting career arc. You [00:01:00] transitioned from retail with William Sonoma, to sportswear with Nike, to Peloton and fitness technology, like how have all of these transitions influenced how you approach talent development and leadership?

[00:01:13] Deb White: I'd say I started in the retail space, which I think is such a great experience for everyone working directly with your customers and understanding the importance of service and how the brand shows up, at the front line there. And I've really taken that with me, I'd say into the corporate roles that I've been lucky enough hold all in the learning and development, talent development, performance management space, and really understanding that.

There's different audiences that you're serving and the type of companies that I've been in that really require a bespoke approach for them to be able to grow. Starting in retail really just gave me this nice understanding of what does that whole very important sector of a retail company need in order to be connected with.

They don't have a lot of time. They don't have a [00:02:00] lot of opportunities for development. So how could you create that? And by using that as the foundation of how do I build this across corporate functions was just a really solid beginning and understanding. As I've grown That kind of led me to want to understand my audience before diving into anything.

So, if I was taking on a new function supporting supply chain, supporting engineers, supporting a music function at Peloton say, you, you really have to understand what their needs are and what their working conditions are to be able to reach them. Cause I think sometimes when we're, as an L and D professional or as a talent professional, you're rolling your programs out.

You're rolling your training modules or workshops out and hoping that everybody is able to consume those, but they actually aren't depending on their circumstances and where they sit and what they do. So, we really have to meet people where they are. And I think this is how I've grown in working through different industries, understanding retail, understanding all the different corporate functions, how they work [00:03:00] together, what they need.

Uniquely, because it's not a one size fits all solution when it comes to learning, when it comes to talent, when it comes to career growth, career journeys. So, you really have to understand your audience. And that's been an incredible thing for me, like navigating from these different companies.

[00:03:18] Aaron Levy: What's one of those audiences, that surprised you where you said, oh, I didn't know that this was what they really needed., what's one example of an experience that. Hit you and you're like, Oh I should go back to my first lesson of understanding my audience a little bit better.

[00:03:33] Deb White: Yeah. So, I'd say, engineers, software, hardware engineers, they don't tend to go to the same platforms. They have platforms that they love to work in. And. You want to meet them where they are, because they're not naturally going to leave the spaces that they work in to go to another platform that the rest of the company is using to find learning content or to check in on career journey experiences.

I always like to say, ride the horse, the [00:04:00] direction it's going. It's hard to get it to turn around and go a different way. They use a particular platform that they love. And so, let's put all of the training in the, at least links to what they need to drive their career journey, to drive their personal and individual growth right where they would find it.

And then they're more likely to, it's been the path. Of their day. And so, they're going to run into it and be more interested in learning from it. And I never would have thought that I thought, okay, everybody's going to go to the learning platform or they're going to go to the intranet site and they're going to find the tools that they need.

But that's not the case with every team. 

[00:04:32] Aaron Levy: It's so interesting and it's so applicable to, so many people who are listening to this. Why aren't they responding to their emails or why aren't they using the LMS platform or why aren't they using Slack?

Everyone uses Slack, but maybe the, as you said, they use a different tool that they're in or a different platform that they're in every day until literally you're, what you're talking about is messaging them and putting the information and putting the content as much as you can in the literal platform, whether it's Asana or Slack or [00:05:00] something else entirely.

[00:05:01] Deb White: Exactly. Yep. And not expect everyone to change their ways and hey, come over to our groovy platform that we just stood up. We need to meet them where they are. 


[00:05:11] Aaron Levy: I like the alternative language you gave to that, which is like ride the horse, the direction it's going. I really like that.

So, we, we met because of a mutual contact Darren, who's one of our awesome executive coaches. And Darren and I were talking about you this morning and he said, make sure to ask Deb about remote leadership. She's such an expert in that before remote leadership was like a big thing during COVID because in retail leadership is almost always remote and leadership development is almost always remote.

You mentioned people don't have the time. They don't have the same opportunities. How did you build the leadership capabilities in global teams, in remote settings? What are some lessons that you learned? 

[00:05:54] Deb White: I've been in remote leadership for over 20 years.

Before it was a thing [00:06:00] that was born in the retail space where I was a district manager, regional manager, vice president of stores, and you're automatically in a distributed team. situation. So, I think that's where I really began to build that muscle and understand the importance of pulling teams together and unifying and galvanizing the team towards the same vision and creating a cultural kind of bond between us, even though we're not in the same building.

So, I've had a lot of years of practice and the things that are important to me is to always Put the person first. In individual meetings, it always begins with the person, how they're doing, how was your weekend, following up on something that you knew was going to happen and ask them about that thing.

So, they know that you're listening and you're paying attention and you care that what they do matters to you. When it comes to the work I always, you know, in those one-on-one situations, allow the individual, on the other end, to guide and to lead. What is this conversation going to be about? So, what's important to them gets said first.

Now that can be applied [00:07:00] also in person, but when you're over, zoom or on a phone call, this is even more critical because you're trying to make a connection. You're trying to make sure that they understand that what's important to them is going to be important to me. And then, I think it's important as a team to be very consistent with those one on ones, but also with team meetings.

And they know that they can count on that. It's not like they can count on running into you in the hallway in the office, but they know they can count on that meeting, that meetup office hours that you hold and you're going to be there for them. And so, in team meetings, again, always try to keep it a little bit personal in the beginning. Have some fun, keep it light.

Make sure that everyone has a chance to participate. They know what's happening in advance so that they can come prepared to participate. And then they feel like they're engaged, with it. And I always make myself very available. I think that's how people would describe me is I'm very available to people.

So even though I have a very busy schedule, I will always make time for people if [00:08:00] they need anything. Just a quick conversation. Or connection. One way I do that is to have office hours. So most recently I've chosen Friday and I would give 90 minutes and anybody could jump in, anybody could jump in any time for any reason.

And sometimes there would be five people in the room, sometimes one. And we would just have talk about whatever they wanted to talk about. Have fun, laugh, sometimes cry. I'm also very vulnerable and very real. Over zoom and over a phone call. And I think that really opens up that like psychological safety for people to be able to be real with me.

And yeah, so I think it's making personal connections, committing to the time and always being consistent, being very available and being a person that creates that psychological safety for people to feel like, even if I'm not in the room, I feel you. And I feel like I can be myself with you.

[00:08:55] Aaron Levy: I love all of that. I love the vulnerability. I love the making time for people, even though you're busy. [00:09:00] I love the tactical, like office hours, right? Like, hey, here's time where you can connect to me, ask questions. I have no agenda. We do coffee connects and no agenda.

Just let's just catch up. And I love the space it creates and allows people to come up with questions or to check in with you, or just to share about life. I guess one of the things I'm curious about is as the person who runs the leadership development and the, development for the organization, how do you, help, the managers at Peloton or at Nike or at Williams Sonoma, how do you get them to embody this way of leading remotely?

[00:09:36] Deb White: I think that if you role model these behaviors. And people feel the benefit of it and they feel that connection themselves, then they're pretty motivated to try to replicate that. But I actually have created lessons on that. Like how do you successfully lead a high performing team in a hybrid work environment, thinking about all the considerations that have to be in place to create the environment where people [00:10:00] can.

Do this where they can feel the connection, they can be productive, they can feel engaged. Despite where they're sitting and everybody's like having a remote moments at some point or another, because we're in a hybrid world now. So even if you're in a corporate office, there's times when you're in the office and you're not, and we're all dispersed.

And so, this really is something that can be taught when you think about just key principles in how to effectively run a team in a hybrid. Kind of work environment. We really did create some structure around it, some principles and have taught people how to do this. And then for me, it's always about accountability.

So, when you agree upon here's our, as a team, here's our values. This is one thing I always start with. What are our agreed upon team values and what do we agree on as a team? And then we can hold each other accountable to it. And so, this, leading a dispersed organization starts with my own, where we role model that.

[00:11:00] And then we roll that out towards the rest of the company so that everybody can have that same experience. Yeah. That's how I describe it. 

[00:11:09] Aaron Levy: And it sounds like one of the core tenants of that outside of the principles you already shared is establishing a set of values and agreements that this team can live by.

[00:11:17] Deb White: Yes, values, agreements, ways of working. And once you have that established, that's a really fun session to do that with a team. I also love to use collaborative software. Nero is an example where you can get into one space and work at the same time with post it notes and emojis and all that.

When you build something together like that and make it a lot of fun, everyone feels like they were a part of it, that they created it, and you're more obliged to really commit to it. And so, what we do is after that, then you quarterly come back in and check on, like, how are we doing? Are we upholding these values?

Are we sticking with our commitments? And we use just a quick stickers emojis to say yes or no, thumbs up, thumbs down. How are we doing then zone [00:12:00] in on those things that you want to continue and say, hey, how do we make sure we don't take our eyes off of these because these are strong. And then what do we need to do to improve on those thumbs down?

Values or ways of working in agreements that, that we have. And if you do that regularly, like I said, you got to stick to it. Like when you say you're going to do something, you need to do it. That really drives a lot of momentum and consistency when you quarterly check back in on, hey, we said we're going to do this.

Are we doing it? And it's about the team. It's about how we're working together, not about the work, 

[00:12:31] Aaron Levy: Which is crucial because so it's funny. Cause we, we follow the very same process with when we work with different teams. And oftentimes we talk to executive teams who are like new and forming and what they say, how do we get better together?

I say, the first thing, and it might seem simple is we're going to sit down and we're going to spend a half day establishing agreements for how we work together. And then we're going to-- and most CEOs hate this; It's we're going to meet four months from now. And then four months, we're going to meet every quarter and we're going to talk about [00:13:00] how you are living into this, just to what you said., we see it very often. I was like, okay, I can do that. I like, it's not a big deal or checking. It's just checking in. It's just holding accountability. What have you seen worked to get people to stay consistent with the follow up with the holding accountability?

Because we agree we see the same value as if you're doing it every quarter that it's consistent that it's real and that's where it comes alive. It's not just creating the agreements, but it's like living into them and checking in on them. That's where it comes to life. I guess I'm wondering how do you.

As you're leading and training these massively diverse teams across, varied countries and regions and titles, how are you helping them see that value in these quarter two, quarter three, quarter four check in? 

[00:13:48] Deb White: I often facilitate these sessions. I've been doing this type of session for probably 15 years with teams and they're not my teams.

And so, then you hope that leader will really. See the value and they're going to drive it forward, and they're going to [00:14:00] make that happen. But the first couple of times that I like to follow up, and even though it's not my team, I have a responsibility to say, hey, I gave them this learning experience. I want to see if it's sticking where they may be getting off track.

And so, I'll put a forward meeting in my calendar to say, hey, remember to follow up with this team and make sure they're scheduling that quarterly check in once they've done it a or I connect with them in a Really happy to hear that they're doing it on their own. Once they do it a couple of times, they see the value and it becomes regular.

And I always say, it's gotta be on the calendar. If it's on the calendar, it's going to happen. So, when we have the first session, I'll ask them to schedule. the follow up, the next couple of follow ups. And even if it has to move, if it's on the calendar, they'll notice it and they'll move it until it works for the team.

And again, follow up. So as somebody who coaches other teams and helps them develop, as a team, I find that I'm more, Responsible. I feel that I'm responsible for making sure that it [00:15:00] sticks because it's so easy to get distracted by the work and by a shifting strategy or just business conditions.

And you do have to take a moment, take a breath. Focus on the team on a regular basis so that they can, continue to be high performing. If you don't take these moments and stop and do that, then you can easily, the whole team can start to, to drift off course and you don't realize it until it's too late.

[00:15:27] Aaron Levy: It's simple, but it's so important. And things I heard from you here is, and I'm interpreting a little bit, so please just jump in and correct me. It was like one at the start, like having some outside. Person, right? It could be within the organization, but somebody else to facilitate and get it running.

We've seen that as well. When we, when a team does it internally, it's a little hard. Cause it's hard to pull yourself out, hold the agenda and be in, have some outside person, have some outside person hold a little bit of accountability for you too. You're following up, you're checking in that's built in kind of accountability of Oh, Deb did this with us.

She's checking in now. I need to make sure I follow up. And then follow up, schedule [00:16:00] it, put it on the calendar. It's so important to reinforce for those of you who are listening of it's not just about setting the agreements.

It's not just about creating the values. It's what are you doing to live into them continually week over week, month over month. And one of the things that you're saying is have quarterly check ins where you're evaluating how you're doing, what needs to change, what's working, what's not working.


[00:16:20] Deb White: Exactly. And. It's so easy to launch something. It's so easy to begin something. What's hard is to sustain it. What's hard is to create the habit, especially when it's around a team, having a team create a habit. And that follow up is absolutely critical because it's sometimes not natural for us to do that.

And the other thing I would say about bringing long distance teams together to go back to that question. There has to be some spontaneity and I call it like reading the room, understanding the atmosphere. So, when there's moments that, I think the team could come together quickly right now and they would appreciate it.

And I will do that [00:17:00] and send like a quick message and say, hey, don't panic. I'm putting a meeting on the calendar. I just wanted to connect with all of you, pull them together for 15, 30 minutes and just open it up and say, how's everybody doing? This thing's going on, it's causing some ambiguity, some anxiety.

Let's just come together and talk and create that safe space. So along with those regular check ins, the regular accountability, like we've been talking about, I do think as a remote leader, you have to have you have to be able to sense when the team just needs to come together, because if you're physically in a building together, that's a lot easier.

You can say, you know what, everybody, let's just hear, jump in here together, or let's go grab a coffee together. But when you're long distance, I think people are more hesitant to do those spontaneous things. And it's really critical because that's something that lets people know, again, that What they do matters to you, how they're feeling matters to you.

You notice it and you do something about it. 

[00:17:55] Aaron Levy: I love that. It reminds me of just moments where I felt in my gut. I'm like, ah, something feels a [00:18:00] little off. Something felt weird about the way that call ended or the way that meeting ended or someone's seen, a couple of people seem like they weren't as engaged and I'm still thinking about it.

A couple of days later, something feels off. And What you're saying is listen to that, like inner voice, listen to that gut. There's science behind gut reactions. You have more nerve endings in your gut than anywhere else in your body. So, listen to it. I think it's such a good lesson.

Be flexible, see what the team needs and show up in that way. Sometimes on our end, it's the opposite. It's seems like we need to end this meeting now. Seems like we need to give ourselves time back because from a, we run a remote team as well. And from a remote team, when you're in a bunch of meetings all the time, like you don't have time to digest, to have lunch, to go to the bathroom, to think about the work that you need to do next.

And yeah, that's 

[00:18:47] Deb White: for yourself. They always talk about take some time for you, take some time for you to grow and learn and develop, but you don't have time when your calendar is back-to-back. 

[00:18:56] Aaron Levy: Yeah. Yeah. I know. I try to create white space in my day and [00:19:00] not have, three back to backs in a row is the limit.

I break that habit once in a while, but and whenever I do, I'm like, oh, why am I Anxious today. Oh, that's why. Cause I had four back to backs in a row. Okay. You said something a little bit earlier. You said it's easy to come up with something to release something. It's hard to sustain it.

Having stood up the L and D function at William Sonoma at Nike, building a team of 700 people around the world at Peloton. What have you learned works to sustain those behaviors? 

[00:19:31] Deb White: So, I think you have to bring people along. The more people that you have that are advocates, sponsors of, see the value of the thing that you're doing, the more likely you're going to get that traction and that momentum and it's going to be sustainable.

But you also do have to think about, I'll come back to that, you have to think about, just tactically, what are the conditions that need to be in place for a thing to continue? And often when we launch something, we don't necessarily think [00:20:00] about how is this going to feel any like in a year from now?

What are the conditions that are going to be needed in order for that to still be effective? And that really is, doing a good change management assessment upfront, figuring out what all those changes are. what the risks are, how to mitigate those. And in that process, you're thinking long term, not just launch and adoption.

And so that's like where you have to start is to really think about it. When you're creating something, I'm a big fan of co creation. So even if it's an L and D, program. Let's say we're doing a leadership development program. Get outside of your space, your function, and pull in a representative from different functions across the organization because there are people who are great in every function across your organization in leadership development.

They bring great practices from their history. They're naturally great at [00:21:00] it. And even though they might be A hardware engineer or somebody in member support or somebody that's, in a retail showroom, bring them in to contribute to the build and the more people that you can bring in to collaborate and contribute to the build of a program or a platform, then they become advocates of it.

They are a part owner of it. And when it goes out, they're vested in the success of it and the sustained success of it. So that's upfront what I think you need to do. Create the conditions, co-create a thing with people outside of your function and then start marketing. internally so that you leverage the folks that help you build it.

They become automatically sponsoring it and marketing it, but you do need to get around early and make sure that people understand what we're going after, why is it important and how it's [00:22:00] going to work and what the expectation is, both immediately and long term. It has to be something that people want.

So back to that marketing thing, like explaining, how does this connect to everything else? This isn't just some new one-off thing or, oh, somebody got a great idea. So, we're going to do this thing now. It does have to strategically string together like a thread. And so, it makes sense. And people want it.

And that, that it lands when They can consume it because there's sometimes when the timing of the launch of a thing will determine if it's successful or not because there's distractions in the business that won't give them the mind space to be able to absorb anything else. 

And so, what are the impacts going to be?

How are we going to measure the success of this thing? Then it comes back to the thing I said before. I rolled it out, so I'm responsible for making sure that it goes. And that's where you come in and you measure and you communicate and share. We rolled this [00:23:00] leadership program out three months ago.

Here's where we're at. We've had four cohorts, whatever the data is around those, whatever the sentiment is and the engagement results coming from it. And you do that like quarterly, biannually, what makes sense for the program. So that people get excited about it repeatedly. And then when you publicly share that, and acknowledge the work that everyone else is doing with your, it's not about you.

It's not about your program and its success. It's about what it's doing for others. And when you highlight those stories and bring those to the surface, people get really excited because they're like, that's our team. We did that. And then it's not about you. And I think that's one of the most important things about great leadership is that it is not about you.

It's about you. Everybody else, they're impacted and how they're thriving as a result of a thing that you did or that you influenced or whatever that is. 

[00:23:54] Aaron Levy: I think the most interesting part of this, I love the pathway. I love the [00:24:00] get the tactical conditions for something continue, right? If we want to create something sustainable, we need to think about the sustainable tactical from the very start.

That's the first thing that you said, right? Bring in others, bring in other collaborators, get ownership of it before it's launched. Because you need owners to live in, to buy in. I love the internal marketing, I was just talking about it today with a chief people officer group, what, where people teams miss the most is we don't market internally what's going on.

We don't use our, we don't think about it as PR. We just think it's internal. So just tell people about it and they'll do it. But human beings behave in a certain way and marketing is around for a certain reason. And then I love the bringing people along. And I think What, the phrase that came to my mind as you were sharing this was, sustainable change isn't sexy.

It's practical and tactical. And the sexy part is Oh, how do I get people to do this and do this? And, let me give them the best idea. And it's it's the best idea is like a small component of this, but it's, what are the practical steps you can put in place to make [00:25:00] sure that idea seeds and get, and flourishes within the people and the teams and make sure people can even hear the idea or know the idea is important over time.

And so, I just think that's a profound lesson. From a learning and development spaces, the tactical is so crucial. You don't get lost in the exciting for the practical and the tactical. 

[00:25:19] Deb White: Exactly. And I think what happens that is a shame is that sometimes something that's really great that is launched, a new program is launched.

And then over time, it just fades away. And then somebody will say, remember that great thing that we were doing? Oh yeah, it faded away because there was no sustainable change plan. There was no follow up. There was no internal marketing of it to keep bringing it up and saying, hey, it's working.

This is great. Or we want your feedback. It's working, but we didn't think we could improve it. So, we'd love to hear your feedback, reengaging people with the thing. And then it can just fade away and a good [00:26:00] thing that could have made a huge difference will just disappear without people really noticing.

[00:26:05] Aaron Levy: It hits on like why I started to raise the bar. It was, we're not going to be a Dale Carnegie. No offense to that. I haven't been through it. I'm sure it's wonderful, but we're not going to be a two-day training because That doesn't have the sustainable edge, right? Like why, instead of doing two days, let's do it over three months.

And then over the years, we realized three months isn't enough. Let's do it over nine months with, smaller touch points along the way. So, it's sustained and people understand it and live into it or reminded about it. And so that's just a really good reminder of the importance of long-term habit formation requires long term practical planning.

[00:26:42] Deb White: And there's a lot of noise in the world today. There's a lot of noise internally in your company. There's a lot of noise outside. And so, there's not a lot of space, in our brain. And so, we do need those like reminders. We meet, we need that okay, refocus, let's get back in here [00:27:00] because there's so much noise.

[00:27:02] Aaron Levy: Oh, this is. This has been an awesome conversation. I did not anticipate the practicality and yet I appreciate it. I think it's the organization that's so critical to making change last. So, I'm really grateful for you. taking time out of your busy day to share your experience from doing this time and time again.

And I'm sure you'll be doing this over and over again in the coming years as well. Thank you, Deb. Thank you for your time, for your thoughtfulness and for your insights. 

[00:27:29] Deb White: Thank you, Aaron. It's been a wonderful conversation. 

תגובה אחת

Earl Douglas
Earl Douglas
12 ביוני

Deb White's expertise in talent development shines through in this conversation with Aaron Levy. Her diverse background, from retail to tech, underscores the importance of understanding different audiences and their specific needs. tunnel rush

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